Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Finding Forgotten Joy

Why am I so often blinded by the negativity in my world? I tell myself (and anyone who will listen) that 2019 was a tough year, that I’m glad it will end soon. Too many scams, falls and financial woes – and that’s just on a person level. If I follow the news too closely, I’m ready to close myself in a dark room for days on end.

Instead, I decide to page through my 2019 calendar (yes, I still keep a paper planner in addition to the cell phone calendar). It’s an eye-opening exercise that I highly recommend to anyone who tends to focus on the negative as I found myself doing.  
Perhaps the holiday letters that some folks write each year are all about reminiscing the positive. So, here’s my Happy Holidays Letter to all. It turns out 2019 was not such a bad year after all, simply a very busy year with a few bumps in the road.

Last winter was a time of hikes, snowshoeing and cycling. Tom and I took part in the Seattle Viaduct Ride before demolition began. A month later we did a 3-day, town-to-town ride in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley.

Spring brought another weekend of cycling, this time in Grayland, WA where we stayed in a state park yurt and explored the cranberry bogs by bike and the beach on foot. The first weekend in May we began a major home remodel that monopolized the entire summer. No regrets, just a long summer of hard work and construction chaos. In June we celebrated our daughter’s graduation from the University of Washington where she earned her Master’s in Social Work. To celebrate Mother’s Day, Erin took me on a mother-daughter camping trip – a childhood tradition revisited.

Summer was glorious in Seattle – lovely weather and no forest fire smoke. In August, we enjoyed my  mother-in-law’s annual visit, always a welcome pleasure. In early September I had the unusual experience of attending a slumber party in Las Vegas (I’d never been) with a dozen other Medicare-aged women with whom I once attended high school. An odd and rewarding event. The remodel allowed little time for hiking, but still we managed a half dozen adventures into the woods before fall rain made hiking miserable and cycling impossible

Autumn was brighter and more glorious than I ever remember, and I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest! October was a full and fabulous month. Four days after celebrating my 65th birthday, my sixth book was released. But best of all, I learned we will be grandparents in the coming spring. I am overwhelmed joy! In November, Erin and Elliot took us to his family cabin on the Olympic Peninsula for a much-needed retreat for all of us. It was a lovely weekend of long beach walks, great food and lots of card games. Erin always wins! Now December is here and 2019 is coming to a close. Winter break from teaching has been a time to take stock and prioritize for 2020. We learned that our first grandchild will be a boy. I can focus on little else!

2020 will be fabulous, but then 2019 was really nothing to complain about either. It’s all in how you look at it. Have you taken a moment to scroll through your calendar? You might be surprised to find joy buried there.

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Lucky Day?

I find a spot in the large lot as close as possible to the supermarket. A truck, maybe an SUV, is parked on the right; an older model sedan to the left. Tight, but not too tight. Enough space for my door to swing open just fine. A shadow sits behind the wheel of the sedan. A better look reveals a heavy-bellied man who seems to be snoozing.

I sit for a moment thinking about my earlier purchases – a bathroom rug, kitchen towels, a sweater – is it too much? Money is tight. With a sigh, I gather the empty grocery bags from the passenger’s seat, brush my graying bangs from my eyes, and swing my legs from the car. With two feet planted on the ground, and leaning forward slightly to hoist myself up, my eyes glaze the wet concrete and land on what looks like a small piece of paper almost under my car. A bill. Never one to ignore even a coin on the ground – lucky penny, I say if anyone sees my awkward stoop – I pick up the money. It is folded twice, halved then quartered. For a moment I wonder about the shadow in the car. Could it be his? Unlikely, I tell myself. 

I palm the money, push myself from my car, and head to the supermarket door. As I walk, I finger the money. Glancing toward my hand, the 100 gives me pause. When I realize two bills are folded together, I freeze. Are they both hundred-dollar bills? What should I do? Turn it into the supermarket manager? Maybe, but what are the odds that someone will ask at this particular store? The supermarket is only one of many in this large outdoor mall.

I head to the restroom at the back of the store. There I settle myself, slip the crisp, new bills into my wallet, and decide that maybe, just maybe, it’s my lucky day. Then, I go about my shopping, filling the small cart with fresh vegetables for the soup planned for the evening. At the checkout I reach for my card, reluctant to use the bills snuggled next to it.

As I approach my parked car, the passenger door to the neighboring sedan is open wide. A large woman leans into the front seat. She is tearing through the car, her grocery bags, her purse. Tissues, a hairbrush, plastic bags, crumpled papers are strewn on the ground between our cars. 

She sees me, or perhaps the man still in the driver’s seat tells her I am there. When she stands and turns, I see anguish in her eyes and tears streaming down her dark face. Her tall body is wrapped in layers of threadbare fabrics: full-length skirt, multiple sweaters, scarf sliding from her head.

“Are you looking for something?” I ask.

Her arms flailing toward the gods, the woman wails, “My two hundred dollars. My two hundred dollars.”

I reach forward and touch one raised arm. “It’s all right. I found it. Here on the ground. I didn’t know who it belonged to.”

The woman stares in disbelief as I open my wallet and pull out the folded bills. Before I can hand them over, I’m folded into a dancing embrace of pure joy. 

“My money. My money. Praise the Lord. Thank you. Thank you, dear lady.”

I feel the woman’s full body shaking, trembling as her arms smother me against her ample chest.

“It’s okay now,” I soothe. “You’re okay now. Here, take your money.”

As the woman stuffs the bills under the layers of fabric covering her chest, she asks, “What is your name, dear lady? We will say a prayer for you.”

“Arleen,” I say and am again wrapped in a warm embrace. Disentangling myself, I slip into her own driver’s seat and wish the woman well.

As I drive home, a wide smile spreads across my face. “She needs it more than me.”

Monday, December 16, 2019

Stories to Share

How can you write about all that stuff?
Doesn’t it feel weird to share your secrets?
I couldn’t do it.
You’re so brave.

In one way or another I’ve heard these questions and comments from readers since the publication of my first memoir. My response has been, I’ll admit, a bit flippant, perhaps even rude at times.

Such is the nature of memoir.
That’s why it’s called memoir.

But through the years I’ve thought a lot about the truth behind both the questions/comments and my responses. There is no doubt that memoir writing involves honesty, a bearing of the soul in search of personal understanding and universal truth. It is the telling of truth that readers connect with, the universal human experience that truth touches.

I’ve come to understand that my comfort with memoir lies in another, perhaps more deeply buried belief. We all have buttons – expressions, comments, behaviors – that set us off. Understanding where they come from or how they are formed is likely found in the field of psychoanalysis. One of my buttons – or triggers, though I dislike that term – is when someone says something along the lines of: That’s just the way he/she is. People don’t change.

I don’t share that belief. I never have. People can and do change when they mindfully make the decision to do so. As Leonardo Shaw points out in this interview a friend shared with me recently:

“We all have within us, at any moment, the power
to transform the quality of our life.”
—Leonard Shaw

I am not the same insecure girl I was in high school, or the same young woman making so many mistakes, so many errors in judgement, or even the same young mother grappling with first family tragedy while struggling to build a new family of her own.

We change when we choose to be self-analytical, to question our past and work to build new patterns of behavior. It’s hard, time-consuming, continuous work. The work of a lifetime. But it is possible. So when people ask in ore form or another if I’m not embarrassed to tell the secrets I share in my memoirs, my response has changed. Now I say: I’m no longer that person. People change.

I feel compassion for that younger me, but I am no longer her. She helped me become who I am today. She gave me stories to share.
I hope you enjoy these stories of my years working as an undocumented teacher in Mexico City in the 1980s and reconnecting with the women I knew during those turbulent years.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Seattle Writes: Join Me in West Seattle!

I'm excited for the opportunity to substitute teach for Seattle Writes, a Hugo House writing program offered in collaboration with the Seattle Public Library. I'll be covering for Jeanine Walker on Wednesday, December 11 in the West Seattle Library. This is a special pleasure as I will be teaching in my local neighborhood library!

Join me and other West Seattle writers as we explore memoir and the use of memoir techniques in other writing genres. All skill levels welcome. I hope you'll join us!

Seattle Writes: Writing Circle With Hugo House

West Seattle Library
2306 42nd Ave SW, Seattle, WA 
Wednesday, December 11, 2019, 6:00 - 7:30 p.m.