Monday, September 30, 2019

In Praise of Scheduled Wallowing

I seldom listen to music while driving; I just obsessively think my own thoughts. My son never drives without listening to music. So it happened that, driving with him a week ago, I heard on one of his Sirius stations a song from the first Mamma Mia movie: Colin Firth singing, "I can still recall . . . our last summer . .  I still see it all. . . "

Suddenly I was in tears.

The song pierced its way into my heart - this recalling of "our last summer" - where it's clear that this isn't "last" in the sense of "most recent," but in the sense of "last ever" - the poignant loss of something never to be reclaimed.

For the next few days I couldn't stop listening to the song over and over again, crying each time, recalling certain "last summers" in my own life: the last summer my husband still lived at home with me before moving to a skilled nursing facility, the last summer he was actually able to travel with me, to see the total solar eclipse on my birthday, in Red Cloud, Nebraska, childhood home of Willa Cather. . .  And might this past summer turn out to be my last summer with my two little granddaughters, pending the outcome of a looming and terrifying court case? Friends' tragic losses haunted me, too.

I cried. And I cried. And I cried.

It felt so good.

I've been so busy being cheerful despite my heartaches that it's been a long time since I've cried. (One also cries less, in my experience, while on anti-depressants, from which I'm now taking a break.) Apparently I had a huge pent-up need to cry, and kindly Colin Firth helped me do it.

Back in my twenties, when I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, I was seeing a brilliant therapist named Judy Alexander. I started seeing Judy after one particular boyfriend dumped me. I had been dumped by boyfriends many times before - so many, in fact, that I developed a terrific policy for dealing with a dumping: the day a boyfriend dumped me was the day I went to the travel agent and bought myself a plane ticket to Europe. I went three times on this policy: to England, to Greece, and to Paris/Prague. But this most recent dumping kept on twisting a knife into my heart even after my return from Greece.

Judy told me I should set aside fifteen minutes each day to be sad about the breakup: look at pictures of the two of us together, play sad songs that reminded me of him, just let all the sadness out.

"Why should I be sad?" I demanded. "He's not sad!"

She gently replied with a question of her own: "Why should you let him determine your feelings?"

That was some of the best advice I ever received. I started looking forward all day long to those fifteen minutes when I could luxuriate in grief - downright wallow in it. Oh, the relief - even the joy - that can be found in wallowing!

I may be done with Colin Firth's song for a while now; I'm crying less each time I play it. But I'm not yet done with grieving for all I've lost, and all I may be in the process of losing. I'm going to continue to follow Judy Alexander's wise counsel and set aside small, fixed amounts of time for wallowing in heartbreak. My poor heart, it turns out, longs for periodic sessions of weeping and wailing.

Dear heart, I'm going to give those to you. I'll find more sad songs for you. Suggestions for a wallowing soundtrack, anyone?

Sometimes we all just need to wallow.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Learning from My Own Characters; or Ringing the Bell Choir Blues

There are some things I am (relatively) good at: writing, teaching, giving talks, getting a lot of work done in a little amount of time.

There are other things I am (absolutely) terrible at: math, sports, cooking - and playing musical instruments in front of other people.

A long time ago I played in the church bell choir because ringers are always needed, and I consider myself to be a Helpful Person. I loved the practices - what's not to love about making music with your friends? But I dreaded the performances with a sick desperate terror and barely managed to get through them with paralyzing stage fright.

Here's the thing about bell choir. You are the ONLY one playing your bell, so if you don't play that note (and that note is in the melody line) - or if you play that note at the wrong time - or if you play the sharp of that note instead of the natural, or the natural of that note instead of the sharp - THE WHOLE PIECE IS RUINED, AND IT IS TOTALLY YOUR FAULT, AND YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAS DISAPPOINTED ALL THE OTHER, MORE CAPABLE BELL RINGERS, AND YOU SHOULD WEAR A PAPER BAG OVER YOUR HEAD FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS!

Or at least that's how it seemed to me.

Finally, after a couple of agonizing years, I decided I could be a Helpful Person in other, less stressful ways and quit the bell choir. Luckily, my older son is by all accounts the star of the bell choir, responsible for playing as many as thirteen bells. So I felt our family as a whole was doing its bell-choir share.

But occasionally I'm called back to be a substitute when another ringer is off on vacation or otherwise unavailable.

"Can you find someone else?" I plead.

A search is made.

"I'm so sorry, but there is nobody else who can do it."

I gulp.

Then I say, "Okay."

Thus it happened that this past Sunday I played a D-flat and C-flat bell in "El Shaddai." And guess what? I messed up during the performance, missing several crucial melody notes (foiled by a page turn). I couldn't even make myself return to my pew afterward. Instead I fled sobbing to the parking lot. Yes, I was actually in tears over those missed notes.

Here's what makes my bell-playing trauma even more ridiculous. Fifteen years ago I published a book, Perfectly Chelsea, about a little girl in her church life. In the chapter titled "Make a Joyful Noise," Chelsea is playing in the bell choir, messes up during the performance, and totally falls apart.

Here's the illustration by Jacqueline Rogers where Chelsea looks EXACTLY like I did this past Sunday.
And here's how Chelsea reacts afterward:

"I played horribly!" Chelsea cried. "Every single note was wrong!"

"Oh, Chelsea." Mrs. Phillips led her to a pew and made her sit down. "Do you think God hears your mistakes?"

Well, if He wasn't completely deaf, He did. 

"Do you think God is saying, 'Chelsea Garing was supposed to play a C sharp in measure eighteen, and she played a C natural?"

Chelsea had no idea what God was thinking. Probably He was sitting up in heaven with His hands clapped over His ears.

"God is saying, 'Here's a girl who is trying her best to make beautiful music as a gift to me and to the whole congregation.' God doesn't hear the notes you play out loud; God hears the notes you play in your heart."

Chelsea hoped Mrs. Phillips was right.

Mrs. Phillips went on. "The Bible says, 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.' Sometimes the noise sounds like music, and sometimes it just sounds like - noise. The important thing is the joy."

Okay: the important thing is the joy. That's what Mrs. Phillips says, and I'm the one who created Mrs. Phillips and wrote those words for her to say. So I should know!

Apparently people in church liked the performance; a lot of them said they did. Maybe God liked it, too. Our new pastor, who is dragging us into the 21st century, put up a video of it on You Tube (you can't see me in it, fortunately; I'm in the second row; my son is the one at the end of the front row). I listened to it on my phone earlier today and could barely locate where my mistake was. Then I listened to it again just now on my computer, with fewer distractions, and yes, I heard my mistakes, and heard some other people's mistakes, too.

I also heard music played lovingly for the glory of God.

After Sunday's tears I vowed I'd never play in the bell choir again: never, never, never! But if I hadn't played, given that no other sub was available, 100 percent of my notes would have gone missing. Realistically, I probably just missed half a dozen, max. So I managed to offer up at least 90 percent of my notes as a gift from my heart.

If my characters (with my wise assistance) can learn important life lessons at aged ten, why is it so hard for me to learn them at age sixty-five?


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Exorcising Fourth Grade Demons in My Silver Sneakers Exercise Class

I did not grow up loving sports. Or liking sports. Or doing any sports at all. This was before Title IX created funding for sports for girls; indeed, it was a time when hardly anyone engaged in any organized physical activities. There was Little League for elementary-school-aged boys, and then football, basketball, and baseball for boys in high school. That was pretty much it.

This was fine with me, as I was terrible at sports, as evidenced by my performance in my loathed P.E. classes. I have a memory that some teacher was worried about how hopeless I was at throwing and catching a ball. She said something to my parents about how physical coordination was important for academic success, so they went out and bought a Wiffle Ball, tossed it to me a few times in the back yard, and (to my great relief) that was the end of that.

The nadir of my non-athleticism, however, came in fourth grade. Our classroom teacher was enamored of a fitness guru named Bonnie Pruden. She would play Bonnie Pruden records every day while we gyrated to their beat. Of course, I gyrated much less proficiently than anyone else. One day - could this really be true? yet this is how I've remembered it for over half a century - she had the rest of the class stop in order to watch my flailing motions: "Look how hard Claudia is trying," she said in what I heard as malicious glee.  "And she still can't do it!"

Needless to say, I never tried to do any physical exercise in my life ever again. I do walk 10,000 steps a day with my beloved Fitbit. Once I tried a free modern dance class at the university, billed as being for absolute beginners, and discovered on the first day that I was as bad at modern dance as I was at Bonnie Pruden. So I went back to being a walker, period.

But now - ta-dah! - I'm a senior citizen. I have Medicare. And a Silver Sneakers card. The South Boulder Rec Center is just a fifteen-minute walk from my house. There is a Silver Sneakers class that meets there at 10:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And my dear friend Rachel loves her silver Sneakers classes.

Maybe it was time to try to silence the memory of that fourth-grade teacher's voice.

I've gone to four of these Silver Sneakers classes now; I'm just back from the one this morning. I think I'm twenty years younger than most of the other students, but I'm by far the worst at doing the exercise motions (which involve dancing around while holding a small ball, or a stretchy weight band of some kind, or two little hand weights).

It's not that the class is all that difficult physically. The challenge for me is mental. I just can't coordinate my mind and my body, especially if one part of my body is supposed to move one direction while another part is supposed to move in the opposite direction. I can't kick my left foot while pumping my right fist into the air.

I think I did a little bit better today, though. This teacher, unlike the fourth-grade teacher, calls out "Beautiful!" "Nice!" "Yes!" whatever we get right or get wrong. Apparently it's very good for the aging brain - or for any brain - to do this kind of cross-body motion. Maybe that worried kindergarten teacher was right that the brain and the body are not entirely separate entities.

I'm not going to give up this time. I'm going to keep on trying. After all, it's been fifty-five years now since fourth-grade. It feels good to move, to stretch, to bop along to the music (today it was Abba, and the Beatles, and the BeeGees).

So what if I'm the worst in the class?

At least I'm in the class, happily bopping along in my silver sneakers.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Boulder Bookstore Launch for NIXIE NESS

Oh, what a treat it was to have a launch party for Nixie Ness Cooking Star at Boulder Bookstore last night! The older I get (and the whole world knows how excited I am to be an official SENIOR CITIZEN now), the more I think it's important to celebrate our achievements large and small, and to help others celebrate theirs. So I'm grateful to the friends from so many different parts of my life - fellow writers, church family, philosophy department former students and colleagues, neighbors, friends - who gathered at the bookstore to help welcome my new little book into the world.

Here are some photos from the festivities, with the best saved for last.

I shared some stories about how the book came to be, from my decision to branch out from decades of writing school stories to explore writing a series of books set in an after-school program.

 I read from the first chapter, which ends with Nixie in the depths of despair about having to leave her best friend behind, as her mother's new job necessitates Nixie's going off to the After-School Superstars cooking camp, while her best friend, Grace, will now spend afternoons with Elyse, a kitten-owning girl who may just possibly turn out to be a best-friend stealer.

Having a new job was great for Nixie's mother.

Playing with someone else's kitten was apparently okay for Grace,

So the only person this was completely, totally, absolutely terrible for was Nixie. 

(I did share with the audience a message I had recently seen on a framed drawing for sale in a hospital gift shop: "Not to spoil the ending, but everything is going to be okay.")

I signed lots of books - hooray!

People ate lots of my cookies, including my signature ginger snaps - hooray!

And - this was the best part of this whole lovely evening - members of my Roosters writing group came WEARING APRONS!!!

So: I'm glad I made a fuss over Nixie. Even though this is my 58th published book for younger readers, she deserves her own party. Actually, I don't think the first fifty books had any parties at all, as the phenomenon of the "book launch" wasn't yet a "thing" back then.

I want my life - and your lives - and everybody's lives - to have more parties, not fewer.

Life isn't so long that we can pass up a chance for a party.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

It Takes Longer to Ride the Bus than to Drive - So What?

Here are some things I've learned so far in my new commitment to ride the bus almost everywhere I go, using my SENIOR CITIZEN HALF-PRICE BUS TICKETS! - and taking advantage of Boulder's truly excellent network of buses.

Some buses - like the Skip (the bus that fortunately-for-me goes right by my house) or buses to and from Denver during rush hour  - come and go so often you hardly have to check a schedule. Others. . . don't. If you miss one, you may have to wait half an hour for the next one. So when you see one pull away from the stop fifteen seconds before you dash up, panting, it's tempting to gnash your teeth and pull your hair.

Some buses go exactly where you want to go. For others, you may have to walk from the bus stop to your final destination - maybe half a mile, maybe even a bit more. There may be a sidewalk. But you may find yourself walking  - actually, trudging - along on the shoulder of the road as cars whiz by - one of which could have been YOUR car whizzing by, with YOU in it.

I would say it usually takes twice as long to get where I want to go by bus. If I have to change buses and coordinate two different bus schedules, it can even take three or four times as long.

But here are the pluses to bus transport that are still outweighing the minuses for me.

1. All right, I have to check bus schedules now, so I lose some spontaneity in my day. BUT I also have a good reason to get closure on one activity and move on to the next: "Oops! Sorry! Have to go catch my bus!" Plus, I LIKE planning. This is just one more thing I get to plan.

2. On the bus you can do other things. Well, sort of. With the exception of the buses to/from Boulder to Denver, these are not express buses sailing along the highway; they are buses that make a lot of starts and stops. Still, you can read a bit, or make some notes in a notebook, or . . . daydream. As someone who had her last TWO cars totaled in accidents (one of these my own fault), it is sooooo pleasant NOT to have to concentrate on not wrecking my car through careless inattention.

3. The bus ride - and walk to and from the bus stop - is a voyage of discovery. Yesterday, when I got off the 205 to walk the rest of the way to a writers' gathering held at a church half a mile from the bus stop, at first I was dismayed to see the road stretch ahead of me with no sidewalk. I gritted my teeth and said, "Great!" in that sarcastic crabby way the word is so often said. But then. . . then . . . I saw that there was a sidewalk - not by the side of the walk, but tucked away behind some trees - not just a sidewalk, but a BECKONING PATH.
GREAT!!!! Following that beckoning path gave me the day's single biggest jolt of joy.

4. Finally, the bus has OTHER PEOPLE on it. Now, instead of being in your own little metal container hurtling alone through life, there you are, part of THE WORLD. Yesterday, it turns out, was a huge football game: Colorado versus Nebraska, a historic rivalry of great intensity. As I headed to the Boulder Connect writing meeting, the bus sat in traffic as we neared the university. Who cared? I wasn't the one driving, I was sitting happily watching the festivities from the bus! I could see tailgate parties and throngs of fans surging toward the stadium. Then, as I was on my way home from the writing meeting, followed by a visit to my husband at the care home, while I waited for the 205, a guy at the bus stop gave a shout as he glanced down at his phone, though I was the only audience for the shout. CU had been behind thirty points, he told me, but now the game was tied and going into overtime! Then, on the second leg of my two-leg bus journey, as the Skip took me past the university again, with the game now completed, dozens of fans clambered onto the bus, talking intently about the game, which CU ended up winning 34-31. "That was a game for the ages!" said one. "That was the greatest game in a decade!" said another. Even though I have zero interest in football - or thought that I did - now I was part of a happening: I was there in the crowd for the greatest game in a decade! a game for the ages!

All because I rode the bus.

All told, the four bus rides to get to and from my afternoon's activities cost me at least an extra hour I could have spent surfing the internet and idly Googling myself to see if there were any new reviews of my latest book posted on Amazon or Goodreads, and seething if they were four-star reviews instead of five-star reviews.

Instead, I took the beckoning path.

And I'm glad I did.