What I Learned and What Next?

I’ve spent this last month writing every day about creativity. Even when I didn’t feel like it (and I knew that would happen), I did it.

The first few days flew by in a flutter of enthusiasm and newness and then, there was the sameness, the place of not having anything new to say or retreading where I had tread before. Looking to hone my message of hope in some new-fangled way? Boring!

Then, I felt my own resentment for taking on something a little too large. And futile — what difference does my writing make any way?

How can I, someone so inconsequential, turn the axis of this country, governed today by the swamp of greed and fear, to shape the narrative into a story — my story, the country’s story — of overcoming hatred with love? Of somehow looking for and, occasionally, finding a pathway to grit. To grace. To forgiveness.

To make compassion the bottom line of life, to be open and vulnerable to others, to make community life the focus, and to let prayer be the breath of your life – that requires a willingness to tear down the countless walls that we have erected between ourselves and others in order to maintain our safe isolation. This is a lifelong and arduous spiritual battle because while tearing down walls with one hand, we build new ones with the other. After I had left the university and chosen a life in the community, I realized that, even in community, there are numerous ways to play the controlling games of individualism. Indeed, true conversion asks for a lot more than a change of place. It asks for a change of heart. – Henri J. Nouwen

I’ve drawn inspiration from the heroes who came before me.

So, this month, I’ve learned to write even when I didn’t feel like writing. To speak even when it would’ve been more judicious to stay quiet. To get quiet and listen to the still, small voice within.

I’ve learned that I don’t have to change the whole world, just myself. And if my writing moves the needle, even a fraction of an inch, towards more compassion, more self-empathy, more kindness, that’s good enough.

Still. I want more. Here are five possible next steps for next month:

More NaNoWriMo — national novel writing month. While I have loved joining this collective writing community and have done so in past years, I hesitate to produce a novel in a month from scratch. I’d love, even more, to revise past efforts at my novel-writing madness. I have many half-baked novels, wedged into the back of an overstuffed file cabinet. I’d like to unearth and revise these more than I’d like to begin something new. (And to clean out my file cabinet.) I am trying to strategize on how I can use the resources of NaNoWriMo for my own dastardly purposes. Rather than writing some new 50,000 words whole cloth, why not rework my old 50,000-word stories? I can still join the meet-ups and the timed writing opportunities, I just might not earn the badge.

More polished essays — I have a dozen, crafted essays about our political climate from my own humorous point of view to submit to places for publication. I would like to be more consistent with sending out my essays and getting them published.

More fitness — since my shoulder surgery, I’ve found I’m not as physically active as I was last spring. I really want to be more consistent with working out. Yes, citibiking to and from work is better than catching a Via, however, it’s still not enough. When I bike, I coast. When I work out at the gym or go for a long walk or short run, I get my heart rate pumping. This reminds me: support me as I undertake the 5K fundraiser for United Methodist Women. And I am probably going to run a 5K Turkey Trot in Chicago as well.

More workshops — I’ve got a little idea cooking on my back burner. A neighbor who’s taken my writing workshop literally stopped me on the street to suggest that I offer a class on writing to overcome and heal from sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. So, this is a goal for the month of November — to get this workshop on the calendar and promote it so we get a healthy enrollment. And we will all begin to heal the rape culture in which we live. I’d also like to plan some spring get-away writing workshop.

More travel — There is nothing like travel to open the mind and fill the heart.

So that’s it — continue to fill your days with creativity and hope. Believe that change for the good is always possible.

bradbury

Free Write and Gratitude

I don’t want to grow old but, you know, like they say, consider the options. One upside to aging? Higher cheekbones. One downside? Lower boobs.

One upside? I tan easily. One downside? Skin cancer — but mine’s basal cell, the least problematic type, so I’m cool with that. I really shouldn’t complain.

The thing I’m really not loving about growing old is the way that you gain one pound a year for 10 years and then suddenly you’re like 10 pounds more than your ideal weight.

But wait, let me remind myself. I have had friends and colleagues, younger than me, who have been diagnosed with cancer. And many survived and a few are no longer around. And they’d all probably remind me to not worry about weight. So seize the day.

I am reminding myself to take nothing for granted. I’m happy today’s problems include:
1. I don’t feel like writing right now.
2. I don’t feel like emptying the dishwasher.

Sure, I sometimes feel sorry for myself. Chris is really having more troubles with his Parkinson’s and the tasks of daily living. This worries me. A lot.

Let me grind my gears back to a place gratitude.

Here’s today’s gratitude list:

  • Citibike – commuted home today although it was cold. It feels so good to sail through the beautiful streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
  • My two good legs — to power the Citibike and take me up and down so many flights of stairs at work.
  • My fitbit — although my battery does not stay charged for as long as it should. (Don’t we all wind down as we age?) I may not have achieved my 10,000 steps for today, but I have been active nine out of nine hours.
  • My beautiful big apartment. It is always a work in progress. But it’s been the perfect place for raising my beautiful family and occasionally hosting the fabulous dinner party.
  • My washer/dryer and dishwasher — true, I don’t feel like unloading the dishes, but, wow, I have clean dishes. Such a gift.
  • Big one here — my kids. Love love love these nerds. As my neighbor upstairs used to say, “Not one is a shrinking violet.” Nope. That’s the way I like them.
  • Chris. Yes, he’s a handful, but we do connect on a deep level.
  • My excellent job — sure, it’s not perfect — I’m far too nomadic, moving from one class to another, but I have wonderful colleagues and generally look forward to going to work every day (and coming home at the end of the day). Several days a week I have to take the little guys to the bus and guess what? On those days, I hold hands with kindergartners and cross them safely. How lucky am I? Kids are hilarious.
  • My writing — whether it’s my journaling or my humorous essays or these half-baked blog posts.
  • My attitude. New York City is known as a FuggetAboutIt kinda place. But actually, most people are cool. They’re just in a hurry. Me? I’m naturally happy-go-lucky.

So, I’m grateful that I’m growing older, that I have my health, that I am loved and that I love well. What else is there? Unloading the dishwasher? Ah, FuggetAboutIt. I’m going to watch TV. Yes, grateful for my TV too.

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So many bridges in Central Park. The chipping paint looked like lace on this one.

California Dreaming

The autumn is bittersweet. There are forecasts that another polar vortex will swirl our way this winter.

To prepare for any possible NYC Seasonal Affect Disorder, I’ve just booked airline tickets for a couple of weeks for the whole fam to got to Southern California over Christmas and New Year’s.

How lucky is my family – to have friends for whom we will house- and dog-sit in Pasadena. I like making new traditions in new places. Most Christmases, we have ensconced ourselves in the Big House in the Adirondacks at Christmas. And then to shake things up, we might’ve gone north from there to Montreal for a night or two – for Boxing Day shopping or a swim in a hotel pool.

the Big House
the Big House

But my husband’s family has decided to close the Big House for winter. The family is choosing to save money. (The heating bill at Christmas is usually at least $100/a day). Besides, the mansion is for sale this year. And a lot of family members are in transition.

I wrote this as I headed out to a retreat on the Long Island RailRoad. I passed pumpkin patches, vineyards, and horse farms. The leaves on the trees were just so beautiful this weekend. While I was California-dreaming about Christmas, I was also trying to remain present — live in the moment with all of the beauty right in front of my eyes this October.

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took this from the L.I.R.R., heading to Shelter Island.

Finding Beauty and Health Again

The experience with Coco at the hospital was pretty intense. And I feel a bit knocked off my life’s tightrope — balancing my paid work, my creative work and my (unpaid) family duties.

H. napping at one of the colleges we visited. He is an excellent napper.
H. napping at one of the colleges we visited. He is an excellent napper.

One such responsibility is supporting H. as he applies this week for early decision to a college. He needs a reminder to focus. He’s been coping with the added stress by napping when he gets home from school.

On Saturday afternoon, when I got home from the hospital, I realized I had to still feed and care for the kids. So I hopped on my bike to purchase rice and beans for Coco at La Caridad (the best Cuban Chinese food on the Upper West Side!)

There were a dozen limos on West End Ave. I wondered what was up. And then when I turned at 77th at the Collegiate Church, there were dozens of people pouring out of the church. It was a wedding.

And the sky was blue and the air was fresh, full of autumn but summer lingering. And I felt so full of life and beauty and gratitude. My kid was fine! We were going to be fine!

And people from the wedded were dressed up so fancily — men in tuxes and ladies in silk. I was elated.

At Caridad, I told the guy at the counter, “My daughter’s just out of the hospital.”

And he, this lovely tattoo’ed dude, said, “That’s great. You have two girls, right? And a son?”

Indeed, I do. I’m so lucky. My brother says, “Don’t say you’re lucky. Say you’re blessed.” Ya, that too.

The rice and beans were delicious. And I took a long nap.

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I find so much beauty in the flowers in Riverside Park. I love taking pictures with my phone.
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Blue sky, nothing but blue sky, and sunflower.

Advice to the Woman on the Subway

1. You’re not a failure if you’ve learned something
2. Let go. Because you can’t control outcomes
3. Learn to ask for and accept help
4. Find your own constant

I found these guidelines on my Notes app on my phone. I think they’re from my kids’ headmaster on parents’ day, but I’m not really sure. I was looking for something to post today — another crazy busy day. Not enough time to write.

I was on the subway headed to see Laura Pruden’s show. The woman next to me — middle aged, white, long hair, flouncy conservative clothes, stockings — was crying. I could see she was reading some sheets of paper. I caught some words over her shoulder:

Self-parenting
Sexuality
Context
Intimacy
How can you tell if a guy likes you?

She noticed me, noticing her. I gave her a weak smile. She blew her nose. She stopped crying.

I got off on Grand Street to see Laura’s show at Dixon Place. It was awesome. It addressed these topics. And a lot more.

Laura Pruden
(Laura Pruden’s one-woman show, Growing Up Straight in the Shadow of AIDS. Photo by Nikolitsa Boutieros of Divine Light Photography — at Dixon Place.)

There’s a shared intimacy to city living. We know each other so well. We sit so close to each other. And really, we don’t know each other at all. We go deep together. And then we get off at the next stop.

Thanks, Laura, for reminding me to remember our stories of love, loss and the epidemic.

31 Days of Good Enough: On the Move

We were on the move. While talking to my pastor Laura, in the Climate March last week, I had an insight — I have to pay as much attention to and love my own children as much as I notice and love my students.

That seems obvious. But sometimes I come home from teaching brimming over with funny stories about the 6-year olds in my afterschool creative writing and reading class, and I can see (or feel) my children roll their eyes. My affection for other children does not take away my love for my own children. But I have to make sure that they know that. I have to encourage them.

Laura and I talked about this as we walked with hundreds of thousands along the Manhattan streets in the biggest climate change march ever. We were on West 59th, walking along Central Park South, discussing Eleanor Roosevelt and the recent fantastic PBS series on the Roosevelts.

And I had told Laura, “It just seemed that as Eleanor grew older, she was alone. Her life was not full of family and picnics and fun, but international travel and great causes.” Which, of course, I love. I love her internationalist impulse and her love for the world. But maybe she should’ve hung out with her family more.

When I went to college, I moved from suburban Chicago to New York City. And I just stayed. I am far-flung from my family of origin too. I want to be intentional about connecting with my mother and father and sister and brothers too.

daisies medium

So for the next 31 days, I will be writing about:

  • How my husband’s Parkinson’s impacts our family
  • My son’s college search
  • Letting go of my desire to keep up with the Joneses
  • My take-aways from teaching
  • How and where I try (and sometimes do) get published
  • Decluttering my messy apartment
  • Trying to stick to a family meal plan
    and maybe even
  • Pursuit of fitness
  • And maybe some random (good enough) essays I’m working on.

Today’s message:
I am good enough. You are good enough. You don’t have to be or do better. Just accept that where you are is where you are. There is no perfect. There is today. I’m so glad we have today.

I aim to be a loving presence in my little sphere of the world.

I love the concept of Good Enough. I am a perfectionist. I want everything to be just right. But sometimes that hinders me from finishing things, from sending stories out, or feeling that I’m good enough. Lately, I’ve also been blessed with so much wonderful work. And so many great friends. And yes, a great family too! And that is so good!

It Must Be October

On an autumn walk, these wildflowers said, "Hello. We are still beautiful."
On an autumn walk, these wildflowers said, “Hello. We are still beautiful.”

I feel old.

It must be October.

It must be the pumpkin-flavored everything.

I am no longer pumpkin-flavored.

I am nutmeg. Nutty.

I see my reflection in the subway window.

I think,

“I need Botox.”

The train travels through Cornwall on the trestle. Sunset.
The train travels through Cornwall on the trestle. Sunset.

I am becoming

invisible – like all the New York belles, wrinkled, made up,

inevitable.

I don’t care – and then

I start singing –

“I don’t care. I love it.”

I am silly, happy. humming to myself on the subway.

I am not yet that creeping cold November.

I am still this playful hot October.

In the beginning of the autumn month.

I am still jumping in a pile of leaves, singing songs to and of myself.

It must be October.

I don’t care.

I love it.

Mary Beth Coudal
I am in October.
United Methodist Retreat House
This is where we (bootcamp4writers.com) had our beautiful fall retreat.