July 8, 2020

It is written in my members

[Note: This is a poem I wrote for my online writing group. The writing prompt was “Jobs.”]

It came quietly, a nudge, a whisper, a knowing.
It came early and never left
this love affair with words,
this awe at their power
to paint a picture,
to move a crowd,
to harness a reader.

Mine were words of knowing,
of knowledge, words of healing
and understanding.
They told stories that must not be forgotten.
But they will be.
And they will be written again and again
long after I leave my words behind
and go to the place of my beginnings
where I heard the whisper and felt the nudge.
Where I knew.

Reasons to hope

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”
― Emily Dickinson

Yesterday in online church, one of the worship leaders asked us to think about something: What comes to mind when you hear the word “hope?”

My immediate thought was Tom, my husband. His gentleness, openness and devoted nature give me hope. His kindness and affection give me a positive outlook.

I can think of many other reasons to have hope. My friends and family encourage me and my fellow church members add to my sense of optimism. My spiritual life is also a source of hope.

Animals give me hope, especially dogs and birds. But so does news that since the quarantine has been in effect, there have been more sightings of wild animals in parks and other natural settings.

I’m hopeful when I see news reports of sequestered people being creative about supporting one another by singing from balconies, staging birthday parades, offering free online help and in so many other ways.

I have hope when I call a friend to check on them and they are so glad to have a connection.

 

Writing spark

What gives you hope? What’s the first thing or person that comes to mind when you think of “hope.” Write a few sentences about hope and where you find it. Give it some thought. You might discover, like I have, that there are many reasons for hope.

Journal for health, journal for history

It’s a proven fact — journaling is good for your health. The process of writing down your thoughts, feelings and experiences relieves stress and anxiety and wards off depression. It helps you gain a calmer perspective on life’s challenging times.

So for that reason alone it’s a great idea to keep a journal in this uncertain and strange period.

But there’s another reason journaling is such a good thing, especially now. And that has to do with documenting history.

Remember the future

Thirty or 50 years in the future, historians and researchers in many fields will be looking back on 2020 to study the coronavirus pandemic and how it affected people.

As author Katherine Sharp Landdeck points out in a Time magazine article, the journals we keep today will be of immense importance to future generations as they try to understand this unprecedented historical event.

They will have news articles and opinion pieces, transcripts of news conferences and government documents galore. They will even have access to some Tweets because the Library of Congress is archiving selected Twitter feeds. (However, Facebook chatter will be lost.)

The historical value of journals

There will be oral histories, and they will be valuable sources for historians.

But according to Landdeck, some of the richest material future historians will have will be the daily writings of ordinary folks like you and me. That’s because our journals record how we feel and reveal our hopes and personal challenges.

So by all means, keep a journal for you and you only. It is your friend at the end of a pen and will always be there when you need it. And you can destroy it at any point if you don’t want anyone else to read it.

But if you keep your journals and intend to leave them behind for posterity, remember that you are recording history. And that is an important and worthy endeavor.

[Note: Great thanks to my colleague and friend Mike Grazcyk, who shared this Time magazine article with me.]

Writing spark 

Use one or more of the following springboards in your journal:

In this time of pandemic, what I miss most __________

Yesterday, I felt _______________. Today I feel ___________. Tomorrow, I hope to feel _______________________.

The hardest part of social distancing and staying at home is ____________.

Jamaica mind

This is a poem I wrote in November (way before the coronavirus pandemic) from the one-word prompt Trouble. I had just been to Jamaica and learned that the favored slogan is “No problem, mon.”

Jamaicans take a laid back approach to life, hence the saying. Whatever is happening, no matter how tough it is, just go with the flow.

It seems cavalier to use such a phrase during the current crisis, what with all the sickness, death, unemployment and widespread fear. What strikes me about the following poem is how trivial my complaints often are.

Getting stuck in traffic is not a problem and neither is the cable TV going on the fritz. A virus pandemic IS a real problem. It’s real Trouble.

Here’s the poem:

In Jamaica, they say
“No problem, mon. Soon come.”
The electricity goes out
No problem
The plane is late
No problem
You burn the meatloaf
No problem
Relax. Don’t worry. It will happen. 
The power will come back
You’ll fly away
You will eat
Waiting, making do, changing plans
These are not bad things
These are not problems
They are life.
They shall pass.
I like that. I need more Jamaica mind
When I’m stuck in traffic
When cable TV goes out
When the plumbing clogs
Remember to say
No problem, mon.
Soon come.

Separating wheat from chaff

“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” ― Bruce Lee

I’ve lost count of how many weeks it’s been since life as I’ve always known it ceased. Like everyone else trying to maintain a safe distance from others, I don’t go to church or to the movies or to lunch with friends. I don’t go to the library or to the nail salon or to my favorite stores.

My only outings are daily walks and occasional trips to the grocery store and restaurants for takeout.

I haven’t minded staying home. I’ve been much more productive as a writer and I’m learning new skills as a creator of poetry and fiction. Plus, this forced down time has given me lots of time to think and focus on my inner life.

New perspectives

In all of it, several things have become very clear. If I’m to actually be a writer, I MUST limit my activities. If I’m to finish the book I’ve started, I MUST spend more time in my writing studio working on the manuscript. And if I’m to be the supportive writing teacher I aspire to be, I MUST devote more time to that pursuit.  

I know myself well enough to realize that unless I plan ahead, when life returns to some semblance of normal I’ll drift back to the way things were before the pandemic. Unless I’m very intentional, I’ll become scattered and not very productive as a writer and teacher.

So, in practical terms, what does this mean? What changes will I have to make to protect these priorities from the demands of daily life?

My life’s calling

All my life I’ve wanted time to do a lot of writing, to really devote myself to what I feel is my true calling. I’ve always marveled at writers who turn out book after book, scads of articles, essays and poems.

How do they do it, I’ve wondered, not wanting to accept what the writing life requires. In truth, I’ve always had the time, I just didn’t guard and protect it as I should. Like Stephen Covey says, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”

So here’s my own writing assignment (spark) for this week. What changes am I going to make in the coming weeks to ensure the writer in me gets to flourish? Which activities will go and which will I keep? And what other changes brought on by the pandemic will I continue and what will I cast aside?  

     

Writing spark

Make a list of the positive changes you’ve experienced because of forced social distancing. Make a separate list of the changes you’ll be glad to leave behind. Then consider how you can hold onto the positives once some semblance of normalcy returns. Be specific and intentional in your planning on paper.

             

I remember Mama

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” — Shannon Adler

Mom with her great-grandson Andres

Five years ago yesterday I lost my beloved mother. Ida Mae Wingren Allee, the daughter of a Swedish immigrant, was 95 years old when she passed to the next life.

Until that day, she was my steady rock, even in her last months when she was in a nursing home. Mom was always my biggest support and confidant. She never gave up on me even when all seemed hopeless.

What I remember most about her was her strength. She was made of steel, fired in the mill of a difficult childhood.

When my dad died in 1997, I thought she would join him quickly. They were very close and interdependent. But she rallied after a period of grief and enjoyed her friends and independence.

What she taught me

Mom was a real estate agent and a firm believer in home ownership. She convinced me to buy my first house when I was 27 and I’ve owned several since then. Financially, it is the best thing that ever happened to me.

She also encouraged me to do and be whatever I wanted and never imposed her own dreams on my life. She supported me when I moved far away to pursue a career as a journalist, even though she wanted me to stay closer.

And another thing – she was very frugal. A child of the Great Depression, she didn’t waste food or become much of a consumer of goods. She took care of what she had and refused to throw things away, even when they had lost their usefulness. Despite her penchant to hold onto things, she kept a clean and orderly home.

After she died

A few months after Mom died, I did an update on my laptop – you know, the kind where some invisible force performs software changes while you twiddle your thumbs?

When the update finished, I had a new home screen picture. It was of Mom holding her great-grandchild Andres. I don’t know how that picture popped up, other than to conclude that Mom, wherever she is, is still watching over me.

That screen shot is still there all these years later, but the image is blurry now, like Mom is letting go a little. Every once in a while she comes back into sharp focus.

As part of my grieving process, I wrote a letter to Mom, thanking her for her example and support. I told her I missed our weekly trips to the grocery store and to Schlotzky’s for lunch, where we always split a medium sandwich, bag of chips and a brownie. I missed going to church with her on Sundays.

I still miss her terribly, but I know she’s in a better place and free from the physical pain she suffered in her final years. Rest in peace, Mom. You deserve it.

 

Writing spark

My favorite theologian Henri Nouwen writes about living a life that keeps giving even when we pass away. My mom lived that kind of life. It’s hopeful, healing and helpful to remember those we’ve lost in the light of the gifts they bestowed on us.

Write a letter to someone you have lost. Maybe it’s a parent or sibling or spouse. Maybe it’s a friend. Be sure to mention the specific experiences you had and the attributes that you cherish about that person. Talk about the gifts they gave you and the lessons they helped you learn. Maybe you need to reveal in the letter some burden you carry. Just write whatever comes.

 

Covid-19 isn’t the only contagion out there

A few days ago I was listening to a sociologist talking on the radio about the current coronavirus pandemic. He said something that really caught my attention.

He mentioned the empty grocery store shelves and the widespread panic buying of toilet paper. This kind of hoarding, he said, is obviously driven by fear – fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of losing control.

His comments hit home with me. I have to confess to a bit of hoarding myself. A couple of weeks ago when the health crisis was ramping up, I followed some advice I found on Facebook.

I went to the grocery store and stocked up on dried beans, rice and pasta. I didn’t buy a grocery cart full, but I got more than we needed.

Feelings are contagious

I experienced first-hand what the sociologist was talking about. Fear is contagious, he said. But so is calm. The more people remain calm, the more that feeling can spread.

So I got to thinking about what makes me calm. Two things come to mind immediately – exercise and journaling.

I’ve always been into exercise. I’ve done it regularly for so long that I really enjoy it, whether I’m walking, swimming or doing yoga.

And as you might guess, journaling helps me find a calm place in my spirit. That’s probably because journaling gives me perspective on conflicts and challenges. It helps me tune into my inner wisdom and offers guidance when I need it.

The many benefits of staying calm

Therapist John Harrison said this about finding calm in our lives:

“It is in our calmness that we connect with others.  It is in our calmness that we see clearly.  It is in our calmness that we navigate difficult conflict.  It is in our calmness that we heal.  When we are calm, our rational mind has the ability to see a greater reality.  We can see that we are not our problems, we are not our negative self-talk.”

As we navigate this troubling period, I encourage you to find that calm place inside yourself and hold onto it. Today’s Writing Spark is designed to guide you to that place.

Writing spark

Philosopher and blogger Jeff Urmston writes about how he achieved a level of calm on an extremely turbulent plane flight. When the violent mid-air bumping and bobbing stopped, nearby passengers told him that his calm behavior helped them hold onto their composure.

I like how he expresses what calmness means.

“In many meditative traditions a calm, clear mind is often said to be like a still pond under a full moon. The smooth surface is transparent, allowing the moonlight to clearly illuminate the bottom of the pond. It is also like a mirror, reflecting back in perfect detail the moon and the night sky.”

Close your eyes, take three deep breaths and picture a place where you found peace and serenity. Maybe it would be a place on an ocean beach or in the mountains. For me, it’s on the shimmering and aqua beaches of Maui with mountains in the background.

Notice colors and sounds and shapes. Fire up all your senses and recall smells and anything you might touch.

Then write down the scene in your journal.

Here’s an added spark:

Make a list of things that help you find a calm place. Is it meditation or exercise? Perhaps you like to play an instrument. Whatever works for you, put it on your list and then do it.

In the meantime, stay safe and stay calm.

Her name is Rabbit

Her name is Rabbit. She is a cat. And throughout her 17 years with me, she has proven her worth many times over.

Rabbit, the cat that hops like a bunny and quacks like a duck

It all started with that “golden paw” on my front door. Stray cats would walk down my street looking for a place to get a handout or take up residence. Rabbit saw the “golden paw” on my screen door, rang my doorbell and said, “Hi, I’m your new cat.”

Actually, it didn’t go quite like that. The first time I saw her, she was a streaking blur across my backyard. I had gone outside to check on my border collie, who was running laps around the fence line. He was oblivious to the brown streak that shot under the deck.

At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. But then I saw the streak again, and eventually the flash came into focus. It was a Manx kitten, and when she realized I was not a threat, she started hopping and bouncing toward me.

With only a stub of a tail and her habit of hopping, she was named Rabbit. And she quickly snuggled her way into my affections. Despite her youth, she was already street smart. And since I had a mild allergy to cats, I taught her to use a pet door into a backyard shed and she lived there. She and the border collie established a wary truce and we were a happy family.

Rabbit is unique in many ways, especially her meow. She sounds more like a duck than a feline. I call her the Cat Named Rabbit Who Quacks Like a Duck.

We’ve moved since the backyard shed days to a condominium complex where there’s little traffic. Rabbit now lives in the garage, but she is so friendly she knows everyone in the complex. She hangs out at the pool and meows for attention and has charmed several neighbors into giving her treats. She is the unofficial mascot for our community.

When I took her to the vet for her checkup this year, the doc pronounced her in perfect health. Even though she is now officially a senior cat, she has never had any medical problems and she has never caused me any trouble.

Rabbit is my little five-pound wonder – my bargain cat. If I had it to do over again, I’d gladly pay good money for her.

…Sheila Allee [Note: This essay is my September 2019 contribution to the BRAINZ writing group. The writing prompt was “Bargains.”]

Free to Write March 16, 2020 — Down time

Ever since I met my husband Tom, he has been trying to convince me of the value of rest, relaxation and the art of just being. Over the years, I’ve slowed down some. But it has taken a global pandemic to stop me in my tracks.

I’ve written about this before – my tendency to go at life at a fast pace. To get as much done as possible on any given day. To fill up my calendar with endless activities and chores.

Lord knows I need down time to write and journal. And I’ve managed to carve out a few hours on a somewhat regular basis to do just those things.

But now, with a life-threatening virus spreading, I have no choice but to slam on the brakes and stay home. No trips to the YMCA to exercise. No lunches with friends or evenings at restaurants. No church activities or volunteer work. And only limited trips to the grocery store and pharmacy.

So what’s a writer to do?

I can think of two things.

The first thing I’m suggesting has nothing to do with writing. I’m reaching out to friends who live alone and making sure they’re okay. I’m in good health and have no underlying conditions that make me more susceptible to the virus. So far, I live in a city with very few cases, so if I don’t get close to others, I can help my older friends with a grocery run or some other necessity.

Second, I can take full advantage of all this unexpected down time and use it to work on my book project. I’m about two-thirds of the way into the first draft. Now is the perfect time to hunker down and focus on the final chapters. It’s like a gift from heaven.

I got a similar gift many years ago when I was working on my first book Texas Mutiny. I got laid off from work and it took eight months to find another job. I wasn’t happy about being unemployed, but I used that time to make a lot of progress on the manuscript.

I hope you can use some of this forced down time to do some writing, whether it’s journaling, crafting your life stories or working on a larger project that needs a lot of focus.

I also encourage you to remember friends and family members why may need help during the current pandemic. This week’s Writing Spark might help you think about this notion in specific ways.

 

Writing sparks

  1. Who can you reach out to in a caring and helpful way during the current flu outbreak? Write down some names and check on them. If you can’t go to their aid, maybe you know someone who can.
  2. Being intentional about using this time to write is a really good idea. That means sitting down with your calendar and getting specific about when you will write. Make appointments – set aside specific times when you will journal or work on a project. Then be sure to follow through!

The current crisis won’t last forever – even though it seems like it will. I encourage you to make the most of what time it frees up for you.

Free to Write March 9, 2020 — Expecting the Unexpected

“Sometimes the best things in life are unexpected.” — Faith Sullivan

Have you ever noticed how quickly life can change? Things seem to be rocking along in a predictable manner and then wham! Everything is upside down.

Just last week, we saw the race for the presidency take a dramatic turn. Before Super Tuesday, there were umpteen candidates running for the Democratic nomination. In a few days, we were down to two.

This sudden change got me to thinking about the abrupt flips and turns my life has taken.

On the job front

During my career as a writer, I saw my fortunes change at lightning speed. There was the time I quit my job so I could become a freelance speechwriter. I had no work lined up and it seemed a crazy thing to do. But I had a strong inner sense that it was the right path.

Within three days, I had a part-time writing gig at The University of Texas – a job that would keep some money coming in. After another month, I became a contract speechwriter for the American Medical Association.

And then there was the time a few years ago when I was laid off from my job unexpectedly. Within a short time, I became head of The Writers’ League of Texas.

Personally

I’ve seen some pretty quick changes in my personal life, too. Eight years ago, I was happily single and living a full life. I wasn’t dating anyone and didn’t plan to.

Then I met Tom and in short order, it was clear that he and I were going to go the distance together.

On a sadder note, in 2009 my 90-year-old mother was living alone, driving and managing her own affairs. She had tons of friends. Then she fell and broke her hip and the life she knew came to an end overnight. She moved to a retirement community where she could have more support.

Like the picture above says: You never know what’s around the corner.

Writing spark

How has your life changed dramatically and quickly? Think back and write down a few occasions that come to mind. Then write about one of them in detail. Try to free write – keeping your pen on the page and writing as fast as you can. Try not to think too much. Write about what happened and how you felt at the time.