Thursday, January 3, 2013

Opening a Fresh Page of the Journal

  The beginning of a new year is like opening a fresh page in a new journal — all possibilities lie ahead. Yet too often I burden myself immediately with those dreaded resolutions. Keeping with the journal metaphor, instead of sitting down to write a poem, I start making lists.

Lists of ways I could be healthier. Lists of ways I could improve my relationships. Lists of ways I could alleviate financial worries. Lists of ways I could be a better human being. And on and on.

By the time the lists are composed, all the freshness is gone, and here I am again, face to face with all of my old anxieties, fears, imagined shortcomings. I make myself promises for altered behavior, but it’s little wonder that within weeks (or even days) I am back to my old self, nothing changed at all, except a more deeply ingrained sense of guilt for having failed once again.

How to do it differently? As I think about 2013, and where I am today, the prevailing emotion that comes up for me is not dissatisfaction. It is gratitude. Here, then, is a radical jumping off point. What if I begin with what I have, instead of what I don’t have? What I like about my life, instead of what I wish I could change?

I have a reasonably healthy body that performs as it should most of the time. I can walk, run, even dance. I can hear, see (with the help of my ever-increasing number of pairs of glasses), taste, smell and touch the world around me, marveling in both its beauty and its variety.

After a younger adulthood spent in cut-and-run mode, I have established roots. I have just completed a decade working at a job I love, where I can finally say, “Me? Oh, I write for a living.” From my fascination with big cities, I have returned to small towns, learning the pleasure of being in communities where the postal clerks and baristas, the fire chief and the planning commissioners, all actually know you by name.

With those roots have come long-term friendships, the kind that go through rough spots but then figure things out and patch it all up, ending even stronger.

In this same decade, I met my wife, another axis of love and stability. And with that relationship came an entire houseful of four-footed creatures, companions I could not have when I was on the move from apartment to apartment in my many cities.

As if all of this weren’t enough, I finally have given myself permission to pursue my own personal writing, and I am being heard. I am being asked to appear at readings. Some of my poetry and creative nonfiction has won awards. I am making time to go to writing retreats, and feel as if I am with peers. I am home.

There are always trade-offs with lifestyles. Sometimes I miss the old days. But then I look around my house, our house, and I hug my dog, and a cat brushes past my leg, and a good friend calls, and I receive an e-mail with an invitation to go to a poetry slam, and my wife calls out, “Hey, babe, just made a fresh pot of coffee. Would you like some?”

And I think, “This is the good life. It’s not fireworks. It’s not parades. But it is really good.”

Because, you see, it’s not about losing 10 pounds or promising to write on a more regimented schedule or even about trying to be a better person. It’s about looking around your life, this very minute, and saying, “This is it. Wow.”

Okay, maybe I’ll try to learn to play the cello...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Writing That Makes a Difference

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), a time to bring attention to a problem that far too often remains hidden and unacknowledged.

Domestic violence is threatening behavior by an intimate partner attempting to seek control over another. It can include emotional abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, financial abuse, and threats of abuse or violence to children or pets.

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Eighty-five percent of domestic violence victims are women, and an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. However, domestic violence crosses all lines: It affects people regardless of gender, age, economic status, race, religion, nationality, educational background, or sexual orientation.

It is not just the adult victims who are affected. Thirty to sixty percent of the perpetrators of domestic violence also abuse the children in their homes. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

And the society, too, is affected. The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services. Victims of domestic violence lost almost 8 million days of paid work because of the violence they suffered at the hands of their partners last year.

Sonoma County is not immune. Last year, law enforcement responded to over 3,000 domestic violence calls. It is the leading cause of injury to local women.

I work as a volunteer with the Sonoma County YWCA, which provides the only safe house in the county for women fleeing their abusers. They also provide counseling services, a 24-hour hotline, support groups, long-term housing assistance, outreach and education to the community, and a therapeutic preschool for children who are affected by violence.

As part of DVAM, I have helped to coordinate for the second year "Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence." For three Fridays in October, women and men will share their stories in poetry, memoir and fiction about the impact of domestic violence. We did this for the first time last year, and it was extremely powerful, both for the writers, and for the members of the audience.

The readings are scheduled for:

Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts
6780 Depot St. in Sebastopol

105 East First Street, Cloverdale

Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. at Copperfield's Books
Montgomery Village, in their new location, 775 Village Court, Santa Rosa

I invite you to come to one of these nights and hear the brave words of these writers for yourselves. They will challenge you, and inspire you.

For more information about other events going on for DVAM throughout the county, visit theYWCA website.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

But Is It My Place?

Last winter, I attended a silent Zen retreat up in the mountains. At one point in our tightly regulated schedule, the retreat staff didn’t have our noon meal ready on time. Generally, when we walked in, our two teachers, Tony and Darlene, went to the head of the line and served themselves first, and we all followed after. But now, we found ourselves milling about in the dining room, momentarily purposeless.

At last, the meal was ready. I turned, and gestured towards Tony, who stood at the back of the room. He shook his head, and waved me forward. So I went on, got in line, and helped myself.

Moments later, one of the other priests approached me. Taking me aside, she said in no uncertain terms that we never serve ourselves before the teachers. Point taken. As a relatively new student, I am used to being corrected on this path. I nodded, and sat down.

At the conclusion of the retreat, this same priest approached me again. She said, “I need to apologize to you.” She told me she uses three guidelines to govern her behavior, taken from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. They are: Is it beneficial? (Will it be helpful?) Is it skillful? (Will my words be kind, and cause no harm?) Is it my domain? (Is it my place?)

She said after speaking to me, she realized she could answer yes to the first two questions, but not to the third. It was not her place. She was not in a position of authority at the retreat. It was not her duty to instruct me. And so, she apologized.

That last lesson, “Is it my place?” stuck with me. So often I have found myself in situations where I wanted to weigh in, to get involved.

A friend’s mother said something cruel and inappropriate. I was sorely tempted to phone her and explain what was really going on. Someone petitioning for an application with the planning commission is taking an approach that might be damaging to his case, and I have an opinion about that. Just yesterday, I chatted with a young man with a dog, and saw that the dog had a foxtail embedded in his foot. I mentioned it, yes. But to go further?

In each of these cases, that line comes up in my mind: Is it my place? It reminds me that if people want my advice, they will ask for it.

Of course, there are times when it is our place. When it is time to act. And then, I will act. I am not afraid to take the right step when it is time.

It is also interesting to me that what this priest taught me came from her mistake. That in itself is something for me to hold onto as an example.

Yes, I did learn not to cut in line in front of the teachers. But the lasting lesson I received, the true teaching, came when she made a minor correction regarding my behavior, then came back and apologized to me.

It was her willingness to be vulnerable in front of me, her willingness to look at her own actions. I was holding no grudges. I had already let it go, and would have forgotten it. But she did not. And because of that, I received this teaching.

Every day, I thank her for it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fiction Writing: Caught Between Reality & Make-Believe

There are hazards to being a writer of fiction. Sometimes one gets trapped between reality and make-believe, entirely unawares.

About a year ago, I spotted a St. Bernard rambling loose along River Road, right near my house. I grabbed a leash and dashed down to get him before he fell victim to one of the cars which race along the winding curves.

He and I headed up into the large subdivision nearby, stopped at a house to inquire, and I got the dog’s name and directions to his stomping grounds.

The long driveway led to a white home. I knocked, and a man and woman answered, opening a sliding door. We spoke only briefly, I returned the dog, and trudged on back to my place.

However, it had all left an impression. There was more there. I sat down and wrote a short story about it, and all the details started to change.

I became a young guy named Dave. He was coming home from work. The dog’s name was Bear. The people at the house were odd – their stuff in piles in the kitchen, both heavy smokers, everything dingy. They didn’t seem to care that Dave brought Bear home, and when he asked them for a treat for the dog, the man (Henry) handed Dave part of a sticky donut out of a half-empty pink box on the coffee table.

I had been working with the idea of “the inside story.” The story within the story, which in this case was that Dave had a younger brother who worked at the donut shop, a brother with Downs Syndrome. That is revealed in the final scene. Eventually, the story was titled “Donuts.”

On Friday, I was revising that story for a fiction contest. I was tweaking and twisting and turning. So I was getting pretty intimate with it. It was in my marrow, the way stories get when you’re close with them.

Then on Monday, I was at work at the Tribune, and my partner Sabrina called at about 5 p.m. and said, “Hey, Michelle. There’s a woman here with a lost St. Bernard. Do you remember where he lives?”

And I said, “Oh, his name is Bear!” Then I said, “Wait. No. That’s not his name. That’s the name I gave him. I made that name up. I can’t remember his real name anymore.”

Sabrina said, “It’s OK. We don’t need his name. Just his address.”

“Right. Well, his house is up past Tom and Dobie’s, I think. It’s a long, curvy driveway. I think. On the left.”


“The house is white, and all run-down, and peeling apart, and there are old cars everywhere. Like four or five or six of them. But maybe I made that up. I don’t remember.”


“And when you first walk towards the driveway, there’s one of those above-ground swimming pools, only it’s empty, and there’s trash all around it. I’m pretty sure.”

“Great. I think we got it.”

“He’s a really friendly dog.”

“Yes. That’s what the woman said, too. Love you. See you tonight.”

I hung up the phone, thinking hard. What did the people in the house look like? No idea. All I could remember were the people in my short story. What did I say when I brought back the dog? No idea. All I could remember was what Dave did, what Dave said.

My memory of finding the St. Bernard had been completely eclipsed by my fictionalized version of the incident. I had rewritten it. There was virtually nothing left of the original.

Whoa. I’m going to have to watch that one. I can just hear myself using that excuse at a family gathering – “Sorry, must have been a writer’s blackout.”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Taking Time

To live with no regrets is something that sounds wonderful - but impossible. And yet I have found recently in small ways I have been able to do just that, by taking it a few days, a few weeks at a time.

Kay Wheeler is a spirited, strong-willed, 96-year-old former Army nurse who is a family friend. She and her husband attended the Presbyterian Church that my parents joined when they moved to St. Helena in Napa Valley over 20 years ago. A few years later, when a flood devastated the Wheelers' mobile home park, my parents gave the Wheelers an apartment in their home to live in until they had a new residence. I did not live in California at the time, but knew of the friendship, and especially I heard stories of Kay.

When I eventually moved to the Napa Valley, and started working at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, Kay was widowed, and had relocated to a mobile home park in Calistoga. She was a Tribune subscriber, and read my stories. She also happened to get her hair done at The Ultimate Kerr, the small beauty salon next door to the Tribune. So every couple of weeks I would see her, say hello, catch up on her news, the volunteer work at the local hospital, church doings, health matters. She always gave my hand a warm squeeze, eyes twinkling.

Always, she paid attention to my life through my writing. When my partner Sabrina and I lost our African grey parrot Barney, who I had frequently written about, Kay sent a beautiful condolence card, remembering the special animals in her own life. I began sending cards regularly, too, for Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, any excuse to put a bright little reminder in her mail box.

As she aged, living alone at the mobile home park proved too difficult, and Kay decided to move back to St. Helena into a senior apartment complex. I offered to help her pack boxes. Because of scheduling conflicts, with friends and relatives in town, she ended up declining my help. Instead, we agreed to meet soon for ice cream - she admitted she loved rootbeer floats.

As promised, shortly after, I made a special trip over one afternoon and took her to the local A&W for rootbeer floats. We had a wonderful time. She asked about my animals, my partner Sabrina, who she had never met, and other details about my life. She chided me about smoking, and urged me to quit. She told me stories about her time as a nurse, things I had never known. And we shared memories about my dad, who passed away seven years ago from lymphoma. Kay adored him, and he adored her right back.

It's easy to get busy, and not find time for things. We intended to get together again soon, but a couple of months passed. Finally, though, I reminded myself that one must take time for 96 year olds. On the spur of the moment one afternoon last month when I was running errands in Santa Rosa, I called Kay and asked if she was free for dinner. She said yes. I made the trip over the hill, and picked her up. She said she wasn't really that hungry these days - all she wanted was a bowl of soup. We went to the most popular pizza/Italian joint in St. Helena, where she had minestrone and I had pasta. We again had a wonderful conversation. After the soup, she admitted she still had room for a scoop of ice cream.

Two weeks ago, by chance, I saw Kay again. My sister Catherine was in town from Connecticut with her husband Eric and 10-month-old son Kaden, to have Kaden baptized at my mom's church. Kay hadn't been feeling well, but had made it to church, decked out in a straw hat covered with pink and purple flowers. During community announcements, she said, "I've lost my pep and energy; so, if anybody's seen it, please let me know!"

I was thrilled to see her, because Sabrina was there, and I was finally able to introduce her. Kay smiled broadly, and reached up towards her. Sabrina, always wonderful with older people, held out her cupped hands and said, "I just wanted to let you know. I found some of that energy. Here it is." Kay thanked her, and grinned.

Kay fell last week. They ended up performing heart surgery on her at St. Helena Hospital. I was hoping to go visit her today. My mom called yesterday to say she had passed away. She had never really been conscious since the surgery.

I will miss this dear, sweet friend. I am grateful, though, for two things.

First of all, I know she was ready to go. She was tired, and in pain, and simply plain worn out. She remained cheerful and stoic and brave and generous to the end, but it was time.

Secondly, I have no regrets. I took time for my friend. I was not a close friend, really, just the daughter of fellow church members. But I showed up for her. I kept promises. We had rootbeer floats together. And I am not left with that raw ache of thinking, "Oh, I wish I had done it differently." Because she knew that I loved her.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dealing with Rejection: A Writer's Fragile Ego

Being a writer means confronting on a daily basis the demon of ego. I waver continually between "I am so bad that I shouldn't even be pretending," "I'm never going to be good enough," "Hey, I think I may be getting the hang of this," and "Wow, I'm quite talented!"

Much of the time, I am alone with my words, so this dialogue is completely internal, and depends entirely on the mood of the moment. My writing seems to flow some days, and then I feel confident. Other days, nothing works, and I think I should give it all up.

But the real ego test is when I dare to send my work out into the world. Choosing a poem or short story to submit to a literary magazine and sending it off is an incredible act of bravery for a writer. I'm still not very good at it. Pamela Painter, a writer I worked with at a conference recently, said we should expect to send a piece out 40 times before a response. I tend to send something out once or twice, and then feel so dejected when it is returned, that it takes months for me to recover. So, clearly, I'm not quite up to the game yet.

Calyx is the premiere women's literary journal. I believe passionately in Calyx, in what it represents, and the quality of its writing, and have donated money to them to help them continue their mission. I have been submitting poems to Calyx annually since 2006. Every year, I get a rejection letter.

This year, as usual, I submitted six poems by the Dec. 31 deadline. For the first time, I also submitted a short story. It usually takes three to four months for them to respond.

I walked out to the mail box today, and there in the stack of mail were two envelopes addressed in my hand: the dreaded SASE. Once again, a form letter thanking me for submitting, and offering me a reduced rate to continue my subscription.

It is hard to even describe what happens to my already fragile writer's ego each time one of those envelopes arrives in the mail. I feel crushed, disabled, silenced. I am unsure that I can ever write again. (Hyperbole is another one of the side effects.)

Ironically, two weeks ago I placed second in a local poetry contest, winning a $50 cash prize. It was the first time I had ever received money for one of my poems. There was a very nice reception, where the winners read their poems to an audience of about 100 people, and the Sonoma County Poet Laureate Gwynn O'Gara introduced me, giving a beautiful analysis of my poem that left me glowing.

You would think, wouldn't you, that I could hold onto that good moment for a bit longer, before once again plunging into the "Oh, my god, I'm never going to be a writer!" litany again? Why are the successes felt so fleetingly, and the failures held onto for so long?

My writers' group will be holding a public reading on Friday night. These are generally a boost to my ego, since I enjoy reading aloud, and gain energy from the interaction with an audience. So within a matter of days, I will be up again. Up, down, up, down.

The challenge, of course, is to write no matter how I am feeling about it. Just like practice. Sit on the cushion, good days, bad days. Sit down to write, with or without confidence. Write.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Challenging My Absolutes

On Tuesday night, I was on the edge of town at 9 p.m. pumping gas at a station. I heard a voice from the street call out, "Hey, mister - I'll give you $5 if you give me a ride down town."

I am easily mistaken for a man with my shorn hair, hat and bulky coat. Perhaps he would not have even asked me if he knew I was a woman. But I was annoyed. I turned towards him with a semi-scowling face, not answering immediately.

My annoyance came not from the request, but because he was putting me in the position of having to say no. I don't like having to tell people no when they ask me for a favor. But this is an absolute for me. I never give a ride to a stranger. If I see someone stranded on the highway, I will call 911 for them. But I never stop. And even in my small town, that rule holds. It is nonnegotiable.

He stood, waiting for my answer. I finally said, "I can't give you a ride." He sighed, and began again to walk down the road. I watched him go. He was elderly, and carrying a cloth grocery bag. He shuffled when he moved, but I could tell it was from fatigue, not from drunkenness. I saw him try to hitchhike. No one stopped.

I stood there at the gas pump, finishing up. Something told me I needed to challenge this. What do they say in Zen? Nowhere standing? No fixed rules? I tried to think of how I could change my mind while still feeling safe.

Two years ago, my dog and I were attacked by two off-leash dogs on a walk. Since then, I have kept pepper spray in my car for our outings. I reached into the glovebox, took out the pepperspray, and put it into the cubbyhole on the driver's side. Then I unlocked the passenger-side door and unrolled the window, drove out into the street, and pulled up alongside of the man.

"Where do you need to go?"

"Bless you," he said.

His name was Michael. He had spent the entire day navigating the bus system in Sonoma County, and simply didn't have it in him to walk the last mile and a half home to his senior apartment complex. He didn't mention the $5. We both knew that had nothing to do with why I had stopped. I drove him all the way to his front door.

That one small act of kindness made it much easier for me to go to sleep that night.