Starting Again

Up early writing and I’m loving this free time, this morning time, when it’s just me, my thoughts, and my laptop.  Feels so wonderful to be working on something other than Have a Little Piece of Me.  

I’ll be blogging on the editing process with my editor and the publishing process with my publisher. (Can’t believe I have an editor and a publisher!  Yay! :-)) I’m quickly learning  this is really the beginning.  I always thought you finish the memoir, publish the memoir, and your baby is out in the world.  Luckily, that is not the case.  My “meme” needs some serious work, but I’m looking forward to digging deep with my editor and making Have a Little Piece of me the best it can be.  It feels so good to have people who aren’t related to me and who aren’t my friends believe in my work.  I know we don’t write for that validation, but it feels divine.

Kind of giddy working on this new piece.  My new memoir picks up where Have a Little Piece of Me ended.  It chronicles my first years in the Army. I already see a difference in the writing and in the sense of urgency coming from this new narrator.  She was such a confused, damaged, angry, but brave little  girl.  Reading over it, seventeen seems so far away from the life I’m living now.

Isn’t that how this thing goes?  We look back at the years that we lived and we don’t know how we got where we are.  I was looking at a recent  episode of Super Soul Sunday on the O network and one of the speakers, Jack Kornfield, spoke of the soul as something that is “timeless, unborn, and not limited by this body and mind.”   The body itself will change.  The hair will fall away, the skin will wrinkle, and speaking from personal experience, things that used to sit up nicely will eventually succumb to gravity, but those physical characteristics have nothing to do with the soul.  The soul is everlasting and even as the body changes, the soul/the spirit remains the same.  That means the soul of the little girl walking to James Hurst Elementary that first day of school, is the same girl who boarded that plane to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the same girl who first held her newborn,  the same girl who taught her first day of Composition, and the same girl who will hold her childhood memories in the form of a book in  her hand.  You don’t feel so alone when you realize all that you’ve gone through, good and bad, you, your soul remains intact.  Thank God for that wholeness, despite, at times, being broken.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!  Looking forward to all of the beauty 2014 will bring!

What the Women in My Life Gifted Me

ImageStill reeling from the wonderful news I received Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.  For obvious reasons, I want to remember that date and time for the rest of my life.  I will never get another call from a publisher asking if I will accept their offer to publish my first book.  Hopefully, there will be calls for a second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixtieth book, but there will never be another first.  

This week I have experienced overwhelming gratitude, disbelief, and that ever present doubt, but that is not what is on my heart right now.   My heart is not on that phone call and it is not on the moment my new publisher spoke those beautiful words.  My heart is on Sanaa, my baby girl.

My kids have always shared me with my writing.  They’ve eaten pizzas, night after night, in the name of revision, washed their own clothes in response to writer’s block, tucked themselves into bed as I was holed up in my office trying to find the perfect word, and they suffered countless moments when the stress of the writing spilled over into stressful words spat at them.  They have stood by, most times quietly, allowing their mother to give birth to something that would never be kin to them.  

When that phone rang, I immediately turned to Sanaa.  She’d had a rough day at school and I feared, with that phone call, the ride home would be rough as well.  I’d already decided Etruscan Press would reject my manuscript with the typical, “Thanks, but it’s not what we’re looking for right now.”  I’d hoped to be able to suffer that rejection alone, with my trusty computer and email account, not in front of my daughter, with the words streaming through my car speakers.  My only thought as he said, “I’m with Etruscan,” was I don’t want my baby to hear him say her mommy’s not good enough.  I didn’t want her to know all the time I’d been spending away from them, away from dinners, recitals, and class parties, had been squandered, ricocheting from one rejection to the next.  I didn’t want my baby to know how vulnerable, how flawed her mommy could be in the eyes of others.  I feared seeing this deficiency cloak me would mean she might drape herself in that same deficiency one day.

I’ve spent much of this week going back and reading sections of Have a Little Piece of Me.  One theme rings clearest in each section and that is the love of the mothers in my life for their children, the sacrifices they made in order to ensure their babies had a better start than they did.  From my mother washing clothes in a tub with a washboard, to my aunt dividing one Big Mac between six children, to my grandmother walking up Shipyard Road just to see her babies.  They each did what they could, what they knew  in order to give their children what they did not have when they were children.   I don’t care what your age, race, social class, or location is, we mothers, we fathers, share a common bond: we want our children to be better than we are, to have more than we had, to do better than we did. 

My mother has often apologized for the things that happened to me when I was a little girl. She’s said of me and all of my siblings that we deserved a better childhood and that she should have done better.  I say those same things to my children now. I have offered apologies to Dereck for not seeing how much pain he was in as he suffered constant racial taunting.  I have apologized to Tariq for almost allowing an overzealous school psychologist to label him MR even though he’s a little freaking genius.  I have apologized to Sanaa for missing that snuggle time, those kisses, and evening talks just to grade a few more papers.  I have to apologize for so many things, many of which take me from them, things that are supposed to offer them a better beginning than I had.  

But that day, December 10th, 2013 at 3:45 p.m., no apologies were necessary.  My baby sat there with me, witnessing us reap the fruits of our labor, knowing that her beginning starts with my ending, and in that moment (these were her words), “Mommy’s a superstar, so I am too.”  

I often think of the women from my childhood and the gifts they gave to me.  Despite the challenges they faced, they got up every morning and became a living example, a superstar, for us children.  They let us know to keep fighting as long as we were on this earth.  My Grandma Rachel, my mother, Aunt Ella, Aunt Vony, Aunt Birtee,  Aunt Angie, Aunt Della, Aunt Shirley (Bruce), Aunt Shirley (Barry),  Aunt Chris, Aunt Edy, Rosemary, Charlie, the countless adult cousins, all my surrogate mothers who gifted me the belief that I could do what they, because of the world they lived in, could not.  That is the greatest gift a mother can give her daughter; the belief she can succeed beyond her wildest dreams.  Her getting up every day, doing the best she can is the blueprint all daughters first follow.

When I looked at my twelve-year-old baby’s face and saw her crying, even before my own tears had fallen, I knew that phone conversation, that moment would be one she would add to her blueprint.  Just as I found myself through the gifts of the women in my life, I pray  Sanaa will find herself better, less ruffled, more whole than I am, and I pray that she will accomplish all she wants in life, especially the things I could not.

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What Revision is Teaching Me

Life has been hectic for the past month, so I’ve been away for a while.  Just got back from Louisville, Kentucky and managed to mix a lot of pleasure with work.  Got to spend extra fun time with the hubby and kids and got to hang with some colleagues/friends that made it easy to smile.

 I needed the break.  It reminded me of what was beyond my small town in PA.  Still, in the midst of the tall buildings, the cars zooming past, the music, the great food (too much great food), I missed home terribly.  I longed for the trail, the smell of the honeysuckle, the birds soaring ever so dangerously into my path.  Mostly, I missed writing.  My plan was to spend all of my free time during that week camped out in my hotel room, plugging away at my memoir revision, making it the masterpiece I’m certain it wants to be . . . I wrote once that week.

 There was so much to see, so much laughing, living to do done.  I felt as if I’d been given a weekend pass from jail and it didn’t seem right to create a cell around myself when I was able to walk free. Not to mention I was grading about  500, 3-5 page, sometimes poorly written, papers for seven plus hours.  I didn’t want to read anything after working a full day. 

So, I wrote once, but I believe I am better for it.  When I returned home, I couldn’t wait to write.  I couldn’t wait to sit in my office and lean on my pillows, watch my fish in my aquarium, burn my candles, sip my coffee, listen to my music, and look at my baby’s drawings on the wall.  The same place that had once haunted me because I HAD to write now welcomed me because I COULD write.  Oh, what a difference time away makes.

So, last night I was working on this problematic section of my memoir.  I’d plugged away at it every day and no matter how much tinkering or rewriting I did,  I couldn’t get it right.  I remembered a visiting poet at LHUP, Jamal May, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here and in all of the following quotes) “The first draft for writers is like the gathering of tools.  Unlike the painter, who is able to gather his paints, brushes, canvases, pictures, all a writer physically has is her pen (or laptop) and a blank page.” He was essentially saying there could be no inventory of tools locked within one’s memory and imagination.  I loved that, but I never got it until last night.  So, I was plugging away at this section, trying to make that first draft, those many tools that had flowed out of my mind, fit into the story I was trying to tell.  Then I had an epiphany.  I’d written a piece, one which I believed to be unrelated to the section I’m currently working on, and it seemed to want to be there.  The gaping circle I’d been trying to plug with a square had its other part in another file, from another story, on my computer’s hard drive.  And it fit so perfectly, I found it hard to believe that tool had been sitting there all along, waiting to be found.  

In that moment, I remembered Sue William Silverman telling me, gleefully, “Revising is the best part of writing. It is where you are free to go deeper.”    I remembered Rigoberto Gonzalez asking, “Why are you showing people your first drafts? You’re nowhere near being finished.  So stop!” And I remembered Diane Lefer saying, “You will be able to fix these issues.  Your story is good and once you finish the first draft, you will have everything you need to begin.” 

I remembered all those things and for the first time in this revision process, I rejoiced.  What they had taught me time and time again was in fact true.  I was enjoying the revision process.  What I needed had been there, waiting to be found, if only I could be diligent, curious, dedicated enough to find it.  

But this revision also taught me something else.  Something I must remember for this life I am living.  No matter how hard I tried to make that section of the memoir what I thought it should be, no matter how many times I rewrote and tinkered with the wording, nothing every fit.  No matter how many times I worked to patch it together with the tools that were readily available to me, my creation fell apart as soon as I stepped away.  In fact, I had to step away, to see things with new eyes in order to find what had been waiting to be found.

In my life, I’ve often tried to force that square into that circle, believing fitting something inside was better than the obvious void.  But some things must remain empty, so you can remember they need filling, so you can continue searching for what is missing, for what might already be part of your mental and emotional inventory.    That is what revision taught me today.  And what is every day of our lives but a revision, an opportunity to make better what we had, what we were the day before?  

This writing thing is hard, but not doing it is harder.  I remember Nathan McCall once telling me, “You will write when you have to.”  He paused as I took in what he was saying.  Then he continued, “You won’t have to write because you need money or you need to write for your career.  You will have to write because your emotional and physical well-being will depend on it.  Then you will write well because you have no choice.”  Kind of like living, right?   When it becomes too difficult to stay the same, then you change.  I am rejoicing this revision. I am enjoying living in it.  

Prayers for Aimee, Lana, and us all . .

Sending prayers out to Aimee Copeland, a Georgia graduate student, and Lana Kuykendall, a new mother of twins in South Carolina. Both of these women are bravely fighting a mysterious flesh-eating disease. Aimee has already lost her left leg and there is now talk she’ll lose all of her fingers. They’ve yet to release any additional information on Lana. I can’t imagine the pain they are going through and the pain their families are going through at this very moment.

Aimee and Lana’s stories got me to thinking about those of us walking around with soul-eating, happiness-devouring, blessing-burning diseases, those which are no less mysterious, and still, they have a way of eating us out of a full life. The offending “bacteria” could be a difficult childhood, an abusive relationship, or a traumatic experience. It could even be something as simple as a person you work with that drives you completely nuts. She means nothing at all, and somehow, because of her ability to annoy, she’s earned your focus, your time, attention, and yes, your full life. I’m so guilty of this, giving someone who does not want happiness the ability to steal mine away.

Just imagine if our emotional and spiritual illnesses were visible for all to see. What if we could see the spiritual limbs we’ve lost, the parts of us, without doctoring, that will never grow again? Many of us are so spiritually decimated, we need spiritual walkers and wheelchairs. And we know not where this debilitation was born. Would it matter if we did? The lack is felt, even if what is lacking has not been identified.

There are so many things that have happened in my life that have silently, but ravenously eaten away at my spirit. My earliest memories captured me being victimized. They are memories that cannot be reclaimed. They forever reside in what I once thought was a void. I am now learning that there is no void. All of me is “meat.” As long as I am living, there are parts of me that can be eaten and I need medicine to beat the “bacteria” away. For me, my medicine is faith, family, friendship, fellowship, biking, my students, writing, living. I want to live, so I am living. Hard.

I think about Aimee and Lana and they are, as we speak, fighting the toughest fights of their lives. They are fighting with everything in them to survive. Even after losing limbs, even after having bodies they’ve worn since birth change into something they no longer recognize. We must have that same fight in our lives, even when others cannot see our wounds, even when we don’t know what the actual illness is. We must be our own medicine, and cast aside those walkers and wheelchairs that cripple us forevermore.

When I think of the offenses, slights, abuses I suffered earlier in life, I have to remind myself that offense may have happened once, twice, many times in my whole life, but it is not happening now. RIght now, I am safe. RIght now, I am not suffering. Right now, I will be whole.

They say Aimee woke today and didn’t even cry when she realized her leg was gone and her fingers were soon to follow. While her family wept for her, she remained happy, maybe even grateful for what was left. That young woman, that student, is a teacher for us all. At such a young age, she has mastered what many of us have yet to learn.

Morning Pages 2

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Before I opened my eyes this morning, I felt the heaviness that comes with being overwhelmed.  The semester is over, which means there will be grading, lots of grading.  I’m organizing for my Summer Happening  Camp which means class schedules, brochure proofing, organizing menus, and the dreaded budget.  I’ve gotta plan for a trip that I don’t really want to go on, clean the fish tanks, clean the house, get the kids set for their summer break, and prepare to let my oldest, my man (child) 😦 head off to Chicago for college in August.  Not to mention I may be teaching two summer classes, if they make, and I still have this dang spasm in my neck.

That heaviness was enough to make me stay in bed just a little longer, to keep my eyes closed just a little tighter, to breathe just a little slower.  I need a serious vacation, but that isn’t on my list of things to do.  Even though I’m already tired and the day has just started, I am grateful that I have the ability to be overwhelmed.  That means I’m doing something productive with my life and I care enough about the things I’m doing to stress over them.  What if you woke up every day and you didn’t care one way or the other whether you actually did anything?   That, I think, would truly be something to worry about.

This isn’t that silver lining on the cloud thinking, rather its an appreciation of the cloud.  It is the letting the cloud itself, be the silver lining.  Yes, I have to grade seventy-five papers, fifty portfolios, and countless revisions.  But each paper is a piece of one of my students, a piece of him/her that has been freely given.  I’ve spent the last four months with them and I’m going to miss them.  These papers are that final goodbye or see you later.   Maybe that is what I’m most overwhelmed by.

While I don’t enjoy preparing for camp, I do enjoy seeing those little ones, in the middle of summer, greeted by their teachers, eating their lunches (Extremely healthy lunches, I might add) and running to their parents at the end of the day, smiling, laughing, saying “I had so much fun learning this or that today.”  And then the final goodbye, when it’s all done and I clean out my camp office while thanking God that none of the little ones were injured and all of the parents seemed happy to have spent that slither of summer with our camp and our teachers.  Then I smile and I’m happy that I worried in the way that I did.

I’m never happy to have worried about cleaning my house.  That is all cloud all of the time, but maybe this writing, this riding, is my version of cleaning my mental space.  It is the cleaning of that closet, the one so cluttered things tumble out when you open the door  Yes, that closet.  The one you keep stuffing things in, hoping it will expand rather than vomiting all of its contents into the tidy space you call life.  That closet that is so full, so deep, you don’t even know what you first placed in there.  Some of its contents are so old, so yesteryear, you wouldn’t recognize them even if they floated in front of your face.  You know, those things you can no longer place your hands on and yet they still have a hold on you.

I think that is how I feel about Dereck leaving. I always knew he would leave one day.  Chico and I raised him to do just that.  His leaving is not a cloud or a silver lining.  It is for him the sun and yet, it is a thing I placed in my ever expanding closet the day he was born.  I remember looking at him in the hospital, after all of the doctors and nurses left and we were finally alone, for the first time. I was a young soldier, still living in the barracks.  My captain told me I couldn’t go back there with a baby, so he arranged for us to live in the post hotel. Dereck, only a day old, was without a place to call home.   I remember in that moment feeling like the worst mother in the world.  I ‘d just turned nineteen, one year older than Dereck is now and I was essentially alone.  Being in an abusive relationship had a way of making me feel that way.

That morning in the hospital, I cried over Dereck, allowing my tears to flow down my cheeks and splash on his little face.  Those tears, I believe were part of my personal baptism, a crossing over from girl to mother.  I apologized repeatedly for giving him such a rough start to life. No home, no father, and no mother.  Just a girl with a woman’s responsibilities.   I’d never wanted him to inherit the lacking I’d grown up with.

He slept so peacefully, eyes closed tightly, breathing slowly, resting in my hands as if they were the safest place, the right place for him to be.  I took that image of him and placed it in my mental closet.  That safety, that peace is what I wanted to give him every day of his life.  But life is never lived in one moment.

This too might be the source of my anxiety.  There are few moments left between my little boy, the one who’d run around the house screaming for his ball, and the man who will one day marry and have his own children.  I hope they will have a better beginning than Dereck did. I hope they will have a better beginning than I did.

There is so much to do in a day, so much to do in a life.  So much grading, cleaning, organizing, planning, and worrying, but I refer to what Dorothy West says in the title of her debut novel, “The living is easy.”

It is easy if you are living.  It is even easier if you are living for something.

Morning Pages 1

Julia Cameron, author of the Artist’s Way, encourages writers to write morning pages before their day begins. They’re supposed to be handwritten every day, but I’m a bit of a rebel. They’re also meant to be private, but I’ve been private for quite a while. I think it’s time to reveal some things that want revealing. That’s what morning pages are about. Revealing things that you hide from yourself.

I woke up today excited about this blog! I surprised myself by actually letting go of all of the doubt and fear and starting my blog. I’d been thinking about it for a while, but I kept asking myself, “What exactly do you have to say? Who wants to hear what you think?” Now, as I sit typing, I realize the real question is do I want to hear what I have to say? Do I really want to know what I think?

I feel something moving within me right now. Can’t name it yet, but it doesn’t need a name to exist. It’s time for me to grapple with this idea of comfort, with complacency. I’m starting to realize that comfort thing can be as damaging as discomfort. What do I mean by this?

I remember when I was a little girl, about eight or nine, and I used to watch television commercials. My favorites were those Pizza Hut commercials with the girl sucking down strands of cheese as she laughed and talked with her parents. I told myself, “One day, you’ll eat like that. One day, you’ll sit in a restaurant with your kids and order pans of pizza and drink Coke until you pop.” I’d then go to bed (No need to go to the kitchen because there was nothing there.) and I’d dream, dream about those days when I’d have enough money to never be hungry again. I dreamed about my kids and my future husband and the smiles they’d always wear because they’d never been hungry like me. I’d give my kids names like “Mante, Shante, and DJ,” named after my husband, whose name would be Dante (Sorry Chico! Love you, Baby!). In my dreams we lived happily ever after, forever, despite the discomfort I’d experienced earlier in my life.

Now, I can buy that pizza and coke and I have the kids (not Dante, Mante, and Shante :-)), but I have my three and they are perfect. I got the great husband, the career I didn’t even know I wanted, and the comfort. That, I always knew I wanted, but what is missing? What within me is lacking now?

Maybe comfort, in some ways, smothers the ability to dream. I wonder this because I don’t dream anymore. I don’t have the ability to see that life can be more because I’m too comfortable in what it is.

I know what God has for me is abundantly more than I can imagine. I just don’t know what that abundance is. I wish there was a commercial that I could look at and know there is where I want to be. Then I could prepare for what I know is to come. And this is where the whining begins :-0)! Julia Cameron warns that morning pages will begin to sound like whining sessions and I was always leery of that, but at this time in this space, I really don’t care. Can’t heal what you won’t acknowledge. That’s my new mantra.

That comfort thing is a trip. It can trick you into thinking you’ve arrived when the journey has just begun.

The Trail Today: My State Bird

Saw like ten Cardinals on the trail today!  I decided, with Trisha’s urging, to deem those birds “my birds,” and so they will be a constant reminder that everything is all good.  And they were, it was a wonderful ride, an easy ride, because our destination had nothing to do with where we were going.

For all my VA peeps, do you remember when our moms and grandmoms told us to kiss at the birds because they’d bring good luck?  Am I the only grown person who still does that?  I don’t know what kind of luck they’re supposed to bring, but I always feel blessed to spy one amidst the brown and greens of the trail.  And when they sing, oh they sang so loudly today, I almost believe they feel blessed to see me.  I’m such a sap :-), but the trail does that to me.  

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What Used to Be . . .

Wrote this two years ago. Revisiting the past in order to prepare for the future.

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10:08 a.m., sunshine glints off the leaves of the Pin Oak tree. Drops of dew, still clinging to webs spun nights before, rebound against the wind. Pine Creek crawls, hugging the rims of earth that border it. The “dee, dee, dee” of the chickadees dances with the cardinals’ “cheer, cheer, cheer.” A chipmunk—no, a dead leaf—no, a chipmunk, caramel fur, dark chocolate stripes, scurries into my path, narrowly escaping death by tire. The crunch of the shale clinks against aluminum frame. I steer, missing dips, splits, traps intentionally set by the colluding characters, rain, wind, dirt. Nature is never more chaotic than before traffic picks up, than before footfalls silence its deafening noise. And I, as spy, attempt to blend, to meld with the nectar of the Japanese Honeysuckle, to loosen myself so that the wind can carry me to undiscovered lands, can wrap my scent around the nostrils of those on the other side of the globe, those loosening too, wishing that I may also swallow a whiff of their existence.

I pedal, not with purpose, not with destination, but with hopes of colliding with chaos foreign to my own. The hemlocks, maples, and oaks applaud my efforts as they swell into one another, intertwining, forming one hand, palm, fingers, life’s creases, clapping against the wind. I and the gusts silently communicate, my head turned up, ears open, willing the current into the hole within me. I am positioned to receive. “Where have you been?” I inquire.

“Everywhere. Always.”

Some questions receive answers even though they have not been asked.

And then my personal chaos, the one ravaging my mind, commandeers thoughts, allowing the wind’s answers to become its own.

“What faces have you caressed?”

“Everywhere. Always.”

“What arms have you wrapped yourself around?”

“Everywhere Always.”

“What tears have you inspired as you press into pupils, into psyches that work to block you with sunshades and umbrellas.”

“Everywhere. Always.”

The absence of sensation is sometimes better than cracking oneself open, acorn on asphalt, unable to plant, a seedling that never sprouts. My chaos collides with the trail’s. Our winds dance with one another, twisting, turning, bowing, creating pink, blue, and orange hues, that slam together like the knuckles of clinched fists, hand wrestling to hold one another.

Then, there is the music, louder than my chain squealing in agony as it is assaulted by rocks spit from rotating tires, louder than the buzz of the bee racing me to the cornfield, louder than the digital numbers ticking away on the odometer, dictating miles ridden, a reminder of the amount of road that still must be traveled

I hear Marvin’s song, not blasting through earbuds, but riffing in the wind, “Sing, little sparrow, sing,” joined by Billie’s chilling trill. Southern trees aren’t the only one’s bearing strange fruit. Some of the strangest fruits don’t even hang from trees.

Their voices crash against leaves, reverberating down branches, trunks, sap swishing inside, connecting with the earth on which I ride, sending my insides a quiver. It is only on the trail, that this quaking is tolerable.

Those who argue that nature is quiet amidst noise have not yet heard beneath their own screams for silence. It is unapologetically its own chaos. And so, I ride all trail, nature, having politely parted itself like the red sea, opening its mouth, promising not to swallow. It allows me to commingle with the syrupy scent of the Honeysuckle even as I ponder the growth as a climbing, strangling weed. Even as I wonder this of myself.

Despite the answers, mine and the wind’s, I ride because to ride is to be, to move out of skin, past thriving desires and deceased ones buried far under. It is to soar, to morph into an chickadee or a cardinal, beings that need the wind, but those that also know that the wind needs them. Without wings bobbing from side to side, without feathers tussled by an invisible breeze, how would we know the wind exists? Without it kissing cheeks, producing tears which have no origin, how would we know that we exist? Without the trail, without its chaos, without our own, would we continue to ride?

Originally published in The Hemlock.

Finding peace and healing on Pine Creek Trail