On Writing During a Pandemic

In some ways the pandemic  thwarted my writing progress. Pre-pandemic, I had a steady routine and a solid plan. But low-level stress over the past several months has shaken my routine and caused me to abandon said plan.  It’s also caused me to carry a full-size bottle of Lysol in my purse so I can disinfect shopping carts at the grocery store and chairs in the waiting room. Perhaps, this strikes you as overzelous, but this is for your benefit, not mine. Because, if there is anyone out there who is an asymptomatic carrier, I’m pretty sure it’s me.

I’m not very self-aware when it comes to my body. When my appendix ruptured years ago, I decided to go for a stroll so I could walk off what I assumed were stomach cramps.  When that didn’t work, I tried drinking water (which cures everything, right?) until my husband made me go to the E.R.  I was promptly rushed to the operating room for an emergency surgery.  Suffice it to say, my mind-body connection is a little off so consider the Lysol spray a courtesy.

Between the clouds of disinfectant, I am still writing, just not what I hoped to be writing. Currently, my big project is on hold. With the ever-changing news I just can’t maintain the necessary level of engagement to move forward.  It’s too hard to sustain focus and the nature of the project demands attention to detail.  Anyone else feel this way right now?

However,  my poetry collection is coming along nicely and guess what?  A poem from the collection was published in the Eastern Iowa Review! The witty Chila Woychik edits the online journal which features lyric essays and poetic prose.  So if you need somthing to take your mind off of Covid-19, check it out and don’t forget to read my recent poem about the weather.

 

If your AC breaks, it will break in July

Of course the AC would break during a heat wave smack dab in the middle of July.  Don’t get me wrong, the vents still pushed air, just not cold air.  Inside it grew increasingly warm.   The temperature inched higher and higher until finally,  around 2 a.m., it was officially cooler outside than it was inside.  I spent the night tossing, turning, and roaming the house in the dark.  Sleep-deprived and heat-sick, I was lucky enough to get a repairman to the house early in the morning, and (miracle of all miracles) before noon.  (Thank you Robby from Air Necessities!)

Extremes, be it a pandemic or a heat wave, tend to bring out strong emotions.  And aren’t we  all just trying to keep cool these days. I hope you are being gentle with yourself and others as we weather extremes together. In the meantime, perhaps you will recognize a bit of yourself in my recent poem, Blame it on the Heat.  Feel free to grab an ice beverage while you read and stay cool.

 

Blame it on the Heat

Triple digit, relentless all day into the night, sucks life with each bead of sweat. The harsh words that came next. The forecast says eighty percent humidity. Are you kidding me? and are they factoring in all the tears?  Man, this heat that suffocates skin if skin could breathe. It dares you  to strip off every unnecessary piece of cloth and rub it in the face of modesty. It’s. Just. Too. Hot.   Kick off the blankets at night.  Blame it on the heat, the brain fog, the decision fatigue.  A complete unit failure. Call the repairman. For the blown fuse, the short fuse, the complaints,  the energy leak from the air conditioner which worked fine, just fine, last week. Blame it all on the heat. 

Gullah Geechee Queen

I would like to extend a huge thank you to the Petigru Review for selecting my poem, Gullah Geechee Queen, for their most recent issue.  The poem is a part of a larger collection exploring life in the modern South.

Jane Bowers, Sue Cryer, and Amber Wheeler Bacon have created an elegant compilation of writing to be enjoyed at your leisure. The readers, designers, and photographers of the Petigru Review have curated a reading experience you don’t want to miss.

Is your budget tight?  No worries.  Amazingly, the online publication is FREE!

Check out my poem, Gullah Geechee Queen at: https://thepetigrureview.com/1104-2/

And make time to read the other pieces at: https://thepetigrureview.com/

On Writing, Failure, and Writing

National Write a Novel Month (NaNoWriMo) ended yesterday. I love the hype. I love the energy. And I love a good challenge. Naturally I accepted the task at hand: write 50,000 words in one month. Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No

Throughout the challenge, life didn’t extend the courtesy of pausing or at the very least, slowing down. Instead it raced ahead. During November, I studied for college classes, took a Praxis exam, spent over 30 hours driving to a funeral, hosted a birthday party, taught a few lessons to high school students, took one daughter to the doctor and took another daughter to have surgery, cleaned up after several children when they became ill from a stomach bug, waited for my husband to return home from two out of state trips, and looked after my five children.

Whew!

It’s no surprise that I failed the NaNoWriMo challenge. I wrote until the very last minute and fell short.  But I managed an impressive 48,658 words- less than 1,500 words shy of my 50,000 goal.

In terms of the challenge, I’m a loser. I didn’t win the NaNoWriMo challenge. I didn’t plan for my children to get sick or an uncle to die. But things happen. This is real life. The real challenge isn’t just about winning. The real challenge is writing during adversity and finding satisfaction in the work. I learned I can  rise to the occasion, tackle a project, and finish better than I started.

Like it or not, failure is part of the journey.

November may have brought you beautiful highs. Or maybe, like me, it brought you unexpected obstacles. Whatever the case, keep moving forward.

I will reach my word count goal no later than Tuesday. After that, I have my work cut out for me as I revise and redraft. Word by word. Line by line.

Writing. Failing. And writing again.

 

 

 

Grown

“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher.”

-Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Gardening should be a part of my genetic make-up. Close and distant relatives maintain successful gardens. Some even farm. Farm! Like my blue eyes and big feet, I should have inherited a green thumb.

But I didn’t.

Plants die under my care. All. The. Time. I blame my parents. When I was a child, they moved from city to city for work. In fact, we moved more times than I can count. All this bustling from one place to another was not conducive to landscaping. No one wants to spend hours tending plants only to leave before they take root.

Once I managed to grow pumpkins, but it was purely accidental. I put a pumpkin, a scarecrow, and a bale of hay in the front yard for a fall vignette. Snow came early that year. Several inches piled up on Halloween and never melted. I plucked the scarecrow from the cold ground and stored it in the basement. But when the pumpkin and hay disappeared under the blanket of white snow, they also disappeared from my mind.

Mid-summer I finally got around to cleaning up yard. When I disposed of the rotting hay, I discovered a vine emerged from the exact spot where the pumpkin sat. Given my track record, I thought it best to assume a lazier-faire approach. Watch and wait. Months later, three small pumpkins came out of the whole ordeal.  The pumpkins were my pride, never mind the facta they were a product of my negligence.

The white house on Washington Street was my first home as an adult. Built in 1910, the front yard boasted three hearty peony bushes. Every spring they faithfully erupted in massive blooms. Their fragrance is a smell I can’t forget though decades have passed.

Of course, fat black ants loved those peonies, with their flowers unfolding like little heads of lettuce, layered and lush. Clippings for floral arrangements required a firm shake to evict the unwanted guests before they were brought in— a lesson I learned the hard way.

The peonies, like the pumpkins, thrived with no help from me. Every year, I stood by greedily snipping blooms until their silky petals turned brown from summer heat. Then I plucked their heads and tossed them in the trash. Lush leaves remained until fall when I mowed the plants to the ground. Like clockwork, every spring they returned.

My Grandmother took special pride in her gardening and rightfully so. Her massive garden in the vacant lot adjacent to her house is admired by many. She is the only person I know who keeps geraniums alive through winter with a little artificial light and a lot of faith. Every summer they return blooming. Each year they seem to get bigger and more brilliant than the last.

She is also the only person I know who plants cucumbers among her flowerbeds. The practice started as marital rebellion. Grandpa insisted that his wife would never toil in a garden like his mother did for decades. But grandma begged him for a flower bed until he finally conceded. Little did he know, among the marigolds and naked ladies, she planted cucumbers which she sliced and served in a sour cream dressing for family gatherings.

When we moved into the brick house on Drexel Lake, we were far from Grandma and the white farmhouse. Still, I was lucky enough to inherit a gardenia shrub by the front steps, a pink azalea bush in back, and a stunning violet hydrangea plant by the driveway. Each one was a stunning delight that I never planned or planted. The stood as a constant reminder that sometimes, life is generous and we enjoy the toils of our predecessors.

Every spring I took a picture of the children decked in their Easter best in front of “my” azaleas. Occasionally, I cut gardenias for the dining room table. Older and wiser, I was careful to shake them outside before bringing them in. Like the peonies, they attracted ants. But not the big ones from the Midwest; these ants were almost microscopic. The effort was worth it. Small bouquets of gardenias sitting pretty on my table freshened the air better than any store bought deodorizer.

We have lived in our current home for almost two years now. A hopeless optimist, I finally mustered the courage to plant some bulbs. The temperatures dipped and leaves yellowed.  Carefully, I dug holes then planted the bulbs point down in the soil.

It occurred to me as I covered the final bulb, I should have put on gloves. The realization came too late as do most of my epiphanies. My hands were ruddy from soil and required a vigorous scrub to remove the earth which clung to my dry cuticles with fierce desperation.

It has been a wet November. This would mean something to a person with a green thumb. But I am not, so I just try to remember to take my umbrella when I leave the house.

The bulbs now lie dormant in darkness beside rosebushes that bloom without fail in all but the coldest of months. Their red blooms taunt me as they flaunt their independence. They are completely unreliant upon my human hand. Much like the dandelions that overtake my yard in the summer sun. They bloom without fail.

Dandelions don’t bother me like they irritate other people. In fact, one day I plan to harvest them for dandelion tea and maybe even use their greens for salad. For now, though, the girls bring me bouquets by the handful. I promptly put them in water, but they droop faster than any flower I know.

The problem, as I see it, is plants listen. My boy inevitably sees a vase of dandelions and slanders the flowers. “Why are weeds inside?” he demands.

But I have my own demands. Who decided dandelions are weeds? Why all this ugly talk? I am a full-grown woman, old enough to suck it up and move on. My skin should be thick like the calluses on my feet. Weeds? I cannot plug my ears like a child. This name-calling, if you ask me, isn’t right.

Dandelions ought to be called champions, not weeds. They beat the odds. Man declared war against them, yet they prevail. And how to we respond to such victory, such resilience? We call them weeds. Say what you want. But wherever I go, the dandelion, follows like a faithful friend. Bringing the same serendipity as the pumpkin vine, the peony bush, and the azalea shrub.

Months will pass before I know if the bulbs took root. For now, all I know is occasionally, I have unearned wins, like the pumpkins. And sometimes, good people bless their successors with peonies and gardenias.

And there are times to dig in, get dirty, forget past failures, and hope for the best.

The flower beds may be fallow this spring— a risk I am willing to accept. Because even if the bulbs don’t bloom, I know I can always count on the dandelions— ever faithful with their bursts of yellow cheer.

 

Dresses and Messes

 

Pristine white dresses hang in a closet. Easter is just around the corner and I willfully ignored all logic and bought satin white dresses. A week later, I looked at them. Clearly, they are a sign of my bad judgement.

What was I thinking?  

Five-year olds are notoriously messy and mine are no exception. They’re more concerned about exploring bushes and eating chocolate than staying clean. I run my hand along the flawless satin trim and pearls. These dresses don’t stand a chance. Should I exchange them?

***

Somehow, we get the idea that our lives are like those pristine white dresses. They are to be hung and admired rather than worn.   But lives, like dresses, are meant to be lived in. And sometimes, messes happen.

Life is beautiful. Life is messy.   Maybe you’ve been thinking about foster care. You would love to help, but you’re worried it might mess things up.   You’re right, foster care will get messy. Expanded living always does. But the passage of time is like a trip to the dry cleaners.   The messes disappear and all that’s left is beauty.

As I reflect on late night calls from DSS, the tightrope-walk of reunification, and the rollercoaster of emotions, I know it’s messy. Easter approaches, and I am more certain than ever that resurrection power can transform a mess into something beautiful.

You know what? I think I’ll keep the dresses. After all, they’re beautiful. 20190409_221300

Dance

Dance has never been easy for me.  Chemistry and Spanish were a breeze compared to the challenge of learning the dance routine for my cheerleading squad.   Even today, I find a statistics class much easier than a Carolina Shag dance class. I was born with no rhythm and a general lack of body awareness.  As a result, I’m a hopeless dancer.

Our first “visitor” from DSS had more natural dance talent in her pinky toe than I had in my entire body.  Any tune would set her into motion.   A musical toy?  A t.v. commercial?  A ringtone?  The source was irrelevant.   If there was a melody, she was moving.   Her ears were listening for music  and her body was ready to dance.

I was supposed to  help her, but in reality she helped me.  She taught me the value of dance years before I read that it was the most therapeutic type of physical exercise for those experiencing trauma.  She seemed to know instinctively, what scientists would spend hours studying.  Dance is good for a hurting heart.

I remember dancing as a child with carefree joy, but something happened.  The cares of life and the worries of the world drowned out the music and left my body heavy.  Dancing felt awkward and foreign.  I became self-aware in the worst kind of way.

When our dancing guest  left our home after a few months, the lesson stayed.  The agile girl with chubby cheeks and graceful limbs taught me more than I learned in any class about foster care.   She showed me how to listen for the  music and keep dancing.

Since then my dance skills haven’t improved.  If anything, they’ve gotten worse.  But sometimes I hear a catchy tune, my foot starts tapping. I remember the dancing girl who taught me so much. Then I dance anyway.

 

Room for One More

With tropical storm winds blowing outside, I snuggled up with an amusing autobiography from a foster family in the early the early 1900s. With the classic inked illustrations and the smell of old book,  I was in heaven.  As you can imagine, many things have changed. But I’m stunned by how much has stayed the same. Anne Rose opens with what people said when they began their journey:

You’re crazy! You can’t afford it and you’re making a big mistake!

Sound familiar?

My husband and I often joke about parenting being much like football coverage. When you have one child, you can double up on coverage. Then, when you have two kids, it’s one-on-one coverage. Any more than two kids and you are on zone coverage. When you’re covering a zone, it doesn’t matter how many people you have in the zone. You’re just covering your zone. Anne’s thoughts aren’t all that different. She humorously addresses the dynamics of a large family in chapter two:

By the time you have three children you are fairly numb anyway so you don’t feel it if you take in a few more.

Today, many kids enter foster care today with nothing more than a bag. It’s worth noting it wasn’t much different nearly 100 years ago. She describes how one child brought his things:

It was a brown paper bag, the kind you carry groceries in….and in it were all his possessions.

Research over the years has shown that some of the methods Anne used were likely not the most effective.  So it certainly isn’t a how-to book,  but it’s honest and maybe that’s the best any of us can hope for.  I love the great one liners which are ample in the book.  They’re sure to put a smile on any face:

Our boys enjoyed cooking, probably because they loved to eat.

Maybe my favorite part of this book are the wonderful nuggets of wisdom that one could easily mount and frame.

They kept their family rules short and sweet. One of their children would repeat them with a sweet dialect , the way kids do:

As I prepare to read a pile of books by Dr. John DeGarmo, it’s fascinating to look back in time. There are trends and there are truths. I suppose you could sum it up in the words of Solomon, ” There is nothing new under the sun. ”

Give it a Few Weeks

The month of August is heavy with the weight of change.   Children start new grades. Lazy summer days fade away as we busy ourselves with new routines.  And the days begin to shorten.

The days seem shorter than usual in my home.  Science says I’m losing around 2 minutes a day in sunlight, but it feels like hours.   I began college classes the last week of August and all my children started new schools.   I was surprised by the emotional toll.  I felt physically and mentally tired.  On top of that, I felt emotionally exhausted.   Excitement, concern, fear, contentment.   I’d feel all these emotions in a 5-minute span.  And it left me feeling spent.

In recent years I’ve become a big fan of mantras.  A mantra is a short, grounding phrase.  For a while, my mantra when plans fell apart was “no one died.”   It helped give me perspective that a change in plans wasn’t a catastrophe.  It was simply a change in plans.  Recently, my mantra (and a few of my kids who felt overwhelmed) has been,  “Everything will be different in two weeks. ”  I’m not sure why I chose the word different and not better.  Maybe because it seemed like the most honest thing to say.  After all, I can’t promise better.  But I can guarantee different.  And I’m not sure how I came up with the time frame of two weeks.  I guess I felt that I could endure anything for two weeks.    Nevertheless, it became my mantra every time I began to feel overwhelmed with paperwork or carpool lines or stress.

“Everything will be different in two weeks.”

And you know what?  It’s been nine days and it is different now.  We’ve found a rhythm. Many of the unknowns have been answered.    The sinking, drowning feeling that comes with a new change has been replaced with a calm ebb and flow to the days.

Certain times, and certain seasons intrinsically hold more change.  A mantra has been a handy tool for me during these times.  Everything will be different and likely better.  Just give it a few weeks.

America Keeps Families Together

It’s impossible to ignore the sad reality.  When adults are accused of illegal behavior,  the government policy is to separate children from their family until the situation is resolved.  This heartbreaking practice is happening in our country right now.

But it’s not just happening by the border.  It’s not just happening to immigrants.  This happening right now in YOUR community. Confused?

Children are torn from their family and placed with strangers or in group homes all over our nation..  They need people who believe kids should be with their family.  They need a nurturing, caring home while they wait.  They need adults who recognize the emotional distress they are experiencing.  These are kids in foster care who desperately need a safe place to land during the one of the hardest times of their life.

Don’t get me wrong.  We should be outraged by what’s happening in the south.  As I think about what’s happening and try to separate fact from fiction, it makes me sick to my stomach.  It’s wrong on so many levels.  We should speak out when children are mistreated.  We shouldn’t forget to treat one another with dignity and respect.  We should collaborate with a government that struggles so desperately to provide basic needs and safety.

But it’s important to remember that OUR government can only operate if citizens participate.  Participation requires more than a post on social media.  Without citizen participation, there is no moral compass.

It’s misguided to assume complaining about the problem creates solutions.  It may feel good to get something off your chest, but it does nothing to solve the crisis.

Thoughtful action solves problems.  Love, much like faith, requires action.  Write letters.  Raise funds. Seek solutions to systemic problems.   You may not be able to help the refugee children.  But you can do something.

If it breaks your heart to see the government  rip families apart,  I dare you to be a foster parent.

As television and internet rage about pain and suffering  along the border,  be one of those who are quietly caring for heartbroken children who are suffering.   You have the power to help reunify families.  Get involved in foster care.

“Foster care is the planned, time-limited placement of a minor with a licensed foster family, when the needed care cannot be provided in the child’s own family or by appropriate relatives.”

Foster parents do the hard work of caring for kids in crisis. Their experience is not all that different than what we see happening with immigrant kids on the border.  It’s not for everyone, but it might be right for you.

Why make the sacrifice?  Why go through all the red tape and heartbreak?  Because this is who we are as a nation.   America keeps families together!  By the border and in our backyard.  Click here to take action.

sun over the cyclone fence
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