Friday, August 30, 2013

Back at it Again

I know it has been a long time since I posted anything here, but feel as if it's time to get back to it even if it is only for me and a few friends who follow my blog. So, here goes.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about writing. Why we do it and why we don’t or can’t. Even though we may have something to say, we don’t always have the discipline and courage to put words on paper. I guess I should speak for myself instead of using the royal “we”. For a time, writing came easily to me. I could sit down at my computer, bring up a blank page and the words would flow. Simple as that. Now that isn’t happening for me.
Favorite authors have published several books while my creativity has lain dormant and I stew about all the time I have wasted which only wastes more time. I try to let myself off the hook by saying that I have been through a rough patch. I had breast cancer in 2009 complete with surgery, chemo and radiation. That got me well into 2010 and some recovery time which brought 2011 along. Then my back hurt and I had lots of physical therapy and drugs to distract me. Things got worse and sitting for any amount of time just plain hurt too much to bear. My concentration was affected. Finally, I had back surgery followed by more physical therapy and drugs.
Now, here we are in 2013 and I feel I am just emerging from a fog of drugs and fear. My biggest fear was that the pain would get worse and I wouldn’t ever be able to think straight or feel normal again. These fears haunted me--another waste of precious time.
Finally, I am reading again. My retention is improving and I am enjoying the pleasure a good book can bring.
When I was a kid, I loved going to the San Mateo public library on Saturdays and checking out as many books as the librarian would allow. It amazed me that you could read books for free. The librarian was amused by my enthusiasm and would often make recommendations of new books or authors she thought I might enjoy. I thought she was the smartest person I had ever met and wanted to be a librarian when I grew up. I would sit behind the huge desk and shush people and talk about books in a quiet voice. I would have all the answers. My dream job!
I could get lost in a book so easily. My mother was always saying, “Get your nose out of that book.” Or “Clean up your room.” Or “Set the table.” Or “Fold the clothes.” It was amazing how many things I could do while reading a book. My mother thought I should put the book down and just do the assigned chore. She was convinced I could get it done faster without the book. I couldn’t see her point. If I finished one chore, she would just assign another. I would rather stay in the imaginary world my book helped me create. Thus began my love affair with writers and their craft.
I have been wondering about the connection between being a reader and being a writer. I am convinced that most writers are readers although the reverse isn’t true. Still, I believe that even the most casual readers know the difference between a writer who captures their imagination and carries them away and someone who just tells a story. Good story tellers and good writers are different things altogether but the best of the best can do both.
I have attended many classes and seminars and had my writing critiqued and repaired any number of times. One memoir teacher stopped my memoir cold. After her attempts to impose her way of telling my story, I was paralyzed. I felt I had lost my voice. I want to go back and write it my way but can’t even seem to open the box where I keep my notes. I’m afraid it will all look like garbage to me now.
I just finished a book by Brian Doyle called Mink River. It takes place on the Oregon coast and is about a small town occupied by Native American Indians and Irish immigrants. The book has no quotation marks, little punctuation, sentence fragments, long run-on sentences, strange lists and it moves back and forth between present and past with total disregard for cues or transitions. Some scenes take place simultaneously with sentences alternating between one scene and the other. Sometimes they have common dialog. Oh, and one of the pivotal characters is a talking crow named Moses. (A bear talks too, but mostly he grumbles). The book was captivating. I only learned later that a reviewer recommended it be read as an epic poem rather than as a novel. So what? He wrote the way he wanted and it worked.
Another difference I have observed between readers and writers is that readers want to get outside themselves—to imagine other lives and situations. They want to enter other worlds and explore alternate lives. They want to see the world in all it’s variety from their armchairs. Writers want to go inside and find the other worlds within themselves and flesh that world out and share it with others in their writing. They create a reality that readers can believe and become part of and share if only for a while. How do they do that? They build it word by word.
A house may be all about its foundation and structure, but that’s not what we think of when we think of a house. We think about the things that happened there and the people who lived there. What’s going on there? Maybe it does matter if the house is dilapidated or well landscaped, but those are just clues to the character of the occupants. That’s where the meat is. No matter how lyrical the descriptions are, it’s the people we want to know about. What they do and why they do it or maybe even “who dun it”. Those things fire our imagination as no description of a meadow or sunset ever can. Not that I have anything against meadows (more interesting if a body is found there) or a sunset (pretty background for an ominous assignation).
I think what really feels good about writing is the sense that you have created something different. You have put words together to express your thoughts in a way that has never happened before--at least not quite this way. So you can sit back and say, “Yes, that’s what I think, that’s how I feel, that’s the way I imagined it.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pain Chronicles

I haven't posted in quite a while because I have been laid low by back pain. I couple of people have told me to write about it, so I did. Here's what I wrote...

Sated with sleep,
like a soggy sponge unable to absorb another drop.
The escape hatch of sleep closes
leaving me to feel the pain that sleep masks.

It hurts to stand and sitting is worse.
My buttocks are on fire as warring nerves
ignite the battlefield that is my butt, my back, my legs.

Lying on my stomach is painful.
Lying on my back is worse.
That leaves my poor hips to bear the brunt
of too much pressure for too many hours.

My focus has fled.
My mind stutters through alternatives.
Pills that don’t give enough relief.
Or last long enough.
Is their power waning?
Or is the pain just getting stronger?

Surgery looms—a fearful long and complicated thing.
My surgeon is confident.
My brain counsels caution.
My back begs, “Bring it on!”
Anything, anything would be better than this half life.

My physical therapist pleads for patience and more time.
My heart hopes.
My back scoffs.
My body grows weaker.

The future looks too full of pain to contemplate.

A gentle voice reminds me,
“One day at a time.”

Friday, June 29, 2012

It Is Impossible To Die Alone

“Do not be afraid. It is impossible to die alone.” Those are the final lines of the play “White Snake” and I found them enormously comforting. This play is an epic tale based on a very old Chinese legend. The legend has changed over the centuries but is as common and well known in China as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty is here. I saw the play last weekend in Ashland with a group of friends. The after-lecture led to a discussion with a friend who had attended the play with me about death and end of life experiences. Our mothers each had experiences in their final hours that convinced us that they were seeing something that comforted them and drew them to leave their bodies and reach out for something else. They didn’t so much leave their bodies as move on to something compelling and desirable. Char Lee’s mother told of speaking with her dead husband who was impatient for her to join him. He said “Hurry up old woman. What’s taking so long?” or words to that effect. My mother sat up in her hospital bed, a feat that should have been impossible considering that she had been in a drug induced coma. She saw something that made her happy. Her face was relaxed and full of joyful anticipation. As Char Lee and I tearfully shared these memories, we were comforted by the certainty that it is true, we do not die alone. Even if we don’t have family close by, there will be something amazing and wonderful to ease us when we transition into the next reality. I think that when that happens, this life will all seem like a dream that passed in a few minutes. The things we thought were important will fall away and we will see with new eyes. Even if we witness it happening, we cannot truly know what waits for us but I am convinced that it is good. When we let go of all we love here, there will be something better.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Japanese Dock-Newport, Oregon

Our June visit to Yachats coincided with the arrival of a floating cement dock from Japan. The dock is part of the debris from the tsunami that struck Japan after the Miyagi earthquake on Friday, March 11, 2011. It washed up on Agate Beach near Newport. The dock is seven feet high, 19 feet wide and 66 feet long. It looks a lot like a boxcar. It is the first official tsunami debris to reach Oregon. Kizzie and I thought we might see a barnacle encrusted wreck but instead found the structure had been scraped clean and was being blasted with fire from what looked to us like flame throwers. We saw workmen loosen hatches and proceed to scrape off the barnacles and mussels.
The ton and a half of marine organisms that had already been scraped off were bagged and buried inland. Experts didn’t expect so many of the organisms to survive the journey across the Pacific. They fear that the organisms may be invasive species that could destroy local marine life. Officials estimate that 5 million tons of debris washed into the Pacific Ocean after the tsunami and that about 70% of that sank. That leaves about 1.5 million tons floating our way. That’s a lot of scraping, burying and burning. What does it mean to have another country’s debris washing up in our front yard? What obligations do we have to sort, return and honor this enormous loss? I think we have the same duty we would hope for if things went the other way. I heard that a soccer ball found in Alaska was returned to the boy who lost it in the tsunami. My daughter, Kathy, lost her wedding ring and many other treasured possessions in Katrina after a hurried evacuation. I can’t help but think what it would mean to her to have even one of them returned intact. Instead, they are buried in toxic mud or already scraped up and added to some landfill. I hope we can do better by our Japanese neighbors.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Who doesn't love a swing?

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What can make you feel younger than a swing?

Aging Gracefully Part II

I’m still thinking about this aging business. When you find that your own personal end of life is sooner than you had thought, it changes things. There are all those stages you go through—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Somewhere between denial and anger I find myself wanting to run around waving my arms in the air and shouting, “No, no. It’s all going too fast. I’m running out of time and I’m not done!” Then when it turns out that I’m actually not out of time, I forget all those important things that I thought I didn’t have time for and settle back into real life. Of course I did make a bucket list and I even managed to cross off quite a few of the things I put on it. Riding a Harley, zip lining, getting a puppy (two actually). Check, check, check. But right now this idea that I will soon enter the “old-old” part of my senior years is unsettling me. Last night I read an interview that Bill Moyers did with Sara Lawrence Lightfoot and think I like her views on aging better than the gerontologist’s view. She had dubbed the quarter century of life between the ages of fifty and seventy-five “the third chapter”. I like that because it implies a “forth chapter”. Yes, I know that implies living to the age of one hundred but since I’m not in the forth chapter yet, I won’t worry about that technicality. Ms Lightfoot says that this period is one of focusing energy, finding new means of expression and defining our personal passions. We can take time to step back and see what really matters to us and how we can cultivate our own creativity. She believes that maturity can help us be more innovative and purposeful. That all sounds good, but the danger for me, once the crisis is past, is that I will pop my metaphorical thumb back in my mouth and like Rosann Rosanna Danna say, “Never mind”.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ode to Disneyworld

Can there be too much happiness in the land of happiness? Just find a viewing spot and watch it unfold for yourself. Enthusiastic parents only wishing to make their children the happiest children on earth, tow them from attraction to attraction--ignoring the warning signs until disaster strikes. Happiness overloads lead to dramatic meltdowns. Vesuvius could take lessons from the molten wrath of a furious three year old. “Oh, my God!” the parents say with their eyes as they stare at each other, bewildered. "Who is this child?” The child is so angry he can’t articulate his needs, his glassy eyed frenzy stuns them. They can’t begin to guess the cause of his flailing fury. What is this Magic Kingdom anyway? There is organization seldom seen in our everyday world. Keep things moving, amuse, distract, amaze. And all the while billfolds leak money. A bottle of water costs $2.50. That’s a bargain with temperatures in the 80’s. Themed park wear tempts with hats, shirts and key chains. We need these things to confirm we were there. Everyone has a camera. Sometimes two or more cameras. Hundreds, maybe thousands of cameras recording every activity so that later we can see what we saw and remember what we did. Cuisine? No, afraid not. Instead we have expensive institutional food served up with extreme efficiency in exotic looking food courts and restaurants. Somehow it all tastes much the same no matter the setting. Rides excite and make the most jaded adult gasp and scream, a child again for a few minutes. All is coordinated to facilitate maximum traffic flow. Indifferent audiences clap and file out to hurry to the next attraction on their intense program of calculated delights. All perfectly orchestrated to preserve the theme and deliver lessons in recycling, conservation, ecological responsibility and sensitivity to all creatures great and small. All good things, of course, but does the cost of running the park and staging giant pyrotechnic shows seem ironic to anyone? Anyone? Each area exists free of religion, strife or worship except for a brief “Namaste” at the beginning of the bird show. Here the African Kings and Queens get to sing and dance together. Genocide? Never heard of it. Why would we do that? God, Allah, Yahweh all absent. Unless you count the tourist shirts that say “Jesus Rocks” or “Birmingham Baptist Convention” Visitors are captured forever in their happiest moments of gaiety and celebration. Parades, spontaneous songfests, mandatory smiles, giggles optional. Disney characters meeting and greeting captivated fans of all ages. Color, music, sounds all synchronized to heighten the experience. Is this a better place? Could Disney solve our differences? Control traffic? Improve attitudes? Quite probably he could. Would we be better for it? Or would we, like the overloaded children, suffer a breakdown from too much of a good thing?