Season's Memories

The first signs of Christmas were the decorations that appeared along the streets in Center City. Those green, red and gold wreathed and ribboned lamp posts that quietly announced the season as they sparkled through falling snow. The tiny square on the front page of the Bulletin counting down the shopping days from Black Friday building more excitement at it shouted that there were only 15, 10, 5 shopping days left till Christmas. Opening the numbered doors on the Advent calender ahead of time because the anticipation was more than I could stand leading to the big pay off at number 25. The whole house came alive with baking for weeks and weeks and weeks. I had to find new ways to sneak in to taste powdered sugar coated bows and honey soaked balls of deep fried dough that I'd savor mouthful after mouthful, crunching multi-colored nonpareils between my teeth. I learned to shake the tray of pizzelles so the jordan almonds tumbled from the pile, so you wouldn't notice I'd eaten so many and get mad. We tossed Tinsel so it hung in long icicle shimmers on the tree that seemed as high as the sky. Trains chugging round and round the small circle on the platform that I'd watch as if something new could happen each time it turned the bend and poked out from behind the tree. Standing in lines holding your hand, waiting four hours to see Santa, only to cry and shrink away from him in fear. Then, afterward, telling everyone I saw, even strangers, that I talked to Santa and how I asked for so many things. Dolls and tea sets turned to bikes and then clothes and grown up wishes. But I would have settled for so many more little things lost through the years. Grown up wishes that santa can't grant. People that are gone. So many regrets. So many things lost. It seems that Christmas miracles only happen in movies now. Maybe that's why this season seems to have lost its aura, its sparkle, its magic for me. Christmas now arrives before even one cookie is baked. The big event holiday sale is passed and I am already behind and missing you. You with your toppling Christmas trees, your perfectly set table, your meticulous bows, your carefully scripted and staged family Christmasses. Or maybe I am just missing you.

Beginnings

I was watching a PBS (remember PBS?) program yesterday about the Philly hosts of kid shows. You know those oldies like Sally Starr, Chief Halftown, Wee Willy Weber and, my personal favorite, Gene London who did Cartoon Corners General Store.
What I realized all of these hosts had in common, especially Gene London was the permission to use imagination to change your perspective of the world. It was sort of a "if you can dream it you can do it" kind of attitude.
Most kids just watched these shows for the cartoons and to see if school was called off for snow. But I had a much different connection to these hosts. It's funny how we don't remember a seed here and a thought planted there when we grow up. The story segments, fairy tales and sense of beauty in the world were so intensely verbalized to me then, that when they ran the segments, I remembered how riveted and moved I was as a child.
It's a shame that programming like this has changed so much since then. And I have to admit that a lot of it seemed so corny and so unsophisticated now. A flashing light on a still picture to simulate lightening would not get past a lot of kids now, growing up on cell phones, computers and ipods.
But for me it was mesmerizing. I didn't feel very encouraged to use my imagination in school, rules were strict and English was formal and didn't sway much in the land of imagination. But these show hosts opened the way for imagination to allow all sorts of things. I wasn't very good at drawing pictures, it was the stories that kept me there. The fairy tales of unusual places and fascinating far off lands that riveted me. It ignited a spark that my mother started with her collections of poetry and sayings. Her little tidbits cut from the newspaper and magazines were hung up on the refrigerator or glued into books. I would read them over and over and soon began to write my own.
My diary wasn't "Dear Diary, I saw so and so in class today. He is so cute!" Well, okay, some of it was, I wasn't that weird. But other times my diarys and journals were filled with these little beginning specks of my writing to come. How I saw a flower or a cat. How the street smelled after rain, or how I internalized the feeling I had on the beach in the summer with the sand and coppertone and sun baking my skin.
I'm so grateful for these little reminders of those early sparks. How my fascination with words and fiction stories brought me to new places within myself. I am so glad that every now and then I am reminded of what a rich expanse of experiences I had and still have that continue to influence my world and my writing.
So here is to all of those great hosts of Philly TV! Thank you so much for those early sparks and the permission to follow my imagination where ever it may lead.

Little Whispers

I've been thinking a lot lately about how being a woman created a unique experience for me. I always felt that I had to work harder, smarter, and always seemed to have more to prove on the job. I had to prove that I could not only do the job as well as a man, but could be a single parent, go home after working all day and cook, clean, launder, food shop, do homework with my daughter, raise her alone and have all the right answers and in my spare time, save the world.

It wasn't until a recent injury forced me to slow down, or actually stop completely, that I had time to even reflect on why I felt that I had so much to prove. It was then that the flood of voices surfaced. You know, all those well-meaning phrases whispered into our ears as little girls. I am talking about things like, "don't be too smart, boys don't like that" and "don't be funnier than the boys or no one will want to date you" and my favorite, "don't ever be better than the boys at anything or they won't like you"

My mother had been a single parent with three children for years. She worked hard and was one of those super-women mentality females who did it all. She made three meals a day, cleaned her house, and worked hard, really hard. Even after re-marrying, she still kept up this encompassing all, mother of the universe attitude. What I found peculiar in her statements, was that she still had this fixation on marriage. All her advice to me was about getting "boys" to like me so I could find a husband. The focus was never on what I could accomplish as my own person. It was not only all about a male presence in my life, but how to trick someone into liking, dating and ultimately marrying me. This told me I wasn't good enough on my own to attract someone but needed these magic tricks to get someone to like me.

The disconnect for me was that the thing I prided myself on more than any other attribute was being funny and smart. I was a skinny little kid with buck teeth, glasses and eventually braces. I had a forehead the size of a melon and hair that went wild no matter how hard I tried to tame it. For me, being funny and smart was the way out of being a four-eyed bucky beaver. Even after puberty when the braces came off, and I somehow miraculously became attractive, I still would rather read a book than go on a date. It all just seemed like too much work. I had to be funny, but only so funny. I had to be smart enough to not be boring, but not too smart to make the boy feel dumb. I soon realized the part about dating that I liked the most was the hunt. The flirting and teasing and excitement of the chase. After that, it all seemed boring and I was so focused on the "getting" that I didn't know what to do when I finally "got."

Adolescence is always tough terrain. I mastered a lot of it, but I got to the point where I was really not interested in all the work that went into dating. My mother had made it too much for me. Always measuring, gaging and thinking about what and how I said everything. I measured it all out afterward to be sure I hadn't crossed this stupid line that didn't even exist. I soon realized I was way too much of an individual to care about all that stuff. All I wanted to do was sit on a beach, read a good book and write poetry. If a boy, or anyone, liked me I wanted it to be because they saw me and not some filtered version of who I really was.

But this idea of how much of myself to show others had become so ingrained in me that I didn't even realize those whispers were still in my head. They were smart too, they changed themselves ever so slightly to adapt to jobs, friendships and other relationships along the way. They caused me to doubt myself and question myself way too much about everything. It was like I was at battle all the time trying to figure out how much of myself to reveal. What not to reveal. I began to view the weight of experiences and things in my life and worried how people would feel about me in relation to the things that happened around me. And, ultimately, I got lost.

I can't blame my mother though, the '50's were about family, or at least the television media advertisements of family. All little girls wanted to grow up and have the best hair with Prell shampoo and Aquanet hairspray. The best complexion with 99.9% pure Ivory soap. They wanted to get married like Donna Reed, have the cleanest house, be the best hostess and always be ready for any catastrophe with a smile and a healing response while dressed in pearls and pumps. But, to my mother's dismay, I became a product of the '60's. I was the hippie sitting next to you on the bus smoking black cigarettes. I had long wild hair, wore love beads, peace signs and American flags. I had rings on all my fingers and the toes of my shoeless feet. I had flowers painted on my face and smelled of patchouli and freedom. I tossed out my bra, my girdle, my hair spray, my pearls and dared to expand myself to reach who I really was inside. All I really ever wanted was to be real.

Our Genres Our Selves

I have recurring conversations with people about the difference between poetry and prose (used to simplify the many genres such as short story, short short story, flash fiction, novella, novel, etc). Is something a poem or not? Is poetry a dead form? Why do people even waste their time writing poetry? If someone cannot understand a poem, is it a poem at all?
And equally, on the other side, the same applies for some forms of prose. Is prose poetry really prose? Is it really poetry? Is a flash fiction piece really fiction? Are internet pieces constructed by multiple participants really to be considered pieces of legitimate fiction? If a tree falls in the woods ...
I seem to find myself defending the writer, especially the poet, in me all the time. I find this amazing since I write in all of the genres listed above and have also tried my hand at plays, screenplays, video scripting, technical writing and journalism. Let's not leave out blogging and tweeting since these are new forms that are now being published and translated into TV shows and movies. But I have become overly sensitive about telling people about my work, especially as a poet.
I define myself as a writer, not as a writer of a particular form. I have written in these many areas simply because I love to write. Any time I get the chance to write something, I take the job. I don't like being boxed in by a label. Don't like being restricted by someone else's idea of who I am or what category I should be shoved into. I believe writing is expression and it is my decision to decide which form of expression best suits a particular subject.
If I tell people I am a poet, they will roll their eyes from some preconceived notion grown out of a horrible experience they had in middle or high school. I wonder what the reactions would be if we responded the same way to other professions. Imagine meeting a refined and dedicated heart surgeon and someone replying, "Oh, so you ONLY operate on the heart?"
I sometimes feel this off-kilter assumption about constructing poetry. Poetry can sometimes be really abstract, have limited exposition and a reaching attempt to glimpse something that is extremely elusive, subjective, and one sided. It is constructed in a way that might require some knowledge of the form to even read the line breaks as they were intended. All of this might make poetry hard to write, let alone understand. But I have seen very talented prose writers pushed to anger and frustration over even reading a poem. I wonder what is this emotional pressure point that poetry has on people? This form that so many try to disavow that can either sooth their soul, or render them to anger and frustration?
Equally, if you tell someone you are working on a novel, there's a different type of eye roll and some vague reference to everyone wanting to write "the great american novel." Or, flash fiction pieces that are less than 750 words. How can something this short be a story? Is this "real" fiction? Is the writer just taking short cuts because they are lazy?
Everyone assumes a negative posture BEFORE there is even anything read. These preconceived assumptions permeate us as writers. Making our craft all the harder for these little demeaning mumblings. And it's bad enough that people that don't write do this, but, we, as writers, have learned to do this to each other as well. We forget the "constructive" in constructive criticism and instead of listening to what the other writer is trying to accomplish, we blather crap like, use less adverbs, use less adjectives, use action words and my favorite lately, don't use too many words! All possible well meaning responses, not helpful in character development, line break construction, sentence construction, or whether the intended message even got to the reader. It's all about criticizing the mechanics from within the readers sphere of reference.
Maybe this is what drives me to rework everything I write, constantly. There is always a phrase that needs refining, word that needs replacement, or thought that can be made more concrete. I have piles of short stories and poems sitting side by side in my file cabinet, just waiting for the re-write that brings them back to life.
I really would love to see writers, in all genres, work together as an open minded community. I would like to see all of us get out from under our genre rocks and explore each other's writing in a whole new light. I would love for us to exchange the techniques that get us through the blocks and the lack of motivation and the never ending question: "will anyone read this thing that I have worked on for six, or eight, or ten days, months, or years." Because these are the things as writers we all share.
As writers, we are all relegated to the back seat anyway. Everyone wants to kill the craft. People have been proclaiming for years that poetry is dead. The novel is dead. And, now, the internet and its academics have begun to take away authorship by saying the user changes the work and makes it into something new; something that is the user's and no longer belongs to the author. So now, the author is not given (or paid) their due as the originator in a digital world because no one can agree on how the copy-write laws apply to the new ever changing medium .
We need to come together as a group, from the urban teens scrawling on subway walls, to the poets sitting under a tree, to the short story writers clacking away on their laptops, to the NY Times best selling novelists living in mansions (or at least houses bigger than mine) and all of us in between. We have to create a network, together, because times are changing. The digital age is chipping away at the copy-write we stand on, and, if we are not careful, we will be so diluted that it won't matter which genre is harder or easier to write. It won't matter the hierarchy we fall into because the future digital representation of what we were will never be as brilliant and beautiful as what we all are right now.

Time Enough

As women we often talk about having time enough to do it all. We usually mean time enough to fit in jobs, families, writing (or painting, or photography, or whatever creative endeavor you espouse to); not to mention cleaning, yard work, watering house plants, errands, etc. And, don't forget trying to find leisure time with your spouse and time for yourself for catching up on simple everyday things (when was the last time I shaved my legs?) etc.

I was having that mid-fifties feeling of running out of time when I quit my job last year and returned to school as a full time student. Now I am hoping that I didn't start this new path too late. I've known since I was a kid that all I wanted to do was write. I always had this fascination and deep connection to writing. I was a constant reader and even now am usually part way through at least three books at a time. But this whole stop dead in the path and hop over to another is really disconcerting. I know this is the right path. I know this was the right choice. I worry that I won't get to enjoy it all to its fullest in whatever time I have left.

I take comfort in realizing that there is a large group of women writers out there that raised their families and took care of their responsibilities and came back to writing like I did. It appears to be a menopausal urge to be true to ourselves which creates this phenomena. It is so hard to change our lives. This goes for both men and women, but especially women because we have a tendency toward making most of our decisions based on how that decision will effect the other people in our relationships.

I started rummaging through my shelf of numerous self help books this morning and found two books by Dr. Christiane Northrup: Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause. If you've never heard Dr. Northrup speak or read any of her books, I highly recommend them. She has something to fit whatever circumstance you are experiencing. These are wonderfully uplifting and encouraging books about how woman respond to the world around them. The books transcend circumstance and cut to the heart of things. She doesn't soften it and she doesn't hold back.

Dr. Northrup sees this menopausal time in our lives as a time for self-healing, a time to heal our past and also a time to get back to who we are and what will make us happy. To see ourselves, as our own woman; aside from who we are in relation to those around us. I started reading her books when I suddenly one day started to cry at everything. Happy things. Sad things. Melancholy things. Funny things. Even stupid things. My few days of PMS a month turned into raging PMDD. My ultimate overwhelming sadness merged into sleepless nights, hot flashes and the most awful mood swings I had ever experienced. Welcome to the peri-menopause picnic! So if you are just experiencing this, hang on tight, the ride gets even bumpier. I was sad about everything. Sad about things I hadn't thought about in years. In the middle of this my mother passed away of small-cell lung cancer and I plunged into a sadness that I don't even have the words to describe. The only thing that kept coming up, like one of those little buoy things in the middle of this dark ocean of sadness was a desire to go back to school and write again.

According to Dr. Northrup this was all wonderful! My life was giving me a chance to set it straight! Get back on track! Reach my pinnacle of fulfillment! One day, frustrated by not knowing how to listen to these wonderful messages my brain was sending, I threw these books onto a dusty corner of a bookshelf. Reading her cheery uplifting books just made me sadder and madder because I couldn't see how to get there.

Eventually though, the things I had read poked through. I realized that this wasn't a phase or my hormones talking. This was my brain telling me, loudly and clearly, what I needed to do to be happy. But instead of saying "Oh, I get it" I just sat in a corner and wished my life was different. Until one day it just seemed so clear. The only way to change, was simply, to change. I had to DO something. I had to push even one aspect into motion. One little change was all it would take to send me in another direction. I needed to take a class, or, even just take out my old poems and stories and read them. I could try a rewrite or even write something new. This was all I needed to do to change my perspective; to see that the road I wanted to be on was right of me all along.

But, since I rarely do anything easily, I instead, quit my job and went back to school full-time to finish my degree. I learned one thing really quickly. The world doesn't like when you change your path. Things start to go wrong all around you to force you back to the status quo. Stupid things went wrong in the house; leaks and moaning appliances, the dryer broke, people got sick, the economy tanked. But I had changed direction and was moving forward, and its hard. I keep second guessing my decisions. I wished I was still that 20 year old that could stay up all night and work two jobs, and write, and still have my hair done, nails manicured, and make-up applied impeccably. I wished I could still be all things to all people; still do everything, do it well, and be perky and well rested. But I can't do it all. Realistically, I probably never could.

But I do know I can do this one thing really, really well. I can write. And my artistic soul is braver than ever and reaching out to new horizons. My practical soul keeps screaming, "What are you doing? You have no job! You have no 401K! What if all the appliances break? What if a tree falls on the house? What if the roof falls in?" Well, practical little soul, my creative little soul says "If the roof falls in, please rush in to rescue the computer, all of the new poetry for grad school is on there."

My Road Taken

About a year and a half ago I quit my job as an Executive Assistant and returned full time to Rowan University to finish my degree. After 22 classes (that should have been spread over five semesters) three Dean's list certificates, countless numbers of fiction stories and poems, all either read, written, academically analyzed or all of the above, I finally graduated with my BA in Writing Arts. Like many woman my age, I was one of the staunch marchers in the new wave of feminism that hit the country in the '70's. I really believed in the cause for women, believed in equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities for education; basically, equality across the board. That was at least how I saw it back then.
When I divorced and tried to raise my daughter, I thought that all the marching and signed petitions and bills that were passed would help with my new-found head of household status. What I found was this: I could get an education IF I could support myself. Or, I could support myself and not get the education. And of course the old cycle of: can't get the job without the education, can't get the education without the job to support the education ... and more importantly couldn't make the money needed to fully support a family on a single paycheck without a degree.

It took me 25 years to finish my four year degree. I took my first class at Rowan in January of 1984. I took one creative writing class in 1992, I came back full time in 1996, and finally again in 2008 to finish my degree. I should have graduated in the '88 - '89 school year. If you read my transcript, you can map the really bad financial times. That is when each class is followed by a resounding W. Withdrawal. Not just from the classes, but also from what my life was supposed to be. Withdrawal from the pursuit of who I knew I was and what I could accomplish as a person; withdrawal from the writer I wanted to become.

For all of my belief in change in the system, for all of my protesting, for all of my idealistic beliefs, the equality I found was this: When I divorced in 1980 I lost my credit, my home, any substantial financial support that would allow me to pursue my education AND support myself and my daughter. I did what I thought was the wise choice and took jobs I hated and lived in places that I hated because I couldn't afford what I wanted because I didn't have the education to get there.

But the more disturbing aspect of all of this was that I was letting go of the one thing about myself that gave me a sense of accomplishment and a strong sense of self: my writing. By saying this was the thing to let go and not pursue meant that my deepest desire for myself, as a person, had no validity. It meant that everything else was more important than I was to myself.

I have finally rediscovered that voice in me that started scribbling into her pink locked diary every night before she went to bed. The little voice that wrote lyrics to musical strains because it seemed empty without them. The voice that wrote, in spite of the lack of technical prowess or understanding of how the construction of a poem changes how it says what it says. But most importantly I have found that, that little voice matured with me and understands the world around her much better now than she did back then. We are finally on the same path again and that path's road sign reads: Following My Dream.

I have learned at least this: we all have dreams and to others those dreams may seem unattainable. But if you see your dreams as an intricate part of who you are, don't let anything or anyone stop you from pursuing them. Nothing is more important than your dreams. Today I am finally pursuing mine and this road leads to graduate school and an MFA in Creative Writing, in Poetry. I'm glad that life has a way of bringing you around to where you ought to be, eventually. Were all the hard road lessons necessary? I don't know. But I do know this, we don't know the rocks in the middle of the road less traveled. But the road I came down has given me wisdom, strength and the courage to still pursue my dreams.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant (Emily Dickinson)

Even as a small child, I saw the world with a very different slant than people around me. I use the word "slant" specifically because I always saw something that was askew. I never trusted the outward or seeming appearance of things. I always felt that there was more going on; something deeper, hidden and more profound. It was like a kinetic sensation on my skin that warned me that something was about to happen, change, or shift into something more.

I was drawn to how things came into being and what followed the onset. It was never about the thing itself. There is what is seen on the surface and something deeper; there is always something deeper hidden beneath the surface. Good, bad, more beautiful or even ugly, but, it is always there. Everything has many layers and all of them fascinate me. Very few things that I am drawn to are simply about what is seen; it is always about this something else. It is always about what is revealed when we take a step into the 18" diameter of personal space. It's the thing we often don't want to see. The emotion we don't want to experience. The little prickly nudge that forces us to look deep into ourselves.

But where, within all of these different layers, I wanted to know, was the truth? And then I realized that this is the subtle difference I want to explore and write about: the Tell all the truth but tell it slant Emily Dickinson side of things that I want to peel apart and reveal in my writing. The sense that truth is not merely measured by actions but more in the reason behind the action, inaction, lies, excuses, obsessions and addictions of the subject. The face presented to the world may be one truth but bring me down to the bone, pith and soul of the matter to another truth. This is the pool my writing wants to submerge itself in; this is where it wants to live.

Welcome to my new blog!

I want to welcome everyone to my new blog! I decided a little over a year ago to change my life into what I thought it would be when I was in my early '20's and sat in my kitchen hammering the keys of my electric typewriter penning what I thought was a progressive and feminist science fiction book entitled The final Savior. It was pretty radical for the time. My lead was a really tough take no shit female character named CHA. Even though I received a lot of encouraging suggestions for rewrites from a bunch of Science Fiction publishers and magazines, life got in the way and the manuscript is still gathering dust in my files. But it's OK, all of my poetry and short stories are keeping it company so it's not very lonely!
After my mom died of lung cancer I started to think about the regrets she had for the things she never accomplished. And began making a list of the things I didn't want to regret when my time came. I began to brush off the dusty, moldy, lonely folders packed in my basement. I banished the dust mites and paper mites to new homes and reread many of the stories and poems for the first time in a long, long time. I really liked what I read and thought that maybe I did have some talent after all. I decided to revamp and update what I had written since most of it was written in the '70's. Not only the world but my view of it had changed drastically since then. I was a little more realistic, a lot less innocent and the voice of a cynic had crept into me between the beautiful poetic lines of unrhymed verse. But the biggest regret, the one that loomed over me constantly jabbing me in the ribs like a malicious critic, was the folder from Rowan University and the half finished sheet of required courses. I hated that I never finished college. That I had stopped writing. That I had become the version of myself that everyone said a woman in her '50's should be. This became the one thing, if left undone, that I would regret the most on my deathbed. Because I knew that the degree would put me back in touch with myself, and would put my life where it was supposed to be instead of side-railed because life had crashed into me and left me on the side of the road parched and intellectually dry. When I packed all my stories and poems away I also packed away the part of myself that could create. Without that, I was only a shadow of myself. The world was an odd place for me to live without my writing and I became closed off, angry and despondent.
At 56 years old, going in all or nothing, I jumped into the quicksand pool, and went back to school and finished my BA degree 25 years after taking my first college course. It was exhilarating, exhausting and the best thing I ever did for myself and my middle aged self esteem. I found that because I had grown older, my poems took on new depth. My short stories were more rounded because I was more rounded, figuratively and oh, yes, literally too! But, that's a whole other entry in itself to be discussed later.
I was also accepted into an MFA creative writing program. This is something I never allowed myself to dream. I never thought I would ever be a good enough writer to entertain the thought of competing in a spot for this type of program. And after years of people asking,"What do you want?" and my reply: "I want to live on the beach and write poetry!" I am finally going to get my chance to do just that. For the next two years I am going to spend my life focused on my first love, poetry! Well, I am doing it in Ohio, and not on the beach, but I'll get to my beach too!
There are so many funny, sad and frustrating stories of how I got here; to this time; to this wonderful second half of my life. I hope you will join me on the journey and share your stories as well. Who knows? Maybe if we encourage each other we can all accomplish the thing that we love and be happy! Wouldn't that be great? Oh-oh, I think my little idealistic hippie-chick is coming to the surface again. If she does, anything is possible! Stay tuned!