“I’m fine!”

Long ago, back in my restaurant service-supervisor days (yes, I was such a thing), I had a boss named Stan who had once been a Marine. I forget what in the Marines. But he still had the haircut and the posture, if not the physique. He was a district manager and he dropped in a couple times a month. I opened 2 or 3 restaurants with him. If he asked you how things were going and you said, “Fine,” he said, “Fine! That’s when we roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Fine, a fine word with lots of meanings. I went to Merriam Webster on-line to check and found the following:

Free from impurity; very thin in gauge or texture–not coarse–very small (fine print)–keen (a knife with a fine edge)–very precise or accurate; physically trained or hardened to efficiency (said of an athlete or an animal); delicate, subtle or sensitive in perception (a fine taste in art); superior in kind, quality, or appearance; ornate (as in writing); very well, more than okay (often ironic–Stan was right!).

Then there’s a fine as in a penalty (a traffic fine), and fine as an intensifier, like very, and all of these deriving from the same root as words like fin (as in fish fin). Think finish, the end. 

Not quite sure where I’m going with this, except it’s something that I’ve been thinking about. A friend confided that she can’t stand to keep a journal. She asked what I do, “lists?” Sometimes I write lists. I usually include a paragraph on “what happened yesterday.” But I keep going, past that, into what’s happening in my brain, in my — well, for lack of a better word, in my heart.

When I’m stuck, I write questions. Sometimes I ask myself questions, and sometimes “I” answer. I sometimes write prayers. I write down quotations from things I’m reading. Sometimes I write snippets of poems or character sketches or short scenes.

I reread my journal every so often (especially the current one, but sometimes older ones) and I try to pick out topics that penrecur so I can write about them again. I’m sure that anyone else would find my pages mind-numbingly repetitive, boring! But when I worked in restaurants, back in the day, writing in a spiral bound notebook (in 100s of spiral bound notebooks, morning after morning and week and month and year after year), writing kept me alive. It kept the essential, moody, dreaming, creative me alive. Eventually, writing was what helped me reach what Julia Cameron calls “escape velocity.”

Writing 3 pages in a notebook every morning–even now, when writing is my job–drops me beneath the surface of my lifeI can’t lie to myself when I write in my journal.

You can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages. (Not unless you want to bore even yourself silly.) Certainly you can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages multiplied over 12 weeks of writing.

CAM00264“But even if you never share a sentence of your diary with anyone else, you will share it through your life. Its existence will touch other people by the way it changes you and permits you to develop in self-awareness, directness, and honesty. As you acquire and refine the talent for helping yourself in the diary, you will grow in your ability to understand and nourish others. While it permits you to take responsibility for your own emotional well-being, it also opens the way for a deep understanding of human nature.” -Tristine Rainer, The New Diary

Keeping a journal is kind of like my own, portable Stan, that bossy, buzz-cut ex-Marine who won’t let me get away with bullshit. It’s a fine practice and it gets me past “fine.” It gets me through the nitty-gritty of everyday stuff. It gets me down to the finer stuff. Over and over.

My Week 11 Check-in

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been working my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with a group of friends. I am nearing the end, and I have been putting off writing this check-in for three days. But now I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time on it. So I thought I’d be brave and share it here, too.

CAM00323I am now — unbelievably — on Week 12 of The Artist’s Way: “Recovering a Sense of Faith.”
Unbelievably? It does feel as though I’ve been keeping this journal (those morning pages) for 3 months; that’s not the unbelievable bit. But I don’t feel “done.” The week 12 task that most resonates for me is, “Reread this book.” I feel as though there was something ELSE that I was meant to break through, or into, or out of. In this final chapter, I’m reminded that even when we don’t see it (change? improvement? direction?), it’s always already there: “Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” (Julia Cameron, 195)
What was it I expected? What did I get that I didn’t expect?

I don’t give myself enough credit for being on an end-of-life journey with my mother…for the amount of parenting my three daughters still and constantly seem to need…for being at the end-stage of a novel (which seems to require more commitment than I have available at present). I don’t get enough sleep. I mean to go to the gym, but I don’t. I eat the wrong foods, and just when I think I’ve proved to myself that I can do without a glass of wine in the evening, I open another bottle. I decide to cut back to one cup of coffee per day, and find myself drinking 2 double lattes in the afternoon (why don’t I sleep at night?). I set aside a morning for my husband, and he wakes up with a bad cold, feeling miserable. I resolve to spend less money, and my 15 year old drops her phone on the driveway and smashes it. I promise my editor 50 pages, and my sister calls and says Mom needs me.
Fortunately, the morning pages are portable. I have packed them to The Haven in Allyn every week (and twice a week) for 3 months. I’ve written them at Caffe Ladro in Edmonds, on the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, in Starbucks (Belfair) and in Mom’s room. In my sister’s guest room.
I get up every morning and write my three morning pages. That has been a constant. I am remembering (sometimes) to play. “Life is meant to be an artist date. That’s why we were created.” (198) Oh!
So, Bethany, Bethany-dear, Wise Self (!): Make healthy choices. Be kind to yourself. Be very, very kind. (And healthy choices ARE kind!)
Keep writing. Have faith in the process.
Oh, and this is supposed to the a “check-in,” isn’t it? I can’t claim to have had a deliberate Artist’s Date this week, but in a spare moment (early for a lunch date with my
husband), I dropped by The ArtSpot in Edmonds (on Main, or follow the link for more information) and I discovered that they have an Artist’s Way circle. They have a six-week art class based on The Artist’s Way, and they have a Wednesday drop-in class once a month. I signed up for the March 4 class, 6-8. If any of you can join me, that would be great.
I am committed to each of your journeys, and I know you are at various weeks. Expect me to keep circling back (and continuing the chapter highlights). Thanks for hanging in with me this long, for cheering me on, and each other. I look forward to reading your check-ins.
(And I will check-in next week, too.)
Yours in Love and Play, Bethany

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”

Naomi Shihab Nye


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted with the permission of the author. (Copied from http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/kindness)

Why I Started a Blog

When I was thinking about starting a blog–five or six years ago, back in 2009–my student, Kellan, told me that he thought his mom and I were the only people who read his blog. So, I thought hard. What if no one, including my mom, read my blog? What would be the point of it?

One of the reasons I came up with, was that it could become a kind of commonplace book for great quotes and insights and lines that I come across in my reading. Hence, the following quote:

“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments–which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves. Unlike your experiencing self–which is absorbed in the moment–your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole. That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.” —Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (238-239)

Be Still Sometimes

http://ezine.juggle.org/2013/08/05/10-female-juggling-stars-of-the-past/I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It’s a book about dying in America, and–for anyone dealing directly with this subject (and who among us is not?)–it is full of gems. One of them, in the chapter about his own father, is ODTAA syndrome: One Damn Thing After Another.

Anyway, I went searching this evening for Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey,” so I could share it with my friend Therese (who is definitely suffering from ODTAA; you don’t have to be dying to do so). And I found this poem, which I thought Therese could use as well. It’s for Sarah, too.

Poem for someone who is juggling her life

This is a poem for someone
who is juggling her life.
Be still sometimes.
Be still sometimes.

It needs repeating
over and over
to catch her attention
over and over
because someone juggling her life
finds it difficult to hear.

Be still sometimes.
Be still sometimes.
Let it all fall sometimes.

Rose Cook, from Notes From a Bright Field (Cultured Llama, 2013)

And did you even know that there is an International Juggler’s Association?

Fog and Faith

fog january 15“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow

Last Friday afternoon, after visiting with my mom, I drove to the ferry in Kingston only to find the Sound completely socked in by fog. The 4:40 ferry didn’t show up on time, and still hadn’t docked at 5:00. I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in Seattle, and I gave her a call. Would the ferry come at all? How could it make its way through so much fog? (http://kuow.org/post/call-sound-romance-foghorns-endures)

And then, it arrived.

I assumed that the crossing would take a lot longer (and I worried we were going to collide with something), but it took only a few extra minutes. By 5:45 I was on my way to dinner.

Writing is like this, as E.L. Doctorow famously said in his Paris Review interview.

No matter what stage of the process I find myself in, I am never quite sure where I’m heading. Will it take a year to revise my novel? Two? Or two weeks? (!) If I stick with my commitment to write 200 words a day on my new batch of characters, will a story begin to emerge? Never mind worrying about the big outcomes (a publishing contract! a best seller! awards!), my job is simply to keep inching through the fog.