At least for those whose lives are kid-free, these days of greater quietude give one time to ponder. Long walks on quiet streets, no-rush mornings, cooking at home rather than eating out, no worries about “what should we (I) do this weekend?”.
In all times, writers are advised to “write what you know” Familiar places, experiences, people (just change the names to protect the guilty, right?). This morning an obvious question occurred to me: What do I know the most about?
Later in the day I wrote a list of ten areas in which I might be considered knowledgable, not that I am an expert in ANYTHING. Spending eight years getting an undergrad degree at the U of MN, because I was interested in pretty much EVERYTHING, turned me into a wide-ranging dabbler.
Contemplating what I, personally, know the most about, led to another question. What would I like to know more about?
Dear Reader, if you are so moved, pull out your journal or your legal pad. Don your thinking cap and begin writing the list of what you, unique human being that you are, know the most about. It’ll be fun. You have the time.
List of ten done? Good work. Now write a list of ten things you want to know more about.
Compare the lists. Do you have overlaps? I certainly did.
Do you see anything you would like to pursue in these strange at-home times?
Share your list if you want to. I’ll post mine in a couple of days.
(What follows is a passage from my novel-in-progress. The protagonist had been visiting friends whose son suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound.)
As Claire walked home from the hospital in the warm slanting sun of late afternoon, a co-worker from the newspaper honked and waved. She glanced over and waved back. In that brief moment, her foot crushed the head of a plump iridescent green caterpillar. She stooped to look and burst into tears. Claire picked up the intact part of the caterpillar corpse and deposited it, with an apology, at the foot of an oak tree.
For the past year it seemed that the universe kept hammering home the message that life can change in a flash. A misstep on the sidewalk. A moment of inattention behind the wheel. A disgruntled coworker with a gun. The bursting of a brain vessel. A gush of blood in a ladies’ room. A sudden insight that it is time to leave. A knock at the door. A glance across crowded powwow grounds.
That evening she sat in her chair, lights off, pondering the life of a caterpillar. What does it need to do in order to carry out its life’s mission? Eat, stay out of trouble, and ultimately build a cocoon for itself. All a caterpillar can be is a caterpillar until it’s not a caterpillar anymore. That didn’t mean its life was easy. Maybe there are insufficient leaves of the right kind. Maybe a careless person steps on you, or a bird has you for breakfast. That’s it for this life. No lovely moth or butterfly will ever emerge.
Claire recalled a funeral service during which the pastor used a caterpillar metaphor, where the caterpillar has no idea it will transform into something entirely different and beautiful. She wondered if that wasn’t a bit presumptuous. How do we know that a caterpillar isn’t aware it will transform into a moth or butterfly? Maybe it knows, maybe it doesn’t. And really, what does anyone know about what’s coming down the sidewalk at them? All we can do is munch our leaves and try to stay out of trouble.
Change often seems to come in unexpected bunches and bundles.
February brought for me a serendipitous and sudden house sale, with an aggressive closing schedule, necessitating the need to rent an apartment, to say nothing of packing to move from a 3-bedroom home with too much storage into a 1-bedroom + “den” with modest storage space.
In the midst of this effort, my mother, after 104 years of physical and mental vibrancy, took a turn and died. She was ready, she was unafraid, so to grieve would be almost selfish. But ever since getting a cell phone with unlimited calling (when was that, anyway?), I had called her once or twice each day. Although I accept her passing, the thought of hitting “Mom” on the top of my phone favorites list crosses my mind most mornings.
Mom lived about 5 hours north, in small-town northwestern Minnesota. Since leaving home for college, my various vehicles have made hundreds of trips up through St. Cloud, past Little Falls, Motley (stop for smoked salmon at Morey’s!), Akeley, and Bemidji. Other than going up for her burial come spring thaw, the trips up that way will be few.
Our bodies respond to change with weariness. Our minds cope by seeking order or escape. Our spirits, if not crushed, can respond with freshness and creativity, transformed by new contexts and perspectives.
Change is inevitable. Let it open us to a greater beauty.
Historically, many authors were cafe habituates. Think Paris. Think Sartre, Fitzgerald, de Beauvoir, Baldwin. Today, writers and coffee shops are similarly symbiotic. The same can be said for many readers. While most book aficionados are not writers, I defy you to find a serious writer who is not a serious reader. (For my recent favs, see below.) Go to any coffee shop and observe latte sipping writers hunched over laptops or notebooks, readers lost in a book, be it hardcover, paperback, or ebook, seated amongst duos sharing stories of breakups or exotic travel destinations.
Unless you are reading aloud to someone, or tandem writing in person, writing and reading are solitary endeavors. For those of you who are far along on the introvert scale, days spent alone toiling away on the evolving masterpiece or latest great novel must sound like unmitigated bliss. For those (including me) who swing more to the extrovert side, spending day after day in one’s own company is a recipe for derangement. The LONG commitment of writing a book with no assurance of publication is scary enough, without the additional stress of too much alone time.
Solution? Find a harmonious coffee shop.
I have three favorites, all in NE Minneapolis. They are: 1) Mojo Coffee Gallery, 2) Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, and 3) Anelace Coffee. Both Diamonds and Mojo have yummy baked goods. Mojo has good brunch/lunch food and the consistently best coffee of the three. Anelace is aesthetically pleasant, with coffee of varying quality, and non-appealing treats (to me). But Anelace offers free sparkling water. Both Mojo and Diamonds rank high on the retro-artsy scale, with Mojo displaying engaging artworks and pottery. Diamonds is just plain old funky fun. Anelace has the best restroom.
Coffee shop people–where do you hang out? Why? What are you reading?
My recently read and highly recommended fiction: Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, The Idiot by Elif Batumen, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tovarczuk.
Actually, not fine.* I write this on the second day of non-stop rain (flash flood warning!). Morning headlines informed us that the administration will finalize the rollback of clean water protections. Gun violence continues, including a murder-suicide a block from my home. Having chosen to leave my professional career to pursue a dream of actually completing a novel, I stand one disaster away from taking a deep dive into my modest retirement savings. My ankle still hurts eleven weeks after a ligament-tearing incident. My normally dependable ability to sleep soundly has devolved into lying awake at 3 in the morning.
So how are you doing today? Are the problems in our society getting to you? How’s your personal life? How’s your health? Your work? You’re finances? Your mental health?
During the long course of yet another sleepless night, this phrase came into my mind: To triumph over darkness, give light. Not get light. Give light.
After choosing an early retirement to pursue writing, I took a part-time job at my local Target in women’s apparel. It gets me out amongst people, provides a little extra cash, and ticks about 5 miles on the FitBit each time I work. Yesterday an older woman, let’s call her Bernice, came in shopping for some new clothes. She and a helper from her nursing home were trying to find a suitable pair of black pants.
“I haven’t been shopping for a year!” Bernice said. Her manner was anxious but open, her conversation a little confused but enthusiastic.
After helping her to explore various options in black pants, we found a pair that suited her needs–black, with stretchy fabric, durable, washable, and classy looking.
She pointed to my required-by-Target red shirt. “I sure would like to get a new red top. It’s my favorite color.”
The attendant looked worried. “Remember, Bernice, you have only $40.00 to spend. And you also want to get those cough drops.”
Earlier in the day a red top on the clearance rack caught my eye. “If you can wait a moment, I have an idea. No promises, but we might have just the thing.”
There it was. In her size. A loose-fitting red top with lace trim on the sleeves.
“What do you think of this?”
“It’s so beautiful!”
The attendant pulled out her calculator. The pants, top, and cough drops came to just over $39.00.
Bernice looked up and held out her arms to me. I leaned down for a hug.
“I love you,” she said.
As of that moment, I was doing fine. Thanks, Bernice.
* FYI, I am not depressed or despairing. Just speaking truth about life.
My personal discovery of Jainism came while teaching world religions at Oakton College in suburban Chicago. This non-theistic (no “god” per se) religion arose in India around 500 BCE, based on the insights of the spiritual teacher Mahavira. While I am not a Jain, the teachings have a positive impact on my life.
The symbol shown above presents the main tenets of Jainism. The word in the center, ahimsa, literally means “stop”, referring to cycles of reincarnation as represented by the wheel. The answer to how this cycle of birth and death may be stopped or transcended comes in the practice of ahimsa, which can provide the basis for a renewal of the world, through the healing of a single life.
The Jain teaching of ahimsa asserts that by doing no harm to any living thing, we heal ourselves and create healing energy that moves beyond us. We are counseled to also avoid angry thoughts and actions. According to Gandhi, a Hindu who valued Jain teachings, ahimsa additionally precludes evil thoughts and hatred, and unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty, and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence.
No violence, no harm, no unkindness. What a world we could create while seeking to renew and free ourselves!
A few years ago I was invited to teach a series of classes on religious traditions at a synagogue in suburban Minneapolis. For those unable to attend, a friend recorded a video of each session and posted them to YouTube. Amazingly, the video on Jainism has received more than 15,000 views.