I’m really pleased to welcome author Carolyn Walker to SunnyRoomStudio. Sometimes life calls us to cope with the unexpected. Nearly always, in fact. And when the unexpected involves the people we love, we usually feel uncertain, unprepared, and overwhelmed. So Carolyn, like many of us, decided to write about her experience in a memoir (Garn Press, January 2017) called Every Least Sparrow.
“No one is without troubles, without personal hardships and genuine challenges.
That fact may not be obvious because most people don’t advertise their woes and heartaches.
But nobody, not even the purest heart, escapes life without suffering battle scars.”
― Richelle E. Goodrich, Smile Anyway
WORD AFTER WORD
by Carolyn Walker
I remember vividly the day I announced to my mother, while the two of us stood in our living room, “I am going to be a writer.” I was ten years old. I had no idea, of course, how to generate, or recognize, good ideas, push through rewrites, or use imagery and grammar. Having not yet discovered Nancy Drew, I wasn’t even much of a reader. Nevertheless, in my innocence, I somehow foresaw that writing would be my calling. At that age, I couldn’t know that it would become my platform.
I began writing by producing silly poems, and my mother, a secretary given to organization, became my biggest supporter. During my teenage years, when I was especially prolific, she surprised me with a green and white filing box to hold my writings, and during my adulthood, clipped my weekly columns from our small town newspaper and slipped them beneath the cellophane sleeves of a scrapbook. My mother’s actions empowered me, and helped me to believe my words had value.
During my childhood and adolescent years, we lived in an idyllic, small village that included among its residents a round, wide-eyed mentally handicapped woman who liked to float on an inner tube in the local lake, and a woman who probably had cerebral palsy, who rode about the village on a three-wheeled bicycle. If there were any disabled children in the neighborhood, I didn’t know them, although I did attend junior high with a few who had mental handicaps and who were sequestered most days in a private classroom.
Sometimes I would sit at the kitchen table and talk about these folks, their differences, the teasing I saw them endure, their obvious loneliness, while my mother did the dishes. She’d listen and then say, “There but for the grace of God go you.” This was her way of telling me that disability could have been mine, and I should be grateful that it wasn’t.
But then it was.
In 1977 I gave birth to a daughter who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, which affects her IQ, various body functions, and her appearance. She was followed ten years later by my son, who is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and who coincidentally is gay. Those dual challenges have rendered him a true eccentric who has been devastated by bullying.
Whatever I imagined for my career as a ten-year-old, writing about disability and equality was not it. Even early in my marriage I couldn’t have guessed that children with these kinds of complications would come my way.
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with my children, and raising them has made me reevaluate any preconceptions I harbored as to what is beautiful, what is normal, and what is acceptable.
I often wrote about my children in my column, and later personal essays and memoir. I found that the page gave me a place to think deeply about what it means to be human.
My daughter and son are adults now, but when they were little I would sometimes stand at their bedroom doors and consider them as they slept, as I know my mother did with me. I’d look at their peaceful faces and think about the difficult world they would have to live in. This made me wish I could change the world, help it to become a more understanding and compassionate place. After half a century of writing, I believe I can, word after word. ~
Fire tests gold, suffering tests brave men.
Carolyn Walker is the author of the memoir Every Least Sparrow, a book about raising her daughter Jennifer, who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome. In May, 2017, the book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by Garn Press. Walker, memoirist, essayist, poet, and creative writing instructor, worked for twenty-five years as a journalist, before returning to graduate school. She earned her MFA in Writing degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004. In 2013, she was made a Kresge Fellow in the Literary Arts by the Kresge Foundation. Walker’s work has appeared in The Southern Review, Hunger Mountain, The Writer’s Chronicle, Gravity Pulls You In: Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum, HOUR Detroit, The Detroit News, and many other publications. Her essay “Christian Become a Blur,” published in the literary journal Crazyhorse, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Walker is a creative writing instructor for Writer’s Digest University, Springfed Arts, and All Writers Workplace & Workshop. She has been a writing resident at Vermont Studio Center, and Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard. She is a lifelong Michigan resident, and the married mother of three adult children.
WE all wonder how authors find their material, their voice, and the insight to turn meaningful concepts and words into books. So it’s a real pleasure to have Heidi Barr as my Studio Guest in SunnyRoomStudio this week. Heidi’s guest post tackles author inspiration and sustaining a career of words when it’s also completely normal to worry about “ideas,” and where the next one will come from. If at all, right? Regardless of your creative focus, I think you will enjoy Heidi’s perspective on this. She also poses some great questions at the close of her piece. We all need a meaningful prompt now and then, don’t we?
Heidi Barr lives near the St. Croix River Valley in Minnesota with her husband and daughter where they tend a large organic vegetable garden, explore nature and do their best to live simply. She authored Prairie Grown: Stories and Recipes from a South Dakota Hillside and will soon release Woodland Manitou: To Be on Earth. Heidi’s book is forthcoming (September 19, 2017), so I’ve shared the pre-order link in case you prefer a head start.
I think you’ll really enjoy getting to know Heidi. I love the quote she posted with this picture on her Facebook author page. “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” ―Thoreau
I asked her about this picture, how it came to be … because I thought it captured something important about her and her work as an author in today’s frenzied world. She replied that the picture was taken “out on the little lake we live on” … she was with a friend (in another canoe, hence the photo), and that it was “one of those days to just paddle around slowly, taking in the energy of the afternoon.”
The importance of time like this can’t be stressed enough. And reading a book by someone who “gets this” … could change your life perspective, or confirm it. Either way, I’m happy to share Heidi’s guest post here in SunnyRoomStudio. Welcome, Heidi!
Heidi is a mother, spouse, gardener, and writer; she is committed to cultivating ways of being that are life-giving and sustainable for people, communities and the planet. She loves putting words together to paint pictures of ideas, as well as walking with others as they explore what it means to live well on a finite planet. Hiking through forests and across prairies, wading in streams, digging in the soil and surrounding herself with natural wonder help her stay grounded in reality.
“Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas, hundreds, thousands of them.
Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that
thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.” ~ Allison K Williams
THE LENS OF GRATITUDE
by Heidi C. Barr
On good days, I call myself a writer. I wake up feeling like I have something to say, and I figure out a way to put words together in a way that makes sense to other people. I enjoy the work, and if it’s hard, it’s hard in a way that makes me want to keep at it. On less good days, I wake up feeling like I have run out of ideas, that my well of words has run dry, and that calling myself a writer just isn’t accurate anymore. I wonder how I ever thought of all of those sentences and ideas and posts and books, and I imagine what life will be like now that I no longer have anything to say.
Fortunately, those little negative voices on the less good days always get overshadowed by a new idea, even if it’s writing about how I can’t think of anything else to write about. Life has a way of providing material, whether I like it or not. As Annie Dillard writes, “Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”
I see my work as a writer to be that of giving voice to the beauty that can be found in the ordinary, and that of telling the truth as I see it unfolding in my own life. Many of the other writers I know have said something along the lines of “I write because I can’t not write.” I can claim the same sentiment: I write because it’s a way of wrestling with what’s going on in my own head, in my community, and on the planet. It’s a way of figuring out how I truly feel about something and putting my introverted and often soft-spoken voice out into the world.
Part of my story is writing about what I notice and sharing it.
We are all on a journey – a journey of present moments that really has no end point – to figure out what it means to exist in our fullest version of truth. We all have a unique way of being that is life-giving for ourselves, our communities, and this planet that we all call home. We all have the capacity to live in a way that feels right, even though we are born into a life situation over which we have little control. Some of us have a much easier time of it than others — privilege is a very real phenomenon in our world and one that must be considered constantly. But maybe we all, somewhere inside when everything external is stripped away, have the capacity to look at the world through a lens of abundance and beauty, rather than one of scarcity and lack. Those who have little and can find the joy in what they have are some of our greatest teachers. Gratitude has saved more than one life on this earth.
Turning to Annie Dillard’s wisdom again, “We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting.”
When I can stop fighting with myself and just let the words come when they come, I find myself living in a way that feels right because I am able to be fully in my life, instead of trying to force an outcome that I think I should want. Yielding to what wants to speak through me has allowed me to plug into that pulse and tell the stories that want to be told.
How about you?
Whatever your creative practice might be, from writing to sketching to gardening to caring for children, how do you stay present to what your life wants to speak through you? How do you ‘stalk your calling’ and yield to it? What helps you stay in the conversation (with yourself), while avoiding the fight?
Here is the beautiful cover to Heidi’s forthcoming September release. When asked to read the manuscript for a possible cover quote, I was happy to do so. My first book,Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, was written straight from the heart about the prairie landscape and lifestyle I’d grown up with. I sensed we were moving away from the wisdom of our hearts when I published the first edition of this book in 1999 (William Morrow, Eagle Brook imprint), and when I noticed that this trend was merely intensifying over time, I decided to publish a second edition in 2014. As a 15th Anniversary edition, the ideas still ring true, even more so with the passage of time. Long story short, Heidi’s new book immediately resonated with me.
Living deeply maybe isn’t for everyone … but those of us who value it and find a way to manifest it … can’t imagine living any other way. Thank you so much, Heidi, for being my guest here in SunnyRoomStudio.
Here, by the way, is the cover quote I had the opportunity to write, along with a brief excerpt from Heidi’s book.
“To the extent it is ever possible to make sense of the human condition, Heidi Barr has done an incredible job within the illuminating pages of Woodland Manitou. The search for life meaning is never simple but, in adopting a seasonal theme, Barr provides a context that will enliven your search. Her heartfelt perspective about the challenges of the human story bridges moments, days, and years in a beautiful and compelling way. With nature as her touchstone, the author sheds a timely light on issues and dilemmas we are destined to encounter. A dynamic and inspiring book for today’s world!” –D.A. Hickman, author of Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place
“Ah, summer. The time of the year when the days are long and life seems to somehow speed up and slow down at the same time. The work around the land and garden is demanding, but the days are long and support our efforts with the grace of lingering light and warmth. There is time to play and rest amidst the needs of caring for the garden and household. The cool rush of water over bare skin in the evening, the feel of the warm wind whistling the scent of hot pine down into the valley, the way a tomato tastes like a burst of sunlight straight off the vine…these details bring out the color of the days and remind me that the earth does indeed laugh in flowers, as Emerson wrote all those years ago. Summer is paddling and running through forests, sleeping outside and slapping at mosquitoes. It is finding ticks and going back outside anyway. It is the neighborhood buzzing with activity because everyone is outside more than any other time of the year. It is feeling bone weary at the end of a long hot day in the sun and collapsing in gratitude for the opportunity to be alive. It is thunderstorms and picnics, nurturing and sowing, and giving and taking in the dance of abundance.” –Heidi Barr, Woodland Manitou: To Be on Earth.
“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
I’ll be back soon with more about my summer poetry release: ANCIENTS OF THE EARTH — Poems of Time.
Until then, please check out Heidi’s blog and leave a comment for her … whatever comes to mind or offer your thoughts on the questions she posed. Thanks again, Heidi. Best of luck with your September release!
SPECIAL NOTE: Heidi’s guest post will always be easy to find … just visit the Studio Guest tab above.
She is my 46th guest in SunnyRoomSudio!
Empowering beliefs are ideas that launch us forward and help us to become the person we want to be. Empowering beliefs are freeing, encouraging, and inclusive; they nurture and uplift. When we find ourselves harboring a limiting belief, we need to replace it with one that cultivates joy. —Laurie Buchanan, NOTE TO SELF
When someone we know releases a book, we are curious, aren’t we? What’s it about? Who will decide to read it, share it, recommend it? Why did they write it? What life steps led to this moment? Where do I find a copy? And when someone we don’t know releases a book, we are also very curious. Should I read it? Will I like it? Does the subject intrigue me? So here, per my interview with someone I do know and hope you’ll want to know, is insight into the work and motivation of author Laurie Buchanan. I know you are curious about her and her new book, Note to Self: A Seven-Step Path to Gratitude and Growth.
Admittedly, I’m usually not a big fan of overly prescriptive books or methods, but NOTE TO SELF is the exception! Exploratory. Inviting. Thoughtful. Thought-provoking. Laurie has created a unique book, in fact, that speaks to all ages and backgrounds, especially if you are looking for some new ideas to brighten your path. I endorsed Laurie’s book with a cover quote, which I am sharing with you at the close of this blog post. It was my honor to contribute to this project!
Welcome, Laurie! Thanks for taking the time to respond to a few questions.
1) What is going through your heart and mind as you savor the release of your new book, NOTE TO SELF?
I would love to tell you that I’m collected, poised, and graceful. But in reality, I’M OVER THE MOON with giddy excitement! This book has been quite literally years in the labor and birthing process. Now that the baby’s arrived, I’m beyond tickled giddy-with-excitement pink!
2) When you wrote your book … did you have a certain audience in mind, a specific message you wanted to impart … or did the motivation spring from a more literary perspective, i.e., a strong desire to write?
While NOTE TO SELF appeals to both men and women, my target audience is women. Why? Ninety percent of my client base is comprised of women, so it made sense to write in that direction. The message I want to impart to my readers is that you don’t have to live encumbered with heavy baggage that weighs you down. In NOTE TO SELF, I share actionable tips and techniques to offload debilitating life luggage so people can live lighter.
3) If you were to sit down with a group of people to explain the key themes of your book, how might you begin?
I’d begin with the 50-word “elevator pitch” that all authors learn to craft for their book at writers conferences:
“Baggage! We all carry it with us through life. And no matter how we dress it up, it’s frustrating, inconvenient, and slows us down. Chock full of real life examples and actionable techniques, NOTE TO SELF is designed to help you offload emotional baggage and discover a lighter, joy-filled you!”
4) How did you stay inspired during the writing, editing, publishing phases? Any advice for other authors?
I’ll be the first to tell you it wasn’t all merry sunshine. I shed my fair share of tears. That said, I’m also the kind of gal who “picks myself up, dusts myself off, and is willing, able, and ready to start all over again.”
The advice I gave to writers at the most recent Writers’ Institute at UW-Madison was three-fold:
5) Turning back in time … is there a voice from the past that has stayed with you over the years? A philosopher, spiritual leader, author?
Yes, indeed. The Dalai Lama’s response to the question, “What is your religion?” has never left me. He responded, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” That resonated to my core and has made a huge, positive, lasting impression.
6) In a chaotic, unpredictable world, what can readers glean from your book in terms of solace and wisdom?
Readers will glean from my book that HAPPINESS is based on externals; it fluctuates up and down every day. JOY, on the other hand, is internal; it can be cultivated and nurtured. We can be joyful even in the midst of a chaotic, unpredictable world.
7) How can readers find your book?
NOTE TO SELF is available wherever books are sold. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and if your local bookstore doesn’t have it, they can order it for you, or request that your local library acquire a copy. If you’d like a SIGNED copy, please call my local bookstore—Rediscovered Books—at 208.376.4229 and let them know you’d like to purchase a signed copy of Laurie Buchanan’s NOTE TO SELF. They’ll ship it to you within 24 hours.
8) Anything else that comes to mind … !?
I’m excited to share that NOTE TO SELF is a 2016 Idaho Author Award winner in the Inspirational category. The reception/ceremony was on Nov 1, NOTE TO SELF’s official release date. I love serendipity!
Board certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, Laurie Buchanan is
a holistic health practitioner and transformational life coach. Her areas of interest include
energy medicine, inner alchemy, spiritual awareness, writing, and laughter. Definitely
laughter! Embracing the belief that life is an expression of the choices we make, Buchanan is a
teacher and student of purposeful living. With tremendous respect for the earth’s natural
resources, she strives to leave the slightest footprint on the planet while at the same time
making a lasting impression on its inhabitants—one that is positive, uplifting, constructive,
and healing.A minimalist by intent, Laurie Buchanan, Ph.D., lives a beautiful life with
fewer things—simple yet full. Please visit her blog, Tuesdays with Laurie. And look for her
on Facebook and Twitter. Her new book is also on Goodreads.
“Regardless of the religious tradition, spiritual path, or personal perspective we choose to embrace, the potential exists for it to encourage and uplift every aspect of our being and to affect the types of goals we may choose to set for ourselves.” — Laurie Buchanan, NOTE TO SELF
Thanks so much, Laurie, for being my Studio Guest today.
Wishing you a successful book release and many moments of joyful gratitude!
“While we are all passengers on a planet called Earth, we can choose to enhance the way in which we travel: emotionally spiritually, intellectually, and physically. In fact, we can, through the pages of this book, discover new ways to travel that are lighter, more fluid, and life-enhancing. The author, a wise and dedicated traveler, is also the right kind of guide–caring, inspiring, uplifting, knowledgeable–for your journey of self-discovery. I recommend this tremendous book to anyone seeking the companionship of good energy and joyful presence. A five-star read in every way!” –D.A. Hickman, author of The Silence of Morning, A Memoir of Time Undone
Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits. See you again next week!
“Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources.” ― William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
As his fans likely recall, the first edition of Blue Highways stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 42 weeks in 1982-83. Not bad for a first book. Of course this was just the first of many for Heat-Moon.
It’s my pleasure to share a short interview with the prolific author, William Least Heat-Moon. Many of you know his work from the wonderful classic, Blue Highways. I recall reading somewhere that Heat-Moon was a “travel writer” because his books often focus on geography. But this isn’t remotely accurate in my estimation.
Heat-Moon’s books (including: PrairyErth, River Horse, Roads to Quoz, Here, There, and Elsewhere: Stories from the Road, Columbus in the Americas, and Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened, etc.) are an in-depth look at significant experience as framed by a certain geography. The “sense of place” is nearly a central character in many of his books, as he (birth name, William Trogdon) deftly weaves intriguing layers of perception and knowledge into a cohesive, often revealing, statement.
“Literature that keeps employing new linguistic and formal modes of expression to draft a panorama of society as a whole while at the same time exposing it, tearing the masks from its face – for me that would be deserving of an award.” — Elfriede Jelinek
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Heat-Moon attended the University of Missouri where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in English, as well as a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism.
“Memory is each man’s own last measure, and for some, the only achievement.”
― William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
I hope you enjoy the brief Q & A that follows.
1) Would you still become a writer IF you knew then what you know now … about the process, the time, the politics? Yes indeed.
2) WhenBlue Highways enjoyed such lasting success, how surprised were you? What did your success tell you about your readers, the world itself?
Beginning writers, in their innocence commonly imagine their first effort as drawing massive sales. I was an innocent when BLUE HIGHWAYS appeared, but twelve previous rejections of the manuscript tempered my expectations. The world of readers contains enough intelligent people who will seek out quality writing, even quality writing that challenges. It’s agents and young editors who lack foresight about the possibilities of a truly well-written book.
3) Your book about writing Blue Highways is a wonderful take on the realities of the writing process. When you spoke about your commercial publisher not “getting” the book … I can imagine your frustration. Luckily, University of Missouri Press had a different vantage point. But in many ways, wasn’t this development simply part of the Blue Highways experience, as you continued to chart your own course regardless of what others labeled significant, important, or worthy?
Big commercial publishers, especially today, are transfixed by the greed to find a potential blockbuster (and that usually translates to schlock). Too often their goal is for fast, mega sales, even though history shows the longevity of a book to be the true gold standard.
SIDEBAR: I reviewed this book here in SunnyRoomStudio in 2015 in a blog post called FIRST OF MANY.
4) As you know, I have prairie roots in Dakota … geographic roots that evolved into spiritual roots, such that I wrote about in my book about prairie wisdom … which is really a kind of life wisdom. If you were to live in the middle of nowhere at this point in your life, would you miss the rest of the world? Or would you just sit down and write another book?
I’ve spent time in many places across America that could be called pockets of deprivation. For dozens of reasons, they are not for me beyond a week or two–but that week or two can be highly informative and often damn delightful.
5) Last question, is writing a lonely and isolating occupation OR is it the grandest form of freedom available to us? Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, notes: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” Does this description resonate with you, or not really?
Annie’s description does not resonate with me except by reversal: I see writers as midwives helping new life come healthfully into the world. If I become hospice care to what I’m writing, then I need to find an undertaker for my writing. ~
TO READ my review of Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened, here’s a link to FIRST OF MANY.
“All of those things – rock and men and river – resisted change, resisted the coming as they did the going.
The nature of things is resistance to change, while the nature of process is resistance to stasis,
yet things and process are one, and the line from inorganic to organic and
back is uninterrupted and unbroken.” ― William Least Heat-Moon
I began this shiny new year in SunnyRoomStudio by considering how smallish changes can deliver significant impact … often in ways that surprise us with their staying power. Looking upward more frequently to study the sky, for instance, can yield a needed change in perception, a calming pause in a hectic day, a chance to connect with nature and something beyond our immediate environment. It doesn’t require a financial investment or ask to be scheduled into our day.
So, today, I wanted to mention another smallish change with wonderful potential. Give something away as often as possible. Big or small … make it a spiritual practice. Find things around your home that someone else needs more than you do. Letting go of “things” can remind us of the temporary nature of life, and help us build a bridge to others at the same time. Let me know how it goes, what ways you find to extend or refine this idea. Small changes are the magic of our lives!
A poignant, courageous narrative; a book for all seasons that forges lasting
bonds of connection and understanding; a determined and inspired spiritual journey.
“When I began writing this book I wondered what was left to say, to do, after a sudden death.
When everyone had returned to schedules, routines, and responsibilities that were insistently framed by
calendars and clocks, not by the stirring passion of grief–and I felt alone like never before.
Is that where the conversation ends, I’d wondered.”
I’ll be back on Monday, February 15th with another smallish change that holds the promise of something more. Thanks so much for dropping by!!
Blog by SunnyRoomStudio: all rights reserved.
About my 2014 book release …
Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place is about digging into our surroundings to unearth an organic, timeless wisdom. If you’re looking for inspiration or want to lean more about a landscape, a place, that helped me to unearth my spiritual roots, this is a book you’ll enjoy. We are much wiser than we imagine; it’s only a matter of tapping into what we already know. ~ D.A. Hickman
I’m honored to have author Ellen Stimson in SunnyRoomStudio this week. And though it may seem early to get into the Christmas spirit, Ellen’s latest release is the perfect way to gently bring the season back into focus. She’ll tell you more about that, however, and she’ll also tell you about turning fifty. Ellen is blessed with a wild pack of children; not-so-wild but completely adorable husband; and a very civilized group of chickens, dogs, and cats. She writes about the whole divine catastrophe from an old farmhouse in Vermont.
by ELLEN STIMSON
(author of the bestselling book, Mud Season)
SO I WAS TURNING FIFTY. This was the first birthday that had really gotten my attention.
Well, okay, there was actually one other. Twenty-seven was a game changer, too. I remember standing in my kitchen talking on the phone to an old high school pal. Her sister had just enrolled in medical school. That would not have been so notable only she’d already graduated from law school, so it seemed like overkill. And there I was listening to her tell the story of the med school applications, On. My. Birthday.
My eyes happened to wander over to my living room coffee table.
Sitting on top of it was a silly vampire novel, called The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice. Law school, medical school and Anne Rice. I thought, “Ellen, we really could be doing better here”. (So twenty-seven … but not since then.) Now came fifty. Fifty really isn’t really half of anything. You know as a middle age barometer 37.5 might be closer to the mark, but it just doesn’t have the same ring. We look instead to fifty.
As my birthday approached I started doing the math. My mom, who had recently died, had lived to be eighty-four. I had just read an article, in the Atlantic, about women who were born in the decade of the nineteen sixties (like I was) living an average three years longer than their mothers. So that would get me to eighty-seven.
But those last few years of hers had been a hot mess. So maybe eighty. If everything went all right, I decided I could reasonably expect to live pretty well until about eighty. I mean I don’t smoke. I don’t really drink. Cheese is kind of a hobby of mine but except for that … this gave me thirty years. Then I did some more math. Thirty years equaled fifteen hundred and sixty weeks.
Fifteen hundred sixty.
That surely didn’t sound like very much. It felt like, what the hell?
I was practically dead.
I went to bed kind of depressed. But then in the middle of the night the best thing happened. I woke up realizing that I wasn’t fifty yet! This was only April, and my birthday wasn’t until August. I had a seventeen free weeks, a death row reprieve.
I immediately set about trying to think up something cool to do with all that extra time. I had always wanted to learn the stand up bass, but that could take a lot longer than four months. I wondered how long til’ I could play “My Funny Valentine.” Plus as a girl who had been drunk on book love all my life, I had always meant to write my own book. That had the added benefit of not needing some expensive piece of equipment to get started.
Luckily I had a great story.
A few years earlier our family had moved across the country for a romantic country life in the mountains of Vermont. We’d fallen in love with the area one glorious October, cashed in our 401Ks and picked a whole new life at the “lifestore.”
I’d dreamt about raising chickens and drinking my morning coffee by a waterfall. Only it hadn’t exactly turned out like the commercials. We did get those sweet chickens, but there were a few little … bumps, along the way.
For just one tiny thing, we still had to make a living. I’d sort of forgotten that part. (This is what it is like to be me.)
So when we got here, I bought what may have been the oldest continuously operating country store in America. It was one of those charming places with old candy counters and gorgeous ancient wooden floors. There was even the perfect old-fashioned bell above the door. It didn’t look like the kind of thing that could practically kill you. It had been happily humming along since 1817, and then I managed to run it, BAM! straight into the ground in a little less than three years.
Now that was a story. And I set out to write it. My first memoir was called Mud Season. Published by W.W. Norton in 2013, it set the tone for all that followed. I loved everything about this book project so much that I set out to write the second while I was on tour for the first. A memoirist gets to look at all the big questions through the lens of just a few characters.
Mud Season was all about parenting, living intentionally, business failure and place. The second one, Good Grief!, explored the boundaries of family and grieving. Both often get shelved in the humor sections of the bookstores because humor is one of the lenses I use to tell myself my stories.
In my life there is the wonderful and the hideous, (I have a wide emotional range) and the hideous is mostly just waiting to get turned into a funny story. The birthdays kept coming of course. This year I turned fifty-three and took a few flying lessons to celebrate.
My third book, An Old Fashioned Christmas, was released this week, again from Norton. It is all about tradition, family, and food. The same characters are back, loving and fighting and doing all their regular human stuff. The critters, such a big part of our lives, are all here, too. Naturally I am writing another. Cause, as of this moment, I probably have about fourteen hundred and four weeks to go, and the way I figure it, playing the stand up bass would have been awfully hard on my back. ~
Thanks, Ellen! You’re right … you have a great story. Enjoy the season.
SEE you again on Friday, November 13th, as I continue to focus on memoir — the genre, the path, the point of it all. I will also be keeping you updated on the release of my forthcoming memoir: The Silence of Morning — A Memoir of TimeUndone.
Blog by SunnyRoomStudio: all rights reserved.
When we value the journey itself, new realities are revealed amidst the old. –dh
Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place is about digging into our surroundings to unearth an organic, timeless wisdom. If you’re looking for inspiration or want to lean more about a landscape, a place, that helped me to unearth my spiritual roots, this may be a book you’ll enjoy. We are much wiser than we imagine; it’s just a matter of tapping into what we already know. ~