Writing Warmups: Day 1

Writing Down Bones coverI no longer remember when I first learned about Natalie Goldberg’s gem of a book Writing Down The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. If I had to guess, I would say it was during a creative writing course I took in college in the early 90’s. I have brought it out of retirement on more than one occasion to help me get going with writing again.

When I decided to add a daily writing warm up in addition to my daily blog writing, I dusted her cover off again and started reading. Before diving into my writing warm up at Stumptown Coffee Roasters on W. 8th Street in the West Village, I read the short chapter,  A List of Topics for Writing Practice. All of the chapters in this book are, in fact, short chapters. Each is a little capsule of writing wisdom to swallow when you need writing nourishment.

Some of the suggestions from this chapter include:

  • Talk about the quality of light coming in through your window, no matter where you are or the quality of light;
  • Write in different places;
  • Write about the stars – be honest and detailed; and
  • Generate your own list of writing topics to use.

These suggestions seeped through to my mind as I started to write. I wrote about:

  • the physical act of writing;
  • ink as coffee;
  • how writing in a cafe affected my use of metaphor;
  • fantasizing how writing in different locations might affect my writing warmups and the metaphors I chose;
  • how writing in NYC should affect my writing, my life; and
  • how stars in deep space might represent what it is like to communicate with others in the same universe.

From this last place, I wrote the following, which I would like to share with you. I am editing for clarity by replacing some pronouns with nouns.

Does the distance between us feel like the darkness between stars, each of us sparkling from our own fixed place in deep space and hoping that the others decipher and know us in their perspective and from their own point of view? Is it ever really possible to say to another star:

‘Oh, yes. I recognize your pattern of twinkles. They resemble my shimmers. We are on the same wavelength, or we have been. Fear not for I have seen you. You are not alone. You never have been, and you never will be.’

TED Talks Addiction: Sir Ken Robinson

Shoutout to one of the blogs I read, Flavorwire, for posting interesting articles on writing and education. I am not sure how I got around to watching Sir Ken Robinson on TED Talks Education on YouTube, but I have been having a delightful time. The intersection of learning, education, and creativity is a topic I love to explore. It helps when the speaker has a short laugh, sense of humor, and delivery akin to Eddie Izzard, my favorite comedian.

If the intersection of learning, education, and creativity is a topic that interests you, I recommend you watch these talks by Mr. Robinson’s:

  1. How Schools Kill Creativity
  2. Bring on the Learning Revolution
  3. Changing Education Paradigms
  4. How to Escape Education’s Death Valley

In his talks, Mr. Robinson makes a solid case that the development of the educational system in America arose during the Enlightenment in direct response to the needs of American industrialization during the 1800’s. Like a factory churning out widgets, we group our children in batches by age (i.e., their manufacturing date), move them along regardless of where they are individually, with an emphasis on only teaching skills that business rewards. On top of that, we undervalue our teachers, have had laws made that try to remove the variability in methods (i.e. standardization of testing, the No Child Left Behind Act), and fail to spark real learning and education in children. Instead, we treat them like their childhood is a disease from which they are suffering (i.e. identify them as suffering from ADHD) and drug the hell out of them.

I think I would have had more problems in elementary school if I had not been on phenobarbital, a barbiturate routinely given to treat epileptic seizures in children in the 1970’s, until I was 12 years old. I can only imagine that it made me less fidgety than other children possibly were feeling at the time. I learned to divert my energies into my studies and to getting good grades.

One of my first and enduring memories about my life was that I was not imaginative. I was not creative. I would never be as creative or as good in my creativity as “other people”. I was taught that building a life out of creativity was something you only did if you were not smart enough to do anything else in life. Isn’t that terrible?

What I wanted then and throughout my adult life has been to build a creative life. As an adult, I repeatedly turned away from myself, from what I wanted, from what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and away from creativity. I was determined to find a way to apply myself to an office job because that was where the stability and the money was.

It was also where the misery was, for me at least. I never wanted to work in an office. I could not imagine myself not working in an office. I never wanted to have bosses and be told what to do. I could never imagine that my own internal thoughts and desires were sufficient directive to do what I wanted. I waxed and waned between anxiety and terror. What if I wasn’t any good?

In the meantime, I threw myself at work. Force words, terms, actions, and knowledge into my head so that I could learn to do something practical. Dependable. Objective. So that no one would point at me and be able to say, “See what you did? You wasted your life! All that smarts and all you did was paint? All you did was write a work of fiction? Why are you wasting your time with unimportant things?” I imagined a person in my head, using my mother’s voice, or the voice or a sister, telling me I was wasting my time. If my time was a waste, I was a waste. If I was a waste, then I did not deserve to be here or do anything worthwhile, because what I thought was worthwhile was to be reviled.

I struggle with creative work. I struggle with writing. I have a story to edit that overwhelms me with all that needs to be done. I will attend to it because I have finally gotten it through my fortified skull the one lesson I earned through my own misery: that no amount of respect or money will make me happy. Only I can make me happy when I chose work that is meaningful to me. To create, to make, and to write are what I love more than anything else. If others  have made a life built on those things, then so can I.

I am not too late. I am here now. I have learned by rejecting the ideals of an educational system that teaches us only certain things that we love, that only certain people, matter. What we do, who we love, and how we treat each other are all things that matter deep within our selves.

Meditation as Still Life

I have been meditating on and off since May 2010. My physiatrist who treats me for fibromyalgia suggested that I meditate twice a day for 30 minutes, once in the morning after waking and once in the evening before dinner. I had been resisting the idea, and then I thought, Why not? What have  I got to lose?

Unlike my morning meditation in bed, I sit in a rocking chair that used to belong to my mother-in-law Sofie: ornate dark wood with silver-blue satin cushions on the seat and the back. After sitting, I drape a fleece blanket over my lap, turn on my phone’s timer, let my hands lie in my lap, close my eyes, and begin.

Many thoughts fly through my head: what I am going to write about, things I was doing during the day, what I am going to eat for dinner. To go deep into meditation, I bring my attention to my breathe. I feel air tickle the hairs in my hose and the rise and fall of my stomach. A rumble from my intestines shakes through to the surface of my belly. Thoughts come to the front again.

I bring my attention to the sounds I hear. I am breathing slowly. The sound of far away traffic seems to be approaching in growing, pulsating ways. Traffic sounds morph into the high-rotation fan sounds. Suddenly, I am aware of a plane flying overhead, the engines waxing and waning as it moves lower and farther away towards JFK International airport.

GwennyCakes, my tuxedo girl cat, trills as she enters the bedroom. Norman chirps a few times and then climbs onto my fleecy lap to lean against the crook of my left arm and clean his feet, his belly, his legs. I smell the faint odor of wet cat hair. My left arm goes slightly numb as Norman leans back to get good perspective on the next lick again and again. The refrigerator hums from the kitchen, two rooms away.

I think about writing meditation as still life. My brain gets excited about the idea and wants to run with it. I open my eyes for a few moments and then let them drift back down again. I mentally relax my forehead, my shoulders, and my legs. I let my jaw drop gently. I adjust my neck in an attempt to find the sweet spot of no strain and no effort. I sit for 30 minutes until my Chambered alarm goes off. I move to grab my phone on the bureau next to me and turn off my alarm.


Writing Rituals

Since I began my daily writing in this journal on January 5th, I have struggled with getting my writing schedule squared away. I have attended to learning HTML/CSS coding, updated and posted my resume, been in contact with a recruiter, and applied for a few jobs. I managed to outline the story I wrote, but I feel I am in a sort of writing limbo.

I know what I would like to do next to work on my story: Write character arcs. Revisit dialog & remove anything that does not move the plot along. Fix internal logic errors that I noted while re-reading my story. Check for word repetitions. Remove cliches and/or update them in an unexpected manner. Remove boring backstory that I put in to get up to 50K words during NaNoWriMo.

More importantly, I need to start warming up with creative writing in addition to writing in this blog. I took three Berklee College of Music courses, two in creative writing and one in lyric writing. I still have the workbooks, rhyming dictionary, class notes and exercises, teacher and fellow student commentary, and some video lessons. My favorite resource is a pocket-sized book of Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I highly recommend this book. If you like this author, I also recommend her autobiography, Long Quiet Highway. 

I have been burned in the past by taking on too much. When time in a psychotherapy session, I was talking about all the plans I had for my life. He expressed surprise at the number of things on my list and commented that maybe I had too many things. I was deeply hurt at his lack of understanding for my need to move beyond the current confines of my life at the time and follow my heartfelt dreams.

Fifteen years on from then, I get his point. I tend to suffer from the “Ooooh! Shiny!” disease where the latest thing to catch my attention is what I do. This means a lot of starts and memories, but that’s about it. With my writing in 2014, I want to break out of ineffective habits and start new ones.

This blog is one of those new habits. I am about ready to add a second daily writing habit where I am engaging in creative writing and revisiting the old lesson plans (but not in any particular order). After that, I will start attending to my book. Looking at my story causes me to see all the things that are wrong with it, and I get depressed under the weight of the task.

However, I learned through my writing coursework that, in order to get good, you need to practice creative writing every day. If I do 10 to 15 minutes of warm up writing, then I think I will start to feel like I can write creatively in a way that will bring my story to life because the gap between what I think I can do and what I can actually do will get smaller.

I am happy to note that I have accomplished one goal of 2014 so far: Write every day. The great thing about this goal is that every day I get to celebrate it anew, with each word, each warm up, each story, and each blog post.

On My Dad’s Birthday

Dad ProfileIf my father were alive, he would have celebrated his 89th birthday with his wife of 65 years, two of his daughters, one son-in-law, and his only grandson. Dad would have eaten cheese ravioli with meatballs. For dessert, he would have tasted fresh baked coffee cake ridged with white icing and walnut pieces. He would chased the cake with sips of Starbucks Gold Coast coffee served in a white china teacup with blue decorations all around it and on its plate.

Today my Dad would have laughed when my mom told the story of an excerpt from the book Lady from the Longboat Key by Edith Barr Dunn. Ms. Dunn successfully bought and sold real estate in Longboat Key, Florida. One of her businesses was a beauty salon wherein she employed two gay men and a female impersonator. One day, she came into the office to find the office refrigerator filled with different kinds of fruit. Frustrated, she asked the employees:

“What are all these fruit doing here?”
One of the men replied: “What do you mean? There’s only three of us here.”

My Dad would have been there when we used Facetime to talk to my sister M, her husband J, and their son J2  who are currently in Southern California to celebrate my brother-in-laws’ 50th birthday during J2’s winter school break. I can imagine his face lighting up like a shining star, mouth in a wide open smile, cheeks bunching up, and laughing just to be able to see his grandson on the screen and wish him a great vacation. My Dad would have wished them all a great time despite feeling nauseous and in pain from a growing, too-large spleen.

After the meal, my Dad would have turned slowly around in this chair to grab his walker, pull himself up, and take slow, steady steps. He would have retreated to the empillowed chair and selected a classic movie while he napped there. My family and I would have sat around, laughed, and talked.

We would ask my Dad how he felt, but the answer was the same as the answer the last time you asked. He was feeling, more or less, chronically nauseous and often unable to keep food down. He was in pain when he needed to bend or move because the spleen had grown so large that it was pushing on other organs. If it was a particularly bad day, my Dad would tell you that he prayed for God to take him. My mother would beg him to stay.

“I need you, Joe.”

The last four years after my Dad’s stroke were extremely hard on him. A robust, healthy, hard-working, construction manager who spent his days outdoors became a man too ill to enjoy his life, bathe by himself, or walk steadily unaided.  He often had difficulty swallowing and would choke on food. Whatever was happening to his body, his mind remained clear. He was a chronic insomniac who could never escape his body, the ultimate prison.

My father remembered living a happy life.

“When I was on the farm and worked outdoors, I was happy.”
“When I had no shoes because we were too poor, I was happy.”
“When all I had to eat was honey on a piece of bread, I was happy.”

I have seen pictures of my Dad when he was younger. My Dad was a man with a big smile, glistening teeth, and a hearty laugh. The man I see in those pictures is not the man I remember. I remember the old, sick man who wished to die because his body’s ailments took away his life’s pleasures. He stopped eating ice cream because it made him too cold. When that happens, life has gotten pretty bad.

My wish for you is that, whatever happens, you relish your desire to eat ice cream.

Spending Time with Mom

Before we moved to NY to be near my elderly parents and ailing father, the only time I spent with my family was too-brief visits that invariably involved a lot of stress, fighting, and then retreating back to Massachusetts. Moving to NY to be closer to my parents and to be a resource for them improved my feelings towards them because I got to see my mom and dad under rather ordinary, non-holiday circumstances on a regular basis.

Since my dad died in December and my sister A returned home to Tennessee, I have made the effort to spend some time with my mother every day. This is easier for me than it sounds because I live in the apartment upstairs with my husband and three cats. We have our own space with its own entrance, shared foyer, a privacy door to our apartment, and we pay rent. Since I am working from home, I have the latitude to visit my mother several times a day and/or spend awhile with her.

The best thing about this arrangement is that I am laughing a lot more because my mom is a very funny lady. When I used to come home for visits, I might be around during a time when she was complaining a lot. I would find it hard to want to spend time with her because I might be staying with them in a nearby room. Now, because I spend a lot of time with her, the percent of time I spend with her where she is in complaining mode is less than it used to be.

My mother is a good storyteller. She will share with me memories of my father, growing up in dire poverty in Italy, or good times with friends she had. Her high-pitched, rapid-giggling style of laughing is enough to get you laughing so hard that you have tears streaming down your face without even having a reason to laugh.

I get to pop on downstairs and give her a hug. I get to offer to get things for her when I am out running errands on my own. In return, she feeds me. Oh, does she feed me! Even though my Italian-born excellent cook mother does not cook as much, she often shares what she cooks with me, or she will buy food and give us half. I fill her car with gas when it needs it. I call her doctor’s office or Medicare or Social Security or her various insurance and pension companies so she does not have to deal with talking over the phone with a thick accent and her hearing aid removed.

Just tonight, I came away with the some fresh baked coffee cake with drizzled icing and walnut bits. If a better relationship with my mother who makes me laugh isn’t the icing on the coffee cafe, then I don’t know what is.

Happy Love Day!

My sister Sylvia gave me the idea to give my mother a Valentine’s Day card when I saw that my mother received one from her a few days ago. I haven’t been one of those people to give a lot cards to people other than my husband.

When this morning arrived, I realized that my mom needed a Valentine’s Day card from me, too. This is her first one without my Dad. I dug out my card-making supplies, which I have not used in several years, and quickly put one together.

Here is what I gave my Mom this morning:

Cover Mom VDay CardInside Mom VDay Card

I wish you all a