Monthly Archives: April 2014

Is there life with a broken leg?

I greeted Wednesday, September 11, 2013 with much anticipation — my first piano lesson with a new professor. Ever since first grade, fall and school and new beginnings energize me. I parked my car several blocks away and walked across campus to the music building. At my lesson I played the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 with minimal nervousness — a huge milestone for me.  As I returned to my car, I was thinking about the good things I wanted to tell my friends and children about my lesson.  And I planned to enjoy coffee at the tiny cafe I had passed earlier.

Before the coffee house, my foot caught on a steel construction plate across the sidewalk.  I heard bones break on my way down.  As I sat on the sidewalk waiting for the ambulance I remembered the party I was having Saturday night — a party for twenty friends and family to celebrate my recent move to Knoxville. The plans were complete, the food was purchased, and prep had begun. The party had consumed most of my thoughts and time in recent days. Now it could not happen.

Sometime during my first days home from the hospital, I realized it didn’t matter what plans I had on my calendar or how much I wanted to explore my new city.  I had a broken ankle.

For six weeks, I could put no weight on my ankle.  I hopped on one leg with a walker, used a knee scooter, went to physical therapy several times a week, and depended on friends for groceries, medicines, doctor trips, and a myriad of other things. The surgeon said healing would be slow.  I was hoping to hobble on two legs by Christmas.

My challenge became “how do I have a meaningful life with a broken ankle?”

Every day I set a goal for myself, starting with the tiniest accomplishment: making my coffee or getting a dinner from the freezer to the microwave to the table or taking my dirty clothes to the washing machine.  I had to relearn everything.  I continually created ways to regain my independence and celebrated every accomplishment with a phone call to a friend.

A bush of happy orange flowers outside my patio doors brightened every day.

Eventually, I made it all the way to my piano, propped my leg on an overturned wastebasket, and began to play.  The arrangement was awkward but I could make music again. Once my activities of daily living became easier, I could write using my laptop on a lap desk.

Three months passed before I could resume my life, though at a slower pace.  Slower is a good thing, allowing thought and intentionality in my life.  I no longer multi-task.  If I’m walking, I walk.  If I’m on the phone, I do nothing else.  If I am talking with a friend, I am present with her.

Breaking an ankle was not my plan. Not on September 11.  Not ever.  But life is like that.

Children get sick, rain changes our picnic plans, cars break down, a friend needs help. These things become excuses for not pursuing our passion.  We hear ourselves saying, “if only…if only…” or “when this changes…or when that changes…” or “as soon as I complete whatever, then I will…”

If you want to write, if you want to paint, if you want to make music, you can’t wait until someday when your life is less hectic, when the children are gone, when the house is organized, when you have more money.  Even if that day comes, something else will stand in your way.  Wishful thinking is not action.

Carve out bits of time, here and there, in the midst of your life, to pursue your passion.  One hundred words a day creates one third of a novel in a year.  One postcard-sized sketch a week is a sizable collection by year’s end.  Thirty minutes a day is enough to learn new music — every week it gets better. Little efforts matter.

Find the small times in your life. Then show up and do your work.

Until next Tuesday…

 

 

The Reality of Memory

Webster says a memoir is a narrative composed from personal experience. Personal experience is not necessarily factual — there can be, and often are, other accounts of the same moment in time.

I grew up in a family with two parents and two brothers. I was the middle child and only girl. My brothers and I are well over sixty now, so our childhoods happened decades ago. But our memories of growing up together are clear — clearly different — because of our ages and genders, position in the family, personal perspectives, and what we learned from the times we got in trouble with our parents. We each have our personal truths from those situations. Our parents would tell a totally different story — if they even remembered what was so important to us at the time.

Two years ago I returned to my university campus for the first time in several decades. I loved college and I remember the details of my dorm room and my later apartment, the foods lab where I learned meal management, the spring walk among the lilac trees to the piano practice rooms, and chatting with friends in the student union building. Like it was yesterday. But on this visit I struggled to find anything I even recognized.  Roads were shut off, trees were twice as tall, new buildings crowded the wheat fields at the edge of campus.  After thirty minutes of driving I finally found my dorm — her paint peeling, imprisoned by chain-link construction fence, windows obstructed by overgrown trees, and crowded by new buildings. I wanted to cry at her age and weariness.

Of course she had changed — so have I in the last forty years.  I am most disturbed by the pictures my mind captured of my beloved campus — pictures that lay on top of my treasured memories, threatening to obliterate them.  Now, when I think of my college days two things come to mind:  my memory of those times and what it looks like now. My memories were better than the present reality.  I don’t need to return.

I left campus in tears, driving amongst the wheat fields to my hometown, 115 miles away.  Only to encounter more frustration.  I knew the road well during my college years, but now without my GPS I could not find my way.

In my home town, I was invited to visit our family home, a home we built together more than fifty years ago.  On the phone the current owner shared the changes they have made to the house.  I could understand, from a present day perspective, why they would make changes, but I couldn’t imagine it — and I certainly didn’t want to see it. I need memories of our life in that house left undisturbed.

I didn’t return to any childhood places in my hometown — I’d had enough of frustration and disappointment and change.  I learned the value of preserving my memories, unadulterated by present day realities.

Memories are a tricky thing.  I can dig around in them all I want, remembering the feelings and sights and sounds and smells, while discovering their meaning for my life.  An old photo of Dad and I cooking on a campfire when I was eight is sufficient to recall the details of that moment. Lacking a photo, I can walk through my memory until I feel the fire’s heat and morning’s chill, smell the wood smoke mingling with the aroma of sizzling bacon, and anticipate Dad’s pan-sized pancakes with crispy edges. But I won’t search out the exact spot where we pitched our tent for our 1953 family vacation.

It won’t be the same.  It can’t be the same.

Until next Tuesday…

 

Organic writing

“We should be careful of being so universal, abstract, and ‘eternal’ that we sacrifice the particular pulse and moment of life. It’s not on paper that you create, but in your innards, in the gut and with living tissue.  Organic writing I call it.” (Gloria Anzaldua in Words in Our Pockets)

In my early days as a writer I often came to my desk hoping to write something significant, words that would impress others.  On those days, words refused to ooze out of my pen.

The words refused because the words weren’t real.

A friend and I once went to a literary meeting where aspiring writers read their work.  The only writer I remember from that occasion was a man who strung lyrical words to more lyrical words to even more lyrical words, like mixing all the exquisite colors in the paint box into one blob. Like putting all the pantry herbs into the Alfredo sauce.  I said to my friend afterwords, “I can’t hear what he’s saying for all of his lovely words.”

Pick your moment, your memory, and bring it to life. Choose your words carefully; let them show exactly what you felt or heard or touched or saw.

Anzaldua  also says, “The meaning and worth of my writing is measured by how much I put myself on the line and how much nakedness I achieve.”

Strive for nakedness in your writing.  Significance and meaning will arrive on their own.

Until next Tuesday…

 

 

 

Memories

As a memoirist, I’m always digging into my memories, unearthing their trinkets, and wondering why I saved this particular memory from the myriad of moments in my life.

For me a memory equals importance. Often decades pass before I discover the significance of a memory-moment. Perhaps time-distance is necessary before I can come to knowing and understanding.

When I was young, maybe four years old, I liked to follow our neighbor Mr. Weber around his yard while he pulled weeds and planted flowers. He never seemed to mind; after all, he had three older children of his own. In the idle chit-chat of adult to small child, he always called me his girlfriend. I didn’t really get “girlfriend”. I only knew that when Roger, Mr. Weber’s oldest son, and his girlfriend, Ila May, were sitting in the glider swing in the their side yard, all little kids had to scram.

Mr. Weber always made me feel special — when I was in trouble with my parents,  when my brothers picked fights with me, even when I thought the whole world hated me. When he worked in his yard, he was refuge for this little girl.

I rediscovered the power of his words as I wrote in my journal several decades later.

When Mr. Weber was in his nineties, I sat next to him in his living room, and reminded him of his words to me so many years ago — words in an unremarkable moment for him, an everything moment for me.

Memories are a sacred treasure trove, pearls of great price long-buried within you. Only you can bring them to light. From your words we can glimpse how you came to be.

Until next Tuesday…

Rules: to follow or not to follow

I am a rule follower by nature. When I follow the rules or principles I get the results I want. Of course there are exceptions, but this works for me most of the time.

I spent the last twenty five years working and teaching in the commercial food business. One primary goal was to produce consistent, high-quality products for our customers. We had to understand the cooking principles, know our equipment, and follow the recipes precisely. When things went wrong, we focused on three things: ingredients, techniques, or equipment malfunction.

My daughter learned to cook as a child, working with me in our kitchen. Over the years I taught her techniques that are used in many recipes. She made wonderfully flaky pie crust after one lesson because she knew the ingredients and techniques to use. The principles are the same whether she makes apple pies, lemon tarts, chicken pot pies, sausage quiche, or a pear galette.

Now that she has her own kitchen, we approach cooking quite differently.  I want my chocolate chip cookies today to have the same deliciousness as when I discovered the recipe in 1970, so I follow the grease-stained card precisely. On the other hand, she sees the recipe as merely a suggestion.  Her chocolate chip cookies may not contain chocolate chips at all, but include oatmeal or granola or whole wheat flour or dried fruit or flax seeds or some other interesting item from her pantry. Because she knows her ingredients and preparation techniques, she can create never-before-tasted cookies with confidence.

We both have the same knowledge base, and we produce equally wonderful, yet different, food.

It’s no different with writing. Markus Zusak’s words are less straight than Ernest Hemingway’s.  Charlie, my writing partner, writes more lyrically than I do.  We are all writers, with unique stories and styles and voices. Our basics are the same:  grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage.

No matter your craft, use its rules and principles to unleash your creativity.

Until next Tuesday…