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This Blink of Time

Today is my birthday.  My 80th, would you believe?  I add “would you believe?” because I don’t quite believe it myself.  That’s despite the fact that I’ve been trying out the number for months, mostly inside my head, sometimes out loud.  “Hey!  You’re 80!”

I’ve been saying it when I do a full Pilates hang, suspended by my ankles.

I’ve been saying it when, despite that full hang, I find myself suppressing a groan when I rise from a chair.

I’ve been saying it when I dive back into the novel I’ve been working on for too long and discover that I’m repeating myself . . . again.  Do I do that when I talk as well?

I’ve been saying it when I find the world wearying, threatening, horrifying.  “You’re 80!  Perhaps you won’t have to live into whatever is coming.”

I’ve been saying it when I gaze out at the wonder of a new day, budding trees or swirling snow, and ask how many more such gifts await me.

I never expected to be 80, though the irony is that I don’t suppose I’ve been expecting to die, either.  Does any of us truly believe that inevitable, uncompromising end will be our own?  Every life is a blink between two unknowns, and as I have never tried to imagine my whereabouts prior to my birth, I don’t attempt to fathom what lies beyond these days I have been given.  But my death grows larger in me every day.

Along with the hope that I may arrive there with some grace intact.

Eighty seems such a venerable age that I tell myself I should have some wisdom to impart on this page.  But I don’t feel wise.

I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a few things in the process.  The two are not unrelated.  Mostly I learned because I made mistakes.

I married almost 60 years ago, though I had little desire for the man I decided to marry.  (I had never desired any other man, either, and was incapable in that homophobic time of understanding why.)  I thought him a fixer-upper.  I knew he wasn’t all I wanted, but I planned to bring him around.

I learned that I am the “fixer-upper.”  When I finally realized how difficult it is to grow and change myself, I understood the futility of attempting to change anyone else.  I understood, too, that no one of his gender could ever meet my needs.

Now, in our mutual age, my one-time husband and I live a great distance from one another, but we come together often on Words with Friends and on FaceTime where we rejoice in and occasionally worry about our progeny.  We each accept the other tenderly, unquestioningly.  That acceptance represents an abundance of learning on both sides.

Fifty-four years ago, I gave birth to a son, a child so longed for that my desire for him, my need to mother him, lived in my bones.  And from the time he was very small, he defeated me every step of the way.  Lovingly.  Masterfully.

When Peter died at the age of 42 of a disease that robbed him of control of his body and of his intelligence and finally of his sanity, too, I learned, at last, that he had always been the only son he could be.

I learned, too, that the love that lived between us was enough.

I started my life trying to fit in, seeking approval.  And I learned that I don’t fit in and that approval has very limited value.  I’m not made for the kind of coupling society demands.  The activities so many care about don’t appeal to me.  And my mind, while possessing a certain uniqueness, lacks some very basic skills.

Maybe no one ever fits in, truly.  Maybe we each feel in some way alienated and alone.  And maybe we all have to learn, as I am finally beginning to learn, that it is enough to be who we are given to be.

Who am I?  All my life that question has puzzled me.  I have no answer.  None.  I don’t even know what might make an answer possible.

But as I move into this end time, I am beginning to understand something else.  I am a human becoming.  I am a verb, an action, not a noun.  I am not, will never be, a static thing that can be labeled and explained.  Even to myself.

I am a human in process, making mistakes—oh, so many mistakes—and learning and moving on.  And learning again.

And while I’m learning, I rejoice in the love that happens along the way.

Finally it is only the love that gives this blink of time purpose and meaning and even holiness.

Writers Helping Writers

Photo by Cristian Newman on UnsplashLoon Song

It’s lonely and isolating work, this writing business.  Usually we manufacture ideas in our heads with little input—or even interest—from others.  We sit, day after day, poking at a keyboard, making words appear, weighing them, revising them, weighing them again.

Wondering if we’re coming anywhere near the dream we began with.

We do all this alone in a room, alone inside our own heads.

And then we gather the manuscript we’ve produced and send it into the world to be judged.

And wait.

And wait.

Too often to hear, “No.”  “No.”  “No.”  “No.”

No exclamation point on the “No,” even.  Just a solid, flat, impenetrable “No.”  The editor either wants what we offer or she doesn’t.  Discussion isn’t invited.  Even worse, often these days the “no” comes in the form of silence.

Once more we weigh this piece we’ve created out of our very bone and sinew, perhaps revise again, send it out again.

And wait.

Again.

Is it any wonder that writers need other writers.

Partly just to share our joys, our frustrations.  But also for a reality check.  Another writer can provide the objectivity that is impossible for us, alone in a room in front of a screen that gives back our words so impartially.

Another writer can even help us shape our work into something that is more likely to receive a “yes” out there in the world.  But there are some things we have to keep in mind when we ask one another for help.

First, we need to be clear what we are asking for.  If we know what our concerns are—too long? the reader’s attention caught fast enough?  characters believable?—asking questions up front can be useful.

(Careful with that one, though.  Some questions are best left until after a first reading so they don’t prejudice the reader into seeing a problem just because we asked.)

Sometimes we get back a response that is completely unexpected.  When that happens to me, that surprising comment often gets put aside.  But then I go on to find another reader or two.  When I hear that unexpected reaction a second time, I’m ready and on board.

(My agent recently suggested a change in a novel he was about to send out that felt difficult and unnecessary to me.  I said, “No.”  Now the same suggestion has come from the editor, and I am, of course, instantly on board . . . and grateful to have heard it from my agent first.)

Second, consider the source.  This is the kind of situation where writers’ critique groups are useful.  We learn whose comments we most value by hearing them addressed to others’ manuscripts, because we are objective about others’ work.  Then when the time comes for our own work to be discussed, we know who to listen to most deeply.

(And while other writers can usually give us the best value as critics, in my early writing years, I knew few—in the beginning no—other writers.  But I still found discerning readers whose perspective I trusted.)

Finally, before we ask anyone to critique a manuscript, we need to examine our own hearts.  Are we truly open to doing further work on this piece?  Or are we at the point that all we want to hear is praise?

(There is nothing wrong with wanting appreciation for our work.  We all need praise at every stage, of course, but sometimes we are still looking for guidance to dig back into a manuscript and sometimes we are ready to let it fly.  When we reach that stage, the best we can do is to let our manuscript try its way in the world.  If it doesn’t make it out there, we can we always return to our writer friends for another dose of reality.)

And if you’re reading this and feeling “Oh, I wish I had more of a community of writers around me,” here’s an idea.  LoonSong, the small-community writers’ retreat that will be meeting in northern Minnesota from September 6th through the 10th, still has openings.  And this year you can even opt to come a day early for extra writing and conversation time.  I’ll be there.

Check it out at www.loonsong.org.

LoonSong

The best way I know to find those special soulmate writers who can forever afterwards be accessed through the internet is gatherings such as LoonSong.

And the best way I know to have a successful career is to open ourselves up to informed feedback . . . and to informed support.

Old Age

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Old age is a ceremony of losses.

Donald Hall

Storytelling Animals

That’s what we humans are, storytelling animals.  A skill we use to distinguish ourselves from the rest of creation.  We tell stories.  Our dogs and our cats, our cattle and our canaries may communicate, but tell stories?  Not possible.

Until we learn more—and I won’t be surprised if someday we do learn more—we might as well go with that.  It’s our stories that set us apart from the rest of creation.

But why?  To what end?

If we want only to teach one another, to pass on the wisdom of one generation to the next, surely we have more straightforward ways.  Two plus two equals four.  A butterfly emerges from a chrysalis.  Mix two primary hues to create a secondary color.

And of course, we do communicate with facts and ideas, yet we keep returning to stories.

My father was a chemist, enormously intelligent, but a concrete thinker.  He could not understand how I could get a college degree in literature.  He asked, What is there to study?

Someone accused me once of immersing myself in fictional worlds as a substitute for living my life.  The accusation hit close enough to home for me never to have forgotten it.

I remember the time on a year’s sabbatical in England that some neighbors stopped by to ask if we would go caroling with them.  I hesitated.  I was writing, you see.  In fact, curiously enough, I was writing a story set in the Minnesota I had left behind.  Fortunately, sanity prevailed and I shut down the computer and joined the caroling party.

What I remember most about that evening wasn’t offering ancient carols through the streets of an equally ancient village, though that was all quaint enough to be remembered.  It was encountering a tiny, curled-up ball of an English hedgehog as we crossed a grassy field.  But if I hadn’t left the story I was building behind I never would have met that hedgehog.

Photo by Piotr Łaskawski on Unsplash

I’ve been in the business of making stories for enough years to have asked the question many times.  Why?  Apart from the not-incidental fact that stories have come to be my primary source of income, what makes them so important?

And again and again, I come up with the same answer.  The stories I tell make meaning.  My meaning.  They take the substance of what has happened to me, the substance of fact combined with the substance of feeling, and give it significance, importance, consequence, value, worth.

I have had, as has everyone else in this world, both wonderful and terrible things happen in my life.  I have had the deepest secrets of my heart warmly received.  I have struggled with isolation.  I have learned a skill and used it to benefit others.  I have loved and been loved in return.  I have watched my son die.  I have seen my daughter and now my grandchildren sail into the world with confidence and strength.

And I suppose each one of these happenings could have been enough in itself, but it never seems enough to me.  I am compelled to take the randomness of rewards and the certainty of loss and create significance out of them.  I must take the feelings that came with dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered and make them mean something, too.

Life never comes with meaning intact, at least not in my view.  Meaning doesn’t exist until we create it.

Over the years, over many, many years, I have learned that when something I have experienced plays out again in a story moment I create or when it is echoed in a story someone else has offered me, my experience takes on a more certain shape.  The feelings attached to it do, too.  My life is no longer random, no longer simply pleasant or unpleasant, uplifting or devastating.  My life, with all its random events, all its unpredictable feelings, becomes story.

And story is meaning.

In Memoriam

Marion and Dawn

Marion and Dawn

The first time I ever saw her, she was so tiny I could hold her in my cupped hands.  I remember that she was uneasy about being gathered off the ground, and the whites shone at the edge of her large brown eyes as she peered up at me.

She was a Cavalier King Charles puppy, and I named her Dawn in honor of her gleaming ruby fur.

Whenever I take this kind of love into my life—and aren’t puppies the very definition of love?—I know I am taking on loss, too.  And I know that loss is inevitable.  And yet I didn’t hesitate.

Though I knew this loving would change me.

When Dawn went stone deaf at the age of three she was bewildered at the loss of so important a part of her world.  It was clear that she knew something was missing.  With no noise distractions, she began to sleep more deeply.  If I went downstairs from my study and forgot to rouse her from her spot beneath my desk, she would wake and, hearing nothing to let her know where I might be, tromp next door into my bedroom.  She would jump up onto the bed, face the far wall and say, “Woof.”  A deep pause.  Then “Woof” again.  Another pause.  Another “Woof!”  And on and on.

I’d hear her from downstairs and say, “Oh, my poor deaf dog,” and hurry back up, reach across the bed to touch her into awareness, then motion her to come back down with me.  She always followed happily as though she never would have known how to find me without my guidance.  (I’m pretty deaf myself, so my empathy was always at the ready.)

That was all fine until Dawn decided she enjoyed the game so much that she would leave us eating dinner or watching television downstairs and go upstairs to my bed to start the woof game.

She was a dog of strong opinions.  If I returned from our twice-daily walk before she felt she’d had her due, she would stand back at the end of the leash as I opened the door, refusing to come inside.  Or if I took a route she didn’t approve of, she would brace against the pull of the leash and, when I looked back, give me a long, steadying, meaningful look.

Sometimes I let her win.

Because sometimes giving over is a good thing and because sometimes it seemed good for my small dog to have the power.

When my partner brought a four-year-old, twelve-pound, one-eyed Sheltie named Sadie into our family, Dawn, half again her weight, gave ground instantly.  She gave a whole lot of ground, in fact, because when she gave ground I rescued her.  (As you can tell, I’m easily trained.)  When I’d go out of town, however, Dawn would quit waiting for rescue and take her rightful place in the room, on the couch, or whatever other space might be under contention, ignoring the little Sadie-bully entirely.

She and Sadie could collaborate, though.  One rule in our family was that dogs had to go down the flight of steps from the deck to the backyard to relieve themselves before they could have their bedtime treat.  We began after a time to suspect that the relieving was happening a bit too fast, so one night I stood at the top of stairs to observe when they went down.  The two dogs ran down the stairs, side by side, stopped at the bottom, turned to look at one another, and then, by mutual consent, ran back up the stairs.

When I sent them back they did what they were supposed to do with a resigned air.

Dawn died shortly before her eleventh birthday, a reasonably venerable age for a cavalier, though not long enough for me.  Not nearly long enough for me.

Sadie doesn’t seem to miss her.  I’ve always suspected that she was meant to be an only dog.  (Sadie came from a hoarding situation.)

But I miss her.  Oh, I do.