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 🙂 )
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:
And the market in town on another day….. June in France, in Chamonix, is a slice of heaven on planet Earth for me.
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.
I have a post up over at Done Darkness which is in keeping with my recent posts here about hope. Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech at UC Berkeley provides great advice on surviving adversity. You can read the post here.
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.”
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.”
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:
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.
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
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.
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…
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.
Jackie Mitchard was a known quantity to many readers before her book, The Deep End of the Ocean, was selected as the first book in Oprah Winfrey’s famous book club. Longtime Wisconsin residents will remember her essays in the Milwaukee Sentinel, before it merged with the Milwaukee Journal. Since then, Mitchard’s life has taken as many twists and turns as the family in Deep End. She openly shared with her readers the death of her first husband, the growth of her mixed race family, her second marriage and second financial catastrophe, her move from Wisconsin to Cape Cod. She is touring now for her latest book, Two If By Sea. I have not read it yet, but look forward to doing so. A recent review by Diana Andro in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram says:
Bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean) balances love and loss in her new novel, Two If By Sea. It is a sweet story of one man’s road to recovery and the challenges he faces to protect the people he loves.
The saga follows American Frank Mercy from a tragic and terrifying Christmas Eve tsunami in Australia to his family’s aging Midwestern horse farm and finishes in a quaint, perfect English village straight out of a Bronte novel. (Entire review)
From this review and others, we learn that the sweeping novel involves loss and redemption, but with an unexpected (at least in my experience with Mitchard’s works) element of supernatural/magical forces. A young boy named Ian will enter into Frank Mercy’s life, along with a new love interest, Claudia, and we’ll have to see what happens with that trio.
Mitchard will be in Milwaukee, WI on Sunday, March 20th at Boswell Books and in Madison, WI on Monday, March 21st at the Madison Public Library. Later in the month, she’ll bring Two If By Sea to Wellesley and Brewster, MA, Atlanta, GA, Dallas, TX, and Coral Gables, FL. Many more locations are slated for April. Check her exhausting schedule here and see if she will be in your neck of the woods!
Despite this schedule, Mitchard graciously agreed to answering some questions about the book, her life, friends, etc. She even agreed to write a brief comment to her twenty-five year old self! I didn’t dwell on writing-specific questions for my readers who are more interested in general topics, but naturally, there’s a sprinkling of writer comments. A writer doesn’t e-chat with another writer and completely avoid the passion of our lives. 🙂 Enjoy!
- The main character’s name in Two If By Sea, Frank Mercy, is a great name! Did that one come to you easily or was he renamed many times? Any challenges with any of the names in the book?
He was always Frank Mercy. His name came to me before the story. And yes, it wasn’t until I’d messed around with the plot that I really “got” the name, that it meant, if you will, “genuine compassion” and that Ian meant “gift from God.” Those names were always there — before the flood, if you can pardon the joke. ((Note from Pamwrites – I love that the name came before the story. That happens to me often too. The flood joke refers to the critical tsunami event.))
- A Goodreads reviewer says, “…one of her major strengths is writing families in crisis, and that is very evident here.” Did you ever consider “writing families in crisis” to be one of your strengths? 🙂
Well, I do, of course, because I think of families as bewitching, and every unhappy one is unhappy in its own way (I just made that up, of course!) Families are our harbor, our harbinger, our horror, our haven. When you put ordinary people under duress, they begin to reveal their truest selves. In life, that’s just awful. In fiction, it’s interesting.
- You have lived in two of my favorite places – Wisconsin and Cape Cod. I grew up in western Massachusetts and vacation often on Cape Cod in Eastham. While there are similarities in climate in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, I have noted a number of differences in the people. I wonder if you have and what your thoughts about any differences and similarities might be?
Well, they’re like the obverse of each other, in a sense. People in Wisconsin, where the temperatures can be harrowing, are generally (it seems) have a warmth and welcoming character as big as the big Midwestern sky. And in Massachusetts, where it’s a little more temperate, people can be more withdrawn, a little chilly — at least at first. However, old ways and old fears go deep in Wisconsin, and Massachusetts may be the state with the strongest sense of justice in the whole nation. In both places, I do feel safe, thank goodness, with my odd, mixed-up, mixed-race family of kids. We have been “taken in,” in both places, and I’m very shy, so that’s hard. ((Note from Pam — Jackie nailed my thoughts on the Wisconsin vs Massachusetts folks.))
- What are your favorite things to do to keep your sanity on a whirlwind book tour?
I would say, I make sure I get a good night’s sleep, but that’s what I want to say, not what is real. I’ve had a good night’s sleep about ten times in half a century. I try to eat lots of greens and stay away from too much coffee, and, much as I want to, I don’t “see the sights” at the wonderful places I go to because I want to give all my energy to readers.
- Please write the first sentence of a letter to 25 year old you, from your perspective now. And, then write a sentence responding to you now from 25 year old you. (Skip this if it’s not fun!)
ME TO 25-YEAR-OLD JACKIE: You just think that this is your destiny, but it’s not, and it’s not your fault. Escape into stories. Stories will always take you in.
25-YEAR-OLD JACKIE TO ME: Can I believe you? For I do feel that it’s all my fault, and no one ever said it wasn’t my fault. Stories are the place I hide. I would love to write them, but … I don’t dare.
- Who is one of the most fascinating people you have crossed paths with in your literary life? Do you keep in touch with this person?
Of course, I know some of the great writers of our age, you bet, and many of them are pals — Lisa Genova, Alice Hoffman, Jodi Picoult, Hollis Gillespie, Karin Slaughter, Chris Bohjalian, Paul Harding, Heather Graham — just people of such great heart and mind … The wonderful novelist Elizabeth Berg (Open House) did something so extraordinarily kind for me once that I can never forget it and I love her for it, as did the gifted novelist Beth Gutcheon (Without a Trace). My best pal, and neighbor, the mystery writer Thomas H. Cook, has just been my great friend for a long time, and my mainstay. I’m privileged in my friends.
- If you could cast a movie of Two If By Sea, who would play Frank Mercy? Ian? Claudia?
Well, my son (an actor) says Tim McGraw should play Frank. I said Colin Firth (with an American accent) or Ryan Gosling. The opinion was, I’m nuts. Claudia, we all agreed, would be Amy Adams. And the little kid who played Ray in Jerry McGuire would be the perfect Ian, but he grew up. (Jonathan Lipnicki)
- Last question — What is one question no one has ever asked you about writing that you wish they would???
You mean NEVER asked me. … No one ever asked me, is it hard? And I would say, yes, it is really, really hard not to do it, but to do it right, and the distance between one and the other is like the distance between Wisconsin and Brisbane!
So, there you have it. Thoughts on friends, living in the midwest vs New England, getting enough sleep and thoughts to a twenty-five year old self. Sending tons of thanks to Jackie Mitchard. I look forward to meeting her Sunday and hope you may be able to join her somewhere along her book tour.
Please, take a few minutes and read Trump: the great orange-haired Unintended Consequence. I try to keep politics out of Pamwrites as much as possible — not to avoid conflict or offending anyone, but mostly because my political interest drowned when Watergate was happening in my tween and early teen years. It left me 100% convinced that all politicians were liars, cheats and buffoons. Rarely do I find that negative opinion challenged. I have to force myself to pay attention during political campaigns because my brain is wired to turn the pay attention switch off. This election season, it gets harder and harder for me to listen and focus. This man scares me, and Marilynne would say fear is part of the problem. More on that later.
Like many creatives and educators, I lean liberal in my political choices, but I’m also a fiscal conservative by nature, so that can make my choices challenging. I have been wondering in this election though if we will begin to see a true change from the present party system. And then, I read this from the brilliant Marilynne Robinson:
Trump and the others are the product of the souring of the party system. Someone should point out, in these days when the constitution is so constantly and pietistically invoked, that political parties are not mentioned in the constitution, and that the prescient founders warned emphatically against them for reasons that should be clear to us now.
Robinson mentions the hardening of the Republicans into a faction “who define themselves primarily as the adversaries of the Democrats.” (I think we’ve seen this on both sides unfortunately.) She writes something that perhaps you have experienced too, I know I have: “In fact, the Republican situation is such a tangle of unintended consequences that it is impossible to sort it all out, or to make the attempt without laughing.”
Or crying, depending on your point of view.
Robinson has written before — often and well — about the dangers of fear in our society. Here too, Robinson brings the unintended consequences of the great orange-haired Trump back to fear.
In any case, American elections are long and grueling, just as they ought to be. We will spend months learning how things are with us. This is good and necessary, especially now when divisions in the society are deepening. They are deepening not only because of the stresses of the new economy, which a functioning government would meliorate, or the threats brought on by global disorder, which must be managed and will be, but because fear, anxiety and resentment are the stock in trade of important media and the politicians allied or symbiotic with them.
I hope you will read her whole essay. If you do, I would love to hear what you think about it.
Today is Bryan Cranston’s 60th birthday! So, I’d like to send Mr. Cranston happy birthday wishes from your Walter White character’s twin brother.
This fellow celebrated his 60th last year in Glasgow, Scotland. Yes, we had bacon.
We were in Glasgow while my husband was on sabbatical from his job as a…. wait for it….. an organic chemistry professor. As he traveled all over Europe, he was often stopped, asked for autographs and pictures. I look nothing like Skyler so we didn’t have that going for us, but, trust me, the man got a lot of looks.
And, here he is, Bryan. Toasts to you, from Breaking Bill. I wanted very much to get a signed picture of you for him for his 60th, but that didn’t work out. Just know that he wishes you the best and even as you read this, he’s probably drawing chemical structures that this wife refers to as “space dogs” and in case you’re wondering, we don’t own an RV. Yet.
I have missed you all, blog friends. A few of you might be concerned that my absence indicates a dive into the depression quagmire, but I assure you, not so. Simply busy, busy, busy.
I want to share a quick update of an interview with me that appeared yesterday on Christi Craig’s blog. It’s about the creation of Done Darkness. She asked some great questions and I hope you might be interested in them and my answers. Here are some of those questions that I loved:
CC: This is a unique anthology on the topic of depression in that it includes not only personal essays but short stories and poetry as well. What sparked the idea for this book, and what was your biggest challenge?
CC: I’ve edited a few tiny anthologies and know these kinds of projects can be labors of love. When you envision DONE DARKNESS in the hands of readers, what do you hope they will discover?
CC: Instead of dividing the book into poetry, nonfiction and fiction, the collected works fall into chapters of Morning, Afternoon, or Evening. What is the significance of those chapter headings?
CC: Neil Gaiman says, “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story….” What advice can you offer for writers (or readers) who desire to share their story but don’t know where to begin?
To read my answers, please click over to Christi’s post and be sure to enter her giveaway for the book. 🙂
Many thanks for the opportunity, Christi Craig!!