I’ve been going through my old blog posts for any that need to be updated or corrected, and when I found this one from 2011 (originally titled “Living with Our Mistakes”), I took an unexpected trip down memory lane.
The post was originally about a Japanese relay runner, who, 200 meters from the finish line, took a wrong turn, all caught on film. I then linked to an article from the Ice Skating Institute for developing both physical and mental responses to mistakes (after all, skaters who don’t learn how to bounce back from falls and bad landings won’t skate for long).
Anyway, the original post doesn’t do much for me today, so I started thinking about mistakes and was taken back to the 1970s and a magazine for girls called Young Miss. One of the two other girls in my grade introduced me to the magazine, and I can’t remember if I always borrowed her copies or convinced my parents to let me subscribe.
What I do remember very clearly is always turning first to a column called “Was My Face Red,” in which readers shared embarrassing moments, the kind of gaffes that, as a middle-aged woman, I now wouldn’t think twice about. For a pre-teen or young teen, however, calling someone one wants to impress by the wrong name or—as I once did—taking off my socks in gym only to have TAMPAX in blue ink from a tampon wrapper which I’d stowed in my sock tattooed on my shin was mortifying. The point of the column wasn’t to poke fun or laugh at another’s expense, but to show that other girls, too, did embarrassing things and somehow lived to write about them.
At first I couldn’t remember the name of the magazine, but when I typed “was my face red” in Google, the first three results referred to Young Miss, which I learned was originally “Calling All Girls” and later YM. It began in the 1930s and published its final issue in 2004.
Family Stories from the Attic is an anthology of nearly two dozen works of prose and poetry inspired by letters, diaries, photographs, and other family papers and artifacts. Every time I read through the pieces, I fall more in love with the stories of immigration and migration, time, history, family, love, and change. The contributors represent both new and established authors and are from throughout the United States and Australia.
To celebrate, the press is hosting a book giveaway. Click here to read the anthology’s introduction and learn how you can receive one of three free copies (giveaway entries end on Sunday, April 9 at midnight CDT).
Everyone is invited to the anthology’s official launch event, which will be held at Boswell Book Company (2559 N. Downer Ave. in Milwaukee) on Saturday, May 13th, at 7 p.m. There you will be able to purchase the book, get it signed, and hear several of the contributors read from their family stories. I hope to see you there! (And congratulations to Daniel Goldin and everyone at Boswell Book Company, which was just named by Real Simple magazine as the best bookstore in Wisconsin.)
The hilly undulations of the dirt road worn hard and smooth by drought and sun were as familiar as the feel of her tongue against the grooves of the roof of her mouth. Why the feeling was familiar not only eluded her but was not a thought she could form. She knew only that the swells beneath the wheels of the car, up and down at specific slopes—how quiet the ride was, not at all like before—were a part of her. She was at once then and now.
Her eyes fell on the barbed wire that separated road from wheat field, and she played the mental game she loved as a child of trying to track only the immovable line parallel to their motion, keeping her focus absolutely still, without allowing her eyes to follow individual posts as they left her view. She could do it only by looking simultaneously at the fence and the line of Badlands formations in the far distance, and she could sustain the focus for only a few seconds at time.
The man sitting in the driver’s seat spoke. When she met his gaze in the rearview mirror, the spell was broken, returning the heaviness of her four score years.
“Mom, you doing okay back there?”
Mom. Yes, she was a mother. This was her son, this impossibly large, hairy man who looked nothing like her Jimmy. They were going to a celebration for someone. A birthday. They were going home.
She would see Francis.
That was why she had agreed to come.
He was waiting for an answer. She smiled her response, knowing it would suffice.
Francis. Her breaths now were shallow, her heartbeat fast. She leaned forward in anticipation. The purpose of their journey was already gone, but Francis remained. Grew more real, in fact, as she entered the memory. How long had it been since she’d held him? Francis. She was holding him now, the first day she brought him home.
These moments happened to her more and more frequently. She had somehow become disentangled from the flow of time, each moment of living slipping into the past as smoothly and surely as the fence posts. She alone remained still, unable to hold on to what had come just before but newly able to ride an emotion to another place, another time, often in the distant past but sometimes—like today—to a space not that long ago.
This state of being was more than remembering, more like an action, and more than a little spooky at first. In the beginning, she had tried to explain the experience to the people in the place where she now lived, to the woman in pink who helped her to the dining room and the man in the green pajamas with big pockets who came every week to move her legs as though they were cranks on a piece of machinery. Their kind smiles told her they did not understand.
The woman who sat in the front next to the man said, “We are almost there, Lillian.”
“I got him from the pound,” she said, hearing the excitement in her own voice. “He was going to be put down the next day, you see, because no one wanted a dog with only one ear.”
The man and the woman looked at each other, their faces now in profile. “You did tell her, didn’t you?” the woman asked in an intense whisper.
“Of course I did,” the man said. “Last year, right after—“ He looked up again at the rearview mirror and she saw him shake his head as his words made their way to her ears: “Don’t worry about it. She’ll forget in a minute anyway.”
Francis was a mere puppy at first, a runt who had got into a fight with a wild dog in town, leaving him scarred and wary. She kept him in the house, fed him half of her meals, cooked him bacon, taught him to do his business outside, even allowed him to sleep in her bed. Chester would be appalled. He did not approve of house pets, but it was just her and Francis now. Chester. She rubbed her temple with arthritic fingers, unable to make sense of who Chester had been or why he was gone and Francis remained.
The car slowed, then turned onto a rough gravel driveway, crunching to a stop. The word home came over her like a fog before dissolving into a white, two-story farm house lined with purple and white lilacs.
Someone opened her car door, and she was suddenly moving as fast as she could into the open air, looking right and left. her vision clouded by a tangle of thick grey hair that had blown loose from the pins holding it in place.
The man who had driven her to this place was walking toward her, frowning.
Her metal cane fell to the dirt as she clasped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes tight. “Do not say it!” she yelled as loudly as she could, unsure if her voice was heard by anyone other than herself, her words drowned out by the insistent barking.
My friend Mariam—whom I’ve met only once in person but who feels like someone I’ve known since childhood—shared a social media post* last year on her birthday that began like this:
I’ve had the very best year of my life.
Reading that sentence then, as it does now, gave me chills.
For brief moments, I got to peek behind the curtains of this thing I do called life and was invited to go deeper by throwing off the shackles of ideas, opinions, and preferences I may have about the way this thing goes.
It is beautiful and it will more beautiful and then it will be more beautiful and then it will be more beautiful. And, that’s all there is left for my living.
I’m going to live my year ahead in a personal way, in a BIG way, with the most kindness and love that I can possibly muster in every single moment.
All is well, all is well, all manner of things shall be well. This is my life. I love you.
For days, weeks, months afterward, I thought about Mariam and her words. I was lightened by the happiness I felt for her and intrigued by what seemed such a big change in her life. And I wondered: What would have to happen—or, more to the point, what would I have to do/think/change/be—to have the same experience?
As 2017 began, I made no grand resolutions, yet the idea of the best year of one’s life knocked quietly but firmly on every door of my inner space with an insistence I could not ignore. I’m still figuring out what exactly it means, but I do know two things for sure that I’m guessing are also true for many others:
My writing life is inseparable from the rest of my life. When words are a part of my days, everything else is better; when they are missing, life feels incomplete. At the same time, personal growth supports and helps to prioritize creativity.
Whatever changes I need to make are as much about what I think and how I react inside as about what anyone sees on the outside. This quest is not about public accomplishment. It is about lived experience.
So, thanks to Mariam, and after a couple of false starts, I’ve settled on a new combination of blog name and tagline that finally feels just right and provides focus for the next several months:
If not now, when? Make this the best year of your writing life
[Note May 8, 2017: As you’ll see, the website name and tagline are back to something simpler, but the sentiment remains.]
To that end, I’ll be posting more frequently with resources, ideas, and my own experiences (such as what I’m learning about starting a small publishing company, the upcoming publication of Family Stories from the Attic, and a visit in a couple of weeks to the London Book Fair). I do hope you join in, comment, and share your own thoughts and journeys.
Like me, you may wonder if such lofty aspirations are a waste of time and energy. Who do we think we are, anyway? How can one reconcile a mindfulness approach of acceptance with a pressing desire for more?
Those are the kinds of questions I hope to untangle, but one response comes from Mariam’s most recent birthday message, twelve months after her words above. What did she post this year?
I totally killed it! I got SO personal & pushed myself into uncomfortable corners in the past year. I said no thank you, when I meant it, and I said yes thank you, even when it seemed irrational. I got it right, and I got it wrong. I told people to come closer, and I drew boundaries when circumstances weren’t for me.
I got better at taking care of myself. I got better at empowering others to do the same by not enabling or rescuing circumstances that are not my business.
My human game was upleveled big time by the end of this year. The challenge & the imperative to live in an authentic, happy, & peaceful way takes more courage, and the observable reality of being aligned with that is clearer than ever.
The year ahead I’m getting personal about my body, my human suit. I’m going on the journey for unimaginable health & adventure in my body. This is going to be so good.
This is indeed going to be good, dear readers and writers. If not now, when?
* Thank you to Mariam for permission to use her words here.
“How would you see yourself as being an architect of change in your own life? It might be at your dinner table, it might be out in the world, but that’s a core question to bring to the surface at this time in our country.” ~ Susan David
What follows is a bit of free-wheeling train of thought about reading, writing, and making sense of what to do when we don’t know where to start, with some links to posts and articles I’ve enjoyed in recent days.
If not now, when?
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” ~ Hillel the Elder
Until preparing this post, I never knew where the phrase “If not now, when?” came from, or even that it did have a specific origin. Were I better acquainted with Judaism, I would have known that it is part of a longer quotation by Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader from Babylon who lived during the reign of King Herod.
The name sounded familiar: my first introduction to him was in a book I indexed titled Aphrodite and the Rabbis, in which the author, Burton L. Visotzky, refers to Hillel as “the rabbis’ George Washington,” a kind of founding father of modern Judaism (the Jewish campus organization Hillel International is named for him). He is known for his charity, humility, and compassion for the less fortunate.
The maxim “If I am not for myself…” is rich with notions of duality, identity, purpose, and meaning. Another of Hillel’s sayings is “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will study’ for perhaps you will never free yourself.”
If we change just one word, it becomes “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will studywrite‘ for perhaps you will never free yourself.” Take the time to chew on that. Not only do we often wait to have the time to study or write or be, a wait that can be indefinite. More important, we might be approaching the issue backward. Perhaps only through studying or writing or actively being,will we free ourselves. (See also Modern Lessons from Hillel at NPR.)
We live in a world where everyone is telling us what to think, how to look, how to feel. There’s fascinating research showing that we are subject to social contagion, where we start subtly picking up the behaviors of others. We go into an elevator, everyone’s looking at their phones, so we take out ours.
Especially for highly sensitive people, living in an atmosphere of high anxiety can mean we are continually picking up on and wrestling with others’ emotions. In turn, we are less connected, both to ourselves and others. More distracted. Tenser. Less responsive. Simply being aware of this dynamic is a good first step. Once we have a better sense of who we are and who we want to be and why, we can make choices that support those values, even if it is, as writer Pam Parker explains in her blog post, we choose just “One Damn Thing“:
Again, from Susan David:
[It’s] tiny tweaks: the tiny tweak of “I love this person—but every time they come home from work I hardly get up from my computer to even say hello to them,” or “I want to be a present parent and yet I’m on my phone at the dinner table.”
Make a small change. We can take a habit that we’ve already got and piggyback onto that habit in ways that are values-aligned. You put your keys into a particular drawer? Put your cell phone into the drawer, as well, so that you have a conversation with your child where you aren’t on the phone. Read more
Viktor Frankl wrote, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.” Or, to use the terminology of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, we can choose to respond by being an everyday hero in our own life in even the smallest of ways, including the heroic journey of a creative life.
(Your) Words Matter
On the “Who am I” page of her website, UK writer Aliya Mughal shares the following:
I’ve built my life around words. Why? Because words matter. Clarity of thought and the beauty of expression lend quality and vision to everything in life.
Her post “The power of words in an age of anxiety” is a powerful argument for the value of fiction and poetry—especially during times when we feel too anxious or depressed or frazzled to exchange this world for another—and “why reading is such an indispensable pastime in those moments when reality lets us down.”
Milwaukee writer Jocelyn Lee adopts a similar approach using nonfiction. When she is “discombobulated” by news and opinions and life, she reads ten pages a day from self-chosen subject areas:
I noticed that by adopting this practice, I have better conversations, sleep relatively peaceful, I gain new found optimism, I am more mindful, a little smarter, and acquire the energy I need to concentrate on those things which matter. One of which is working on my own novel. Read more
Now more than ever we can embrace words, whether reading or writing, in the service of freedom and purpose, and not just when we write to persuade. Sarah Kendzior, an expert on authoritarianism, wrote an important essay in November about being our own light when life grows dark (even if you don’t agree with her politically, her argument about personal freedom applies to everyone):
Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
We need to listen for, hear, and heed our own unique voice. Kendzior reminds us that no one can “take away who you truly are”:
[Y]ou need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.
But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. Read more
What does this mean for ordinary people like you and me? We can embrace this moment, this time, however fractured and uncertain we feel, as an opportunity to figure out who we really are. If we are writers or artists of any kind who have never truly committed to a creative life, then we need to be that person. Now. Today. One or one hundred or one thousand words at a time. That’s how we not only persist but thrive.