On Driving Dicey Mountain Roads, Learning to Write, and Making New Friends

IMG_5716Long an admirer of The Sun magazine, which I think publishes the best writing around, I was delighted when the opportunity came up for me to attend the magazine’s writing retreat at Wildacres Retreat Center in western North Carolina. (Meaning I hadn’t signed up in time but was notified when someone cancelled and I was first up on the waiting list.) Wildacres hosts some fabulous sounding workshops for all sorts of creative types, and I plan to return. It’s lovely, Wildacres, set apart–far, far, apart–from all things distracting, among verdant greenery and rustling wildlife. Peaceful, natural, and away from cell towers. And the food is good…

Getting there was tricky, what with downed road signs, dense fog, and my innate ability to “get turned around,” but every tricky curve up the mountain was worth it. After the last turn off anything resembling a well-traveled road, and fearing I was hopelessly lost and possibly in some trouble–the fog was really that hard to see through and I didn’t have cell reception–I stopped at the only commercial entity I’d seen for miles.

“I think I’m lost,” I said as I opened the door to the charming Books and Beans, which is just like the bookstore I dream of opening one day: cozy, full of books of all varieties, comfy chairs by the fireplace, strong coffee, set in the mountains. There may have even been a dog by the hearth, it was that perfect.

“We’re all lost up here,” said the woman behind the counter, smiling. Thankfully I was just two miles from my destination. A vanilla latte and two books later I was on my way.

As usual at these kinds of gatherings—I go to a lot of writing workshops; they’re like vacation for me—I’m nervous at the beginning, wondering if I “fit,” and then, within a couple of hours, I am settled and confident and in my element, surrounded by kindred spirits who care about words with the same intensity that I do. Which means they’re sort of obsessed.

I was familiar with only one writer scheduled to present, Leslie Pietrzyk, as I had read, and enjoyed, her Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial). Two writers new to me–though perhaps I have read their work in The Sun and simply misplaced their names, something I do more and more these days, misplace things of import–are already favorites.

When Joe Wilkins read from his The Mountain and The Fathers (Counterpoint) I looked around the room to see if everyone else was hearing what I was hearing: well-crafted sentences of such feeling and awareness that I moved to the edge of my seat just to draw a little closer. I subsequently bought every book he had for sale that weekend.

Another writer I’m glad to know about is Chris Bursk, a poet who was funny and heartfelt and one of the best workshop leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. He was generous, engaging, and knowledgeable, willing to share whatever he knew that might help the rest of us write better poems. And he handed out kazoos, so bonus points for that.

IMG_5850Upon returning to Nashville my husband and I went to hear Richard Russo at our fabulous library. He was in town promoting his new book, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf), which I look forward to reading. Russo was just as I had imagined he would be in real life: engaging, approachable, considerate, and smart. When asked what informed his writing, he responded, “I write about the things I notice twice.”

I love that so much. We all notice things once, but what draws us back for another look? Maybe even a third or a fourth circling round. That’s where the gold is, right?

Not only did I learn something about writing at both these events, but I also met interesting people, like the man who told me to check out St. Paul and the Broken Bones after I told him I had enjoyed hearing the Alabama Shakes in Asheville recently. (Seriously, people, run to listen to them if you haven’t already. Brittany Howard belted it out like I’ve never witnessed before. Stunning.) My new friend was spot on with his suggestion, for St. Paul now sits at the top of my current playlist.

And the woman who lives in New York, whose writing is searing and moving and tender, which I learned only after returning home and going online as she was too humble to tell me she’d been in literary journals many of us dream about publishing our work.

IMG_5736I applied for a job at The Sun a while back and although I made the first cut, being invited to critique issues of the magazine, I was not called for an interview. I’m glad I didn’t let any disappointment keep me from attending this retreat. For there is always something to learn about the practice of writing, a bit of inspiration to glean, a recommendation to take to heart, a fellow pilgrim to meet.

What informs your writing? What do you look at twice and want to know more about? In other words, what haunts you so much that you’re driven to write it out?

Amy Lyles Wilson

Show Me Your Scars and I’ll Show You Mine

IMG_3730.jpgI didn’t realize I was sick back then—just miserable. I knew I didn’t belong in law school, though everyone around me said I did. Problem is, you don’t drop out in my family. Wilsons persevere.

“I think something’s wrong with your thyroid.” This from my mother at the Thanksgiving table after my dismal semester. Turns out a goiter had sprouted in my neck and I hadn’t even noticed. That’s how out of touch I was with myself, people. (Google “goiter” at your own risk.)

“You better go see Doc Murray when you get back to Oxford.”

I did and it was. The kindly and charming old-school doctor sent me to a specialist, a not kindly and especially uncharming man, who glanced at me and said: “Most times this is cancer.”

My twenty-two-year-old self started crying and ran to call my parents.

“Come home,” they said. So I did. We got another specialist. A nicer one.

After the surgery to remove half my thyroid gland, I didn’t really mind the scar, even early on when it was angry and red. It proves I can weather the storm, if you will, that’s the way I see it. Cliché or no.

“I can fix that for you,” said a doctor acquaintance at a party not too long ago. He was tilting his head toward the base of my neck and stabbing for an olive with one of those plastic cocktail swords. Red I think it was.

“Fix what?” I asked. I wasn’t even trying to be coy, as I don’t think about the scar, which looks a little bit like a short, braided rope.

“Your thyroidectomy scar. The surgeon should have done a better job. You know, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable.”

Maybe your mother should have done a better job with you, I wanted to say. You know, so your personality wouldn’t be so bothersome.

“I don’t want it fixed,” I said instead. “But thank you for your concern.”

Besides the small rough patch on my right hand—a neighbor’s German Shepherd jumped up on me while I was riding my bike (boy was I proud of that banana seat) and I ended up in a puddle of gravel—I don’t have other visible scars. (I’ve had more surgeries, laparoscopies and such, but no additional physical reminders of trauma.)

My mother, bless her precious 93-year-old heart, is riddled with scars: colon cancer, mastectomy, gallbladder, vena cava filter, skin tears every time her body tricks her into thinking she doesn’t need to use a walker and she pitches to the floor.

I don’t know if she minds her scars or not. I could ask her, but the answer might not be based in reality, as dementia is robbing her of such. She doesn’t seem to mind them, though, or much of anything, actually. Instead she comes across as content, happy even, in the moment. She no longer seems anxious and does not spend her days borrowing trouble, a favorite pastime of hers that I’m sorry to say I have inherited.

Usually she just smiles, asks me if I’m her baby, and rolls herself into the dining room to join the other old souls who can no longer live on their own.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “I am.”

Scars and all.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: Read Lucille Clifton’s “Scar” and write about what it brings up in you. Write for 20 minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

http://www.sunsetcoastwriters.com/blog/scar

A Dream Realized {On Writing at Chautauqua}

Me, in a hat, realizing a dream.

On one hand, it might not look like much, for it’s just a picture of me in my favorite hat. And for those of you who know how much I loathe having my picture made, I’m actually okay with this one. Because it’s not about image; it’s about a dream come true.

Last week I had the honor of leading a writing workshop at the Chautauqua Institution (“The Language of Loss: Putting Grief into Words”). Since first stepping foot on that magical spot some twenty years ago I’ve known it would change my life. And it has.

I’ve learned a lot about subjects ranging from history to religion; made friends; eaten really good food at the Brick Room and the White Inn in nearby Fredonia, New York; heard Garrison Keillor, Carol Channing, and Salman Rushdie, to name just a few; wandered small towns with names like Ashville and Westfield and thereby come to love a part of the country I hadn’t known before. All that has been great. But now, now the best part is that I got to commune with creative-soulfuls for a week, people who were willing to write their hearts out with a stranger.

Each day we came, gathering around the table in an unairconditioned room in a former elementary school turned community center. We brought our pens and our journals and our deep-down stories. We opened the windows, turned on the fans, and wrote. In so doing, we formed a community where it was safe to tell our stories without fear of critique, or judgment, or comparison. No one cared about split infinities or potential for publication or increasing blog followers.

Instead, our concern was forming a kindred-spirit container for the sacred act of sharing those stories we don’t often get to talk about, the ones from the gut, the ones that hurt. Those writers were brave, and considerate, and willing. They were “good with words” and lovely with one another. I was inspired, humbled, and made grateful. Thank you, Chautauqua, for the experiences and the memories, yes. But especially the people.

Writing Prompt: What step can you take today, this very minute, toward realizing one of your dreams? I’ll set the timer for 20 minutes. Go!

 

 

Everyday Redemption

support-handsI’ve been thinking about redemption a lot lately, the ordinary layperson kind, not the overwhelming Biblical sort. You might call it garden-variety grace, whatever that otherworldly “thing” is that softens your day and lets you keep going. It might not be grand enough to wash away your sinful past, but it will carry you through to dinner.

I’m talking about the kind of mending that allows you to realize, deep down in your gut where it counts, that you did the best you could, that you meant no harm, that you will try again tomorrow to do better. That you are a well-intentioned Everywoman making her way in the world with as much awareness and intention as you can muster, and that sometimes you don’t get it right. (Why do my mistakes, even the small ones, shame and haunt me so?)

You might call it a spiritual do-over, a chance to say you’re sorry; give money to the man in front of the grocery store; rescind the honking of your horn at the driver who hesitated too long to suit you at the corner of Hillsboro Road and Abbott Martin; call your mother because she gets scared at night now that your father is dead.

Maybe it looks like an opportunity to be forgiven my own self, this everyday redemption I dream about.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: When did you first experience redemption? I’ll set the timer for 20 minutes. Go!

Childhood Crockery {Or, How I Cleaned Out My Pantry and Connected With An Old Friend}

IMG_4415I ate a lot of leftovers out of this dish as child. Creamed potatoes on one side, black-eyed peas on the other. Cheese grits and fried okra. Maybe corn pudding and salmon croquettes, if Mom was feeling adventurous.

I pull it out from the back of the pantry as I make attempts to shed my home—and thereby my self—of items (attachments?) I no longer need. I am listening to Joan Armatrading. In an instant I begin to cry.

“Show some emotion, put expression in your eyes” she sings. “Light up if you’re feeling happy, but if it’s bad then let those tears roll down.” And so I do, as I make my way off the stepladder, fearful I might fall because I am breaking down on an otherwise lovely, sunny day on which I do not have a care in the world besides losing ten pounds and a leak in the guest bathroom.

The dish–which I took when my sisters and I divvied up the spoils from our childhood home after Daddy died and Mother moved to a retirement community–takes me back to my childhood, a precious time that I thought everyone else enjoyed until I grew up and met folks who didn’t so much revere their parents as despise them; people who couldn’t look back fondly on late afternoons spent running behind the bug spray truck because they were too busy trying to dodge what happened at night in their homes; friends who wouldn’t dream of honoring their past and instead had to bury it deep and hard.

The song takes me back to my days at Millsaps College, a place—and a people—that saved me after a disastrous freshman year at Ole Miss. It is one of those tunes that transports me across state lines and through decades with such speed and force and accuracy that I would swear I am altered physically. Hearing this song on this day makes me think of certain people, one in particular: a high-school and college classmate I haven’t seen in twenty-five years.

Now that I am in my fifties, I try to follow my gut immediately instead of taking time to “mull it over” or “weigh my options” or “worry how it might look.” So I Google this person and find his work email address. I fire one off, telling him that I saw this piece of crockery from my childhood while listening to Joan Armatrading and it made me think of him, of the times we spent together with like-minded folks, how I always knew, even back in high school, that he was one of the few who understood. I knew he could take it, that it wouldn’t freak him out. He emailed back within half an hour and we reconnected, just for a few minutes. It is enough.

For a while longer, at least, the dish, and the memories, remain in place.

I heard Joan Armatrading live once, in New Orleans. I can see her now, belting it out, moving me to tears. That was then, and this is now.

Taking the Long Way Home

Today my idea of exercise was to walk the mile from my house to Whole Foods, eat lunch, and walk back. All I could manage.

Soon after I hit the sidewalk, I noticed a woman up ahead who kept turning back to look in my direction. Her steps were steady, but after every two or three, she turned. Was she confused? Lost? In need of medical assistance? Surely I could be the one to save her!

Taken while on retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery.

Taken while on retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery.

When I caught up, she told me she’d been looking for her husband, who had started out after she did.

“My eyesight isn’t what it used to be,” she said, “so I wasn’t sure who was walking behind me. You know your body starts playing tricks on you when you get older.” She was smiling when she said it.

“Yes ma’am,” I responded. “That’s one reason I’m out here today. I’m fifty-three and am trying to get in better shape. I haven’t been all that physically active up until now so it’s a bit of a challenge for me.”

“I understand. I’m eighty-six, and I do three miles every other day.”

“Eighty-six?” I might have said this with a little too much gusto, but this woman looked fabulous, trim enough to pull off wearing one those skirts over her leggings.

“Had a birthday last week. My husband, he’s ninety. He does five miles, every day, no problem.”

“Five miles!” I might have been screeching by this point, what with the shame of it and all.

“Yes,” she said, smiling again. “We’re doing what we can to stay in the game.”

Indeed, I thought, but what I said was, “You’re inspiring me.”

“Well, you’re doing good too, Hon, getting in the habit.”

We introduced ourselves before I walked on.

I made it to Whole Foods, ate my salad (no cheese! no dressing!) and drank my green juice.

And then I took the long way home.

The Bright Light of Day {Can I Stand the Heat?}

DSC_0104

I saw this fabulous Chihuly sculpture several years ago at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville.

During Holy Week I heard a lot about being in the dark. From speakers, priests, books I’m reading. Dark, dark, dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor spoke about how she thinks some folks spend too much time focused on “full solar spirituality,” neglecting entirely the darker side. A priest noted that she learned things about herself, and her God, while struggling through a rough time in her life. Much of what I’m reading now focuses on Buddhist and Celtic practices, which reminds me that I have to go through the desert in order to experience and appreciate renewal.

I wonder about people who refuse to acknowledge the death and destruction in the Bible. In our lives. I believe in the power of positive thinking–and prayer–as much as the next gal, but life is hard, people. Denying that reality does not equal faith. Always seeing the glass as half-full does not make you a more steadfast believer. It might make you less able, in fact, to deal with the half-empty days. And there will be such days.

Sometimes I see dark when things are simply murky, though, and that’s a problem. I worry that I’m more comfortable wandering through the night than embracing the bright scrutiny of day. I’m working on it. But I’m not afraid, not on any cosmic level, to sit with people who are grieving or hurting or scared. Maybe it’s easier to companion others than it is to befriend my own soul. What is that about? 

“This is the day that the Lord has made,” read the Episcopal lectionary during Easter. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I respect the darkness, and value what it has to teach me. But today I choose the light, trusting full well there are lessons there, too.