Monday, November 12, 2012
"I don't just blog to fill space."
Well, good for her, but my take on that is 'Why the bleep not, empty space can be seriously boring!'
What to write about?
Jerry Seinfeld made up a show about nothing, and it ran for how many years?
One creative writing instructor says, "Take an inanimate object and write about it. Write about what's on your desk."
I'll have to warn you, this is where it could get dicey.
I'm a slob sometimes, and because there are far too many items on my desk to name (and because my pride won't allow me to snap a picture of them all), I'll just go with one item today. It's my photo tree, which stands proudly by my computer.
There are only two photos of myself on the metal tree. The rest are complete strangers, ancient pictures of those I deemed 'strong women'. I discovered their long-forgotten images at a dusty-smelling antique shoppe in Hyde Park, where I tirelessly dug through boxful to see who would make the cut. Only people that had 'the look' got to hang out on the fabled branches. The look of aggressive, ambitious, women who didn't take any crap. One girl looks like she could eat someone's liver, and her sister or mother or whoever it is in the background looks (I swear!) exactly like Ashley Judd.
This tribe of sheroes cheer me on day in and day out. I can practically hear them saying, "You're going to kick it in your content writing job today," or, "You know, you really should be writing more authentically. Aren't you tired of writing everyone else's voice but yours?" or, as in the case of the little mean girl, "I'm about to eat your liver."
The woman leaning confidently against the door of her cruiseship cabin never says a word. She doesn't have to; her affluence speaks for itself. I don't always like the way she looks at me, to be honest. I get the feeling she might have been a real pill to live with.
One group photo looks like a group of either housemaids or private school students, I can't tell which. If it's private school, someone really missed it on the uniform design. I like to think they're hardworking housemaids, busting their backsides to get the job done each and every day. Heaven only knows the creativity that lurks behind the frustrated woman holding the mop.
These are my people.
I have no clue whatsoever who they are, yet they cheer me on each and every day when I turn on the office lights and hit my PC's 'on' button.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
The Editor was a savvy, strong woman who knew who she was and offered no excuses. A great role model for me. I observed how she masterfully cut off comments that droned on for too long, changed the subject when necessary, and her overall leadership of the group. I enjoyed the members of the Board, too, how each one of them brought a different perspective to the items of discussion.
We got to meet VIP's, politicians, and other newsmakers. For the most part, I was surprised to find myself unimpressed. One or two politicians stood out here and there, due to their seeming rather genuine, but I thought I would be more wowed by those in the public eye. It was a bit of a let-down. They were ordinary people, just like me. Many of them lost track of their tone when they got overly-passionate about a topic. Some of them talked too much. One very well-known public figure showed up wearing a shirt that looked as if it had been slept in. It being an election year, we were invited to the paper-hosted public forum. This is where I had my eyes opened when it came to how imperfect we all are, with few exceptions. Tempers flared, basic rules were ignored, and the Editor/ Moderator had to quite forcefully demand that a man in the audience sit down and remain silent.
Those on the stand who retained their maturity level made an impact, but they were the minority. I'd always envisioned community leaders as a composed, well-controlled lot. That forum changed my mind.
It occurred to me that everyone, every one of us, is just trying to make our way through life without making too big of a fool of ourselves. Titles, degrees, status, net worth...none of it protected against being painfully human.
If those people could put themselves out there into the public arena in such a way, writing out my innermost thoughts seemed to pale in comparison, guts-wise. People watched those VIP's every move, every word, every deed. As a writer, I had the delicious advantage of delay and physical separation. I could think about what I was going to express, and even after writing it out I could edit to my heart's content. Writing was mild, stacked against the spectacle that many people made of themselves. The thought gave me an additional spark of courage.
I continued to blog daily, which increased reader's comments and my ratings. One morning I switched on my computer screen, going directly to the blog out of long-practiced habit to check the numbers. On this particular morning, I had trouble believing my eyes.
I called softly to my daughter, who was just waking up in the bed several feet away. She groggily peered at the screen when I asked her to tell me what she saw. My eyes were too tear-filled to be sure.
"Is that an eleven?" I asked her in disbelief, half-expecting to her answer in the affirmative.
"No, Mommy," my teenaged daughter said affectionately, then softly said, "It's a number one."
On that particular blogsite, my essay blog was the top international blog in its category.
I put my head into my hands and cried as my daughter rubbed my back and said, "Way to go, Momma."
The ratings weren't climbing like they had been, probably due to my less-frequent posts.
I'd been waiting for years to write, having tromped through an angry husband, divorce and relocation, years of business building with the cleaning and property management, surgery, and school.
Not knowing what move to make next, I spent my days writing. Maybe I was hiding out, maybe I didn't want to get back out there. No matter the reason, I was taking the opportunity while I still had it to get this writing thing out of my system, or so I thought. I didn't understand that this was next to impossible.
I blogged away, interacting with the other bloggers and leaving reciprocal, positive comments on their blogs. I made a few favorite friends who I corresponded with daily. The ranking numbers for my essay blog kept climbing and climbing. I woke each morning, ready to post another blog, writing about everything from the dog that urinated on my former husband's pillow within the very first hour we brought her home to the time I saw my father walking up the sidewalk from work wearing my band uniform. I blogged about the time I tried to grow longer, stronger hair from advice off the internet, and how the formula I was instructed to concoct turned my hair into brittle straw that fell like cut grass every night onto my pillow. Random thoughts that had been floating around in my head for years, stories that wanted to be told, they all found their way onto my blog posts. Putting them to words left me thoroughly entertained for hours.
By then it was December. The kids were all in school and my husband and I were the only ones home during the day. I always closed the door to my daughter's room, so as not to annoy with my clickety-clacking of the keyboard. I still interpreted that sound to be the sound of slacking. I also closed the door so that if my husband passed by, he wouldn't see me just sitting there, typing. Whether he approved or not, my guilt made that scenario undesirable. I myself thought I should be pounding the pavement, looking for work, although at that time I received more than a part-time job's worth of child support money, and had been getting that amount for years.
The reasoner in me and the part of me that truly wanted to do nothing but write grasped hold of the thought that if I had no debt (I didn't), and nothing more pressing than helping out with a few bills here and there...then why was I so stressed out?
As soon as I'd have that thought, the reason-able part of me would kick in, with all of the name calling like 'slacker', 'mooch' and 'free-loader'. No one said this to me; these were the things I said to myself. Was I doing anything concrete, spending my days writing away? Was this just fun for me, or was there an actual purpose to it? The reasonable part of me said, "You're a grown woman who's been side-tracked from getting a real job and a real education for all of these years. It's nearly too late to redeem you. If you're lucky, you might squeak in a successful career yet if you can do what everyone else has done, which is to get educated and to get a real job."
The guilt won out, and I began to look online for employment, although my heart wasn't in it. My perfect life would have meant writing all day while my children were at school, then being home for them when they returned. I just didn't see that happening. Every day I spent writing, I felt I was stealing. If I stayed at home all the time and seemed to have no goals, what good was I to anyone, I thought.
Meanwhile I was getting comments from my readers:
"You're simply the best writin' winter remedy I ever read, end of story girl!"
"That was great! You're such a good story teller."
"Great writing, so much fun to read."
"You are clever gal. Oh I do adore your accounts. Still giggling - you're so good at how you tell it."
"I always find myself when I read your posts."
"You are such a wonderful writer."
---What was I supposed to do with that? None of it had a paycheck attached.
One thing was certain. I couldn't just hang around the house all week. I needed something outside of the home to give me my sense of usefulness back.
On a cold morning, I felt the need to look up a friend's obituary. He'd recently passed away, very suddenly. I'd known the family since almost the first day I'd moved to town. Viewing the write up required logging on to the newspaper's website. When I logged on, the first thing to greet me was a call for volunteers to the paper's Editorial Board. Something about that caught my soul's attention. Something about the thought of being on the Board felt like the right direction for me to head. I read the obituary and wrote a memory of my friend Neil. Then I went to work writing to the paper, as required, of the reasons I felt I'd make a good Board member. I edited and cut and edited some more, attempting to prove my prowess of the written word, and my mega-literacy. I wrote that I was self-employed. (I had just picked up one more property to manage, quite by accident and only because I found myself unable to say no to the money.) It was a stretch.
Then, I waited, even though I knew I would be chosen. This is something I still can't explain. I'm not a particularly lucky person. I've never entered a raffle or lottery, knowing that I would win. The few times I've ever won anything at all put me into an instant state of shock, no matter how small the prize. In this case, however, I just knew I'd be on the Board.
I was grateful for that knowledge, knowing that once a week I'd have somewhere else to be. I was glad that I'd be associated with a media outfit, no matter how remotely. It was far closer to my dreamed-of chosen path than housecleaning or property management. I'd get to dress up and feel sort of vital, helping to shape the community paper and giving input. My opinion and input would count and be heard; something I've always wanted.
In the weeks to follow, whenever I'd get caught typing away, I'd have the inner thought that I'd soon have just the tiniest amount of clout. I would still probably see myself as all of the names I called myself in my head, but perhaps a little less so. That notion brought some semblance of relief from the abuse I'd self-administered.
The email arrived a few weeks from applying for the volunteer position on the Editorial Board, saying I'd been chosen as a member.
"The more self expression, the more ways you find to express yourself, the better off you'll be psychologically, she told us, her blue eyes darkened with conviction.
According to the good professor, whether it be through art, carpentry, cooking, gardening, sculpting our body through exercise, singing, playing an instrument, writing, or whatever...it's all helpful and healing.
I'd been writing one or two papers per week for this class. No matter the subject, it felt like I was coming alive, it was good to be able to see my own words and thoughts printed on paper. I knew for sure that I wanted to do more of that. The summer semester was ending, but I was hungry for more. I took two additional classes that challenged me and I continued to make good grades. Then I ran out of money. I applied for a student loan, which got approved, and was just faxing the last of the paperwork to the appropriate office on my husband's fax machine that sat on his desk. When fully aware of what I was doing, he chose to take issue with my being in debt to the government. I had never even thought to ask for his approval, thinking an education was an inarguable necessary expense. I'd never intended for the loan to be his bill or concern. A lengthy discussion ensued, followed by my backing down.
I went through a week or more of discouragement and mild depression. If I wasn't headed towards an educational or career goal, then where was I headed? I didn't like being adrift. By now, after a health scare, I wanted to do more than just make a living, I wanted to make a difference. But how?
At the end of the summer semester, the psych prof gave us one last assignment.
It actually went along with her ongoing theme.
On the first day of class, she'd brazenly told us that our biggest problem was that none of us knew how to chill. It was, in fact, America's biggest problem, in her opinion.
Daring to go completely sexist, she said, "You guys are even worse off than the ladies. You're gonna be in bad shape if you don't start doing something different. At least we have each other to talk to; most of you have nowhere to let off steam."
In keeping with her goal for us to chill, she taught us about getting into an altered mental state, what some called the zone. Giving ourselves a mind-vacation on a regular basis. Our upcoming paper would force us to put this into practice.
"Do something for thirty minutes each day for one week that takes your mind off of things. I don't care what it is. Working out, hiking, painting, needlepoint, whatever. Then write about it."
I knew what I wanted to choose, being the multi-tasker that I am, and probably hearing the worn-out words 'make yourself useful' somewhere in the mix, too. I chose gardening. After being in school for over a month, my front yard was a wreck.
On the first experimental day, the sun was shining, birds were singing, and I couldn't wait for my thirty minutes to be over with. My back hurt and I wasn't embracing the process, although I did notice that a person can do a lot by way of cleaning up the yard in thirty minutes. On the second day, I was began to catch a vision of what I wanted the yard to look like, and it was getting there. The time flew by. When the third day came along, I was getting creative, moving plants from one corner to the other and clipping stray branches and leaves. Day four, I finished all of the weeding and started ambitiously chopping away at the overgrown juniper shrubs. On day five, I finished chopping. By day six, I was just playing. I hung glass lanterns with tea lights from the trees, rearranged rocks and prettied things up. Day seven was picky work, perfecting the bare bones of what I'd already designed. I was truly sorry to see the project end.
Infused into the write up was the relief I felt at being 'allowed' to spend time to myself, the calm that enveloped me, and the visual boosts my daily visits to the garden provided me. I wrote of the ripple effect: how my husband started cleaning out the garage, and how my daughter began to deep-clean her room. Most of all, the breathing space for body and soul was the side benefit. I felt different. When I told my sister about the assignment over the phone, she said, "So that's it! That's what's different. I thought you sounded more calm."
All of this I put into print. Then I handed it in.
The entertaining, intelligent professor who was almost young enough to be my daughter, the one with the doctorate...loved it.
"I REALLY enjoyed this!" she wrote across the cover page.
It began to dawn on me that I just might be able to pull off the writing thing.
Apparently there had been an email from the psych professor that three of her students didn't get.
Julie the cowgirl and hockey player, Dan the polygamist's son, and me.
We waited around for a while, each of us in our usual seats. I was in the middle of the room, Julie was up in the front left, and Dan was on the back row.
Julie looked like she could take most everyone in the class down. Dan had revealed to the class in a comment a few weeks before that he'd come from a polygamist family, and that his father had four wives. He said that like he was mentioning the weather, or having had soup for lunch. I was dying to ask him about that.
Realizing that the class must have been cancelled, I took a deep breath, turned around in my seat, and said, "Dan, you mentioned you're from a family with four wives." I gulped, not certain I wanted to hear what he might feel comfortable telling me.
What happened next was unexpected. Dan began to open up about the way he was raised. Julie, curious, moved to a closer desk, as did I.
"Having four moms was the best thing that could have ever happened to me," he told us, which shocked me. He talked about what it was like at his home. 'Big as a shopping mall with twenty- three bedrooms,' he claimed, 'Seven bathrooms, too.'
He described how wonderful it was to have multiple siblings run to greet you when returning home from work, how he felt he had celebrity status every day. He told of how his older sister decided to make the boys her 'project' by teaching them public speaking skills through a very effective program she'd developed herself. He spoke of his love for his father, the vast amount of respect he had for the man.
"I wouldn't have wanted to grow up any other way," he said, "It was wonderful."
The darker part came when he spoke of his marriage. Their 'prophet' had chosen someone for him that he would have never dreamed of having for a wife. While he'd been a quieter type, she'd been the Homecoming Queen type. At first he was thrilled, but there were soon problems with the match that surfaced not long after the wedding.
"In polygamist families, the girls all know how to run a household by the time they're around fourteen. They can budget, cook, and balance the checkbook. She didn't know, nor was she interested in doing any of that stuff," Dan said.
A failing marriage wasn't going to fly in their polygamist community. It was shameful. More than that, a man's religious authority was in jeopardy, should a divorce ensue.
Dan, disgraced and unable to fully function as a member of his compound and religion, left the town for Babylon.
"I cried for a month and a half, lonely and scared in my apartment," he told us, "It's been the hardest thing I've ever done."
He'd watched the previously forbidden and evil tv, had gotten himself a non-member girlfriend, and was going to a college with worldly students.
At intervals, Julie and I asked questions, fascinated by the story being told. Before we knew it, the three hour block was spent. We all had places to be, and so we said an awkward goodbye. It was strange to go from being so intimate to being so public again. Perhaps Dan didn't feel that way, but what we'd just witnessed would have been impossible to replicate. In the weeks to follow, the three of us never did connect again the way we did that day. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
I went home and told the experience to my husband and children. Having been privy to the inner life of a polygamist family was incredible. Not a believer in polygamy, I wasn't expecting to hear the positive angles I'd certainly never considered before. The careful education of the kids, right down to their ease of public speaking. The love and cooperation among the women and children. My mind was churning with this new information.
Getting someone to talk to me like that was a trip. I wanted more; I wanted to know people's stories. Not just their surface stuff, but the nitty-gritty pivotal-moments that made them who they were.
I couldn't sleep that night, so revved up with processing the information I'd just gained. I'd been fortunate enough to talk to someone who was extremely forthright with their personal tale. Surely there were more out there like him.
I wanted to find them.
When my husband would approach me in the writer's corner of my daughter's room, I felt guilty for just 'sitting there'. He wasn't saying anything, but I self-condemned. The unspoken sentence was that I needed to get off my duff and get back to work.
During my absence from cleaning, property managing and all things manual-labor, I found that to have my mind stimulated was huge for me. The intellectual part that had awakened wasn't about to take a snooze anytime soon. Seeking a way to honor that,I signed up for some courses at the local community college. The last time I'd attended school had been two decades earlier, and I'd stopped taking classes as a young married expectant mother. I'd been too pregnant and morning-sickness riddled to want to keep getting up early for a course. Once my son was born, I had no desire to leave him or the home, and luckily my first husband financially and morally supported me in that decision. My education was put on hold and basically forgotten about, with an occasional 'I want my degree someday' uttered from time to time, a bucket list item.
Seeing being a student as a way to accomplish validity, I enrolled in school, going back to college after over twenty years. I registered, bought the books, waited a week for class to begin and in the meantime frequently thought, "What did you just do?"
Back to having school days, I was in school while my children were not. I could have planned that better, but I was anxious to have a goal that didn't involve all-purpose cleaner.
I remembered myself as an average, if not below-average student, due to my short attention span (and distracting things going on at home when I was a child). I expected to make the usual mediocre marks.
On the first day, the classroom was full and our Psychology professor was late. I wasn't sure what to expect. I only knew that this woman had a PhD behind her name. It both intimidated me and made me envious, thinking of those that had both the time and opportunity for such an education.
Another student walked in, very tall, slim, with long blonde hair and youthful. The student took her place at the front of the class and proceeded to teach. She was the Dr., twenty-six years old. She might as well have been wearing a t-shirt with the words, "If you're over forty and in this class, you're a loser." I tried to put those thoughts out of my head.
I immediately liked her teaching style and the course content. I looked forward to going to class three days a week, for a full three hours each time. The biggest thing I had to get past was the fact that my college professor was almost young enough to be my child. Her age put an exclamation point on the nagging phrase that ran through my head all the time:
"You're wasting your life."
I aced every test. The online school account said I was well on my way to an 'A'. I poured through the thick textbook as I sat in a lounge chair on the back lawn, soaking in the summer sun and drinking in knowledge with a brain that had been left dormant for far, far too long. I could not believe I was actually getting this stuff, the one who'd been called a 'poor learner', and more than once. Several more-than-kind grade school teachers had the nerve to pen that very phrase on report cards over the years. Now I was taking a college course and it was invigorating; there was no 'work' involved, it was pure joy. Like a hobby, but I got credit for it.
The young Dr. proved to be an 'old soul', and verbally talented. Anyone who could keep a roomful of people entertained and interested for three solid hours surely knew their stuff. She did warn us that those studying psychology were prone to thinking they had the abnormalities talked about in class. It was apparently a well-known hazard among psychology majors. When the Dr. told us about 'the woman who couldn't forget', I worried. I still remembered the names of my acquaintances' mothers' pets...what could that mean? 'The woman that couldn't forget's' fate was that it drove her up the wall, having facts and figures in her head that never flowed back out.
I fretted about that for months afterward.