Thursday, December 09, 2010
The other day over lunch, a friend recalled an old Irish priest who often gave the above advice to troubled parishioners. That would put their problems in perspective, he said. Everyone at the table laughed, but I found myself gazing out the window of the restaurant at the brisk December day. I shivered imperceptibly as I imagined a harsh wind cutting across the open field of stones, and the relentlessness of a grey sky.
Maybe it’s my Irish blood, but the idea has its appeal for me. In fact, a couple of my fictional characters spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that. The first is a child who worries that his dead mother is out alone in the cold and rain. He goes to the cemetery, not so much to reflect or even to mourn, but to feel the chill and storm, the life that can no longer touch her. The second character, who broods over the love she lost decades earlier, probably has more in common with those the priest dispensed to the grave yard with an Old Testament style flourish. It might be--and probably was--a heartless prescription for many. But my character finds a heightened awareness, freedom from the non-stop lies the ego tells, and yes, a kind of courage there; and I'm sure that some of the priest's parishioners did, too.
I have also been rereading Montaigne’s essays, and one of his great questions--arguably his only question-- is how to deal with the fear of death. Montaigne found his version of the folding chair in the written pieces he first named “essays, or essais in French.” I suspect he called them “tries” that because he wasn’t expecting to get them right the first time, or perhaps ever. Montaigne accepted the limitations of seeing through a glass darkly, though it never stopped him from taking out his pen and writing toward the light. One of the most dogged revisers in history, he worked on the same collection for the rest of his life, adding to the essays as he expanded his knowledge of the world and more particularly, himself.
Then on Saturday, an unlikely person entered the discussion I was having with Montaigne and the priest. Someone in my household turned on a televised biography about Adam Lambert and as always, I was drawn to his voice. During the few minutes I watched, the narrator was saying that one of the the singer’s great gifts is that he doesn’t fear the stage. It’s something all of his fans know, but this time I heard it differently.
This time it seemed like the kind of secret you might hear if you sat on a folding chair in the cemetery long enough, or if you spent a significant portion your days in your writing tower trying to expand your knowledge and skill at life: Your time is brief. Give it. Risk it. And do it now. Don’t fear death; don’t fear the stage.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
This is something I've experimented with for a while. For it to work, you have to do all nine in the first hour after you wake up. If that sounds onerous, it's not. Most of these can be accomplished in a minute or less, and I personally guarantee that if you practice them, they will change the quality of your day.
1. Express gratitude. Whether to God or to the universe, to the person waking up beside you in the bed, or to the sun that has graciously agreed to light another day, let your first words be "Thank you." And if things haven't exactly been going your way, and gratitude feels strained, say it twice. Say it louder.
2. Don't just avoid toxic people who diminish and deplete. Be the antidote. Say something honestly affirming to everyone you encounter in your first waking hour.
3. Organize something. It doesn't have to be much. This morning, I picked up the shoes that had been scattered in the family room and made my bed. My "random act of order" took about three minutes, but it made me feel like an organized person. The sub-conscious mind took note, and looked for little ways to create order all day.
4. Do a one minute workout. Set a kitchen timer and do one minute of crunches or pushups or bicep curls. Will it change your body significantly? Probably not. But it will change it a little. And like the organization thing, it communicates to your sub-conscious that you are a person who is committed to fitness.
5. Make a promise to yourself. Vow not to say a single unkind thing all day, or to do a good deed without taking credit for it, or to keep working on something you care about for fifteen minutes after you want to quit or to avoid your favorite junk food. The only rule is you have to change the promise every day. Otherwise, it quickly turns into an empty "resolution," and we all know what happens to those.
6. Beautify something. Put a table cloth on your table or a pick some flowers and fill a vase. Get out of your sweats (if you work at home like me) and dress like you're about to have a very important day. And if you can't think of anything else, you can always smile. Voila! Instant beauty.
7. Be awed by something. Take in the florid sunrise if you get up early enough, or the shape of the cumulus clouds overhead or the chirping happy sound of a child's voice. The truth is there aren't seven wonders in the world; there are an infinite number of them. If you can live through a single hour without feeling amazed, you're only half awake.
8. Practice Mountain Pose for thirty seconds. Or as your mother used to say, stand up straight--preferably before a mirror. Get your body into perfect, regal alignment for a minute, and experience how balanced and sleek and wonderful it feels. You will probably forget and fall into your habitual slouch later, and that's okay. Slowly, slyly, you just may teach your body a new way to be.
9. Take one small step toward a long term goal. Maybe you have to go to work, or you need to get seven children dressed for school, or the dog ate your homework, but if you ever want to run that marathon, or write that novel, learn to fly a plane or speak Chinese, you need to set yourself on course by doing one small thing toward that goal every single day. First thing. Take out your running shoes and set them by the door for later. Look over what you wrote the day before while you're having your coffee...practice your aria in the shower.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
I was walking on a quiet road yesterday when a van barreled out of nowhere and came within inches of hitting me. The driver tossed me an obscenity and sped on his way.
How easily my habit of walking and thinking about a thousand different things, combined with the obscuring noise of a lawnmower might have put me more directly in his path.
He reminded me that I need to pay attention, that the ordinary world is never as benign or familiar as it seems, and that others, too, are distracted by many things.
I turned a corner and met a stooped old man, bleached white with age, carrying a step ladder across the street. When I offered to help, he thanked me, but declined, saying that it was important for him to do what he can for himself.
Worried that the angry person in the van might return, I watched the old man until he'd safely navigated the street.
"Nice day!" I said, exhaling relief when he reached the other side.
He stopped deliberately, set down his ladder with satisfaction, and looked up in the sky as if to check.
"Yes, it is, but I'm happy to take any kind of day," he said, smiling broadly. "How about you?"
"Me, too," I said, touching my face where the gravel kicked up by the van had grazed my skin. Me, too.
*Meanwhile, has anyone seen my blogroll? It disappeared mysteriously a few weeks back. I hope to get an updated version up soon.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Imagine you had the power to name a holiday, one that celebrated rising, tenacity, the resilience and generosity of the human spirit.
What might you call it?
How about Up From the Blue Day? On that day, just for one twenty-four hour period, everyone would rise out of whatever blue mood, or blue music or blue funk that might engulf them and celebrate. The next day, if you want to go back to being miserable, or if you need to--well, I understand. But just for one day, the blues of all kinds would be banished.
People would sing. And shimmy. Maybe drink blue martinis in cool bars in New York. Or wine in blue glasses on their decks on Cape Cod. Or wherever they might be. On Up from the Blue Day, no one would listen to the scary old news, or give in to envy or utter a single mean word about anyone.
I know it sounds tough, but come on. It's a holiday! Get into the spirit.
As it turns out, three lovely friends beat me to it. Jessica Keener, Tish Cohen, and Robin Slick already named this day in honor of Susan Henderson's debut novel of the same title.
I haven't had the pleasure of reading it yet, but I've seen the reviews, and people I trust have been raving about UP FROM THE BLUE since the early drafts.
But what really makes me eager to read this novel is my belief that wise, generous people produce wise generous work. It just a law of nature. And I've read enough of Susan's short fiction, to know she proves the law.
If you've been here before, you might remember a couple of years when I blogged about little besides IV poles, and johnnies, and endless waits for lab results. Two ugly words that seemed flash constantly in red neon before my eyes, no matter how hard I tried to escape them: aggressive cancer.
It was the most difficult time in my life, but right there in the middle of it, someone created a holiday just for me. It was a day when I wept almost all day--not from fear, not from grief, not even from happiness, but from sheer awe at the goodness of people. The kindness of my fellow writers and bloggers. A lot of amazing friends were involved and I will always be grateful to each and every one of them, but Sue was the driving force behind The Liar's Diary blog day.
So you know I don't often sell stuff here. I don't even push my own work (much to the chagrin of publishers and agent.) But if you like good fiction, today would be a great day to buy Up From the Blue.
And if not, then go out and something for someone else. It's what Susan would want you to do.
That's just the kind of person she is.
P.S. Since the procrastinator is getting this up kind of late in the day, we just might have to extend the holiday into tomorrow.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Take a good look at this pie. This is what procrastination looks like. My friend Susan Messer and I planned to bake our annual pie in honor of the muse back in July. Wasting no time, Susan produced her usual superb pie and an equally superb blog post about the process. I promised to do the same, and of course, I meant it! I even planned to do it right this time--just like Susan does--with organic locally grown blueberries and a buttery home made crust. This particular promise/delusion and its inevitable failure has been repeated so many times that it's become part of the tradition.
It was mid-August before I found myself staring guiltily at the chemically laced blueberries at Stop and Shop, and I didn't actually bake the pie until a week later, when around 1 a.m., I looked at the slightly shriveled berries and realized it was now or never. Now, sigh, it's September--okay, late September, and I'm completing the process. (A photograph of the pie posted on Facebook, however, did bring Diana Guerrero and her amazing writing group, and Karen DeGroot Carter on board.)
(The judges decided it was still good.)
So yes, I admit it. My name is Patry and I am a procrastinator. Big time. In my defense, let me say two things:
1. I was born this way.
2. I'm beginning to think it works for me. See, while I'm putting off what I should do, I'm sometimes dreaming, percolating, or just allowing the muse to do her mysterious subconscious work.
Or maybe that's just an excuse. I don't know. These days most writers tend to name their muse Hard Work. The airy fairy in her gossamer gown who provides inspiration when she will has been kicked to the curb and replaced by the goddess of self-discipline by most productive writers. I admire them more than I can say. But as hard as I try, I'm not one of them.
Sure, I can put on my work boots, pack my lunch and write every day. Same place. Same time. I can set page quotas, word quotas and time quotas, and yeah, I can produce. But if the airy fairy hasn't spoken, if the story isn't ready to tell itself through me, or whatever the process is, then one morning, I wake up and realize, I've run a hundred mile marathon--in the wrong direction. Sometimes that's good. It gives you something to work with, as the conventional wisdom goes. But other times, it's just a long way back, there's a whole lot of mud on my shoes, and I'm exhausted.
Meanwhile, as I've put off making pies and writing about them and countless other things, a group of characters have been whispering to me, and then speaking loudly and finally shouting: This way! This way! Sometimes I think they are the muse, these mysterious "people" who appear from nowhere and demand to be heard, demand to be felt. Other times, it seems that time itself is the muse, and that the procrastination and endless daydreaming I've been fighting all my life just might serve a productive purpose.
So yes, I believe that hard work may be the muse's best friend, but at least for me, it's not the thing itself. For that reason, I will continue to bake my imperfect, belated pies, and sing the praises of capricious fairies everywhere.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Outraged. Frustrated. Saddened beyond measure.
It isn't much, but today all I can think to do is to say the words, acknowledge the ongoing catastrophic loss, express the anger.
I don't know how to organize marches or inspire crowds or change an increasingly intractable system that values profits over people, animals, ecosystems, the small blue marble we all live on. But I don't think I could write another word or kiss a child or sit in my backyard enjoying the sound of birds chanting to each other at dusk without bearing witness to this tragedy. Without saying the words.
Outraged. Frustrated. Saddened beyond measure.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
With all my responsibilities here, I don't get very far from home these days, but that doesn't mean I don't travel. The other day I set my timer and went for a walk.
I saw an overweight man on a too-small bike, dressed in floral shorts and a tank top. He looked at me darkly as he passed. Did he know it was forty degrees outside? Did he know I was wondering if he might be dangerous? Feeling ashamed, I looked away.
I saw the white faced golden retriever who always stumbles off her stoop to warn us off when we pass. This time the owner came out to apologize. “No, no!” I said, stopping her. “I love that dog! He reminds me of the old dogs who have passed through my life, proud protectors to the end." Then I told her about Jade who protected us until she couldn't walk. No, longer. By the time I walked away, we both had tears in our eyes--me for what was, her for what was to come.
I saw the tallest pine tree in the neighborhood standing against a grey sky, and I heard Sebastian’s voice. “Big tree!” he says and points when he rolls by it in his stroller. Before Sebastian, I passed that tree hundreds of times but never really looked at it. Now I marvel. Big tree!
I saw empty houses, dressed up to create the impression they were still occupied. Shades closed, a telltale light in the window that never goes out. I wonder if they’re foreclosures; I wonder where the occupants went; and I wonder who will come to live in them.
I saw a cool pattern made by pine cones and needles and curly beach grass on the gournd. I studied it for a while until I spotted someone behind the shades watching me. She was looking at me the way I looked at the heavy man on the little bike. I waved and moved along.
I passed the house where a man committed suicide a decade ago. Though I don’t know the family, we heard that he hung himself in the garden shed when his wife filed for divorce. As I passed, I looked at the shed--an innocuous structure like so many in the neibhorhood. Like my own. There was a man raking leaves in the front yard. He smiled and said hello, And then a woman called out to him from the side porch where she was smoking a cigarette. She greeted me, too, though somewhat warily.
I saw a teenaged boy in a Volkswagen who waved and gave me a smile that can only be described as sweet. Repaying the debt, I waved enthusiastically at the next two cars that passed. One waved back--returning my ebullience in kind. The other driver looked as if I’d caught him off guard. Maybe he waved at the next person.
I thought about not taking the wooded path Star loves on the way home. Maybe I’d encounter the man on the bike again. I wondered how loud I’d have to scream to be heard. I took the path anyway, silently apologizing to the man in the floral shorts for my assumptions.
Emerging from the woods, I passed the house where a good friend once lived. Several years before he developed pancreatic cancer, I saw an ambulance approaching his house, and I raced down the street, heart thumping. A moment later, my friend emerged to redirect the ambulance and to reassure me. Wrong address! We both laughed as if it were a great joke. As if it would always be so.
The school bus pulled and a girl who used to stop to talk and pet the dog when she was younger decamped. I remembered the time she came to the door and asked if she could make a chalk hopscotch in front of our house. I went outside and played with her, recovering my old joy in the game. Now fourteen, weighed down with her heavy backpack and the even more burdensome weight of the self in adolescence, she looked down when she passed me and Star. We did not intrude on her private brooding.
I came home and checked my timer: All that in twenty-six minutes and 29 seconds.
Sunday, March 07, 2010
If you're a writer and you haven't read the 10 Rules for Writing Fiction series on the Guardian, then get yourself over there and suck up a powerful dose of inspiration, practical advice and writerly wisdom.
Since the masters covered that subject quite thoroughly, I decided to post my ten rules for life:
1. Develop a healthy respect for everything you don't know. It's a lot.
2. Don't allow yourself to be bored. It's an insult to life, and rumor has it, life doesn't tolerate insults. As Elmore Leonard's famously advised writers, "Leave out the part that people skip."
3. Don't sit down too much. That could increase your mortality, too. If you're not moving, mentally, spiritually, or physically, your body just might think you're already dead.
4. Who was the guy who limited his rules to 3: KINDNESS, KINDNESS, KINDNESS? Whoever he was, he was right. And the guy who said, "Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle?" He was pretty smart, too.
5. Do the work that's in front of you every day as if it mattered--whether it's painting a picture or washing the floor, or caring for a difficult elderly person. It does.
6. If you were lazy or unkind, dishonest or impatient--don't languish in guilt, but don't accept it as the best you can do either. Find creative ways to make amends to whomever endured your lesser self (even if it's yourself.)
7. Remind the people around you and the trees and your own cells that life is good: sing, dance, praise, and laugh as often as you can. And when you can't, be silent.
8. This is something my grandfather's generation knew well: get some fresh air every day. Open windows, breathe deep, and stand up straight while you're at it.
9. Mind your own business. It's more profound than you think.
10. Follow your own rules. Ah, now that's the hard one, isn't it?
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
It all started when a tooth was broken nearly to the root by an anesthesia tube during surgery. Since I'd been avoiding my dentist for something like five years, I considered us officially broken-up and chose a new one from the phone book. He insisted on a full set of X-rays.
After studying them, my new dentist regarded me grimly. "What we have here is a pattern of neglect," he said, and paused dramatically. "If something doesn't change, you're going to face some serious consequences."
While I was pondering the profundity of that, he added the clincher: "Problems don't fix themselves, you know. Something has to be done."
"A pattern of neglect?" I repeated. "Really?" Suddenly I felt as if I were talking to a therapist instead of a dentist. It was as if he'd peered into my disorganized closets, passed the house with the neglected garden, and the trim that needs painting. Then he looked deeper and saw my unfinished algebra assignments from eighth grade, the college papers cranked out during frenzied all-nighters the day after they were due, the sinful number of cantaloupes and grapefruits I bought at the supermarket, and forgot to eat. And what about all the mounted of good intentions I never quite acted upon? Clearly, the pattern of neglect stretched back to elementary school and probably beyond. In diapers, I was probably vowing to quit the pacifier and be more outgoing...tomorrow. .
Of course, I had all kinds of sound reasons why I've avoided the dentist: no dental insurance...serious health issues that took precedence...the daunting cost of all the root canals and crowns my ex- dentist told me I needed all those years ago...genetically bad teeth from my father's side of the family... And did I mention my lack of dental insurance?
"It's up to you," he said. Then he shrugged and left the room. Apparently, he'd seen my type before.
But I left the office with a commitment to do something this time, and a phrase buzzing in my ear: pattern of neglect, pattern of neglect, pattern of neglect.
I raced home and called my best friend, and then my cousin and my daughter, and told them excitedly that my dentist had just diagnosed what's wrong with my life: It's a chronic condition called Pattern of Neglect. And what's more, there's a cure: Give up the delusional concept that problems solve themselves and do something!
Since none of the people I called happen to suffer from my condition this revelation didn't have the same impact on them as it did on me.
In spite of my friends' and family's doubts, I insisted there was hope for me. I could stop thinking, pondering and dreaming so much and become a master of problem solving, however belatedly. A woman of action!
Well, that was six months ago, and this week, I finally have an appointment to see an oral surgeon about an implant to replace my broken tooth. The twenty thousand dollar treatment plan outlined by the dentist has still not been implemented, and my closet still needs to be cleaned, but not one cantaloupe has died in my crisper in months, the revisions to my new novel are just about complete....and so far nothing hurts in my mouth. Who knows? Maybe problems do solve themselves.
Friday, January 01, 2010
Most of the resolutions I've made in the past haven't mattered much. While it's good to work out or eat well, to write a certain amount of words or meditate daily, and it's salutary to get up early in the morning (a resolution I've made repeatedly, but never mastered) none of those are essential to a successful life as a human being.
Good will is something else. If I sold a zillion books or ran marathons till I was ninety-five, what would it matter if I failed at good will? It seems to come naturally to a few effortlessly benevolent souls I've known. The rest of us have to rise to it, wake up to it, to realize all the stuff that blocks it--envy, fear, ego--is a lie, plain and simple. Lately, I've begun to fear that I might be ash and cinder before I get there.
So that's my one resolution: good will.
Good will in the sense of wishing the best for others. All of them. The ones I love and the ones I don't understand, the ones who agree with my most cherished beliefs and opinions, and the ones who violently oppose them.
Good will to those who extend the same to me.
And good will to those who don't.
I also mean to work on the other kind of good will. The kind Kant described, which is more like determining to do what's right in all circumstances. He uses a word I haven't always liked, but now am inclined to embrace: DUTY.
Good will to get up and do the work that is before me that day, no matter what it may be.
Without excuses. Without grumbling. Without delay.
Happy New Year.