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.

 

 

Another Amazing Divorce Essay, Not Mine

Today, I’m struggling through my first cold in over a year. It’s actually somewhat of a relief. I questioned whether my immune system was in overdrive this past year, never letting me get the colds that passed through the other family members in my household. I am the only one with this cold today; I am the beginning (and hopefully the end) point.

Instead of working on my book or tinkering away at essays today, I spent most of the day holed up in bed, with a box of tissue and a glass of water, trying to keep my nasty germs confined. I read and slept; read and slept; read and slept. Then I went to do the school pickup route and after-school activity runs. Now, I’m back in bed.

I’ve been seeing lots of blue jays lately. The other day, I read this phenomenal essay by Kerry Neville. This essay is about blue jays and divorce and the need for hope in our lives. Sometimes, divorce is necessary; sometimes it is the kindest thing we can do for our children and other family members. Don’t stay in the box if the box is killing you.

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A photo of me taken the summer I turned 30; Getting a nose ring did not free me from my box.

Brilliant Essay (not mine) on Parenting Post-Divorce

I’ve been rather busy this month. I think I’m back at my writing desk now, for the school year.

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I have nothing to share quite yet, but will provide a link to Penny Guisinger’s brilliant essay, which captures the experience of co-parenting post divorce. Thank you Hippocampus Magazine for publishing such fine essays!

 

On Manifesting One’s Dreams

Just over 15 years ago, I got divorced. At the time, I was a perfectionist (and still in recovery today). Divorce didn’t fit into my story about perfection. To complicate matters, in high school, I’d been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’d taken that silly vote as a directive: You must succeed. Plus, I held a very narrow definition of success back then (case in point: I went to law school when I wanted to get my Masters in English, focusing on creative writing). A divorce certainly didn’t sound anything like “success;” instead it reeked of failure. After the divorce, this straight-A student (although law school cured me of my straight A streak), felt like I was walking around with a huge red “F” on my shirt.

But life goes on. You eventually move on. You become kinder with yourself (and hopefully with others) and you give yourself more grace. You develop new goals, like becoming a certified yoga instructor and going back to school and getting your MFA. You begin making lists of venues where you’d like to see your work. One of those lists (written in your journal, where you are known to create many different kinds of lists) included getting published on Jennifer Pastiloff’s The Manifest-Station. (Jen happens to be both a writer hero of mine and a yogi hero!)

Woo hoo! Woo hoo!

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Profile of my daughter watching Polica at Eaux Claires Fest 2015

 

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 Fall and the Rise of the Indie Bookstore

I hail from the greater Twin Cities area (what we natives call the Minneapolis/St. Paul corridor, built up along the Mississippi River). My state, Minnesota, is said to have more food co-ops per capita than any other place in the country. One can hardly walk, bike, or drive a mile (a few blocks in dense urban areas) without coming across a food co-op. I’m not sure, but it seems the same could be said for locally owned, independent bookstores. While the Twin Cities wouldn’t win a “per capita” contest with respect to indie bookstores, it would likely be in or near the top ten. There is no dearth of independent bookstores here. But it has also lost some important ones.

Garrison Keillor, likely Minnesota’s most well known bookstore owner, is an author and former host of the public radio show, a Prairie Home Companion—recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater (named after F. Scott—a local writing hero) in St. Paul. Keillor owns Common Good Books. Common Good books recently (to me “a couple of years” counts as recent) moved from its original St. Paul location in an old—but cozy—limestone basement, painted white, to a spacious above-ground location near the campus of Macalester College. I enjoy visiting Common Good’s Macalester location because it’s so close to the former site of my favorite indie bookstore of all time: Hungry Mind.

Dave Unowsky opened Hungry Mind bookstore in 1970, the year I was born. Hungry Mind was located on St. Paul’s historic Grand Avenue on the Macalester campus. Hungry Mind initially serviced the needs of Macalester but, with its well-stocked selection of local and national literary titles, it soon played host to a wide range of Minnesota readers and writers.

When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1998, Hungry Mind became a second home to me. My older two kids were small at the time and, although I hadn’t admitted it yet, my marriage was crumbling. My then husband and I (rather unconsciously—I think) began trading shifts out of the house during our nonworking hours. My “out” shifts were spent sitting on the wood-planked floor at Hungry Minds, in the middle of its vast poetry selection. Hungry Mind, in fact, figures prominently into my memoir-in-progress about my divorce.

During those years spent at Hungry Mind, I was only four-years out from law school, seven years from my undergraduate work. I remember enjoying the feeling of blending in with the students utilizing the bookstore. Perhaps I liked imagining I was still a student—that my life was yet one with limitless options.

Hungry Mind began to experience financial trouble at the same time many indie bookstores were going under due to pressure from “big box” booksellers. I hate to admit it, but a shiny new Barnes and Noble became another place of escape for me. I liked to read (without purchasing) its vast and varied inventory of periodicals in its big, comfy chairs.

Maybe it was the beginning of the end when, to help pay the bills, Hungry Mind sold its name to an online university in 2000, changing its name to Ruminator Books. Ruminator then tried expanding, opening a satellite store at Open Book in Minneapolis, a location that houses The Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Press, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Unfortunately, Unowsky’s decision to expand only increased Ruminator’s financial woes. Unable to make rent, Ruminator Books closed its doors in 2004.

Twelve years later, I still miss Hungry Minds/Ruminator Books. I jealously covet the free paper bookmarks I’ve held onto from both Hungry Minds and Ruminator. After Ruminator closed, the outdoor clothing manufacture, Patagonia, opened in Ruminator’s Grand Avenue location. Last time I checked, it had the same worn wooden floors, but sitting on the floor in the women’s jacket section isn’t the same as sitting in the poetry section at Hungry Mind. In one, I’d look like a crazy lady, in the other; I was just one of many in a community of writers and readers.

I don’t know if Unowsky is still around, but Indie bookstores are back on the rise. In fact, the small publishing house, Milkweed Editions, just opened its own bookstore last month in the same space in Open Book that once housed Ruminator. I visited Milkweed’s bookstore last week and all I can say (for now) is that one never knows who she’ll run into in an indie bookstore. Stay tuned for Part Two of this post.

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One of the collage board of images I put together while working on the first draft of my memoir; Can you spot the Ruminator bookmark (cow image) in the upper right hand corner?