Facing Silence

Last night I turned the last page of a book I’d been putting off finishing. I told myself I wasn’t making progress on it because I’m too busy, but the truth is that I was nervous it was going to wreck me. I’d heard a lot about Shusaku Endo’s Silence. My sister had read it. So had two of my kids.

Everyone I talked to said, “Just be in a good place when you read it.”

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I’m not in a particularly good place right now, but I felt this urge (sense of duty?) to finish it, for some reason. Maybe because my motto for my 40’s is: Don’t wait until you feel like doing [insert difficult, worthwhile thing] because you might not ever feel like it, and then what have you got?

I could edit this, but I won’t.

Now I’m on the other side of Silence, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Was it painful to read? Yes. Do I have a lump in my throat that I cannot currently swallow, even after three cups of coffee? Yes. Am I glad I pressed into the discomfort and questions and scenes of torture to get to the beauty? Emphatically, yes.

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I feel like this is a lesson–that it means something on a grander scale–but it’s too soon to tell. For now, I suspect it’s just one more example of how it’s better to face things than to avoid them. Even if what you’re avoiding is a heavy book.

Winning, Losing, and Making a Difference

My kids are taking a government class at their educational co-op. They each ran for a different class office as part of a unit on the electoral process.

Two of them campaigned, which felt a little awkward because they were running against good friends. My middle teen hardly tried at all because he found out he was running against his closest friend (not by choice), and he was tempted to drop out of the race altogether.

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Elections were yesterday. All of my kids won their offices, and not by slim margins. Their reactions to their victories were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, they couldn’t help feeling the rush of success, the satisfaction of a return on their efforts. On the other hand, they felt downright blue because the people they beat were visibly dejected.

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My husband and I haven’t taught our kids to view life through the “everyone gets a trophy” mindset. They regularly engage in activities that require them to compete against themselves and others. They play sports where, after all, the point is to win.

Still, they couldn’t help wondering if their friendships would be the same the day after the election. And, in the end, friendships are more important to them than winning.

In the writing world, authors are expected to market themselves. Many of us balk at the idea because it feels like we’re saying, “I know you only have so much time, and there are millions of books to read. But you should read my book and not that one over there.” Feels like a campaign, kind of. Vote for me, not that guy. And it rubs some of us the wrong way.

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But I have to remind myself that, really, marketing it ISN’T like an election. Elections are about scarcity (there’s one position and many people want to fill it). While it’s true that there ARE a lot of people writing, there are lots of people reading, too. Marketing, then, is really about finding your tribe and offering them something that will benefit them. If I can think like that, I can move forward with joy.

In the meantime, I remind my kids that people voted them into office for a reason. They have an opportunity to be wise, kind, and fair in their dealings. They can make important decisions. It’s not a bad thing to win, sometimes, because it means you have a chance to do good for others.

Which is how I want to use my words: to do something good for others.

Writing While Furious

There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and I find myself as susceptible as the next person to the slow burn of muted rage. And that’s just the stuff that has nothing to do with me. Factor in the mundane irritations, the occasional sleepless nights due to I-still-don’t-actually-know-what, the To-Do list that will not resolve itself, and I could stay ticked if I let myself.

Anger is an emotion I hate. I don’t feel energized by it the way some people do. To me, it’s nothing but pure body and soul malaise. It yanks my inner life into slow motion while morphing my external life into a pathetic series of jerkily completed tasks.

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One of the differences between writing for fun and turning pro is that you’ve decided you’ll do it when you feel inspired and calm–and when you feel awful. If I want to turn pro (and I do) it means I need a way to harness my occasional anger into creative energy until it burns away. Otherwise, it will become one more invitation not to move forward in my career.

This blog post isn’t how about to do that, because I haven’t figured it out yet (unless you count typing with ferocity). This is more of a personal memo, an item that needs to move to the top of my To-Do list for the foreseeable future. I have longterm ways of putting my anger into perspective, of giving my Big Scary Feels to God. I just need a short-term way to move forward creatively when the rage is still fresh and hot.

 

A Soft Answer

So much of life is about getting down to business, doing the work, not waiting for inspiration in order to accomplish tasks, etc, etc. This is true in our jobs and in our parenting.

Also? Our creative pursuits won’t find expression if we don’t commit to them. We know we have to Just Do It.

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But sometimes you “need” to do something, and you feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing it–as in you actually cannot make yourself start the thing in the first place. Even though you know the sinking feeling is only your weak mind keeping you from being disciplined. It’s Resistance, you tell yourself, as if naming it will pull out its eye teeth or something.

I’m a Christian, not a Buddhist. But I like what this guy has to say about gently accomplishing the thing you really want to get done in a day. Just that thing and nothing more. Just that thing, while breathing and letting yourself find joy in the moment you’re doing it. Just that thing, while not being driven by anxiety and dread.

So will I work on novel edits today? Will I smile at Resistance instead of trying to trick or outrun it?

Could be. Yeah, maybe I will.

 

*photo by my creative, procrastinating son

Come On In

I’m still tinkering with my website since it’s pretty new. And, yes, I mean tinkering. Like an old man in a shop, bent over tools he doesn’t actually use.

Since returning from the writer’s conference, I’ve spent a bazillion brain cells adding to my ‘About’ page because, well, this is What You Do. It’s scary since I love a certain amount of anonymity. On the other hand, people want to know things about other people. I want to know things about you, though we may never meet.

Since the ‘About’ page is static on my website (doesn’t go to anyone’s inbox), I thought I’d add a link here in case you want to check it out. Take this as permission to snoop in my bathroom cabinet.

A Place For Dogs

I’m convinced nobody around here knows what love is. That’s probably one reason my Jerry doesn’t come to see me anymore, though more likely it’s because he hates old person smell.

They have a big sign here that says no pets, right in the foyer. Linda didn’t say she’d talked to the people in charge about Missy. Bright Futures is one of the best long-term care facilities, Mama, was all she said.

Not a word about dogs, so how was I to know.

Thing is, people don’t listen to one another these days, and it comes of the young  thinking they know better when they don’t. For instance, I said to Linda, When your daddy dies I want to keep things in the house like they are. I’m not one of those women who can’t stand to see her husband’s clothes hanging in the closet without a body to put them on. But, wouldn’t you know, after Jerry passed Linda came right in my front door with two ladies from church, and all three set to clearing out Jerry’s closet.

Don’t touch those things, I said, so they could all hear. But Linda bent close and said, Now, Mama, you know Daddy wouldn’t want you to hang on to his clothes. He’d want you to move on. Remember he said that?

Linda thinks she knows better than I do, and nothing galls a mother more than for her child to act superior. My own mother claimed I did it to her. Then again, that was a special case because my mother got to where she was half-crazy.

My daughter thinks because I fell, my mind is slipping, too. Well, it isn’t. I’m sharper than a double-edged sword, as the Bible says. It also says ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ I do not feel honored these days, I can tell you.

After the funeral, the house felt like the inside of an old shoebox. There were still a few photos of Jerry on the pump organ, his cigar case over by the fireplace, things like that. But most of him had been cleared out. Linda and I had some words over the situation, and she ended up crying, but it seemed like things would blow over like they usually do.

It turns out we still weren’t speaking a week later, so I knew something must be wrong when she came by the house anyway. It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, which was strange because Linda has to work at a garden center to put her kids through college, and she’s never available during the day. (Her husband is a professor at the university, and they pay him peanuts. I asked her one time if she didn’t think that was ironic).

Anyway, there she was. I could feel her thinking behind my chair, and I waited for her to come out with it while I watched my midday stories.

“Mama, I know you’re upset with me and I can understand that. I just want you to hear me out, okay?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got nothing but time and empty space now, Linda, so say what you need to say.”

“Now that Daddy’s gone, we need to decide whether to have in-home nurses stay with you or have you…go to another kind of home.”

I twisted around to look at her. I could feel my blood pressure.

“Are you saying send me to a nursing home where idiots drool in front of Wheel of Fortune every damn day?”

“Not a nursing home. More like an apartment where they do your meals for you and provide entertainment. Bingo and checkers, the lady said.”

“’The lady said?’ Do you mean to tell me you’ve already talked to somebody without asking me first?”

“I’m asking now,” she said. “I did a little research so I could have all the facts for you. I know how you like your facts.”

Something I’ve learned over the years: Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. For instance, I did not, at that moment, mention to Linda that she’s clearly picked up weight and that I have no reason to trust a person who cannot keep up with her calories to help me find an apartment, daughter or no.

“Let me tell you something,” I said, “I appreciate you trying to help, but I will not be moving from this house. It’s mine and your daddy’s and it will stay that way. Besides, what will I do with Missy? Do they let dogs into those apartments? No, I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

“We’ll need to have somebody come out here and stay, then. Somebody to cook for you, do a little cleaning, make sure you’re getting your medication on time. There’s no shame in it.” She rubbed her forehead. “Insurance will pay.”

“Well, I don’t mind having a maid, if it’ll make you feel better,” I said. “I always had a cleaning lady when you and Doug were little, if you’ll remember. As long

as she stays out of my personal business, I think we’ll be fine.”

I meant that. I really did.

The maid showed up a week later. Her name was Tanya, pronounced Tan-ya, like the color. I guess she’d lived a beat-down life, as mother used to say. She wore a dingy nurse’s uniform, a faded blue cotton dress with questionable stains above the right breast and knee. She’d poured herself into that flimsy costume and she, and it, smelled like cigarettes. She told me right away that she’d need to take several breaks throughout the day. She looked down at Missy without smiling.

“This your dog?”

“Why, yes. This is Missy. She’s old but sweet.” I patted my leg and the dog jumped into my chair, precious thing.

“She bite?”

“Only if she needs to,” I said.

“Well, I cain’t be worried about it, or I won’t be able to do my job.” She took a little step back.

“And what is your job, exactly?”

“Help you get along.”

It was hardly my fault that Tanya turned out to be an ignorant lump that cared more about sneaking miniature pecan pies from my pantry than tending to her duties. I’m a fair woman and I didn’t expect miracles out of her. But I did expect her to clean the house once a week and to stay awake while I watch my shows. And I requested a hot lunch instead of sandwiches every day which, I felt, was only reasonable. I can make my own self a cold lunch, even in this chair.

But you know how people are, trying to get by doing as little as they can. Tanya was no exception. First, she handed me baloney and bread on a paper plate, three days in a row. Then every time I turned around she was either in the bathroom with the fan on, or outside, sucking on a cigarette. She stayed with me nights, too, and I heard her snoring from the guest bedroom, louder than Jerry ever did. All that was bad enough. But when I saw her kick my Missy, well, that was it. I sent her packing.

Linda burst through my front room later that day, hair flying. She’d gotten a call from the home care agency. I’d reported a case of abuse, and she’d come straight from the shop to see about me. I told her Tanya was gone. Had she smacked me, or anything? Worse, I said, she hurt Missy. Everybody knows poodles are sensitive, and my dog cowered for the rest of the day because of that trash.

Linda’s eyebrows got low, then, like she was preparing to give a speech, but I held up my hand before she could get started.

“You made a mistake with that woman, but I’m willing to overlook it,” I said. “She was a sack of nothing, and she stole from me, but it’s in the past. I think we can agree that, from now on, I’m the one ought to be picking out my own help.”

Unfortunately, the next girl was no better than Tanya, even though her references were good. Lynn wasn’t fat, that was something, but I could tell right off she wasn’t a dog person. She never even looked at Missy, and the dog could feel the hate. The poor thing even got to where she raised up her jowls, showing her little crooked teeth, every time that woman came near me.

Then, at lunch, after Lynn had been sulking around the house for five days, things took a turn for the worse. It started with me leaning over my chair to reach for a bit of biscuit that’d fallen on top of my left foot. I’d seen where Missy was fixing to go after it and I drew back to let her have it, like I always do. Well, Lynn saw Missy lunging at my foot, and I guess she thought it was her place to discipline my dog, because she grabbed the poor thing by the back of her neck and tossed her across the kitchen.

She asked was I okay. I was so mad I didn’t answer. I wheeled myself over to where Missy sat shivering and patted my leg. Would you believe she wouldn’t jump in my lap?

I turned around and pointed at the door. “You get out of my house.”

She gathered her things and left, slamming the wall with her overnight bag on her way out. That afternoon Linda called me up on the phone and gave me an earful. Lynn had tattled to headquarters about me, said I treated her poorly. The people at the agency told Linda they could “no longer send home health care workers to my residence.” Home health care workers! Flunkies from the Holiday Inn, more like.

Linda, back at the house.

“We’re out of options, plain and simple,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for you to stay at home anymore.”

“Those girls were awful,” I said. “I never saw Missy bite anybody before, but I did see both of them girls kick her. If she bit, it was to defend herself. I’m not leaving.”

Linda pulled at her face.

“You don’t need to do anything,” I said. “Just go on back to the garden center. They’ll be wondering where you went.”

I pretended to look at something on my left. Nothing uglier than an old woman crying.

“Just for tonight, then, Mama,” Linda said, patting my shoulder. “You’ll call if you need anything?”

I nodded, and she dropped a kiss on top of my head, like I was her little girl.

Jerry visited me later that night, like he does sometimes, and I lay in my bed staring at him from behind my eyelids. If I keep perfectly still I can get him to stay on a little longer. I waited for him to tell me what he’s been up to, or that I should be nicer to Linda, or where I’d put my glasses. But he stayed quiet and looked at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher.

Then it dawned on me I’d forgotten to take my medication. That’s what he was trying to tell me. My pills sat all the way over on the bathroom counter, and I was flat out on the bed. I had no choice but to skip my dose, or haul myself upright and force my legs to get me to my chair.

I woke up the next morning with Linda heaving me on to my bed.

 

“You can’t make me go anywhere I don’t want to go,” I said, panicky, but I knew she could.

“Here.” She handed me a Styrofoam cup with a straw. “Drink something.”

“I’ll tell you what. I know things are hard for you, and you hate to see me like this. What if I get better, and then we can see about having someone else move in with me?”

“We tried, and it didn’t work.” She gave me one of my mother’s looks.

“Then I ask you this,” I said. “Let me get better and take what I want out of my closet without anyone bothering me. Let me have that.” I took a sip of my water like she wanted.

“Fine. When it looks like you can handle it, I’ll let you pack some things by yourself.”

Eight days later, Linda opened a suitcase on my bed, said she’d be back to check up on me in a couple of hours. Missy and I waited at the window until we saw her drive away. With my dog in my lap, I wheeled myself into the kitchen and over to the sink. I opened the cabinet where I keep my cleaning supplies.

Moving still hurt so bad I had to catch my breath, and for a minute I was afraid I might slump over onto the floor. I waited until the room stopped spinning, grabbed a bottle of Drano, and righted myself. I set the bottle on the counter so I could use both hands to love on Missy. She poked my good-for-nothing thighs with her little circus feet, and licked the tears off my cheeks.

“Jerry, honey,” I said, “I don’t know how to go on with however many years I’ve got left. I’d come be with you now if I could, but suicide’s a sin. I don’t expect you to follow me to one of those hospital homes that smell like old men, which is where I’m headed. You never even liked to stay in a motel.”

Missy spread herself across my lap and sighed. I took a second to memorize the weight of her.

“I know you never liked this one much. That was partly her fault, partly yours. But I need you to take care of her while I’m gone. She don’t understand how things are. Anyway, I don’t want you to think bad of me since I’m doing what I have to.”

I scooted to the other side of the sink where a half-empty peanut butter jar sat, lid off. I poured in a little of the Drano and stirred. Missy’s nose shivered at the smell of her favorite treat, and she strained from her perch on my lap even after I thumped her twice.

I stuck the spoon into the jar and pulled up a wet glob. Missy licked the spoon so hard I had to hold it with both hands to keep it from falling. I watched her tongue dart in and out like a party favor, eager for more, more, more. After a minute, she started to tremble. Then she froze and yanked open her mouth like she was trying to yell something but couldn’t.

I dropped the spoon and pulled her close, but she fought me, cut into my legs with her nails. Finally, she lurched forward and collapsed on my lap. I closed my eyes and stroked her till she stopped twitching.

When Linda came back, she found me with a dead dog on my lap, inside a dead house. She didn’t say a word, just looked at Missy, at the peanut butter jar, staring like they were some kind of riddle. When she saw the Drano on the counter her face changed.

“What did you do, you crazy old woman? I had made arrangements.”

I let Linda take the both of us–Missy, first, and then me, without a fuss, because there’s no point in trying to explain anymore. Nobody listens to anyone else. Anyway, soon I’ll get to the place where they let you have dogs.

 

Choosing Which Stories to Tell (And Which Ones to Leave)

As a writer, I can tell my own story, but what if I want to write about someone else’s life, and they don’t want me to? Is that okay?

Recently, I attended a talk by author Ann Patchett where she discussed both her fiction and non-fiction works. She said her friends and family never really “discovered” themselves in her novels, though their shadows haunted her literary landscape. But in her non-fiction? Hoo, boy. People saw themselves, alright. And some of them got mad.

Patchett had to decide how much to tell when she wrote about real people, had to weigh the cost of telling the truth as she saw it. In the end, she’d decided to write no holds barred, and it cost her some relationships.

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Me? I’m not sure it’s okay to write about someone who’s still living without asking permission first. Even if their life affected mine. Even if I I know big things. (There are exceptions. Another topic for another day).

We need more truth in this world, not less. But truth seasoned with love and, often, restraint.

Stories are powerful, and they can be true even when they aren’t. In my novels, I can call things like I see them. I can tell a true story in a way that keeps hurt feelings out of the mix. I can be honest without burning the town down.

This is important because, in the end, writing isn’t ultimate for me. It can’t take the place of flesh and blood people, and it’s often not worth hurting others for. So I’ve decided if I really need to say something sensitive, I’ll put it in the mouth of someone I (kind-of, maybe) made up.

 

Walking the Line

We live in chaotic times.

When it comes to reading fiction, do stressed-out people want an escape from reality to ease their minds? Do they want to see themselves represented on the page? vicariously live out the worst case scenario? fly to fairyland?

Many writers try to tap in to the zeitgeist to give readers what they want. And that’s good if it means they want to use their writing to help people. Or, you know, write books that’ll actually get read.

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The problem is, by the time they find out (and write) “what readers want,” those same readers want something different.

Artists walk the line between understanding readers’ desires and staying true to the stories they need to tell. These aren’t always at odds with one another, but sometimes they are.

So, when push comes to shove, what’s a writer to choose?

Well, you hear different things. But, at the end of the day, I believe writers tell the best stories when they go with their gut. Which is to say, I won’t be writing about zombies or post-Apocalyptic worlds any time soon, not because those kinds of stories are beneath me, but because I’m just not interested in them.

And if I’m not interested in my stories, how can I expect anyone else to be?

What do you think? Should writers be concerned, first and foremost, with what they think readers want?

On Teaching Students (and Myself)

I teach writing to high school students. Yesterday was our first day back to class, and I gave my freshman a little assignment to start things off. Nothing heavy. Just a topic sentence derived from something about which they already know a lot and three sentences that support it.

Everyone knows something about something, I said. You can write about Fortnite.

I could tell within a few minutes which of my students will fight the writing process this year, and which won’t.

That seems a little presumptive, you say. You don’t know them yet.

Right, but–here I go again with my groups–there are two kinds of students : 1). the kind that dive in and try, haltingly, maybe, even if they don’t really know what they’re doing, and 2). the kind that stare at the teacher in mental anguish (or boredom).

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I have compassion for these kids. There was a time when I didn’t because I taught what I wasn’t doing on a daily basis–i.e. staring down a blank page and pushing past the nothing.

Now I know how hard it is.

It’s going to be okay, I want to tell my kids. There is no way out but through. You will learn by doing, by giving yourself permission to be bad at something for a while. It will hurt, but it will make you better.

(You might even like it).

I will say all of those things, and more, probably. Most of my students won’t believe me, and that’s okay. We learn through experience. And, sometimes, we don’t notice the learning because it happens while we’re trying to escape our own weakness.

But it happens.