From Regret to Writing: Working The Artist’s Way

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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.

Amy Lyles Wilson

P.S. Do you have a potential One Real Regret? If so, how might you prevent it?

MayBelle on Marriage {Don’t Worry, This Won’t Take Long}

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Back in 2002, at age forty-one, MayBelle, who theretofore had been considered an “old maid,” transitioned to someone who “married late.” She resents both those descriptors, as you might imagine MayBelle would, because there were no guarantees—or requirements—she would ever marry. MayBelle is delighted that cultural norms have shifted at least somewhat although not enough to suit her–especially in the Deep South where she lives–toward realizing marriage is not the only route to happiness.

One element of such partnering is a numbers game, along with a dash or two of serendipity and a handful of what might only be described as “secret ingredients.” MayBelle’s parents did not promise her a prince, riding a horse or otherwise. They were too busy telling her she had to go to graduate school so she would be positioned to support herself. MayBelle is driven to distraction by people who fill little girls’ heads with seemingly surefire notions of weddings and white-picket-fence happily ever afters (is this really a thing?) as if it’s a done deal. Some folks get it, and some don’t. (MayBelle knows she’s talked about this before, but that’s how much it bugs her. She appreciates your indulgence.)

Several of MayBelle’s mentors have been women who never married. Her Aunt Vannie, for example, who lit out from Water Valley, Mississippi, for Greenwich Village and made a life for herself by herself. What a fabulous broad she was. MayBelle still wears a shawl (black and white, from England) and a big ol’ topaz ring she got from Vannie, that enticing woman now long laid low. And her Aunt Theora, who took up painting later in life and developed into an acclaimed, self-taught artist.

Here’s another thing MayBelle loathes: “Why did you wait so long to marry?” Because, she wants to snap back, it took that long for Precious to get here. Plus, if you must know, the only guy who asked her before that was drunk at the time, and the only one she thought she might have wanted ended up marrying a friend of hers. Two friends, actually, after the first one divorced him.

MayBelle may have been a little slow to matters of the heart, not having dated much in her life, but she did know enough not to say “I do” simply to avoid living alone. So when MayBelle and Precious, who is six years older than she, announced they were getting married she thinks they were as surprised as anyone. And really, really, grateful.

MayBelle heard the whispers, though, people saying they wondered if she knew everything about him, and did he know how much MayBelle adored (the word “worshipped” might have been employed, for emphasis) her father?

“No wonder she didn’t marry until after her father died,” was an especially insightful barb tossed her way. (Did MayBelle’s sarcastic tone come through there? If not, let her know and she’ll try again.) Baggage all around. Of course there’s baggage, MayBelle wanted to shout; we’re alive, aren’t we? And in our forties, for goodness sake. No baggage, no fully lived life, thinks MayBelle.

Those comments reminded MayBelle, in an intensely personal way, about the need for minding one’s own business: Don’t think you know best about other people’s lives. Tend your own instead.

And here they are, celebrating fifteen years of marriage. It’s not a lifetime, they realize, or an assurance of fifteen more, but it’s what they’ve got, and they’ll take it. They celebrated, in part, by hiking to a beautiful spot in western North Carolina, even though Precious’ idea of outdoorsy is being on the golf course and MayBelle has only recently taken to exercising. This is what marriage looks like to them: Walking side by side, even when the husband wears shoes meant for strolling, not trail trekking, and the wife keeps asking if they should turn back. Four feet, two hearts, one team.

MayBelle and Precious are not the kind of people who think love is enough. They don’t post on social media (Can you imagine Precious on Facebook?) about having “the most perfect spouse in the world,” and they don’t take much for granted. They think you need love, sure, but you also need luck, and a bit of work. Commitment helps, and trust, and all sorts of other intangible components that contribute to tangible sustainability.

So MayBelle and Precious can both tell you when they “ just knew” they were meant to be together, although they can’t necessarily tell you one another’s favorite flavor of ice cream. And no, they don’t have an “our song,” but if they did, it would be John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

 

 

 

 

Walking “Into the Fire” and Coming Out Renewed {On The Sun Magazine’s Retreat}

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Just back from another great trip to Wildacres for The Sun Magazine’s “Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal Writing” retreat.

“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.

In short:

Krista Bremer: I didn’t attend any of her workshops.

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.

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Missing Martha {On Mother’s Day}

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Martha Lee Lyles Wilson, 1922-2016

Last month my two sisters and I met in Oxford, Mississippi, to see our mother’s gravestone for the first time since we had buried her just over a year ago. We’d all made sojourns to the cemetery before this particular April afternoon, but it had taken a while for us to get the ledger in place. So we walked from The Square over to St. Peter’s Cemetery, around the small grouping of trees I think are cedar but don’t know for sure. Then, just past the curve of the road, we veered right to the Wilson plot on the hill.

It looked beautiful, elegant and classic, just like Daddy’s. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” it read. Ann, Ginny, and I got her as close to Daddy as we could. It’s where she liked to be in life, right next to our father, and she told me more than once, “that’s it for me,” after he died, some sixteen years before she did. She would quickly add that she still loved being with her family, but I knew what she meant, I think, for something life-giving abandoned her the day he died.

We had a ritual when we got back to Ginny’s house, putting out some pictures, lighting a candle, and telling stories of our childhood. I read a poem entitled “We Remember Them,” by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer, sent to me by soul-friend Sheri Malman when I told her what I wanted to do. She also managed to have a bouquet of flowers waiting at the cemetery for us, which contained calla lilies and roses, my parents’ favorites. That’s a good friend, people.

The last line goes like this: “For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”

Let all those who miss their mothers on this day say Amen.

Somehow comforted by hearing Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” on WMOT, the fabulous Americana station I listen to daily in Nashville, as I write, and remember.

 

A Eulogy for My Mother

ALW-Mother-Eulogy-BlogInstead of regaling people with charming anecdotes about my childhood (dancing to “I’m a Little Teapot” in the living room) or relaying repetitive accolades (“Your mother was one of the most influential people in my life.”) about how precious my mother was—and she was dear—when giving her eulogy on February 23, I instead read three passages I dug out of one of my “memory boxes” while crying and packing my suitcase for Mississippi after my sister Ann phoned to say, “This is the call you never want to get.” Bits and pieces from a long life well lived that illustrate, better than a hundred family snapshots, what made Martha Lee Lyles Wilson (1922-2016) such a remarkable woman.

One was a quote she included in a birthday card she sent me; another was a passage she wrote on a sheet of yellow legal-pad paper; and the third was a quote she cut out from a magazine. In short, these snippets reveal how my mother made her way in the world, and how she inspired those around her to follow her lead as best we are able:

“Those people who influence us most are not those who buttonhole us and talk to us, but those who lived their lives like the stars of heaven and the lilies in the field, perfect, simply, and unaffectedly. Those are the lives that mold us.”—Oswald Chambers

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”—John Wesley

“But where do I start? The world is so vast; I shall start with the country I know best, my own. But my country is very large; I better start with my town—but my town, too, is large. I had better start with my street. No, my family. Oh well, never mind. I shall start with myself.”—Elie Wiesel

I don’t know if the quotes she clung to are punctuated or even worded exactly as they appeared in print, and to me it doesn’t matter. The philosophies are clear, and they now have a permanent place in my heart, right alongside my mother.

Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.

Obituary for Martha Lee 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

From Wallowing to Reaching Out {On Friendship}

DSC_0310A friend texts to say she appreciates me, and that I make a difference in her life. Just like that, lickety-split, my mood shifts from somber to celebratory, from grasping to gratitude. My energy morphs from wallowing in my own gunk to remembering to check on an older neighbor who is ill. On a gray-sky day in Nashville, a handful of words from a fellow pilgrim in a different time zone seek me out and everything shifts. I don’t know if it’s some sort of spiritual manifestation of the butterfly effect or not, but I’ll take it.

Now go tell someone she matters.