Friday, December 7, 2012

Wrap it! Read it! Love it!

One year I ran.  I ran every weekday morning.  When I made my vow to run every weekday morning, I also made up my Rules Of Exception.  The only excuse not to run would be 1) a fever of over 100° 2) a storm, with actual lightning and thunder, and 3) a wind chill reading below some ungodly number I can’t remember.  Let’s say 18 degrees.

As I recall it now, none of those things ever happened. They’d almost, but then it would be 19 degrees or a fever of 99.9 and I’d have to go.  And I went.  For a year.  What really sticks with me is the shocking difference between the idea of running—the vow, the idea, the frickin’ fantasy—and The Running.  The moving of one’s body with one’s feet.  The dusky gray squares of the sidewalk.  The slick, mossy places. The crossings with cars.  The sound of thudding: my shoes on pavement, my own heart.

Cheryl Strayed at age 26, never having backpacked anywhere ever, vowed to walk the Pacific Crest Trail.  And she did it.  She walked more than 1,100 miles, carrying a pack that, when she started out, she literally could not pick up.

Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.

There were bears, snakes and leering strangers.  There were steep drop-offs and slippery slopes. Strayed repaired her feet with duct tape. Her toenails fell off. She was hungry and couldn't afford a cheeseburger. She strained her drinking water from mud. She walked, with that impossible pack stripping the skin from her back, for 1,100 actual, real miles.

But, as you’d have to expect, these were also miles of the spirit. The Cheryl Strayed who began that improbable hike in the Mojave Desert, grieving and raging at the death of her mother, mourning the end of her marriage, spiraling with heroin and promiscuity, crossed the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon into Washington changed and empowered, with things to say that have made a difference to me and a lot of other people.

I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. … Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid.”

One morning, after my year was up, I fell and sprained my ankle, and that was it on running for me.  The wrench, the nausea, the pain were so real, so memorable, I was never able to get past them. Never able to counteract them with a vow to run that I might keep. Never able to overcome my ingrained sense of self-protection that speaks in my mother’s voice, “You’ll get sick.  You’ll get hurt.  You’ll die.”

You can go to the bank with this:  I will never hike the PCT.  But because Cheryl Strayed is an extraordinary person who is also an extraordinary writer—fearless, generous, unapologetic, compassionate and really, really good—the truths she discovered upon the path are accessible to readers of this book, including readers who are sometimes weak, sometimes strong, and who sometimes fall short in the guts department.

Reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  is no substitute for the PCT but it is a wise and powerful guide to the lessons of courage and the possibilities of life.  I say read it.  Gift it.  Set it loose in your world.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I’d like to thank the members of the Academy.

A few years back, the ad agency where I worked hired an animator for a TV spot we were producing.  When we found out this guy was an Academy Award-winner, we all lobbied for him to bring his Oscar when he came to Cleveland.  He did it!  (Obviously this was before a TSA person would have told him he’d have to check his lumpy gold weapon or skip the plane.) 

So there He was.  Oscar.  We handed Him around.  He was heavier than I expected. Bigger, smoother and shinier too. One thing that happened, though, we probably should have anticipated.  When the heavy, gold, naked, somewhat androgynous person was placed into someone’s eager paws, the someone would be compelled to make a speech. 

They wanted to thank somebody.  They wanted to pull out a wrinkled up piece of paper and acknowledge a big bunch of folks who made it possible for them to realize this dream.  And, of course, somebody always wanted to tell somebody else, “You like me.  You really like me.”

The point here is not to say what yahoos we all were—though, folks, we were, and I loved that about us—but to draw attention to the desire most of us have to reach the universally-agreed-upon apex of our ambitions and, then, while standing on that heady pinnacle, to thank everyone who help us climb up this high.  Gratitude. Pay back.  A sense of finally having earned our belonging in an inner circle to which we’ve aspired for a lifetime. 

But look. A great number of us will never get there. That’s the math of life.  Watch the Olympic Games and ponder the fate of those beautiful, committed, accomplished, almost-golden losers.  We can’t ever guarantee the win, but that heady moment of gratitude can be ours right now.  This is mine.

I want to publish my novel.  Ho boy.  Do I.  From the brightest part of my spirit, I believe I will.  And from the dark night of my soul, I believe I won’t. But nothing at all is stopping me from writing the dedication and the acknowledgements for my as yet, unagented, unpublishered, unpublished book.

That way it’ll be ready when I need it.  In a couple of months or so. So here goes.


For Bill.  The forever believer.


Yikes! Now I know what the wrinkled piece of paper is for.

To my family, Bill and John, who didn’t laugh when I sat down to write. Even when I was secretly and not-so-secretly mocking myself.  Who treated my work with respect. Who picked up the slack when I was working, slack-jawed, at dinnertime. 

Extra kudos to Bill who even though he grew up in the dark ages before feminism like I did, always encouraged me to take risks and honor my ambition.  He’s been braver for me than I’ve been for myself.  And steadfast.  Always.

These two guys have made it possible for me to know that if I never published a freaking thing, my life would still be greater, luckier and happier than anyone could believe. 

To Tina Whittle for the kind of support an aspiring writer can only dream of:  solid advice, appropriate admonitions against direct foreshadowing, cheerleading, empathy, networking, even pitching on my behalf. You know how grateful I am.  Actually you don’t.  You couldn’t possibly. 

And to Lynn for introducing me to Tina, you too, lady.  Big time.

To my family of origin. Mark and Margaret. 

Mark: My father’s legacy was delivered to me though the memories of the people who witnessed his love for me in a time I don’t remember. Obviously, love is one kind of immortality.

Margaret: My mother’s confidence that I was special, gifted, and destined for wondrous things ferried me over my own doubt about that stuff, like a million times.  Momma, after you died I found a book in which you’d underlined somebody’s advice to: ”Write something every day.”  And in the margin you’d penciled, “Ann.”

To my BBFs: Judy, Karan, Laura, Elaine.  Each of you has been my dream’s best defender.  Each of you has been my strength, refuge, and partner-in-crime for a major part of my life. Together you are all still my inner circle of support.  My good-listeners.  My ass-kickers.  My friends. I sure hope I’ve been worth it. 

And for Elaine & Bob and Doug & Thom, the Usual Suspects. You make the fun and bring the love. As far as I’m concerned, without fun and love there’s nothing worth writing about.

For Joe and Mary Lucille (and Pat, behind the scenes) you have been my “writer’s group” and much, much more.  Daily support.  Daily friendship.  Sustenance.  And the taste of home.

Now, for my readers, in order of their appearance:  Bill, of course, Elaine, Doug, Dan, “Tuckie,” Joe, Susan, Fran, Judy, Vicky, Laura, Bob, Anne, Terry, Cathy, Jane, Traci, Ellen, Cindy, Tess.  Some of you passed the ms onto people I didn’t know about.  I bless them for reading, too.

To Rip Ruhlman for taking the manuscript of Twice as Dead to read even as he was dying. And for always making me feel confident and appreciated.  Rip, we were robbed when we lost you.

Then, of course, although I haven’t met all y’all yet: To my future agent.  My future editor.  My future publisher.  So grateful and I don’t even know exactly what for.  And not least to my future readers.  Remember that I wrote for you before I believed in you.  On faith.  Out of devotion for what other authors have written for me. 

That’s it.  And yeah.  I know.  It’s too long.  Everybody went to the bathroom or got beer or changed channels while I was droning on, but I don’t care.  When I write the “real acknowledgements” I’ll tidy it up, put in the ones I’ll be horrified to realize I left out, and not gush so much.  But I’m glad I had the chance here and now.

Because here’s the other thing.  Last spring I went to a writer’s conference and the author who won the big award for the best new writer was a man whose wife had recently passed away. Right there, I got it. Like a hammer in my head. 

If it’s just you, any victory is no bigger, or more wonderful than you can make it, all by yourself.  There can be a party, for sure, and you can be glad and honored and validated—all that—but the celebration won’t be complete unless all your people are there, too.  

And this, as well. If we don’t take the opportunity to thank and re-thank the people to whom we feel grateful, we might lose the opportunity to make our gratitude complete.  They might get away before we say the most important things.  We might have to leave before they have a chance to know how full our hearts have always been with thanks for them.

Thank you, my people, you make my life very sweet. 

Because you like me.  You really like me. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Pat The Bunny

Some years ago, when I was feeling pretty anxious about stuff I can't even remember now,  I wrote this little piece about something that kind of worked for me.  I was rooting through some files today, and up popped the essay about the bunny.  I'd forgotten him.  He'd forgotten me.  No wonder I get scared sometimes....  

Here's the bunny.  May you know comfort. 

Human beings, especially so-called enlightened human beings -- and especially, especially  so-called smart human beings -- often find it quite difficult to deal with the emotional thrill ride of life.  One might assume that this problem has grown worse under the pressures and uncertainties of the so-called modern world.  I’m not so sure.  I bet it was tense in the caves from time to time. 

We’d like to think we can handle our emotions.  But wise people tell us that emotions operate pretty much on their own timetable. They come.  They go.  They come back.  And they keep doing this all your life, no matter how smart, how transformed, how determined you are. 

One of the most persistent and paralyzing emotions is fear in all its most unnerving disguises: terror/panic/anxiety/ uneasiness/nameless dread. Very hard it is when fear comes to visit. We think – being the sort of beings who put a lot of stock in our minds – that we should be able to reason ourselves out of our fears. Often we are dismayed that in spite of the application of extreme rationality, we’re still pretty scared.

I believe our emotions are part of our animal nature.  Not bad.  Not good. Just something that comes along. And something that’s not particularly reassured by intellectual pep talking. 

I think of my fear as a small rabbit that lives inside my chest. When I’m scared, it sits frozen, quivering.  Its eyes are very wide, darting wildly about, scanning for danger. Its whiskers vibrate. Its body is clenched very small because it longs to be invisible, hidden and safe.  It’s afraid to hop away.  Terrified to stay put.  It doesn’t need a cheerful talking to.  It needs to be petted and soothed.  Like a bunny. 

So, when you are afraid, the most important thing is not to brush the fear away or hide it -- even from yourself.  For then the bunny is terribly alone and hopeless. Find the frightened bunny trembling inside you, accept its fear and sorrow, and imagine that you could hold it in your hands and cradle it warm and soft against your chest.  Smooth its silky fur with great tenderness, and say, “There, there, little bunny.  There, there.” 

Just until it feels strong enough and safe enough to hop along. However long that takes. And be sure to love the bunny. Because it always does the very best it can. 

 And because it is your heart.     

“There, there, little bunny.  There, there.” 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Post That Got Hijacked By Whitesnake

Or Something.

The hijacked post is actually this post you're reading right here, originally entitled "I'm In The Mood For Whine." And which began:  "... simply because I broke down and purchased the 2012 Guide To Literary Agents."

There followed a major moan and whimper about the kind of morning I'm having because I've found myself back at what almost feels like Square One with The Novel.  And what's worse, immediately after that disheartening moment of confrontation with my un-agented state, I stumbled into the "promoting yourself online," maze and the "what is your *^%$^ platform?" arena. Wherein I became not merely way sorry for myself but also seriously overwhelmed. And more sorry for myself.

I experience this whiny, overwhelmed, self-pitying state as the sensation of having about a pound of that cold, kind of slimy clay from kindergarten lodged in my chest where my heart is supposed to be. And also (I find this sort of interesting) in a numb tingly feeling in the general area of my elbows. A paralyses of the typing muscles, I presume.

I had it bad.  And that ain't even supposed to be good.

Right after that I realized I was hearing The Tune.  

NOTE:  Tell me I'm not the only one who gets annoying repetitions of pop, rock, and very occasionally, classical hits in my head.  Right?  Hah! You do. I know you do. For example, you know that song, "Beautiful Sunday?"  Like, "Hey, hey, hey beautiful Sunday. This is my, my, my beautiful day?"  Forget it quick.  It will rule your brain for weeks.  Fortunately that was not the tune I was hearing this morning.

It was "Here I Go Again."  Not a tune I'm particularly familiar with.  I didn't, for example, connect it to the band Whitesnake. Nor am I actually a big fan of Whitesnake.  (I had to look them up to make sure Whitesnake wasn't, for example, one guy.  A Mr. Snake....  Face it folks, 1987 was not my musical year.  I was busy.)

So here I was having this Whitesnake thing mainlined into my head from ... somewhere.  Just the hookie part.  "Here I go again on my own. Goin' down the only road I've ever known." Appropriate, though.  Pretty sad and whiny, right?  A good description of my dead end state of mind. So I went onto Rhapsody (where all the music lives, all the time) and played it to enhance the crankiness of my crappy mood.

Pathos can be so consoling.

Guess what?  I found out something you Whitesnake mavens -- and possibly a part of my brain that I do not have direct access to -- already knew.  This is a kick-ass song about ... kicking ass.

For example: "But I've made up my mind.  I ain't wasting no more time."

Yeah, it's about the "lonely street of dreams" but it's also about being the Comandress In Chief of your own @%&#$ lonely street of dreams.  It reminded me of the one thing I need to forward my writing right now:

A new playlist.

Not necessarily for my ears, but for my soul.  My fainting clay heart.  My numbed writing muscles.  Access to the stash of courage that lies around in a subbasement of my being until I remember where I put it.

I remember where I put it now.

Here what's at the top of my new list:    

"Here I Go Again."  Whitesnake

But listen.  Here's what I wonder.  Here's what moves the tingly feeling from my elbows up to the back of my neck:  Where did it come from, that little tune?  How did it get into my head?  And what part of myself gave me a chance to hear it, really hear it, for the first time, today of all days? 

That's the part of myself I want to come straight here and stand right by me, with its spooky l'il hand on my shoulder, when I lose my focus and my nerve.

And to go with me.  Down the only road I've ever known.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Before There Was Me

Mark & Margaret.  Before there was me, there was them.

I have been much inspired by Viv's post about her dad. She made Ed real for me. She made him a little bit alive again for herself, I think. But since I am compelled by my untrammeled egocentricity to make this blog about Me, Me, Me, this post is not precisely about M & M (Aren't they beautiful over there? Weren't they just cool?) but about what I discovered about them, long after it might have done the three of us any good.

Okay.  Let's give the old Beginner's Mind a shot here.  It appears that parents are -- kind of like Soylent Green -- made of people! And before your eyes glaze over with the absolutely brain-killing obviousness of that statement, just stop for a minute.  Breathe.  It took me about 51 years to get a toe in the water of "Hey. Margaret was a human being."

All my life people told me I was just like her.  She had to live 88 years and die (more than a decade ago) before I could start to realize:

She was just like me.  UhOh.

And Mark?  Forget about it.  He died at 42 when I was not even 2.  He wasn't just an icon.  He was a god.  I was probably six or seven before I realized he was not actually, The "our father who art in heaven."  And the idea that he was "watching over me?"  Not comforting.  In the extreme.

In the dawn of Me History, Mark & Margaret created my universe and placed me at the center of it.  They named the animals. They brought the food.  They made fire.  And gravity.  They set the rules. They told me The Story of Elizabeth Ann and when my father, whose voice I do not remember, "went away?"  Margaret picked up the thread and devised the great Myth of Mark. When I say, "Myth," I don't mean to suggest it was untrue.  It's a Joseph Campbell thing.  And a lovely myth.  But it wasn't Mark.  Any more than my Myth of Margaret was Margaret. 

So I'm loading the dishwasher yesterday.  And making a lot of judgments about how I'm doing it and wondering if I should be doing something else, something better, something more ... worthwhile right then.  Such as a Good Person would do. The kind of person who would not be unexpectedly crushed by the universe as punishment for Something. And experiencing the miasma-like, hypnotic and overly-familiar little tune that plays, with all its variations of theme, in my head pretty much all the time.  "Ah, maybe you're just lazy. Are you lazy?"

And There. She. Is.

Should I blame her for that?  NuhUh.  If your parents abused you in ways that were truly cruel and you blame them for that, you're completely entitled. 

But if they screwed up?  If they gave you Life Rules that weren't much help or messed you over in major ways?  If you hear their voices saying things that don't do you a bit of good?  If you can point to a number of occasions when they were just TERRIBLE PARENTS?  Cut them a break.

Forgive them.  And while you're at it, if you're a parent and, actually, even if you're not, forgive yourself.  Just a little bit.  You came out of the darkness into the light.  You had about 15 minutes to figure the world out. And then you were on your own.  Your parents (who'd had that exact same experience a shockingly few years before) tried to keep you safe and make you good and love you to the best of their ability which never, never expressed the frantic passion of adoration and fear that was in their hearts for you most of the time.  Those folks?  Forgive them.  Love them.  Love their memory.

Try to know them for a minute. See them.  Recognize them not as gods, but as you. But exactly.  Confused. Scared.  Pissed off.  Awkward. Having a bad hair day.  Hating their boss.  Destroyed, almost obliterated, by an unexpected death and another and another.  Hungry.  Weak.  Forgetful.  Capable of  well-intentioned mistakes, inexplicable bad moods, unbelievable carelessness, fully-intended anger and general meanness.

Also, figure that, like you -- and definitely like me -- they were probably driving through an intersection, trying to make the light and not kill someone, when you asked them what f**k meant. Because that pretty much sums parenting up for me. Human. And conducted most of the time on the fly, ineptly, and without even a speck of parental wisdom.  At the point in a child's life when the parent was, to all intents and purposes, God.  Or Goddess, as the case may be.

So, Mark & Margaret. Look at you two.  The more I know about me, the more I understand about you.  And the more I understand about you the more my heart just breaks open to everything you have always been for me. Because parents -- though human -- are the people in your life no one else will ever be.

I had no idea who you really were.  Probably still don't.

You are more beautiful and mysterious than I could ever have imagined.

I wish I could sit us down and tell you that.

Then you could tell me to vote for Mitt Romney and how I should do my hair.

And, Margaret?  Remember how you always said, "One of these days you'll understand. I wish I could be there."

Today's the day.  And me, too.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Lamott Report

Anne Lamott appeared at the Allen Theater at Playhouse Square last month as part of the William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage Series. (Another good reason why it's great to be a writer in Cleveland, OH.) 

I went because, like most writers I know,  I was encouraged by Anne Lamott to write when I could not bear my own self-imposed belittlement in that area.  She encouraged me as if she were my best buddy in the world and sitting right there on my couch.  That is a really bad iPhone photo of her famous encouraging book to the right of this sentence. >>>>>>>>>>>>>  See?  

I took along my heart, which was bursting with gratitude, and it turns out there was a big theater full to the brimming over with folks bursting their hearts just like I was.  (I thought it was going to be just her and me, like on my couch, back in the day.  But it was fantastic all the same.)  

When I got home, inspired and re-energized,  I emailed a bunch of people about what it was like.  And now I'm sharing that email with you.  Enjoy.  Pretend you were there with Anne Lamott and me, on a couch in a big auditorium with masses of other potential and actual artists, listening to her tell you how to respect your dreams. 

Here's my report on what I did on my Anne Lamott Vacation. 

Beginning with a (related) digression: I remember reading somewhere about Elvis (Digression, Capital D) that the inevitable, debilitating effect of having all that attention -- the energy of all that undefined wanting focused on him all the time -- caused him to self-destruct and blah, blah, blah.  

I don't mean to suggest that Anne Lamott is self-destructing.  To the contrary.  She seems essentially well put together to me.  But I was struck by that little, sort of raggedy (it's the hair, which is awesome) woman, standing up there in the spotlight all by herself, wise and welcoming and glowing like she does -- and just receiving waves of hungry, frustrated creative energy and the desire of hundreds of people to be just like her, plus a raw abundance of pure worship and admiration -- and gratitude, of course, weeping, blubbering, speechless gratitude.  And then sitting there, after all that,  signing hundreds of books.  Wow. Remarkable.

She was great.  She was human.  She encouraged everybody.  She reminded us that if we want to write we need to put our butts in the chair at the same time every day and write.  She said nobody needs to watch the 10 o'clock news and that if you don't, you only miss where all the fires are, and that if you're the fire chief's wife, maybe you do need to watch, but if you're not, right there is 45 minutes when you can write every day.  And for investing that 45 minutes you'll get  maybe 30 minutes of actual writing time.  And the first paragraph will be crap.  She said that nobody needs you to write.  And that as a matter of fact it isn't even in the best interests of the people around you for you to write.  I completely get that because it's a miracle Bill has made so much space for me to do that.  Lucky writers such as I have supportive loved ones, but I can see how it doesn't really pay folks to have us do this craziness.

I believe what helped the audience the most was how uncompromising she was about her confidence in our capability to lead the lives we want and how unflinching she was about sharing her own fears, doubts, and shortcomings. 

She is stunningly generous. She delivered her presentation in the manner of someone who's just tripped over something and is willing to proceed to give you what she has that she thinks you need, without trying to find her balance. It appears to me that, as a person who has but exactly the same insecurities, terrors and dark, dark thoughts that I have, she trusts something to bear her upward when she's fallen too far -- trusts without proof, without insurance, without any particular peace of mind. (I suspect this confidence -- given the considerable testimony -- comes from her spiritual core -- as someone who says her prayers go, something like, "Hi. I guess we both know we have a problem here.")

Plus, she was wonderfully funny.  Just adorable.  End of story. 

Except that I keep thinking of things.  She quoted Shirley Jackson as saying, "A confused reader is an antagonistic reader."  True.  I believe this.  She recommended Middlemarch.  I do not want to read that.  And Salinger's Nine Stories, which I've forgotten.  And Ram Dass's The Only Dance There Is, which I remember.  

I'll pass along anything that occurs later.   In the meantime, I am channeling Anne Lamott to remind us all:  Put your butt in the chair and write.  (Or dance.  Or sing.  Or paint a picture or a room.)  Listen to the Anne Lamott in your bona fide creative soul and just do it   Do it every day.  If you skip the 10 o'clock news, you'll have time.