Decluttering my story

indexDecluttering has officially affected every aspect of my life. Even my novel. Recently I’ve culled this beast down to a two-page synopsis, a two-paragraph elevator pitch, and finally a Twitter pitch. Not fun.

I loved writing TIES THAT BIND during National Novel Writing Month. Creating those touching scenes filled with evocative details of time and place was fun. 112K words of fun in fact. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was merely building a stockpile of raw material from which I could (maybe) craft a novel. What I had created was a metaphorical slab of marble. Not a book–yet–just a massive lump of potential.

I should have known this, after all I used to teach a lesson about the writing process, using Play-Doh of all things. Students molded and mashed, pulled and pinched the dough until they knew what it could do. And what it couldn’t. Only then did they try to turn it into something recognizable. And only after it was created could they add details—in this case bits of different colored Play-doh. Details don’t stand alone. Descriptive details do not necessarily make a story, whereas relevant details can.

Of course, now I’m doing the opposite. Removing extraneous bits—decluttering the narrative—to reveal what I hope is the novel hidden inside. Like a sculptor, I’m removing the chunks of cold marble that don’t serve my characters’ story arc.

The heart of my story is in there–I hope–buried beneath this beautiful mess.david_head

 

Advertisements

Decluttering my head and heart

Tidying upIner-Peace-Quote - Copy my physical world only goes so far. Lately, I find my psychic space being cluttered by the simple act of following the news. So I’ve started tidying up my interior landscape by consciously limiting my sources and consumption of current events.

While I’m still appalled at the hate and fear demonstrated by my fellow citizens, I CANNOT remain in a state of agitation and high-alert between elections. My mental and physical health simply can’t afford the stress of getting (and staying) angry at every little (or big) thing our leaders or countrymen say and do. Ignoring the latest atrocious words that one man or his minions have tweeted is a conscious act of resistance and survival on my part.

First, I reject any “news” source that yells at me or allows shouting matches between those espousing opposing arguments. I click away from inflammatory headlines and name-calling–no matter which side they come from. A little NPR (National Public Radio) in the morning while dressing or the few minutes I spend in the car keeps me up to date. Thank you, NPR for not simply focusing on the latest horrible thing. Thank you for providing context, in-depth stories, and interviews with authors, musicians, scientists, and historians. Thank you.

Secondly, but in the same vein, I’ve decluttered my Facebook feed by shutting down my privacy settings. I’ve hidden or unfollowed posts and people (even a relative or two, sorry) who repeatedly spew hate or misinformation. Name-calling by either side also gets ignored or hidden. And I’ve cut WAY back on reacting to or commenting on political posts, since that only feeds the beast. My friends know where my bleeding heart and I stand. Furthermore, I really (really) try not to read the comments section which is inhabited by trolls who have long-forgotten the basic rule of civil discourse–

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

A confession: I do indulge my dark side once in a while with a little dose of the snarky humor provided by Samantha Bee or Lewis Black. They get righteously angry so I don’t have to. But honestly, their humor (like others on both sides) strives too hard for gotcha moments that make the opposition just look dumb. I am increasingly drawn to Sarah Silverman’s Hulu series, I Love You, America. And I recently discovered a great podcast with Alan Alda in which Sarah talks about the series and explains her efforts to be more empathetic, even on Twitter.

Unlike some people, I really try to be even  kinder on the internet than I am in real life. While I certainly vent among my like-minded friends and family, I don’t want to clutter up the universe with more rancor and awfulness. I know minds are not changed by arguments, but hearts can be changed by empathy.

Finally, I try to let go of things over which I have no control. Yes, I still write letters to my deaf Congressman and Senator, but I know my only real power is to change my response to what is going on. So I take deep breaths, listen to music, enjoy walks, practice yoga, or escape into a good book. I smile at strangers. I am generous with compliments and thank-yous. I vote.

And when the news is especially sad, I’ve been known to eat a few Dark Chocolate Peanut M&Ms. Just to take the edge off, you understand.

Here’s hoping for a week in which I don’t have to hit the hard stuff. Or buy a bigger bag.

 

dark-chocolate-peanut-mms-1

Book report: The power of the book

51WSWSDYnKLThe People of the Book

Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.

“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.

Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!

“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”

Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.

81YqFa-kmKL._UX250_
Author Geraldine Brooks

Book report: The “good old days” weren’t all that great for women

51Ja3naWT8L._SY346_Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading  Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times  by Jennifer Worth.

The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.

“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”

“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”

Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.

“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”

Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.

Those were the “good old days.”

What difference did reliable birth control make?

“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.

But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.

De-cluttering my calendar

842ef23a6fe55521ce68c667c968a06e

Retiring certainly freed up my calendar but still, prioritizing my time and energy didn’t happen overnight. For a decade or more before I quit working, I tried to stop being the Girl Who Can’t Say No.” I whittled away at commitments—both personal and professional. It took practice. I learned to say, “Let me get back to you” rather than giving an automatic yes. I handed off leading roles on committees and politely begged off a few social engagements.

However, the first year after I retired, I still found myself over-committed to political and social causes close to my bleeding-heart. And I continued to write Opinion pieces for our local paper, The Nevada Appeal. I joined clubs and attended meetings, but I soon discovered that meetings were rarely productive. For many attendees these were simply social events that accomplished little. After a career in education, I’d attended enough meetings. And with a large circle of friends I’d cultivated over decades in the same small town, I didn’t need to socialize with strangers. Heck, on a trip to the local farmers market I could easily run into a dozen acquaintances.

My time is precious. I mean, who knows how much I have left? Obviously, some organizations and calendar items didn’t make the cut.

Nonetheless, I did become a Weight Watcher leader. My rationale was that since I needed meetings to maintain my weight, I might as well get paid to go. I led meetings for eight years until we moved 45 minutes away. When leading meetings felt too much like a job, I stopped. I also bagged food for needy kids and played in a monthly charity bunco game. The money went to a variety of causes worthy of my time and energy–animal welfare, sexual assault, domestic violence, hungry kids. Bunco was fun and included dessert. A win-win. However, when we moved away those items slipped off my calendar too, along with contributing my columns to the paper.

Now ten years into retirement, I’m just as busy as I ever was, but even choosier about what goes on the calendar. Today it’s yoga classes, writers’ groups, my book club, bus stop duty with my granddaughter a few times a week, and volunteering in her classroom. Writing (and re-writing that beast of a novel), reading, and putting my feet up every afternoon have become priorities.

As I said before, time is precious and finite. I’m trying to spend mine wisely.

4995437be51c8f232b8b862bc64e4b7f

The purge continues

446f46a234421c92e49b6c1ab9ed8106The recycling bin was especially heavy this week after I went searching for space in a file cabinet in which to file a few hard-copies of drafts and other pieces related to my current writing project. How-tos on scene building, character development, querying, and the like were tumbling off my shelf in our office. What I discovered was an entire file drawer filled with outlines, overheads, and handouts for presentations I’d done as a literacy coordinator and teacher consultant for the Northern Nevada Writing Project. All neatly tabbed, sorted, and archived.  Mind you, I’ve been retired for over ten years and in that time, NO ONE has asked me to present. No one.

Yes, I had spent hours developing this pile of stuff. And it was all good. Really. But it has nothing to do with my life now. And no, burdening some young teacher with my old stuff would only add to their work. And it didn’t contain the current buzz words—Common Core or Standards-Based—which would be necessary for inclusion in today’s classroom. So yes. It all went.

De-cluttering has become a habit.c3f2140c603c60236b1430916c26a455

Two and a half years ago, when we moved from our BIG house (basement, attic), to a medium house (no basement, no attic) we tossed or donated about half of our worldly goods. The purge continues. These days, I keep a bag in the sewing/model train room to collect small items as I continue to edit my collection of kitchen utensils, bras, shoes, picture frames, baking tins. jewelry, scarves, doodads, and what-nots. When the bag is full–at least once a month–I drop it off at the nearby donation center. This week my donation will include two large wooden, thirty-year-old dollhouses and tub of furnishings. My granddaughter–the reason I saved them in the first place–says she’s outgrown them.

Nonetheless, some things—like my grandmother’s 1910 Queen Anne sofa with its down cushions—are pretty and useful and comfortable. But I recognize that there will likely come a time and place when having that and her cute old Singer sewing machine (in its cabinet!) are simply too much. And the jam-packed curio cabinet and Hoosier with my collection of Depression glass and vintage snack trays? That will have to go too. But not yet. They still make me happy, although less so as time goes on.0c452eb429c85b90523f85f798b5ee00

You see, I don’t want to burden my children with too many of these “treasures.” What 30/40-ish person wants three cut glass relish dishes? Certainly no one I’m related to. So, I keep whittling away at my material wealth. Perhaps by the time I am ready to move into assisted living (or am taken to the big garage sale in the sky) there won’t be much left. My daughters won’t have to worry about what to do with all my crap. I won’t be cluttering up their homes. And I hereby absolve them from any guilt about what they must give away.2f87e90f263b08ca9bcafc7ac53f2b4e

Serendipitously, many of the meditations in my yoga classes lately have been about de-cluttering our lives and our minds to reveal what is essential, to find focus. I’m finding that particularly apt these days, not only in my physical environment, but in other aspects of my life. I’ll be focusing my posts on that for a while. Have you tried de-cluttering as a habit? What have you discovered?

 

 

Book report: What mental illness looks like from the inside

61a2pUIojSL._SY346_If you or someone you love is living with depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things is a must read. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) is seriously funny and honest about her struggles with mental illness. But rather than wallowing alone, she invites others in.

Why would anyone want to share what crazy feels like? Because by sharing her own struggles with mental illness Jenny has saved countless others who thought they were alone. Imagine how reassuring it is to read about pain that mirrors your own. “You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Jenny has chosen to be Furiously Happy.

 “We all get our share of tragedy or insanity or drama, but what we do with that horror is what makes all the difference.”

“I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to be changed.”

“’No one ever died from being sad.’ Except that they do. And when we see celebrities who fall victim to depression’s lies we think to ourselves, ‘How in the world could they have killed themselves? They had everything.’ But they didn’t. They didn’t have a cure for an illness that convinced them they were better off dead.”

“I remind myself that depression lies and that I can’t trust my own critical thinking when I’m sick.”

“I wish someone had told me this simple confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way, you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect.”

Jenny mentions Christine Miserandino’s useful “Spoon Theory” as a way of explaining that dealing with chronic pain or illness—even though a person might not look sick—limits what a person can do. Each of us has only so many metaphorical spoons to spend on a given day. Dealing with pain or anxiety uses up a lot of your spoons. If you are ill you may not have enough spoons for a PTA meeting or even getting out of bed.  You try to save your spoons for what has to get done. You have to prioritize.

For those of us lucky enough not be be seeing crazy from the inside, this book helps us be a bit more compassionate to those who who are. And if you are on the inside, know this: you are not alone. Recommend.

Jenny Lawson“Jenny Lawson is a very strange girl who has friends in spite of herself. She is perpetually one cat away from being a crazy cat lady.”