Now I Can See

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I live across from a cemetery now; the neighbors are rather quiet.

The corners of the sky glow pink and red as the last of this New Year’s daylight slips away.

I’ve just come through one of the more difficult parenting months of my life. The months ahead do not look less difficult, but perhaps unknown light will emerge around the edges of the darkness. There is, in any situation, always room for hope.

Last night, I journaled about the low lights and highlights of 2017, a practice I learned from Sister Karol Jackowski. I was blessed to take both Spiritual Writing and Nature Writing from “Karol” during my MFA program. From Karol, I not only learned to write better, I learned to live better.

In accessing my low and highlights, I recognized (which I think is the point of this exercise) the kernels of grace that exist in each down turn, each dark path. Many of the seeds of my highlights were germinated in the low lights.

Whether fortune or foe, who is to say, goes a familiar Buddhist teaching.

“Barn burned down, now I can see the moon.”  Mizuta Masahide

Now I can see.

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And sometimes, the barn can be salvaged.

Ten Year Night Playlist

My love, my latest CD mix for you is our origin story, told in 15 songs.

This thing called “we” is a space we first began to occupy on this night, ten years ago, at Lee’s Liquor Lounge. Multiple things converged in the perfect storm for this “we” to begin.

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One of the very first photos of the once brand-new “we.”

Track 1: Big Joke, The Rhinestone Diplomats

Our friend and coworker, Aaron, and his band–The Rhinestone Diplomats, had to be playing at Lee’s on that particular November night. Our friend and co-worker, Justin, had to pick you up at Rod and Amy’s house and bring you to LLL, where I was busy dancing up a storm.

Track 2: Sparks, The Who

I had to sit down next to you on a table and feel the atomic energy moving between your skin and mine. Yeah, there were sparks.

Track 3: Cortez the Killer, Neil Young

The band played a fantastic cover of Cortez the Killer (did I request this, I wonder?) and I danced my ass off; you watched me from a bar stool.

Track 4: Tiny Dancer, Elton John

I remember approaching the bar after Cortez concluded. We may have hugged. Hold me closer, tiny dancer.

Track 5: Shelter From the Storm, Bob Dylan

Justin was ready to leave. “Come in,” she said. “I’ll give you shelter from the storm,” or at least a ride home in my little white Honda Civic.

Later, while loading up the bands’ equipment, Aaron may have averted his eyes when he saw a little white Honda in the parking lot with steamed up windows.

Track 6: Let’s Get it On, Marvin Gaye*

We barely made it up the stairs to your apartment.

*Okay, I cheated here. I couldn’t find anything other than Marvin lip synching this song, so I linked to Jack Black singing “Let’s Get it On” in one of my all-time favorite movies, High Fidelity. But my compilation CD for you uses Marvin’s version.

Track 7: This is the Last Time, The National

Lee’s happened on a Friday. By Sunday, you invited me out to brunch to tell me, “We’re not supposed to date. That was the last time.”

Track 8: Most of the Time, Bob Dylan

You didn’t miss me, most of the time. But I . . .

Track 9: I Burn for You, Sting

I burned for you; But I burned quietly. When you asked me at work how I was doing, I’d say, “I’m fine.” You’d tell me, “I’m fine too.”

Track10: Those Three Days, Lucinda Williams

So, knowing you were spending Christmas alone and my kids were with their dad, I invited you to coffee. Instead of meeting you at the coffee shop as you suggested, I recommended one near my house. “We’ll walk over together,” I said. We never found our way to the coffee shop and we shared our infamous “three days.”

But then, once again, you said “This is the last time.”

Track 11: Sideways, Citizen Cope

I said, “Fine. I’m fine” as you dated the girl you met at a New Year’s party. I made you the first in a long line of mixed CDs with a mixed purpose. You made me one in return. “Sideways” was on your playlist for me. I would wait patiently for you to realize what I already knew.

Track 12: Come Pick Me Up, Ryan Adams

When spring came, I grew less patient. When you were done with the girl from the New Year’s party and the woman from Dallas, I began suggesting outings. I took you to a Jackie Greene concert for your birthday. You kissed me in the parking lot, but would not invite me in at the end of the evening. I saw you hiding in the bushes, making sure I could get my car off the icy, steep hill outside your place.

I took care of your cat while you did a solo trip to Paris. After feeding your cat, I would stand in your closet and take in the smell of your perfectly spaced work shirts.

A few months later, I asked for your help picking out a new digital camera. We’re just single friends helping one another out, I told you. You picked me up in your beater Jeep with the top taken off to let the warm late spring air in. While driving to Best Buy, I told you it was like riding in a boat. That made you smile.

Track 13: Everything I do, Whiskeytown

Then I dated the young Buddhist poet. I got sick. You checked on me five times in one day when I was sick; you checked in on me when I was in the emergency room. The Buddhist Poet couldn’t drive. When I was getting better, he biked over the High Bridge with a tincture of yarrow that he grew in his garden. Not long after, I broke up with him because he wasn’t you. Your actions spoke louder than your words. Your actions told me you loved me.

Track 14: Let it Be, The Beattles

We went out for drinks with my best friend, Shari, when she visited from Montana in August. She told you, “Admit it. You love her.” And you did. You admitted it. You decided to give us a chance, in spite of work rules to the contrary.

We let it be and life let us be together, eventually.

Track 15: Ten Year Night, Lucy Kaplansky

Through the years, we’ve both put this song on many of our compilation CDs. And now, tonight, it really is our Ten Year Night. The night the “we” that is “us” all began, one decade ago. So happy to round a decade with you, my man.

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About one year after Lee’s Liquor Lounge.

 

 

I’ve Been Holding Back

I’m always holding back. I hold back my writing, because maybe I’ll use it somewhere else someday. Maybe there will be a better time or place to put my words out into the world.

I hold back feelings of hope in a futile attempt to tamp down the potential for disappointment.

I hold back feeling joy, in an effort to stave off feeling sadness.

I hold back love. I’m not sure why I hold back love. I sense it has something to do with trying to keep chaos at bay. For me, love and chaos were once intimately linked. At the very least, I know I hold back love when my world is at its most chaotic. For example, whenever my youngest son’s health issues creep into the forefront of our lives, as they have this fall, I fold deeper into myself. My capacity to show love to those in my life declines. My life becomes singularly focused on trying to control the uncontrollable: my son’s health.

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Early morning ramble at the retreat.

I attended Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words writing retreat in northern Wisconsin two weeks ago. It was my fourth time attending this retreat and I always come away with new insight and new words. I’m still shaping some of the essays I started at that retreat and I’m mulling over the direction I received from Kate, other attendees, and my inner guidance: Overhaul your entire manuscript. Begin again. Rewrite it a fourth time. This time, actually retype the whole thing. I’m kind of resisting the direction right now. I know this because I started applying for editorial jobs. Wouldn’t it be better to be an editor again, rather than a writer, I ask myself. I ignore the writing contract that I made with myself last May, when I graduated with my MFA, when I agreed to let my “writing self” have a year before my “get-shit-done self” stepped in and told writing self to get a real job.

Even in my resistance, I’m still thinking about the rewrite and how it will be done, how the manuscript will be shaped so differently this time around. I’m reading about five other memoirs right now (not unusual–I live my life juggling numerous books). Reading to observe structure, more than to absorb content. That said, I’m sucking the marrow out of Claire Dederer’s Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses. I’ve come late to the Poser party, but am so glad I came.

Another bit of wisdom I brought back with me from Wisconsin is an idea that another writer shared. This writer shares a first name with me, so it’s only natural that her wisdom would resonate deep within. She told us she was trying to move from “ego writing” to “soul writing.” She described the difference. Ego writing resists going deep and, instead, slips safely along the surface. Soul writing, in contrast, dares to reveal the shadow side, dares to become all it can be. In other words, soul writing doesn’t hold back.

It feels scary to me, but I am going to watch for the places where I am holding back. In those places, once observed, I will ask myself if I can give a little more. I will take small steps until it no longer seems so scary to give myself to my writing, my loves, my life.

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The fog always lifts, eventually.

Like birds do, I want to enter each day with a feeling of abundance and generosity. I’m tired of living small; I’m tired of holding back.

 

 

New Poem up on Agate Magazine

Agate just published this poem I wrote about the loss of a treasured tree and the new life that enters through the void of loss. Please take the extra step to hop on out to Agate to read this piece. Agate, where I interned this past spring, is doing a terrific job bringing together the arts and science to promote ecological stability and environmental protection (and respect) in Minnesota and the greater Great Lakes area. While you’re there, check out the fantastic fungi photo by my brother, Scott Fettig!

Completing my MFA; Entering the Void

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Photo credit: Heyli Howard (photo taken at E’s high school graduation).

Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.

With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog (and in Canvas, the online platform utilized by Bay Path), I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that?

It’s been a good week to contemplate the nature of endings. My son, Ethan, just completed his last college class on Friday; he’ll be graduating with a BFA in painting and drawing next weekend. For me, that is an ending to celebrate. Back in 2007, when my ex-husband lost everything (thankfully we were already divorced five years at the time and so my finances were no longer tied to his—with the exception of losing child support payments for a time), I had no idea how I’d manage to pay for our two kids’ college educations (although still four and six years ahead). It had always been my goal (was once my ex’s goal too) to do this for Han and E.

In the end, everything worked out. We lived frugally and (thanks to a promotion at work) I saved lots of money in CDs when interest rates were still high. Remarrying helped free up my savings towards Han and E’s college. Plus, my ex was finally able to help out with E’s college. Now, I’ve (*we’ve) done it. I’ve put Han and E. through college. Ethan—bless his heart—knew this distinct goal of mine and he congratulated me (Yes, he congratulated me!) on the day he completed college. So, I’ve done what I set out to do, a commitment made when my ex and I divorced. I’ve completed the raising of those two kids (which is not to say that Han doesn’t still call me every weekend, seeking advice). The rest is up to them.

It’s interesting how easily I celebrate the end of my children’s college years, but my own grad school completion, not so much. I think this is because my own ending creates a void. It’s the void of “what’s next?” especially when you’re a creative and the path is not obvious (as it might be to someone graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering). I see Ethan entering the void as well; he spent yesterday updating his artist web site. Anticipating the void, Kate Whouley, the instructor of my two publishing classes, asked us to draft and submit a signed writer’s contract. My professors have done their part. The rest is up to me.

The void created in the absence of the MFA program is mine to fill. To fill the void, I will keep writing.

The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of this MFA work is that I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But the act of writing (into the void) is what I love and that is why I’ll keep writing.

In honor of this ending, I compiled a list of my top ten hardest endings (in no particular order):

  1. 1999: A soulful friendship lost
  2. 1979: My black tuxedo kitten—Uncle Beethoven—run over by a car
  3. 1986: End of gymnastics career with back injury sustained during a vault
  4. 2016: A soulful friendship lost
  5. 2009: Putting my daughter Hannah on a plane, heading alone to Japan, effectively ending her childhood
  6. 2005: A soulful friendship lost
  7. 1988: The summer before college, when I was too entrenched in a binge eating disorder to feel (or understand) my high school losses
  8. 2014: My mom selling “our share” in the family cabin that my grandfather built and my last visit as an “owner”
  9. 2002: The end of my parent’s marriage, because it came the same year as my own divorce and their ability to parent me (as an adult child) came to an end exactly when I was in need of extra support
  10. 1984: The year my brother Scott headed to California on his red Kawasaki motorcycle, my brother Rob moved to the Twin Cities, and my brother Chris returned to college, leaving me home alone to referee my parents’ chaotic marriage

Not all endings are necessarily negative. And even with the “bad” ones above, I can now see what eventually came in to fill the void (except when Uncle Beethoven died). To end on a positive note, here are my top five endings (in no particular order):

  1. 2002: End of my marriage
  2. 2009: Remarriage ends my years of being single
  3. 2017: Second child of my first marriage completes college and I achieve one of my top five lifetime goals by seeing my oldest two kids through college
  4. 2010: Han home from Japan (end of Rotary year)
  5. 1998: End of short career practicing law

And now, I enter the void; I enter a time of waiting for new structures and experiences to add shape to my writing life.

*My husband, my ex, my ex’s spouse, and me

The Work of Adulting . . .

never ends. I’m so pleased and proud to have an essay publish on Grown and Flown this week. The essay explores a few difficult junctures of letting go as my oldest–my daughter–has spread her wings in life. Please check it out!

H teaching her little brother Japanese quite a few years ago now.

Timeline Math: How Endings Begin

I like “timeline” math. It’s really the only kind of math I enjoy. Here’s an example of how it works: I zero in on a number, like my youngest son’s age. He’s lived seven and a half years, as of today. I then figure out how old he’ll be in that same amount of time, looking forward; counting from today, he’ll be 15 years old. I might then figure out how old I’ll be when he reaches that age. I’ll be 53 (not sounding so old anymore). I usually then move on to figure out something like how old I was when my oldest—my daughter—was fifteen. I was 37 years old (now seems incredibly young). I have no idea where timeline math gets me, in the end. It’s just something I do, perhaps because I’m a planner.

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Photo of me on my 30th birthday (which is 37 – 7); H was 7 and E was 5. J would still be in the unborn ethers for 9 more years. (video below is E at 15)

Today marks the beginning of week three of my final semester of my MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Bay Path’s semesters last 16 weeks. Because we get one week off for spring break, there are really only twelve weeks of my MFA program remaining. I was 44 years old when I began the program; I’ll be nearly 47 when I graduate. Hopefully, this leaves me time (before I die) to pursue the many writing projects my brain is entertaining.

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading about Ann Patchett’s writer’s path. She was 21 when she began Iowa Writers’ Workshop; presumably she was then 23 when she graduated. She was 27 when she published her first book. As hard as I run at this new career path, I’ll never catch up. There’s some relief in admitting I entered this writing game late. There’s also some relief in acknowledging I’ll never be Ann Patchett (particularly since I haven’t the slightest clue how one write’s fiction). Finally, as much as I’ve loved the Bay Path program, it’s fairly indisputable that it is not (yet) in the same league as Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Interestingly, Patchett does not speak glowingly of her MFA experience, or even of the inherent value of an MFA. I, in turn, will speak highly of my MFA experience, particularly of the accessible, one-on-one relationships that I’ve shared with writers like Kate Whouley, Lisa Romeo, and Mel Allen. I’ll also sing praises to the wonder of Suzanne Strempek Shea, who I encountered during Bay Path’s Ireland Field Study Program, which—thanks to Suzanne—is the crown jewel of the Bay Path MFA program. I will actually be sad (even depressed) to release my student status in mere weeks. This course of study was always less about the degree, or end result, than it was about the process along the way. For me, the journey was worth the sacrifice of time and money, even if I don’t end up with a $45,000 publishing agreement for my first book, as Patchett did, within a few years of graduating.

Immersion in Publishing is the only class on my roster this semester. It involves some class assignments but mostly time spent immersed in a publishing internship. I chose to do my internship locally, with Agate magazine—a journal that has a regional focus on the greater Great Lakes area. I might have, instead, procured an “East Coast” journal gig, as most of these internships can be completed online. Bay Path itself is fairly East Coast orientated. Although nonresidential, there are times I’ve felt a certain lack of connectedness with the program because I can’t simply “drive” to Bay Path to participate in some of its writing events.

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H at age 16, with her host grandmother during her year living in Nagasaki, Japan as an exchange student (can’t believe it has been 7 years since that year). She was 15 when she applied to Rotary–with singleminded determination–for this opportunity.

Lately, I’ve wondered if I limited myself by procuring an internship in “Middle America.” That said, I’m likely to stay in the Midwest (I’m 46—as we covered above—and I haven’t left yet) and to prevent the anticipated void of writing mentors at the end of this program, I hope to have developed some potential Minnesota-based mentors. Although I’m doing acquisition work and social media marketing during the course of this internship, which I’ve only just dipped my toes into, Agate co-founders and editors, Laurie and Stephanie, have kindly offered to mentor me. I’ll be following retired MPR reporter, Stephanie, on some of her interviews and Laurie, a naturalist and poet, will work with me during the month of April, National Poetry Month, on developing a nature-based poem—one that might be published in Agate.

One and one equals two new writing mentors (perhaps more) and the promise of new beginnings.

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Me and my childhood bestie, Serah, at age 15.