Using Imagery as Writing Muse

Rummaging through some papers, I found this image from a magazine stapled to something I had written on July 18, 1998.

I was in a writing group then that met monthly – or tried to –  and re-reading it brought me right back into the small living room in the house where we’d meet. It was an old house, up rickety stairs, rooms all chopped up.

I was thinking how much fun it used to be to sit in that group, a bunch of magazine pages ripped out haphazardly, each of us taking turns choosing which image to pick so that we could scribble away during a timed writing exercise, letting whatever words come to us as they came. It was a form of writing meditation.  I think 5 minutes was what we settled on back then.

I was thinking how much fun it would be to let other writers look at a photo on the blog and see what they could come up with. It’s kind of a nice idea, a way to share. And then, you could post what you’d written after your own timed five minutes at home. No cheating!

If you feel inclined to try and time yourself and write to the above image, and then add what you ended up writing into the comments, it would make things a million time more interesting around here. I could then add a new image every week with whatever I’d managed to come up with in my own timed 5 minutes.

Here’s what I wrote back then although I will admit, I changed a few things after sitting down to type it out before posting it here. I changed her name. I decided this woman was Turkish and so Isabella didn’t seem like the right name.

Gülçin, a name bestowed eighty-nine years earlier, reveled in the spicy warmth of the nicotine as it streamed through the shriveled opening of her throat, lingered for just a few seconds, and was then expunged, pushing its way against the afternoon’s hot wind like an apparition.

She was safe in her chair, her favorite place. That same chair that had balanced her when the roundness of her thighs had not crept round the wooden corners of the frame but had fit snugly, like foam, atop the smooth wooden cup of the seat.

Her cane, carved by her grandfather over a few months the summer she turned eight, had been her most constant companion in the last few years. She had remembered him sitting near the red rocks, and bits of grass at the cliff edge near their home, the sparkling sea like a rug as far as the eye could see to the horizon.

She’d sit on her porch, perched above the dusty street in that town she’d lived in since she’d married more than 70 years ago now, and she’d watch the youth pass by in the way a factory foreman might watch assembly line workers. She never barked out orders or even greetings. 

When a neighbor or familiar face passed, she’d remove the cigarette and blow the smoke between the space where her two front teeth used to be and in that subtle shift, they’d know they’d been acknowledged, they’d been seen. And it was enough.

Most of the time she would not even notice the strays barking, the wrestling of small boys whose bare feet raised the dust to feather their ankles, or the bustle of women, beautiful full girls, and slap-dashed-together mothers hurrying back from the market in preparation for another day of the cooking, washing, feeding, cleaning cycle. She was there and she wasn’t. She was with all of them and she was with the images of her past that greeted her just as real as company, adding excitement and grief, love and energy to what would turn out to be just another 12 hours, like the 12 hours before that, wrapped in heat and routine.

 She’d think back to her best friend as a child and the hours they’d spent playing in the back alleyways, listening to adults they knew only by the first names their mothers used to refer to them as they gossiped. Mostly they watched. Anything to escape the one room they each shared with three generations who had perfected the familial folk dance, weaving around each other, ducking anger, ignoring bodily functions and even the tears everyone would have preferred to have kept hidden if they’d had the luxury of privacy.

Usually around midday, she would sometimes feel the phantom lips of her deceased husband as if they were grazing her forehead. A tear-dropped wet bead of sweat would seep from beneath her white headscarf and slip over the band of folded skin that decorated her chest like a handmade necklace.

She had loved the memory of his lips. Not just because they had become as familiar as her own but because they embodied everything they had shared together; framing the rite of two-as-one even though he’d been gone for decades.

Memoir: Nobody wants to hear your half truths

2346562184_83b6334ac3_z

Photo by Duncan Hull off Creative Commons

In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited — sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair–for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.Dani Shapiro

I often think about how much writing a memoir is like therapy.

Nobody wants to hear your half truths. That’s the polite word. Now I’ll say it the way I would offline: Your therapist doesn’t want to hear your bullshit. Your readers don’t either.

But more often than not, we don’t even know we’re fooling ourselves, do we? And that’s always where the work begins.

I think that’s the most interesting part about trying to write our own stories and trying to figure out what it is exactly about the story we want to tell that might hold any relevance, hold the kind of universal truths that great writing often unearths, in a show AND tell kind of way. How can we truly get to the truth, the ugly, vulnerable, messy truth that’s at the core of what can make writing so challenging and inevitably sets it apart.

It is the exploration and the analyzing that reaches into the pithiness of your most sublime or challenging moments. It’s the wrestling with what it all might mean through an introspective process that becomes explicit on a page.

You’re aiming to translate those times when you’re (ironically) rendered speechless, forced to stop what you’re doing because the ache of wistfulness mixes with glory and rises up like a crescendo of awareness into a hyper awareness.  At that moment, you realize that one fleeting moment will never come again, not quite like it did that first time and you feel overwhelmed in a happy/sad way. This is the stuff and the understanding, I think, of the kind of memoirs that we’re all wishing we could write (and read), if we have any inclination to write (or read) a memoir at all.

It’s this type of treatment of a subject that can quell the concerns about why others would have any interest in our little lives. Because you’re not writing about your whole life. You’re crafting the experiences of your life, or an experience, into a story as unique as a work of fiction by examining the realities as you experienced them. It’s a feeling that comes from a keyhole inside your heart that gets unlocked because you are able to access the emotion that was present when you were touched in a way that almost never happens or you “get” something like you’ve never got it before.

Being able to transform the ordinary into wonder is the work of poetry, through words, written as prose that germinates from the muck that is ever evolving self-awareness. And with any luck, that self awareness leads to honest revelation and your unique journey from A to B that happened as a result which you’ve miraculously (and I consider every published memoir a miracle) deposited onto a page.

At least that’s one aspect. A start. My current understanding. For me. Yours is likely different.

Esmeralda Cabral and I, are offering a workshop as part of LitFest New West called Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing on Saturday, May 14, 3:15 pm at Douglas College, Room 4247.

The importance of year end musing

TarotcardsA quote that struck me as particularly relevant by Paulo Coehlo – “Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all, or by having everything happen all at once.”

Even though I know that the end of another year is an artificial marker, I think it’s truly important to spend time reflecting on the 365 days that have passed.

Beginnings and endings are a container for life and it’s good to sift through that container and discover, to remind ourselves annually, what has been deposited in that time frame?

What am I hoping to do better in the next 365 days? It seems, especially as we age, if we begin to recognize the significance of one day, each day, everything becomes more urgent.

I don’t want that urgency to manifest in a panic stricken, deer in the headlights, rushing around, never having the capacity to be alone kind of way. No. I just want to accept that no matter where I’m at, no matter what is going on, acceptance is really the only way to calm down and get through it.

If I’m not pleased with the way I have spent too much of my time in the past year, with the way relationships have unfolded, or even if you are exceptionally delighted with all that has transpired, it is good to remind yourself that this is no dress rehearsal. The challenge, then, is to weigh that conscious awareness of what your ideal reality might look like, then realign the structure of your current endeavours to fit better with that ideal. It sounds so much easier than it is.

These past few years have felt really challenging, emotionally. To use a cliché, two steps forward, three steps back. That’s how the past couple of years have felt to me.  I’ve thought about it a lot and wondered about it deeply without being very successful at finding the ultimate solution. Expecting that there is one is probably the problem.

I know that part of it has to do with the move back from Salt Spring. It was as if the biggest dream I could ever dream, one that I never imagined could ever happen, happened by my spontaneous move to Salt Spring for a few years. Then, I returned to a place that I never really wanted to come back to for a variety of reasons that made sense then, and after all, it was only temporary so no big deal.  That’s what I told myself. It was time for other things that I didn’t think I could make happen from that island and I was right about that.

Temporary has now been four years. I’ve struggled with trying to understand what this is and why, as my former shrink once said in reference to my leaving the island and my subsequent feelings about that, “It’s as if you are mourning for a long lost lover.” Perhaps Salt Spring was my ideal lover. It fit so many of the experiences that matter to me – nature, community, creativity, solitude, relationship with self – that I experienced much less of prior to that move, and didn’t really know how much they truly mattered to me until I lived on that island and experienced them to a degree I hadn’t experienced previously.

So to leave that ideal and return to the muck of my own history, by returning to the place where I was born and lived the first 20 years of my life because it was close to my elderly father, because the rent was cheap, was not what I would call a well thought out decision.

Some people think my equating my feelings about the past four years with a place is ridiculous. It’s just a place! We have the ability to determine how we think about where we are at, geographically.  But anyone who thinks that hasn’t thought very deeply about how childhood shapes us, defines us before we can define ourselves, and how much work it took, especially if that childhood was less than ideal, to throw off that cloak and walk towards something better in the first place.

Given that, how could there not be psychological consequences to return to such a defining place. Places are memories and experiences that have led to ways of thinking about ourselves, not just dots on a Google map. Anyone who has made a move to a new location, found a new home, will have experienced that feeling of rightness or out of placeness. “Wherever you go there you are,” but sometimes where you are truly isn’t the best place for who you’ve become.

And in spite of my resistance, the decision has resulted in some personal growth. Since I’ve been back, I’ve travelled to Cambodia and Thailand and my favourite big island, Hawaii. I went through the Writer’s Studio, I wrote a lot, I met some new people. I’ve then taken a bunch of courses towards a different goal related to counselling and met a smattering of other types of people – wannabe counsellors are different from wannabe writers. I enjoyed observing the differences and mulling over the similarities.

I’ve never felt so in between things in my life, except, as I say that, I think that’s wrong. I think that experience, that in-between, has been the theme of my life for a very long time. Not quite settled. One foot in the past. Another in the future. Hovering above the present.

These past couple of years have been a test of my patience which is limited at the best of times. It’s been a test of being forced to examine the past, layers of memories around every corner where I now live, and there is some minor inkling that this reluctant return is not a coincidence even if born from a less than insightful choice.

There is a sense that at some point in the future, in my writing, or in my life, that this detour, will prove to have been the returning to the source that was required to start anew no matter how far a stretch that seems as I write it.

So tapping into intuition, or perhaps yearning for it to be so, I’m feeling that 2016 is going to be a year that finally frees me from this stuckness. I think it’s going to be a very good year. Better than I can imagine right now. Hoping I’m right. Hoping I have the will to make it so.

I hope that for all of you as well.

You as Peace

whiterose

In a world where some men appear to have gone mad and I use the word men intentionally because too often I read newspapers that use the word “people” when in fact it is, unfortunately, men who are perpetrating most of the violence in the world. Let’s be specific.

We listen as allegations of astonishing abuse rise against men who were once revered and who have now fallen from grace. We hear today about the evil and heartbreak perpetuated by some men whose humanity and reason have left them and where rationalizations will never explain because there can never be rationalizations acceptable for what we are witnessing.

There is only one possibility for me. That is, to acknowledge the victims of the atrocities in my heart and then to turn away to refocus on beauty and small graces and the awareness of nature’s cycle that is imitated via human destruction and resurrection.

To keep my own heart returning to a peaceful place, turning towards the light even on those days when I feel a desolation, when I feel battered and angry but knowing that is the time, especially, to find a way back to love, for myself first and then spreading that out throughout my own connectedness as best I can.

It’s so easy to become unconscious of mood and seething and worrying and the turmoil in one’s inner self in a way that turns us away from awareness of how we’re coming across in the world, how we’re infecting our own small space in energy and spirit.

The other day I went with a friend for a walk out of Stanley Park’s Nature House. The topic was Solstice and traditions but it meandered from identification of tree species to Norse mythology to rituals. It reminded me of the time I gathered some friends, made them each a little boat out of the bark of a tree found on the ground on the path around the Lagoon. I glued a tea light to each small piece of bark. We gathered on the shores and I handed out their lights and I said some sort of poem that made sense. We each then spoke of something we wanted to let go of and afterwards, we kneeled and pushed our floating tea lighted bark into the water and released as a symbol of letting go. It was such a small event but it was so fantastic. It reminded all of us of how far away we can move away from rituals that uplift our hearts, recognize our own impermanence and the inevitability of change heading towards the ultimate letting go.

It’s the time of year when I am most reflective. The season of winter is meant for that. An inward transformation bubbling from the quiet, a brook in a cold winter stream, easily mistaken for a static time when in fact so much is happening inside.

Reflecting. Assessing. Planning. Hoping. Dreaming.  Our inner selves on high alert, welcoming transformation.

We have come into a time, maybe a time that’s never not been, where every one of us, must become the peace as the change we want to see in the world.

Everything but the kitchen sink

KitchenTable

As I stood looking down at my kitchen table, thinking about the advice from a WeightWatchers’ meeting that advises you to eat at the table, preferably with a candle, and finish your meal there, even if you live alone which means you are chewing in silence, staring at the wall, I couldn’t help but notice a problem.

Where would I put the plate?

And then I thought, as if I were a detective who had come upon a stranger’s house, who was this person? Who lived here? What could I deduce from their life by examining the detritus on their kitchen table? What would I deduce from yours if I came across your kitchen table?

Here’s what I found:

  • One ball of white twine. A half-eaten package of black licorice. Cheap chocolate Easter eggs wrapped in shiny pastel paper and encased in fine netting. A day timer. One lemon lime lip balm. One last piece of cinnamon raisin bread wrapped in the bag it came in. One blue seven-day pill box with only one pill remaining for today, Thursday. A prescription. A beautiful yellow orchid in full bloom with six pale yellow flowers. A purple strip of paper offering $5 off anything at  Sacred Mountain Lavender on Salt Spring valid until September 30th, 2014, and picked up at the Salt Spring in the City event at Heritage Hall a few weeks back.
  • Events at Vancouver Public Library for April. A Megaphone Magazine, Issue 151 purchased from a vendor on the corner of Broadway and Cambie. Two bookmarks by a woman with my name, spelled Gail, not Gayle, and given to me by her friend, I presume, because Gail was too shy to give them to me herself when she came to my slideshow at the New Westminster Public Library last week.
  • A package of Gravol for symptoms of vertigo I’ve been having that come and go and a written request for blood tests written by a doctor I met yesterday, who, when I checked, after the fact on RateYourMD, had 49 really horrible ratings.  Shocking! But not surprised based on my own visit with him.
  • A notebook full of one line potential ideas related to freelance writing for magazines. A copy of Maissoneuve magazine turned to page 49, nearing the end of a story written by Tim Falconer about the Klondike Creative Class.
  • Classes and Workshops at Vancouver Public Library for April. One square, amber-coloured Post-It note with two lines squiggled across it: Style@home and Canadian Gardening.
  • One pair of household scissors with black handles. A spool of red, silver and gold wrapping ribbon. A plastic calculator. An unopened envelope from VanCity related to voting.
  • The TWS Reading Series Agenda for April, my name one of eight readers for that evening. Brochures about travel possibilities into the Great Bear Rainforest. A white envelope addressed to Honourable Steve Thomson to prevent trophy hunting and to help Raincoast raise funds to purchase the remaining commercial hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rain forest. A piece of blank white paper that came with the envelope and that I have yet to write on to protest trophy hunting.
  • One App from Starbucks called Postale  which caught my attention because of that term. I picked it up thinking it had something to do with “going postale” and I wondered if they’d now created an App that could figure that out – you’re about to go postale – here, quick,  plug this in. Don’t do it!
  • Two versions of my Salt Spring manuscript, neither one complete. One hundred and eighty nine pages each. Two envelopes that I carried the copies home from Kinkos in.
  • One white tea light in a small crystal candle holder given to me years before from a friend who I had a quick dinner with last night.
  • A prescription bottle, 1/4 full of purple pills. A piece of paper from UBC that says staff pension plan update –  The 2014 Actuarial Valuation is Underway which, honestly, I know I should read, but I can’t quite force myself to. Go figure? Wondering if it would be possible to write a headline on a piece of paper that would have less appeal to me than that one. Can’t they make it fun? Can’t they take a lesson or two from the former INGDirect, bought by ScotiaBank and about to call themselves Tangerine, make me gag. I’m still disturbed by ING being just another bank now, but can’t quite figure out what, if anything, they’ve changed, and whether this bank, now masquerading as a piece of tropical fruit, is tricking me, tricking all of us,  in ways I have yet to discern.
  • A Fresh magazine from Thrifty Foods with a Post-It note on Page 29, Salad Greens.

I think it’s time to clear up. Or maybe it’s time to get rid of all tables. Maybe it’s time to invite someone for dinner. Maybe it’s time to move into a two bedroom. Maybe it’s time to rent an office.

What does your kitchen table say about you? Post a photo.

January mood watching

 

DSC_0535As someone whose life has been buffeted, paused, accelerated and dictated by moods for as long as I can recall, I have always been fascinated by the impact of mood on creativity.

I don’t know if it’s a scientific fact but it’s been stated ad nausea that individuals diagnosed as manic depressive or bipolar can be extremely creative. Moods push introspection. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Which came first? The mood extremes or the soul inflicting itself on the brain’s chemistry? Nature. Nurture. Is there an in-between?

There’s a recognition, at the very least, that there’s been a dislocation away from that other place – the comfortable, busy one -where just getting out of bed, doing the dishes, friends, family, working, exercising and planning the next vacation is enough.

When well, days fling themselves impatiently past analysis, questioning, indecision. You forget about that hiding place –  the quiet, controlled space; no interference –  that’s sure to elbow its way to the forefront of time again – guaranteed – especially if it has descended in the past, more than once.

Depression strikes fear into the body’s memory, especially in those who have recovered from it more than once (is recovery ever fully possible?). They’ve resourced every ounce of will to put one foot in front of the other to recreate a life anew; one that builds upon the one they used to have and that used to work before that one disintegrated. Depression as grief. A life changed.

In the past, depression has been known to birth bad and/or brilliant poetry. Now, it’s more likely to suggest itself in un moments. A blank page. Indifference. Indecision. And writing, that form of expression that’s as natural as breathing, is sometimes confiscated as well.

Chronic bouts of depression can force a series of starting overs that become more exhausting as the years accumulate. Beginnings are required, more so it seems to me, for those who live with the irregular return of descent than for those who have never been captured by its creeping reach.

Building a life from scratch every few years can be exhausting. As someone else once wondered about in an essay on his father’s struggle, did his father wake up one day and ask himself, should I answer e-mail, should I go for a walk or should I just put an end to this pointless exercise?

Looking back on my history there is no disputing the decades-long personal case study that transforms flow to a drip in activity.  When the stillness descends, I ask myself what might have been if consistency of anything had been a faithful friend?  What would be through the window of the reliable – in work, in relationships, family and friends?  Would that type of security have enabled a more steady flourishing?

I once did an exercise in What Colour is Your Parachute. It asks readers to draw a chart of the most significant things that they recall, positive and negative, in decade-long increments.  When I did that exercise, the obvious was visually revealed. My chart resembled an EKG.   There were no undulating foothills, meandering streams, or sloping ravines. Instead, jagged ups and downs. Definite. Assertive. No denying. Full-on foreign expeditions, backroads, detours. Up/down. Up/down. Keep going. Days in. Days out. Vast horizons, blinding tundra, barren fields, rocky outcrops until a slow rejuvenation, the half hidden path back to equilibrium.

With therapy, with medication, a single paper white in the grass emerges. One green shoot, then another. Easy to trample as the momentum towards the next beginning gathers.

Starting where we are. Again.

rivergrey copy

It seems as if there is no better time to focus on what might be described as the spiritual side of life, taking stock, going inside and listening, than at the end of another year. Of course, having just said that, I know that’s not true is it? Anytime would do. But in the still and the dark there’s gratitude for another year, and that seems to come more naturally around this time, so let’s work with that shall we?

Sure, it’s a false marker, silly actually, but in the darkness and quiet of winter, the time between the solstice and the days growing longer, winter’s stillness sets a gentler rhythm urging us to keep time and slow ourselves for just a moment, to find a still point as well.

rivergrey copy

Weigh possibilities. Sow ideas. Find renewed hope, choose those things to move from intent into action in the next 365 days. Everything that matters begins there: Idea. Possibility. Change.

This time of year for me, and for you if you’re paying attention, is always a collage of emotion. Can you feel it?  Layers and faces and places thicker and deeper as the years build one on top of the other. Memories scattered like leaves across a heart scarred and patched again and again with the fuzzy purple wool of imagination and re-telling.

What ever happened to so and so? How is he now? Is he happy? Does he ever think of me? Does she?

Knowing that in spite of everything that has passed, I have no doubt, (one of the few things I have no doubt about),  that I am precisely where every choice I’ve made, through conscious action, indecision or apathy, has directed me. Yes, for better and for worse. But that’s okay. Be kind. “Be kind to yourself,” she said to me this afternoon.

Oh sure, looking back with the benefit of hindsight of course I would have done some things differently. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t we all? Of course. But we did exactly what we could at the time. Belief. Projection. Truth.

rivergrey copy

So, in spite of what it may look like (to them, to you), I have faith that I am exactly where I am meant to be. It’s my path. All mine. Not yours. Not his. Not hers. I see so clearly now that the grass is no longer greener over there where you might be standing. What I used to believe. Not anymore. Still striving. Better than stagnating!  Easy to mistake germination for death. Twenty steps backwards to create a future that fits.

I wouldn’t trade your burdens for my own and neither should you. Compassion the only response. Especially when it’s hard to come by, hard to call up from inside as it sometimes is lately.

rivergrey copy

All that’s left is planning for what you and I might make happen. No such thing as asking ‘What will this year bring? Forego that silly question. Ask only what matters enough to make happen; change.

And all the while believing that there is a higher being or some energy bigger than you and I, circumstances beyond our control, sure to waylay the best of plans – look around  – the evidence is everywhere. Especially in other countries. So lucky to be Canadian.

We will keep going. Do our best with our limited wisdom. Depend more upon our wise inner sage.  Listen. Don’t second guess.

rivergrey copy

Just believe as that wise monk, Pema Chodron, once said, All we can really do is START WHERE WE ARE. Again. And again. And again.