Lessons from a Broken Toe

I didn’t make the connections at first. I just knew it hurt. A lot. As I sprawled in agony on my just-made bed, my first thought was, “How in the world am I going to get to work today?” My second thought was to curse the large box of books at the end of my bed. The one I had just crashed into barefoot. The one full of magnificent books I have been meaning to read for a long time but just haven’t gotten to because, you know, I have to go to work. And then the thought came, “I have to go to work today because I have that meeting at 10:00 to go over my contract.” The contract I intend to sign in order to work three more years. Three more years in which I probably won’t get to read those magnificent books. You see where this is going…

On most days, I enjoy my job. I like the dedicated educators I work with. I love the students I work with and enjoy the detective work I do trying to decipher their learning issues, figuring out ways their parents and teachers can help them succeed. I love my little office with its twinkle lights, beachy art, and electric kettle where I brew my morning tea. I especially love when children I’ve worked with over the years stop by to give me a hug or visit with me and my crazy-haired stuffed-toy penguin. But let’s face it, I spend most of my time writing reports full of numbers and attending meetings where I talk about numbers, and reading other people’s reports full of stiff language and more numbers. I try really hard to remember that though I have to include those numbers in my reports, my real job is to tell each child’s story. Who is this quirky kid? What do they love? If they could do anything in the world, what would it be? That’s the part that gets me up each morning. That’s the part that makes me consider signing a new three-year contract on the morning I’ve just destroyed my toe.

My mother was a teacher. My father was a teacher. For both of them, choices were limited right after WWII. At the little college where they attended and met, and thus allowed me to come into being, my dad says the choices for the boys were to be a preacher or a teacher. He had no desire to preach. If he couldn’t run away with the circus, he at least wanted to have a farm, but spots at the big school, Ohio State University, to study agriculture were allotted to returning vets, and though he and his friend offered to live in a chicken coop they had built in woodshop, they had to choose a different path. My mother had even fewer options. I went into education also at the urging of my father who was concerned about my future, but my heart has always belonged to stories, poems, the creative life. I think my mother’s did too.

Though I loved working with my students in the classroom, all my creative energies went there. When I had children of my own, that also required enormous amounts of creative energy. But though I love being a creative educator and creative mother, those roles have never been enough for me. I have to write. I have to photograph. I have to live in wonder.

In recent years, I’ve made conscious choices to follow my dreams. I’ve taken the leap into writing seriously and finding homes for my work. I’ve won awards. I’ve completed my MFA. I’ve set goals in motion with a five-year plan. So why did I quaver on that morning of the new contract? Why did my rushing around to get to work lead me painfully into a box of books I had not yet read? Why do I not feel the same joy at my computer at work that I feel when I sit down to start a new poem or picture book or novel? Why does sitting in yet another meeting not provide the same rush as reading my work  in front of an audience or leading a discussion about poetry and art in our everyday lives?

A few years ago, I read a book called Whistle While You WorkThe authors, Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, included an activity in which you were to identify from a list :

  • Things that fit your gifts and talents
  • Things you are not sure if they apply
  • Things that don’t feel like you at all

Here’s my top five: writing things, exploring the way, shaping environments, seeing possibilities, adding humor

Here’s my bottom five: solving problems, analyzing info, doing the numbers, resolving disputes, fixing things

I think that morning my toe and that box of books had something important to say to me.

I’m walking more slowly now and looking carefully at what lies ahead. I signed the contract, but I’m also gazing forward to what comes next. And I intend to focus on getting more of list #1 in my life and much less of list #3. I have more options than my parents. My daughters will have more than me. But one of the best gifts I can give myself this Mother’s Day, and one I can give my daughters, as well, is to live an authentic life, to not always take the expected path, to not settle for what is, to live in wonder and gratitude, and to always be imagining the possibilities of  what can be. 

Equinox Blues

After days of sun and seventy degrees and the first blossoms of spring pushing up through muddy ground, this day is cold and gloomy with a mix of snow/sleet/rain, just when the seasons are supposed to shift for good. This cloud-heavy, wet morning matches my mood. I’ve been sick and the effects linger, but it’s more than that. Today the past is also in the room, the house is filled with memories and the weight of years. For some time, I’ve felt the need for change–of location, of focus, of light. I’m not getting any younger and I’m tired of patching things together, constantly stitching old cloth. 

Last weekend, I spent some time with three dear writer friends in a cabin surrounded by woods. It was wet then too, but warmer, and we were cheered by each other’s company and excited by the words we shared. Too soon it was time to go our separate ways. We stay in touch by email and on social media, but it’s not the same as gathering on the porch, in front of the fireplace, or sharing homemade chicken tortilla soup at the kitchen table.

Gathering with others who share our passions can be a lifeline, especially for writers, who by necessity spend a great deal of time alone. But we also have to learn how to care for ourselves and to craft our lives as we craft our stories, poems, and memoirs by cutting what doesn’t work, streamlining what does, and making it the best it can possibly be. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at doing that on the page, but I need to do better in my daily life.

I live in an old house on an old farm which I love and hate in equal measure. I have had some of the absolute best times of my life here, and some of the worst. But as the only one still living here, my rooms and thoughts are burdened by other’s leftovers and too much stuff I no longer want to care for. Today, as I said, those memories, those years, those belongings, without benefit of sunshine and cheer, fill the corners of each room, the outbuildings, the bookshelves, slink out from under the couch and bed, hover in shadow just out of sight behind me like a felt ghost or menacing intruder. 

And I think, just as in my writing, I may be ready for some edits, possibly a fresh page.

My mother was a quilter, a saver, a never-throw-anything-away-er, having grown up during the Depression. But I’m living through a Depression of my own right now and I want a clean slate. I want to focus my time and energy on my passions, on the people who raise me up instead of those who bring me down, and I want a new view, preferably of water, one where I can make new memories. I want that kitchen table where my beloved friends and family can share a meal, laughter, and good conversation. I need that porch with just enough room for four or five writers to spread out and scribble away at their new stories, comforted by each other’s presence, but with enough space to dream big. And I desire that stone fireplace with the warm cheer of dancing flames. I’m in search of a new source of light, of warmth, of possibility. 

Maybe, just maybe, you feel this way too.

I don’t have answers today. Just lots of questions and what ifs. But just as I would when beginning a new writing project, I’m starting a file, grabbing  a fresh notebook, clipping and bookmarking items of inspiration. And perhaps, most importantly, I’m opening myself up to what comes next. Universe? Are you listening?

 

Hello, hello…Goodbye

IMG_3316 Saturday, I said goodbye to a cherished writing mentor, Julia Marie “Judy” Klare, age 93. Though to be honest, those of us who counted on her poetic brilliance, her ability to define a line, her complete dismissal of ellipses, lost her several years ago as the mind we revered gradually spun in ever dwindling circles. Yesterday’s celebration of her life was full of poetry, that found in verses of the Bible, songs sung, and moments of her own poetic observations of the world read in others’ voices.

I first met Judy by name only in the list of winners and honorable mentions of a Writer’s Digest yearly poetry competition. We were both in welcome positions closer to 1 than 100. New to southeast Ohio, and the mother of three young children, I was in desperate need of a writing group to sustain my practice and stretch me in new directions, and quite honestly, starved for deep, grownup conversations. In a moment of bravery, I wrote to the judge of the contest who I knew taught at a nearby university, and asked if he could connect me with any local writers. Graciously, he responded, putting me in touch with Judy who also miraculously lived in the same university town. (Read more…)

Self-editing or Editing the Self?

I just returned from a trip out east visiting old friends and mentors at my MFA program. I also toured the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. I’ve struggled this summer with my writing, or rather, my inability to sit at the desk and make anything worthwhile happen. After near misses and big rejections, though there have been some acceptances and publications too, I’ve lost confidence and am having trouble finding that spark to light the way forward.

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Sometimes Spirit Glows

Sea Glass PanelsIt was the end of a long day of speakers at the Mazza Museum. All spectacular in their own way. Everyone was tired, but happy to end the day with one last voice, an elderly man in his 90’s, an illustrator, artist, legend: Ashley Bryan. He took the stage slowly, then smiled, raised his arms, and the magic began.

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