In the new year we reflect on our goals. It’s a time when we consider what we might set in motion, complete, or resurrect as writers. It’s time when I am reminded of a simple word that feels all-powerful: begin.
Now is the time to hone your practice and find your seat at the table, writing desk, or couch. Work with me to reach your writing goals this year. I’m offering weekly and bi-monthly coaching sessions for writers looking to launch their work in this new season.
Drop me an email if you’re interested in discussing possibilities. I currently have space for new clients: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those of you who live in the Burlington area, I hope you will join me THIS FRIDAY EVENING from 6PM – 8PM at BCA (the Firehouse Gallery) upstairs for a reading, book signing, and celebration of Made Holy.
The best part about publishing this book is that so many of my friends and family have reached out to me with their own stories and emotions about loss, longing, sorrow, grace, and love. They’ve said, in various ways, I’ve felt that too. I realize that in sharing my most vulnerable self, I am giving others permission to share theirs, and that is a level of healing I never realized was possible.
I always thought I’d write an esoteric book of abstract poetry, fragmented essays, or academic gobbledygook. But Made Holy is exactly the opposite. As this book makes its small way in the world, I am heartened by how much love we all really possess and how much we want to connect with each other in these deeply vulnerable ways. We long to share our true selves and to not worry about the judgement of others. We long to let go of our fears and the shame we’ve been made to feel about who we are. My hope is that we will keep working on this and that we will speak our truths with courage to each other, and listen with courage, compassion, and acceptance to each other.
Here is what my sister Alida wrote about the book:
We are ever-flawed beings~ but ever meant to love and be loved, to be made holy not by learning perfection but by stepping into grace, learning forgiveness, and accepting every part of ourselves. It is incredible to me how raw the feeling of loss can be, so many years later, when that mourning is given shape in these beautifully written words. It is an unabashed desire to be truthful, to share through a most personal experience the parts of life & humanity that are common to us all, that takes me deep into these pages.
P. S. Still need a copy of Made Holy? You can order one from the publisher (buy two and shipping is free) or on Amazon.
Tonight at 8pm CST (9pm in Vermont), my sister Alida and I will be discussing my book, Made Holy, in Chisholm, MN –my hometown! We plan to go live downtown in the Pocket Park.
I want to have an opportunity to talk about the process of writing this book & why I wrote it.
I never thought I would write a nonfiction book about my life. I have always been a private person, secretive even. So crafting essays about some of the most intimate parts of my life would have seemed like a nightmare to my twenty-something self.
Yet, everything changed in my life around the age of 28. And slowly over the years these essays came to me in the dark hours between feeding my babies, in the early morning light of winter over cold cups of coffee, and at the edge of sleep. Writing is a solitary endeavor one toils over, drafting and redrafting, crafting and cutting apart, refining and redoing. Nobody becomes a writer casually or on accident. It has taken me years to perfect sentences, develop my craft, harness the stories that flew like kites at the edge of my dreams. They always presented like siren calls from somewhere deep within that also felt far away, and every time I built the ship that would sail them, it took months and years. I know, it sounds crazy, but that is writing and the deepest joy comes out of writing well and giving the gift of one’s labor to the world–a tiny boat in a massive sea that sails into oblivion.
Mid-summer and I am dreaming of bees. My husband, dream midwife, has given me seven days to ride a horse in my dreams, but I sleep late and wake and forget as my youngest nudges me up, Come, play. In the field adjacent to the house, a hidden stream between us, my husband and oldest son are tending the plants. Music winds its way to me from the little speaker they have brought. I lift my hand to them.
Rural Vermont feels like the shire, my husband says. It blooms full towards autumn ripeness. I prefer fairy lands and secret hovels and hidden cabins in the woods. I prefer bodies of water, long fields, a distance when looking.
I drink coffee and I think of bees. Erotic buzzing, multitudes, queen-ruled, a song like lips making a sound the ear only feels. I walk in the grass barefoot and do no work. I cut wild flowers and place them in a clear glass vase. My husband leaves for work. The two boys have a tea party with mint licorice tea, round crackers, stuffed animals. They hum and bicker and love. They grow hungry, thirsty, tired.
My husband dreamed of a golden horse dancing in the field outside this house the night before our first son was born. We did not live here. His grandfather did at that time. Cavallo means horse in Italian, which is something they also eat in Italy. It is one of our first son’s names, for his grandmother’s line–Italians and for the horse in the field where her mother once lived, June. I knew that he would be irrevocably mine, but I tethered him to Nana in this small way, like a spell. Eventually this magic worked and he dotes on her as she does him.
He was born under the sign of my mother, Aquarius. Like her he is thin, red-haired, original. Moses, is his first name. A name that came to me like a storm that never lifted. No, not Mo or Mose, I would say to my husband. It must be Moses. After he was born and grew, I wondered over the name. Why it possessed me. Why I insisted he carry such a mantle all his life. Mo, I say. Mo, like a quiet place one might find respite.
On and on they go, the two of them creating worlds. For a moment, I listen. They are fetching a pen for “research.” They lose interest. “Want to have a battle?” one asks. “No, I’m doing research,” says the other. “After my research,” he repeats, the word a charm on his tongue. He has no idea what it means, he is only four. Something to do with a pen and paper. I think about what I would like to research: bees, linens, islands, furniture carved of wood, large beds with fluffy pillows, tea that clears the mind.
We leave in two days to travel halfway across the country. To land in the bay of loons. To romp and rollick and read. Sun, water, wave. Tree, bird, stone. Wind. Summer, in the life of teachers: its soft and balmy breeze, its blanket of sun each morning, its long evening flush with fireflies, a scrap of moon above the treetops. The late fire around which we speak of things we would not, by any other light, admit.
I laze and consider the quickness of flies, how I would move if I moved like an ant, what I will make the children for lunch. I do not think of the third child I want. I do not think of the fortune teller’s words. Two children, she said. Perhaps a third, but they might not make it through. I was twenty-something then. Now this phantom child haunts me. I try to call her name: Ruth, June, Jude, Camilla, Matilda, Matisse, Elouise. I imagine if I find her name and sing it out to her she will come. Yes, she. But dare I taunt the gods.
I think of a line of poetry I once wrote: Bee, bee, bee. Once, you called the bee from me.
I make lists. Gratitude. To do. To pack. I make calls. I feed the children. They go on creating worlds–houses made of pillows, chairs in a line become a path to keep their feet from hot lava. Cars, podcasts, horses. Dragons. Stones. Scrap of blanket balled up and smelling of the blackberries they picked from the yard.
We moved to this house two years ago and have been slow to make it our own as we do not own the house. This spring I dug up the grass and planted a garden. My husband began farming the field. I made a rock garden and planted flowers. We cristened a fire pit in the early spring air. Each season here like a thickening emotion, a scent I call forth in my mind–always, the way it feels occupies me most.
Though I have avoided this out of a sense of fear and anxiety, my first book will come into the world this September. Its birth, a long coil of labor, a fierce abandon-ing of allegiances for truth, a hope of another world, a whisper at my ear–this is what birth feels like, which is what Peggy, my midwife whispered to me during the birth of my second son. The first had been born by C-section. I am the kind of person who needs a midwife at my ear whispering these words all the day long–this is what it feels like. This life.
Now the bee and the horse and the children still wrapped in their games. Now the turn of the day, the leaving, the work, the labor, the speaking and planning and doing. Now the sun hot in the sky and the field, a green expanse. Now the laundry, the dishes, the organizing, the pitch and purchase of the day.
Summer arrives in the North like a dream. Exuberant, joyous, freeing. One thing I love about my summer is watching my sons run wild. Bedtime is extended, the outdoors becomes a roving playground, and I see their swift transformation into wilder versions of themselves. They find a freedom in the unscheduled hours we occupy. Planned activities feel more exciting after hours of fluttering time that spreads like a quilt of wind over days.
They also fight and bicker and meltdown. But that’s to be expected. I try my best to stay hands off and to avoid nagging and scolding and demanding they clean up. Right now they are wrestling on the futon in the living room with a bunch of pillows. I hear screaming, laughter, shouts, demands, giggles. All of it necessary. All of it good.
Since school got out last week, I’ve struggled to get back to my writing practice. It’s difficult to focus with them here and my husband is currently away for a training. I have come to see my writing practice like a meditation practice. I listen to Tara Brach – meditation teacher, Buddhist – talks often and much of what she says about meditation, applies to writing. I’m also a big fan (as you all know) of Brene Brown‘s work and highly recommend her current Netflix special. Taking from their work and my observations, I’ve come up with some principles for summer writing practices.
Make a goal and track it. I think this is essential. Write down what you plan to do and then write down what you do. It really helps if you work with a buddy on this and either start a shared google doc to set goals and track actuals OR text each other. You can either track words or time. Think about how many days a week you want to write, how much time, and whether or not the word count matters to you. If, for example, you’re a poet or you’re editing, word count isn’t a helpful measure.
Develop your writing boundaries. What are boundaries? People talk about them all the time but I don’t know that we all understand them. Brene Brown highlights how in order to be vulnerable we need to feel secure in our boundaries because then we know that we are taking care of ourselves and we won’t let anyone take advantage of us–we need to develop self-trust. So, create your writing boundaries. Mainly this is about carving out space and time on a regular basis that is all yours. Your own space. Your own time so that you can write. You have to keep it sacred. I find that when I leave my work for too long, I lose it. My characters hide, the story falls apart, and I feel scared of going back to it. This is why we have to stay in practice. If you do stop or take a break. You simply return to the work and begin again. No drama. No story. No judgement.
Be free. Like my children, open time and open space creates new energy and new ways of thinking. Nurturing our writing can be the same. We are looking for our voice or we are developing it. We are trying to find a way to articulate the parts of life that feel wholly voiceless and without words or taboo and shameful or too sentimental and precious. Go into the woods or the museum with a paper and pen, sketch pictures or images that have to do with your work, dig in the garden, swim in the ocean. Do nothing for a day. Find ways to break up your routine and breathe new life in to your work.
Fail. Failure is essential. Brene Brown talks about the essentiality of failing. If you’re going to be innovative, creative, and successful, you’re going to fail. Let yourself fail big time. Stretch yourself out. You will fail to keep your schedule, you will fail to hit your word count, you will fail to finish that story, you will abandon your novel. What matters is that you keep going. That’s all. Head down, keep writing. Don’t listen to the critics in your life, especially the one on your shoulder.
Risk everything. If you want to connect with your readers, if you want to be a good writer, you must take risks. In my first graduate writing workshop, one of my instructors, Clint McCown, gave us two pieces of great advice. First, whenever your character cries on the page you miss an opportunity for your reader to cry. But more importantly, because my characters never cry, he said, good writing risks sentimentality, it drives write up to that cliff but never falls off (well, it does, but that’s a fail). In writing, we expose ourselves either by writing about our own lives in intimate ways or creating characters that expose our greatest hopes and fears. You know the feeling you get when you’re onto something. That feeling comes from pushing up to the edge of an idea, a character, a feeling, a longing and laying it bare like an offering before your reader.
It’s that time of year. Time for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and this year it’s in Portland, Oregon. Come see me talk about writing and find out what the game Neon Daycare, which I played with my sisters and cousins as a young girl, has to do with writing.
S228. The Landscape of Memory: Writing Places That Don’t Exist. (Kelly McMasters, Miranda Weiss, Emily Casey, Jericho Parms) While setting is often seen as the purview of fiction writers, place has become its own sub-genre in the creative nonfiction community. Whether tracking breaking stories in situ or casting generations into the past, the writer’s job is often to create the landscape of memory out of the ether. How, aside from Proust’s madeleine, can we gain access to places to which we no longer have access, and landscapes that are essentially make-believe? How do writers render a remembered landscape real?
We talk about the weather here. All. The. Time. It shifts and changes and plays tricks. It’s March and the cedar waxwings have returned, or so they say. The robins must be on their way. Wild turkeys stalk our woods like soldiers. I follow their tracks up the mountain. I have been ill and then not ill and then ill again. But I cannot stay inside another day. So I have put on snowshoes and clomped across the field to the road that leads out to the pond and the mountain, which is perhaps more of a hill. My head spins all the way across the field until my breath slows into it’s rhythmic hum. Just walk and you’ll be changed, I tell myself, and everything about these woods changes me. Any woods, any nature, any body of water gives me reprieve. So here I go out into the awful March of endless winter hoping for relief from my sick brain and cooped up body.
I would like to spend hours here in the woods. But my anxious mind lurches from lists and tasks to plans and hopes and fears. I can only stay so long. Though I wish I could live in this solace always, I haven’t quite figured that out.
The other day I learned while listening to a podcast, attempting to fall asleep, that people with higher anxiety dislike neutral scents because of the way they trigger fear in the brain. If it is not a good smell it must be a bad smell, the anxious, fear-triggered brain reasons. I found this amusing because my father and I seem to have highly sensitive olfactory receptors, and we are also the most anxious neurotics of the family. It is true that I have a certain animosity towards potentially harmless smells when I was feeling particularly anxious. I shout out to my husband, “What is that awful smell?!” And he rolls his eyes and shakes his head at me. I am keenly aware of his various scents, which tend to be strong, and yet my children always smell right to me.
While listening to NPR, another nervous tick outlet for me, I heard a story on workers that monitor Facebook posts, which is a job Facebook contracts to another company. The workers aren’t well paid and they’re forced to look at horrific shit all day, including, reportedly, live feeds of murder and sexual assault. The workers must raise their hand and log out to use the bathroom. They are given a nine minute processing period, which they can use once a shift if they need a break after viewing disturbing content. I cannot, as hard as I try, seem to locate this story online. Nor can I stop thinking about it.
Though I care for these workers, I am more obsessed with the concept at play. I keep thinking about how we would never have been able to creatively predict such employment decades ago, but, had we, it would have made for excellent dystopian lit.
Much of what is happening in our world feels dystopian to me. And yet I’m convinced we continue to evolve as creatures–our brains shifting and rewiring towards what MLK has called “the moral arch of the universe.” Its tiresome to hear certain grownups talk about how well behaved children used to be–you mean, well manipulated, I think, well threatened?
Yet, these monitors of Facebook are real people who are suffering from exposure to traumatic content, and they are not well-cared for and their working conditions are abominable. They have an increasingly important role in the shaping our political and social landscape. But we often seem to overlook the most important jobs in our society. And, in terms of social media, as my friend, the Historian Jill Mudgett has said, we are like babies in the social media universe, we are bound to make endless mistakes; we have no idea what we’re dealing with.
Hibernacula means “tent for winters” and refers to the spaces in which animals hibernate. Frogs partially freeze in winter and their hearts stop. They form ice crystals in their lungs and body cavities but a high source of glucose keeps them from completely freezing or dying. When the hibernacualum around the frog warms up they unthaw and their heart and lungs begin working again. Some frogs just climb into cracks to hibernate for the winter. I have often hoped to find one. This trick of nature fascinates me. If I could find a frog hibernating I could bring it home and watch it come to life. This seems like the ultimate party trick.
In Beijing, in my twenties, I once took a one-block cab ride for which I paid, up front, ten dollars. I had missed a flight to Siberia and had no idea how to navigate the city. My anxiety then was extremely high. Luckily I found a hostel, booked a room, and hit the lounge where I downed three beers and turned in for the night.
I am convinced my anxiety would disappear if I quit coffee. But, alas, that shall never come to pass. In the evening I think longingly of coffee before bed. In the morning I do not get up until my husband has made the coffee and brings me a cup. Yes, I know, I hit the husband jackpot. But all my luck went into that.
Long distance running is the only effective way I’ve been able to manage anxiety. But sometimes I get tired and quit. I’m training for a half marathon in May, in which I hope to beat my PR. Competition has always motivated me until it doesn’t, and then I’m paralyzed. At the gym, where I go to run on the treadmill, which is extremely boring, I like to watch the others. There is one woman who seems to have disappeared inside herself–her choice in clothing and obsessive reading on the treadmill makes me think this. When I tell my husband about her he is uninterested. I want to explain the way her face personifies this concept of self erasure but my husband finds me cruel.
The other night I returned from the gym and he was sleeping and I was outraged because I had wanted to tell him all about how I ran into our friend Sigrid and she taught me to hula, which I’ve never been able to do. Instead I ate a bowl of rice and beans in the kitchen and thought about how my baby sister was about to turn thirty.
The passing of time has been the most disturbing part of my life. I dislike stasis, so I am unsure of the alternative. While it is clear from mere observance, that we will grow old and die, we do not believe it.
On the evening of my snowshoe in the woods, as I was clomping up the hill-mount, I saw a fluff of fur in the snow and stopped. It looked beautiful and alive but also dead. I could not see the entire body. I bent down with a stick and poked it, then lifted it up and flopped it around. A possum. It was not stiff and it bore no marks of injury. Yet I did not remember the thing about possums — playing possum.
I am a person stunned by wild animals. Despite having grown up in the woods, whenever I see a real live wild animal, especially up close, I feel excited. Here, in our cabin in the woods, whenever we spot deer in the field or rabbits in the yard we call out to each other to come and look. I couldn’t decide what to do about the possum in the snow. Leave it there and let it become another creature’s dinner or burry it beneath the snow. I laid my bare hand on it’s back and tried to feel for a heart beat. I did not think it was alive though, so I didn’t spend much time doing this.
The paws of a possum are particularly delicate; they have long slender fingers with elaborate padding and sharp nails. I pressed my index finger to this possum’s palm to feel the grooves and curves there.
When I finally shooed the children outside into frigid temperatures, I spy on them from my bedroom window. They are attempting to slide down a small hill along the side of the house on broken parts of a sled. Later I hear the younger one yapping like a wolf. Everything about this child surprises me.
The silence of this house is a kind of warmth. Not every house offers such delicious silence. But every empty house after children has given me this. To know I am alone gives me immense relief.
I decided to bury the possum beneath the snow. It wasn’t deep, just a layer to keep it safe. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this or why I feel a need to engage in sacred acts–or at least acts imagined as such. I said goodbye and climbed on. I passed the turkey tracks, deer, and wolf or coyotes. I stood at the peak and looked out for a moment into the trees and setting sun before I returned to the lower ground near the pond. I have been told that once a person falls through frozen ice into frigid waters, they only have around eight seconds before their body shuts down.
Later, I looked up the possum online when I realized that it could have been playing dead–something I had not recalled in the woods. Playing dead is involuntary for them. When facing danger, their body goes into a coma-like state that can last from between forty minutes and four hours. They are conscious but they cannot move. When I think about this odd evolutionary trick, I’m slightly horrified to imagine a comatose possum with consciousness, unable to move as it becomes prey. Or, in my case, unable to move or run away while a woman buried her in snow.
I once read War and Peace alone on a half empty train from Prague to Paris and the memory of this remains a kind of myth in my mind.