Maybe the heat of summer is addling my brain, but trying to settle on what to share is like looking at a garden full of butterflies. As soon as I focus on one idea, it waggles its wings and flits to another flower. I need a butterfly net of sorts: a fine-mesh cerebral strainer. I could toss everything in, run water, and see which thoughts dribble away and which settle to the bottom of the basket. Or maybe I just have undiagnosed ADHD? (D votes for that one.)
I thought about discussing the absurdity of summing someone up on the basis of their age or the size of their home, rather than their intelligence or the size of their heart. Or we could compare notes on how hurtful it is to be shut out by a “friend” because of one miss-speak or misjudgment. That line of thought started the wheels turning to the emotional drain of trying to live up to everyone’s image of whom they expect you to be. If the paint on the picture of expectation shows even one smudge, judgmental faces darken to unforgiving disenchantment. These unforgiving types are often the same people who demand unconditional acceptance from you.
My thoughts skimmed the surface of life with dogs, specifically travelling with dogs. Their uninhibited joy when they realize they’re being included makes any related inconvenience inconsequential. Which led to the black cat who got left at home. I have endless anecdotes about said much-adored cat. At the moment he’s hanging out on my desk, rubbing his head against the monitor and batting at loose pens. And of course, you know that a discussion about whether animals have souls and feelings is a non-issue for me. I see more depth of feeling in the eyes of most dogs and cats than I do in the eyes of far too many people. Like my father used to say, “If dogs aren’t allowed in heaven, I’m not going.”
I considered sharing my passion for books/stories based on Asian culture, especially that of China. There are some great titles in my collection. My fascination began with a book of my mother’s by Pearl S Buck. I was about fourteen when I read it. My own books include nonfiction, but there is nothing like good fiction--well-researched fiction—to broaden one’s awareness of human nature\, and to deepen one’s understanding of cultures and different time periods. When someone declares that they read only nonfiction, it makes me flinch. I see this as intellectual snobbery: not an attractive quality.
That got me thinking about those individuals—we’ve all met at least one--whose entire identity revolves around their PhD. They’re the ones who won’t waste their conversational breathe on anyone with less than a Master’s degree. Their loss. A little Life-101 WD40-chat might be exactly what’s needed to spring open those creaky door hinges in their pretentious brains. How can they not know that everyone has a story, and be curious?
Our connection to nature is always a running theme for me. We all benefit from a little garden soil under our fingernails. What can be more awe-inspiring than the wonder of little seeds popping through the soil, soon to become the plants that treat us to the astonishing beauty of their blossoms or bounty of their fruits. Nothing we humans can create compares.
But instead of writing about any of this, here I am, post-wine rambling and talking about nothing of any consequence, much like an episode of Seinfeld. Sadly, my maze-like rambles won’t justify themselves by bringing in mega $$$. Maybe we could just all hang out, musing about life, over a couple of minty Mojitos. Enough Mojitos, and none of this matters anyway. So, who’s buying?
“So what’s she on about now?”
Well, if you must ask, packaging, and let’s not forget, warning labels: my pet peeves of our modern world. Our government’s attempt to protect us from ourselves, and to protect manufacturers from law suits, has far exceeded an acceptable level of ludicrous government bureaucracy.
Let’s start with shrink wrap. Take the 11 x 14 frame I just bought. It was so tightly wrapped in impervious layers of plastic, I couldn’t fit the tip of my pointiest knife under the wrap to make a hole big enough to fit the working end of a pair of scissors. Said knife, however, had no problem jamming its sharp self into the palm of my hand. Once I finally cut a small rip in the wrap, the wood was scarred. Maybe I can pass it off as distressed? I sure as hell know I was by the time I freed the frame. Who needs this kind of aggravation?
See that little item pictured on the upper left. You might think it’s an old-fashioned nut cracker—maybe—but at my house it’s the Super Tool of the century. This handy-dandy gadget saves our landfills from piles of discarded, impossible-to-open, newly purchased bottles of beverages. When ordinary human strength fails, just capture the cap of the bottle in the teeth of this superior device and, you'll twist open bottles of sparking water that even the braggiest muscle man can’t budge.
Moving on to the layer of graphene-like strength, plastic molding jammed around every little bottle and jar of something I really want (like industrial strength face cream). The person who develops a tool to break through this stuff gets nominated for the next Noble Prize. Next up, industrial strength staples, the kind used to keep the wood framing of a couch together. And where do these delights show up? Try the kitchen utensil aisle at your favorite big box retail store. You’ll find them attaching that new kitchen serving spoon you’ll never use to its section of display cardboard. And why will you never use said spoon? ‘Cause you ain’t never gonna get that puppy cut loose, but you sure as hell might end up in Urgent Care trying.
So my point here is, if fear of shoplifting is an issue, then let’s go back to catalogue show rooms where you point to an item and the retail worker has it sent out on a conveyor belt, loose, free, and available. And as far as safety goes, if one has to be told not to eat the oven cleaner, or warned not to stick a drinking straw in their eye, maybe we should drop the protections and just let the national IQ rise, as those blessed with an overabundance of stupidity fall by the wayside.
If you’re still hanging in there with me, the following poem is a version of one that arose from the ashes of my frustration a few years ago. A contest judge gave it a “Commendable”, not because it was well-written, but because it provided needed comic relief during his day of judging serious poetry. Here it is
Push Down and Twist
There’s a tamper-proof top, on the jar I just I bought.
I sigh and I glare, then slash, hack, and tear.
But buyer beware, it’s no worse for wear.
I push down while I twist, nearly spraining my wrist.
It slips from my hand, only to land with a crash.
Now the glass is all smashed.
So I clean up the mess, feeling rather distressed.
It can’t just be me, who can’t seem to free,
things that are trapped, in protective shrink wrap,
which teases and taunts, flaunting stuff that I want.
A new movie might soothe, get me back in the groove.
But my new DVD’s sealed in plastic, I see.
I grab something sharp, to rip packaging apart,
but I stab my own hand, drop the knife, and it lands
sticking into my toe. And, what do you know?
The DVD is now bent, and my energy’s spent.
My head starts to ache, must find aspirin to take.
The new bottle is sealed. This is too damn surreal.
So I prod, poke, and pry. No matter how hard I try.
I can’t open the top, can’t get the seal off.
I twist and I turn, until fingertips burn.
The wrapping’s too tight. It puts up quite a fight
&the pills are still sealed. Wait! A hammer I’ll wield!
Damn--I just broke my thumb, and my hand’s getting numb.
Does my blood pressure count, when irritation mounts?
Or will that just be spurned as a safety concern?
Will no one agree, to please listen to my plea,
And stop protecting me to this unreasonable degree?
Yes, I’ve been MIA with blog posts, and I apologize for falling off the map. I’ve been busy pulling my revised chapters into a final manuscript, and because much nit-picking and rewording is happening, the process is taking way longer than planned. Is revision ever done? I need to run that one by a published novelist.
But, that’s not the point of this post. I want to share some thoughts that filtered out of the madness of revision. I started to wonder if writing a novel at my age is a sign of lunacy or chutzpah. Let your vote be counted; there are no wrong answers. I’m sure that both my mother and grandmother would vote for lunacy. I can hear my mother’s voice now. “You’re doing what? Why? Just how old do you think you are”, or even worse, “You need to act your age”. A statement I’ve never understood.
When I look around me, I don’t see many aging adults approaching retirement the same way as the previous generation of parents and grandparents. The example mine set was to kick back in front of the TV with a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee, and spend the day watching old movies or game shows. You’ll only find me following their example when I’m too sick to do anything else. I’m busy pretty much all of the time. As my son keeps asking, “Mom aren’t you supposed to be retired?” What does that even mean anymore? For most of us, retirement doesn’t mean stopping. It means finally having the time to do the multitude of things we didn’t have the time or money for when we reported to a job every day. We’ve retired from paid employment, not from life.
My friends over sixty-five see retirement as a beginning, not an ending. The best thing about getting older is being freed from constantly needing approval. We’ve long ago proved ourselves and are no longer restricted by the heavy cloak of self-consciousness. We’ve developed enough self-esteem to laugh at ourselves when we try something new and it all goes awry. Who cares? We’re also not afraid to challenge ourselves. We get out on that ballroom floor; go zip lining; compete in roller dance; volunteer at schools, charity shops, and animal rescues; raise orchids to show; become master gardeners or even AKC judges; train as docents; take classes in everything from writing poetry, learning a new language or making pottery, and we even write novels.
If we’re smart, we’ll also try to make a few friends in the under-forty crowd. If we’re lucky they’ll keep us up-to-date on the latest trends in music, the newest techie issues and devices, or fill us in on what’s it’s like to raise kids in today’s perplexing world. The younger crowd challenges our perceptions and makes us think. Try it. They have a lot to say, and their viewpoints have value.
So, I guess the conclusion to this line of thought is don’t expect to find me on the porch in a rocking chair any time soon. If my message machine kicks in when you call, assume I’m out doing something my mother would have deemed in appropriate for my age. My plan is to, as that old adage goes, end up smiling and totally used up by the time I reach the finish line.
pictures: Two ballroom dancing friends, all of us over sixty-five. Zip-lining with my husband and a cousin twenty-two years younger than me. Maybe lunacy is the word after all.
(Every year the Society of Southwestern Authors sponsors a writing contest for writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The SSA contests are open to non-members, so entries come in from all over the country. This year was the first time they included a category for first-chapter, novel submissions. I think they were a bit overwhelmed when thirty entries hit their mailbox.
Winning entries are published in SSA’s annual publication—The Storyteller; however, only the first page of each first-chapter entry is included in the hard-copy publication (space constraints.) But, thanks to SSA’s wonderful techie types, digital files are now up and running on their website, meaning that the winning chapters can be read in their entirety.
I’m guessing you suspect this is more than an info dump about the SSA contest. Right you are, of course.
Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, fill out the entry form, and pop that sucker in the mailbox, and trust me, every single time a little bit of your heart goes with it. Yup, even though Dancing Between the Beats is still undergoing final revisions, I entered the first chapter, Enter Stage Right, anyway. I entered without expectations, but paid the extra fee to receive written critiques from the judges. Always invaluable in any contest.
So, imagine my surprise when I received an email, not just with critiques attached, but with an invitation to the awards ceremony (yesterday), because my chapter won an Honorable Mention (that means 4th or 5th out of 30). I’ll take it! I’d expected to end up on the “to be shredded pile.” I'm quite pleased. If interested, here’s the link to the full first chapter: (P.S. - May 22. Just FYI, since the contest, the first chapter, particularly the first page, has been revised, and consolidated. Might pop it in to another post. Much better.)
I worried and stressed over having to read an excerpt, but I survived the mike, and if you want to read just the bit I read at the ceremony, you can find that here:
Spring in the Sonoran desert is as fleeting as a meteor streaking across the night sky. For a precious few weeks, we’re treated to sunny temperate days, cool nights, and welcome cloudbursts that bring, if Mother Nature finds us deserving, a glorious show of wildflowers. This is one of our jackpot years. Swathes of lupines, poppies, and globe mallows transform otherwise bland roadsides and stretches of desert into tapestries of vibrant blues and bright yellow-oranges.
In my own backyard stalks of hot pink penstamen stretch skyward, and long stems of globe mallow droop with hot orange flowers. The onset of wildflowers signals backyard gardeners to drop everything and get outside before the window of opportunity closes. I’m part of that group: an unabashed, avid gardener. To be truly candid, I’m probably more of a plant addict. There, I’ve said it. Much like my passion for dogs, I’ve rarely met a plant I’m not interested in getting to know better. For me, there’s nary a difference between a weed and a wildflower. If it blooms, it lives in my garden.
First on the agenda this spring was major pruning. To bushwhack a path to the less invasive, smaller salvias and lantanas, several feet had to come off the flowering, bird of paradise shrubs. Next, the bottlebrush bushes, already beginning to bud, were pruned and opened up. Once their thickening buds bristle open, worker bees will stake their claim. Waiting to prune a bottlebrush until the bees are busy working is a foolish game of gardening Russian roulette.
Maneuvering through my maze of plantings can be challenging, even to me. A jab from the sword-like daggers of a small yucca, playing hide-and-go-seek under an overgrowth of intertwined lantana, drove that point home. Pun intended. Swearing, and moving with more caution, I raked up a winter’s worth of fallen leaves and trimming debris, working carefully around ribbons of irrigation lines. My back told me it wasn’t happy, but my brain appreciates the focus of landscaping and planting. It quiets, and the receptors in my mind relax and open.
The solitude of my garden, the repetitive nature of the work, and the superb listening skills of my plants, give me permission to speak freely. When I’m outdoors and away from human voices, thoughts flow with a clarity that escapes me when sitting at my keyboard, or even when conversing face-to-face. Watching bees diving in and out of mallow blooms gave me an idea for a short piece of fiction. A couple of brilliant phrasings also floated to the forefront, but sadly drifted off like fluff from the milkweed pods. Note to self: tuck a small notebook in shirt pocket and try to keep notes free of garden-soil smears.
The time spent digging and trimming saves me from the therapist’s couch. Lost in the work, I find closure for those unresolved issues that niggle away in the recesses of memory. Trimming around some prickly aloe veras, I imagined in-depth conversation with an ex-close friend. By the time I was done internally expounding, I attacking dead stems with a little too much vigor, and stopped just short of chopping into an irrigation line. Stream of consciousness in the garden, as freeing as it is, might not be the best route to go when working with clippers and shears.
So, until the heat hits and drives me indoors, if your phone call goes to my message machine or your texts go unanswered, assume I’m in the backyard, engaged in plant therapy. Be happy, maybe even relieved. It could be you on the receiving end rather than a geranium.
Maybe it was waking up to an email that another uncle passed away; maybe it was the recent anniversaries of deaths; maybe it was the ring of the phone rousing me from a deep, dream-state, sleep, but whatever the cause, my untethered thoughts spiraled off in this direction:
At this moment, life is on cruise control with very few bumps in the road, but…. It only takes one text, one email, one blood test, one summons to the boss’s office, or one second to freshen lipstick in the rear view mirror, for the light from the sunniest day to get sucked into a black hole. Life can spin us off our axis faster than a hurricane can fell a tree, and every time we retell the story, we’ll say something like, “But the day started out so well. It was just an ordinary day…. I never saw it coming….” Even years later, the disbelief will resonate in our voices.
I don’t know about you, but when my phone rings before 7:00 a.m., my guts contract like I’m being laced into the 18-inch-waist of a Victorian corset. The absolute worst omen of disaster is being blasted from sleep by the shrill sound of the telephone. I don’t react well. I can’t breathe; my heart races; and my mouth dries out like the Sahara Desert at noon. Why? Because too often disaster has struck in the early hours of the morning.
New Year’s Day, many years ago, I awoke to the call that my future husband’s mother passed away in the wee hours of the New Year. Three weeks later, the very day I was to arrange hospice care for my grandmother, an early morning caller urged me to rush to the hospital; my grandmother was near death. A year later on the Fourth of July (my husband was overseas on a business trip), I answered a frantic 4:30 a.m. call from my stepmother. She’d arrived home from a night shift to find my father sprawled on the bathroom floor. He’d died alone. And the story continues—my mother rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, a gut-wrenching betrayal by a close family member, a cancer diagnosis….
Each time my life was diverted off course, I rallied. What other choice is there but to suck it up and do whatever has to be done? But once the heartbreak was handled and the end of the tunnel was in sight, I promised myself and the heavens to begin living more in the moment, appreciate every day, and never take anyone or life itself for granted again. Blah, blah, blah.
I don’t obsess about aging, but I do wonder how many years are left before I hit my expiration date, which triggers thoughts about how I want to spend those years. Milestone birthdays do that to you. My hope was to morph into one of those wild and wacky older women featured on greeting cards. You know the ones—blithe, self-possessed, laughing and kicking-up their heels arm-in-arm with a group of equally, age-defiant, female friends. Sadly, over the past few years, that image shattered like stress cracks in auto glass as, one by one, my longtime friends all moved away. The exodus started out small, and then spread like a starburst as the layers of glass split, leaving me kicking up my heels alone, via emails, Facebook, or text messages.
It’s said that ‘real’ friends go for months without seeing or talking to each other, and then pick up where they left off. I’m not a big believer in that line of thinking. For me it’s the day-to-day stuff that sustains intimate relationships. When friends are out of touch for too long, catching-up is overwhelming, so we condense, skimming over details and leaving out major chunks of the saga of our lives. We fall out of sync, and close friendships drift into the Christmas-card exchange category, and fall out of the sharing-over-coffee, intimate friend category. Maintaining close friendships takes effort and usually proximity. Close friends stay… well…close.
Which brings me to why I’ve been MIA, with no blog posts, for the past two weeks. My best friend is here, visiting from England. Her airline ticket was a birthday gift from my husband. How great is that? To make things even better, her birthday falls a few days after mine.
Background: Jo and I met when we were puppies, in our early thirties, and bonded like cement. She moved home to England in 2001 to take care of her ailing, elderly mother. For eighteen years we’ve lived a continent and an ocean apart, but distance hasn’t dampen our friendship. We chat on the phone, email, and catch-up in person during Jo’s almost annual trips to Arizona.
Everything I’ve learned about how to be a good friend I’ve learned from Jo. She’s a big-picture person, in it for the long haul. Jo can brush things off, balancing a friend’s bad day or miss-speak against the broader picture of their true nature. Since I am prone to irritation and don’t hide it well, I truly need and appreciate a friend who will both cut me slack and slap me upside the head when I need it. She makes me lighten up and laugh—not always an easy task. Jo checks in often, remembers birthdays, prioritizes get-togethers, and celebrates her friends’ successes with honest pleasure. Now, I’m not as good as Jo at any of this. She sets the friendship bar pretty high, but I try my best to follow her example.
Jo has a great generosity of spirit. Before she moved back to England in 2001, she gave her group of girlfriends her “buddy list”, with each person’s contact information. We all knew each other on some level, but our real connection to each other was Jo. The string attached was that we were all to get together often enough to become friends ourselves. And so we did, to the benefit of each one of us, as different as we all are. Now when Jo visits, getting the group together is something we all look forward to. We’ve had some great times.
Six of us in Jo’s circle have birthdays within days of each other (all Aquarians.) You can guess what this means—a major excuse for a party. This visit we pulled five of the six together (and three spouses) for an uproarious, celebratory dinner at a local, cowboy steakhouse. The wine and margaritas were flowing, and laughter was abundant. I’ll insert a picture taken at the beginning of the evening. As the dinner progressed, the rest of pictures are a blur of animation with ladies talking across, around, and at each other, sharing cell phone pictures and toasting everything we could think of.
Wacky, wild, crazy ladies! Thanks to Jo, there might be potential for some heel-kicking-up in my old age after all.
IMAGES: Top left: Just before Jo moved home to London. Top right: As requested, group outing - we made her a poster of this picture. Center bottom: Recent group dinner celebrating five Aquarian birthdays (top left, a friend of Jo's and now ours who moved to AZ from Portland.)
I have a HUGE birthday looming large. One of those this-can’t-be-true numbers. An age you associate with your mother, or maybe even your grandmother. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.
I’m trying to focus on the positives like (1) I’m still alive and semi-kicking, and (2) after this many years on the planet, I’ve finally wised up. And I mean street-smarts. Not the accrual of a lifetime of erudite wisdom, but enough slaps-up-the-side-of-the-head so I finally get it.
Since life doesn’t give you a second chance to Play It Again Sam, I’m at a loss what to do with XX years (can't say it) of life experience. Yes, I can apply what I’ve learned to future challenges and to interactions with people I would rather bitch-slap than treat cordially. I could pass my thoughts on to the younger generation, but chances are good I’ll be met with eyes rolling or the “that was then and this is now” look. Guess what kiddos? The human condition isn’t that unique and the same mistakes are repeated generation after generation, so save yourself some grief and listen up. Here we go:
After weeks and weeks of shoving thoughts of novel revisions aside to prioritize everything and everyone else, I’m finally back in the thick of it—back into serious writing mode. When I dive into the lives of my characters, I’m Alice Through the Looking Glass and the real world slips away behind me. My field of focus goes no farther than the computer screen in front of me and the imagery created by the typed words.
I’m back to drinking cooled coffee and pulling leg warmers on over my jeans because the floor under my desk is the coldest spot in the house. I’ve learned not to take a quick break to put the kettle on for tea unless I am willing to stand in the kitchen and wait for the water to boil. Walking back to my computer, if “only for a minute”, is a recipe for a ruined kettle, which would be the least of it. Something tells me that if I burned the house down, my supportive husband might rethink being so generous about my writing obsession.
I’m at the stage of revision where I’m re-examining how and when characters divulge information to ensure a steady buildup to the big life-changing reveals, and to avoid secrets being disclosed too soon. I’m deepening some of the character’s emotional responses and internal dialogues. Dialogue is being tightened and the manuscript checked and rechecked for consistency in style, capitalization, etc. I’m trying to be methodical about the process so that I move forward in a straight line rather than my usual spiral. I created files: “cut – use elsewhere somewhere”, “deletions and additions”, and “outline” – a synopsis of each chapter, tracking said changes. There’s more, but I can feel your eyes glazing over from here. Bet you’ve guessed that I’m one of those peculiar writing-major types that actually enjoys the editing and revising process.
So instead of rambling on about a process that puts most people into a comatose state, I’m going to insert an excerpt from the novel, just a few paragraphs from Chapter Six.
Background: Paige has only been at DDS for three months. She’s the youngest instructor and is still at the bottom of the learning curve. Paige is also struggling with a mixture of grief and anger after the death of her mother just eighteen months ago. At 24 she’s alone: no mother, no siblings, and no father—a shadowy figure her mother would never talk bout. Paige has come across a worn, frayed folder in a box of her mother’s junk files that has turned her world upside down.
Christmas is packed up. It’s taken three full days to get the house back to normal after the holidays, and it’s been exhausting. As my mother used to say, after the Lord Mayor’s show comes the donkey cart. To put it in contemporary terms—creating Christmas is festive; cleaning up after Christmas, not so much. So, why do I continue to put myself through this? A few friends, who keep holiday madness to a minimum, recently posed the same question.
I can’t use our kids as an excuse. They’re not kids anymore. My son, step-son, and step-daughter are creeping closer to middle age and, being the unconventional souls that they are, they could do without the traditional trappings of Christmas. There are no grandchildren to create Christmas for—no little faces to light up at the sight of the decorated tree, no little hands eager for Christmas cookies, no excited exclamations at the sight of filled Christmas stockings and wrapped gifts. Christmas has changed, but my husband and I haven’t. I should put up a sign: Beware - confirmed Christmas junkies live here.
Even though I moan about how much work it all is, once the house is wearing its happy, Christmas face, I feel a quiet contentment settle in. I begin to crave eggnog and the scent of mince pie baking. And then there’s the tree—I can’t see myself giving up the annual ritual of putting up and trimming a tree. Each ornament carries a special memory, from the miniature ballet shoes my grandmother gave me, to the delicate china tea cup purchased in London. My husband is no better. He plays Christmas music in November, and his collection of outdoor snowmen keeps growing, even though front-yard assembly is becoming a physical challenge.
As I’m shoving boxes onto a high shelf, I wonder if everyone’s right and it’s time to give most of this up? It’s a lot of work, and if no one but us cares about the house being all Christmassy, is there a point? On my last trip down the ladder, with my joints scolding me, I had a light bulb moment. Why do I think I shouldn't bother if I’m decorating only for us?
This line of thought goes way beyond Christmas. This is about being steeped in the ideology that one has to always put others first, and doing something just for your own enjoyment is self-indulgent. But honestly, who's insisting that I/we create a traditional Christmas for them? No one. Which means the doing-for-others philosophy is a smokescreen I’ve been hiding behind. If I were a millennial instead of a baby boomer, I don’t think I’d be having this conversation with myself. I feel like I am peeking out from under a blanket of years of conditioning. All of a sudden, the blanket is more cloying than comforting.
So, I'm tossing aside the mantle of martyrdom and, from now on, I will own my love of Christmas schmaltz with no explanations or justifications given. Our holidays will be exactly as over-the-top or low-key as our elfish, Christmas hearts’ desire. That doesn’t mean you might not hear some very non-Christmassy expletives drifting out our front door as the reality of putting everything up meets the limitations of aging bodies, but once I spike the eggnog, it will all smooth out. Trust me on this one.
Lynn Nicholas - AUTHOR oF Dancing Between The Beats
My blog is a window into my world. My rambling posts tend to be slice-of-life narratives, inspired by