Anniversaries

 January 28 is the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Sometimes I forget, but my body always remembers.  I become achy. I want to hunker down in my own house, stay in bed longer than usual.  Here in Albuquerque it’s easy to chalk it up to winter–January is the coldest month–but it’s neither winter nor the cold that makes me weepy.

It’s been 34 years and most of the time I don’t get bogged down with grief and longing for something, for my mom, but writing this dissertation means I’ve been dredging up the memories; I’ve been deliberately putting myself back in that time when I was a messed up teenager.

Last week I was at the Children’s Grief Center, where I co-facilitate a bereavement group for teens.  During our facilitator check-in I mentioned that the anniversary of my mom’s death was coming up.  I said I was feeling a little sad, but I was glad to be there as a volunteer.   A couple of people came up to me after the check-in and asked if I was okay.  I said “Yes,” and I meant it.

And then, two days later I had a meltdown in front of my professor and two of my colleagues.   Right there at Winnings Coffee.  It was weird.  I started the meeting feeling good about my pages, about the state my dissertation was in.  (I’ve made peace with the fact that at the time of my defense it won’t be perfect, but it will be defendable. )  We were talking about my latest revisions, and all of the sudden a thought came into my head–that my mom wouldn’t be there.  That my dad wouldn’t be there.  I felt this flush of sadness simply overwhelm my body and I started to cry.  And then I felt stupid for crying.

I know grief comes in waves, and I know that even years later you can feel the loss, that sometimes something triggers the feeling of loss.  But Geez! it’s been THIRTY FOUR YEARS.

I explained to my colleagues that the following day was the anniversary of my mom’s death, and to please just understand that sometimes I feel emotionally unstable at this time of year….  I dried my tears, pulled myself together, and we moved on.

The next morning Suzanne called.   I was buried under my down comforter listening to the radio and just about to start feeling guilty for not being up and about…

“I know you said that today is the anniversary of your mother’s death.  I don’t know if you do anything special….”

“No. Mostly I just feel weepy,”  I said.  Since I’ve been volunteering at the Grief Center, and writing this memoir, I’m much more aware of these kinds of feelings, and much more willing to be open about them, speak of them matter-of-factly.

She invited me out for a walk and showed up an hour later, holding a lavender plant, our mutual friend Cassie in tow.  We spent the morning walking along the Bosque trail, talking and laughing.

A four mile walk may not be something specific I would choose to do to honor my mom, but it was great way to hang out with good friends, get fresh air, enjoy my favorite part of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande (the only place where there is water) and not feel alone.

…..

February 1 (today) would have been my Dad’s 79th birthday.

This anniversary isn’t as tough emotionally.  I had more time with my dad. He was older when he died (though he could have lived longer had he taken better care of himself).   I’m spending the day working on my dissertation, the thing that will get me the MFA degree.  My dad worked hard, worked a lot, he was smart. He had two master’s degrees, so I think he’d be proud.

Maybe I’ll go for a walk later….

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Revising, revisiting, rewriting

The comment from my professor and the chair of my dissertation committee, scrawled at the bottom of a section titled “Baking Banana Bread,” and barely legible said:

“I think this section needs to do more.”

But WHAT? I wanted to scream.

Instead, I pondered, I mulled, I percolated, I discussed with friends.  Did I need this section at all? Was it repeating something I’d already expressed in the section on making Mom’s Chicken Divan?  Could I make it say something different?

Could I, should I “kill my darlings?”

The hardest part of revising is knowing when to let it go, and knowing when to keep pushing through, moving blocks of text around, re-writing, adding and removing words, deepening and broadening the ideas.  And of course, knowing when it’s done.

But is it ever done?  Over burgers and beer the other night with my friend Samantha Tetangco we spent a good amount of time talking about  The Dissertation.  Sam finished hers last year; this year she’s been teaching English at UNM.  She is still working on what was her dissertation, and is now her novel-in-progress.  She’s working on it diligently.

We talked about a panel we’d both attended at the 2010 AWP conference:  a group of writers talking about AFTER the MFA. It was eye-opening.  They’d all spent a few more more years revising their work before getting their books published.

A few more years? I thought then.  I’ve already been working on this damn book since 2005.  It was discouraging.

But now, as I think about the most immediate deadline in my future–  the dissertation defense–it is encouraging to think that my dissertation does not need to  be ready to run to a publisher or an agent.  Sure, I want my dissertation to be the best it can be. Yes, I want to present good work to my committee.  Of course I will spend hours each day preparing for my defense (which means writing).  But it doesn’t have to be perfect.

What I do need to work on is making sure that I don’t quit after the dissertation, that I find a way, even if like Sam I only write an hour a day, to keep moving forward, keep pushing, revising, revisiting, rewriting until I’ve made something I could take to a publisher or an agent….  at which point he or she will probably want me to revise and rewrite once again, maybe twice.

It always comes back to this:  that writing is a lot like life, we’re always revising. If not, we might as well give up all together.

 

Rejections: Badges of Honor

Every time I receive a rejection from a literary journal I tell myself  “It’s a badge of honor. ”  Sometimes I even do a happy dance and shout out a little whoot whoot, you know, as if it were something to celebrate.  And in a way it really is.  When my work is rejected, that means I have submitted my work; I’ve tried to get it out there in the world.  For someone who in the past spent a lot of time not just not doing, but not even trying, it’s important for me to give myself credit for trying.

I tell myself that rejection is not personal, it may just be the editor or slush pile reader has a different aesthetic than I do.

When I worked at Blue Mesa Review (as managing editor one semester, and often as a volunteer reader of slush, currently as web editor which reminds me I have some work to do on the site) we rejected a lot of good work.  Sometimes a piece just didn’t get enough “yes” votes to make it to the discussion round.  Sometimes a good piece would make it to discussion and it wouldn’t have enough support to make it into print.  Sometimes a piece was too long, or too short, or not deep enough or too experimental, and even if we loved the prose style and the character and setting maybe the character didn’t change enough.  Sometimes the piece just didn’t fit in with what we’d already selected.  It’s hard to say, it’s like some secret algorithm that no one can decipher.

I tell myself a lot of things that are cliche:

  • That I should pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again
  • If at first I don’t succeed I must try try again
  • Rejection is the opportunity to start over
  • Success come to those who persist
  • It’s like the lottery, I gotta play to win

 

I remind myself that many other authors have been rejected many times, relishing tales of now famous writers and the rejections they received– writers like Stephen King,  William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ursula LeGuin, Gertrude Stein, to name a few.  I remember a reading by Elizabeth Gilbert; she said it was not her job to pre-reject herself, she figured that  someone at the New Yorker was paid to do the rejecting.  It’s not that I celebrate the failure of others, it’s that it encourages to me to know that rejection didn’t  mean failure, it didn’t mean their writing wasn’t/isn’t good.  And maybe the same is true for me.

I know all this when I send out my work. I understand that it’s part of the deal, it’s what I signed up for when I decided to call myself writer.  And still, sometimes it stings to get a rejection.

But when all is said and done, what I cling to is the knowledge that:

I write for myself first, because even if sometimes I cry or grumble or get angry when I write, I enjoy it, I need it.

What I have to say is important.

 

17 Shades of Blue

Over on Judy Reeves’ blog she’s blogging 20 Ways to Make It Better.  The “homework” she assigned for #7 (Be specific): Write 17 shades of blue, give me nine kinds of cake. Describe something “beautiful.”

So here we go…

Blue:

1. Levi Strauss standard denim blue / faded denim blue / acid wash blue

2. Cornflower blue

3. Sky blue

4. Sapphire blue

5. Turquoise blue

6. Glacier blue

7. Tiffany blue

8. Aqua blue

9. Blue-green or Green-blue (are they different?)

10. Blueberry blue (it’s almost a purple with a gray blush)

11. Cobalt blue

12. Ocean at midnight blue

13. Navy blue

14. Playroom blue

15. Crystal blue

16. Icy blue (same as glacier?)

17. the sparkly blue of my Granddad’s eyes (Grandma used to say all the girls called him “dreamboat”)

18. Wedgewood blue

I stalled at number 12 and began walking around my house looking for blue.

I don’t have a lot of blue things in my house.

It’s too cold to go outside to take a look…

And if you’re looking for a color, a good website to check out is the Pantone.com, the source for all things color.

 

Cake:

1. Chocolate cake

2. Pound cake

3. Lemon poppyseed cake

4. Angel food cake

5. Bundt cake

6. Pineapple upside-down cake

7. Fruitcake

8. Carrot cake

9. Shortcake with strawberries on top

Now I want to go eat cake.

 

Something beautiful:

So many beautiful things to choose from:  my cat Cleo’s eyes–pupils ringed in sapphire blue, broken green glass from a beer bottle softened by ocean sand, the January moon rising over the Sandia mountains at twilight…  I may have to think about this more.

Thanks Judy!

 

 

 

How did it get to be 2012 already?

Anyone who has followed my blog (both of you) may have noticed that I’ve not posted anything since–gasp!– July!  The good news is that I’ve been focused on other writing endeavors, most importantly The Dissertation– the book that I am writing that will get me the M.F.A. in creative writing for which I came to New Mexico.  Now that the end is in sight–I’ll be defending this semester, late March or early April–I’m wondering (and everyone is asking),

What next?

And it scares me.

 

I hate that question mostly because I don’t have an answer.

 

When I left San Diego to attend graduate school I envisioned completing  my degree, and returning: to Southern California, to my marketing job, to my friends, to my family, to my life.  But when I lost my job in February, everything changed including my well-crafted plan to return to California and pick up where I left off.

Instead, I’m at a place where I have to figure out what’s next.

First, if I want to teach college level English, I’m at a disadvantage because (1) I don’t have any real, front-of-the-classroom teaching experience, (2) Funding cuts to institutions of higher education mean fewer jobs, or part time jobs with no health insurance benefits (3) For a tenure track position teaching creative writing I’d need a book published (or on contract).   It’s not that think these are insurmountable obstacles, but I’m a realist.  If this is what I want to do, I need to find ways around those obstacles.

I’ve thought about finding a job.  Jobs are much more plentiful in San Diego, especially if I want to go back into online media and marketing.

I’ve thought about freelancing: consulting businesses on creating and managing online presence. The benefit would be that if I can build up a good revenue stream, I could take that “job” with me wherever I go.

I’ve thought about editing, and manuscript consulting.

I’ve thought about getting my book published, about getting a grant for some of the creative / community projects I want to do. I’ve thought about my next book, and the one after that….   and writing proposals to get those paid for up front.

I’ve thought about running off to Hawaii.

I’ve thought about applying for fellowships and residencies and other opportunities for freshly minted writers with MFA degrees.

But mostly, right now, I’m thinking about finishing my MFA degree:  it’s number 1 on my list of goals for 2012.  Other goals on my list include:

Listen..  to others, and most importantly, to myself (this is more of an intention than a goal, as goals need to be measurable).

Write… 1 blog post per month and work 5 hours per day on my book (“writing” time includes planning, reading, revising, submitting and researching).

Submit…  craft 4 “chapters” of my book into stand-alone essays, send out to a minimum of 48 literary journals (that’s only four per month).

Create…  a multi-media essay of one of my short essays.

Yoga… twice a week.

Develop…  a plan for what’s next.

I know I’ll be ok.

I know I’ll land on my feet.

I just don’t know where.

Taos: it sneaks up on you

So far during this month I’ve had the opportunity to spend a total of seven days in Taos, New Mexico.  First, I attended the University of New Mexico’s Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.  This annual conference will always hold a special place in my heart.  The first time I attended the conference, in 2005, I had my first experience reading and looking at my own writing through the lens of craft in Greg Martin‘s “beginning” memoir class.  The lesson continued with the 2007 Master Class in memoir (also taught by Greg Martin).  In 2009 I took a class with Jesse Lee Kercheval, and in 2010 with Summer Wood.

Just to be clear, I have many others to thank for teaching, and encouraging me– I took classes and workshops in San Diego with some wonderful writers like Jill BadonskyJudy Reeves, Sue Diaz and Candace Toft and I learned a lot from them all…

But this post is about Taos.  Sort of.

This past week, rather than take a more challenging course in memoir, one that would require me to submit pages to my classmates and a teacher, and participate in a read and critique, I opted to take a class that was geared more towards generating new writing.  Taught by Jeffrey Davis, the class “Where It All Begins: Writing, Yoga & Wonder” turned out to be just what I needed.  I wrote some really bad stuff, and some really good stuff, tapping into someplace I hadn’t been in a while–my imagination.  You see, when you write memoir sometimes you forget that it doesn’t all have to be true.  That is one aspect of  the “creative” part of  “creative non fiction.”

In the piece I like,  “The Way It Was Supposed To Be” I imagine a fight with my mother that never happened, a fight that couldn’t have happened because in the scene I wrote I was 15.  In reality, I was 13 when she died….    I’m still working on this as either short memoir piece (under 1000 words) or developing a longer piece, I’m not sure.

I also wrote a piece that I’m not as excited about– its Word document title is  MomDream.doc.  It is based on a dream I had–which is of course tricky because really, who wants to know about your dreams?  In the dream I find out my mother had not died, had in fact been in a mental institution and that the family had decided it would be better if we (my sister and I) didn’t know.  If that is not weird enough, in the dream, my mother comes back–  she’d gotten out of the institution, divorced my dad, married some new guy and was living in Boca.  (Boca?!  yeah, I know)  This writing is not so good, I’m not sure I can make it into an essay or a chapter, but there are some good lines in there that may make their way into something else.

I wanted to be sick, to puke purple words and foggy letters, to crawl back into bed, or run out the door, down the street, over the back fence in Lisa Johnson’s yard, through the woods to Dillon’s horse farm. I wanted to take Trixi, my pinto pony, and gallop along the old abandoned rail road tracks all the way to Richmond.

I wanted to scream in capital letters with exclamation points to make myself heard. WHY?!! WHY?? WHY? ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS NOW?! I wanted to scream WHAT THE FUCK?!

And just like a cartoon, the swirl of words and letters and punctuation marks screeched to a halt in a halo around my head, frozen in mid air, hanging for a full minute before falling to the ground and shattering like old brittle bones. The rest of the day became a blur of words and images, memories, maybe real, maybe imagined, I didn’t know anymore.

 

Or maybe not…  we’ll just have to see what happens.

All this to say, Taos, for whatever reason, stimulates parts of my brain that don’t get stimulated very often, things like imagination and wonder. Plus attending a conference full of like minded people all pursuing creative endeavors is pretty damn encouraging.  It doesn’t hurt that Taos is at least 15 degrees cooler than Albuquerque, and Taos is downright paradise.

Last night I went back to Taos.  My friend and writing coach Jill Badonsky is hosting “Electric Skies and Creative Thunder” a creative retreat at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house.  And since Jill and I missed connecting in Albuquerque before she drove up on Sunday, she invited me to come up for the night, to have dinner there at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, and participate in the evening’s Salon, a kind of open mic.

Jill is (I hope she won’t get mad if she reads this) less about writing, about the craft of writing and more about tapping into the creativity.  That is to say, a Jill workshop is not going to talk about rising action, or character development or discuss the character’s motivation or if the obstacles are formidable enough.  I would be shocked if she drew a Freytag Triangle on the board.

I’m sure Jill knows about the triangle, the elements of story and all that, but that’s not at all what a Jill Badonsky workshop is all about. She’s about inviting the muse to play (all nine of them, plus a body guard), she’s about tapping into imagination, and exploring your own innate sense of creativity.

It had been a long time since I’d experienced this with Jill, but last night I had the opportunity to not only have a fantastic meal at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house,  but to watch Jill work her magic.  At the Salon, 9 of the 12 participants, all women (except one brave husband),  showcased the sculptures they’d been working on all day–  an assignment that mandated they include a small sheer fabric bag and pipe cleaners in whatever they created.  And each creation was more amazing than the next!  From a dream catcher-like sculpture of wood tied to rock with pipe cleaners and ribbon to the actual embodiment (as in she made herself a piece of art) of a sculpture to a diorama to a talking stick, to a worry tree, to a I don’t know what to call it but it was fabulous sculpture….  To watch these women, from all walks of life, from all parts of the country, some in need of some healing, find a kind of power within themselves was truly amazing.

I was honored to be a part of this celebration, to read two short pieces and for a moment I felt like I was part of it. (so again, Thank You, Jill).

The evening ended with some original music by another Jill and her husband Doug, two very talented musician-singer-songwriters from Dallas who’s last name or band name I did not get, but I just used my mad google skillz to find– check her out here:

 

All this to say, whether I’m hanging out in the garden drinking coffee at Wired Cafe, wallowing in the artistic landscape, enjoying the physical landscape (from high desert to ponderosa pines and green meadows), or sharing good conversation, good food and art with friends, Taos is a special place. It sneaks up on you and gets under your skin.

 

Musing on Silence

How do I write silence, explain the space between words, between thoughts, between moments in time, between the inhale and the exhale? Does silence even really exist?  Is there really no sound in silence?

What about the low pitched buzz of the refrigerator, the water circulating through the swamp cooler, the delicate thump of a cat launching itself from desktop to floor?  And if you listen, really listen, can’t you hear the high pitched digital whine of the computer, the clock radio, the cable box, the printer.

Even in nature there is no silence.  Can’t you hear the air move through the dry branches and leaves of  the elm trees, through the sage brush, the creosote?

Taos Vista

Don’t you know the sound of a purple blossom dropping from a desert willow? And what about the sound of prairie dogs scrambling from hole to hole while the lizard hunts for shade?

Can I paint silence?

What color would it be?Is it black or white or a thousand shades of blue?

Yellow seems too joyful to be silent.

Is silence golden? or is it bronze or silver or slivered into pieces like almonds on a mandarin orange salad?

Is it dark or is it light? Is it big or is it tall or wide or soft and fluffy like a cotton candy cloud? Or is it hard like concrete? Can I stub my toe on silence?

Sometimes I want to wallow in silence, roll around in it as if it were a grassy meadow dotted with purple mountain lilies or a warm ocean bay.  But there is no silence at the shore:  the wind on water, waves lapping onto sandy beach, the crunch of sand between my toes, the hermit crab, the splash of a dolphin.

Sometimes I can’t help myself, I want to break the silence, shatter it with a hammer, watch it spider like windshield glass or crumble like old bones.   Silence is scary.  Too much silence and I could begin to think too much, do too little.  Too much silence could set free the voices locked in a vault in the back of my mind.  Would I be frozen in that space between thoughts?  Or could I grab onto one thought and follow it out my ear or my eye to a place I haven’t yet heard?