Writing with Abandon

Is that crazy muse who lived in my childhood brain still available?

I have caught her trying to pop out and have her say now and again, but I have an ever-growing sledgehammer of a censor that keeps her in her place—hybernating in the depths of long ago.

She popped her head out and opened an eye this week, trying to read over my shoulder.  I didn’t reach for the sledgehammer.

I was too busy reading The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak. Okay, you and everybody else have probably already read it, but I just met it. I did view the film some time ago. I was duly and profoundly moved, but I never picked up the book until a few days ago.

So here is what I mean by “with Abandon.”

Don’t just sit down and write a story about a little girl caught in the mess Hitler was making of Germany and every other country he could get his hands on.

It gets harder and harder to get people’s attention these days, with all the digital distractions and so forth. Another horrible unthinkable tale from that era told in the the usual way might cause us to shake our heads, but ultimately put it aside. Yes, yes, I know—man’s inhumanity to man—it shouldn’t happen—it must not happen. 

But it did and it does and we all know it.

How to get our attention?

Let Death tell the story. Give him a sense of humor, of irony, of pity for the human race. Throw in up-to-the-minute bulletins of what lies ahead, but keep pulling the reader back into the story at hand. Commiserate with the readerwe all know what’s coming, but wait—let’s look at this first. Draw scratchy little illustrations. Keep forcing the reader back into the moments of each person’s existence. But don’t ever let him forget he is conversing with Death.

Full immersion.

This book gave my seventy-two-year-old bones a good shake. And it grabbed the interest of that little sleeping muse inside me. Maybe the two of us are eyeing each other cautiously, wondering what the shake-up is all about. Wondering if we have something in common—if we might find a way to work together.

Reading Mr. Zusak’s work reminded of how an open sense of play and anything-goes can  be a serious contributor toward getting the real bones of a story on paper.

I hope I have learned something from it.





















Just when you think you are in control…

Before I get started, just a quick word in reference to my last post:  I did not jump out of bed and into my laptop for the next two days because I didn’t didn’t wake up with something on my mind that I wanted to share.  So there is one more thing about me and blogging: I need a reason beyond a promise to write every day.

This morning I woke up with a reason, so here I am writing.

Yesterday’s mail brought me a letter from a friend back in in Arkansas. I had been concerned when I couldn’t get through on her phone and had written her a letter last week. Jean is  eighty-four, and like some of my older friends does not use email or Facebook. She owns a piano, a huge library of books, DVD’s, CD’s, and sheet music but no laptop.

When I got this letter from her it came from a different address than the one I had written to. This is the opening sentence:

“On Dec 28 after visiting my friend Shirley, I came in, hung up my cane, hooked my foot on a little table & went flying thru the air, landing on my back—primarily on my pelvis.”

She was only able to move her arms and remained on the floor for two days before her daughter returned from her out-of-town Christmas trip and stopped in to check on her.  At first Jean had yelled for help every time she heard people or cars, but nobody heard her. The friend she had been visiting was only two doors down in the small single-story apartment complex but Shirley is deaf and also physically incapable of leaving her apartment without assistance.

So there she lay or two days, in pain and no food.    She had only a partial bottle of water within reach to get through the ordeal.

This could be an ad for one of those life-alert services.

Things can happen so quickly. You think you are independent and safe and then Surprise!  

Like when my dad got up to go the bathroom one night, tripped on his sheet, and split his scalp open enough to have it stapled back together in emergency. At least in that instance, his wife was there and called me to come help since he refused to let her call 911.

But then there was the other time when he tripped on the curb outside his mobile home in the senior complex where he’d recently moved. His wife was out with friends for the day, and he lay helpless in the street for hours. Nobody saw him or drove by until his wife got back home.

Another one of my friends who took her dog out in her yard the first night in her new home only to find she had locked herself out. She wound up walking several miles in the dark, winding roads, no street lights sidewalks, to get to where her daughter lived. She knew she couldn’t restrain her German Shepard on the street and didn’t have her leash, so she wound up slipping her bra off to improvise one. ?

What am I saying? Independence is great, but it has its hazards? Some events you just can’t plan for?

Even this morning I had planned to sit here and write for an hour, but I had a run of technical issues that caused me to keep losing my text and going on wild-goose chases trying to retrieve it.  I am finishing up at 9:30 instead of 7:30 as planned.

Alright, I’ll write

Already  I’m distracted by the title that I’ve opened with. All right, alright—just one more thing that is changing. Apparently the word and the phrase are now interchangeable.  Someone somewhere in my day yesterday—TV, internet, one of the books I’m reading—pronounced some version of “the only thing certain in life is change.”   Fine. Change is growth, change is healthy. But it is also exhausting.

Just when you think you know something or how to do something, new rules crop up.

But let me try to get back on the train of thought that brought me here this morning in the first place. The reason for the Alright.

I decided to start a personal blog about two and a half years ago on a sudden impulse to journal out loud during some major personal changes.  It turns out that even in this on-again, off-again,  who-am-I writing-to-anyway experiment, I have learned a few things.

First of all, I am a very private person. Of course I already knew that, but creating a blog highlighted this fact for me. When I journal in private, I work through things on a very personal level for my eyes only.  Some mornings I have written non-stop for hours on the blog only to save my words in a draft or post as “private” and finally end up deleting.

The next thing is that I am also an exhibitionist, at least where it comes to my writing. When I have put something down worth reading, I want someone to see it. Since I have been completely inconsistent with my ramblings, topics, and frequency of writing on my blog, I haven’t found an audience in Word Press. I did get a lot of response when I linked my blog to Facebook, but knowing  my words were jumping in front of an uncensored hodgepodge of friends and family near and far daunted my private persona.

The other thing is all that other writing that isn’t my blog. It takes a lot of time and energy and focus to try to do something with that. Can I do both?

I think I can.

I have learned one more thing in my blogging process. If I save it in a draft to get back to later, I won’t.  If I allow this to be my first thoughts (with minimal self-censoring as I go along) it works out better. It’s a whole different ballgame than writing a story or personal essay or poem.

Now if I can just figure out a way to focus it so that someone actually reads it……















A Gift of Color and Light

It’s evening now, but I took this photo this morning. I missed the moment I wanted to capture by the time I fumbled with my tablet and stepped outside. One of those God-given instances that goes by so quickly you better capture it in your heart, because there is no time for anything else.

When I first laid eyes upon the above scene this morning, all the trees were the color of black cherries and the sky the faintest mauve. It stopped me in my tracks.

I was disappointed I couldn’t save the vision to share, but the experience sent me into an impromptu art history lesson.

I remembered that a French artist painted the same cathedral over and over in different light and weather conditions, but which artist? Thank you, internet, I knew you were good for something! It turned out to be Claude Monet and the series he painted was of the Rouen Cathedral in Normandy.

Studying those computer images of the paintings, I noted that they are at many different locations. It’s a shame they can’t all be together. At least four are at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, though. I had wanted to visit that museum when I had the wonderful luck to go spend a week in Paris about eight years ago, but we couldn’t work it into our schedule backyard4marr1618

I tried to catch the same backyard view I had this morning when I got home from work around four-thirty. Not as dramatic as Monet’s paintings, but I wanted to get in the spirit of his idea.

There is something very comforting to me that the familiar site of the sky and the trees in the yard are always different and always a surprise.

Making a Mess in the Kitchen

The mess in the kitchen can wait a few minutes while I spend some time writing about it. It’s bonus for my morning when two of my favorite activities get together and boost the mood of my day.

My first inkling of the “joy of cooking” was a Christmas present I received in the mail from a family friend. I was eight years old, and the gift was Mary Alden’s Cookbook for Children.

Yes, I still remember the name of the book. It remained in my possession for many years, probably until the thin paper-bound cookbook fell apart with age if not from embedded grease and flour.

When I first got the book, it was mostly the source of unfulfilled fantasy. I spent hours poring over such recipes as “Eskimo cookies,” “Bearded Baked Potatoes,” and a cake from scratch with pink strawberry icing.

That was a busy time for my mom, as she was preparing for a big cross-country move and had four-year-old and two-year-old besides me and my older brother. So there wasn’t much chance to try out the inviting adventure of measuring and mixing and coming up with the promised products.

But I kept reading my cookbook with hope and imagination, including the thought of being able to cut out the certificate in the back proclaiming me “Clean Kitchen Cook” after I did all the required washing up and sweeping and putting away ingredients.

Uh-oh. Maybe I better stop and clean my kitchen before I continue writing. Right. Who am I kidding?

I did finally get to try out some of the recipes in the children’s cookbook, though it was at least two years later and in my friends’ kitchens where apparently no one cared if we made a mess. I especially remember the cake with its purple icing because we had substitute grape jelly for the strawberry.

I have never tired of reading cookbooks, and when I get going on a project, a mess is bound to ensue.

This morning’s project started with cookbook browsing last night. The browsing was prompted by a need to adjust my breakfast-eating habits to accommodate my new working schedule. I’m not working today, but on days when I do, I need to leave at ten o’clock and get home three-thirty or four, with no lunch period in an adjustable shift amounting to about four hours.

My first week, I tried waiting until about eight thirty before eating anything, then making something more akin to dinner than breakfast. This provided me with the fuel I needed, but did not sit well with my digestive system or my biological clock.

For this week, I am trying for more more traditional breakfast fare closer to my rising time, and then drinking a nutrition shake right before leaving for work. When I get home, I will have an early dinner.

Back in the kitchen this morning, I made corn cakes with raspberry compote with two strips of microwaveable bacon on the side. I made enough corn cakes for two days, so I will be able to warm up the leftovers tomorrow morning.

As usually happens, I learned a couple things while experimenting with a recipe.

The first was a moment of “Why have I never thought of this before?” The compote called for lemon zest, just a small amount. I grabbed the grater and the lemon I luckily found in the back of the fridge and started scraping. When I had enough zest, my yellow lemon had only a small white scar on its skin. I was about to slice into it to get the tablespoon of juice I also needed when it occurred to me to scrape off the rest of the zest and save it in the freezer.

Okay, so I am easily excited over odd little personal breakthroughs. This bit with saving the rest of the lemon zest was such an “aha moment” for me that I wanted to jump onto Facebook and share this amazing bit of news. Everything else I have had to say here sprang from that original impulse to share my joy.

Anyway, the other thing I learned was that I need to use gluten-free pancake mix instead of just GF flour the next time I make corn cakes. They didn’t much look like the fluffy cookbook picture. Instead, they gave new meaning to the phrase “flat as a pancake.” This is a hazard in converting regular recipes to my celiac needs.

I’ll do better next time. Now I’ll go clean the kitchen and see if I can earn the “Clean Kitchen Cook” award.

Dreaming in Color

I woke up ready to write this morning, and instead spent nearly a half-hour staring at my screen waiting for Norton to fix error 3039,1. At least I am seated facing my window that looks out into the backyard.

The sky behind the web of bare tree limbs and branches is a subtle variation of grays.

I particularly noticed the sky color when I opened the blinds because I had just awakened from a dream that included a perfectly clear turquoise sky. It wasn’t an entire sky so much as it was an open doorway in which my dad was standing. The sky included the doorway shape as well as the shape of a door opening out from it. When Dad finished talking, he turned and walked back through the portal and closed the door behind him.

The conversation between Dad and me was short and gave me some food for thought, but I will save that for my personal journal. What I want to talk about here is how some dreams seem to be a mishmash of recent impressions the mind is sorting out, while others are fraught with symbolism, or give us the gift of the palpable presence of someone we have lost, or signal something is happening to someone close to us.

I say “us”, but of course I am only sharing my own personal experience.

Maybe for me, color is something my mind knows will grab my attention. If there has been some outstanding splash of color surrounding a dream image, I wake up with it and it stays with me all day as I mull it over in my mind.

There have been two or three times when I have awakened realizing I have been dreaming in black and white, and the uniqueness of those events also remained with me during my waking hours.

Some people have told me that they never dream. I cannot begin to get my mind around that concept. To me, a vivid dream is an unexpected treat. Each one is a work of art created just for my viewing.

Last night I got to spend a little quality time with my dad, and got to view some things through his unique sense of humor. Whatever dreams are made of, they wind up stored in my memory along with “real” experiences.

I believe it has been determined that small children cannot distinguish between dreams and reality. Maybe there is more significance to this observation than its simply being a stage of development. Maybe Jung’s idea of collective consciousness has something to it. Maybe dreams are a link between the spiritual and physical.

Or, maybe not.

Even if they are only ever a construct of my own brain, I am always grateful for a colorful and memorable dream.

Band-Aids, Neosporin, and Hemingway

I must have missed stabbing myself while washing dishes last night. When I woke this morning I discovered a small wound in the center of my palm. I immediately headed for the Neosporin and a Band-Aid. And I realized that every single time I tend to a wound like this, I remember Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Harry dying on the side of a mountain because he didn’t tend to a seemingly insignificant injury.

What we read affects us in surprising ways. I confess to not remembering the story that unfolded after that situation was introduced, but I read it when I was a teenager and that was a very long time ago. Maybe the lesson I got from his story was not the one Hemingway intended to stick with his readers, but it is what got my attention and what I internalized.

This Christmas my daughter sent me a delightful little book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book The book, complete with the signature Golden Book spine, is full of familiar pictures. As I browse through it, I realize that many of these images do,indeed,permanently live inside me.

The pace of incoming information was less frenetic when I was growing up. How many layers of words and pictures are forming all those developing young minds out there right now? Can we help them sort it out and make sense out of their lives? I don’t have the answers, just the questions bubbling up this morning.
Continue reading “Band-Aids, Neosporin, and Hemingway”

Holidays Winding Down

I’m looking out the window at the new year getting ready to start. From my vantage point inside my cozy apartment it does not look like the seventeen degrees my computer is reporting for Bentonville this morning. Same old bare trees, green and brown grass, and piles of dry leaves blown against the fences.

In a few days I will store away my Christmas memorabilia until next year’s calendar dictates the time to bring it back out again.

Back to normal.

I remember a friend years ago telling me her little boy, two or three years old, just about broke his heart crying when they took down the Christmas tree. I guess he had assumed it was the “new normal.”

So here’s what I think.

It is unfortunate that commerce has done its best to usurp the season and make it about greed, but before this all got out of hand there was something else there. There still is. The hopeful “Spirit of Christmas” struggling to stay alive under all the ads for Black Friday and After Christmas sales.

At least we come around every year to a season when we remind each other to try to do something good for our neighbors, where we try to make at least a fleeting connection with family and friends, some who might otherwise drift away altogether.

All the sparkling lights and music and performances of A Christmas Carol come out, and they make us look. We at least tell ourselves stories about how hearts can soften and we can open our eyes and see what really matters.

I don’t think anyone has “taken Christ out of Christmas.”

Everyone who wants to celebrate the birth of Christ does it. The church holiday has not been erased or forgotten or forbidden. It shines on for anyone who wants to to participate. Most Christians that I am aware of celebrate Christmas both religiously and in the secular fashion.

And that is fine. It doesn’t narrow the field, it expands it. Goodwill towards everyone, in and out of church.

Wasn’t that Christ’s message?

For crying out loud in a bucket!

Frances and Bernie Underwood 1923, according to the note on the back of the photo. My mom at five years old with her first brother.

I woke up with a compelling need to find this photo and connect with the power and hope in those two round faces shining out from ninety-five years ago somewhere in Philadelphia.

I also woke up with Mom’s voice in my head: For crying out loud in a bucket! She did not swear, but this phrase fit the bill for her when a little something else was called for.

Sunday’s reading, Isaiah’s voice crying out in the desert, has also come to mind.

I like to think that Mom and Bernie reconnected happily in heaven after years of estrangement. I like to think Mom and I will reconnect some day on a better note. I hope for healing of the many disconnects and distances that have happened in our family, anybody else’s family, and the larger family of the world.

I’m not doing a good job of finding a way to express how this is all impacting me this morning, but I think Isaiah has it covered (40,6-8)

A voice says, “Cry out!”
I answer, “what shall I cry out?”
“All mankind is grass,
and all their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower wilts,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.
Though the grass withers and the flower wilts,
The word of our God stands forever.”

Sharing a Meal

Living alone, it is easy to fall into a habit of grabbing the nearest, quickest food item in the kitchen, maybe eat it over the stove or on the way out to the car. I find myself guilty of this habit more often than I like to admit. I tell myself its just fuel and that is what is important.

But food and meals offer more than fuel, and this morning I took the time to remember that.

A quick browse through a cookbook reminded me of the simplicity of baking an egg in a ramekin. I didn’t have the ingredients in the recipe on the page but checked the fridge for possibilities.

A few single pieces of leftover produce presented themselves, and soon I was slicing off a bit of zucchini, onion, bell pepper, and tomato. A quick sauté in a bit of olive oil and into the ramekin.


The act of chopping vegetables always takes me to warm places in my memory of certain occasions of preparing meals for or with friends or family. The colors on the cutting board mingle and make me smile. The sizzle and aroma in the frying pan build the anticipation of a good meal.

I broke an egg over the prepared veggies, dolloped a spoonful of half-and-half over that and sprinkled some parmesan cheese on top,

It took ten minutes to bake in the oven. In barely more time than it would take to toast a piece of bread and slap some peanut butter on it, I sat down to an inviting feast.

Good morning!