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How to be a legend

Note from the Universe:  A tip on legend making:  Always do what you most want to do, and do it your way.

This note reminds me of the quote:
Well-behaved women seldom make history.” ~Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
In that case, well, shut up?! I’m already there.

What do you most want to do?

I want to express myself. (ok, that made me laugh. I have a blog, so that’s obvious.) I mean I want not just to write, but to paint. But I have this vivid image of what a painter looks like:     my mother.

Mama was a wildly talented painter and sculptress. Her paintings hang in libraries at Western Washington University and she had numerous showings.  Her long brown hair was often tipped with cerulean or burnt umber or yellow ochre because she never tied it back.  Turpentine. Palettes. Paint tubes. Easels.  All of it looms in my head when I look at a blank canvas.  It reminds me of her talent and I am stalled. I can’t use a brush correctly (seriously. It looks so easy, but the brushes never do what I tell them.)  When I paint I use my fingers, or a sponge, or a palette knife, anything but a damn brush.  I cannot draw a proper representation of anything to save my life. My bent is strictly abstract.

I have a beautiful 36×48 blank canvas hanging over my desk that I am afraid to ruin. I have it there to …coax me, I suppose.  It’s not working.
Mama…Mama was a columbine. And I am a dandelion.

…and dandelions are amazing.

  • They grow wherever they damn well please.
  • We make wishes on them,
  • and we divine whether someone loves us by holding one under our chins.
  • They help plants to crop more heavily,
  • and it’s believed that if they grow near fruit trees the fruit ripens more quickly.
  • You can make wine out of ’em,
  • or salad,
  • or tea.
  • Herbalists use it to treat liver ailments.
  • They’re used in pagan celebrations of springtime. (Beltane is my birthday, so I love this.)
  • Dandelions are a symbol of perseverance in the face of hardship,
  • and they are so ubiquitous that nearly anyone can picture one.
  • And have you heard of our Dandelion Universe? Look here and here.

"The dandelion is an excellent barometer, one of the commonest and most reliable. It is when the blooms have seeded and are in the fluffy, feathery condition that its weather prophet facilities come to the fore. In fine weather the ball extends to the full, but when rain approaches, it shuts like an umbrella. If the weather is inclined to be showery it keeps shut all the time, only opening when the danger from the wet is past." Source: "Camping For Boys," by H.W. Gibson

So ok, I can hang with being a dandelion.
I do everything else my way. Can’t hurt to suck it up and paint, too.

What amazing flower are you?

Song Sung Blue

Tom Dooley

Sweet Baby James

Why I give books away

People are always nonplussed when I share my passion for giving away books. I always have a box of books at the ready, and I have a bookshelf in the waiting room of my office that I keep fully stocked. The best way I can explain it is by sharing part of what I told my 2008 graduating class:

“My son was in juvenile hall, and I wanted to give him a copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is Frankl’s memoir of how he endured life in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. But when I asked the officers at the front desk if I could give it to him, they said no. I was shocked and baffled. It’s a very small paperback book. Did they think he’d make a shank out of it? Seemed the worst he could do is make spit wads.

“No,” they told me. “All the kids would fight over it and the book would be destroyed.”

This told me the obvious, that there was poverty in juvenile hall. But there was something bigger here, a mindset of not having enough. So I thought, “All right, then. I’ll just bring books for everyone.”

I brought in boxes of books every week, and two things happened:
1) the officers contacted me to see if I could find a specific book for one of the kids, and 2) they asked if they (the officers) could have some, too.
The hunger wasn’t merely among the inmates but among the officers, too.

“Yes,” I said. “There’s enough for you, too.”

I wonder if a kid’s life could be changed simply by having access to an abundance of books. Simply by reading just one book that shows a life different from the one he knows. Who knows what one book can do? I think having access to books can have a huge impact on the choices a person makes.

I gave away more than 2000 books all over Imperial Valley that summer; the bulk of them went to juvenile hall and the navy base, and there were so many that I didn’t take the time to document them all on the Bookcrossing site. I decided that it didn’t matter, since the point wasn’t to track the books but to get them into the hands of people.

I’ll never know what impact any of this had. It doesn’t matter.
The books are out there.

The power of noticing

December 23’s Note from the Universe:  Who would have ever thought that you would see, feel, and intuitively know so much that others completely miss?  You’ve changed absolutely everything.

Ten+ years ago, I couldn’t think of a single person who could say that I was special to her/him.  I don’t mean romantically. I mean in the sense that it mattered to anyone that I got up in the morning, that my existence was not just important, but crucial. I don’t remember precisely why I was in that space, but I remember the blackness, and I remember having enough sense to reach out to close friends. (Here’s a terrific post about crawling out of the hole.)

I had lunch with one of them, and when I told her what I was struggling with, she was so shocked that tears sprang to her eyes.
That image has stayed with me because her surprise was genuine, and I think that’s what made me realize my perspective was skewed.
I was beyond tears, myself.  My despair was edged with a curious, baffled detachment:  Why couldn’t I name anyone who could say that I was special?  And why did it matter so much?  I hated that need, and I hated myself for being pathetic.

Lately I’ve been studying metaphors and human needs,  for both my writing and my personal growth.  I don’t want to be stuck focusing all my energy on fulfilling the two core human needs (certainty and significance) to the detriment of the other four, which I wrote about in my last post.
I’ve picked up several books on metaphors:

David Grove is particularly important because it is he who came up with the concept of “clean language”–language which is free from your own metaphors and which reflects those of the person you are listening to.  It’s a therapeutic tool, but the use of clean language can transform anyone’s listening skills. I’m finding Sullivan and Rees’ book to be more helpful than Grove’s because of the practical applications they suggest.

For example, they present two of twelve core questions of Clean Language in Chapter One:

  • (And) What kind of X (is that X)?
  • (And) Is there anything else about X?

They explain that “the X in the question refers to a word or phrase the speaker has used” and the question ‘What kind of X?’ invites them to ‘zoom in’ on the specific details, while ‘Anything else about X?’ can help them ‘zoom out’ to the wider context or to focus on other details about ‘X'” (2).  Then they share this anecdote for illustration:

A mother who had just learned some Clean Language picked up her daughter Jenny from school.  When Jenny showed her a picture of a house she had drawn, Mum asked, “What kind of house is that house?”, “And is there anything else about that house?” and so on. What resulted was one of the longest after-school conversations they’d ever enjoyed.  The next day after school, Jenny demanded, “Ask me some more questions, Mummy!” (2-3)

The purpose of using Clean Language is to strip your own metaphors and assumptions out of the discourse so that you can truly hear the other person. I’m reading this book and practicing on myself so I can discover my own metaphors, and so I can flesh out my characters.

I’ve also been assessing how I can better meet my own six core human needs. (This post is good, too.)  Ten years ago I was focusing on significance; today I’m learning about how I can meet my need for certainty and contribution.  Certainty, for me, means I keep my schedule from being blowtorched by others’ urgent needs.  It means I have a list of the 6 most important things I need to accomplish each day (I don’t know what the deal is with the number 6) and that I have a specific plan in place for each of my long-term goals. These things make me feel like I have some measure of control in my unpredictable uproarious life.

My need to contribute, I’m finding, is complex. I thought it was a simple matter of giving things to people: books, clothes, food. But giving away thousands of books hasn’t met that need the way connecting with people does. (Read about why I give away books here.)  I watched a brief TED talk this morning that showed me a way I can contribute:  You Matter  I hope it inspires you, too.

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Metaphors and Character Development

I don’t see much online on the subject of using metaphors in character development, so I’m sharing my process.

I’ve got this homeless character  in the opening scene of my novel and she did something that surprised me.  I thought she was just a crazy old lady, but she pulled a .357 on a Beemer guy who was going to dump oil in a dumpster she’d climbed into to retrieve a book.   When I started the scene, I didn’t know anything but the fact that she was in a dumpster. By the time I was through writing the scene, I discovered that she can take care of herself, that she’s got a soft spot for strays, and she’ll dig through trash to get to good reading material.

I know why she’s on the streets–she’s trying to find a teenaged girl who ran away, but –that’s all I know.  So I’m studying metaphors. Once I figure out what her life metaphor is, I’ll have a better handle on her character.

One way to look at it is to call it her paradigm.  It’s a deeply held, unconscious belief  which dictates how a person responds to life’s events.  We all have this internal set of beliefs which guide us in our choices every day.  Is the world a good or a bad place? Is life an uphill struggle, or a joyride? Is it a classroom, a confessional, a sacrificial altar, or a den of thieves? People growing up in the same household can emerge with different paradigms because each experiences things differently.

I know that Maggie (the homeless woman) has a positive paradigm; I also know that for her to be a compelling character she needs to grow, so there’s room for her metaphor to be altered by her experiences in the story.  The metaphor that life is a classroom fits what I know of her character so far so I’m adopting that for now, although I’m pretty sure there’s more to it.

The girl she wants to find (Emily) is a different matter. The world’s been a dangerous place for her, so many of her decisions will be driven by a need for certainty.  I’m basing this on what I’ve read by Tony Robbins, who asserts that we have six basic needs. The two core needs are certainty and significance, and according to my life coach, most people live their whole lives making sure these two needs are met, many times to the detriment of the other four needs: variety, connection, growth, and contribution.  Maggie, I’ve just realized, is driven by her need to live a life that makes a difference.  I want her character arc to move toward the other needs, so I’ll be planning my plot with that in mind since she’s my central character.

Emily has no thought for anything but survival.  Right now she views life as a cross between a battlefield and a war game, like chess, in which she is a dispensable pawn. My goal for her character is for her to grow toward connection and significance, which she will find as she develops her art.


It’s all good

Thank you, Mike Dooley. Once more your gentle advice via Notes from the Universe has upended my perspective and made me serene and thankful.

Dooley’s flip calendar has this note:  Sometimes difficult people are placed on your path so that you can be reminded of what you may have once put others through.  In all cases, you both thought it was a good idea to meet up this time, for reasons that will one day make perfect sense. ~The Universe

When I read that, I thought, “NFW.”

I have spent the last two weeks or so navigating through various peoples’ schedules, and I was craptastically inconvenienced by one person who took vacation during a time when work exploded.  This person is crucial to getting things done in a timely manner–there are things only he can do.  When I complained to him when he got back, he said, “hehehe.”  Scowl.

But that Note has been marinating, and today I see its truth.  I can remember taking desperately needed time off during a time that inconvenienced others.  Any time would have been inconvenient, and there was no way to foresee complications. He couldn’t have known, either.

So I’m serene, and genuinely glad for him. I get the giggle, too.

Nobody died. Work got done.

Christmas, my love for you has died

Dear Christmas:

I used to love you. From the choosing of the tree when I was little to the precise way my grandmother wanted it decorated when I was in my 20s.   Snowball fights and snow angels in Forest Falls. Plastic bags over socks, frozen shoelaces on wafflestompers, ice-caked mittens. Ginger ale, homemade hot cocoa, soup with walnuts. Family visiting from afar.

The only present I remember from my childhood Christmases is a huge red Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary given to me when I was eight years old.
There were other gifts–I’ve seen the photos–but they didn’t stay with me the way that dictionary did. (Over 30 years. It fell apart a few years ago.)

Christmas now?  Garlands drooping over Main Street, snakey lines in department stores, Salvation Army bell-ringers, crammed parking lots, once-a-year toy and food drives, “special” sales offers flooding my inbox, Black Friday violence over toasters and TVs, surprise visits from my ex-husband’s family (after 7 years of silence. Because we’re ‘family’.)  Incongruous snow scenes on store windows (we’re in the desert.  We don’t know what snow is.) None of it embodies the spirit of anything good.

Where did the magic go? Isn’t this time supposed to be a time of celebration? Whether it’s the celebration of Jesus’ birth, or the Day of Enlightenment, or Yule, or Diwali,  Hanukkah , Ramadan,  or Kwanzaa, it’s not showing. The only thing in evidence is shopping.
I don’t see the sense in providing for the poor once a year. I don’t see the sense in obligatory Christmas cards or gifts. I don’t see the sense in waiting till December to connect with people.  And I don’t care if you say ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Merry Christmas’–both are empty phrases, just like “hi, how are you?” in passing.  The furor over this is ridiculous.

In an effort to recapture some magic–not just for the season, but on an ongoing basis–I’ve adopted a tribe of kids across the border. An acquaintance told me that he has often raided his closet (and his brother’s!) and given away clothes and shoes to the children of his old neighborhood, and I wanted to help. For $20 I got 20 items from the local thrift store–sturdy jeans, good quality shirts—and he delivered them on his regular trip to Mexicali.  It’s the best twenty bucks I’ve spent in a long time., and it inspires me to find other ways to make a difference.

As far as Christmas goes–meh. Seems like a lost cause.





Thanksgiving Solitude

What kind of person prefers to be alone on a family holiday?

My alarm went off at 6am because I forgot to turn it off last night so I could sleep in. I got up, disoriented and bleary-eyed, and was puttering around for 10 minutes before I realized I didn’t need to get ready for work.  I was still brain-fogged enough to crawl back under the covers and sleep some more, but the coffee was already brewing, so hell.  Might as well fix the turkey.

Yeah, I got a turkey. I like the smell of Thanksgiving even when I’m alone.

I’m alone today by choice.  I chose it over and over again this month.  I’ve been and still am ambivalent about it.  It’s a day off.  It’s just another Thursday in a year full of Thursdays.  But it’s also a time for community.  Friends and family.

So I cried a little when I was making the stuffing–all I could think was that it’s a weird person who chooses to be alone on a family holiday.  Then I wondered why I was feeling pathetic.  What preconceived notion do I have that makes me feel that something’s wrong with me for wanting to spend today by myself?  And why did I want this? What, I couldn’t choose Friday? The weekend? Will I regret this?

I don’t think so.

I love my sons. My friends. I could phone any of them and say, “I’m coming over, set a place for me,” and I would be warmly enveloped.  But I don’t want to.  I’m spending today thinking of all that’s good in my life, and I’m focusing on myself.

Things have gone awry lately–I’ve set goals that I’ve wandered away from due to daily distractions and I need to reground myself.  I don’t have any fires to put out, just for today. Today is the perfect day for it because everyone is focused on being with.  Family. Friends.  Lovers.

The normal thing, right?

So have I got a screw loose?  Yeah, probably. But I’m happy.  I know who loves me, they know I love them, and I’m enjoying the solitude.