Scattering Hope

It’s not a sexy topic. There’s no guarantee that our efforts will succeed. There’s no easy way of quantifying success. There’s no for certain “cure.” But holy hell, it matters so much.

Suicide prevention.

When supporters of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) tried to hold up signs this month outside of Good Morning America (GMA), they were asked to move out of the camera’s view. They were told, “It’s the top of our morning show. We don’t want suicide on the brain.” Um, hello? Does anyone WANT suicide on the brain?? Deborah Greene wrote a marvelous open letter to GMA on their missed opportunities.

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This is a cause that regular readers of Pamwrites know matters so very much to me. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to create the anthology Done Darkness, about surviving depression.

I’ve never before used this forum to fundraise, but I feel I have to this time. Sunday, I am walking in the Out of the Darkness Milwaukee walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The reasons I walk are many and are perhaps best shown in this essay I read on Lake Effect for WUWM radio last year. It requires about 4 and a half minutes so if you have the time, listen to it here.

And, if you are so moved and able, I would be thrilled, honored and humbled if you might donate to my page at the walk. You can find my page here.

When we plant seeds, we don’t always get to see the results. When we scatter hope, we don’t always get to see the results. But, I believe that our efforts always matter. Somewhere, someone who needs to feel a spark of hope may well be saved by the right word, the kind action, the sympathetic ear. I believe that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention with their efforts to educate and inform is planting seeds and scattering hope. Won’t you help me help them to do so?

Thanks so much for your consideration.

#stopsuicide

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3 Not-so-easy Questions

A recent article in Huffington Post has been staying with me. In We Ask Our Kids the Same 3 Questions Every Night, Meg Conley writes about the three questions her family shares at the dinner table every night. They are meant to keep the communication open, to build family bonds and they also serve to instill family values. While the questions are marvelous for school age children and their parents, I’ve been asking myself them recently. Here they are:

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At first, they felt a little awkward. And, I was alarmed to realize that I might be slipping a lot in that bravery category. I also realized I don’t like to consider where I failed (which, yes, is a failure in itself and speaks to my nature). Here are examples of my recent answers:

How were you brave today?

*I finished and submitted a piece that was emotionally-wrenching.

*I finally signed up for continuing swimming lessons so I can get hopefully get comfortable with lap-swimming.

 

How were you kind today?

*I sent a message to a friend who is grieving the loss of her mother (and who lives across the country from me) that she should try to plan easy meals for herself in the days ahead. I didn’t think of this as a kindness until I got her response and realized it was exactly what she needed to hear.

*I wrote and mailed a sympathy card.

*I held open a door. (Yeah, reaching a bit for that one. Mustn’t have been full of kindness that day.)

 

How did you fail today?

*I missed a deadline on a bill.

*I forgot to log my calorie intake.

*I didn’t make my bed.

 

So, what’s the point? The failing thing I think is especially important and useful for school age children who are so often expected/encouraged to excel. But why shouldn’t we all be acknowledging our mistakes? How else can we grow and learn? I love the other two questions more – about bravery and kindness.  I suspect if I continue to ask myself these questions that those two will rise to the top more frequently. For me, I’ve always wanted kindness to be part of who I am and how I am in the world. NOT that I always am, I don’t mean that, but it is a goal. Courage and bravery are not things I give as much thought to and I like that this question is bringing it to mind more often.

Basically, these three delicious questions provide a simple exercise in attention, mindfulness and when shared with others, growth and unconditional love. What’s better than that?

 

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Igniting Healing Sparks

Yesterday I wrote about being saved by a love letter from Luis Alberto Urrea. I shared a link to Urrea’s podcast, Hymns to the Broken, which he shared at the Tin House Summer Workshop in June, 2016. Toward the end of the podcast, Luis spoke about a moment he had with and old woman, a healer in Mexico. He had been struggling – as many writers do – about his goals, his purpose. He said something to her about wishing he could be a healer too, how envious he was of her gifts. And she set him straight with this:

Writing is part of the medicine process. Writing and art are part of healing. You can remove disease and pain from people with your writing, with your art, with your work, with your literature. If you’re an artist, she said, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel or cooking breakfast for your family. It doesn’t matter if you’re sewing, dancing, painting, singing. If you make your art what’s indoor heart, you ignite a little signal fire. That little signal fire burns in the spirit realm, in the gloom on the other side. She said there are so many people in this world who are broken. There are so many people in this world who are hurt. There are so many people who are wandering lost in that shadow and when you artists make your work, you light that chain of signal fires. They can see them. And the broken might gather to you to warm themselves but sooner or later, they will see the next fire and go to it and the next fire and go to it and they will follow your art until they get home.

So if you are an artist, a writer, an actor, a creative cook, a dancer, a knitter, wherever you pour your heart, in those moments when you question your value, the worth of your work, your purpose, try to remember that art can heal. We can’t always know if we’ve touched someone, but on those rare occasions when we do, our hearts smile.

I’ve been lucky to have had more than a few occasions when I’ve learned that my writing touched someone. When I delivered a eulogy at my step-father’s funeral, Bob Schmidt, RIP, I wrote and spoke about how I’d tried to keep him at a distance, how I hadn’t wanted to love him, feeling it somehow dishonored my father’s memory. I wrote about how his patience and kindness drew me in in time. I heard from a friend of my sister’s who was in the congregation to learn that my words were what she’d needed to hear to bridge a family divide. My audio essay about gymnastics without Olympic gold and without regrets, despite arthritis, brought me many comments and thanks. My other audio essays also each lead to feedback that my words had touched someone. Those essays all aired on our local WI Public Radio affiliate, and are each less than five minutes. If you’re interested they are here:

Fighting the Backbeat – about depression and considering suicide

My Legacy Won’t Be Whitewashed – white privilege and ignorance (my own)

The End of Pinktober – a breast cancer survivor’s take on the pinking of breast cancer

The comments I got about Fighting the Backbeat lead to my desire to create the anthology Done Darkness, about surviving depression. By far that book has had the greatest impact in terms of feedback. I am blessed to know that the people who find the book, find a tribe, feel less alone — that’s exactly what I wished for.

And if you’re a writer, like me, remember how lucky you are to have found this often-fraught path. Remember, we’ve got the chocolate!

Adobe Spark

 

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Saved by a Love Letter from Luis Urrea

I’ve never been a chronic insomniac, but apparently, I’m joining the club. The hours dragged last night, again, until the last watch-check at 3:40 a.m. Sleeplessness puts me in a fuzzy state. I’m not awake enough to write. I can read, sometimes, but that doesn’t often put me to sleep. I lie awake, aware of aches and pains, listening to a soundtrack of summer raindrops or a guided meditation for sleep —  but sometimes those don’t work. Last night, my head wasn’t buzzing with worries that I could name or grab hold of, though it has been a time of uncertainty. A time of needing to acknowledge, again, that I have lived more days than I have before me, as have many of my dear ones.

I am 56. Given my wacky immune system, I am not likely to “put down old bones” as I once heard my penpal’s sister say. I had a health scare over the weekend – a wonky mammogram required another and I’d made the foolish mistake of scheduling a mammogram on a Friday. Since I’m a breast cancer survivor and this wonky one was on the other side, suffice it to say, the worry train rumbled all weekend long. I am fine. The all clear was given.

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My health is a-okay but my inlaws and my friends’ parents are falling, dying, suffering with aches, pains and moves they don’t want to make.

I worked my writer’s butt off on an essay that was hard for me — emotionally-wrenching. It’s about my biological grandmother and her awful life. She was sent to a mental hospital, Pilgrim State on Long Island, in the late 1940’s — the heyday of lobotomies in the U.S. You get the idea. I have been open, and will always be open, about my depression struggles and this essay opened up wounds.

I was feeling disconnected from myself and my work this morning. I couldn’t focus. I was wondering about my need to put myself through creating that essay. I was berating myself for not working harder to promote Done Darkness, which I believe serves a real purpose. I was fuming for leaving my novel editing to sit for an entire week as I agonized through the essay. Suffice it to say, I was falling into writer hell. Why do I do this? (I already know the answer. Because I can’t not do it.) Who cares? Does it really matter?

I stumbled across a post from Tin House, sharing a podcast from Luis Alberto Urrea. I was blessed to study with Luis in Aspen one summer and wrote about it here.

Whether you believe in a Force, a God, a Higher Power or not, you have likely had moments of synchronicity which you may think of as lucky coincidence. I think of them as God-winks and for me, listening to the podcast this morning was a God wink. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I listened to it as I did some things in my home that needed doing – dishes, laundry.

His address, Hymns to the Broken, is powerful. It speaks to all people, but especially those of us with creative drives.  He talks about shame and how it can kill our drive. “Shame is the enemy.” “Shame, they teach it to you.”

What follows is a list of comments from his essay that resonated for me, but please, please find the time to listen to the whole thing. It runs a little under 40 minutes. Be lifted and loved, listen and learn from the thoughts of Luis Alberto Urrea:

“Manhood? Give me a break. I am the definition of manhood, my version. Y’all are your version of manhood and womanhood. That’s it. There is no blueprint. We make it ourselves. Why do we write? We’re helping other people figure out their blueprints.”

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And for me, today, that’s the reminder I needed. My essay was a love letter to my biological grandmother. I wrote it, I’ve submitted it, perhaps it will be accepted, published and may touch other readers.

Tomorrow, more on Luis’s podcast related to writing and healing.

 

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Wherever Your Feet May Take You

I’m thrilled to have an essay with my photos up at Queen Mobs Teahouse. Special thanks go to co-founder of Queen Mobs and founding editor of Berfrois, Russell Bennetts. I hope you’ll click over at  Chamonix: A Daily Pilgrimage and enjoy (and leave comments there, please 🙂 )

Love and thanks again to all my Mont Blanc Writing Workshop friends and teachers — with special hugs to the man, Alan Heathcock, teacher extraordinaire.

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Climb Every F***ing Mountain!

It was time for a new look for PamWrites. For five years, I’d opened up the blog to that line drawing caricature of me and didn’t appreciate the frumpy me. At first, I loved that one. I loved the artwork, the fact that one of my favorite artists drew it, but I wanted the caricature me to be thinner and happier. 🙂 I chose the new header picture above because, well, because I love it. For a time, it was my profile picture on Facebook. A writer friend from Red Oak Writing, Joel Habush commented on it with, “This should be the profile picture you always go back to. It says so much about you.”

And I gave that some thought and decided that he was right. In that shot, I am at the top of an alp in Chamonix, France,  which I would climb down not long after that pic was taken. Last year in Chamonix, I had a torn meniscus and there was not much hiking of any kind going on. This year, lots of writing, lots of hiking, lots of metaphorical spinning and singing, “The hills are alive…” So, what does the picture say about me? I hope it says I aim high, I try to be optimistic and smiling, I reach out and I love this life!

On another day in Chamonix, with a friend from my group at the Mont Blanc Writing workshop, I took a lift up to Aiguille du Midi. Here’s the midpoint stop up to the top:

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And the market in town on another day…..   June in France, in Chamonix, is a slice of heaven on planet Earth for me.

 

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Mid-August re-awakens my inner teacher and will find me back at PamWrites more often, I’m sure. I’ve missed being here and hope you may have missed these thoughts occasionally too. Hope your summer has had its share of smiles and relaxation, among all the must-do s of this life. Did you happen to have a photo taken of yourself that is undeniably “you”?? 🙂 Hope so.

Cheers and here’s hoping for a good day for you and yours.

 

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Hope Matters

Hope matters. It should not be confused with optimism, though they are siblings.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, dissident and later beloved statesman, was born in a time and place where it would have been easy to choose hopelessness, but he never did. In his essay, “Never Hope Against Hope,” (note the essay in Esquire originally appeared in 1993, this link is taking you to its reprinting in 2011) Havel wrote, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Vaclav Havel being remembered. From our visit to Prague in 2015.

Spring, by its very being, can fill us with hope. As I type this, tear-shaped petals of many shades of pink float on the breezes. They almost seem to giggle on their way down, so those tear-shapes belong with happy tears, not sad ones. Havel believed, as I do, that “Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.”

Havel, a beloved Czech playwright who became the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic, wrote in that same essay about absurdities we can face in our lives. Indeed, he describes an accident, a night two months before he became President, when he was walking a drunk friend home. “In this total darkness, though completely sober, I suddenly fell into a black hole surrounded by a cement wall. The fact is, I had fallen into a sewer, into what can only be called, you’ll excuse me, shit.” It’s a vivid scene and I recommend reading the whole essay.

I have written before about hope. My personal favorite is from spring, two years ago, Scaffolding & Hope. But there are more:  Choosing Hope, a guest post from Jeanette Michalets, I Feather My Nest with Hope, Contentment & Perspectacles.

Is it any wonder then that my first book published, Done Darkness, is really about finding hope? Yes, it’s an anthology about living with depression, but more than anything, it is about hope, about seeking hope and light, even in the pits. (Or the sewer as Havel had to.) It has done my heart good to read the reviews on Amazon as readers find this book and leave their thoughts. (Shameless plea — if you’ve read the book and found meaning, hope or something that connects for you or a dear one, could you please, please leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads? Those reviews help other readers find the book – help us spread hope.) As I wrote earlier this year, Kathy Lanzarotti (my co-editor) and I often said we wished we could have made “Carry On,” by Fun, our book’s theme song. One verse in particular always speaks to me:

‘Cause here we are
We are shining stars
We are invincible
We are who we are
On our darkest day
When we’re miles away
Sun will come
We will find our way home

We have a wedding in our family next week. In the life of families in our era of living so separately, weddings seem to be the last remaining time to get-together to share in the celebration of love and hope. My older son, the groom, asked me years and years ago, “Do you have to find meaning in everything?” That was when this blog was called Finding Meaning With Words. Yes, I said. Yes, I do.

And apparently, so did Vaclav Havel, “…life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”

 

 

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Fearing a New Label: Mother-in-Law

My son’s wedding approaches quickly. But first, comes Mother’s Day, my last without having the title “mother-in-law” as one of my labels. We’ve all grown up hearing bad mother-in-law jokes. Even Pope Francis has shared his views:

 

Yes, il Papa, we’re all familiar with the meddling mother-in-law stereotype. It is a great fear of mine, not as great as dying in pain, but close.

Fortunately, my life experience has taught me differently than the overbearing stereotype. My father’s mother, my Grandma Parker, had a great relationship with my mother. She lived with us for many years and somehow, was able to maintain that strong relationship when surely living together would be the ripest situation for stress.

My own mother-in-law is an angel. I don’t see her often enough, but she has been a constant support for me in the three plus decades we’ve been joined as family. She is quite frail now, in her nineties. I hate thinking about the inevitable. Here we are together in Florida a few years ago, before my hair got younger and before she needed a walker constantly:

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I want to be a mother-in-law who brings smiles, not angst or fears or worst, stress in the marriage.

My future daughter-in-law has been part of my son’s life for almost ten years, since their first autumn together at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. When they first met, I was still trying to break from being an ever-present mom who offered her thoughts and opinions too much, to more of a friend, a shoulder and consultant rather than a micro-manager. It wasn’t an easy change for me. I suspect her own mother did a better job of this than I did, before and after college.

I also am wired for a strong, strong need for a close family connection, so when my son left for Carleton, I spent at least a week feeling like I was in mourning. And I was. I understood that our family would never again be like it had been. While this is a good and important life step, it crushed me for a time. It didn’t help that his comedian little brother in his attempts to make me laugh would say, “He’s gone. He’s gone and he’s never coming back.” I didn’t believe him, but he was almost right.

Too late this past week, I thought of a small present I could make for my future daughter-in-law for the wedding. And then, I remembered that this dear couple has requested no presents, rather charitable donations if folks are so inclined. Giving them – or her – a present would simply be giving in to my needs and not respecting theirs. So, I could take the frantic worrying away about making the present and maybe put it off until her birthday or Christmas, but I will share the thought here in case others have time/interest in doing this for future sons or daughters-in-law.

My hope is to make her a small photo book called Before You Loved Him, showing and quoting the boy, teen and young man he was before their paths crossed. She will know him most closely for his life from age eighteen onward, but I knew and loved him before then. I want her to know as much as she can about his inner child, the one I sometimes see in my thoughts and memories. I want her to know that while I was praying for the right woman to come along to be his life partner, I was doing my best to raise him to become a good man. I know there are plenty of mistakes I made – what parent hasn’t? But I did my best. I want her to know I will do my best to be a mother-in-law who won’t have to be the butt of jokes, but one she can grow to love as much as I love mine.

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A Special Place: Memories & More

I adore a line from Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home.”

Writers live with a keen awareness of memories. (For writers, see an old post on Mining Memories.) We sift through memories in creating our work — poetry, essays, short stories, novels, whatever — something from our past experience plays a role in every creation. For me, memories of place often bubble up in my writing. Particularly memories of childhood places. My stories tend to land in rural New England, the place where my good and strong childhood memories were created. In fact, though I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Midwest, I’ve also wasted a lot of mental energy mourning New England. I hated the whole “bloom where you’re planted” platitudes. The comparison Wisconsinites make of Door County to Cape Cod made me guffaw. The bump Midwesterners called a mountain five hours from Milwaukee in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was the same size as a hill twenty minutes from my childhood home in Massachusetts. A two hour drive to Vermont meant arriving at a real mountain with good skiing.

Yes, I got stuck in comparing instead of experiencing. Never a wise move. I’ll defend myself by saying I was twenty-three when we moved to Wisconsin — and — hardly anyone in my extended family had left New England. Many hadn’t even moved from the town I grew up in. Instead of diving in and exploring my new home, I spent most of my vacations back at my old stomping grounds. Summers always meant a trip to Cape Cod when my kids were little so they would have time with their cousins. I didn’t explore much of Wisconsin until having lived in the state for twenty-five years. Cancer and radiation treatment meant I couldn’t wander far in the summer of 2008, so my husband and I explored Wisconsin during weekends that summer. I recognized, finally, that my longing for New England had been a hindrance to appreciating where I was.

Lately, I’ve had to think about my appreciation of and longing for another place. The Marian Center in Bayview, WI has been a special place in my life. For me, its magic has been all about writing, but for others, it holds memories of school days, of contemplating entering the convent. About twenty years ago I brought my son, then in second grade, to a summer writer’s camp there offered by Judy Bridges at Redbird Studio. Judy saved his summer. The magical sense of possibility and creativity pulled at me. I recalled a Gertrude Stein line, “This is the place of places and it is here.” Someday, I thought. Someday I want to come here and learn more about writing.

My son’s sixth grade reader/writer workshop class returned to Judy’s studio at the Marian Center and again I thought, someday. Two years later, my someday came. I hiked up the stairs to Judy’s Shut Up! & Write! Class. I didn’t know how the shape of my life would change. I didn’t know how important Judy and my fellow classmates, especially Kim Suhr and Kathy Lanzarotti would become in the coming years.

Writing, and finally owning the label “writer,” has been for me an awakening. A grand journey in paying attention. In the Marian Center’s walls, my eyes opened to the writer’s sensibilities. I had always been someone who paid attention to details, who recalled specific snippets of interesting conversations, who cared about reading body language. Suddenly these things (oddities to some) had a place. I had a place. I had found my tribe.

In time, Judy handed the reins for regular roundtables to Kim Suhr and Red Oak Writing. For years, with Kim and

Walking through the grape arbor at the Marian Center during kids' summer writing camp.

Walking through the grape arbor at the Marian Center during kids’ summer writing camp.

For years, with Kim and Robert Vaughan, I taught at the Red Oak Young Writers camps — many of which were held at the Marian Center. Some of my fondest memories – for all time – are tied to those camps. It is a beautiful joy to watch a young person take the steps from the hot rush of creating, to the sometimes cold hard truth of editing and arrive at a place where the writing sings. But, while we loved the campus, the lack of air conditioning and accessibility proved to be problematic. The camp has been using new — and equally wonderful — accommodations in recent  years.

My tribe is leaving the Marian Center because its Center for Nonprofits is closing in July, 2016. Official word has not come out about the plans for the Center, but I hope the old building will be preserved as much as possible, while being renovated to become handicapped accessible and then, maybe it could become condominiums? Who knows. Not me.

I hope my fellow writers won’t waste time mourning the Marian Center. Let’s rejoice in the gifts we’ve received there — but remember that those gifts truly are from the other members of the tribe — not from the floors, the walls, the bricks & mortar. Not even from the gazebo outside, or the grape arbor or the walk to the old cemetery.

The photo below is from our last writer’s showcase recently at the Marion Center. It was a beautiful night, food, fun, friends and fantastic readings.

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Left to right above are writers whose work you may know of, or, may want to keep your eyes on: Lisa Rivero, Aleta Chossek, Judy Bridges, Carolyn Toms-Neary, Jennifer Rupp, Kim Suhr, Robert Vaughan, Marjorie Pagel, Carol Wobig and me, Pam Parker.

Judy Bridges always loved circular stories, so I return to paraphrase the Dostoyevsky quote I began with. “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of finding your place, your tribe.”

Update from Kim Suhr:

The Search Is Over!

Last fall when I learned the Marian Center will close on July 1, I set three priorities for our new space. It needed to…
…be fully accessible,
…have ample parking,
…be “all ours.”
I also secretly (or not so secretly) hoped to find something a little closer to my home to shave a few miles off my 60-mi. roundtrip commute.

I’m thrilled to report we have a place that meets our needs. The new studio will be in the education wing of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church at 11709 W Cleveland in West Allis, just west of Hwy. 100.

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