A Grateful Nation: Remembering Those Who Died in Military Service

Monday is Memorial Day here in the US. We tend to celebrate this holiday with department-store sales and cookouts, but it’s meant to be a time for reflection, offering honor to those who gave their lives in military service and to the loved ones they left behind.

To all the Gold Star families who have lost loved ones during military service, I send my personal well-wishes, to go along with the thanks of a grateful nation.

Do you know anyone who died in military service? Can you share their story in the comments?

The Long Cord: Threads Joining Mothers and Daughters

Today is Mothers Day in the US, so I’m going to talk about mothers and daughters.

First, a disclaimer: Our mothers don’t define us. If your relationship with your mother or your child is one of pain and turmoil instead of rainbows and hugs, or a bewildering stew of both, you are still a whole and complete person who deserves peace and happiness. I’m going to talk about my own relationship with my mother, which was just fine, if too short, but you should feel free to turn Mothers Day off and do whatever brings you joy.

Now for my story. This is my mother, in a photo taken about the time she married my father back in 1949. She was college educated, like her mother and grandmother before her, and worked for several years before and after marriage as a school librarian, stopping when I was born. She raised me and my sister as a stay-at-home mom and she was not much of a cook or housekeeper, but she had a rich life in the arts. My house is filled with paintings, crafts, and needlework she created.

Her health started to deteriorate while I was in middle school. Her energy was low and she had trouble catching her breath. She quit smoking, a habit she had picked up as a defiant young woman, but it didn’t seem to help. I was in high school when the cause was discovered: alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency disease, a genetic inability to produce an enzyme that protects the lungs and liver from damage. Her immune system had run amok and was eating up her lung capacity. By the time I went to college she was bedridden and on oxygen. She died at age 48 of the simple inability to breathe about a month after I graduated college and married. I’m sure she held on long enough to see the pictures from my wedding.

As much as her death saddened me, I missed her even more deeply eight years later, when my son was born. I would have loved to talk with her about pregnancy and babies, sharing in that ancient story. I felt like motherhood should be something handed down from woman to woman, but my thread had been broken. As a new mother I cried about a lot of things: overwhelming love for this tiny bundle of needs, joy at the expansion of our family, bone-deep exhaustion. One thing I cried about was the desire to show my son to my mother, something that would never be.

Two years ago, my daughter married a wonderful man. The threads of life and love continue forward into the future, and the ceremony moved me to tears. A few of them were because my mother couldn’t be there to see her granddaughter wed. She couldn’t hold on long enough for those pictures.

Here’s another photo. This cedar chest was my grandmother’s originally. When it came to me I was still living at home. This was the late 1960s when the craft of macramé, or knotted twine, was huge. My mother and I worked together to create the elaborate macramé cover for the chest. It’s held up very well over the years, and it reminds me every day of the strong threads tying me to my mother and my grandmother. Though macramé is no longer a big thing, the love of art has passed through to my daughter, who majored in art in college and creates art for roll-playing games. Here’s one of her character designs.

The thread continues.

I invite you to share your own stories of your mother or children. How do you see yourself in the long cord of family?

American Beloved

I almost didn’t post anything for this week’s WordPress photo challenge, because I don’t post recognizable pictures of people on my blog. Then I was at the store and saw the display of which this is a small piece, and decided that would work.

The topic for the week is Beloved. In another couple of weeks we here in the US will be celebrating Valentine’s Day, It’s supposedly a holiday focused on love, but it has become an over-the-top commercialization of flowers, chocolate, and anything pink or red. Worse, it’s become a make-or-break challenge to display one’s love for another in a way that is exactly romantic enough. Lots of folks, mostly men but women as well, are cruising displays like this one right now, wondering whether the heart-shaped chocolates are creamy enough, the heart-stamped gift bag sparkly enough, the red-furred stuffed bear cuddly enough. Then we need to worry about flowers (roses? what color? how many?) and, heaven forbid, jewelry.

Why do we cede our expressions of love to corporations? Because it’s often hard to say what we mean. We’ve bought into the narrative that there’s a language of spending money more important than the language of words. And it’s a loud language: by one estimate Americans are expected to spend almost $20 billion on Valentine’s Day gifts this year. That’s nearly $150 apiece. Is that what love means to us now?

Apparently it is.

I’ve been married for 42 years, and from the beginning of our relationship my husband and I have never felt the need to mark this holiday in any special way. We figure if we love each other, we already know it, and there’s no need for special heart-shaped sparkly gifts on this one day of the year.

However, you choose to celebrate, or not celebrate this holiday of love, I hope that you find love and companionship in your own life. Know that people care about you.

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Beloved


Eight Thoughts for 2018

I was inspired by Natalia Sylvester’s post on the Writer UnBoxed blog: 18 Writing Lessons to Carry Into 2018. I don’t have 18 profound lessons to offer, myself. I do have eight general thoughts that I will be reminding myself of this coming year in my writing, so I decided I’d share them with you.

  • Just Write. Everyone knows this one, but speaking for myself, I need a constant reminder. Like every other habit of productivity, it only works if you do it regularly. This has been hard for me (I failed at my 10-minutes-a-day challenge last year) but I’m determined to do better. Wish me luck!
    • You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. (Jack London)
    • Writing is hard for every last one of us…Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal? They do not. They simply dig. (Cheryl Strayed)
    • Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. (Isabel Allende)
  • Minimize Distraction. This is a closely linked topic, but a more focused one. For me, a big distraction lately has been Twitter. Toward the end of last year I was posting once or twice a day in the various hashtag writing challenges. It was fun, but took too much time. I’ve cut back on that (now I only do #1linewed), but I could still do better.
    • Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. (Zadie Smith)
    • It is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. (Jonathan Franzen)
    • Writing is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet. (Anonymous)
  • Find the Right Words. I’m going through my WIP now to bring out more evocative descriptions and clearer action, But at least for my own style, I also want it to be transparent. It should open the window between the reader and the story, without calling attention to itself. That’s going to be quite a trick.
    • Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. (Anton Chekhov)
    • Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand (Anne Enright)
    • If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. (Elmore Leonard)
  • Listen. Read the story aloud. Though I do my writing on a computer, I printed my most recent version out and sat with it on my lap, reading aloud. I can’t tell you how helpful this was. I tweaked lots of sentences that didn’t flow right, which I only discovered when I stumbled over them while reading. There were places where things just came together to abruptly, or the rhythm was off, and wrote notations in the margin like “give this more weight” or “needs a beat” or “more reaction.”
    • Listen to what you have written. (Helen Dunmore)
    • Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are okay. (Diana Athill)
    • Reading aloud is a vital part of good prose. (Robert McCrum)
  • Focus on the Story. All the literary tricks in the world won’t help if the reader doesn’t deeply care about the story and about the people living in it, and that won’t happen unless I, too, care deeply about it. As I go through the revision process, polishing the form and structure, worrying about pacing and sensory detail, I have to keep the story itself front and center.
    • A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about). (Lisa Cron)
    • No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. (Robert Frost)
    • Write the book you’re desperate to read. (Keren David)
  • Deny Perfectionism. Sometimes people set such high standards there is no hope of reaching them. This can happen when people buy into the hype that you should never settle for second best, so it’s perfect or nothing. It can also happen when people unknowingly handicap themselves, because if I never accept anything I’ve done as perfect, then I never have to expose it to anyone else’s criticism. Either way, guess what — nothing is done.
    • The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly. (Joshua Wolf Shenk)
    • Progress, not perfection. (A principle of 12-step programs)
    • Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. (Neil Gaiman)
  • Draft Boldly. This is a more focused version of the last one. I’m revising right now, but there will be drafting in my future as I move on to the next book, so here’s what I have to remember about drafting. Just get the draft done, pushing through to find the story. There will be time to polish later
    • I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles. (Shannon Hale)
    • The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. (Terry Pratchett)
    • Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. (Jane Smiley)
  • Be Wary of Rules. I collect advice like this, hungry for it as a squirrel after acorns, but in the end we’re all just feeling our way along. I’m still figuring out what works for me. The best rule is, do what works for you.
    • There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. (W. Somerset Maugham)
    • Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken. (Esther Freud)
    • Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. (Lev Grossman)

What ideas are lifting you up as you go into 2018? What helps you keep going? Share them with the rest of us.