Friday, September 20, 2019

PROGRESS IN QUIXOTIC QUARTERS

When I was at Bible study on Monday, and we were just starting a plunge into the Gospel of Mark, the priest leading the study, who has a PhD in Scripture, asked what the meaning of "irony" was. No hands were raised. Then he asked if any of us had been English majors. I was, for one year, so I tentatively raised my hand and opined that irony meant saying something sarcastic, or saying one thing and meaning another. He was looking for the literary meaning of irony, and I either couldn't remember it or had long since forgotten. When he said the literary or dramatic meaning was the idea that the audience or reader understood something in the literary work that the characters in the work didn't know, and that that applied to Mark's Gospel. It was written to Christian believers, but the people portrayed in the Gospel didn't know the central truth: that Jesus was the Son of God.
After going through the exercise of trying to retrieve information that I suppose an average English major should have known, I later thought about my unusual path through the world of the university.
I had always loved literature and was an inveterate reader and became a writer in third grade when I noticed that the Nancy Drew book I happened to be reading didn't begin "Once upon a time," but rather in medias res. Immediately I started a story that also began in the middle of things, I think with a horse neighing. 
However, by the time I finished high school I had decided there were more important things to do with my life; I wanted to go into politics and eventually saw myself becoming President, if my father didn't beat me to it. So when I went to the University, I chose Politics as my major (it was not called Political Science there as it was at most colleges). Then I discovered that their idea of Politics began with studying Aristotle's vision of the polis or city-state and moved forward philosophically from there. I was asked to take a graduate level course in Politics my sophomore year, and by then they had started offering a major in Humanities, which was basically a design your own major, perfectly suited to a student who never wanted to fit in a neat box. My father said professors would lurk around corners and entice me with, "Psst, want to take a course in ancient Coptic?" I did take two years of classical Greek and could recite the opening line of The Odyssey in that language.
By my junior year, however, I had veered off and become a Spanish major, enchanted with the head of the department who was English, married a Spaniard, and then became an actress in Spain until they moved to Texas. I had a whole year of studying Cantar de Mio Cid and another year of Don Quijote de la Mancha, both of which demanded more antique Spanish than I had previously encountered.
But I studied more recent works of Spanish literature as well, all of which contributed to an experience I had one day when one of the Mexican women who used to work for me told me when we were speaking Spanish, "You talk just like a book!"
Much as I loved Spanish, as I was about to start my senior year, I suddenly decided that I should become an English major.  This meant that I had to do my junior poet and senior thesis in one year, which was one reason why I picked Emily Dickinson rather than Gerard Manley Hopkins--he was so intricately convoluted that I knew I couldn't focus on his poetry while I was also writing my thesis. And since I picked the Puritan period for my thesis (and had access to early American novels in the Concord, Massachusetts, library the summer before my senior  year), Emily Dickinson was a good poet to work with, although I soon learned that I couldn't read her poetry and then set out to write my own without sounding like a very inferior imitation.  Despite my unorthodox procession through the University, I managed to graduate first in my class (or, as the medal I received from the Bishop, says "Frist Honors"), as the first student to graduate with a 4.0.
I was accepted at Columbia University to study Comparative Literature, but then learned that deconstruction held sway there, and I was much more a believer in synthesis.  I wasn't accepted into Columbia's MFA program, which the head of the Comp Lit department had suggested I apply to, and later heard from a former professor that Caroline Gordon, the Southern novelist who had read some of my poetry, told him that I would be ruined if I went to Columbia. 
Instead, the year before I got married when I was living Manhattan, I took a poetry workshop at the New School for Social Research because I didn't think I'd have time for a novel writing course (at that point I still thought I'd write the Great American Novel). It was taught by the brilliant poet, Colette Inez, who shone such a light on poetry that I was utterly captivated. She invited me to send her poems to critique after the course was over, and we corresponded until her death last year. My husband and son and I went back to the East Coast in 2010, and had a memorable lunch with her on the upper West Side.
I never wrote as much as I thought I should because after I got married I had six children, my husband and I got very involved in World Wide Marriage Encounter and other marriage and family ministries.  I always thought of the talks I wrote for Marriage Encounter as working documents, while my poetry was literature.
When I took up the French horn again 10 years ago, I also thought of it as a hobby, although I think if I'd known how challenging it would be I might not have gone into it so lightheartedly.  Although I am not a professional I work hard at it and each year at Christmas I can see the progress I've made in the past year.  Just recently, working on a new piece for our parish's 60th anniversary, I realized that I had learned most of it in a couple of weeks although it still needs some polishing.  Although I know my poetry is good, and have had enough prizes and publications to confirm that belief, when I realize that I have made great strides in how well I play the horn, or when I'm complimented on talks I've written for Beginning Experience weekend retreats, I realize that I'm not tilting at windmills even though they are not my primary passion.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

TIMERS AND TIME

One of the things I have been working on incorporating into my life is a regular use of timers, particularly to help me start something that seems difficult, overwhelming, or just plain unpleasant.
I notice that when I have something to do that I'm putting off, if I just tell myself that I will work on it for 20 minutes, I can often finish the task, or at least take a big chunk out of it.  It's how I've gotten most of the piles on my desk and surrounding areas down to one main pile and a list of the things that I still need to do.
Yesterday, when I needed to write the welcome letters to a retreat weekend that I am involved in, I was really dreading it.  We have a template, but each letter has to be personalized depending on the circumstances of the individual, whether they will have a single or double room, and a variety of other factors.  I told myself I would just work for 20 minutes, I set a timer, and I finished the first letter.  One of the coordinators called me to add a paragraph, but because I hadn't yet printed out the letter, I was able to add it and had it ready for all the other letters. I printed them all out, along with directions to the retreat center and an emergency medical form, and called a couple of the people who are interested, so all I have to do now is address the envelopes. I feel happy that I have done this--for the first time for this retreat--and I am reminding myself that I have gotten more organized as I have been working on this retreat.
Today I set a timer to start addressing the envelopes, since they have to be done by hand, another tedious job. I got the packets together, signed the letters, added the emergency form, and the directions, stuck on stamps and put my return address on the envelopes, and have a neat stack of letters to go in the mail tomorrow.
I'm going to a business conference soon and I hate packing, but I used the idea of breaking an onerous task into smaller objectives. Several days ago, I checked off everything that goes into my valet kit. 
Today I made sure that my makeup kit was complete, and I'll probably take care of my medicine kit first thing tomorrow. Then all I have to do is decide on the clothes to bring, and since I keep a list of combinations from other trips of various lengths, even that shouldn't be too difficult.  The friend I'm traveling with called me today to go over a few details, and that gave me a sense of anticipation as we get ready to go on our adventure together.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

SEEING PROGRESS IN HINDSIGHT

Looking at the downloads from my coaching program with Deborah Hurwitz (productivityforperfectionists.com) from a year ago, I am amazed at how far I have come. I knew I had accomplished some goals in my writing, but I also tackled the seemingly infinite piles on my desk. I am now down to one pile of financial papers, and I reduce that by a little each day.  Everything else that I hope to do is on a list except a few urgent things on sticky notes on my computer.  I have been so much more content since I whittled all these things down into one brain dump, and I am beginning to see myself as someone who can keep her desk clear for more than two weeks. That was usually the maximum when my husband was alive. He would help me clear off my desk, and it would stay fairly neat, but gradually things would creep back on it, and pretty soon it would look as if we had never done anything to it.  Once, I was bemoaning the fact that I was so disorganized, and he asked me why I didn't just embrace my disorganized nature and let him keep things on an even keel.  I can remember feeling so free after he said that, but a few years later when he got sick, I realized the fatal flaw in that reasoning.  Since I had been planning to go first, I didn't think there was a problem, but when it became apparent that that was not the way it was going to roll out, I realized that there were going to have to be some major changes.
I was helped by outside circumstances which seemed devastating at the time. A few months after he died, I came home to a water heater pouring gallons of water into what had been my husband's office. I called a plumber and it took him nearly half an hour to get here and shut off the water. I was so flustered that I had forgotten we had a shut off valve for the house. By the time the water was turned off, it had gotten into the bedroom off the office, the laundry room, half bath and family room. We had huge noisy fans in the house for a week, asbestos testing, dry wall damage, furniture piled up in supposedly dry areas, and a paper nightmare of files with not only my husband's legal work, but my parents' paperwork from the last 15 years they lived with us.
Fortunately, the woman who had been my interior decorator had also helped us with overseeing the reconstruction work in an earlier flood, and I called her to see if she could help me with this one.  Although she had recently been in the hospital, she came down, driving an hour and a half each way.  She knew exactly what to do and helped me deal with the reconstruction people and then started asking me what I wanted to do with the parts of the house that had been flooded.  She suggested I turn what had been my husband's office into my office, and then suggested that I turn my greeting card hobby into a business. Since my husband's office was the one place in my house where I felt sad after he died because all I could see was his empty desk, this seemed like a great place to start, and I now have a beautiful office with lilac and purple walls, no vertical blinds (she told me lawyers always like things like that), and a beautiful view of my yard and garden. She laid down wood laminate flooring in my new office and the family room, where the water had ruined the old carpet, tile in the entry to my office and the laundry room and half bath, painted the bedroom off my office a sunny yellow and installed a beautiful mural that reminds me of the place in Laguna Beach where my husband and I often spent our anniversaries. She helped me get rid of most of my husband's and parents' papers, either by recycling or shredding, brought the file cabinets all into my office and helped me set up my business and now helps me run it.  But the most important thing she did during the nine months when we were doing all that reconstruction and reorganizing was just being here, usually 5 days a week, and keeping me busy, so that at a time when I would have been sinking into a morass of loneliness, I had decisions to make, work to do, and a dear friend who has become so close we call each other twins.  The flood washed her up on the shore of my life at a time when I most needed her, and when I set decluttering goals I know she will be delighted, because she has an inner sense of order like Wes did and helps me not stray too far down the path of disorganization.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

CREATING CREATION

When I was pondering what to write in this blogpost, I encountered the entries from my coaching program when I was trying to submit the book proposal for my book, Spectacular Marriage: 10 Ways to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage.  It was just about a year ago, and I had found a publisher who looked like a good fit.  When I went on their website, I discovered that they had a four page submission form that would require a lot of work on my part. It seemed almost like an impossible quest.  However, I had learned that huge undertakings can be broken down into 20 minute segments that don't seem so daunting, so I began to do that.  In between these 20 minute sessions, I also thanked an editor who had accepted three of my poems for her journal, and sent a check for extra copies of the issue with my poems.  I had to finish a talk I would be giving in a few months at the next Beginning Experience Weekend, and I also did that in 20 minute increments. Since this talk deals with my loss of my husband, it was much more difficult to write emotionally than all the many talks I wrote for World Wide Marriage Encounter Weekends. But with breaks between the 20 minute writing periods, I finished the talk, and remembered that when I read the first talk I had written to one of the facilitators, she had told me it was a good talk and the right length.
Then I went back to the book submission, and started plodding along with 20 minute segments. Occasionally I would forget to set a timer and then would be amazed at how much I had done. When I got to the section on the resume or CV, I felt bogged down. I had stayed at home with my children and then started my own business, so I hadn't needed to concoct one of those  since early in my marriage. But then I realized that because the book is about marriage, all the work my husband and I did in World Wide Marriage Encounter and other marriage and family ministries is relevant, as well as our children, sons-in-law and grandchildren who are faith-filled and united in our big family "network." I also discovered that I had many more publication credits than I had thought. So I decided to do a different sort of resume/CV that will reflect the marriage and family emphasis I've had all my life. "It will probably be unique," I commented, "But then so am I." Two days later, the huge project was finished.
With the book proposal and the talk finished, I turned my attention to the poems I wanted to submit to a contest. Normally, I don't set a timer when I'm working on a poem because I get in the zone and accomplish a lot, but I had a very rough draft of a new poem and spent two 30 minute segments on revising it. It was bumpier than it often is when I am revising--or it could have been that it was later in the day and I was tired. I wrote, "It definitely helped that I worked in shorter increments today. The revision was more challenging than it was the last few times I worked on a poem, so I was glad I could stop each time the timer rang."
When I got back to the poem a few days later I noted that I spent most of my time revising one "which I had felt baffled by before."  I commented that "I had gotten over the hump on this one poem." I had gotten the idea from a comment my neighbor had made on one of our walks, and it was "finally taking shape--and going off in a direction I couldn't have foreseen, which is exciting." I then asked my daughter, who was an English major, for a critique, and she gave me some helpful suggestions.  In addition, I finished all three of the talks for the next Beginning Experience Weekend, and the next day, the Archbishop whom I'd asked for a Foreword to Spectacular Marriage sent it, and he said such beautiful things about my husband and me that it brought tears to my eyes. I worked on the poem the next day when I took my neighbor to the ophthalmologist, changed the title, and then made a few more changes to a line that both my daughter and I had a problem with.  I found a stray line that I needed to deal with, realized I needed to add another line to the poem, and finally whittled it down to the 32 lines I need to submit to the contest. The poem was ultimately called "The Smell of Space Suggests," and it wound up being about creation--so I suppose I could say that I was creating creation!