The trouble with sleep

Not quite a poem #3

Absent the worry that wrestles a resting mind, sleep dances like an acrobat on a practiced path. No need for a safety net of dreams. He already knows where he will land – clairvoyance for a clear voyage to the place that leaves no questions unanswered and no wound unhealed. Tranquility breeds itself; still air makes no ripples on the water’s surface. Likewise, fear begets fear until all is swallowed in the void. There are those who will insist the sisters must be in balance, lest one destroy the other. We should be so lucky. We lie with whom we are assigned.

 

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Freshly Pressed: two days later

Reflections on the art of storytelling and the power of community

Despite my best efforts to act like I’ve been there before, the truth is, I haven’t, so my brain is still processing the tremendous, uplifting response I’ve gotten after being Freshly Pressed for “The essay my mother wrote.”

For my family, friends and followers who haven’t seen the Freshly Pressed feature before, it is a daily portfolio of blog posts, handpicked by the WordPress editorial team to showcase great writing, interesting topics and enlightening discussion. There are half-a-million blogs in the WordPress community and millions of posts, so to be among the 5-10 posts picked on a given day is to be in rare company.

It’s kind of like having your story on the front page of a global newspaper or projected on the Jumbotron in Times Square. I am thrilled to be chosen, but it is exponentially meaningful that it was for this particular story.

I am especially grateful for the readers and bloggers who felt inspired (and continue) to share their own stories about their moms or their children or coping with loss or change. We are part of a global community, and these stories prove that we have more in common than we have differences. I will be buoyed for weeks by the positive dialogue and the heartening thoughts you’ve offered about my mom and your loved ones.

To my fellow writers who have read and commented on this post, thank you. I’m looking forward to visiting your blogs, and I will get to them all. It just might take a little while. The list is growing. The opportunity to connect with so many creative people has been an unexpected gift from this experience.

I write in the hopes of affecting others through compelling storytelling. But storytelling is a two-way street. Thanks for joining me on that road.

The essay my mother wrote

Five years after her death, a 20-year old letter tells powerful story of a mother’s love

I was rummaging this week in my Windows documents folder – my generation’s version of a cobwebbed attic – looking for something I no longer recall, when I saw a folder simply labeled “Mom.”the essay my mother wrote mother and sonIt’s been more than five years since my mom died of ovarian cancer at much too young an age. Five years: a blink and an eternity all at once. I try desperately to remember the sound and cadence of her voice. I trip over triggered memories of time-bleached events, hoping to add new detail to my imperfect archive of childhood. Occasionally, I pick up the phone to call her, only realizing my folly when I struggle to remember her number.

Unexpectedly finding something that is about her, belonged to her or pictures her is like discovering treasure buried beneath a sun-drenched palm.

Inside this particular folder was a single document, a pdf named “College Bound.” My first thought was that it was simply a wayward file, misplaced in a folder I once meant to fill with something meaningful. Still, the title wasn’t familiar, so I double-clicked, not knowing it would send me headlong into the past.

Greeting me at the top of a scanned, type-written letter was a date: September 22, 1994. Twenty years ago. The year I began college. So, this was going to be about me. My eyes jumped to the bottom of the first page, where I saw my mom’s name and signature, nudging from my subconscious the faintest memory of my dad sending me something in those hazy months following mom’s death, something she had written that I’d probably like to have, something I likely had been too sad or stunned to open at the time.

I learned in this moment that she had written an essay about her experience sending her only son off to college. Staring back from the screen were four pages, like the chambers of her outpouring heart, gifting me new insight into a woman I knew and loved for more than 30 years – one last conversation, however one-sided, that I never thought I’d have.

It’s not even the words she wrote that struck me so deeply as the clarity with which I could hear her voice in them. This was no forgery, no parlor trick. This was my mother, as intelligent, as empathetic and as sentimental as she was in life.

And that could have been enough.

But this essay was more than just a diary entry. It was a submission.

The letter introducing the essay was addressed to the Articles Editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine, New York, New York. She had mailed the essay, hoping for publication. She wanted other moms dealing with the emotional turbulence of having a child grow up and move out to not feel so alone. Selfless to the last.

the essay my mother wrote letter

Now, despite the fact that I operate a public blog, and write about many things, including myself, I’m still a fairly private person. And although I’m pretty sure I’ve matured beyond the point of being embarrassed about anything my mother would say about my teenage self, I can’t help but feel a little self-conscious as I release these words into the world. My mom, however, wanted to share her perspective with others. That was her wish, and so it is mine.

Good Housekeeping may not have published your essay, Mom. But I will.

Thank you for the surprise… and for everything else before.

COLLEGE BOUND

BY BARBARA PODOLSKI

To the readers:

Before I begin, you must take note that the opinions and perceptions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the young man I write about. They are exclusively mine. After all, how many children view things the same way as their parents? So in order not to humiliate or embarrass anyone, I repeat, this is my story and my feelings alone.

* * * * * * * *

I could say it all began when he stepped on that school bus the first day of kindergarten and never looked back, but that would bring back too many painful memories and I want to deal with the present. I wasn’t prepared then, and I certainly hadn’t been prepared for what took place a few weeks ago. I sent my only child off to college. I’m sure a lot of parents look forward to the day when they once again have the house to themselves, food left in the refrigerator, and a telephone call that is actually for them. For me though, the feelings were different.

Jeremy wasn’t a miracle baby in any medical sense of the word, but he was my miracle. Our first son had been born prematurely in 1972 and died two days after his birth. Jeremy’s birth, on his father’s birthday, was a sign that this would be one special adventure. The years flew by too quickly as most childhoods do, but I loved every minute I spent with him. Being an only child can have certain drawbacks as I’m sure Jeremy would attest, but the one big advantage is the bond that is formed between mother and son. We always had a special relationship and could talk to each other even during those dreaded early teenage years. He was never a momma’s boy, but strong, independent, and his own person. I was always there for him and he knew that. We were friends. (For you fathers that are reading this, I apologize for leaving you out. You’re a part of the big picture, but you’ll have to write your own story if you want the readers to see things from your point of view).

The thought of having a child in college seemed so far into the future, that when senior year in high school rolled around, I finally had to face reality that it was closing in. Months and months of college applications to fill out, essays to write, scholarship forms, interviews and of course that infamous, confusing, and downright frightening FAFSA were all staring us in the face. Somehow it was all completed on time and my desk now held a two foot high stack of paperwork that had accumulated. There was no turning back now.

With his college selected, his registration done, and his next four years planned out for him, Jeremy felt his life was pretty much in order. I on the other hand knew that beyond the poverty level his father and I would be forced to live in, I would have an empty house and some very lonely days ahead. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy spending time with my husband. But after 18 years of having a child in the house, the realization that it will be “just the two of you now”, was a pretty scary thought.

The months that followed had come and gone before I knew it, but I tried to make the most of them. If I learned one thing when raising an only child, it was to take advantage of being there for him every opportunity you can get. Jeremy was involved heavily in many high school activities and was an avid basketball and baseball player. Sitting at his final games and realizing that this was the end of all that, was as heartbreaking for me as it was for him. I would not only miss watching him perform, but I would miss the good friends that I had made and the social atmosphere that surrounded each event. It’s easy to say we’ll keep in touch but sometimes that’s easier said than done. Leaving high school was not only a step into the future for my son, but a step into a very different kind of life for me.

Graduation came too quickly and the final summer of still being “just a kid” was over only too soon. Jeremy’s summer job was necessary to help save for college expenses but it left little time for keeping all those promises that he and his friends made to each other. As the days closed in I reflected a lot on the past eighteen years and how lucky I was that I had been blessed with the joy of motherhood. I was so proud of all his accomplishments and the young man he had become. In spite of my sadness that he would soon be leaving, I was filled with eager anticipation of the wonderful experiences and opportunities that were in his future.

And then – the awaited day arrived. No one had gotten much sleep the night before, and we all got up at the crack of dawn to make the journey I had dreaded all these months. We had to be at the college at 8:00 A.M. to start the moving in process. An ordeal that remains in my mind as a blur. We had borrowed a truck for the move, and it was packed with everything Jeremy needed and wanted to make his new room feel as familiar and as comfortable as his old one had been. As we pulled out of the driveway and started on our way, he again never looked back.

We arrived at the college as scheduled, unloaded Jeremy’s belongings on the lawn, and he and I went inside to begin the ordeal I mentioned earlier. If you’re not a person with much patience, do not attempt to try this. As in our case, I wisely left my husband to wait outside. The line was long and consisted of a maze of people winding around the room and down the hallway into another room. Inside that room were numerous tables each person had to stop at to receive keys, identification cards, class schedules and armfuls of more information that was supposed to make your first day simpler. I say, who are they trying to kid! It was overwhelming to say the least, and a lot of people looked confused and were much less prepared than we were. After more than an hour we emerged back into the daylight.

With that task behind us, we loaded our arms with boxes and climbed the four flights of stairs to Jeremy’s dorm room. I would now get my first glimpse at where he would be starting his new life. I stood in the doorway in a numb-like state and looked around. This wasn’t at all how I pictured it. My god it’s so tiny. How can two people possibly live in here? I was heartsick and couldn’t imagine being confined in this tiny space day after day. There was barely room to walk and where would all the boxes go that contained the necessities of life? I took a deep breath and waited patiently while father and son made numerous trips up and down the stairs to bring in all Jeremy’s belongings. I could visualize now that his things would probably all fit, but there certainly would be no room for a roommate. This was definitely a place for one occupant. They must have made a mistake!

Jeremy seemed troubled and his lack of sleep was catching up with him. He didn’t seem enthused about unpacking and deep down I thought he would prefer to load the boxes back up and go home. That’s certainly how I felt. Trying to be optimistic wasn’t easy especially when the R.A. stopped in and mentioned that last year this floor was the worst one in the residence hall. Just what a parent needs to hear.

We eventually got everything unpacked and organized as well as could be expected. I knew once Jeremy’s roommate arrived, it would all be changed. We decided to hit the bookstore next which made the first ordeal at the beginning of the day seem like a piece of cake next to this. Talk about a tiny room! We left my husband at the far end of the room so he could breath and for an hour I could almost spot the top of his head over the crowd. There were so many confused parents and students and the shock at the cost of the books was on all their faces. Our enthusiasm was next to nothing but we had to do it. Finally finding what he needed and waiting in line another forty-five minutes was so exhausting, that when they totaled our bill and said it was over $300, I almost didn’t care at that point. I just wanted out of there.

We attended the other events that were scheduled throughout the day and I knew our time left there was growing shorter. We would soon be expected to leave as the students had various meetings and activities to partake in. We went back to his room and tried to talk, but what can you say when your heart is breaking? He seemed so young all of a sudden and I didn’t want to leave him. I knew he was apprehensive but he wouldn’t show any emotion. The time had come to say good-bye and my husband practically had to drag me to my feet. Jeremy walked us to the parking lot and I didn’t want to let go. I hadn’t felt this way since he was two years old and had to go into the hospital for minor surgery. I can still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I had to leave him at the O.R. door and they wheeled him away. I was having those same feelings now. I knew he needed me. How could he figure out all this on his own? I hugged him tightly and watched him walk away. I waited, but he didn’t look back. I wasn’t prepared for this and could hardly bear it. This wasn’t how I was supposed to feel, was it? Shouldn’t I be happy? After all, wasn’t this what we planned for and dreamed about? I just stood there and cried while my husband held me. I never felt so utterly miserable in my life.

Those were my feelings on that day. Feelings that were filled with very strong emotions. Of course I can look back now and feel a bit foolish at all my anxieties, but I won’t apologize for the love I felt. A mother’s love.

College life agrees with Jeremy and he’s as happy and content as I hoped he would be. He’s made his adjustments as well as I’ve made mine. I still stand in the doorway of his empty room and ask myself where all the years have gone. I can still picture a beautiful, towheaded little boy so young and curious and just learning about life. I smile as the tears roll down my cheeks.

Letting go wasn’t easy. It was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. But as I took that painful step forward and into the future, I knew that someday, when the time was right, he would finally turn around and “look back”.

Perspective frames what a reader sees

Authors use perspective to build mystery

I don’t specifically blog about photography, but I was thinking this week about perspective and how it utterly influences the stories we tell.

Whether or not your story features a detective, most fiction – and even some nonfiction – writing is driven by mystery. Readers are motivated to continue reading by the desire to know what happens next and how the pieces of the tale fit together. They want to see what is hidden from their view, the secrets the writer has kept until the moment of revelation.

The perspective from which the author tells the story is significantly responsible for determining what information is revealed and what information is concealed. A narrator’s biased viewpoint, an era with particular cultural mores, a setting with a limited worldview – these all are potential contributors to the perspective we are given as readers. We can’t change the author’s perspective; we can only interpret what we “see” through that lens.

Sometimes the view is clear. Other times, the mystery remains intact until the reader receives enough information to broaden the perspective and see the context for the details.

Photography is remarkable in the way it illustrates the mystery of perspective while often giving us enough information to solve that mystery. Unlike in literature, that epiphany can happen in an instant.

These two images portray mystery through the use of perspective:

perspective frames what a reader sees 1

I took this photo looking upward at the ceiling of Parasol Down at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. The varying heights and the geometric elements add to the mystery of this image. For me, it also conjures an imagined memory, an invented scene that could have been found in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

perspective frames what a reader sees 2

This photo was taken at a ski and snow tubing park. Because the scale of the subject isn’t immediately identifiable, and the textures in each element are distinct and compartmentalized, the perspective of the image delays comprehension of the objects. Yet, within a few moment’s time, it’s possible, without further information, to deduce the scene.

The Daily Post discussed the use of perspective in photos this week.

I think the parallels to writing are constructive.

Expanding your descriptions tenfold

Creative writing exercise

If you find me scanning the horizon or hunched over with my ear to the ground, it is probably because I’m searching for a clever creative writing exercise to experience and share. The best leave room for interpretation. Personally, I enjoy attempting to manipulate the exercise. I want to develop an approach that’s unexpected but manages to fit the parameters, hopefully transcending the frontiers of the challenge.

OK, that’s waxing a bit melopoetic. (Phrase-coining alert). Let’s just say you’re travelling from point A to point B, but you want to change the mode of transportation.

That is why I like this particular exercise. It is ripe for interpretation, manipulation and customization: Take one thing and describe it ten different ways.

That “thing” can be anything real or imagined, tangible or ethereal, republican or democrat. You get the idea. There is sky, but there is no limit. One thing. Described ten ways. One sentence each. I’d say “on your mark, get set, go,” but I’ve already started.

The lie you told

The lie you told polluted the room like carbon monoxide – odorless, invisible and toxic. It sounded like a sonnet but echoed like a dirge. I was frightened by how comfortably it spilled from your mouth. You addressed it like an old friend. The language tore through me like shrapnel and ricocheted in the hollowed space between my ribs and spine. Tulips wilted when you exhaled. I could taste the ashen remains of integrity consumed by guilt fire. The weight of the words submerged my body, driving me ever deeper to join other victims of narcosis. The lie drained the remaining light from your eyes. It wasn’t until I tried to find you in its residual darkness that I realized you were already gone.

That’s my ten.

I’ll link here to other great 1×10 descriptions as I discover them. Let’s make a pact never to see the world in the same light again.

  1. Describing description
  2. My computer’s making a weird noise again
  3. Because I just had lunch…

Telegraphing the punch

Not quite a poem #2

“I know we can make this work. We’ve been through so much together. Don’t go. It won’t happen again.”

But it’s a one-way conversation, speeding down a narrow alley kicking up gutter trash and rancid rain residue in awkward arcs. Echoes are emptier than silence. She recognizes the prelude to a broken promise and lets it vanish into the void. Three years is long enough to know the difference between a glance and a glare, or freedom and force.

“Are you listening to me?”

She imagines living in a place without patterns. She’s going paint each wall a different color. Not quite a poem telegraphing the punchShe might just keep walking west forever so she never has to see another sunset. It’s a journey her father would have admired. Late nights, after playing chess and building forts out of old blankets, he’d recite invented fables and bury the morals inside for her to find. She remembers them all and hears one now. One rotting fruit will turn the branch brown. She thought it meant one thing when she was younger. Now she thinks another.

“I love you,” the man in front of her says, but she sees it coming and has just enough time to duck.

Other stories of twisted love

Not quite a poem

Not quite a poem #1

If this were a poem, each word would pulse with the kind of light that scatters clouds and scrubs alleyways clean of shadow. You would hide your eyes like the night I surprised you with with wine and roses, and we exposed the very last secret between us. Broken into stanzas, our promises would ring out like gospels in a southern church. There’s no shame in reliving the moments that chart our course. Where you see memories like photographs, I see stone chiseled from a sculpture. We are what remains after the work is done. I begged time to preserve us in the golden hour, but this is not quite a poem. We’ll not enjoy selective memory.

Walking a path to better writing

How to liberate your creativity

My best ideas come to me when walking. I mean this in the simplest sense: Point A to Point B. Motion conjures magic that shakes free closeted thought patterns and the corresponding words and sentences locked away by a stubborn or weary mind. Movement is a chisel for writer’s block and salve for writer’s rash.

Why walking is a path to better writing 2Showering seems to conduct some of the same inspirational current. I assume yoga might work, though king pigeon pose isn’t exactly my thing. Even answering nature’s call can result in a call to action for the brain. And I’ve learned through the years that I am not alone. Plenty of other writers have been struck by coffee break creativity or the morning commute muse.

Why, then? I’ve decided it is liberation. Liberation from the utensils of writing. Of the pressure to put ink to paper or keystrokes to monitor, as it were. By briefly disconnecting from the binding relationships we establish with our desks and devices, we give our minds greater freedom to investigate ideas that are stalled on the launching pad.

I might stare at a computer screen for 10 minutes, devoid of all but involuntary physiology function – forget high-level creative thought – but as soon as I escape my chair and stroll down the hall, the spigot begins to flow. It has happened often enough that I am certain it is not coincidence.

Humans have plenty of latent instincts, seldom employed for lack of necessity. Deep within, however, are the ancestral user manuals for hunters, gatherers, workers, warriors and, so it would seem, writers. We are the descendents of the cave-dwellers scratching ancient text and line drawings into the smooth rock. We can channel that free-flowing artistic spirit. We just need to cut the tether from time to time and let the creative mind work without anyone looking over its shoulder.

Give yourself permission to re-calibrate and discover organically the words you really want to write.

So how do you separate this exercise from procrastination, its wicked stepsister?

Focus.

I am suggesting a change in venue, not an abandonment of thought. Your goal is exploration, as opposed to distraction.

Ponder while you wander.

As you journey – whether it’s through your office, across your yard, down the sidewalk or over the hedge – take your ideas with you. Let them stretch their possibilities while you stretch your legs. Often, they will grow wings, and you’ll find yourself sprinting back to your computer or notebook so you can capture them before they break entirely free.

Don’t be aimless; choose a target.

These excursions work because they are finite and concise. Don’t free yourself from writer’s block by going grocery shopping. Make the task so simple that the act is subconscious and the rest of your RAM is dedicated to teasing out that perfect phrase or killer conclusion that had so far eluded you.

Fetch a glass of water. Get the mail. Walk the dog. Fill the bird feeder. Make the bed. Your options are nearly limitless, but what’s important is to release your creativity from whatever has been binding it.

Editor’s note: The idea for this post came to me while I was walking a distance of 14 feet from my desk to the kitchen. Now get out there and discover your own anecdotal evidence!

Related: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/daily-prompt-best/

Write like a painter

Improving your approach to creative writing

A blank white page. A blank white canvas. Writers and painters have a common starting point, and some of the principles that produce a beautiful piece of visual art apply to the creation of excellent written work.

Most writers feel ownership over their creative process. There is no single correct way to arrive at a finished written product, but I advise writers to develop a custom blueprint. Creating an outline is perhaps the most tried and true planning method, but its rigidity makes it unsuited for many types of projects. And let’s face it, Roman numerals are so MCMLXXXVI.

Instead, approach your plan as you would a sketch. Imagine you are making light strokes on the canvas, just penciling in the general shape of your article, story, poem or book. Get a sense of size and proportion. Shade in some key features, the elements you expect will become points of emphasis or will advance the action of your story. Remember, it’s in pencil; you can always erase and revise.

Using your sketch as your guide, begin painting the broad strokes of your story. Artists paint in layers, overlapping images and colors to create depth. Similarly, you can build on the foundational layers of your story with added detail. You need to write in three dimensions. Give your characters, your settings and your situations complexity by layering aspects of history, relationship, emotion, and motive that you will reveal in time.

A great painting appears as a doorway into another world, a passage you can seemingly enter. That is a hallmark of great writing as well. Don’t write flat.

Shaping your writing into a finished project requires the addition of fine details and the refining of rough edges. These steps are like adding shadows and highlights to your painting. The contrast serves as context for your story, accentuating your message and amplifying your meaning. Painters must be mindful of their light source because its relationship to the subject determines which details are revealed and which are obscured. A writer’s light source is generated by voice and point of view. Your perspective, or that of your narrator, influences in large part which information and beliefs are illuminated and which remain in the dark.

Finally, you have to know when to put down the brush. Sometimes, the best sentence is the one you don’t write. That, however, shouldn’t be an excuse to write with restraint. You can proceed with creative abandon, since writers have one clear benefit over painters. We can edit. But that’s another art project.