Thank God for Betsy Lerner!

“When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip.” Truman Capote

I discovered this quote in the introduction of The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner.  Lerner continues by say, “Now I understand that writers are a breed apart, their gifts and their whips inextricably linked. The writer’s psychology is by nature one of extreme duality.” I breathed a sigh of relief. My soul danced for joy. Ms. Lerner’s words were so well timed in my life that their presence can only be described as a divine gift.

When I was an undergraduate, I was studying English with a minor in Spanish. I loved literature, so when the Spanish Department sponsored an Argentinean author to come teach Latin American Magic Realism, of course I was going to take his class! Oddly enough, to me at least, this writer was also a mathematician. “He has this formula for writing and he just follows it,” my Spanish instructor told me. A formula for writing? Like an algebraic expression? Could literature be written by just plugging in the right components in the right order? I envied this idea.

Check out The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

For the next decade, I would search for this formula: creative writing classes, books, social media communities filled with other writers.  I discovered there were a lot of formulas. Some were very rigid, like an architect’s blue print, and some where more general like an old family recipe. I tried them all, like a self-conscious girl searching for a prom dress.  Each one seemed to accentuate some horrible defect in myself, and I would toss it in the corner discouraged in my abilities as a writer and filled with self-loathing. Really what hope is there when you are a self-identified writer who cannot write?

Lerner opens chapter 1, “The Ambivalent Writer,” with a number of questions:

“Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? Do you either start them all and don’t see them through to fruition or think about starting but never actually get going? Are you a short-story writer one day and a novelist the next? A memoirist on Monday and a screenwriter by the weekend? Do you begin sentences in your head while walking to work or picking up the dry cleaning, sentences so crisp and suggestive that they make perfect story or novel openers, only you never manage to write them down? Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? Have you ever accidentally left your notes, diary, or disk behind on a train or plane and bemoaned the loss of what certainly had been your best work? Have you ever been diagnosed with any combination of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or skin disease such as eczema or psoriasis? . . .If you can relate to any of the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities—along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness—that are part of the writer’s basic makeup.” (13, The Forest for the Trees)

I breathed a sigh of relief. I am not broken. I do not need to be fixed. I am perfectly designed to do what I love doing. I am a writer.

I have just started Lerner’s book, but I already know it is going to be one of the most important books I will ever read, not simply because it is an editor’s compassionate advice to writer’s, giving us an inside glimpse into the world we both long for and are afraid of, but because The Forest for the Trees is a mirror, like all great books are. The author, seeking to reveal the truth about themselves and the world as they know it, provides the perfect reflective surface for you to see yourself and who you really are. I guess, in one line, that is my formula. Thank you, Betsy Lerner.

Love of Languages

My daughter is gifted. She is being raised bilingual. We live in Miami were the school system accepts bilingualism as a fact. Her father is Cuban. In his house, the family speaks Spanish. At my house, we use English (she objects to my second-hand Spanish that doesn’t sound quite right to her—for some reason this makes me laugh).

I love the little grammatical errors that occur when people shift back and forth between languages. I am really the last person you want to practice your English with if you want stringent feedback on your linguistic faux pas. I let too much slide. Eventually, I may get around to telling you how “we say it in America,” but I am certainly not going to stop every conversation to point it out. Like I said, I enjoy the grammatical errors. It opens new doors to understanding.

My daughter has a habit of saying “throw a picture” instead of saying “take a picture.” It is a literal translation of what she has learned at her father’s house: “tira una foto.” What an interesting image. I once wrote a poem called “Pressed Flowers” in response to a photo prompt. The poem associated a photograph with memories frozen in time, like flowers pressed between the pages of a book.

My daughter’s grammatical error opened up a new way of viewing photographs. It was not something that you took, a lost moment that you stole and hid away. A picture was something you threw! Throwing implies there will be someone else out there to catch it. It wasn’t a private experience, it was a shared experience.

Someday, I will tell her that we don’t actually say “throw a picture” in English, but for now, I am enjoying this little linguistic discrepancy.

Tempering the Steel of Your Belief System

Some days, I do not know what I am going to write until I sit down at my computer. I often put in random word searches and see what links and images come up. Today, I started searching “defining beliefs” and “challenging beliefs.” I knew there was a connection.

I discovered my spiritual beliefs at a very young age, and I think that is because I was exposed to so many options. When I started to pick and choose what I believed to be true, those beliefs where rigorously challenged by a mother who does not think the same way as I do. Each time I had to defend what I believed in, even if only in my own mind, I had to rethink the issue, maybe adjust my opinion just a little. These opinions where constantly infused with new information. With each challenge, I had to decide, once again, that what I believed was indeed my ultimate truth.

Of course, this process can also go horribly wrong. Sometimes you are immersed in negative, self-destructive options. Sometimes, the challenges are so aggressive it sets up an irrational, reactive belief that is incapable of evolving naturally on its own.

This idea reminded me of tempering steel. Sure enough, google lead me to the perfect metaphor for this idea.  According to the website Integrated Publishing:

“After the hardening treatment is applied, steel is often harder than needed and is too brittle for most practical uses. Also, severe internal stresses are set up during the rapid cooling from the hardening temperature. To relieve the internal stresses and reduce brittleness, you should temper the steel after it is hardened. Tempering consists of heating the steel to a specific temperature (below its hardening temperature), holding it at that temperature for the required length of time, and then cooling it, usually instill air. The resultant strength, hardness, and ductility depend on the temperature to which the steel is heated during the tempering process.

The purpose of tempering is to reduce the brittleness imparted by hardening and to produce definite physical properties within the steel. Tempering always follows, never precedes, the hardening operation. Besides reducing brittleness, tempering softens the steel. That is unavoidable . . .”

http://www.tpub.com/steelworker1/11.htm

Now, the thing I find so fastening about this passage is the connection between hardness and brittleness. The harder the steel the less useful it is. I also appreciate the idea that this hardness and brittleness develops from the internal stresses of extreme changes in temperature.

So there is the formula, my friends. What happens if you have developed some of those negative, self-destructive belief systems? Well, most likely the stresses of extreme heating and cooling created a belief system that is too hard, and ironically, too brittle to be of any use. You will need to be tempered. This means subjecting yourself to a little heat. It also means you will have to be willing to let go of some of that hardness. Sorry, you just can’t have it both ways: tempered and useful or hard and brittle. The choice is yours.

Protecting Vs Defending

Protect – verb: to cover or shield from injury or danger

Defend-verb: to ward off attack from; guard against assault or injury

If you look up the definitions for the words “protect” and “defend,” they are very similar. In fact, depending on your dictionary, you might even find “protect” in the definition of “defend” or “defend” in the definition of “protect,” but I would like to make a subtle distinction. It is a distinction I recently learned myself. I believe the true difference between “protect” and “defend” is the difference between proactive and reactive behaviors.

To protect is to create a safe environment. To protect requires slow, deliberate decision making. To protect is to avoid a compromising situation that could be detrimental to that which you are attempting to protect.

To defend is to minimize the harm caused by a hostile environment. To defend requires fast, decisive decision making. To defend is to neutralize a compromising situation that could be detrimental to that which you are attempting to defend.

There are definitely similarities here. Both require action. Both require decision making. Both require courage. I think the main difference is if one is good at defending, they will succeed in eliminating harm. If one is good at protecting, the harm is never encountered.

Let’s use a political example:

In the United States of America, the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches are in charge of protecting the nation. When the job is done well, the country avoids compromising situations. It flourishes and grows. There is peace and happiness.

In the United States of America, the Military is in charge of defending the nation. The brave men and women who have chosen to serve in this capacity put their lives on the line to defend our country from compromising situations. But whether we succeed or fail, our country has experienced the consequences of that conflict. Good people die, citizens are conflicted. We may learn and grow from the experience. We may even learn how to “protect” ourselves from similar experiences, but the experience will leave a foot print on the soul of the nation.

Unfortunately, I think there is more glory in defending than protecting. Defenders are praised for their courage, memorialized for their sacrifice. Protectors receive very little credit for their work. Who takes the time to say, congratulations, we have experienced another trauma free day. If a protector does their job well, the compromising situation never appears. There are no Greek epics, or romantic poems about protectors. There are no medals or monuments commemorating the uneventful.

Perhaps that is why so many of us subconsciously create conflict in our lives. It gives us the opportunity to be the glorious defender. We have the opportunity to wear our scars like banners of triumph! Or perhaps some of us, coming from a long line of defenders never learned the skills necessary to be effective protectors. But, I think the first step is simply learning that there is a difference.

 

Coffee? Coffee. Coffee!

Anyone who knows me would say “Tricia LOVES coffee.” And they would be right . . . sort of. I think I love what coffee represents more. What leads me to this conclusion? Two things: I very rarely finish a cup of coffee. Quite often I drink half (slowly), and throw out the remaining cold coffee. Second, I have a coffee machine at home. Yet, I can make a cup of coffee (only drinking half) and still stop for a coffee at my local coffee shop. Why do I do this? Why not just make a big cup in an insulated travel mug and save the $2 it costs to buy coffee somewhere else . . . because, I am not really there to buy coffee . . . and when I drink coffee, I am not really interested in drinking coffee. Let’s explore the psychology behind my coffee “addiction.”

I never drank coffee when I was younger. It was horrible! I do, however, have fond memories of my grandmother and grandfather drinking coffee. My grandmother was always brewing coffee at home–clean and brew; brew and clean. Coffee was a moment to relax. Nobody bothered Grammy when she was drinking her coffee.  My grandfather would take me to a local coffee shop when I was younger. We would sit at the counter, he with his coffee and me with my cocoa, and I would feel very important, very grown up indeed. Maybe this is why I always loved the smell of coffee, long before I loved the taste of it. Yet, I resisted joining this tradition, not merely because of the taste, but because caffeine was a drug, a horrible, addictive drug that would do terrible things to my brain and cause me a life of suffering. No I would not drink coffee.

I started college when I was in my early 20s. I was married to a man from Seattle, coffee capital of the United States. This was before there was a Starbucks on every corner. One morning before class, we went to a new bagel shop in town. They served these caffeinated concoctions with steamed milk and syrup and whipped cream. It looked good. Perhaps I was really over thinking this whole caffeine thing. I mean, was it really the Anti-Christ? I decided to try one. It was good. We often went to that little coffee shop for a bagel and capucinni-latte thingy. It was a special treat, and I deserved it.

After my husband died, i continued to stop for those flavored coffees. Sometimes at that little coffee shop we visited together, sometimes at the book store, sometimes on campus. Coffee had become a comfort. Of course, I began to use these coffee moments as study time as well. Did the coffee contribute to my ability to study? Well maybe, but I think it had less to do with caffeine, than with the subconscious signal: time to concentrate, time to get productive.

Now, as a single career woman in Miami, I stop at my local coffee shops (yes, I frequent many), but now I think I buy coffee for the opportunity to connect. I see the same faces every day: faces that want nothing from me (well, except my patronage), who recognize, smile, banter. It is a simple interaction but it pulls me out of my inner dialogue for a moment. You see, I have been trained by these same coffee shops in the art of connection, at least the brief 3-5 minute connection required for such a transaction, but it’s a start.

So do I love coffee? Yes. I love it for so many reasons; reasons that run much deeper than a chemical alteration in my brain.

Trust and Commitment

Well, it looks like I have already dropped the ball with this whole post a day thing. Or have I? Oh I know, I have not been posting here on wordpress.com. There is no physical evidence of all my hard work, but what does that really prove? I’ve come to realize I write a lot in my head. My mind is working all the time. Even when I am sleeping, I am piecing things together, rearranging the universe. Then, at some point, I am compelled to sit down and commit it to writing. Commitment; now there is a scary word.

Let’s look that up. According http://www.dictionary.com:

com·mit·ment [kuh-mit-muhnt]

noun

1. the act of committing.

2. the state of being committed.

3. the act of committing, pledging, or engaging oneself.

4. a pledge or promise; obligation: We have made a commitment to pay our bills on time.

5. engagement; involvement: They have a sincere commitment to religion.

Oh boy, it looks like we have to go a little further down the rabbit hole for this one.

com·mit [kuh-mit] verb, -mit·ted, -mit·ting.

verb (used with object)

1. to give in trust or charge; consign.

2. to consign for preservation: to commit ideas to writing; to commit a poem to memory.

3. to pledge (oneself) to a position on an issue or question; express (one’s intention, feeling, etc.): Asked if he was a candidate, he refused to commit himself.

4. to bind or obligate, as by pledge or assurance; pledge: to commit oneself to a promise; to be committed to a course of action.

5. to entrust, especially for safekeeping; commend: to commit one’s soul to God.

Ahhhhh there’s the bogie man: trust. A commitment requires trust. Now, I don’t seem to have a problem committing to paying my bills on time. There is satisfaction in paying my bills on time, a sense of accomplishment. Of course, it hasn’t always been that way. This is something I have learned over time. I worked hard to gain the skills I needed to earn more money, and gradually overtime I gained the confidence that I could take care of myself on that income. I don’t “commit” to owing more than I can pay for. Hmmmmmm. The answer is in there somewhere isn’t it—skills, confidence, and defining boundaries. I suppose that is the essence of trust; trusting others and trusting yourself.

Good job subconscious. You are brilliant!

Response VS Reaction

Learning the difference between response and reaction has been one of the biggest lessons of my life.  Despite my attempts to modify my behavior, my youth was dominated by the push and pull of emotion. Of course, I consider my youth to be the entire span of my life from birth to 40, a magical age that I just reached this August.

According to Jewish mysticism, one does not obtain true wisdom until they reach 40. I tell this to anyone who will listen. Perhaps Jewish mysticism is right. I have finally found the space between feeling and reaction, a liberating moment where I have the ability to choose.  I would like to say I found this enlightened moment on my own, wrapped in a shroud of meditative contemplation.  I am afraid; however, the truth is far more clinical.

I owe this recent enlightenment to chemicals, the anti-depressant citalopram to be more accurate. Like many individuals, my divorce was followed by a period of mourning. This mourning slowly seeped into every aspect of my life like the gradual rise of water in the everglades. My mind became a swamp and it became increasingly difficult to separate thought from emotion and emotion from reaction. It became had to distinguish cause from effect. Did my morose thoughts inspire my sadness, or did my innate sadness infuse my thoughts with melancholy?

Then, after a few weeks of medication, the shadows dissolved and the gap appeared. Not only did I have a moment between emotion and response, there was a moment between experience and perception. Iam no longer pushed and pulled. I have slipped into a gentle place where I can observe, pause, and ponder. Instead of reacting, I can now choose my response.

Transformations

I had no idea when I wrote my last post, “Tiny Messengers”, just how prophetic it would be. In the span of silence that has followed, much has changed. I have regained a liberty that only independence can bring. It has been a painful but productive experience.

I do not believe I can explain it better than I already have to a very dear friend, so I will simply post part of that letter here:

In college, I took some pottery classes. I love working with clay. There is something magical about manipulating water and earth into form, creating something beautiful out of nothing. (Did God feel that way when he formed man and breathed life into him?)

In pottery, clay goes through many transformations. In building a pot there are many stages. You must first begin with a lot of water to make the clay easy to work with, this allows you to push and pull a pot into shape. Once you have achieved the desired results, you must let it dry out before you put it in the oven. If not, the water converts to steam and shatters the pot. So you put the newly formed vessel on a shelf until the clay hardens like leather.

This is what I was like when I found you: a complete vessel sitting on a shelf, but not yet fired in the oven. I had form, and an intended function, but I was not complete. Thank God!

I was a vessel shaped by someone else. I did not have the form and function of my choosing, but his. I had allowed him to shape me because it was the easiest thing to do. It was the fastest thing to do.

But the thing about a pot at this stage, it can be crumbled and turned back into clay. With just a little water and time in a dark sealed container, it will become easy to work with again.

And so I have been crumbled, by the weight of panic and indifference. I have been moistened by the flow of my own tears, and shut in the air tight darkness of your silence. But I do not mind. In fact, I am grateful, for in time I will become easy to work with again. I will be happy earthen clay, just as I was in college, but this time I will shape myself as I like.

The Tiny Messengers

I’m not a particularly superstitious person. I’ve owned more than one black cat; I have no inhibitions about walking under ladders; and a broken mirror is nothing more than an inconvenience. But I do have a deep respect for spirituality, and that is often where the line blurs for people.

I have a special affinity for Celtic and Native American spirituality.  I remember spending countless hours in the school library during my pre-teen years, perusing scores of film strips on Native American mythology.  When those were consumed, I moved on to books.

According to my family’s oral history (it is said this history has been researched and written somewhere, but I have yet to find a copy), my family came to the America on the Mayflower. Somewhere along the line (I’m not even sure if it’s the same family line), a great grandmother was adopted by the Iroquois Nation, fractionally making me 1/16th Native American, I guess. Perhaps this explains the fascination.

I can only guess at the accuracy and legitimacy of these stories, but in the realm of self-myth making, well oral history is generally enough. So here in lies my acceptance of Native American lore. There is a universal respect in Native American traditions that I find comforting. So when the ladybugs came, I decided to listen.

Many years ago, I was told my totem animal was the fox—a small creature that relied on its speed and cunning for survival—an animal with an astonishing ability to adapt to its environment. If there is anything I am good at in life, it is adapting . . . sometimes too well. Sometimes, I loose myself in the role that I’m playing and I have to struggle to get back out. That was the source of my own internal conflict last week.

I have served as the Director of Student Services at a local college for the past year. I enjoy the work. I find great satisfaction in helping students reach their full potential. But then it began to dawn on me that I had drifted away from my full potential. I am, at my core, an artist. Music, painting, writing, that’s what truly feeds my soul. That’s what makes me feel whole and complete . . . yet, I had drifted away. Though I had dedicated myself to a noble cause, I knew that it was quickly becoming a hollow accomplishment.

It was during that week that my daughter first noticed the lady bugs, in a small evergreen next to the front door. She would stop and stare at them, “four,” she counted out loud.

“That’s great dear, ladybugs are good luck,” I told her absent mindedly as I moved her over the threshold.

Each day she stopped to stare. Each day becoming more and more emphatic that I stop and look. “Mira mama. More ladybugs!”

During this same week, I was becoming more and more agitated. Something was pressing at me, eating at me. Finally at the end of the week, when I was no longer forced to play my role, I snapped. The frustration poured out in tears and harsh words. I had done it again. I had drifted from what I loved most, to what I could do easily, and I was miserable.

The next day we went past the evergreen again. I stopped to look.  There were more than just a few, the little beetles where everywhere! Like the ornaments on an overcrowded Christmas tree. I recognized some as ladybugs, but the others I had never seen before. I pondered the possibility of what they could be, before it began to dawn on me. I quickly went inside to confirm my suspicion—a massive metamorphosis. The evergreen was adorned with every stage of the ladybug lifecycle.

 I don’t believe in coincidences. So I searched again. “Totem Animal . . . ladybug”

What I discovered in my search is that the ladybug is a messenger of promise who reconnects us with the joy of living. The ladybug reminds us to release our fears and return to that inner passion—to let go—to get out of our own way.

So here I am, writing. Not the analytical theories and convoluted structures of a Master’s thesis, but the intimate truth of my own mysterious existence: re-examing, revitalizing, rewriting—a metamorphosis. 

[As an interesting side note: Before I published this post, and before I told this story to anyone else, a friend of mine gave me a “thinking of you” card . . . with a glittering ladybug on the cover. Hmmmm]

Book Review: Mrs. Perfect


Jane Porter does it again! Her new novel, Mrs. Perfect, is a sequel—of sorts. In her latest book, Porter returns to Bellevue, the home to Seattle’s software elite. This time, the story shifts to Taylor Young, a woman who has it all—handsome husband, three beautiful daughters, a dream home, and a bottomless bank account.

Yes, this is the same Taylor Young we met in Odd Mom Out, but this time Porter takes us behind the polished image of this Alpha female to reveal the complex motives behind that saccharin smile.

That’s what I love about Porter, her ability to step into someone else’s shoes and take us along with her. This rendition of Taylor Young is not the two dimensional sketch of a stereo-type, but the portrait of a vulnerable woman desperate to keep it all together:

Standing at the bus stop with the other moms, I chat about everything and nothing and it’s comforting. They’re all as frazzled and frustrated as I am. At least, I think, I’m not alone in my mountain of worries. All women seem to worry about being good enough, doing enough, trying enough.

Taylor Young is driven by perfection, yet oblivious to the dangers that could unhinge her Bellevue lifestyle . . . and reputation. As her fairy tale begins to unravel, Taylor must learn to let go of her own preconceived notions and accept the help of her old nemesis, Marta Zinsser.

In Mrs. Perfect, Porter plucks at the taunt string of anxiety deep within the modern female psyche. This is not the first book I’ve read, in which the female lead struggles to maintain a pristine façade over her dark secrets. However, unlike other characters who snap beneath the weight of their own fictions, Taylor Young finds the strength to face her greatest fears. Of course, that’s not to say Taylor doesn’t pay a hefty price for the lessons she has to learn.

In this trip back to Bellevue, Porter reminds women that all actions have consequences, and ignorance is never a solid defense. She also cautions women to be aware and to be ready, because everything changes. Life is not a fairytale and things won’t magically work themselves out. It takes hard work and sacrifice to correct the mistakes we make, and we all make them.

Porter’s characters are real women struggling to discover who they “could” be within the social clamor of who they “should” be. These are women you know, women you despise, women you admire. We are all taking the same journey together, yet managing to isolate ourselves and each other from the shared experience. The true beauty of Mrs. Perfect is the way Porter takes a character you think you know, and alters your perception. Perhaps, there’s someone in your life you should get to know better.

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