MayBelle has already learned a lot during the first ten or so days of this whatever this is we’re going through. To wit:
You can freeze bananas! Just as she was noticing the bananas on the kitchen counter turning brown, and wondering aloud to herself, “I wonder if you can freeze bananas,” one of her friends posed that same question on Instagram. Voila!
Facebook is not all bad. In fact, MayBelle is learning, dare she say it, to like Facebook. She’s been a naysayer for a while—sometimes it takes MayBelle longer to catch on than others—mainly because she can’t stomach the political vitriol. (Or the cat memes. Pluto the talking dog, though, that’s something MayBelle can get behind. Seriously, that dog makes MayBelle’s day.) Poor MayBelle can’t handle confrontation of any kind very well, if the truth be known. It’s one of her weakest points. If you yell at her about something, she’ll have a great comeback between six and eleven hours later, but in the moment the most she’ll be able to do is clam up. Or cry. And maybe tell you off in her mind.
Even middle-aged goobers can learn how to use Zoom. What an amazing, technological world it is out there, boys and girls. Look for MayBelle to start hosting something or another on Zoom in the near future.
Taking the time to connect with people you’ve meant to get to know better is worth every minute. Through extending her reach just a tad, MayBelle has found another soul-sister; met a neighbor she’d never seen before even though they’ve both lived in the subdivision for more than a decade; formed a bond with a former student from her divinity school days; and been exposed to this fabulous YouTube video from The Moth, “About to Eat Cake”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_969XrYeuw4
Just think what else MayBelle might encounter before this is all over.
This is pretty much how our outings go. I move, Norval doesn’t. If he’s not sniffing, relieving himself, eating sticks, or barking at Gus the Goldendoodle, he’s most likely defying me. He knows he gets rewarded for “good walking,” so when he loses the mood, and he doesn’t see me reaching for the treats in my pocket, he simply plants himself. Dog as immovable object.
“No peanut butter crunchies, no walkie-walkie, Lady Who Thinks She’s in Control,” he seems to say.
“Spoiled,” offers a friend.
“Stubborn,” declares Precious.
Just as with some other concerns in my life, I need to adjust my thinking about this daily routine. For if I continue to focus on my frustration, we’ll never make any headway, the dog or me. If I see only what’s going wrong—dog not training as fast as I would like—I won’t notice what’s going just fine—dog making some progress and spring on its way.
Lately I’ve been feeling put upon, what with Precious being sick, and my books not being published. Granted, I haven’t written them yet, but several authors just had readings in town and I’m hooked on the acclaim and the accomplishment, not the hard work and the hustle.
So this morning, while Norval splayed himself on the pavement, I listened to the birds and admired the trees about to burst. I gave thanks to God for the progress Precious is making with his cancer treatments, and for my writing that has been published. I waved at the new neighbor, and wandered down memory lane upon seeing the forsythia on the corner, as that particular yellow always takes me straight back to Grandmother Lyles’ house on South Ninth Street in Oxford, Mississippi.
These are simple things, and they may sound hokey to you. But such small shifts led to my looking heavenward and saying a prayer, instead of cursing under my breath. They reminded me how adorable Norval is most of the time, and what he means to Precious and me. They convinced me that pulling on the leash was not the answer. Waiting was the answer. And so I did.
Eventually, Norval deigned to move, and we made it back home at our own pace, one paw in front of the other, with our behavior, and our gratitude, intact.
When I tell people my husband has been receiving treatment for cancer, many ask—almost reflexively—“What kind?”
After thoughtful consideration, much of it conducted in waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, and pharmacy lines, I’ve decided this is not the most appropriate, or helpful, response.
At fifty-seven, I am sometimes fixated on causes of death for folks my age and younger. Hoping, I guess, that I might avoid their fates if I just have the facts. Take a different route, get a second opinion, stop the unhealthy habit.
So I get it, the curiosity. I just don’t like it.
If the answer to the question “What kind of cancer?” turns out to be one of the more aggressive types, will you label my husband a goner? If it’s categorized as “lifestyle related,” will you condemn him?
Each time I’m asked this question, I’m taken back to occasions when I’ve inquired, or wondered, upon hearing such announcements from others. All the times I made assumptions. I hope I never do that again.
From where I sit now, in a chair beside my husband as he receives chemotherapy infusions or next to him on the couch as he rests after radiation, the only real question is, “What can I do?”
The dream came over the weekend, the one with her dead mother in it. MayBelle hasn’t dreamed about her mother regularly in the two years since her death, although MayBelle often senses her mother’s spirit with her. And certainly she feels her mother’s influence, even lives it out. On separate occasions just last week, MayBelle quoted her mother to a friend, heeded a piece of advice delivered decades ago, and missed her with such fierceness that she had to step outside a restaurant to collect herself.
Maybe MayBelle will make that her Lenten practice, “collecting herself.” She will gather up the pieces she’s lost hold of, the ones she either thought didn’t matter or was told didn’t count. She’ll root around for her childhood dreams and begin to honor those goals she let fall by the wayside. She’ll walk as far as she has to, searching for the just-right shards and fragments. Hers.
Along the way, MayBelle will have to put down some things, she realizes, for one middle-aged goober can’t carry it all. She’ll start with that pesky self-doubt and the tendency to see herself through a distorted lens. Then she’ll move on to a constant need for approval and an everlasting refrain of: “You are not doing enough.” She’ll get rid of clothes that don’t suit and accessories she doesn’t need. (Why in the world did MayBelle buy that mustard-colored sackcloth tunic?) Out with the affectations that never did the trick anyway, and say goodbye to being unduly influenced by every piece of advice—sought or otherwise—that comes her way.
As she hunts and gathers and sets aside, MayBelle will focus on collecting what counts and what connects. All she cares about and all she can offer. Those dreams, people, and activities she can tend and nurture well. She hopes she will need a big basket to hold it all. For now, MayBelle will start with this basket, one her mother used for taking food to potluck suppers at Briarwood United Methodist Church. MayBelle knew she kept the basket for a reason.
In the dream, MayBelle’s mother is happy. She is not worried or anxious. She is not scared of the dementia that garbles her memories, or the death that looms. Instead, she is laughing merrily with one of her precious great-grandchildren, a young girl with a big bow in her hair who pushes MayBelle’s mother in a wheelchair. They are both smiling, big toothy grins, as they loop round and round. They exhibit such joy that MayBelle chooses to believe it is more than a dream. It is the stuff of life.
I’m beginning to realize that my current sensitivity around the state of the world and the state of my own emotional well-being is not just a day or two of the blues. It is a tender stage of life I must make my way through.
At fifty-six, I find myself restless, wondering if I’ve done enough and curious about what more there might be to do and what it might look like. New career? Different town? Stay the course? Get a facelift?
Some folks say I think too much, worry more than I should. Guilty as charged. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to be what I am: highly sensitive and hyper aware. And I’m too old for that now. Instead I choose to embrace these qualities and work with them as best I can. There are some upsides: curiosity, empathy, creativity, trustworthiness, and a willingness to hang out in the trenches with people who are hurting. Some of the challenges include: taking on problems that aren’t mine to solve; an inability to filter out what I don’t need to absorb; overreacting to perceived injustices; and accepting what’s mine to do and laying down the rest.
In order to make my way in the world without becoming completely overwhelmed, I need to get quiet and listen deeply—to myself and my Creator. One way I’m doing that right now is by working my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. The current assignment is to list “Ten Tiny Changes” I’d like to make and then crafting goals from those. This an effective way to streamline what’s important to me. For example, from “I want to publish a book,” I get, “I will write every day.” From “I would like to teach part time,” I move to, “I will apply for the adjunct job at the university.” From “I would like to start my spiritual direction practice,” I come up with, “I will reach out to friends in the spiritual community for advice.” Wanting to lose weight morphs into, “I will walk five times a week.”
It may seem straightforward, like a “no brainer” to those who are more single minded and pragmatic, that you would list your goals and then set about tackling them. But for someone like me, who can become convinced fairly easily that I should be doing something else–or worse, that I should “be” someone else–the act of breaking my goals down into “tiny changes” is helpful. Let’s see how it goes…
P.S. How do you focus and make progress on your goals and dreams?
I’m two weeks in with The Artist’s Way Workbook, and have done my morning pages every day except for one. Not sure why I forgot that day, but I got right back to it the next morning and I’m glad for the practice. It’s helping me unload some nighttime/early rising thoughts, and providing a sense of both inspiration and accomplishment. I’m not reviewing the pages or belaboring the content, per the instructions, just writing and releasing. I can’t say it necessarily alleviates all that weighs on me, but it’s helping, this practice, and it’s even revealed a couple of story ideas for The Big Project I’m working on.
I’ve taken two Artist Dates, one to garage sales in search of art supplies—found a great drop cloth and paints—and another for a walk, during which the aim was not exercise but nature observation. Captured a few pictures and collected some acorns and horse apples and such. This is not earth-shattering blog content, I realize. But The Artist’s Way is equipping me for building a foundation upon which to rededicate myself to the writing life, a life I have fought against with jobs that don’t suit me and depression that threatens to stifle my efforts and betray my confidence.
“You must love to write and bear the loneliness,” says Robert McKee in Story. “But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.”
I have friends who say they don’t like to use the word “regret,” I guess because they don’t want to admit they’d appreciate a do-over or two. I’m okay with the word, for I think if you don’t have at least a couple of regrets then maybe you haven’t really been living. As for a definition, the dictionary says: “to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).” If you’re telling me you’ve never been blue about a misstep or a neglected chance, I’m not sure I believe you.
Certainly there are things I would have done differently: I wish I’d lived in New England for a while, mainly because I’ve convinced myself everyone there is really smart and attractive in a rugged yet sophisticated sort of way. I would have been less uptight when I was younger, and taken a few more risks.
But the One Real Regret I’ll have is not doing more with my writing. I’m not even sure what that means just yet, but I’m going to find out. And I’m hoping that by talking about it out loud it will become more real somehow.
First step: Making my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. I’ve long been familiar with Julia Cameron, and have relied on her books in my teaching. When I heard her speak in Santa Monica some twenty-plus years ago, I knew her work would influence me. I just didn’t know it would one day be the creative lifeline I view it to be now.
This week’s exercise focused on “enemies of your creative self worth.” Write it all down, even something that might seem petty, came the instructions. It all matters. So I let rip about some dismissive things said to me as a teen, and a boss I had in my twenties who was so careless with his authority that a year after I’d quit a co-worker called to say he’d just pulled with her what he had with me, telling us we might have chosen the wrong profession, even though there was no evidence to suggest that unless you counted his arrogance. Man do I sometimes wish I could show him how well things worked out for me in that very profession, but I don’t regret not telling him off, for that would just be, well, rude.
It might not make sense for regret to lead me to The Artist’s Way, but it has. And I’m going to trust it’s where I need to be every day for the twelve weeks laid out in the workbook, writing my Morning Pages, doing the exercises, taking my Artist Dates. Listening and learning—or re-learning or un-learning—and reporting back: to myself, to you, to the Creator.
P.S. Do you have a potential One Real Regret? If so, how might you prevent it?
“Life-changing,” said a fellow Pilgrim Writer who went with me. I don’t think she’s overstating the matter. Top-notch presenters, beautiful scenery, good food, and kindred spirits. Plus, it’s in western North Carolina, my soul’s home country, so I’m always fed there.
John Brehm: Don’t tell Precious but I think I’m in love. John is a poet who teaches in Oregon. He’s edited a volume of poetry for those of us who work in the realm of mindfulness and who are tired of relying on Rumi and Mary Oliver exclusively. And although Oliver’s “Wild Geese” is hands down my favorite poem in the universe, and Rumi’s “Guest House” opened up the work of my heart, it’s nice to have other options. His workshop, “The Magic of Metaphor,” helped clarify what metaphor is (I know, I know; by now I should have a handle on the difference between metaphor and simile and how to employ them effectively but, alas, I didn’t until I met John, who says he doesn’t make a big deal about trying to distinguish the two, so it’s no wonder I like the guy) and how we can use in it our writing, be we poets or creatives of another sort.
Frances Lefkowitz: Her workshop, “The Art of Short: Flash Fiction and Micro Memoir” was great. And by great I mean accessible, informative, and a whole lotta fun. People raved about her last year at the retreat, so I was glad to get the chance to hear her this year. (She was the only repeat teacher from 2016, if memory serves, which it doesn’t sometimes now that I’m, you know, old.)
Heather Sellers: One of the best writing teachers around. Buy her books Page After Page and Chapter After Chapter if you want to write, and hear her live if you get the chance. I did not attend Heather’s workshops as I had the pleasure of hearing her at Kentucky Women Writers a few years back.
Marion Winik: Let’s just say she’s “candid.” I knew Marion’s work from her days on NPR. She was a bit crude for my taste during the workshop, but her model for memoir has already changed–for the better– how I write, and teach.
My most treasured memories, though, will be the people I communed with, whether sitting in Adirondack chairs facing the mountains or while passing the lemony green beans (delish!) at the dinner table. People of varying ages and assorted physicalities, people who have been published widely and people who just like to read, people from all over the country, brought together through their love of the written word and their respect for The Sun—what it publishes, all it stands for, how it informs and inspires.
One evening, I talked with a twenty-something neuroscience major from Tulane. Egads I could not stop staring at this rare, lovely creature; so young and full of promise and smarts and drive; “You’re going to be a neuroscientist?” I kept repeating. “Who plans to work in impoverished countries?!” Then there was a Quaker from Up East, who knew all about the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Indiana where I’ve taught; the woman I had met five years ago when I led a workshop in Seaside, Florida, but hadn’t seen since; and a retired lawyer who wants to write memoir but is hesitant to reveal herself. “Quite the challenge, then,” we joked.
What a luminous assortment of humanity, this gathering. It’s worth going simply for the people you’ll meet, even if you don’t write.
But I hope you will, of course. I hope you will write your hearts out, fellow pilgrims, for it’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.
As you dawned this morning, I hesitated, tempted as I was to stay in bed, or maybe wear my pajamas all day. Some days are like that for me, slow to get started, peppered with doubt about if what I do in the world is enough, seeing that I’m not curing cancer or alleviating poverty or even sitting behind a desk from nine to five at a big corporation. It’s easy for me to get caught in a whirlpool of worry, first, because it’s my nature, and second, because as a self-employed, freelance creative such as myself I sometimes pay more attention to what the world might think of me than to simply doing the work I am called to do. So even though I hesitated, Wednesday, I did get dressed, I am up and working, stringing words together and helping others do the same. It may not sound like much, but it’s what I have to bring to the table. So give me what you’ve got, Wednesday. I’m ready for you.
Not long after I returned home from the hospital, I noticed a pain in my chest, near the lower part of my ribcage.
“Maybe you pulled a muscle,” said Precious, which might have made sense if I’d actually moved since I’d been home. The most exerting (is that a word?) thing I’d done was spread a quilt over my feet and reach for the remote. Active I was not after four days in the hospital and a mandate from the doctors to stay put. They probably didn’t mean I couldn’t leave the couch, but I am a literalist at heart and I wasn’t taking any chances.
“Maybe,” I said, both appreciating my husband’s tendency not to overreact and simultaneously needing him to freak out on my behalf.
“But it hurts to breathe.”
Because we had not sought help immediately when I started feeling bad earlier in the month and thereby ended up in the hospital, we vowed not to make that mistake again. So we consulted my primary care doctor, who said she also suspected a pulled muscle but would x-ray just in case. We got word it was pneumonia before we even made it out of the building. I’ve never had pneumonia before, so I didn’t realize that it’s actually painful. Yowza. More antibiotics.
(WARNING: If you are squeamish about the female nether region, run for your life. Or just skip to the last paragraph.)
Then about a week later, I noticed an intense itching in my privates. Seriously scratchy. And my skin was flaking off like those little balls of rubber cement you roll up after you’ve been acting a fool with the arts and crafts supplies. It made me want to cry out like when you were a kid and your mother ripped the Band-Aid off the abrasion you got when the Doberman from down the street yanked you from your banana seat bike and you fell into a puddle of gravel. Yes, like that. I was scared to look, but I did, and then I was really scared and really grossed out. I grabbed some antibacterial cream and started googling.
Shortly thereafter I convinced myself I had Norwegian Scabies (FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DO NOT LOOK THIS UP!) and that I had gotten it from the hospital, having already suspected they didn’t change my sheets often enough.
For the next day or so I continued to slather creams of varying consistencies on the affected areas, hoping my discomfort would go away. It did not.
Back to the same walk-in clinic where we had gone when this saga first started and we were told I had the white blood cell count of someone who was receiving chemotherapy and that I needed to get to the emergency room immediately.
I’m not a sexist (gender-ist?) about doctors, having had both male and female along the way, but I must say I did request a female this time around. I told her about having been hospitalized for neutropenia and then added, “Something’s wrong,” I said. “You know, down there.” I lowered my head for effect.
“I’m pretty sure it’s Norwegian Scabies.” I think I was whispering.
“Let’s take a look,” she responded, snapping on a pair of blue latex gloves. She might have been smirking but I can’t be sure because I was too busy planning my lawsuit against the hospital for having unsanitary conditions that resulted in my contracting this rare and embarrassing disease to notice her facial expression.
One beat, two.
“This is easy. It’s a yeast infection, most likely as a result of all those antibiotics you’ve been on for the low white cell count.”
“You mean it’s not Norwegian Scabies?”
“No,” she said. “Whatever that is. I’ll give you a prescription for some cream and you’ll be fine.”
She did and I was, although for weeks afterward I continued to wonder about each ache and every itch. Eventually, though, I stopped obsessing and gave up googling. We’re all healthier for it.