I’ve been stressed, overwhelmed and slightly (not clinically) depressed this last year. Life is overwhelming for us all right now with covid, toxic politics, finances and our daily lives—there’s no arguing that. And for me, add to those stressors my mother’s dementia and now her LONG goodbye. The doctor sent her home over a month ago, telling us death was imminent. I’ve been in emotional stasis, sleeplessness, stomach issues and overall just feeling CRAPPY in the face of her slow demise and my helplessness. Crappy. We think that now it will be only days until mom says her final farewell… Days…. Grieve, heavy as cement has anchored in my lungs.
So, what does this have to do with writing? Just this; sometimes life gets in the way of your writing goals. PERIOD. It’s life (and death) and you can’t beat yourself up (that’s me reminding myself to stop beating myself up)…sometimes you, I, just can’t focus on ANYTHING but what’s in front of me, and that takes ALL my energy. Lately, I’d forgotten why my writing mattered, why I did it, and if I should continue or just move on to something else, like that retirement I’m supposed to be enjoying.
But sometimes the universe gives me a gentle reminder of why I write. This morning I woke to an e-mail from a publisher for whom I wrote and narrated a Seattle TOP 25 Coffee Shops App (still available on iTunes) because he wanted to verify my payment address. When I verified the address for a check I get every 24 months (all based on iTunes sales) I remembered how much fun it was to put all my favorite #writing #coffeeshops and hangouts throughout Seattle, into this app. It reminded me how I love to explore, #write about what I learn, and then learn something new, like creating an app. And it reminded me that in creating that app, or teaching a class, or submitting my novels and short stories for publication, that sometimes, once in purple moon, the universe responds. Thanks universe. I needed that gentle reminder.
So, if you’re going through a tough time, go through it, you cant go around it. Then, when you’re ready, your writing will be there, your stories will be waiting. When you return to them, a little more broken, a little more empathetic, you will bring that to your work and it will be the better for it. That’s a round-about way of saying, all of life is material. Don’t give up, just be kind and patient with yourself. Your writing will wait for you.
“Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.”―
A Sense of Home
My childhood homes were many, chaos filled and transitory. My mother’s wanderlust disrupted life whenever we found a place to call home. I attended too many schools to remember, learned to disconnect from friends with ease, finally making no friends, because within that ‘ease’ was heartbreak every time I had to say goodbye. Those goodbyes generally occurred every year. That was the timeline: one year. Then mom got itchy feet, sold everything she owned, and move on to a new life, believing the grass is always greener somewhere else. It never was.
These days I jokingly call her the merchant of chaos, but that appellation is a thin veil masking the pain, abandonment and shattered reality of what should have been a refuge. Because of her, the concept of ‘home’ was alien to me; what is home? What and who should be in it?
I recall vividly, when I was ten years old, returning from school one day to a garage sale on the front lawn, all our furniture being sold, my bedroom set included. I loved that bedroom set with a French provincial white four poster bed and matching vanity. It was mine. How could she sell it?
That day, my bedroom furniture went off with an old woman. The red tail lights of her truck at the corner of Stanton Street, blinked, then turned onto 35th and disappeared. A deep root of resentment set in my bones that day. I knew with the fading of those tail lights we would soon move, leave our house, school, friends and start over, again.
Over the next three years my parent’s fights grew to legendary proportions; arrests, house fires, crashed cars, broken bones, or them disappearing for days on end, leaving me to tend my three younger brothers. I learned home was not a safe place, not a place where I could get attached to anything, or trust those whom I should have been able to trust the most. And though they loved us, my brothers and me, we were forgotten in their war. Dad slipped into alcoholism and mom, her bizarre gypsy ways, including, but not limited to giving things away with no regard for what was paid for those things or what they meant to the holder. Twice we ended up in a house with no furniture. Dad would buy new, she’d get mad and sell it all again. Dad finally disappeared with the last furniture sale.
I left ‘home’ at thirteen, then moved back because I had nowhere to go. At sixteen I left again, for good. I couch-surfed, lived in a car, a church basement and was blessed by a cousin who took me in.
It took forty years of roaming humanity’s desert to finally find a safe place to call home. Now, I have one with gardens, water view and a loving husband who swears (after our last move) we will never move again–music to my ears. We lived in our last house over a decade and we will stay in this one till we’re too old to go up the stairs, then it’s a condo, we’ve decided. I thrive in the normalcy of his steadfast plans. I’ve learned home is more than a house that can be sold, left and abandoned, it’s who is in that house that makes it a sanctuary. Home is no longer an alien concept to me. Home is my unwavering husband, no matter where we live.
My wander-lusting ‘merchant of chaos’ mother resents my normalcy and mocks me with her teen-angst voice whenever we argue. We argue a lot. Thankfully I’ve come to understand she is not a well person. She is an eternally rebellious and trapped teenager who wants to leave home, and I am the parent. To her any belongings, children, husbands or homes are shackles and must be banished, escaped and left behind.
For example, last year after we moved her into a fairly posh retirement residence, they had a Halloween dance at a neighboring rec-center. After not speaking to me for a week because I left her in a ‘home’, she called and asked if I’d drive her to the party. When I arrived she descended the stairs slowly so I could take in the full view of her costume; a black and white striped prison uniform with a chain belt.
She got into my car without a word, sat smiling and looking forward, her point made.
I shook my head, started the engine and said, “Do we need to stop somewhere to pick up a ball and chain?”
Now, that one year mark has hit. She’s serving her sentence in the ‘home’ but is planning an escape. She has one friend left who can drive (during the day) and they think they’re going on a road trip, you know to where that grass is greener, and apparently where men have hair and teeth. They are in their eighties and need naps about every two hours. I don’t think they’ll get far, I think that hair and teeth will be fake, and I know the grass won’t be greener.
We have told her if she tries to leave this safe haven we will never help her find one again. She knows we mean it this time. And though she has these little rebellions, I don’t think she will actually leave the retirement center where they feed, medicate, entertain and allow her the freedom to come and go with no strings. I think she’s finally grown up enough to recognize the need for a home.
Our mother, regardless of antics loves us deeply in her own dysfunctional way, and in that love is our sense of humor, humility, and yes, finally a sense of familial home.
We all land on one side or the other of the ‘flight or fight’ issue. And anyone who knows me will likely say I’m a fighter. And anyone who knows my mom will tell you she’s a flighter. It’s been a long standing joke in the family, ‘Mom’s on walk about’ always meant she may be gone for a day or two, or a year. We, my three brothers and me, grew up knowing she may disappear at any point, so we took care of ourselves. I think I became that fighter because someone had to stay and take care of things.
When she was 80 years old I had to take her driving privileges (keys and car) away before she crashed THROUGH another Arby’s drive through window, or hurt herself or someone else. Mom has always been active and on the go, so ending that part of her life was difficult and sad, no more garage sales, no more Value Village and no more senior breakfast specials at Denny’s or their dueling rivalry, Shari’s Restaurant, and no more ‘flight’ capabilities. I wasn’t sure how she’d handle not being able to escape.
Soon it was evident that living on her own was no longer a healthy situation: despite her youthful face and attitude, mom has never liked vegetables or exercise and so was in poor health for a modern day 80 year old. We soon found a retirement home in her area. My brothers and I hoped that the retirement center would provide ample activities to keep her socially, mentally and physically active, like in high school. After all, she always said her happiest time in life was high school: of course, as her child that’s gratifying, ‘thanks mom’.
And though mom spoke of the other residents as if they were old people and she couldn’t figure out why she had to live with them, at first it seemed like it might work out. At least the socially active part kept her fully engaged. And by fully engaged I mean that she and her new cohorts in the ‘home’ became like any high school’s gaggle of mean girls. And in her early 1950s high school, my mom – a beauty queen, entertainer and one of the prettiest girls in school, sadly, was a leader of one of those toxic packs of mean girls. So mom finally returned to her youth, her happiest time; gossiping, mocking and making fun of some of the other (80 plus year old) girls. This regression was unexpected (though not surprising) and sorely disappointing – proof that even old leopards do not change their spots. Obviously, who we truly are is revealed in stressful situations, and apparently times of boredom.
I soon realized that much of their gossipy activity was due (not entirely) but largely to monotony. The home she was in did not manage a lively activities calendar, which I have since learned is critical to a retirement community. This means that there was very little outside stimulation or visiting entertainment, so mom and her cronies created their own. And left to their own diminishing devices meant mom FREQUENTLY asked me to come in and read from my novel or do a talk on travel to Europe with my ‘fancy gadgets’ – her words to describe my laptop and Power Point. She’s always been proud of me, so, I did do presentations, talks and even sat in on a few of their ‘happy hours’ with them.
Mom called their happy hours the ‘dark times’ due to the substandard music and or other entertainment during their oft-failed attempt at one scanty hour of happiness per week.
I always brought a good bottle of wine and we smuggled it in so we could have a decent glass of wine instead of the boxed mystery elixir they served. Mom often invited her closest friend to sit with us, a one-time (and lifelong) airline stewardess who still dressed the part; small silk neck scarves from Paris tied in a perfect knot at the side of her neck, trinket jewelry from Asia, and sweaters and vests made in Ireland, red lipstick and short bleached blonde hair. She was 90, never married, always a beauty who traveled the world and who somehow landed in this home with no one to visit her and restricted to traveling with her walker only as far as the front lobby. The only thing that truly bonded these two women was their fading beauty, their tendency to be mean girls and their STRONG desire to escape the place, the age, and the circumstances where they now found themselves – like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole – shocked and surprised at their surroundings, wondering, how did this happen?
I’m confident that if either of them could still drive we would have had a Thelma and Louise state of affairs.
Things were copasetic for about three years, and during those years my brother who lives in Portland handled a great deal of what it takes to manage her healthcare and weekly shopping trips, and I handled the rest from here in Seattle. It took years and a great deal of paperwork and financing, but we finally had her set up where she was safe, had a nice place to live, meals, meds, personal care aids, and lots of caretakers on duty 24-7.
Still, mom constantly complained about everything in the home, begging me to come down (from Seattle to Portland) to entertain her friends, and constantly tried to find ways to bust out of the place, the ‘big house’ she called it. One year, after we had argued on the phone about her moving out on her own; which would have meant no one to cook for her, check her insulin, give her the correct amount of her meds, and no alert button to press if she fell, I agreed to drive down and take her to a local Halloween party at a neighboring retirement home. When I arrived, she came down to the lobby of her building dressed as a prison inmate (black stipes, hat and a chain around her ankle). Ever the actress, and always one to make a theatrical point.
That day I realized she never has been and never NEVER will be happy, so I’d settle for keeping her safe. My mother makes most people feel helpless because she is never happy or satisfied. Trying to please someone who will never be pleased is exhausting, and helplessness is soul sucking, so I stopped trying to make her happy. But safe, safe I can live with.
Anyway, during the last two years her stewardess friend grew weaker and weaker, no longer able to even travel from her room down the long hallway to mom’s apartment. Then two of mom’s other friends died, which is not uncommon in a home for the elderly, but remember, in mom’s mind she was still an imprisoned teenager trying to find a way out.
But then the stewardess died. Mom went silent for several weeks. Barely any conversation at all, not even complaining, which had me worried. But I should have known better, after all, mom’s a runner.
All of a sudden, I got a call from my two brothers who live in a small town on the Oregon Coast. Mom had somehow convinced them she should live in their house and that she could take care of herself, it would be no big deal. She swore them to secrecy, and covertly made all the arrangements to break out of the big house. Those two unsuspecting (ever culpable) brothers had never been involved in all the doctors’ appointments, and overall healthcare mom required, like my other brother and I had been. So now they have their hands full and because they went along with her secrecy, I wish them well. I can’t help them, but I wish them well.
As I said, mom’s a runner. Not a fighter, but a flighter. The death of her comrade in mean girl affairs stunned mom’s teenage sensibilities to her core, disturbed her naïve sense of mortality. When her friend took her final journey from this world, mom absolutely could not comprehend what was happening – Alice lost in (what’s the opposite of Wonderland?) anyway, mom’s flight reaction has always told her to run. And run she has. But this time there’s no running from old age. You have to befriend aging, I always told her, eat your vegetables, take your walks, work out, laugh, enjoy life, don’t resent it, and treat others as you would like to be treated, and so on. And though this is not and never will be mom’s credo, it is mine, and for that I owe her a debt of gratitude for always showing me what not to do. She’s a great life guide.
As a writer I always observe others, trying to figure out why they do, say or act the way they do. It’s all material, right? I’ve formed most of my theories on life based on how to not be like my mom in most ways. Don’t get me wrong, she is loving to her children, and as far as I know has never killed anyone (I feel the strongest urge to type ‘yet’ right here, but I won’t.)
Anyway, additionally I learned three life lessons from mom’s retirement home experience; people do not change their spots as they age, and people who live in those homes can get bored, and that I can do something to help them – because when you help someone else it assuages your (eternal) sense of helplessness.
I can’t do anything for my mom who is already calling my other brother begging him to rescue her, but I can be a little comfort to others. I volunteer at local retirement homes to read to residents, talk about my book, or the history that went into the back story, or talk about being a cancer survivor, or my travels, or even gardening, whatever else I can do to alleviate their boredom for one afternoon.
When I did a presentation about my novel last week at a local retirement home there were three Korean War veterans in the audience, which is rare. One man patted my hand as I left and thanked me for writing about the Korean War. He had tears in his eyes. He said that while listening to me talk about my protagonist (a Korean War Hero) he felt like a young man again, a soldier, he recalled the beauty of the Korean countryside. He said that part of him had been asleep for a good long time, and said thank you for waking him up and reminding him of things long forgotten. He warmed my heart and confirmed for me that just visiting with people can make all the difference on the world.
There’s nothing I can do to change my mom’s experience with aging, but I can add a little happiness to the dark times others may be experiencing on their final journeys. That much I know for sure.
In addition to the Objects class I will be teaching at Edmond’s Community College this fall I will also facilitate the eight week course, Writer’s Craft Part II this year from September 21st through November 9th. I’m excited to teach this class as it encompasses everything from the Hero’s Journey to crafting that perfect first sentence. This eight week class is for all skill levels and all storytelling genres; memoir, fiction, non-fiction, short story, and screenplay. Bring your WIP (work in progress) or get inspired in class to start a new writing project. Lots of writing time, lots of critiquing, lots of creativity.
Class time structure (each week); Q & A and writing time based on individual student’s projects as seen through the lens of class material. For example, applying the Hero’s Journey or unique plot devices, developing voice, etc., to their story in progress, or the beginning of one, regardless of genre or skill level. If students want critique, there will be a workshopping schedule set for maximum 10 pages each. Weekly recommended resources and handouts.
Brief sample of class schedule:
9/21 Week One – Every Story Begins With a Journey
Identifying and finding your HERO’S JOURNEY
9/ 28 Week Two – Page One
FIRST LINES First sentences, of course, have different functions—to amuse, to frighten, to mystify—and the mechanics a writer uses to achieve this connection vary from genre to genre. We’ll do an exploration of great first lines and how knowing the hero’s journey empowers a writer to pen that first line of the journey to follow.
10/ 5 Week Three – Plot Devices (see previous post)
10/12 Week Four — Individual Writing & Open Mic Night
Focus on Student Writing – critiquing/workshopping exchange, and open mic night.
10/19 Week Five – The most dreaded word in writing, EDITING
10/26 Week Six – WHY OUTLINING MATTERS (regardless of genre)
The basics of genre; memoir, romance, mystery, thriller, horror, etc.. Also, short story, flash fiction, screenwriting…outlining matters. Outlining your novel (short story or memoir) or flying by the seat of your pants (called pantsers), and why it matters. 10 steps to follow in outlining.
11/2 Week Seven – Critique Night
11/9 Week Eight – WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED
Sign up HERE
|NEW! The Writer’s Craft Part II|
|Item: C522||Mindy Halleck|
|6:30 PM – 8:30 PM||Location: Snoqualmie Hall 205|
|Sessions: 8 Th||20000 68th Ave W Lynnwood, WA 98036|
|9/21/2017 – 11/9/2017||Fee: $175.00|