September 17, 2014

Flannery's Bedroom

I have tried very hard through the years to establish an office in our home. With five kids, this is no easy task. For a while, I inhabited a little nook off the laundry room. But the area preceding it became overrun with laundry and I couldn't think.

Later, I cleaned all that up and tried to organize things and moved out further from the little nook, still in the same long room where the laundry facilities are, at a long table that served as my desk, near a window...but it soon became similarly disorderly around it and I couldn't think.

I later took over our family room, and for a while that worked. It was my haven. Until a neighbor started some odd behavior and I could no longer open the shades wide and enjoy that space as much as I had. Then the kids broke the TV upstairs so the only one they could watch was in my office, and slowly, I got bumped...again.

I am still waiting for the tried and true "room of her own" where I can sink in and feel at ease. Every time I think I have it, it eludes me.

So when I was looking for a new cover photo for my Facebook page recently, this jumped out at me, for reasons I will shortly reveal.

Introducing the bedroom of Flannery O'Connor, taken with my own camera this past summer during my writer journey to Georgia.

I think my two travel companions would agree. This room held us absolutely spellbound. It didn't just sit there being; it spoke to us.

Toward the end of her life, this became Flannery's sanctuary. Some of her best work was written here, much of it in bed when it was hard making her way around the house, flitting about freely.

"I have been at home a week and feel I'm getting somewhere. I have to stay in these two rooms but R. has got me the table with the electric typewriter on it put so I get out of bed into the typewriter, so to speak, and every day I am able to do a little more," she wrote in June, 1964 (Habit of Being).

As the lupus took over (thus, the crutches), this became the place where Flannery spent so much of her time. Her world had become so very small, but her writing, so very rich.

"I've had four blood transfusions in the last month," she wrote around that same time. "The trouble is mostly kidneys - they don't refine poisons out of the proteins & therefore you don't make blood like you should or you lose it like you shouldn't or something. As far as I'm concerned, as long as I can get at that typewriter, I have enough..." 

I, too, have become relegated at times to sitting on my bed, propped up with pillows, writing away in the small cell of my room. This occurs even on days when the kids are at school and my "office" is once again available, but, as it turns out, has been left a mess by the leprechauns.

Resigned, I head to the bedroom and curl up. I say my morning prayers, check in with social media if time, then roll up my shirt sleeves - often pajamas - and get to work.

When I posted this on Facebook as my new cover photo, I knew very few would know of its significance, other than my fellow Flannery friends. When I mentioned this during a three-way phone conversation this afternoon, we giggled about it - how some might erroneously assume it is my bedroom.

But then they might wonder about the typewriter. That made us laugh more, because, of course, I haven't used an actual typewriter in years.

Back in Flannery's day, one of her most cherished gifts was a television set some religious sisters gave her for helping them with their manuscript. Flannery had as much fun watching the ridiculous commercials as anything, and gleefully critiqued each one. Sounds like my kind of girl!

All this to say, considering how Flannery's bedroom became a cocoon of sorts to her, carrying her from one life to another in a sense, and that I, too, often hole up in my bedroom when writing, it becomes clearer why this photo pulls me right in. I look at it and it's like I am visiting Flannery all over again, and there she is in bed, waving me in for a spell, asking me to stay a while.

I've seen it with my own eyes, and I delight in it with Flannery, knowing it was her sanctuary, and that no plush accommodations in the world could take the place of that little spot where she could go into the deepest part of herself, and come out with a masterpiece of the imagination.

Q4U: Where do you find "home" in terms of space for your writing groove?

September 3, 2014

Birth Announcement: A Writer Reflects

No, I'm not having a baby. But 46 years ago, a newspaper in Lovell, Wyo., announced the birth of a baby girl, and that baby girl grew up into me.

Here I am at just a week old, being held by my Aunt Anne.

I'm struck anew by the little announcement my mom took care to paste into a scrapbook all those years ago. It's just a few inches in height and width, but these words are the introduction to a story. It's almost as if they say, "Once upon a time..."

Once upon a time in a place called Lovell, Wyo., a new person entered the earth. She was all wrinkled and pink, as her father used to describe her, and a bit on the fussy side, as her mother remembers.

Yes, she came in wailing, having strong opinions about things, but perhaps this was even more indicative of a child with a sensitive, perceptive, and emotional nature; a child who felt deeply, and couldn't possibly keep all of those emotions bottled up inside her. Someday, she would find a way to release all those deeply held feelings by stringing them into sentences that, she dearly hoped, would bring life and hope to others.

The words also tell of a father who worked as a teacher, and reveal times gone by when mothers' and wives' first names were tucked into the "Mr. and Mrs." designation. This "Mrs." was the person who birthed me, yet no signs of her name: Jane. It's just the way it was. But I do think my mother deserves more than that.

This "Mrs." has poured her life into mine in a way I can only hope to do in part as a mother and someday-grandmother myself. This weekend, for example, she came for a pre-birthday visit, and spent much of her time playing card games with the kids and treating us through meals out and helping a little around the kitchen and letting the pets know they haven't been overlooked.

And it was this "Mrs." who, all those years back, took the time, despite being drained and frazzled, to cut out that little birth announcement, telling of her second daughter's arrival, and placing it in the first page of "Roxane's Book I," a red scrapbook, the same color her daughter would someday choose as her favorite.

Just a few words, but words that announced my life, and subtly mention a mother; one who was determined to do what she could to make this little, imperfect family with the crying baby and toddler sister and a world full of unknowns work out somehow.

The words begin the story, but there is so much more to tell, and I'm grateful for the chance to try in any measure. Because fleeting as we are in the scheme of things, our stories do matter.

Q4U: What words were born with your first moments of life?

August 27, 2014

The Messy Life

When the kids are older, then I'll have time again to organize, I said. Things will be so much tidier, so much more manageable.

As I look around my house and see the piles, I can't help but think of those yearnings for order that have proven so elusive. What a fool I was, I think now.

And yet, am I really surprised?

I think there has to be a bit of a welcoming of disorder to open one's heart to a large family, for one. Add in the fact that most of us are high on the creative spectrum and the truth of the matter comes more assuredly into view.

I'm not making excuses. I care about order. I feel better when things are in place. But I gotta be honest, they're not right now, they haven't been for a while, and I'm not exactly sure anymore when that day is going to arrive, and I'm okay with that.

As a writer-mama, there's a lot to accomplish, and most days, I do what's in my face and work my way down the list. And that's as far as I get. The deep cleaning and organizing? I'm not there and don't know when I will be. I'll do what I can when I can.

Even though the kids are no longer in diapers, the layers have not gone away, and here we are. And as I look around, feeling a little mystified, I realize I have to give myself the excuse, because quite frankly I can't do anything more than what I'm doing.

A friend of mine has been saying she's realized she can only focus on one big project at a time. She can either cook fabulous meals, or have a tidy home, but not both at once. Another time, she said that even if she did have the time to be more organized, she's not sure how much she'd want to delve into it.

I'm like that too. Some people go stir-crazy without order. I go stir-crazy trying to maintain it.

Another factor has to do with my life as a writer. As someone who is creating order daily in her writing, there's only so much of that kind of intense energy it takes to write well to go around. By the time I've done my interviews or collected all the words or written the stories, there's another around the bend, and kids who need me, too. I pull away to tend to what is most obvious in the home and with the kids and that's as far as I can go most days.

Somewhere in this, I am at peace. In the messy, I am finding a way to exist and be at rest. Because every day I am creating life-giving things. On top of the writing and family, I am also engaged in a faith that is vibrant and meaningful.

With these interior things in place, it's not only possible to embrace the mess, but on some level, to be grateful for it. I could not exist in a sterile, barren world for long.

So I come back to gratitude, for having the kind of world that invites in the messy, feeling assured somehow that the more wonderfully strange and varied ingredients go into the pot, the tastier the stew is going to be when it's done simmering.

Q4U: How do you like to create order from chaos? When do you leave well enough alone?

August 20, 2014

My Father and 'Mockingbird'

It started out as a mother trying to help her daughter's first year of high school begin on a smooth note.

When I noticed our local, historic Fargo Theater was going to be showing "To Kill a Mockingbird"  last week, I put it on my "to do list," knowing my middle daughter had been assigned the book for summer reading by her future English teacher, and that the movie, though old and severely outdated, might help the story come alive even more for her.

And, well, it wasn't completely altruistic. I like stories too, and am especially fond of classics. I also am intrigued by Harper Lee and her one and only published work.

I was excited as we grabbed our buttered popcorn and headed to the front of the theater, which was filling in quickly, the movie about to begin. As the black and white film played, I did a quick Facebook update, noting our Thursday night adventure. And my mom responded right away:

"Your dad's favorite book! Wow, I would have loved being there."

How had I forgotten? But I had. In the midst of thinking about my daughter's English class project, it had slipped past me that Dad had chosen this book, among all those he'd read in his study of literature, as his very favorite.

I was so grateful for the reminder, because suddenly I was watching the film not just through my own eyes but through Dad's. What were the elements of the story he most liked, I wondered? What drew him so close to this story? For the rest of our time at the theater, I felt Dad nearby, and during part of it, tears even began flowing there in the dark as I connected with the spirit of this man who was such a big and beautiful part of my life.

It's his birthday month, and also the month of his and my mother's wedding anniversary, August 21.

So I can't help but have Dad on the brain anyway, and then this story...and seeing it there with my just sealed the deal.

I thought of how I'd grown up on a reservation, and how the color of one's skin seemed so insignificant to my parents. Why would they have settled there otherwise?

And I thought of story and how much story moved my father, and how much story has always moved me. His respect for story was so strong that it couldn't help but spill into the lives of his two little girls, who listened with awe as he shared bedtime tales about one-eyed monsters and the dinosaurs who used to visit his childhood home in New Rockford, N.D.

It wasn't until after the movie that I shared with my daughter how the story had been her Grandpa Beauclair's favorite. "I was actually thinking about that," she said. "Atticus reminded me of Grandpa."

It's not an exact match but there is some resemblance. The black hair, the glasses, to be sure. 

The intellect. The ability to overlook the things that separate us physically to get at the heart of a person.

The way he drew his kids near.

In my childhood years, I was a little like Scout -- always the little sister, always seeking adventure, always curious, and hopefully standing up for justice, just because it seemed the right thing to do.

Yes, the story has many parallels with my life, and in the remembering, my sister reminded me about a book we'd given Dad a while back for Christmas. She then sent Mom on a hunt for the book, and as Mom tells it, it didn't take long for her to find it in a prominent place in their home. "I think Dad led me straight to it," she said.

So we're reading, watching, remembering how much our father and husband loved story and the characters that bring it to life, and the powerful forces of human nature -- the quest for what's good, right and just despite all of our and the world's imperfections -- that have always and hopefully always will motivate us to create a better existence for all.

I'm still learning from my Dad and about my Dad, and I'm finding this happening most of all through appreciating all the more the things that moved his heart.

I can honestly say I haven't lost Dad at all. He's as close as ever through these things, and I love him all the more because of it.

And last but not least, to my mother on the day before her special day of remembering a long and fruitful marriage: Happy Anniversary!

Q4U: What are your associations with this story, or others that connect you to a loved one in your life?

August 13, 2014

Avoiding Writing Pride

After my last post here on Peace Garden Writer, during which time I discussed the blessings of writing for a local audience, a reader pointed out privately some thoughts that humbled me.

Specifically: "As a letter writer, I have a few times been a little embarrassed of the reaction and thanks that it can draw in the public square...I quickly turn the conversation back to the gracious person giving it to me. Everyone likes a little attention, and early on I thought it was somewhat ‘cool’ but now try to avoid any attention, as all praise goes to God."

I didn't take the words as condemnation, because I agree wholeheartedly. But they do offer a great chance to go a little deeper in terms of how much stalk we should take in our writing and any compliments that come as a result.

I imagine the temptation to be prideful about one's writing is something that every writer has faced at one time or another -- especially those who are aware of the pitfalls of pride. Because of the sheer nature of our work, it's always there, lurking around the corner.

What we do is public, and when we receive commendations for our writing, it could easily, if we're not aware and ready, go to our heads. We might begin to imagine, in error, that we're so great to produce such beautiful sentence structures, when in fact God gave us this gift for one main purpose: to draw others to Him.

At Gooseberry Park, Lake Superior, Minnesota

We don't have to be writers of faith to have this mission, but if we are people of faith it is inherent in everything we do. Even fiction writers can create works full of truth, goodness and beauty, and it is these things that inspire us all toward God.

My heroine Flannery O'Connor wrote in her letters about this; how everything comes back to God and God's purposes. Seeing it this way is a freedom, because we can relieve ourselves of the pressure of being perfect in our writing. We are here to be a vessel. Through our pen, we create sentences that will either draw people to truth, beauty and goodness, or lead them away from it. In that way, we are missionaries and prophets, all. But it is God who works through us, not we who own it all.

If God wishes to use our writing to draw people to Him, He will. The best we can do is continue to form ourselves to God, and the rest will follow. From there, what we write will be of God, even when it appears to be of human fashioning, because at the heart of it will be a divine light.

So it's true that all glory goes to God. Anything good that I have to say originated first in the heart of God. When people talk of any of my writing as inspiring or good or truthful, I necessarily must point it back to God. I cannot take the credit. I know that.

Thinking of it this way does not dehumanize me, or make me feel unworthy, or present a blow to my self-esteem. It places things in the right perspective, propels me onward with confidence (knowing I do not go it alone) and allows me to truly shine light where it is most deserving.

If I can be an instrument for the divine, there is nothing I can imagine that would bring me, and God, greater honor. It is a joy to serve in this way.

Q4U: Have you ever been tempted to believe it's all about you? What helped you see otherwise?

July 30, 2014

The Blessing of Writing Local

The successful thing is to go big and wide, right? To become a writer known to many, from east to west, north and south. Now that's the end-all.

I might have thought that way once, but then things changed. Doors I thought were opening seemed to close, and I realized I would need a Plan B.

Though I couldn't predict the future, one thing did seem certain: that one of my greatest callings in life was that of writing; that I'd been given certain gifts and sensibilities, even a certain temperament, that lent itself to a lifelong dance with the written word.

Now, I didn't say that I'm a great writer, but rather that it is one of my greatest callings. Great because it falls in the top three of those things I'm supposed to do in this life before leaving it -- something that will have made a difference when I'm no more than dust once again.

Plan B turned out to be focusing on writing for more local audiences. It was a fallback position, but nonetheless, it provided a new challenge, and I dove in eagerly.

Writing local has helped me find a grounding point, to be rightly intentional about another primary calling of mine -- that of motherhood. It's kept me closer to home and tethered more certainly to the place and people around me.

And it has been a blessing, more so than I ever could have imagined when I first set out with it seeming like Plan B.

Take for example Sunday morning. I'd just finished my monthly-or-so stint as a cantor at our church. And as I gathered my folder and prepared to leave the sanctuary, I realized someone was near me, and seemed to be coming nearer.

"Say, you...are you the one who writes? In the newspaper?" he asked. This wasn't going to be a parishioner telling me thanks for the music. No, it was about something else entirely.

"I just wanted to tell you that I love your work," he said. "I hadn't made the connection until just now but as I was watching you sing I realized, that's her. That's the one who writes the column. I just wanted to say, keep up the great work!"

Granted, I shouldn't need accolades such as this. The work in itself should be enough of a blessing -- and it is. But there's nothing more satisfying to a writer than to know she's made a connection with her readers.

Because quite frankly, I can't keep all my readers in mind as I'm in my office, or some corner of my house or a coffee shop, writing away. I try to focus on one or two people and write to them. Sometimes I write to and for myself and just hope it will reach others too.

So to realize those efforts have touched someone -- it's a pretty crazy, cool feeling. If it's happened to you, you know what I'm talking about.

I've had similar experiences before -- at the park, the grocery store, always when I least expect it, and often when I'm not prepared. It can be happily jarring because when I'm not in my writing hole I am in a different mode. And when these two world collides: wow!

I know that with the world as it is now I might have still experienced this, even if I wrote exclusively for a national or international audience, through digital means. But I don't think there's anything as thrilling as experiencing it in person, right in the little world of my city.

In the years since I've been writing local, I've slowly come to realize that it isn't the Plan B after all. It's just the Plan A I wasn't expecting, and cherish all the more for having discovered it at all.

Q4U: Have you had one of these "worlds colliding" moments as a writer? What was it like?

July 23, 2014

Being in the Right Space to Write

It's just a greeting card. How hard could it be to write in it and send it off, right?

But for me, there's a deliberation process, because to me it's not just a card. It's my words, from the heart, written to someone I care about. And for whatever reason, I can't usually make myself sit down in the middle of a busy day and dash off a message in a greeting card and feel good about it.

I have to carve out the right kind of space for something like this. I want to be in the right place, the right space, to write, whether it's a greeting card or a column. The right space is important.

I've written about writing spaces before, but this is a little different. This is more than just finding the right physical space. It's about finding the right mental and even emotional space. And in this case - the case of writing out greeting cards to loved ones - the right spiritual space as well.

I didn't realize how important this was until recently. I would procrastinate when it came to writing out things like greeting cards. But now I see it wasn't procrastination, but a matter of not having the right space.

I'm reading a book right now that helps me make my point. In his writings on "Interior Freedom" from his book with the same name, Jacques Philippe says:

"In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we're 100 percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. This is very difficult, since we have a strong sense of proprietary rights to our time and easily tend to get upset if we can't organize it as we choose."

Guilty! But at the very least, I'm aware of it, and I'm trying. And that brings me around again to the greeting card thing. Even though the writing of the greeting card implies time and distance, I retain that same sense within me that if I am writing such a card in the middle of busy, I am not really focusing. I am not giving that person the attention they deserve.

If my heart is in the wrong place, the words I write will be wrong, too. I can feel that. It's true.

So lately, I've been bringing some of the greeting cards I want to send with me to the chapel where I spend time one evening hour each week. As I sit there at the feet of Jesus, I pull out my envelopes and cards and write what's on my heart. There are no distractions, and I am there with the person; really there. And it feels right.

It's just a greeting card, I know, but to me, it's part of my heart I'm sending off in the mail, and I want to feel as if I am looking that person in the eye as I write. I want them to feel my heart, and not the distractions around me.

Being in the right space to write, as I've found, can make all the difference, whether it be a tome or a small thank you card. And I'm glad I've discovered this and that I have a place to go to offer my best attention to those deserving of it.

Q4U: Have you felt this dilemma, even with the simplest writings? How did you solve it?