Writing Rituals: Terry Shames

Terry Shames is one of my favorite authors and I hope you are inspired by her words. Thanks to Thonie Hevron and Just the Facts Ma’am.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Terry Shames head shotBy Terry Shames

Well, that was fun! I just threw my writing rituals out the window. It was unintentional, but thorough in every way.

How did this happen? First let me describe my writing “habits” (not sure they rise to the status of ritual). I write almost every day. It doesn’t have to be brilliant prose, but it has to be at least 500 words, and when I’m working on a first draft I aim for 2,000. When you write 2,000 words most days, 500 seems like a snap. So when I went on vacation for two weeks, I magnanimously told myself I only had to write 500 a day. Suddenly, five days into the trip, I realized I hadn’t written so much as a word. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about writing anything. Not only that, but I found myself unable to read. I had brought a few…

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The Dating Bender

 

34738880I get it. Discovering who we are, what we love and transcending our crappy upbringings (or just escaping them) can be an arduous journey fraught with difficult trials and disastrous errors. We’re inculcated with our parent’s values, unfulfilled desires and bad behavior from our earliest memories. What Mom tells us we are is what we believe, and for many of us, me included, how she defined us was totally disconnected to what we knew to be true—deep down in our pure hearts.

Growing up wasn’t a smooth ride, and I longed to be able to strike out on my own (on Dad’s dime, of course) and become my true self. This true self involved a handsome prince who would rescue me from my lowly status  of  “difficult child” and restore me to my rightful place as Queen of the manor. All I need to do was learn the piano, learn tap and ballet, get straight As, speak French, demonstrate debutante manners and gracious hosting (physician husbands expected a wife who could entertain) be kind, sweet, chaste, God fearing, and compliant. Oh, and I was expected to also become a June Cleaver level housewife, cheerfully vacuuming the house in pearls and heels with my hair perfectly coiffed while a gourmet meal baked in the oven and hubby’s shirts lined up, starched and wrinkle free in the closet. I hated ironing and this was the Summer of Love. Who the hell coiffed their hair? Needless to say, tensions escalated at home and I couldn’t wait to get out.

“Go to college and find a husband. Learn how to do something practical in case you ever have to support yourself,” was my father’s advice. I loved school, it was an easy out, but the husband part was more difficult. Having been directed in all my decisions from birth, even in which gloves to wear to shopping in San Francisco, I lacked skill in making good ones. Add the fact I had no idea who I was or what I loved beyond Beat poetry, fairytales and fiction, I made horrendous choices in potential husbands. Unfortunately for me, my dating bender lasted until I turned fifty.Unknown-1

 

Samantha Serrano, adult daughter of good Catholic alcoholics, flees her dysfunctional family into a marriage that’s all wrong for her in The Dating Bender. It’s not that Sheldon is a bad guy, he’s just too busy building his career to be a husband and Samantha is too immature to do anything but run away, her patterned response. This time she runs to the world of high tech start-ups where her sex-pot friend Babs goads her into crazy, risky behavior and she starts a new affair with a despicable, nerdy and brilliant coworker that is a train wreck in the making. Things are not improved with the arrival of Sheldon and all of their worldly possessions rescued from the marriage. Samantha in typical response flees, the marriage over and the start-up job a bust. She goes home to Mom and Dad who are drunker, more critical and impose more expectations than ever.

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Drunk Parents

Samantha doesn’t last long at home. She hops a Greyhound for New Your City and falls into one relationship after the next as she suffers her irrational and demanding boss’s insane demands until she can’t take it anymore. Leaving a string of failures, she flies to Rome for a “power-confession’ at the Vatican. She ends up at the Trevi fountain to toss coins into the water and cry. images-3Her wallet goes missing, her ex-husband has appeared, and although a handsome Lothario is making love to her over espresso, she has an epiphany.

In Samantha’s words, I paced around my hotel room and obsessed over the facts. I had been married, divorced, fired, disowned, and almost excommunicated by a meddling nun.. . . Now it was all about my come-to-Jesus meeting with Sheldon, fitting considering my proximity to the religious capitol of the world. She keeps her lunch date with Sheldon and through their interaction comes to understand she’s not a bad person, but a normal woman who had fought hard to break away from her family’s vision of her and finally won. Samantha has forgiven herself, her parents and Sheldon. She’s free to finally live her life.

Throughout all the trials and tribulations of her own marriage, separation and divorce, Sam maintains a snarky wit, often making fun of herself. She appears to thrive on drama and is a popular culture junkie—reading every self-help article in every woman’s magazine. She constantly compares real life to the information in the articles through humorous observations, as she slowly grows from immaturity, naïve denial, fear and overwhelm to the contentment of knowing who she is and what she wants.

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Really?

Although at times I wanted to grab Sam and shake her for her blind, helpless attitudes and behaviors, especially all the vomiting, I found her lesson to be similar to my own, and often much funnier. Author Christina Julian demonstrates the makings of a fine contemporary humorist in her first Rom-com. Her writing occasionally goes over-the-top with the boozy “wah-wah” of Sam’s pathetic life, but is redeemed in its modern wit, sarcastic humor, fast-pace and detail laden prose. The Dating Bender’s plot is rich in disaster and soul searching, and Samantha is a complex character with a wide range of emotions and behaviors that attest to Julian’s powers of observation and empathy. I like how she’s put it all together to lead readers through the arc of growing out of dysfunction into a satisfying conclusion of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption.

images-6I’m certain that Samantha Serrano is going to be a beacon for thousands of young women trying to balance their upbringings, their families, their work and their notions of God to create for themselves a healthy life, living free of outmoded thought, dogma and stress. Happiness? I hope everyone finds it, but sometimes the process of finding it is what’s compelling. The journey to master herself in a changing world (with dramatic style) and find peace and love is what draws us to Samantha. My heart went out to her as along the way she made so many of the mistakes I made. Samantha shows me that no matter how awful and wrong our origins, we can’t run away, but we can prevail in finding ourselves and establishing the life we should have. Weeks after reading The Dating Bender, Samantha Serrano still haunts me.

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Here’s a hearty congratulation to debut novelist Christina Julian on Launch Day!           May you delight us with many more to come.

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Re-inventing Aging: A Jane-lite Third Act

Remember when you were in your twenties? Who could forget those old geezers who groaned every time they rose from a chair? Observing them through the illusion of eternal youth, those oldsters seemed like a different species. I’ll bet you never thought you’d be one.

Neither did I.

But these days, creaking bones and aching muscles have become a routine part of my morning. I begin each day by tentatively evaluating my discomfort, and often it’s a matter of degree. Perchance my low back is tweaked, but at least my knee feels okay. My right pinky toe hurts, but my hips and ankles are holding. Now and then I still spring out of bed, pain free, but these days are becoming rare. Ten years ago, I may have been tight from working out, or a little sore from overdoing it, but ricketiness had not become a chronic condition. Recalling the passage of time, I go to a dark place — if this is what sixty feels like, what will seventy or God-willing, eighty bring?

I turned to Jane Fonda, who may have coined the expression Third Act in her 2011 book, Prime Time, an instruction manual of sorts for the over-sixty demographic. In a nutshell, Act One (age 0–29), “a time for gathering” includes the formative experiences of childhood, adolescence, self-image and gender identity. Act Two (age 30–59), “a time of building and in-between-ness” is characterized work and family relationships as they shift and evolve over time. Although Fonda explores the first two acts, The Third Act (age 60 and beyond) is the heart of her book.

Prime Time opens with Jane’s personal reflection at a turning point in her life. On the cusp of her sixtieth birthday, she begins to grapple with “the issue of time — the inexorability of it — pressing in on me.” I identify with Jane’s inertia, her sense of foreboding, and I am struck by her humility and courage.

She begins a soul-searching life review, examining family memorabilia, taking a humble look at the little girl or teenager smiling (or not) in family photos. Her process continues as she pieces together pivotal experiences, poring over her fifty-nine years. As if traveling back in time, she relives the joys and heartbreaks that have shaped her. Letting go and “becoming whole,” she is free to move forward into her Third Act.

Emerging from her life review, Jane hits the ground running. With her trademark vivacity, she steps up as spokesperson and champion for the chronologically challenged. Urging boomers to get off our lazy backsides, she crushes late-life stereotypes, coaching us to live “full tilt to the end.” The exposition is well-researched and prescriptive, providing concrete directives, a recipe for success if you will, with “eleven ingredients for successful aging.”

Here are Jane’s big eleven: Don’t abuse alcohol, don’t smoke, get enough sleep, be physically active, eat healthfully, keep learning, be positive, review and reflect, love and stay connected, give of yourself, care about the bigger picture. These sensible suggestions resonate with me. I cannot disagree with logic. Still, Jane’s recipe leaves me vaguely disquieted, as if I’m failing.

Those if us in our third act (60 or better) have learned a few things. For instance, when we thumb through magazines, ogling glossy airbrushed photos of flawless folks, we no longer compare ourselves to these images. We know better. We understand this kind of perfection is both simulated and humanly unattainable.

Jane’s “full tilt” life is like an airbrushed pic. Compared to her, I will always come up short. My inner cynic quips, who wouldn’t look fantastic with a team of surgeons, trainers and nutritionists? I remind myself of her celebrity status, wealth and entitlement and it’s easy to dismiss her, writing her off as another self-appointed “expert” wielding her fame. Alas, I am not superhuman. I will never be Jane. Who cares? Who needs soul-crushing perfectionism? Pass the pizza.

Yet, as I close Jane’s book and reach for a cheesy slice, I’m hit with an unexpected twinge of guilt, or perhaps shame. Maybe it’s all the wasted hours I’ve spent binge-watching re-runs on Hulu, that third glass of wine. Could it be the dark chocolate that keeps mysteriously disappearing from my cupboard? I glance down at the book jacket, Jane’s all-knowing eyes looking back at me. At that moment, I contemplate her legacy. Whether you love or despise her, Jane is a force. She’s inspired many, including me, as she continues to evolve and reinvent herself. An accomplished actor, controversial political activist and legendary guru of fitness for more than six decades, at 79, her vitality is undiminished. These days, Jane is busy lighting up the screen with Lily Tomlin, eviscerating so-called older women’s traditional roles, in the groundbreaking, irreverent, smart and wickedly funny hit show Grace and Frankie. Unlike the endless parade of vapid, pretty people in the media mainstream, I cannot dismiss her.

I pick up the book, studying her face. What do you want from me, Jane? Must I eat more kale? Must I lift weights? Learn Italian? Perhaps I am losing my grip on reality, because I hear Jane’s response. She reminds me that my choices are my own, but whatever I choose, to live with intention.

I exhale noisily. I admit it — Jane is right.

Very well, Jane. You win.

Did she just wink at me?

The Reckoning

Taking an honest inventory of my life, I recognize room for improvement. Disclosure: I’m afraid to start something I cannot finish. I don’t want to fail. Sorry, Jane. I’m not quite ready to revisit my past unflinchingly. I’ll save the life review for later. So, how do I begin my Third Act, intentionally and with clarity?

I’ve never been good at diets. The moment a food is deemed off-limits or “forbidden,” it’s literally all I think about. Going cold turkey on vices such as wine, chocolate or overconsumption of the Internet, I am destined to fail. Adding a positive goal, not subtracting, has always been more successful for me.

As fall approaches, I’m reminded of new beginnings. With that mind, I embark on a more conscious Third Act, taking baby steps toward meaningful change. The first thing that comes to mind is diet. I’m a decent cook, but night after night, it often feels like drudgery, so most of the time, I rely on prepacked salad greens to fulfill the vegie requirement. I love vegetables and I know they’re good for my body, but don’t eat enough of them. I tell myself it’s too time-consuming and I’m just too damn busy for all that shopping and cooking. Hell, I’m not Jane Fonda. I have no personal chef, tempting me daily with an abundant variety of luscious, exotically prepared vegies.

This is the point where I smugly justify my laziness. But not this time, because the veil has been lifted. I can choose to make this manageable, yet significant change. There may be only one Jane, but the rest of us can strive for Jane-lite.

JC’s August-September Baby-Steps Challenge

I task myself, and anyone who’d like to join me, to consume a greater variety and quantity of vegetables. Your ideas and suggestions are very welcome.

Baby steps, people.

Stay tuned for updates!

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Not Quite Jane, but Jane-lite

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A Life for a Life

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A few years ago, my sister-in-law retired, leaving her urban lifestyle and moving to a cozy cottage in Warrensville, North Caroline on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. Her tales of the quaint village atmosphere, the surrounding natural beauty, and the restful pace of life lure me to visit. Out of curiosity I started reading about the state, and recently stumbled across A Life for a Life by Lynda McDaniel, journalist and award-winning author of fifteen books. This is her first novel, a cozy murder mystery set in the fictional town of Laurel Falls in the remote mountains of Appalachia.

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Laurel Falls is a town that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, including the name of Coburn’s General Store even when newcomer Della Kinkaid buys it on a whim after a stay in the Black Mountains. No one could remember why the store was called Coburn’s and no one was going to call it anything else.

o19-700x466Until she decided to buy Coburn’s, Della hadn’t known how much she wanted a change in her life. She was eager to leave her career as a high-profile Washington D.C. reporter, her cheating ex-husband and all the “big city hassles” for the dilapidated store and apartment in a tiny town known for its waterfall and miles of wilderness hiking trails. It was in the woods Della and her dog, Jake, come across the body of a young woman. The woman is a stranger to Laurel Falls and sketchy evidence points the sheriff to think she committed suicide. Della disagrees and turns to an unlikely group of customers and friends, including a forger and her ex, to solve the crime.

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Although Della hasn’t been welcomed into the community, she has made a few friends. First among them is Abit, the fifteen-year-old son of the previous owners of Coburn’s. Abit’s real name is Vester, but because he’s “a bit slow” he received the moniker as a child and it’s stuck. Abit is a character in the vein of Forrest Gump, but unlike Forrest, he is not well accepted by his family or schoolmates. Abit’s father has removed him from school and the boy has little to do but lounge in his chair on the porch of the store and watch the world ignore him as it passes by. Abit recognizes how Della and he are alike, and their friendship deepens as he helps her with the store and solving the murder.

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The story is a cloze puzzle with Della and Abit meting out information in chapters of alternating points of view. The book commences with a prologue where Abit announces, “My life was saved by a murder.” It’s true. Throughout the narrative Abit and Della form a bond, and both characters journey into self-discovery and growth that lift them from “outsider” status. Each brings skills and knowledge to the investigation and life in a closed society that the other lacks. The dual points of view I found an enhancement to the story. I found their interactions with the varied supporting characters, who add to or hinder the work of living in Laurel Falls and finding a murderer, to be believable. They add color and interest to the story, and several, hopefully, will return in the sequel.

The characters and the setting are as much to do with the story as the mystery. Author, Lynda McDaniel’s attention to detail and adroit descriptions allow the reader to step right into Laurel Falls. You can hear the trumpeting call of the pileated woodpecker and feel the mist rising off the waterfall. Drawing from her “back to the land” years in North Carolina, McDaniel has stitched a patchwork of true and fictional events and people into a thoughtful mystery rooted in race, greed power and sorrow. People from McDaniel’s time in Appalachia crop up in A Life for a Life like the cranky laundromat owner, the gentle giant beekeeper who provides Della with honey, the woman who taught McDaniel to make blackberry jam and can tomatoes, Della’s best friend Cleva.

images-8McDaniel’s writing style, while vivid with detail, is deceptively straightforward. She’s not prone to overwrite her scenes or devolve into flowery dialog. She uses authentic sounding dialog and delivers real down-home southern mountain culture in what one reviewer compared to the style of Fannie Flagg. A Life for a Life has also been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I agree that both depict southern mores and southern style small-town living, albeit in different eras, well. Both are character driven and back a strong message of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance.Unknown-1

In A Life for a Life, a tragedy becomes the opportunity for two unlikely characters to re-start their lives: Della accepted into the Laurel Falls community and Abit embraced within his family and offered the opportunity he had dreamed of.

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A Life for a Life is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read this year. Everything about the book delighted me. I want to know more about the quirky folks in the mountains and the southern customs. The sense of personal independence, the strong family ties, and the slow-moving and tight-knit community are characteristics I applaud. Lynda McDaniel claims that everything she values today, she learned in her Appalachian home, and she’s written her love and gratitude into A Life for a Life.

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The Secret to Happiness and Productivity

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Since last week’s post, I haven’t misplaced my keys once. I’ve accomplished  some writing and sent out queries. The bills are paid, the garden is watered, and I’ve managed to meditate most days. Things are looking up. Already I feel calmer, happier and have improved my outlook on the future. Am I waking up?

I looked into the benefits of meditation and learned that it reduces stress, pain and stress related inflammation from conditions like arthritis and asthma as it lowers blood pressure and slows Alzheimer’s disease. Wow! Scientists say that mindfulness meditation might be as effective as antidepressants for treating anxiety. In The Art of Meditation  by Janice Dunn published in TIME’s Special Edition: Mindfulness, The New Science of Health and Happiness, the author says doctors are recommending meditation for insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. She says it take about eight week of practice to decrease stress, but I’m already feeling less hurried and ready to roll with the punches with the boost of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins my mindful brain is releasing.

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So what is mindfulness meditation, or vipassana practice?  It’s a way to “develop stillness in the midst of activity” according to Jack Kornfield. Vipassana means to “see things as they really are”  and the practice emphasizes mindful attention and develops immediate awareness of our experience in our activities. It teaches us to be present and alive. As Alan Watts said, “. . .It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

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The leader of my Spiritual Center, Edward Viljoen, writes in his book, The Power of Meditation, “Observing life through meditation with less ‘unnecessary added meaning’ to what was happening inside and outside allowed reality to come into clearer focus.” It “opened the door to an infinity of ideas and awarenesses,” which he wondered how he’s managed without. I’m wondering about those ideas too.

RhondaGerhardPsychotherapyI started a new five-week meditation workshop today, Resiliency and Happiness. The series offers mindfulness based meditative techniques and Yoga Nidra for finding resiliency and happiness in the midst of challenges.  It’s my second series with Petaluma’s Rhonda Gerhard, and  this afternoon we explored intention in a guided meditation. Fixing on a couple of key words and keeping them in my mind throughout the meditation, I already feel like I’m on track to living in intention.

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I’m also energized and alert.  These are effects of Yoga Nidra, a state of deep relaxation combined with awareness. This practice calms the nervous system and allows practitioners to receive a subtle flow of energy throughout their bodies. There’s nothing like resting in a state of harmony. It’s better than sleep! Not only do your brain waves  slow down, but you can neutralize body sensations , like pain, stress, negative emotions and feelings, and even neutralize beliefs—part of that intention development. At the end of the hour, I came away with a sense of calm and well-being. Just what I needed, especially after receiving unsettling news today.

In the past I might have eaten a bowl of ice cream and veged-out in front of mindless TV after bad news. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten supper on the table a half hour earlier than usual, enjoyed a lively conversation with my husband as we ate, cleaned up and come back to the office to write my post—and feel really great about it. I’m happy to be here and looking forward to my next task too. By bedtime, I’ll have ticked off everything on my TO DO list and read another chapter of  The Power of Meditation.

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Namaste!

 

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Another Half-Year Older (And what do you have to show for it?)

 

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Yesterday was  the longest day of the year. I didn’t get my writing done. I didn’t get my revision done. I didn’t get  my blog posted. What did I do all day? What do I do any day?

How can I stop churning and start winning?

Let’s consider this for a moment:

I began at 7:30 with coffee and laundry. Next I paid my mother’s bills and prepared the checks for the mail. I reordered a prescription on-line, brought our checkbook up to date and made my list of errands before showering, dressing and inhaling the breakfast my darling short-order cook made (bless his  heart).

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“ Looking up, I noticed I was late. . . “

I jumped into the car and made it into my seat at the lecture on medieval tapestries (I’m researching a poem) as the lecturer took the podium. Unknown-1Back home, I inventoried the refrigerator and pantry while I ate crackers and apricots for lunch, planned the next week’s menus and made a grocery list for my Wednesday run to Oliver’s  (senior discount day). I started  salad greens soaking in filtered water for our dinner (served with sliced tomato, radish, egg, potato, chicken and tuna—refreshing on another hot evening) and went to my office to complete the waiting list of tasks: new bio for the new website, update my credits’ list, grab covers and web addresses for the anthologies I’ve published in.

“ Looking up, I noticed I was late. . . “ The Post Office was going to close in ten minutes.  I gathered the letters and parcels needing postage and flew. . . .

Back in the office I finished a volunteer proofreading assignment for the next Redwood Writers anthology and and returned to the kitchen (after a pass through my garden to smell the roses) and made dinner, ate and washed up.

IMG_6414Suddenly it was  after nine and I hadn’t written, let alone posted, a blog entry, worked on the book review now due, or worked on the revision of my second novel—a lot of zeros on my checklist.

Time is ticking by and I’m exhausted. I feel like a total loser because another day, another  half year has gone by and I haven’t done my work.

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I read an article in the Huffpost recently by Abigail Williams called “5 Secrets of People Who are Always Organized.” Here’s what she says:

  • They live by lists. The key is to keep lists manageable by breaking down long-term tasks into small steps. Maybe revising the entire book today was too ambitious?
  • They have a place for everything and put everything in its place. I’m late every day because, well, where did I leave my keys?
  • They make clear, quick decisions and stick to them. I agonize over all the options, killing efficiency. Mary Oliver opens her poem, Wild Geese, with “You do not have to be good/ You do not have to walk on your knees. . .” Just get on with it!
  • They cut the clutter. What? Clean up and keep clean my wildly creative workspace (euphemism for “totally messy”)? Now, where did I put those new file folders decorated with scenes of London, Rome and Paris?
  • They value their time. Don’t you just hate those organized people? They’re able to do it all! Uh-uh. They work smarter and delegate. And herein lies the conundrum—I’m the delegee.

UnknownSo what am I going to delegate? Certainly not the shopping, dinner preparation or laundry. I’d be thrilled to stop housework, but if not me, who? My husband is earning a living (and anyway, he takes out the garbage and mows). He’d gladly hire a housekeeper—when I earn enough to pay for her. Drop my fiduciary responsibilities to my aged Mother and our family business? But as a retired accountant I’m so well qualified. Stop volunteering? Let my garden turn into a brambly weed patch? Quit my job? No, no, and no! I love my work, and my garden is my sanity keeper.

What’s the solution? Less TV? Less sleep? Less socializing?

I’m going to add a sixth secret to Abigail’s list:

  • People who are organized pay attention.  The experts say the more time you devote to your spiritual practice, the more efficiently you’ll run your life., so meditate more often. A study done at the University of Wisconsin—Madison found “people who meditate regularly have different patterns of brain waves, potentially leading to more efficient attention-paying and learning.” Meditation then is a means to organizing your mind, exactly what I need. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sit.

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Until Further Notice, Celebrate Everything!

I’m enjoying Skylarity’s posts. Check him out, and celebrate everything!

 

Source: Until Further Notice, Celebrate Everything!

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The Empty Bee Box

I’m worried. What will happen when Global Warming, Big AG and the pharmaceutical companies kill our pollinators? Here’s my sextina in protest.images-2

 

The sun a spotlight on my metal chair warming
my face tilted up to soak the afternoon’s silence
as sun and land secretly conspire to riotous disorder
sprouting and blooming and bringing forth bees
and ants, gopher snakes and the pair of crows to forage
to mate; my garden their abundant future.
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Yet politicians scupper Earth’s viable future
the creatures too busy living to anticipate global warming
as habitats shrink and humans mismanage the forage
and the crops, poisoning for profit the natural world to silence,
unconcerned with topics of little interest like bees
and their Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder.
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Children of Earth—all affected by this disorder.
Without our pollinators we have no future.
With every bite of dinner remember the bees
industrious from blossom to flower that teem in the warming
spring after the sluicing winter, their tiny buzzing silence
shrinking, a muted reminder of loss of nutritious forage.
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Honey bee in blooming blackberry

Incomprehensible and cruel this throwing off of forage
this dismissal of reality as Earth spirals to disorder.
The presidential request of scientists’ silence,
the denial we have nothing but a bright future
making America great as global warming
dries farmlands to dust and starving the bees,
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already confused by neonicotinoids, bees
losing their way, unable to fly from forage
to hive. Monsanto, Dow, Bayer aiding the warming
with aggressive pesticides that cause disorder
to the natural cycle. Only super viruses survive the future
as Varroa, the destructor parasite sends bees to silence.
We must tabulate the evidence and fill the silence
with the real news. Gone the clover, the alfalfa. Our bees
are starving and the almond crop is dwindling. In our future:
the memory of honey and butter spread on hot toast as we forage
the cupboard for a remnant of natural food, but find disorder
of empty plastic containers, the leavings of the Earth’s warming.

 

I offer the other beings my acre of forage.
My bees and I are saving seed for the coming disorder.
To plant a field of wildflowers—my policy of warming.

 

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In Memory, With Love

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People do not die for us immediately but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.  Marcel Proust

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I’m waiting for Mike, but he’s not coming back. He left us last month as the dreary rains dried up and the Napa Valley rioted into leaf and bloom. I was sure he would emerge from his Beemer in the swirl of white petals billowing from the trees shading the Upper Valley Campus parking lot. The prodigal student returning, his hat jaunty over his crisp pink button-down and white duck trousers a manuscript tucked into his portfolio and a twinkle in his eye.

You might say Michael was this teacher’s pet. But in the four years Michael Weaver Layne and I shared stories and literary criticism, we became more than teacher and pet. We became friends.

Mike trusted me with his words and I saw in his writing the potential for acclaim. His mind was wildly creative and he wrote with abandon and humor. It was a joy to read his stories and a joy to know him. Jonathan Franzen says on death: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.”  Mike Layne loved life, embraced it, and brought lightness to my world.

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“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”    Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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Mike Layne’s legacy remains with us in his beautiful architecture, infinity pools, irreverent short stories and an unpublished novel, Mammoth, written in the style of a Clive Cussler thriller. It was Mike’s dearest wish to co-publish Mammoth with Clive. At his death, Mike was negotiating with Clive’s editor for a leg up. He was going to make it.

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Mike was also compiling a book of short stories to be titled Blah Blat and Blather. The following is one of the stories slated for the collection and one of the last pieces we worked on in class.

In an email to our group:

Dear incredible writers,
  After class, at home perched on my porch with another full glass of Pinot, I ruminated over the class critique. The original ending, something I fashioned from memories of Bambi came out as planned  (I admit to being a Disney fan, Frozen giving me warm toasty moments).images-1
    But Daphne’s observation jarred me into re-crafting the ending, cleansing it of much Walt’s fantasy.  So—–with meekness, I’ll stand it on.
Mike

 

 

Lord is my Shepherd

by

Michael Weaver Layne

No moment’s timing could have been better than when Lord entered my life. Vicky had left me, slamming the door in my face, ending what I thought was a near perfect relationship.

“What could be wrong with wanting sex three times a day?” She screamed as she stomped down the steps to the gravel drive.

“I suppose nothing, except the demand it imposes on durability,” I shouted. I felt durable enough, after all, I run marathons. But even runners need occasional breaks.

I watched as she throttled her Subaru down my long drive to the Silverado Trail.

Okay, it’s over. I sighed.

I poured a Pinot into my glass, filling it to the rim and settled into the teak chair on my porch and began dissecting my thoughts. No more evenings with Vicky on the porch, watching the cars go by. No more evenings in bed with Vicky feeling my manhood sucked away ––– sitting solo on the porch –––– not nearly as bad as I had feared. I missed Vicky the nympho but welcomed the respite from her lusty demands.

I filled my glass once more and gazed across my vineyard and down the vacant drive to the Silverado Trail. A pickup swerved into my drive, sliding to a stop, its driver kicking something out of the truck’s rear bed.

“Oh no! Good lord not again.” I cursed. From my porch, I could see a little gray ball of fur yelping desperately at the truck as it sped away.

“Damn,” I growled, “Another abandoned orphan.”

It occurred all too often. An unwanted pet dropped into the midst of paradise to fend for itself, or if lucky, find adoption.

I set my glass on the table and loped down the drive. “Hey boy, come on it’s okay,” I shouted.

Rather than dart off into traffic to be run over, as these outcasts often did, the little fur bundle, yipping happily, dashed in my direction zigging down the drive. I knelt to my knees and it sailed into my arms, swabbing my face with its tongue.

“Good lord stop that,” I shouted with a laugh, holding the pup at arm’s length and just beyond the reach of its tongue. Lordy Lordy, you’re an affectionate little dog.

We bonded instantly.

“Lord.” I announced, let’s name you Lord.”

From that instant, Lord became his name and we became inseparable, best buddies, constant companions, and like the nights with Vicky, Lord and I shared the bed –– the difference, cuddling and sleep our only goal.

He loved television, particularly the Simpsons. He would lay motionless for episodes, his chin on crossed paws, one ear up and one down, his one blue eye and one brown, following Marge’s blue hairdo as if it were another candidate in need of herding.

Lords intelligence amazed me. I figured out ways for us to entertain each other. I taught his tongue to read braille. I made up plastic cards with raised dots for the words, roll over, sit, or shake. Lord would lick them, then for a treat, perform the command.

Other things too. The fire hydrant I brought home from a flea market and placed in the yard. Lord understood immediately and from that day on, it stood as his private urinal.

Lord grew into a fine sheep dog, eager to chase a Frisbee. He loved my pool and the mallard that would drop in on misty mornings. In fact, Lord loved everything. His insatiable fondness for life, his tragic flaw.

His first affair was with the skunk who lived along the Napa River, his amorous advance meeting with a blast of spray. Repeated baths of tomato soup did little to clean Lord or mask the skunk’s odor.

Next, he sought romance with a porcupine. Our vet spent half a day plucking quills from Lord’s muzzle.

In spite of these miss-adventures, he loved every animal on the ranch. The raccoons that he treed at night with gleeful barks, the squirrels whose walnuts he would dig up and chew like a bone.

Lord become a canine gigolo, lavishing love on all the ranch’s creatures.

Born to herd, he constantly dashed along the river or between the vines, organizing the progress of any creature he could spot. Quail scattered at his approach, gophers ducked back into their burrows, butterflies drifted higher as he bounded into the air to move them this way or that.

Herding was Lords passion and the bigger the thing, the better the challenge.

One morning as the lingering fog lifted, a UPS truck sped down the drive, a challenge that Lord could not ignore. Barking with delight and nipping at the tires he tried to swerve the truck to the side of the driveway.

Lord dashed in too close tripping under the truck’s front bumper. The driver unable to avoid hitting Lord rolled over him with a sickening thump.

Twisted and broken, Lord lay on the drive his tongue still lapping the air, his eyes bewildered, his hind leg twitching, then turning still.

I scooped him up and hugged him to my chest wishing desperately for one more swish of his tongue, one more wag of his butt.

I felt his last shudder. It was over.

He slumped, limp in my arms, his legs dangling in weird directions from his crushed pelvis.

“I’ll miss you, Lord,” I whispered in his ear, tears rolling down my cheeks and dripping from my chin.

I buried Lord under an ancient oak tree and within sight of my perch on the porch. I filled my glass with pinot to the rim, with eyes still pooling tears I stared at the mound of freshly piled soil.

A blue Jay scolded from an over-hanging branch, a haunting requiem bidding Lord farewell.

I looked at the two dog biscuits, Lord’s favorites that I placed next to his Frisbee on top of the mound. Two squirrels scurried down from the tree and scooped the soft dirt, reverently burying the biscuits.

Their heads popped up at a sound from the river. I followed their gaze. From beneath the trunk of a fallen tree, hidden in shadows, I spotted the outline of the skunk. The squirrels twitched their tails, alerted by scraping from the gravel drive. The porcupine shuffled past casting the burial mound a passing glance then disappeared into the mustard growing beneath the vines in the vineyard.

I looked back at the still squawking jay and caught a glimpse of the raccoon peering from behind a branch.

I re-filled my glass and walked over to the grave. I could feel eyes watching me. Lord’s friends mourning from afar, hidden yet present. I stood over the Lord’s grave alone.

A butterfly floated by.

My fingers twitched as I took Lord’s epithet scribbled on the back of a box of his favorite kibble and nailed it to the tree.

Lord my best buddy, I’ll miss you, dear friend

When we first met, I never thought it would end.

Now you are gone, and impossible to replace

Life without you, I’m not sure I can face

Your blunt little butt and eyes mismatched

All that is left, this note I have scratched

Lord you were my Shepherd

A friend so true

Never a day— that I won’t miss you.

########

Mike, if I may steal your words— you were a friend and “never a day—that I won’t miss you.”

MICHAEL_AT_P0RSCHE

He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.

Shakespeare         Hamlet

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Filed under Memoir, Obituaries, Students

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I’ve never taught at a university, but I know what schools are like. After I won my MA, I accepted a position as a non-credit teacher at a local community college. Wow! I was stoked—I planned to put all that theory into practice and knew my school would celebrate my work and dedication.

Let’s just say I was delusional. It didn’t take long to discover I was regarded lower in status than that broke second cousin on the doorstep. Like credit staff, non-credit teachers are expected to attend meetings, plan, assess and report but for half the hourly pay. As Alma, a character in Oink, says, “It’s all work, low pay, and no respect.”

It’s always a delight to meet a protagonist that embodies my own values. Emily Addams is a professor of women’s studies at Arbor State University. Founded as an agricultural college in Northern California, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as an easygoing and humane community as the university adopts the worldviews of the corporations funding research into new technologies and cuts funds to the small programs.

A new Vice Provost has come aboard and Emily and her colleagues from the interdisciplinary programs face a difficult and perplexing choice for funding purposes. If they don’t choose, they may lose their programs, but even if they come in under the umbrella of Humanities or Social Sciences, they will have to prove their programs worthy of receiving funds. One way or the other, the warm community built over the years looks doomed. Building community and fighting injustice are important to Emily and she’s spent her career doing both, especially through cooking and eating.

PigBaby1Emily learns that Peter Elliott, a Professor of Plant Biology has been found face down in one of the school’s pigpens, presumably poisoned. The rumor says a group opposing genetically engineered crops is behind the poisoning as Elliott is researching GMO corn and a staunch supporter of Syndicon, the major GMO seed controller. Emily had learned about the GMO issues at a panel on GMOs and wondered, “was it GMOs themselves or the policies of the corporations that produced them— the relentless focus on profit, the resistance to regulation, the absence of concern for harming, or even helping, others… “ that gave GMOs a bad name?

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But Emily has other worries. Forty something with a young daughter and recently divorced, she’s getting into the dating game. As we meet her, she’s worried that her hair-do has flattened (I empathize with that) because she’s meeting mathematics professor Wilmer Crane after work for their first date. Crane tells Emily about finding Elliot in the pigpen clutching a piece of cornbread, which turns out to contain goat cheese and caramelized onions—Emily’s signature recipe.     2077366

Emily is named a suspect and rallies her community with food and camaraderie to investigate what really happened. She learns Elliot was receiving secret corporate funding for his new strain of genetically modified corn, he’d betrayed two of his women students and his highly accomplished wife through his philandering, as well as the Save the Fields organization gunning for him.

Named one of the funniest books coming this spring by BookBub.Com, author J.L. Newton describes the first of the Emily Addams series, “Culminating in a twist as curvy as a pig’s tail, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery is at once a sly send-up of the corporatized university and a reminder of why community belongs at that heart of human life.” She makes a good case for community and organic food, punctuating her points with delectable recipes at the end of each chapter. Her language is both accessible and intelligent, Emily and her colleagues sound like professors, parents and friends in realistic dialog and witty narration. I appreciated the thoughtful and often humorous look at two important themes, the corporatization of campuses and GMOs.

Newton does not support corporate influenced universities, but she does make a case for the potential for GMO foods to feed the world. Respected scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and thebc2f1ddf99da4c777b98768be883078e_400x400 World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. Even pundit Michael Pollan said recently the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “ I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve.”

Cozy mystery fans, fans of food novels, and readers concerned with the health of our world and its people will enjoy the twisting plot and the delicious dishes shared throughout the novel. I’m working my way through the recipes and reliving the scenes as I cook. Part of that enjoyment comes through the vivid sense of place Newton has created. At times her description becomes lush and lyrical as she details the flora and fauna, the climate and the bucolic campus.

Emily Addams comes alive on the page. She is intelligent, caring, witty, concerned and a great cook. She connects with people through sincerity and food and doesn’t try to be more than her capabilities. She fears, questions herself, doesn’t give up easily and does what is right. I’m really pleased to find a new voice in Emily Addams who I can both identify with and share a corn and cherry scone!

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Congratulations to J.L. Newton for her debut of what I’m hoping is a long-lived series of Food for Thought Mysteries. Smart, timely, readable but not dumbed-down—“Oink is a celebration of community connected to the joy of food and fellowship.”—Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Oink is out today.  Pick up your copy at Amazon or your local bookstore. And if you’re local, join J.L. Newton for her launch of Oink In Berkeley.-1

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Filed under Mystery, Reviews