POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE

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“Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought.” ~ Jill Bialosky

I just finished reading a wonderful new book that I picked up solely because of its intriguing title: Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books 2017). The  Kirkus Review sums it up well: “An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.” 

This short memoir is centered on specific poems that have brought the author comfort, meaning, inspiration, or understanding during pivotal moments in her life. Bialosky organizes the book by themes such as Shame, Memory, Escape, Passion, First Love, and Mortality. A brief bio for each poet is included which deepens our awareness of the poem’s meaning. Each poignant chapter could stand alone. 

Throughout the book, Bialosky reflects on the profound lessons and meaning poetry can offer us. “Poems are composed of our own language disordered, reconfigured, reimagined, and compressed in ways that offer a heightened sense of reality and embrace a common humanity.”

Whether you are a poetry lover or haven’t read a poem since high school, there is something in this book for everyone. 

Ms. Bialosky, an award-winning poet, novelist, and book editor, never veers off into English professor mode when reflecting on the poems. Rather, she selects key phrases or themes that connect with her experience. Here she examines a stanza of E.E. Cummings poem, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.                

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
                 

Bialosky explains that the “use of the word voice as a modifier for eyes allows the reader to experience how much the speaker of this poem “sees” into his subject. Then she intuits the poet’s question:  How is it that one person can unlock something private within us? Or awaken things in us we fear?” 

Bialosky writes about the death of her first child shortly after birth. She shares the never-ending pain of her beloved young sister’s suicide.  In the chapter of grief, Bialosky comments on Auden’s poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts.  “W.H. Auden documents the otherworldly state of grief and tragedy; how it strikes families while others are doing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Even dogs continue on their doggy life.” 

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can connect to this paradoxical state of being: How can everyone else just go about their business when my beloved is gone? 

Bialosky says, “I will spend years trying to capture the experience of suicide in a prose work…Poems remain a sustaining source of comfort.

Like Jill Bialowsky, words, too, have been an integral part of my healing after losing my father—words shared with a therapist, words of comfort from family and friends, words I have written, and words of those who have crawled through the tunnel of trauma and grief and come out the other side.

It has been exactly two years since my father’s tragic death. In some ways, this is unfathomable.  How could two years have passed?  This disbelief has me thinking more about the elusive nature of time. If time is constant, why do our brains perceive it so differently? Why does time slow down when we grieve and speed up when we are happy?  Why when we are waiting excitedly for a special event, do the days not move fast enough?          

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For centuries, poets have pondered time’s mystery. Consider Henry Van Dyke’s poem, Time Is.

Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is eternity.

Emily Dickinson expresses this idea of expectation and waiting in her poem, If You Were Coming In The Fall.  Although the agoraphobic poet spent most of her life inside her Amherst, MA home, Dickinson enjoyed her share of romantic interests. The following poem is thought to be attributed to a family friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, who died 2 years before Emily.

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If you were coming in the Fall,

I’d brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,

As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,

I’d wind the months in balls—

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,

I’d count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, till my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman’s Land,

If certain, when this life was out—

That yours and mine, should be

I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,

And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—

That will not state— its sting.

                                            ~

Jill Bialowsy concludes that “poetry gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”  

Do you have a favorite poem or one that holds special meaning?

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Do you regret quitting ______?

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Do you regret quitting music lessons as a child? Do you wish your parents had pushed you to continue studying piano?  Do you regret dropping out of competitive swimming or gymnastics or skating or dance? 

What about your own children? When do you let them quit a sport or artistic pursuit? What if your child is very talented? 

In my unscientific survey, the answers run the gamut from insisting one’s child continue studying to a certain age or level, to leaving the decision completely up to her. Some parents told me they don’t even suggest lessons until their child asks for them. 

For certain activities like singing, acting, and painting, one can much more easily pick it up again an adult.  But for other pursuits, there is a window of possibility both physically and mentally.  The opportunity for training narrows.  At some point, the pre-professional student must decide where he is heading because of the increasing demands of pursuing his art or sport. There is only so much time.

If you have devoted years to supporting your child’s passion or talent and he suddenly decides to quit, your heart may twist in a knot.  Maybe you see yourself in him. Maybe he is (was) living your own unfulfilled dreams.  You might believe that he is foolishly passing up opportunities for accomplishments and accolades. You worry that he will regret his decision.

My son walked at 9 months and was catching a ball by his first birthday. His pediatrician noted “motor skills genius” on Sam’s chart. At age 9, just before he was to earn his first black belt in karate, Sam insisted on quitting. It wasn’t that he didn’t like karate anymore (he practiced at home all the time), he didn’t want to go to the classes. His father and I wondered if the additional requirement for the black belt (writing an essay and leading the class) was the culprit. Or, maybe it was the intimidating and stern sensei. (Heck, this man scared me.)  Sam could not articulate the real reason, if there was one, but he put up quite a big fight and refused to continue training at the dojo.

The sensei told us we were making a terrible mistake. Sam showed exceptional talent.  The rewards for his personal development down the line were too great to pass up. Parents shouldn’t make such an important decision on the whims of a fickle nine-year-old, he said.

We let Sam quit.

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Still, our son never stopped moving. In addition to studying piano and chess, Sam excelled in swimming and tennis. He played varsity basketball and fenced competitively.  Recently, he’s taken up martial arts again.  Sam, now 23, holds no regrets about our/his decision, though admits to wondering if it was the “right” one.

With my youngest daughter, Audrey, the decision to end her pre-professional ballet study at 16 was hard on both of us, but mostly me. Dance was (and still is) my passion.  It meant a lot that my daughter and I shared this.  Despite the sacrifices involved, I committed to supporting her training (which mostly involved driving and waiting.) I loved watching Audrey grow as a dancer. I miss those days.

Recently, I wrote about the experience for Grown and Flown, a wonderful website and blog on parenting young adults. After this publication, I’ve received a lot of comments from others parents in similar situations—soccer, horseback-riding, violin—who related to my angst.

Interestingly, another mom wrote to me describing the opposite situation. She and her husband were never fully on board with their daughter’s desire to pursue dance professionally. After graduating with a BFA in dance, their daughter is now trying to get her big break in NYC. The reader wrote:  “So.. I was never a dance mom. More a mom that allowed my child to steer her ship….hoping that I did the right thing and that her dream becomes a reality.” 

Her honest words put a new spin on this parenting dilemma.   

You can read my essay, The Last Ballet Lesson”, here.   I welcome your thoughts.

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  My ballerina.

Writing Hard Stories

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“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen

 

I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 

Well.

It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.

 

Strangers on a Plane

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I consider myself a friendly person. I enjoy interesting conversation and connecting with people. I don’t care much for small talk, though. I much prefer to gain something from a conversation. At a party, I can easily meet a stranger and know her life story by the end of the evening. I think I’m pretty easy to talk to—except maybe on an airplane.

If you’re looking for conversation 30,000 feet in the air, you probably don’t want to sit next to me.    

My fear of flying developed in my early twenties. I’d get anticipatory anxiety a week before my flight. I often had panic attacks on the airplane. Once, my body jolted during sudden turbulence and I accidentally hit the woman seated next to me.  I could never sit by the emergency exit because I knew I was incapable of assisting my fellow passengers “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

Fortunately,  over the past several years, my fear of flying has diminished somewhat.  I can even get some work done during a flight.  Can’t say exactly what brought about this change. Maybe I’ve finally become desensitized. Or maybe becoming a parent forced me to put on a brave face for the kiddos. Perhaps the relaxation techniques I learned finally paid off.

Or, maybe it was just those yellow pills. 

Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the unpleasantness of air travel will get to me now more than the idea of donning a life vest. Given the current state of air travel, I bet most of us feel this way.

Still, I can never predict my mental state once on board, so I keep my guard. I have certain rituals I need to do during takeoff and landing.  I’m very picky about my seat choice. And, I don’t want to talk to any strangers. Fortunately, most people are plugged into their devices or watching in-flight “entertainment”. 

So, there I was a few months ago, about to board a 7:00 am flight to Toronto.  (Let me just say, I’m not a morning person. )  A well-dressed, older man smiled at me.  I smiled, faintly, then looked the other way.  He moved closer. “Traveling for business or pleasure?” 

I did an inner eye-roll at that original line. “Pleasure,” I answered, hoping my one-word reply would signal that I did not wish to make small talk.  But he continued in a chipper, wide-awake fashion.  I nodded politely as he gave me the weather report for Toronto.  As we began to board the plane, I felt relieved to escape. “Well, have a good trip,” I said.

What were the odds he’d be seated next to me, anyway?

As I walked down the too-narrow aisle, I got an immediate claustrophobic reaction. The plane was smaller than I expected. And, there were only two seats on each side of the cabin. So sooner had I settled into my window seat than Mr. Friendly appeared.

“Well, look at that,” he said, sitting down in the too-close seat beside me.

I ignored him.

I took out my phone and headphones, then put on sunglasses. (Don’t ask. Just part of the ritual.) I plugged into my favorite tunes. After the safety instructions were given, my seatmate asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was.  Then he made a joke about the TSA.  

I removed my earplugs.  “Sorry, um, just to let you know, I’m not a comfortable flyer,” I said. “Especially during takeoff and landing. So, please excuse me.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you need to do.”

I smiled, then put back on my headphones.   

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he announced over my happy music.

Ten minutes later, after we reached cruising altitude, my body relaxed a bit. Immediately, my friendly seatmate continued to engage me. “Feeling better?”

 Gee, didn’t he have something to read?   

 I  tried summoning my friendly self.  “Yes, I am, thank you.” 

He asked if I was from Boston and what I planned on doing in Toronto.

“I’m on my way to a family wedding,” I offered. 

“That’s wonderful,” he said, then sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m on my way to a family funeral.”

The juxtaposition of our travel purposes touched something within me. I removed my sunglasses. I listened as he described the loss of a dear cousin. 

Before long, I found myself in a thoughtful conversation with this stranger.

He was a hospital physician who loved his work. He and his wife of twenty years had both found each other after leaving long terrible marriages.  (His honesty and happy marital status removed any imagined pretense. ) I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was and he told me. Then he showed me pictures of his family and grandchildren.  He laughed that I was surprised by his age–73. I told him that people often think I’m much younger, too.

“Happiness is the fountain of youth,” he said. 

Then I heard myself ask:  “So, what’s it like to be seventy-three?” 

And he told me.

So there I was, in one of my least favorite places, talking about love and loss with a stranger. We exchanged stories about our professions. He asked me what I most liked to write about. I asked him what he’d advise a medical student.

We laughed about the White House circus and made predictions of our new president’s future. He made a joke about Trump on an airplane.

The flight passed by quickly—something that never happens to me. I realized that this man’s company distracted me from the usual worrisome engine noises and air bumps. Still, when the flight attendant announced that it was time  “to start our descent” my anxiety crept up.

My new friend sensed this.  “Just take a few deep breaths. Go back to your happy place.” 

And I did.

Once on the ground, the man gave me a few tips for navigating Customs. He needed to rush out to catch a connecting flight.  He wished me well and was on his way. 

In that moment, I was sorry to see him go.

During the past weeks, with all the terrible news stories about air travel, I thought about my random encounter with a friendly stranger in the unfriendly skies. 

Maybe he thought about me, too.

Let There Be Light: 10 Ways Beat the Winter Blues.

In a previous life, perhaps I was a plant or a cat.

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I crave sunlight the way I imagine one might crave a drug. I need my daily fix. I plan my schedule and location around it. I feel sorry for people who have to work in a windowless office or worse—under fluorescent lights that make my head throb. I’m suspicious of people who keep their shades down on a sunny day. 

Summer is my most creative and happy time. I love warm nights, wearing sundresses, eating outdoors, and walking on the beach. But one can’t live for 3 months of the year. 

Did I mention I live in New England?

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My natural high energy state begins to dwindle in November when the clocks change to daylight savings.Most people experience an energy slump during the cold, dark days of winter. Some, like me, have an extreme version known as SAD-seasonal affective disorder which brings on a  gloomy sluggishness. I can sum up my state-of-being with two equations:

 Cold + Gray = low energy and depressed mood. 

 Dark + Cold = hibernation mode..

 Where ever you fall on the winter blues spectrum, here are 10 coping strategies to try.

l. Catch the rays

Try to catch the early sunlight through a walk or window. This helps to wake your brain, regulate biorhythms and lift your mood. Right now, as I write this post, I’m in my favorite indoor sunny spot. Even when life takes a hard turn, I always feel a little better when sitting near a sunny window. I call this winter sunbathing. So open your shades!   

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2. Light Therapy

My doctor wrote me a prescription for a light therapy box. You can buy them online. I use one from Verilux. These are not sunlamps that emit UV.  These type of light boxes mimic outdoor light. I read or eat in front of mine for 20-30 minutes in the morning.  It causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD. It can help your body clock synchronize with the day. This response comes from the light going through your retina, not your skin.  Some people use a dawn simulator lamp to help the get out of bed on dark mornings. 

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3. Sunny Images

My brain relaxes when it sees pictures of flower gardens, tropical paradises, and ocean beaches. I keep photos of happy summer memories on display. Try setting your screensaver to your favorite sunny scene. Listening to ocean wave sounds can induce a relaxed state, as well. Every little bit helps.

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4. Fly South   

I’m lucky to have family I can visit in Florida.  Soaking up the sun and vitamin D for a week does gives me an incredible boost with lasting effects.  I haven’t been able to convince my doc to write me an Rx for this, though.

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5. Keep Warm. 

There is a Swedish saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”  Even though I grew up in Michigan, I realized as an adult that I knew little about how to properly dress for winter.  So I Invested in a really warm coat, leggings, sweaters, gloves, and boots. This helped increased my cold tolerance. I hate shivering.

6. Exercise 

No surprise that gym memberships peak in the winter. The cold days make you want to move less and eat more. My salvation is dance and working out at the gym. Consistent exercise anytime of the year has been shown to ease depression. And exercising in bright daylight may intensify the effect. 

 7. Get Outside

Okay, I’ll admit that this one is really tough for me to carry out. Fresh air is good for you. Even in the cold. Still, my friends know not to ask me to go walking on a grey day below 40 degrees. I should go, but I won’t. On these type of days, errands get put off and the gym seems too far a destination. My body tells me I must feed it chocolate. Give me a sunny winter morning, though, and I might just venture outdoors for that good-for-you-walk.

8. Mood Music

Upbeat and cheerful music lift my spirits and gets me moving when the couch is calling. Make a  Winter Blues Crusher playlist. Some of my happy favorite tunes are:  Glad You Came (The Fighters), Feel Again (One Republic), Come to Me (Goo Goo Dolls), and Home (Phillip Phillips).

9. Winter Sports

 I was an avid ice skater as a teenager.  Now, I admit the sport holds less appeal. I’ll go if my daughter drags me along. Still, if you can find a winter sport you love, like skiing or snowshoeing,  you’ll enjoy the winter that much more. (Just don’t ask me to join you.  I’ll be indoors by the fire.)

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10. Surrender 

 “For everything there is a season.”  Wise words. Sometimes you just have to work on acceptance.  If winter is a hard time for you, figure out what can make it better.  Be kind to yourself. A Stanford University researcher who studied the residents of northern Norway, found that an attitude shift, or change in mindset, helped people feel happier during the long dark winter. This fascinating study got me thinking. Maybe this winter I will try to embrace the season, rather than endure it.

Want to join me?

So Get cozy. Build a fire. Enjoy a cup of hot cocoa. Make a snowman with your kids.

Wishing you a happ(ier) winter!

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Does Time Heal All Wounds?

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“Time flies over us but leaves its shadow behind.”  ~  Nathaniel Hawthorne

If you have suffered great pain and loss, there is a good chance a well-meaning person offered this familiar consolation: “Time heals all wounds.”   

Why do we insist on repeating this phrase? Because we don’t know what else to say. Because there isn’t really anything to say. We want to make the person feel better—somehow. We, standing on the far shore of grief, are certain this saying is true.

Even with some inherent truth in this adage, I believe it is unhelpful to those in the midst of fresh grief. Such a person care barely move through the minutes of each day. 

When my father died suddenly and tragically, I could only see Before and Now.  I did not care about how I would feel six months into the future because I couldn’t imagine that future.  As an ambitious person who can get consumed with productivity and efficiency, I had to surrender to grief. I had to learn that recovery cannot be rushed along.

Even today, exactly one year later, I do not feel the passage of 12 months. The chronological movement of time did not heal. It is what happened to me during that time. I got therapy. I had supportive friends. I practiced self-care. I mourned, grieved, reminisced, and reflected.  All this contributed toward healing. The wound is still there, perhaps covered by a scar, but the unbearable pain has lessened.

Each grief is unique to the person who is grieving. Circumstances of the loss matter, too. The loss of a child, for example, may never be “gotten over”. The worst thing you can say to a grieving person is, “Gee, it’s been X months. You have to get on with your life.”  Wouldn’t the grieving person “get on with her life” if she knew how?

Instead, it is far better to say: “I know you are suffering terribly and can’t see any way out. But I know you will get through this if you give yourself time to heal.”

Then offer your steady presence. Listen more. Say less.

Time itself does not heal wounds. If anything, time may soften the sharp edges of pain. The grief process, unlike time itself, is not linear. Grief has the power to make you feel stuck in time. It has the power to narrow your vision so you can’t see a future.

Time can heal if you use it well. You have to take time to do the necessary inner work. The only way to get over grief is to go through it. There is no detour.

Losing My Words

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This past November, I lost my father in a horrific accident. The days and weeks following were filled with disbelief, turmoil, and trauma.  I couldn’t eat, couldn’t think, couldn’t write. The crushing grief took away my words—and that was devastating. Writing is how I make sense of the world.  I imagined that writing would be part of my healing, but I could not find any words to tame my anger and sadness.

I wasn’t even sure what day it was. 

The recovering perfectionist, take-charge, get-it-done, type of person found herself in a state of confusion and paralysis. I had no choice but to surrender to grief and give myself a big timeout. This meant putting aside writing projects and taking a break from consulting work.

But there was one job I couldn’t take a break from—homeschooling coach to my youngest daughter. Audrey was in the midst of her college application essays and creating her art portfolio.  She had 10 colleges on her list. As her homeschool supervisor/guidance counselor, I was responsible for all documentation, the transcript, curriculum description, as well as reviewing her essays. Now, my brain was muddled, my attention and energy compromised. I felt panicked by my inability to fully resume this responsibility.

My daughter knew how much I was suffering. Yet in the midst of our family crisis, she became a pillar of strength.  The years of homeschooling had prepared her for independence. Audrey continued her studies and kept all commitments. She reached out to a mentor for help with writing the essays. She enlisted a team to assist her in finishing her portfolio film—all while I was curled up on the living room couch.

Gradually my brain fog lifted.  I was able to check over Audrey’s final applications and help her prepare scholarship essays. Miraculously, I watched the tasks on her College Countdown list disappeared one by one. Jan 15th arrived and the final application was submitted. We were done. 

Winter. Spring. Summer.  

Now I have a homeschool graduate, on her way to college, who knows how to advocate for herself and problem solve. She faces obstacles and challenges with grit and grace. These essential qualities aren’t reflected in grades or test scores, but they will carry her far.

My words are returning.

The healing continues.

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The Homestretch

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Tomorrow officially begins my daughter’s senior year of homeschooling. When I say “officially”, I  mean that she begins classes and independent studies toward her high school diploma.  In truth, Audrey is always learning.  This summer she played the piano, read, watched classic films, took Spanish lessons, wrote a film script, and created a screenwriting program.

Friends have said to me, “Now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel !”

Yes, we are on the homestretch toward graduation, but as I think more about that expression I realize it doesn’t quite fit.  I wouldn’t describe our homeschooling years as a tunnel.  There was nothing dark or long about it.  It was a multi-year journey that took us to all kinds of interesting places.  Along the way, I sometimes had doubts that we were not on the right (or best) path, that something would be missed.  Gradually, I let go of these uncertainties. My daughter’s happiness and engagement in learning was what mattered most. 

Audrey and I both miss the early carefree days of this journey, when we weren’t thinking about transcripts, standardized tests, and college admissions.  In the elementary years, Audrey had lots of time to play, explore, create, imagine, dance, and think. (Not to mention, sleep.) We took so many wonderful field trips to art and science museums, historical places, nature centers, plays, concerts, and dance performances. Audrey joined other homeschoolers at zoo school, MIT science workshops, wilderness training, drama class, community service and Jewish holiday activities.

She spent a lot of time outdoors.  

No homework, no grades.

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And the time flew by!  I really can’t believe we’ve already arrived at this place.

Now she’s finishing up her subject tests, visiting colleges, preparing her portfolio, and writing application essays.  She is passionate about her career plans. She knows what she wants to study in college. Keeping her goal in mind makes taking high school calculus more palatable.  As busy as she will be this senior year, there will still be time time for adventure and hanging out with friends.   

We kick off the year with a college biology class and then the annual Not-Back-To-School picnic.  

It’s all part of the journey.  I want to enjoy every moment.  

Yes, next June there will be light and joy mixed with sadness. One long journey ending—a new one beginning.

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What I learned in 2014

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I’ve already admitted that I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t reflect, though, on the past year. A day older, a day wiser–hopefully.  When you start thinking about all that happened to you in the past year–the good, the bad, and the ugly–you may come to see that you are indeed a bit wiser.  

So this New Year’s day, I asked myself: what have I learned in 2014?  

Without going into the details of how and when I learned these things, I’m simply sharing the list.  Maybe one of them will resonate with you.

  1. Family really matters. Make the time.
  2. Say the things you need/want to say to the people you care about. Now.
  3. If you’re not sure what to do or say to someone in pain, just listen to your heart and take a chance.
  4. Coffee dates are better than Facebook chatting.
  5. Learn to identify what is trivial before the trivial takes over your life.
  6. You cannot write the script for the universe.
  7. The only one who can make time for pursuing your dream is YOU.

I guess most of us already know these things deep down. It’s just that our daily clutter has a way of obscuring their truth.  Then we forget.  

 When you think about what you’ve learned (instead of where you have failed), the needed changes are more likely to fall into place. And to stick.  

So my only “resolution” for 2015 is to carry-over what I’ve learned last year.  That’ll be enough work.

What about you?  What have you learned last year?

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

ideas2One of the most common questions I’m asked when people hear I write fiction is: Where do you get your ideas?  The answer is simple: ideas are never the problem. I have too many ideas.

While smack in the midst of  the draft of my second novel, I got an idea of another book. I was really excited about the idea, but I forced myself to put it on hold.

Where do I get my ideas?  In snippets of conversation overheard in a coffee shop. Newspapers stories. Obituaries. Historical events. Dreams. Childhood experiences. Traveling. Imagination. Art. Issues I care about.

When my writing workshop students get stuck, here are some ways I help them generate  ideas.

l.  Ask What if?  What if you find out your best friend was living a double life? What if you discovered you suddenly could speak a language you were never taught? 

2. Collect interesting images of people whom you do not know. Decide to bring one to life. What is her name?  What does she want most in the world? What is her story? 

3.  Collect images of awesome, weird, and intriguing places. Use the image as a jumping off point for a setting. What is magical about this place? What happened there?

4.  Think of a funny incident that happened to you. Now retell the story with a different character and ending.

5.  A character receives a map in the mail. Describe the map. Who sent it? Why?

6.  Look for story starters.  Here is one I gave my students for a flash fiction lesson. She gave me the black box for my birthday.  This opening generated many creative short pieces!

7.  People watch. (My students are always surprised when I admit to eavesdropping in public places.) Imagine a secret someone may be keeping? 

Most likely, you’ll have more story ideas than you’ll ever have time to write. (I certainly do.)

I think most writers would agree that ideas are all around us if we take the time to look. The real challenge is not in finding the idea but in shaping it into a compelling story.

Beginning writers put too much emphasis on finding the idea. The story idea is only the first step of your journey. The real story unfolds during the long trek to The End. One of the fun things about writing fiction is the process of discovery. You may think you know where your character is going until she grabs the reins and changes direction.

When I was working on my novel One Is Not A Lonely Number, I knew the character Gabrielle has a secret. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I kept on writing the story, thinking about Gabrielle, listening to her, until one day I just knew. It felt magical.

Stephen King writes about this process of discovery in his memoir On Writing :“…my basic belief about making stories is that they pretty much make themselves.” He starts with the situation first and then develops the characters. And he never knows the ending ahead of time.

So don’t sit and stare at the blank page. Start writing something. Anything. Don’t over think the process. Just keep writing. Ask yourself questions along the way. Let your idea morph into other ideas. See where your characters lead you.

Enjoy the journey!