Recent health issues have had unexpected effects on my mental state. In particular, I have not been able to write or to actively read. I reasoned that both my subconscious and conscious minds were working so hard on healing that my creativity and my discipline were being channeled, willy nilly, toward self-preservation and restoration. Recently, I wrote a song about mourning the loss of my mother–another thing I had been able to do only a little, blinkered by the demands of my own cancer, its treatment, and its after-effects. I posted the poem and noticed how many of the responses to it came from people whom I knew were grieving a recent loss, and it occurred to me that others might be responding from losses I didn’t know about. The act of writing the song, the act of sharing my grief, and the feeling that I had touched other lives all combined to make me feel that something that had been frozen was beginning to thaw into a trickle of life. Shortly afterward, Mary Oliver died, causing me to consider how much of her poetry was an invitation to feel life as we live it. I don’t know when I will get back to writing in earnest, but I will not be the same writer I was, and I think that the experience of sharing “Song of Dawn” (my mother’s name was Dawn) and the poetry of Mary Oliver will be part of that difference.
I have felt the support of my fellow BACCA members throughout this time, and I am grateful for it.
It is sometimes in the midst of catastrophe that we find out who we truly are. It is as if some sort of façade is blown off the self, and one sees inside. I have one sister and one mother, and each of us has had a cancer diagnosis this summer, one after another. There has been no particular family history in this direction—it just happened. They are in New York and I am in Virginia, and we are comforting each other as best we can and blessing modern technology for making that possible.
Right now I have quite a bit of pain, and managing that and the side effects of chemo is more or less a full-time job. My son is here and also working very hard to take care of me and keep me good company, bless the lad.
When you are in a situation in which you fear for your life or the life of those close to you, you enter a kind of liminal space—an in-between state where ordinary rules of consciousness don’t seem to apply. War veterans speak of such a state, and many of them miss it when the war is over. Maybe that is why I do not seem to feel depressed. On the contrary, I feel I am dwelling now only among the essentials of my life, which I find to be creativity and love.
The only active non-medically related things I’m doing right now are reaching out to friends and futzing around with poetry—submitting and arranging, not yet writing. My current experience is a little too unprocessed, I think, to generate writing. The first people to step up when I was bowled over were the ladies I dance with and the ladies in my writing group—those with whom I share the life-giving processes of creativity. That bond has turned out to be deeper than I realized, as has my passion to create. It’s not that I didn’t know it was there, but that it was covered up by the façade of everyday life, which can make one ignore the most important things.
Women of BACCA, please know how thankful I am for the lifeline of our shared passion..
My son is an aspiring actor and was complaining yesterday about having to make fifty copies of resumes and headshots for an upcoming “cattle call” audition. “The art is easy,” he said. “It’s all this crap I hate.” I felt the same way at his age. Submitting work to agents and journals, formatting manuscripts, and even “networking” require, it seems to me, very different parts of the brain from writing, and they are not parts to which I have easy access. Liam is a chip off the old block. But I find that as I get older I become fonder of those sorts of actitvities. No, they are not the wonderful rush and wallowing of the creative act, but I feel good when I have performed them. For me, it’s like the experience of being a mother. All sorts of formerly repulsive things, from changing diapers to filling out financial aid forms, become more welcome parts of life than one would have thought possible. Also, just as introspective mothers tend to form groups and socialize more when they have children, so I have found that a writing group is a wonderful way to connect with people who are, like me, performing this difficult-to-describe balancing act, and who think it is worth doing. “It’s like having a child,” I tried to explain to Liam, but of course he hasn’t had one, and it’s one of those things you really have to experience to understand. I hope he comes to appreciate the pleasures of legwork earlier than I did, but there’s no way I can really bring that about. I’ll have to settle for trying to be a good example. So, off to get the novel manuscript ready to send of to a contest. Onward.
Well, the school year is about to start, and I now have two unfinished writing projects instead of the usual one. Three, if you count my ambition to arrange my poetry into a collection. Now, as I turn my attention to preparing classes, and as I, like the rest of Charlottesville, reel from the recent invasion of the alt-right, I am more grateful than ever for the support and patience of my fellow BACCA members. I hope to publish, and to reach a wider audience, but meanwhile, as always, it is writing and friendship that keep me sane. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that BACCA is a place where we support each other in the struggle for meaning. I spoke with a friend today who teaches at Piedmont Community College, and, when asked to address one of the many meetings held to prepare for teaching in these troubled times, she surprised herself by bursting out crying. We talked about the scariness of this allegedly “post-truth” era. I think that each writer is like a miner, digging for the truth of his or her own experience. I told her that, in crying, she probably did her colleagues good, because she was expressing what many of them longed to but couldn’t. I hope that in BACCA we can continue to devote ourselves to such expression, whether in joy, sadness, or the more common in-between territory, and to support each other in this devotion. Thanks to you all. Onward.
The recent election changed me. Like thousands of others, I had always felt I was doing my duty by speaking my mind (mostly on facebook and with friends) and by voting. Now I think of myself as a “baby activist.” I am full of admiration for those who have been calling, writing, and showing up all along to communicate with their representatives and hold them accountable, and now I am trying to do the same.
But fundamentally, I am a writer, and it is my response as a writer that (I hope) could be most valuable. I am just finishing up a novel on which I have worked for a very long time, and I find that the widening inequalities in our country have put a new idea into my head. I want to celebrate our “non-celebrities.” These are the people who will not appear on T.V. shows except perhaps for a few seconds, whose pay barely keeps them alive, and who do good in numberless ways. The people who first come to mind are the CNAs–Certified Nursing Assistants– who take care of our elderly in assisted living and nursing homes. Their jobs are very difficult and grossly underpaid, yet so many of them are remarkably patient, compassionate and effective. They do a lot of good, and yet, they are undervalued and, to many, they are invisible.
I don’t know yet in what form I would like to write about these people–fiction, non-fiction, or a combination of the two. And maybe this is one of those ideas that arise only to disappear. But it has that exciting, half-submerged feeling of an idea that won’t go away. A perspective in which so many people are so underestimated is an unbalanced perspective. I would like to add a little weight to the other side of the scale.
I have been asked for a one-line description of my novel, which, as you may know, doesn’t seem much easier than writing the novel. Below is what I’ve come up with. Do you think that if you were an agent this would encourage you to read more?
A flock of swans, a polluted pig wallow, and a versatile microbe bring a new virus to the town of Buxton on the Outer Banks of North Carolina; the virus does its work of taking over bodies, while Buxton residents such as a disillusioned environmentalist, a young single mother, and a shy priest come face to face with their fear of death and their need for each other.