Monday, October 2, 2017

Off on "The Grand European Tour"

I leave in a few hours to get the bus to the airport, to fly to Minneapolis, and then on to Amsterdam, for my first-ever Viking River Cruise with my beloved friend Rachel: fourteen days on the Rhine and the Danube, from Amsterdam to Budapest, passing some of the most scenic castles and cathedrals on this earth.

It should be fun! 

But it all feels a bit strange, too. Rachel and I planned this trip a year ago, as a celebration for her upcoming retirement from thirty years of being a high school drama teacher. We wanted to have a whole twelve months to look forward to these two glorious weeks together, which would also be a celebration of our thirty-five years of friendship; we met when we worked together at the University of Maryland in the early 1980s. 

Between then and now, though, a lot of painful family changes have taken place, so that it's hard for me to think of abandoning those who need me, following on the heels of my six weeks teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke this past summer, and an upcoming teaching stint in January for DePauw University: a reprise of the study-abroad class my friend Tiffany and I taught two years ago, "Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London and Paris." 

I'm still going to go, and not berate myself for going - but after these travel commitments, I've pledged to my family not to sign up for any jaunts, paid or unpaid, that will take me away from home for longer than a week - at least for now, when I'm so needed here.

My challenge for myself: If I'm going to go on this trip - TODAY! - which I am, I should try to relinquish guilt and go with my whole heart, with radical openness to the beauty that awaits me, to savor as fully as I can every moment shared with Rachel - every stunning vista that unfolds before me - every tasty morsel I can swallow. I'm not going to try to get work done on the trip - just to write a poem or two - or ten - and scribble faithfully in my trip journal - and welcome joy.

My mantra will be this line from E. B. White: "All that I hope to say in books, all that I can hope to say, is that I love the world."

Off to love this new-to-me stretch of the world as hard as I can.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Not What I Planned

This week I had planned to: write my paper submission (on child poet Hilda Conkling) for next year's Children's Literature Association conference (due October 1 to my panel organizer); read the most recent installment of my Hollins graduate student's creative thesis (a novel in verse); and generate nonstop fun for my visiting granddaughters.

I did none of these things.

Instead I went to the emergency room at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday with excruciating lower back pain and constant vomiting, discovered I had a kidney stone large enough to require surgery, and spent the next 36-plus hours lying in a hospital bed awaiting my turn in the operating room. I came home yesterday afternoon without a kidney stone - yay! - but also without much of my usual perkiness and pep.

Some things I learned:

1. Just about anything you have to do can be canceled, and the world will still keep on turning.

2. There are worse ways to spend a day than lying in a comfortable hospital bed, drowsy, dopey, and drugged, cared for by someone else.

3. Nurses are the kindest people in the world, except for church friends, who are even kinder, and kindest of all? Church friends who are nurses. On the second day of waiting, I was lying in the dreary little pre-op room waiting for the surgical procedure that had been postponed a day, and was now delayed again. It was 5 p.m., and I was hungry, with no food or drink since midnight and almost no food the day before; I was bored, tired, restless, and scared. Then Louise from my church, a retired nurse, appeared as a welcome surprise to sit with me: cheering, consoling, a visiting angel.

4. It's better to focus on all the ways in which you are lucky than on all the ways you're not. I was unlucky to lose half a week of my life to this medical ordeal (though it's hardly an uncommon one). But, oh, I was lucky that this wasn't the week of my upcoming Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest with my beloved friend Rachel - and that the hospital could fit me into the surgical schedule, however late in the day my slot fell - and that I was even able to arrange the appointment to remove my temporary stent for next week, before I head off for a quick jaunt to Indiana. I continue to be what I call "a lucky unlucky person."

5. Drink water! Lots of it! Every day! Always!

I'm home now, feeling grateful more than anything: to the wonderful medical staff of the Boulder Community Hospital Foothills campus (a beautiful new facility); to my St. Paul's UMC pastor and church family for their unfailing support (and other friends who offered child care, food, rides, company); to the son who took off work to drive me to the ER hours before dawn, losing a day of work (and pay) for my sake; and to the hundreds of Facebook friends, some of whom I've never met in "real life," who answered my anguished cry for help in the middle of a long night of pain with advice, shared stories, insight, and compassion.

So I'm not really a "lucky unlucky person." Just a lucky one. And lucky enough to know it, too.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Nothing Surely Is So Potent as a Law that May Not Be Disobeyed"

This is what my hero, Victoria novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote in his inspirational autobiography. He was talking about his practice of writing for a short, fixed span of time early every morning, and thereby producing dozens of sprawling novels while working full-time for the British Post Office.

For me this year, my law that may not be disobeyed is my commitment to myself to submit something somewhere every single month: creative or scholarly, long or short, old or new. The only rule is that twelve different things have to be submitted, one per month. That's all. Submitted, not accepted. Period.

It's now September. I've met this goal for nine months so far, and I'm track to meet it for the rest of the year. Each time I send something off into the universe, on this schedule, I get that lovely tingly feeling of anticipation that something nice could happen. And quite a few nice things have.

Here is my record of submissions/verdicts so far. (Here, too, I borrow from Trollope, who included in his autobiography a record of every pound and shilling earned on every book.)

January - grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota to do archival research on Maud Hart Lovelace

February - submission of a philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity" to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, my swan song as a professional philosopher

March - submission of a children's literature paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, a revised and resubmitted version of a paper sent there last year

April - submission of a poem to the children's magazine Highlights

May - submission of a children's literature paper titled "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad" to Children's Literature
VERDICT (JUST ARRIVED  YESTERDAY): "Revise and resubmit"

June - short article to the SCBWI newsletter, Kite Tales, called "The Most Underrated Line of Your Book"

July - re-submission of the massively edited "Artistic Integrity" paper (enough changed to count as a new submission according to my self-imposed rule)

August - story ideas sent to an educational publisher interested in working with me, and one full-fledged story pitch

September - my new chapter book, tentatively titled Cooking All-Stars, to my editor at Holiday House

Plan for October: submit my paper abstract for the June 2018 Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio

Plan for November: submit another idea or two to the educational publisher

Plan for December: revise and resubmit my "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results)" paper

And then that will be a full year of faithful obedience to this law I have given myself.

For 2018 I'm already planning to try something completely different, to impose some other not-yet-determined-but-unbreakable law upon myself, and wait for what I expect to be dazzling results. For, nothing surely IS more potent than a law that may not be disobeyed.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Worries: Short Term, Medium Term, Long Term

I have a lot of worries these days, so I've been thinking a lot about how best to do my worrying. Of course, the very best way to worry is not to worry at all, as worry itself - as opposed to concerted, strategic planning - is one of the most pointless activities on earth. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as asking, "Can any of you add a single hour to your life by worrying?" Mark Twain quipped,"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." And yet, most of us are addicted to worry. We just can't stop doing it.

So I sat down recently and sorted my worries into the categories of short term, medium term, and long term. Here's what I figured out.

In the very short term - such as, right this minute - all is actually well with my life. I have a roof over my head, good health, money to pay my immediate bills, work I adore, and loved ones safe and cared for. This actual minute - actually, all of today - is pretty good. I do have stuff to do today: get an oil change for my car, see a dentist for a second opinion regarding the three pricey crowns I've been told I need, write for an hour on my chapter-book-in-progress, read a friend's manuscript, and work with my son to make a dent in the overwhelming volume of paperwork for his impending, very sad divorce. But I can get all of that done. Today is okay!!

In the long term, say, more than a year or two away from now, all bets are off. I have no idea what will happen to me, because anything could: a terrible medical diagnosis, tragedy befalling my family and friends, evaporation of my writing career. Five hundred hideous things could happen. Or not. I have no way of knowing. So here, instead of worrying, I need to focus my energies on maintaining resources that will stand me in good stead whatever happens. I call these the five dimensions of health: physical, mental, emotional, financial, and spiritual. There is no downside to keeping myself fit on all those five dimensions. For me this means walking 10,000 steps a day and watching my weight, keeping intellectually alive through challenging creative and scholarly work, fostering a network of close friends, spending less than I earn, and being an active member of my faith community.

It's the medium term that's the problem. This is where I'm consumed with fears about all of these divorce decisions and paperwork - plus two trips abroad that I committed myself to before my family's need for me intensified so greatly - plus a book to finish, a paper to write for an upcoming conference, and a bunch of other life challenges ranging from pesky to profound. But here what I really need is not to spend my time on worry, but instead to spend it on work - actually getting done what I need to do - and getting it done day by day by day.

That is to say, the medium term is just made up of a bunch of short terms. Each day I need to wake up, express gratitude for the basic okay-ness of my life right now, and take small, regular, manageable steps to do what I need to do. Instead of agonizing about all of my middle-term worries, I'm going to focus on short-term gratitude and small concrete accomplishments, and long-term maintenance of my health on all dimensions.

Worry, begone!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Total Eclipse Birthday

When your birthday happens to fall on the date of a total eclipse of the sun, and your younger son has given you eclipse glasses on the previous Christmas, you really have no choice but to make a special pilgrimage to celebrate the coincidence of natality and totality.

So I decided to head to Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather, on the theory that if the weather gods refused to cooperate and the eclipse itself was a total bust, a sojourn in the landscape so beloved of one of America's most brilliant writers would, in itself, make the trip worthwhile.

We drove all day yesterday, almost four hundred miles, most of it on Highway #34, which runs across the bottom edge of Nebraska, parallel to Highway #36, running along the top edge of Kansas, which I used to take back and forth to and from Indiana. I don't like to view America's Heartland from the Interstate, the auotomotive equivalent of a fly-over. I want to pass through its little towns, eat at its hometown cafes, wave close-up at its sunflowers.

We're not only staying in the town made famous as Black Hawk in Willa Cather's pioneer novels, we are staying in her parents' one-time house, the Cather Second Home, now operated as a bed-and-breakfast by the Willa Cather Foundation.
Our room is the one right above the front door in this picture. Although it's the smallest, it's the one Willa herself stayed in when she came to visit once she was all grown up and living in New York City.

Down the street is her childhood home:
Just outside of town is a stretch of virgin prairie, preserved in her name:
Red Cloud isn't in the actual totality zone, so this morning we drove 40 miles north to Hastings. On the ride we listened to a selection of sun-themed classical music pieces courtesy of Nebraska Educational Radio. My favorite: a baroque rendition of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."

The weather gods did indeed bless us so we could view the eclipse from a pleasant park, with a few dozen other spectators.
And it all happened EXACTLY as it was supposed to, with the sun gradually eaten away by the moon, until at precisely 12:58 p.m., it was gone altogether, for two minutes of mid-day darkness.

The thing I hadn't expected was how bright the world remained up until the moment of totality. Even when the sun was ALMOST totally eclipsed, the shadows upon the sunlit grass were sharp; it was still clearly daytime, even with only the merest fingernail paring of sun on view through my eclipse glasses.

Moral: even the tiniest bit of sun is enough to hold off the darkness. A good thing for me to remember from this birthday I'll never forget.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Perfect Writing Day

Every once in a while the universe delivers to each of us one perfect day. Yesterday was one of mine.

My writer friend Sarah organized a "write-out" yesterday at the Denver Botanic Gardens: a "write-out" is just like a "write-in" except that we gather together to write outdoors instead of in. Only two of us were able to accept Sarah's invitation, but there we were at 9 o'clock yesterday, when the gardens opened, wandering through gorgeous late-summer plantings to this enchanted structure:
Inside are four little tables, one for each of us, plus one for any other wanderer of the morning. Here I sit at mine:
Then, for the next few hours, we wrote. That's all we did: sit at our own little tables, and write. But not only did I write, I wrote the final chapter of my chapter-book-in-progress, where I could scrawl a huge THE END when I put down my pen - even though I know it's only THE END, for now.

While Sarah continued writing, Jean and I walked through the gardens talking about some challenges in creating character conflict in her novel-in-progress. Then we returned to the gazebo (is it a gazebo? or is there some other name for this magical spot?), collected Sarah, and had lunch together at the cafe by the Monet Water Lilies pond.
The sandwiches were yummy, and we talked, and we talked, and we talked some more.

And that was my day. And it was perfect. Thank you, Sarah and Jean, for sharing it with me. Thank you, universe, for giving it to me.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Strategies for Banishing Self-Doubt

One of my beloved former creative writing students just emailed me with the plaintive question: "So how do I get rid of this self-doubt stuff?"

Here is some of what I told her - and what I constantly try to tell myself.

First of all, it's really really REALLY worth trying to do this. The poet Kay Ryan wrote these haunting lines about doubt:

A chick has just so much time
to chip its way out, just so much
egg energy to apply to the weakest spot
or whatever spot it started at.
It can't afford doubt. Who can?
Doubt uses albumen 
at twice the rate of work.

I know that when I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, which I finally finished TWELVE YEARS after dropping out of grad school to work in publishing in NYC, at least eleven of those twelve years were wasted on self-doubt. Indeed, I think the actual writing of the dissertation, once time spent on self-doubt was subtracted, probably amounted to six months total.

So: how do we banish self-doubt? How do I do it now?

Here are four of my go-to methods.

1. I keep a monthly list of my "nice things and accomplishments." When I find myself wailing, "I've done nothing this summer, nothing at all!", I go back to the list and see that this just isn't true. Already, for August, I can see from my list that I wrote three short chapters of my current work-in- progress, gave my visiting granddaughters a magical week for all of us, presented comments on a fascinating paper by the brilliant Rifka Weinberg at the University of Colorado's Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, and wrote a tenure review for a professor at the University of Oklahoma. That isn't nothing! But I know this only because I took the time to document it.

2. When I decide that my current work-in-progress is horrible - formulaic, predictable, boring - I remind myself that my job is just to write it, just to get it down on paper. Then others can tell me whether it works for them as readers, or not, and when they do - guess what? - I can go back and fix it. I recently read this excellent statement from novelist Jane Smiley: "Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It's perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist."

3. When I'm tormented by voices of my imagined critics - or worse, by real ones - I sometimes go to an online review site like Goodreads and look at reviews of authors whose books I most adore. Even they have detractors. One of my favorite books ever written, for example, is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. On Goodreads, its average rating is only a fairly lukewarm 3.81 stars out of a possible 5. "This book was dull and disappointing," wrote one reader. "This book really did not do it for me," wrote another. Moral: there will always be some reader somewhere, and lots of readers everywhere, for whom my book "really did not do it." But there will be others for whom it did.

4. Finally, I try to make the writing itself as much fun as possible, so that, whatever the outcome in terms of the world's response to the work, at least I found some joy in producing it. I drink Swiss Miss hot chocolate when I write; I write in interesting places, like the Denver Botanic Gardens; I write with interesting people, at writing dates with other writers who are defeating their demons as I'm defeating mine. I treat myself to adorable notebooks, or soft blankets to wrap myself in as I write. Fourteen years ago, when I finally gave into my sons' pleading for a cat, it was largely because my younger son painted a picture for me of how cozy it would be to have a purring cat beside me as I write. And it is!

So these are a few strategies I use. They are successful only some of the time. But "some of the time" turns out to be enough.
My best writing companion, Snickers.