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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Writing Pure Love - IWSG May 2020

It's IWSG Day. The goal of this blog hop is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. IWSG is the brainchild of Alex Cavanaugh, our brilliant ninja leader. To find links to other IWSG contributors, click here. Co-hosts for the May are Feather Stone, Beverly Stowe McClure, Mary Aalgaard, Kim Lajevardi, and Chemist Ken.

Oh, my dears…

I’ve never missed a monthly IWSG and posting is a comfort now because for the most part, I’ve lost my routine. No getting up at 5:30 to write before work. No morning time in the “zone.” A few days ago, I tried, sitting down to work on my current project, but I couldn’t remember what had been in my brain when I left off weeks ago, so gave it up. 

The truth is, I have actually written this month, the hardest, yet most treasured piece I’ve ever created—an obituary for my sweet husband who lost his battle with melanoma two weeks ago.

Organized soul that he was, he’d written a draft death notice that summed up dates and facts. I almost laughed when I read it, none of it touching on the nuance of him. How he broke every seriousness with humor. How you could count on him for absolutely anything. How he loved quoting Monty Python, and Saturday nights in the fall by the fire when in jest, he’d repeat a phrase his dad said so often our eyes rolled, “A fire really warms up the place.” There was nothing about our tradition of weekly date-nights, a habit formed early in our marriage when we couldn’t afford to go out that became so ingrained, thirty-five years later when we missed one, we’d sit down at our table the next weekend filled with relief. It failed to mention how our now-grown-up nieces and nephews used to call him Uncle Fun. Or how, when we stayed overnight with my sister and the kids demanded a bedtime story from him, an hour later I’d have to tug him away because he’d be having such a good time, he’d have kept them up forever. It didn’t mention how he was the best gift-giver because he listened and remembered. So many birthdays I’d open a present and say, “Oh my gosh, I wanted one of these,” and he’d say, “I know. You said so months ago,” and I’d be shocked. “I did??”

His version including nothing about how his eyes lit up whenever he saw our daughter, or how when she was small, he co-opted a story theme I’d started with her using Tweetie-Bird from the old Loony Tunes cartoon, making it his own and so very much more. Or how they’d giggle together on her bed and how once again I’d have to prod him out of her room so she could get enough sleep. And while his draft mentioned his love for sailing, it didn’t talk about how proud he was of his lovely and pristine boat, moored across from a public dock, visible to all who launched in the harbor.

His bare-bones notes didn’t include details about the little surprises he left me around the yard. A sculpted orchestra of instrument-bearing frogs tucked into a hollow behind the shed, two azalea bushes it took me weeks to notice, a plaque mounted onto an old tree stump, “Please don’t piss off the fairies.” It didn’t include how he loved cookies or how he’d arrive home from work and with coat still on, reach his hand into the jar. Or how when his genetic high cholesterol became a minor issue, he gave up those cookies cold-turkey and created a food regime he prepared for himself: plain oatmeal for breakfast, salad for lunch with vinegar—no oil, pretzels and carrot sticks and how after that meager fare, he’d come home uncomplaining to whatever low-fat dinner I’d concocted, no cookies allowed. Or how without an alarm, he got up at 3:45 am on week days to exercise.

It didn’t touch on his love for Christmas. How he so liked my gift of a nutcracker our first Christmas, it morphed into a yearly tradition. Even this past December when he was feeling poorly, he unwrapped a collection whose count easily exceeded our number of years together and displayed them in the family room, the dining room and on the living room mantle. Or how important it was to him that our tree had enough lights. Well, trees, I should say. Because we had three. A live tree in the family room, and once our cat passed away, an artificial tree in the living room on which we hung our delicate ornaments, and his tree downstairs in the “man cave,” where he hung snowman lights and all the macaroni holiday decorations our daughter ever made in school. Don’t even get me going on the Christmas fairyland that was our outside. 

Oh, I could tell stories about him forever.

But the thing about obituaries is they’re revenue for the publishers and here’s one more thing about Tim. He wouldn’t want me to waste the money. When I found his draft, I knew I had to find a way to make it reflect him without breaking the bank. So, with his permission before he left us, I re-wrote it, adding enough with the hope that not only would it read true for those who knew him, but also so those who hadn’t known him would feel what they had missed. And soon after he left us, it appeared in print and online. My love. Edited to 443 words—condensing an encyclopedia of joyous memories into two columns, when even a million words could never be enough.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Chronic, Cleanliness and COVID

It's IWSG Day. The goal of this blog hop is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. IWSG is the brainchild of Alex Cavanaugh, our brilliant ninja leader. To find links to other IWSG contributors, click here. Thank you to April co-hosts: Diane Burton, JH Moncrieff, Anna @ Emaginette, Karen @ Reprobate Typewriter, Erika Beebe, and Lisa Buie-Collard. 

This month's question: The IWSG’s focus is on our writers. Each month, from all over the globe, we are a united group sharing our insecurities, our troubles, and our pain. So, in this time when our world is in crisis with the covid-19 pandemic, our optional question this month is: how are things in your world?

I’m not great at housecleaning but with bi-weekly professional assistance things stay in good shape around our home. That said, the value of cleanliness took a huge uptick lately due to my husband’s chronic illness and COVID-19. Our virus from hell stopped world-wide operations at the same time he was scheduled to enter the hospital for life-prolonging treatment.

In thirty-five years of marriage, we’ve been apart for a week at a time only twice, each of us taking work trips years ago, he to California, me to Japan. But now, he’d be spending a week in a critical care unit, a week or so at home recovering, and then another week in. Depending on results, the whole thing may be repeated a month later. Last month, when he received the blessing from his doctor to proceed, a nurse reassured me. “He’ll be in a big room. There’s a cot. You can stay the night if you wish.” 

That was when COVID-19 was happening elsewhere. But as we got closer to his treatment date, it was as if the arrival of COVID in the US and his hospitalization were on the same clock. We agonized. Would they postpone his treatment? The answer was no, they would not. But days before his admission date in what now feels like the virus's infancy here in the US, an email related to his upcoming hospitalization spelled out new rules. “No visitors to the 11th floor.” In fact, I couldn't even enter the hospital.

Oh Lord. 

Pretty quickly, we became grateful for FaceTime. After months of trying to get him healthy enough for this treatment, this was a hiccup, right? Easy-peasy. On the day he was admitted, I dropped him off at the hospital, blew him a kiss and watched helplessly as the  doors swallowed him. Then, I drove to work, planning on burying myself in it.

The next day, the governor announced non-essential employees needed to stay home. I brought a laptop home and worked from there as best I could. Life morphed to “social distancing” in my house alone, knowing my husband was undergoing grueling treatment without me, while my options for finding something, anything to distract myself became sorely limited. My job? Phone calls and emails. But then what? The library? Not only was it closed, there appeared to be a run on online books. It was too early in the season to garden. The grass didn’t need to be mowed. Facebook, Twitter and the like were filled with dire prognostications, or worse, pictures of folks who believed they’re immune to the virus walking side-by-side, crowding beaches. Predictions that every hospital bed in the city would be filled at the time my husband was scheduled for his second week of treatment left me wanting to scream, so, no social media.

To get through those long days, I planned to give my so-so cleaning habits a work out. Windows? Vinegar and hot water to get rid of winter grime. Kitchen cupboards? Murphy’s Oil soap and fine steel wool to remove ancient grease. Lemon and baking soda to eliminate stains on kitchen counters. Pantry closets emptied and swept. Bleach everywhere. But how would I distract my brain? 

Thankfully, I remembered this. Years ago, when I suddenly lost my job of 23 years, I wrote my way out of the shock. Every morning I drafted a five-hundred work essay, went for a walk, came back and finalized the results for Middle Passages. It worked so well that since then, five days a week, I get up an hour early to write. So, cleaning-schmeaning. I stuck to my normal practice, forcing myself to sit down at the computer first thing each morning to lose myself in my novel draft. When I resurfaced, I’d done something routine. Something that helped me stay whole. And during that God-awful, lonely week, I learned yet again, as bad as things get, writing will always be there for me.

Then, I scrubbed and disinfected our house, all the while praying my husband's treatment would succeed and COVID-19 would disappear, imagining a future in which we're together again, his body, our home and the entire world, cleansed of dangerous pathogens.

Wishing good health and offering prayers for you all. I know we're all touched by this.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Writing What's Real - IWSG March 2020

It's IWSG Day. The goal of this blog hop is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. IWSG is the brainchild of Alex Cavanaugh, our brilliant ninja leader. Co-hosts for the March  IWSG are Jacqui Murray, Lisa Buie-Collard, Sarah Foster, Natalie Aguirre, and Shannon Lawrence! To read other contributors, click here. 

March Optional Question: Other than the obvious holiday traditions, have you ever included any personal or family traditions/customs in your stories?

I can’t recall including personal customs or traditions in my stories, but I've used snippets (or more) from real life. They say write what you know. In my theory, mining real experiences makes writing feel more legitimate to readers.  

To that end, I’ve written fiction using details from real life such as:      

  •  An 1800’s estate formerly located in my home town an eccentric millionaire filled with amusements, including bear pits, an under grown grotto, saloons, restaurants and a "pleasure lake." Long gone to ruin, the entire area is now populated with large homes. All that’s left is the lake and occasional pieces of statuary my friends used to encounter when playing in the woods when we were young. Confession time. The Beneficiary, the novel I’m currently querying, includes a fictional representation this estate, which I wrote without ever seeing it. Yes, it was in my home town, but unless you knew property owners in the area, it was inaccessible. I closed that loop this past summer when my sister-in-law, who lives with my brother in the house where we grew up, took me on a hike down a relatively new nature trail they’ve created that leads to the lake.
  •  A memorial to the victims of a shipwreck off the coast of our town, a Celtic cross sitting high on a mound in the middle of our local cemetery. The boat left Galway in the fall of 1849 making it just shy of Boston before hitting ledge during a storm. Of the ninety-nine passengers (+/- but that’s another story), twelve made it to shore, forty-five were buried in a mass grave in our cemetery and the rest were unaccounted for. A quiet mystery remains. The memorial is not located at the burial site and no-one seems to know where the real grave site is. In the same cemetery, which is run by a private group, there is an unmarked plot of land that I suspect is the grave, but those who may know, aren’t saying. The questions surrounding this wreck triggered me to write my book, This Side of Here.
  •  My grandmother’s backyard, most likely tilled by an avid gardener before she bought it. It featured a grape arbor and rectangular gardens edged in red brick. Her property abutted an empty lot that climbed to the road across from a Catholic church and school. A character from This Side of Here disappeared from a similar yard. Aha. Wait. I've just remembered a tradition. Early Easter mornings, we drove to my grandmother’s house before late mass. She always purchased two stuffed bunnies for my little sister and me and used them as a centerpiece on the breakfast table. After a feast of double-boiler scrambled eggs, bacon, grapefruit and honey buns followed by play time with those stuffed bunnies, it was off to church. If the weather allowed, we’d cut across her backyard to get there. Not a tradition I’ve written about before, but now, thanks to IWSG, I have. Whoops. Now that I think about it, I did write about this custom, including a recipe for her delicious eggs, here.
What traditions have you included in your writing?