Writers in the Hudson Valley

Another writer and I were walking in search of cappuccino just on the edge of town, when this middle-aged blonde woman walked towards me. She pointed to me and began to sing, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.” And I sang along.

Yes, we two strangers sang the Mister Roger’s song to each other one recent sunny afternoon in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Is this what goes down in small towns? Apparently, on my writing retreats that kind of thing happens.

What else happened?

  • walks on country roads
  • morning yoga 
  • writing
  • painting little boxes
  • arts and crafts in the gazebo
  • time to read and write and reflect

I’m really grateful to Carla, April, Don, and the crew at Olmsted Center, so that, a few weeks back, several intrepid writers and I could set sail on this maiden voyage to write the story of their lives.

I have to admit I was disappointed with the turnout. Only a handful of writers attended the Hudson Valley weekend. And more would have been better. We wrote about love, work, money, and family. And I don’t think the cost kept people away — it was a good deal — the weekend cost $295 for 2 nights, 6 meals and a bunch of fun writing and art workshops.

In any case, I’m not even putting a price on the experience of having some stranger sing to me on the sidewalk. As usual, the most magical and fun moments happen when you get off script and get off campus. There’s a lesson here — get out of your comfort zone to find fun.

In the writing workshops, the writers found the thread of meaning in seemingly random life events. Every one said they’d love to do the weekend again. But I’m in a bit of a dilemma because the center needs to have a minimum of 10 participants next time. I’m not sure I can do that. I am also having trouble finding a May or June date. I’d like June 13 to 15, but that’s Father’s Day. Would writers want to get away on Father’s Day weekend?

Bootcamp4writers is a dream of mine, but I have to be honest. Putting on the weekends takes a lot of work and I’m not sure for my small margin of profit, whether it’s worth it. I took a loss of a couple hundred dollars at this Hudson Valley retreat and I don’t want to do that again. (In addition to the retreat center, I pay for yoga, insurance and supplies, as well as my own transport and PR.)

***

I love getting out of the city and having a chance to reflect on my life.

Like the city writers on the weekend, I get to taste a bit of country life in the Hudson Valley. For example, there was a couple of ladies sitting outside a church, passing out candy corn and juice. How nice is that! 

The workshop ended with time to map the hills and valleys of their lives through big and small life experiences from their spiritual lives.

We laughed, we cried, we made new friends. We want to do it again, But I’m just trying to figure out whether we can.

Contact bootcamp4writers@gmail.com for more details or visit the website at bootcamp4writers.com

Here are some pictures I shot from the weekend. See? Looks like fun, right?

Would you come?

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Here’s where we held the retreat, Kirkwood House at Camp Olmsted.
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Just one of the glorious views as we took an afternoon walk

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Getting ready to write
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Out at the gazebo, we made some art. We painted boxes.
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In town we came upon some ladies giving out kindness.
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Time to plug in and write.
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A quick trip by commuter rail to Cornwall-on-Hudson.
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Here’s me, wondering whether to do it again.

2 Great New Movies about Mental Illness

Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook

Just in time for the holidays, there are two awesome new films about mental illness.

I just saw Silver Linings Playbook and The Master. Both of these films show the journey from destructive madness to precarious sanity. The films show the impossible internal tide as Pat, Bradley Cooper, and Freddy, Joaquin Phoenix, descend (ascend) into their altered states and try to get back to life again.

The movies made me wonder about something I read a long time from Carl Jung. I am paraphrasing, but the idea from Jung, is that: Maybe it’s not these individuals who are mad, but their societies are insane.

Maybe madness is the only sane response to an insane society. Coping is hard enough in life, without the stigma and consequences of mental illness, brought on by intense stress or some biological deficiency.

Both lead actors in these films chew up the scenery. Oddly, during a few intense moments in Silver Linings, the director cuts away from the Bradley Cooper character, a manic-depressive, to get the reaction shots of Jennifer Lawrence (from The Hunger Games).

The title of Silver Linings refers to the benefits of positive thinking to overcome difficulties. I am fan of optimism. Here are my other take-aways from Silver Linings.

  • Dancing and running help heal obsessive minds
  • Beat craziness with more craziness
  • Two messed-up people can make a sane thing
  • Find the silver lining in every crazy moment
  • Mental illness runs in families

The Master

Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are incredible in The Master. There is never a cutting away from their faces during intense scenes. If anything, the close-ups just get closer. Tormented minds reveal themselves through dialogue and action. Actions have consequences.

Here are my take-aways from The Master

  • Every one serves someone (the master?). (Did Bob Dylan say this too?)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder is real, especially for wartime survivors
  • Communal living is healing (and destructive)
  • We may be better than we think we are
  • Don’t give up on love
  • Talk therapy works (hypnotherapy too?)

Overcoming mental illness is no joke, although, turns out, these two films depict the efforts to overcome mental illness as entertaining and compelling.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

After the characters of Freddy and Pat slide into their dysfunctional moments, they seem always at war with themselves, trying to reign in their destructive sides and crawl back to lives with family or community. They look for a state of grace. Or at least, they seek connection with others and a state of normalcy. Balance eludes them.

Just in time for Christmas and New Year’s, you can see these movies and contemplate having more compassion for your family members who may have diseases or mental illnesses.

Even though I loved these films, I hope to see a mainstream movie about a woman with a mental illness, preferably depression, which is far more common in women than men.

In the newly-released Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln denies her depression. Her mental illness is only viewed as an impediment to her emotional closeness to her family. For women in films, like Mary played by Sally Field, relationships matter most. For men, it is the journey to wholeness. But surely, Mary’s depression could be a fascinating feature-length film, not just a subplot in Lincoln’s life.

Maybe I’ll write more about Lincoln later. I just saw it yesterday and am still reeling from those performances and the immersion in a time of history when men and women fought to knit the country together rather than to pull it apart. To unite us.

PS I modeled this blog post from my previous post on 2 great new movies about alcoholism

Writing and Coffee

Amy Carr and I started a writing support group on Monday nights. One of our members, the brilliant DeBorah Gray, (“MaMa Dee”) offered this assignment from a writing contest. Use the following words in a piece:

butter, music, coffee, constellation, illumination, window pane.

Here’s what I wrote during last week’s ten minute in-class writing exercise.

There is nothing I like better than coffee, no friend as dear or faithful. Every morning my coffee is there for me. Friends, lovers, or husbands may come and go, but my coffee will remain.

I sometimes whisper to myself, “First sip of the day,” right before I take the first sip of the day.

I feel illuminated, lit from within. I take my pen to paper. I begin to write. I write about three pages long-hand every morning, a la Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. Sometimes I stop writing to stare out the windowpane at the empty, abandoned courtyard outside my kitchen.

I lose my flow. I long for a constellation of meaning. I begin to dread the next task, having to wake the kids. I hate, hate, hate having to rustle the kids out of bed. It is my lowest part of the day. When I have to set down my notebook and pen and take up the harpy role.

I have to shift from writer to mother. Ugh. All I want to do is write. I feel irritated that I have to do anything else, like butter my children’s toast or pay the bills.

I turn the radio up loud, alerting the kids that life is happening.English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

I detest the move from solitude to sharing space. I feel ill prepared to assume the responsibility of motherhood.I love my children, but honestly, first thing in the morning, I love my coffee and writing more.

One Hour Without Technology

It went badly.

I told all family members that for one hour on this Sunday afternoon they had to turn off their phones, computers, television sets at 3:15 pm. They could do anything they wanted — nap, eat, clean, anything.

At 3:15, they begged for, “Five more minutes. Just until I finish this episode.”

Hayden’s hooked on reruns of Prison Break and the girls on How I Met Your Mother. So I relented. At 3:20, I collected their phones and laptops and put them in a sealed, secret box.

My husband (who may have some OCD tendencies) began counting playing cards to get a Gin Rummy game going. The girls began to clean their room. So far, so good. Then my son began foraging in the fridge for something to eat and came up short. It’s true we’ve been gone a few days and the cupboards are pretty bare.

“You can go grocery shopping,” I suggested.

“No,” he said, flopping on my bed. “I’m hungry.” I began making him some frozen Trader Joe appetizer thing, left-overs from a party months ago.

“Mom, I have to turn on the computer to check what homework I have,” my son said.

“No,” I said.

“I think he should be allowed to do that,” my husband piped in.

“No,” I was not going to give in. “He knows he has to read the Odyssey. Just crack the book open.”

at the airport yesterday, my kids were all plugged in.

“I already read it,” he said.

“Then do something else,” I said.

“You’re such a jerk,” he said. Nice, right?

“You’re not allowed to call me a jerk. Or say I’m crazy,” I said. Last week, he called me crazy. Yes, I’m crazy. But a good kind of crazy. And that’s not what he meant.

Then the girls started bickering about a shirt they both claimed. And Charlotte was goading Catherine to quit lying on the floor.

Charlotte was exasperated. She said, “I’m the only one who does anything around here.”

And that naturally, got me yelling. Because that’s my line. I’m the only one who does anything around here.

My husband asked, “Who wants to play cards?”

“Not me!” the kids said.

“Get up off the floor,” Charlotte told Catherine.

“I’m hungry, Mom,” Hayden said.

I tried to keep it together by remembering the article on sibling rivalry from today’s NYTimes by George Howe Colt. He points out that when kids argue over food maybe what they’re really arguing over is mother’s attention.

That idea that mothers are powerful got me through the awful hour without technology. The other realization that pulled me through was knowing our social media sabbath was only going to last another 15 minutes. I served the kids that appetizer-y thing. People calmed down.

At 4:20, I went into the secret box and handed them back their phones and laptops. Okay, I didn’t hand them back. I threw them back. I said, “Here you go! Now we don’t have to talk to each other any more today.”

But we did talk later — at dinner. I suggested that we try this brief digital sabbath every week. They didn’t argue.

 

Fixing the Problem

What problem does your business solve?

My friend Jolain told me that when she started her clothing line years ago, her goal was simply to make beautiful clothes. She said that wasn’t enough.

“A business has to solve a problem,” Jolain said.

When Kelly and I launched our new biz, we figured offering first-class writing workshops at non-luxury prices would answer a writer’s problem.

A writer’s challenge includes the need to:

  • be a part of a community
  • get published
  • find a sanctuary for dangerous writing
  • make time for writing
  • nurture creativity and beauty in a society that overlooks the arts.

Our biz does all that.

We use Field Notes to keep score when we play cards.

This morning I listened to a podcast about traveling salesmen (at Field Notes Brand, a company my brother co-founded). Ron Solberg praises the tenacity and brilliance of the early traveling salespeople who often sold books. And the customers appreciated how the salesmen delivered news, as well as products. They liked the free samples.

“The trick really was volume, the number of stops you make,” Solberg said.

And more winning advice: “Take advantage of the moment.”

In a sense, when I started the biz, I wanted to make and nurture beautiful writing the same way Jolain wanted to make beautiful clothing. But I am learning to sell as well as to create.

As a small business owner, I need to sustain my biz, so I must do both sales and art. And for both, I need to value beauty, tenacity, hard work, and being in the moment.

Blogs to Follow

I’m humble. I don’t want to brag about our awesome upcoming writing workshops. (Yes, Kelly Wallace and I are leading some workshops on blogging.) But let me brag or blog about my friends’ blogs.

Blogging is about sharing the wealth of your knowledge. I wish more of my friends would blog because it’s fun. I like finding out what my friends are thinking. Here are three recommendations from some of my besties. And these are my friends IRL (in real life!).

Kelly’s blog – check out her recent post on forgiveness. She says, in considering forgiveness and remembering some childhood shit, “Right now things are a little like my morning run: muddy.”

Linda Bloom’s blog – Linda’s an emptynester so check out her take on how Modern Family depicts the college years.

Jolain’s blog – Jolain comments on fashion. She does all the artwork herself. I love her drawings.

My friends are creative geniuses.

Jolain Bowen illustrates her fashion blog

They have stories to tell and pictures to share. They have opinions I value.

For a while, my friend Dan posted on a blog about everything he ate. It was interesting because I never realized he ate so many sardines. It got me interested in eating sardines.

Dan discovered one secret to getting readers to check out your blog — mention chocolate (not sardines!). I will try to gain readers by bragging about my friends’ blogs. And I will resort to chocolate if necessary.

Upcoming Goals

Earlier in the season, before the storm, the days were brighter and warmer, and the girls played soccer in Central Park. Look how much fun these soccer moms are having!

Just back from my girls’ freezing soccer game. Thank God basketball season is upon us because soccer season is tough on the spectators. I posted on Facebook, ‘this soccer mom needs a hot toddy.’

The term, ‘soccer mom,’ is used disparagingly, but I appreciate the soccer moms and dads who coach teams and bring snacks and stand there in the cold, cheering and chatting, without warm beverages.

I appreciate myself. I put air in the girls’ tires so we could ride bikes to the game. But I was overambitious. It was too cold. We were miserable, riding into the cold wind off of the Hudson River.

The girls would’ve rather taken a bus, a subway, a taxi, anything. Getting places in New York can be cushy or tough. Sometimes I make us tough it out. Perhaps needlessly. Sometimes I feel like I am an Outward Bound leader rather than a parent.

I want to be grateful that my kids are so athletic and like playing team sports.

I have so many good things on my horizon. I want to focus on positive things and my upcoming goals. I do not want to dwell on the argument the girls and I had when it was time to ride home from the game and the girls wanted to switch bikes.

Here’s are some good things ahead:

  • My trip to Chicago for Thanksgiving
  • Upcoming writing workshops
  • Christmas in the Adirondacks
  • Basketball season
  • Ice skating in Central Park
  • Wonderful things I can’t even imagine right now.

I believe in pronoia, which is the sneaking suspicion that the universe is conspiring to help you. (Unlike paranoia, where the world is conspiring to get you.)

That’s my upcoming goal until New Year’s — to have faith in the power of pronoia.