Healing My February Funk & Reclaiming Its Blessing

For the past two years, I’ve dreaded February with its deep Winter chill and memories of loved ones passed. This year will be different, I thought as a booked a Corporeal Writing workshop in Portland, Oregon. I’d never been to Portland, my memoir was in a stuck place, and the workshop was being facilitated by two memoir writers I admire, Pam Houston and Stephanie Land.

img_3908I signed up for the workshop, booked a flight to arrive two days early to allow for sightseeing, and reserved a room at a hotel in Downtown Portland. I was ready for an adventure and to take the month back from grief’s grip.

The flight left Detroit later than scheduled, so when we landed in Seattle, I had to run from one end of the terminal, catch a tube, then run to the other. Breathless, I caught my connecting flight just before the doors closed. Once I arrived in Portland, I could hail a Lyft for around $30 or take public transportation (the MAX) for $2.50 directly from the airport to Downtown. I figured the trip cost enough and I’d taken public transport in DC, so surely I could navigate the MAX.

The ride to Downtown Portland was about 35 minutes. Sitting directly across from me was a middle-aged couple that looked uncomfortable with public transportation and distrustful of any characters they might run into. They tried to appear casual but her body was pressed up against the wall and her husband sat with his hand on her thigh. As people walked by, she would tense and his grip would tighten. They never met my eyes, keeping them averted to the floor. I recognized that tension, that stress, that woman…I used to be her, afraid to venture out of my comfort zone.

Upon arriving downtown, I checked into The Society Hotel room, dropped my bag, then took the MAX to meet my cousin. Tim has lived in Portland for 30 years, and we couldn’t remember the last time we saw each other. It was great to catch up and re-connect again.

Running_For_Good_Semper_Fi_SisterFirst thing Friday, I had to see the massive bookstore I’d read so much about. Powell’s City of Books didn’t disappoint with three stories, nine different levels arranged by topic, and one million books under the roof. It was cool to see my story Semper Fi, Sister on the shelf and representing in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Running For Good.

When talking to a staff member, I commented that I had traveled with a small suitcase and had no room for more books.

“Well, if you buy 10 books, we’ll ship them home to you for a flat rate.”

“That would be great, but I don’t have time to look at everything I want now.” This was sightseeing day and my Powell’s visit was a recon mission. I had places to go and things to see.

“We’ll hold your books for three days. When are you leaving?”

“Monday. So wait. You can hold these two books, I can come back and add to stack…then Sunday I can pay and you’ll ship them home for me?”

“We will.”

It was a brilliant marketing strategy that I eagerly took advantage of over the next three days. I gave them my books to hold then spent the rest of Friday roaming Downtown Portland. In my research of things to do, I was excited to see the “Walk of Heroines: Honoring the Women Who Have Illuminated Our Lives…”at Oregon State University. Although the garden was underwhelming (not surprising this time of year), my favorite quote was from Dorothy Allison in 1992 who said, “Write the story that you were always afraid to tell. I swear to you there is magic in it.” So I’m finding out.

Voodoo_Doughnuts_Portland_OR

On the way back to the hotel that evening, I came across “Voodoo Doughnuts”, known for their crazy combinations and decadent pasteries. Though I didn’t try Maple Bacon, Voodoo Bubble, or Oreo-topped Dirt, the apple fritter was delectable. The lines out their door are a testament to Voodoo’s popularity.

Finally, workshop time with Pam and Stephanie arrived. Among the many things I learned is that my memoir doesn’t have to be linear, it doesn’t have to follow the traditional hero’s journey, and it can be written in any form I damn well want it to be. That felt liberating.

My long weekend adventure was over all too quickly. I’m still processing what I learned at the workshop as well as my affinity to The Society Hotel.

What I remember most about the trip were the connections I made with my classmates and the serendipitous conversations I had with the people during my travels: Christian, the Army officer traveling home for his sister’s wedding; Domi, co-founder of Corporeal Writing who witnessed my embarrasing faceplant on my recon visit; the couple from Sacramento I met in the Voodoo Doughnut line who commented they’d visited Powell’s but didn’t personally know a writer until me; Tom, the pony-tailed nightshift history buff and dayshift manger Anthony who filled me in on the fascinating history of The Society Hotel; Doug, the Portland Airport blues guitarist who soothes frazzled traveler nerves; and the Michigan organic seed growing couple traveling to a conference. Each and every person I met helped heal my February funk.

I thought my Portland trip was about reclaiming the month from grief, but in the end it was a reminder to live a connected life with those around me. And to celebrate my parents…I am their living legacy.

Introductions and Perfectionism

coastersHave you ever had that feeling of oh crap, why did I say that? I attended a Corporeal Writing workshop last weekend where we had to introduce ourselves then say what we always wanted to write and what we are experts in.

After the facilitators introduced themselves, the classmember next to me started and before I could figure out what I was going to say, it was my turn.

“Hi all, I’m Deb. I’ve always wanted to write a song.”

What the? Really? Where the hell did that come from? I was there to get some clarity in writing my beast of a memoir. Then I got wrapped around axle on the word “expert.”

“I don’t really think I’m an expert in anything, I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I can’t identify with being an expert.”

As I listened to the rest of my classmates talk about writing from their place of pain, I felt small.

Okay, let’s unpack that.

Truth be told, some of my earliest writing was listening to songs a million times and writing down the lyrics. This was back in the day before they put lyrics on album liners, and way back before you could search for them on the internet. I had a whole notebook of Jim Croce, John Denver, and Elvis Presley lyrics. Music speaks to me so maybe I can relate to writing song lyrics. But is it the thing I most want to write? No, I want to finish this damn memoir.

On to the second thing that stumped me.

I could not in any way identify with the word expert. I once considered changing careers to teach, but didn’t make the leap because I couldn’t imagine standing in front of a class not knowing everything. That perfectionism seems ludicrious looking back on it now. I’m a recovering perfectionist but find myself occasionally relapsing into old habits like a comfortable pair of slippers.

The next time I’m asked to introduce myself, telling the one thing I want to write and what I’m an expert in, I’ll say: “Hi, I’m Deb. I’d really like to finish my memoir of having a mentally ill mother so others in similar situations know they’re not alone…and I can parallel park my car like a boss.”

Writing the Hard Stuff

I wrote fiction for NaNoWriMo 2019 because my memoir writing has been in a slump. During November, I noticed a February writing workshop in Portland, Oregon with two of my favorite memoirists, Pam Houston and Stephanie Land. Their topic? ”Getting the hard thing, the meaty thing, the painful thing, the unspeakable thing down on the page in a way that others can have emotional access to it.”

Interesting.

My mother passed 34 years ago succumbing to hypothermia on a frigid February North Dakota day. February also claimed the life of my step-brother who passed unexpectedly four years ago. The last straw was two years ago when my father passed on February 2nd. February has weighed heavy on my bones since my mother’s passing, but I once my father passed, the gloves were off. I dubbed the month FuckUary.

So when I saw the title of the workshop ”Getting It Onto the Page, Getting It Out In The World,” I didn’t hesitate. I signed up and made my travel plans.

I’m under no illusion that the skies will open and writing nirvana will commence, but I’m open to being a sponge. This weekend, I’m reclaiming February from the clutches of grief.

Regardless of the outcome, that will be a win in my book.

A 2020 Look Back at Y2K

The first weekend in the new year, my daughter and I opened the time capsule we had buried at the dawn of the new millenium.

It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves. In a previous post about the time capsule, I described going to the cabin to bury it on New Year’s Eve. When we opened the time capsule, taped to the cover was a baggie with the letters we had written ourselves and a four page cover spread from the San Luis Obispo Tribune dated January 1, 2000. Unless they published early, we hadn’t gone to the cabin until New Year’s Day.

So what else was inside? Just as we remembered it, an old Sony cell phone we used for emergencies only. Note the handy quick reference card tucked inside the zippered case. But why didn’t we include the charger?

In a little box marked “Open Me First” was a whole lot of nothing, insignificant trinkets.

“Mom, why did we pack all this junk?”

“I have no idea. What were we thinking?”

There were some old CDs, a cassette tape, a program from a middle school play my daughter stage managed, our custom goth Christmas card, keychains, and Gidget the stuffed dog who was the ‘Yo Quiero Taco Bell’ mascot back in the day.

Most interesting were the letters we each wrote to our future selves. The past two months I’ve struggled with the reality that 20 years have gone by in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to wrap my head around all the changes that have occurred in the span of those years. Changes we could never have guessed would happen to us.

Then, there were the two poems that were published in Unity Magazine in 1999, the first sales of my fledgling writing career. My letter talked about finally knowing what I want to do with my life…be a writer. Eight months later we would move from California to Michigan. Then life got in the way. Finally, 19 years after I wrote that letter, I reconnected with my writer self and last year I had my marathon story published.

It’s taken me over a month to write this post because the reality that I may not be here in another 20 years has rendered me mute. The mean spirit of our current reality makes me ponder whether that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, I’m not going down without a fight.

When writing about my life at age 25 for an English 101 class at Mira Costa College, I wrote, “I want to pass hot-dogging down a ski slope when I’m in my 90s.” I thought maybe I could will my body to ignore the inevitable decline of aging. My arthritic joints tell me I’ve not been so lucky.

My letter included the following poem I wrote to my future self about aging:

Yield to the seasons of life.
Gracefully embrace the wisdom
of passing years, while ignoring
disappointments and regrets
in the past.

Be thankful and grateful
for all that you have
and all that you are.
For in the end,
memories are all
you have left.

A memorable moment ~
a memorable millenium ~
a wonderful life.

Some words from my letter have never been more true. My letter ended with “I’ve always been a late bloomer and only now am I coming into my own…I hope this finds you happy, healthy, and living your dream.”

I am indeed.

My Open Mic Moment

I stepped out of my comfort zone today. Ever since I saw Poet Will Langford perform at The Rally of Writers last year, I’ve wanted to do a poetry reading.

As luck would have it, today the same Lansing Poetry Group that put on yesterday’s workshop held an event with two amazing young poets. I put my name in the hopper for the Open Mic that followed.

I’m not gonna lie, listening to everyone waiting for my name to be picked was nerve-wracking. But I wanted to be heard. And I survived.

Now to work on calming the nerves so my voice doesn’t quiver.

Practice. Practice. Practice…for next time.

Who I Want To Be

I’m turning into my father. Yesterday I withdrew my name from consideration for a promotion at my day job. I had received word earlier this week that I had passed the third of four hurdles in the promotional gauntlet and my interview was scheduled for Tuesday, January 28th. With more responsibility and stress, I felt conflicted about the job. But, I reasoned, the bump in salary would make a big difference in my pension when I retire in a few years.

When sharing my news and conflicted feelings with a recently retired friend, he asked if I had run the numbers…what my pension would be without going for the promotion and what it would be with the promotion. I hadn’t, assuming it would be a big enough difference to make the sacrifice worth it.

nautilusYesterday I ran the numbers and did some serious soul searching. Other than my NaNoWriMo fiction win, my writing has ground to a halt since I applied for the promotion back in August 2019. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not. Then I thought about getting the call for the third hurdle in the gauntlet just before the New Year. Since then, it was all about cramming, studying, and preparing. I haven’t written a blog post or anything of substance, and my next two weekends would be spent in interview prep, not writing.

I’ve worked hard for the past 14 months, and writing is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I realized my momentum would be seriously curtailed with new responsibilities. I’ll withdraw my name, I thought and immediately felt a huge sense of relief. Then pride and that part of me that always wants to do the best, giving a 110% kicked in. I’ll see what the numbers say, maybe it will be worth it, I told myself. The numbers told a different story.

I’m turning into my father. A shift-worker his entire life, I couldn’t understand why my father didn’t want to be considered for an 8 to 5 job promotion. When I asked him why, his answers never satisfied me. I couldn’t fathom why you wouldn’t want to pursue the next rung…until I finally felt that way myself yesterday.

Today I attended a Poetry Workshop and in a session lead by Jan Shoemaker, learned about writing a poem using an extended metaphor with the title as the subject. I struggle with metaphors, but this is what I wrote:

Promotion

The war rages on, each side fighting to be heard.
I listen to the pleas with measured breaths,
not wanting to rock the boat, yet
consider joining the struggle.
My father’s faint whisper, barely imperceptible,
becomes louder.
“Don’t do it.”
“Why?” I ask. “It’s who I am.”
“Because,” he says. “Who do you want to be?”

Indeed.

Late Bloomers and Other Tales

rich-karlgaard-late-bloomers-book2Last week I listened to Srinivas Rao interview Rich Karlgaard on the The Unmistakable Creative podcast about Rich’s new book Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. Rich and I grew up in the same hometown, we graduated high school one year apart, and my step-brother ran track with him. Listening to Rich talk about his dad and growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota brought back a lot of memories.

I’ve always identified as a late bloomer, so Rich’s message really resonated with me. Whether it was getting my Bachelor’s degree when I was nearly 30, running a marathon at 60, or writing the memoir I’m currently working on, I’ve always bushwacked my own path.

This month it’s been a challenge getting back to my memoir after writing fiction for NaNoWriMo. To get in the mood, this weekend I dug out old journals trying to mine some of that material. I came across a writing assignent I had submitted on November 23, 1999 in response to a writing prompt called the Book of Life by Eldonna Edwards, who was teaching an online writing class. (This was written a little more than a month before we buried the time capsule mentioned in my previous post.)

LateBloomer

Our assignment was to imagine our lives as a book, picturing who would play our characters in a movie, then writing the chapter headings relating to the story. This is what I wrote:

The book of my life would be creative nonfiction. A well-crafted piece of work with dashes of poetic verse, sprinkled liberally with humor, the story would open on the Dakota plains. If made into a movie, my parents would be played by an earnest Ben Affleck and a troubled Claire Danes. My traumatized teen would be played by Drew Barrymore (remember, this is 1999), up through my searching 20s, where the story would move to Southern California. I would be played in mid-life and later years by Meryl Streep. My husband would be played by Kevin Costner and my daughter would play herself.

Title: Late Bloomer, A Coming of Age Tale

    1. Fun, Frolic, and Carefree Days
    2. The Isolated Early Years
    3. Teen Turmoil
    4. Searching for Answers Outside Myself
    5. Military Missions and a Failed Marriage
    6. Believing in Myself
    7. The Wonders of a Blind Date
    8. Life is Good at 30
    9. A Decade of Family Fun
    10. Hope, Dreams, and Unexpected Emptiness
    11. Life Sucks at 40
    12. Climbing Out of the Pit
    13. Moving and Other Chaotic Choices
    14. The Phoenix Rises
    15. Timeless Mother – The Crone Years

I have no recollection of this assignment and others written during that email class, but I’m glad I kept them (and thank you Eldonna!). When I wrote this, I was at the beginning of Chapter 13…and seven months later I would move to Michigan with my family where other chaotic choices ensued.

Late Bloomers. It’s a way of life.

Blessed are the late bloomers, who believe in themselves, follow their intuition, and trust that the journey of life will take them where they need to be.