September 29, 2020

Ode to Thunder

“Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.” — John Grogan, author of Marley and Me

Have you ever known anyone who has mischief written all over? You just take one look at them and you know they’re thinking something funny or planning some craziness.

For me, a couple of people come to mind. The comedian and former Senator Al Franken looked that way. Especially when he was on Saturday Night Live he exuded humor and offbeat antics, even when he wasn’t doing anything.

I have a friend in San Antonio named Ken who has the same look on his face. This guy smiles all the time and has a bright light shining in his eyes, both indicators that he finds life a fun and hilarious adventure.

He could have been in show business

And then there’s Thunder, our cat. He’s an old boy now – 17 years – but in his heyday he was a great entertainer.

I could just look at him walking around a room, his white-tipped gray tail pointed straight up, and I’d laugh. I knew it would be no time before he did something ridiculous or funny or outrageous.

You know – cat stuff. I’d open a suitcase on the bed to start packing for a trip and immediately Thunder would climb in and plop down, ready to join us on our journey.

The disappearing cat

Or I’d open a cabinet to retrieve something and Thunder would slip inside when I wasn’t looking. After a while he’d start meowing and it would take us a few minutes to find him.

I had to be careful when I opened our front-loading dryer or he would hop in and go through a heat cycle with the towels.

In addition to being a comedian, Thunder has been a lover boy. He’s spent a good part of his life sitting cross-legged on my husband’s lap.

The other day, I colored a picture of a cat that looked like Thunder and gave it to my husband. It was a big hit, especially since our little boy seems to be near the finish line of his time with us. I imagine we’ll frame that picture and keep it as a reminder of our dear Thunder cat, the born comic.

“What greater gift than the love of a cat.”
― Charles Dickens

Writing spark

I’ve had more dogs than cats through the years. My first dog Daisy, the miniature poodle, was a constant source of entertainment for me and those we knew. She had many adventures and after she died at 16, I wrote her biography – 30 pages of her antics.

Have you had a pet who has brought meaning and laughter to your life? Take a few minutes and write down your memories of them. I hope the exercise brings a smile to your lips.

Candy kiss

“When we lose one blessing, another is often most unexpectedly
given in its place.” ― C.S. Lewis

The last few weeks have been really tough. My husband had major surgery in July and his recovery has been beyond difficult for him. As his partner and best friend, I have been helping him regain his strength, but it’s been a hard road.

There have been times of despair – that our struggle will never end, that my husband will be in endless pain, and many other gloomy prospects.

On top of our personal situation, there is the pandemic and fear that one of us could come down with Covid 19, especially since we are in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals. The isolation of the past few months hasn’t helped our outlooks either.

The beat goes on

Wait. There’s more. We have two elderly cats, one 17 and the other 18. The younger one howls with great regularity and for no apparent reason.

Cat #2 hasn’t been that high maintenance, but I accidentally struck her with my car the other day. Miraculously, she was not injured. Our cats don’t have 9 lives; they have 39.

I’ve been trying to take care of myself in this trying time – exercising, eating healthy foods, journaling and doing some of my favorite things (coloring and reading.)

Unexpected blessing

Still, it’s been hard to avoid feeling hopeless and to forget the good that is in my life.

And then, out of the blue, a blessing. My niece Caroline and my sister Kathryn sent me a box of Nestle’s Crunch bars – my favorite. I felt so loved and encouraged by this generous, simple gesture.

I think there are 40 candy bars in the box. I tell you that because in the next few weeks I’ll be gaining about 100 pounds. And I’ll love every bite.

Writing spark

What unexpected blessings have you experienced in the last difficult months? How have others shown they care about you? Have you been able to offer encouragement and hope to anyone? My sister has written letters to 50 people, missives of caring to many friends from the past and present. A friend on a long road trip called me unexpectedly to check on my husband and me.

Take a few minutes to write down the blessings you have received and what they mean to you. Consider, too, what you might do to pass on the good wishes.

“When you wish someone joy, you wish them peace, love, prosperity, happiness… all the good things.” ― Maya Angelou

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.

             

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.

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.