June 1, 2020

My own personal wailing wall

“The journal has always been a story catcher, a worry catcher, pattern catcher.” — Ahava Shira

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

Lately I’ve been thinking about a character in the book The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. One of the players in the story is a black woman named May Boatright who lives in South Carolina in the 1960s. May is deeply sensitive and has a hard time existing in a world where there is so much pain and violence.

She lives with her two sisters and they build a wailing wall for May, just like the one in Jerusalem. May writes down her anguish on pieces of paper and wedges them into cracks in that wall. Somehow, it helps May cope with her sadness.

No empty cracks

If I had a wailing wall right now, there probably wouldn’t be any empty cracks. I would already have stuffed every one with notes about all the chaos, anger, death and fear I see in the world. I feel like May – it almost hurts too much to pay attention to what’s going on around me.

As a result, I’ve cut way back on my news consumption, and that’s saying a lot for a woman who spent 12 years in the news business. I’ve got ink in my veins; staying informed is part of my DNA.

But right now, the world is too much for me to handle. I can only take it in small doses. And I’m almost grateful that I’m being told to cocoon for as long as I can.

My trusty friend

Even though I don’t have my own personal wailing wall, I do have a trusty spiral notebook – my ever-present friend The Journal. And writing down my feelings in it feels like a kind of relief from the madness.

When I write in my journal I do many things. I pray, figure things out, listen to my inner voice and dump whatever darkness there is inside me onto the page.

It is my hope that among many things, your journal can be your own personal wailing wall. That the mere act of writing down your pain and confusion will soften the blows of living in this time of pandemic, strife and division.

 

Writing spark

Imagine that your journal is your own wailing wall. Take 10 minutes and write about one thing that’s troubling you right now. As Tristine Rainer says, write fast, write everything and accept what comes. When you’re done, notice how you feel. If you need to write more on the subject, do so.

Until next week, stay well, be kind and keep writing.

Making friends with my feelings

The best way out is always through.” — Robert Frost

I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a home where feelings were not allowed. Especially anger. Crying was not especially welcome either.

My mother in particular hated it when I cried. When she broke the news to me over the telephone that my father had died unexpectedly, I burst into tears. Even then she told me not to cry.

There was one exception to this taboo on feelings. My father was allowed to be angry. And that seemed to be the extent of his emotional range.

Product of their times

I’m making my parents out to be cold and awful, but they weren’t. They loved me and my siblings dearly and they were wonderful, honest and hard-working people. But they were a product of their times.

Both grew up in the Great Depression when folks sucked it up and trudged onward. Both were raised in very dysfunctional families and suffered a lot of emotional damage from those experiences.

On top of it all, my father saw combat in World War II, providing him an additional opportunity to shut down emotionally.

So I came by estrangement from my emotions honestly.

The turning point

Fortunately, at one point in my adulthood, I stumbled across a book about loving your feelings. I can’t remember the title. But basically it said there’s no right or wrong to feelings. They’re just a part of life and if you pay attention to them, they give you valuable information.

Ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist just causes them to gnaw at your inner being until eventually, if you’re lucky, you’re forced to face and deal with them. You have to walk up to emotions, sit down with them, listen to what they’re telling you and go from there.

Journaling + feelings = help

I find that journaling is a powerful tool in handling my emotions. If I’m angry or confused, I can take to the page and write it all down. I guess there’s a scientific explanation for what happens psychologically and physically when you do this. But don’t ask me what it is. All I know is that somehow, I feel lighter and have greater clarity when I’m finished.

So in this crazy, scary time when the world is turned upside down and none of us knows when we’ll feel safe again, don’t forget to journal about your feelings. Your feelings are okay, no matter what they are. Accept them, write them down, even love them because they are telling you something you need to know.

 

Writing spark

So let’s get right down to it with a very simple sentence stem:

Today, I feel ___________________

[You may want to use this basic journaling prompt often. I find that my mood bounces around from day to day and maybe yours does, too.]

Until next week, stay  well, be good to yourself and those around you, and journal.

On the laugh track

“Sometimes crying or laughing are the only options left, and laughing feels better right now.” ― Veronica Roth

Mabel and Olive at the company meeting
Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau

 

I’m in the mood to laugh. Life is too serious right now and I need a break. I’ve cut down on my news consumption, and I can prove it. I just failed the New York Times weekly news quiz.

To take the place of reading newspapers and watching hours of depressing news every day, I’ve been looking for humor. Here’s what I’ve found.

By far the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time is a Youtube video of a Zoom meeting involving a man and his two Labrador retrievers, Mabel and Olive. According to the man, it’s annual report time at their house and the two pooches aren’t doing too great – ruining couches and chasing too many squirrels, etc.

When it comes to comic movies, I can always count on the Marx Brothers to get me laughing. We watched “Room Service” the other day and Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo performed their customary slapstick nonsense. As usual, Harpo stole the show with his rib-busting antics.

To me, some people are just born funny. You look at them and you know they’re thinking of something silly to say or do. Peter Sellers has that gift.

His portrayal of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies is guaranteed to make me laugh to the point of tears.

Here’s another born funny person – humor writer Dave Barry. He’s written a slew of books, each of them good for dozens of laughs. The last one I read is called “Lessons from Lucy” about what he’s learned from his rescue dog. It’s a scream.

Right now, I need to laugh uproariously – until tears roll down my face. Most of us do. It helps us forget all the grim news we hear every day. It helps us cope and keep our balance in a world that seems to have turned upside down. 

Writing spark

Who or what makes you laugh? What is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face? Write down some names, movies, books, comic routines you’ve heard. Revisit these funny places and people.

And what about playing a game? Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, charades and many others are good for lots of laughs. If you’re solo, consider using Face Time or Zoom to play games with someone.

Have fun, stay well and keep writing.

In praise of skylarking

“Do not take the entire world on your shoulders.. Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people of your age.” — Kurt Vonnegut

It’s graduation season again, but without the usual pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns, parties and festivities. Instead, we’re all cloistered because of a pandemic.

Still, I can’t help but remember that 50 years ago this month, I graduated from high school. (Egads, where did the time go?) And like almost everyone who ever got a diploma from any institution, I don’t remember any of the speeches from that ceremony.

I have no memory of the wisdom that was imparted from the valedictorian of our class or what our principal told us as we launched our futures.

Kurt Vonnegut

I know one thing, though, I’m glad our commencement speaker was not the author Kurt Vonnegut (not that he would have ever come to Odessa, Texas, for a high school commencement.)

I recently ran across a graduation address he gave at Bennington College in 1970, the same year I graduated high school.

His remarks, while sometimes funny, were laced with heavy doses of pessimism. But he did say a couple of things worth remembering.

Don’t forget to play

He told the graduates that despite their lofty dreams and the advice others had given them, they didn’t have to save the world. They were too young and inexperienced.

“Do not take the entire world on your shoulders,” he advised. “Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people of your age.” Skylarking, as he defined it, is a lack of seriousness. Goof off, horse around, play while you can.

When you have some life experience under your belt, Vonnegut said, do something for the common good.

I’m greatly simplifying his remarks, but these are the nuggets that I find the most useful, the most inspirational. Play and do good in the world – pretty sound advice for all of us.

 

Writing spark

The best commencement speech I ever heard was given by Steve Jobs to the 2005 Stanford graduating class. In the world of speeches, it’s considered a classic.

In it, he tells the young audience to listen to their inner voice, to live their own lives. Don’t let the opinions of others dictate your choices, Jobs said. His closing words were “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

If you were giving a commencement speech right now, what advice would you give to young people starting their lives? Write down a few bits of wisdom you’ve gleaned through your years. Then ponder on paper whether you’re following your own advice. If not, what can you do about it?

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 ____________.

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.

 

Free to Write March 2, 2020 — Breathtaking wonders

“Always be thankful for the little things… even the smallest mountains can hide the most breathtaking views!”
― Nyki Mack

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve seen something breathtaking. The most recent was last week when I went to the Grand Canyon.

My friends told me it is a spectacular sight, and they were so right. I almost couldn’t believe the view from the South Rim – the colors, the layers of rock, the tiny Colorado River a mile down the slope.

Like my husband Tom said, words cannot adequately describe this natural wonder. And neither can pictures. But that didn’t stop me from snapping a bunch of images.

Other gob smacking moments

I can think of a few other times when I’ve come upon a sight and stopped cold. When I was strolling around Florence, Italy, in 2002, I rounded a corner and was stunned at the façade of Il Duomo. What a spectacular architectural creation!

Il Duomo in Florence, Italy

I found the view of the Eiffel Tower, especially at night when it sparkles with shimmering lights, another “Omigosh” moment.

And then there was the spotted puffer fish I saw while snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez. I actually screamed with delight under water when I saw this exquisite creature.

The pufferfish I saw was purple, but I didn’t have an underwater camera. This one will have to do.

The takeaway

After I got over being awestruck at the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, I started thinking about how I want it to be protected and preserved for all time.

I was glad to see that high value is placed on keeping Grand Canyon National Park clear of trash. There are signs warning visitors not to feed the wildlife and to refrain from throwing coins into the canyon. The gift shops sell water in reusable metal bottles and there are multiple water refill stations.

I feel the same sense of responsibility for protecting all the other wonders of this world – both natural and human-made. They are treasures to be respected and cared for through the ages.

Writing spark

Here’s a one-word writing prompt: BREATHTAKING

Set a timer for 10 minutes and write about one or more breathtaking scenes from your life experience.