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BACCA Writers

Memento Mori: Death as a Tool (For Writers)

Vanitas – Still Life (1625) by Pieter Claesz; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Death is useful. The knowledge of our own end—and the end of all things—can be a catalyst for action. Writers like to make use of everything. Triumphs and setbacks, blows and banalities—almost all of the detritus of life can be used to make art. Everything is fertilizer and furniture for story. Even death. Maybe, especially death. If we let it help us to live.

The patterns and rituals of the day tend to sweep us along, and life, so much of the time, feels ordinary or even dull. To remind us that our lives are not endless even when they feel like it, we have the memento mori—a symbol that impels us to face death, to acknowledge and accept our mortality. From the Latin, memento mori literally means remember that you must die. Often represented as a skull, the memento mori can be a rendering of anything ephemeral; any image or object that evokes the passage of time can serve the same purpose: a candle, a flower, a sunset, an hourglass.

Time Flies. (Photo by the author.)

The origin of the memento mori has been traced back to ancient Rome. When a triumphant general embarked on a parade of victory, so the story goes, a slave would accompany him all the while whispering, memento mori, remember that you must die. A preventative measure, this was meant to guard against excessive pride so the victorious leader would not begin to believe that he was a god. In the centuries since, zealots and visionaries have used the memento mori, incorporating images of death into their art and sacred spaces, often as a hedge against vanity, greed, or idleness. (For a more thorough treatment of this history, visit here.)

Modern usage of the memento mori is more typically as a driver for action, a gentle reminder that we have a fixed number of minutes to finish a few things while we are here. “Remember, you must die,” then, is only half of the message. The unspoken conclusion, it could be argued, is “…so, remember to live.” In this light, knowledge of our mortality becomes a crowbar, or a portal into a better life. Sam Harris, in a bittersweet meditation entitled “The Last Time You’ll Do Something,” asserts that “everything represents a finite opportunity to savor your life.”

Besides the pen, the memento mori may then be the most transformative and useful tool that a writer can have, serving as a marker for our ultimate deadline—the day we run out of time entirely. Since a death date can’t be marked on a calendar for most of us, the memento mori teaches that death looms in every minute. Every day can and could be our last. So, if there’s something you’d like to try, do, make, write, or be…don’t wait.

Perhaps, as a sensitive and creative person, you are already acutely aware, thanks very much, of the impending doom and gloom. Maybe death is a constant obsession or fear. Maybe every time you face a Boggart, like Molly Weasley, you see a parade of your most cherished loved ones in deep peril. I get it. On a weekly basis, I struggle through that fear of loss, that terror of the unknown. The what-if, wide-awake-at-3-am panic usually leads to a deep sense of loneliness for me, and also inaction. Wheel spinning. Maybe the practice of the memento mori offers an alternative approach. Maybe it asks that we step back and view death from a different angle, one a bit more removed from the harrowing fear that the thought of death usually provokes.

For one, I think the memento mori connects us all as living things. The images themselves, the skull and the hourglass, point to the universal. We are the same at the bone level. We are all at the mercy of time. In that sense, we are not alone. Also, the memento mori is not meant to be a siren, screaming emergency, causing our hearts to bound. It’s more stately than that, a cordial invitation, of sorts, to an inevitable event that we’ll all attend at some point. We are invited to prepare and respond—to channel our gnawing fear into useful action—to survey and then to narrow in on what is most important. To work toward the priority we’ve assigned in our lives and to infuse the time we have with deep meaning and purpose.

Love it or not, the season of the skull is upon us. Halloween looms and visions of skeletons will dance before our eyes. Perhaps this year they can escort us back to the work we most want to do.

Phoebe Bridgers says (sings) it well…

“Baby, it’s Halloween
There’s a last time for everything
Oh, come on, man
We can be anything…”

…don’t miss the full song and video, featuring lovely vintage Halloween costumes, even a skeleton or two.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, supports local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group.

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BACCA Writers

Stay Active With Your Online Course Through Regular Writing

For adults who are interested in a topic of their own choosing, starting the online learning process is easy. Enrolling in a course requires almost no effort and we get to choose what we want to learn. Starting assignments—whether they are lectures, discussion boards, or Q&A sessions—can even be exciting as we begin the learning process. Why, then, is it so difficult to keep up our interest and excitement about a course, to actually complete it over time?

Many online learning experiences outside of a college or a university setting may provide a schedule, but lack a detailed structure that tells us how to keep up with the provided timeline. Online learning may also provide limited to no feedback or social interaction. The most popular courses draw hundreds or thousands of students and staff are not able to meaningfully interact with so many enrollees. Instead, adult students are expected to structure their own learning which means figuring out ways to pace themselves and understand their mistakes, all while maintaining enough active engagement and accountability to complete the course.

In this post, I share my recent experience with an online course where I am fully responsible for completing all exercises and assignments. Because there are over 1,000 people in the course, there is no one available to check my work or to interact with, unless I have a technical issue. I decided to journal regularly about the course, to both keep my attention during the course and to remember the important lessons afterwards.

Regular Writing Is a Form of Accountability

For my online nine-month course on the nervous system offered by Sounds True, I created a simple GoogleDoc.

Excerpt from the author’s course notes

New entries are dated and appear at the top. After listening to a lecture or doing one of the exercises, I write about the ideas and my thoughts or reactions. Each person is different as to how to make this type of accountability work best for them. If you are motivated and have the time, a daily written reflection might be appropriate. For myself, with a six-year-old with special needs and limited child care, I aim for two to four times per week. If I write only once per week, or skip a week if things are very hectic, that’s okay. What’s important is regularly writing as a way of revisiting the ideas in the online course. This process can create what’s called a distributed practice schedule, which research suggests improves long-term learning 15% over reviewing only once, which includes cramming (also known as massed practice).

Writing in Our Own Words is a Deep (Not Surface) Way of Processing Information

When we transform ideas we have listened to or read into our own words, we have to do what is called deep processing. Reproducing a verbatim transcript takes only superficial processing—mainly listening, comprehension of word order, and typing those words. When we think about the ideas, comprehend them and then use our own words to restate the ideas in a way that has meaning to us, this activates more areas in our brains than surface processing, and builds new neural connections. Because of these changes, deep processing makes the information we have transformed more memorable.

Making It Personal Makes It Memorable

Expanding this idea of deep processing is the principle of making our learning personal. When I use my own words, I don’t just rephrase the words the course instructor is using.

Vivid memory in Mt. Pleasant, MI. Photo by the author.

I link ideas to my own personal knowledge and experiences—including emotional responses like feelings or body sensations, or vivid memories of something being rewarding, painful, or funny. Information that has emotional relevance to us and our lives builds very strong neural connections that make learning more permanent.

BACCA Writer Emerita Claire E. Cameron is Associate Professor and director of the Early Childhood & Childhood EdM and PhD programs in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). Claire studies how children develop “learning to learn” and school readiness skills like managing their attention and behavior and successfully navigating learning environments. In her creative non-fiction, she further explores individual stories of growth and change on the way toward well-being. Claire believes that great wisdom can be unearthed when we explore the things that we’re often taught to keep hidden, and that telling our stories helps us find our place in the world. Visit Claire’s website for more information.

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BACCA Writers

Resources: Critiquing, Simplifying, and Ending ~ Plus Some Hope

Here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen, bundled together as summer bounty for writers in the Northern Hemisphere. Are you planning on taking time off? Hard at work? Both? See what works for you here:

Beginners Mind

Start simple.
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

BACCA’s own Noelle Beverly put this evergreen blog post together a while ago for our website, after working on an internal document for our critique group. I notice that I keep sharing the link with other writers! Noelle’s apparently simple approach to critiquing the written work of another is powerful.

I begin with this: everything is intentional. I assume the writer has something in mind and figuring that out is my first job.
~ Noelle Beverly

Noelle has given us invaluable, humility-inducing advice and I recommend it to your attention. Take in this state of mind first, before starting to think critically about the pages you’ve received from a fellow writer.

Is This Necessary?

single flower blossom on a white background

Less is more.
Image by Glenn A Lucas from Pixabay

Are you overwhelmed? Desperate for ways to pare down the obligations, shoulds, lists, expectations, and self-flogging? Creativity coach LA Bourgeois (here’s her guest blog about Kaizen Muse for my website) in a recent newsletter advises us to “Chop wood, carry water. This phrase means to focus on simple acts and perform them to the best of your ability. Do NOTHING extra.”

Before you take any action, ask yourself if it is necessary to complete to maintain your body, spirit, heart, and work commitments. If the answer is yes, move forward. If no, move on to the next task.
~ LA Bourgeois

LA’s guidance may ring true for you as it does for me. I’m even considering – gasp – abandoning to-do lists during my time off next month.

Is This the End, My Friend?

empty road in the mountains, with the words "FINISH" painted on the road surface and "START" superimposed above it.

Which is it?
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Are you struggling with the ending to a piece of writing? George Saunders in one of his first public “Office Hours” essays provides ten ways to think about endings. While he’s speaking to short stories, I can see many of these ideas applying in other creative contexts as well.

Consider that, if you’re having trouble with your ending – you’re not.  Your issue is actually the beginning and/or middle of the story.
~ George Saunders

Saunders tells of a class he taught when non-writing-major undergrads all knew which elements of a Vonnegut story needed to be addressed to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. This gives me hope.

Not Made for These Times?

To wrap up, for those readers who, like me, are feeling swamped, struggling to move forward in the wake of so many cruel, baffling, unconscionable decisions from the US Supreme Court and elsewhere: Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach provided a podcast episode for us. “Navigating the Dark Ages” acknowledges the current environment and offers ways to keep going, finding and making meaning along the way with a sense of connectedness to others and participation in the long arc of human history. Give it a listen.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The FLOAT Journal: Becoming Unstuck on the Page, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Local Newspapers are essential for nonfiction writers

 

My research of Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s almost entirely depends on local newspapers.  I am investigating the impact of the discovery of an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant in central Virginia on the man who discovered it, on local farmers who lost their land to the project, and on the nuclear power industry in the United States. 

Nothing beyond the most meager facts about the power plant in rural Louisa County, Virginia can be found on Wikipedia.  Nothing can be found on Twitter or Facebook or any of the plethora of social media sites that have materialized faster than lawsuits in our endlessly litigious world.  

That’s why I am extremely grateful to Louisa County’s own local newspaper, The Central Virginian, for not only articles about the origins of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant but also their vivid photos that capture the enormous scale and impact of the project.

Archives of The Central Virginian aren’t online, at least not for the years I was investigating, 1968 to 1975.  I called the Louisa County Public Library and learned that the library had The Central Virginian newspapers neatly organized by year, bound in thick books, and stored in their easily accessible stacks. They aren’t on microfilm like The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville local newspaper.  I actually had to open the large bound books and inspect page after page of The Central Virginian to find what I needed.  I’d take a photo of the article or image and email it to myself.   Once home, I transcribed the article or copied the image for use in my research.  

As my research grew, I developed a fondness to certain reporters who took the time to interview the property owners affected by the construction of the nuclear power plant.  I felt like I shared a common interest with these reporters, especially one particular reporter who worked for the larger regional newspaper, The Richmond Times-DispatchJean Purcell worked the Louisa County beat for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and dug deep into the lives of the people who lived there.  Farmers and teachers and politicians, she interviewed them all.  She reported on the announcement of the nuclear power plant construction, on the people that lost their farms to the project, and the controversies surrounding the discovery of the earthquake fault under the power plant site.  Then, all of a sudden, her articles stopped.  I was heartbroken.  I had lost a wise and dependable friend.  I searched for her name on the web and discovered she’d retired and became involved with other activities. Ms. Purcell has since passed but I was able to find one of her children on Facebook and send them a message to tell them how much I greatly admired their mother’s reporting.

The demise of local and regional newspapers is a huge loss for current society and future historians.  Too many of us get our news from TV pundits, Twitter provocateurs, or Facebook friends.  Where will future historians go to discover the small current events that ripple out and change history?

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BACCA Writers

Curiouser & Curiouser

I’m starting to wonder if I have a curiosity problem. This never occurred to me before. After all, I love a good mystery. Libraries—the sanctuary of the curious—are my happy place. Imagination—where questions are born—is a sturdy, internal realm that I visit often. As a writer, I know that curiosity is a crucial tool, best kept sharp and shiny. Curiosity and I are good, old friends. Except…

Do I treat my curiosity more like a dirty secret than a trusted friend?

There was a time when I used to wonder out loud. I peered through every keyhole, tested every lock, turned the knob on every closed door—just in case. I watched for holes in stories and pointed at them. I made connections between ideas and tested those bridges out on others. I wandered and wondered out in full view.

Over time, something changed. My curiosity persisted, but my willingness to test it out in front of others waned. Instead, I’d delay my quest to know and employ clandestine habits designed to satisfy curiosity without risk of embarrassment or humiliation.

What happened? How did shame get involved?

Looking back, I see a trail of very stale breadcrumbs that led from there to here—moments when my weird questions led to awkward silences, unsatisfying replies, or worst of all, ridicule. A bewildered look would let me know I’d wandered away from the expected and into strange territory. A dashed off response intended to divert or pacify clued me in that I’d become annoying. Maybe the adults involved were merely uncomfortable—my curiosity had taken them past the boundaries of their own knowledge or experience and they had no idea how to answer. Less forgivable are those times that I received an answer delivered in a tone that made me feel small and ridiculous for even asking. Technically, my curiosity may have been satisfied, but the answer I’d sought was so laced with toxic disdain when I got it that the whole subject had become tainted.

If the sources of knowledge around you—family, teachers, friends—fear for your sanity or give you inadequate, or treacherously squelching answers in response to your genuine, wild and natural need to know more—well, you might do anything to scoot around the scrutiny and circumvent criticism. In my case, I took refuge in books. I found safe haven in libraries. I piled up good books and made a fort. Books are neutral. Books are safe. Right?

Are they?

Our culture is studded with stories—cautionary tales—about curiosity:

Curiosity killed the Cat. Eve broke the world when she tasted forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Pandora opened that tantalizing box. Bluebeard’s naive (unnamed) Bride, married a monster, opened the door of a forbidden room and found carnage: the bloody corpses of brides that came before her.

Isn’t it fascinating how cataclysmic the consequences of curiosity are in these stories? So bloody. So final. So dire. Strange, here, how quickly a simple query leads to apocalypse or homicidal rage…

Eve doesn’t get a belly ache after taking a bite; her actions lead to the fall of all of humankind. Bluebeard’s Bride isn’t merely scolded; the price for opening the forbidden door is a gruesome death. Pandora, we are to believe, is responsible for unleashing the greatest horrors upon the world: greed, hatred, disease, poverty, and war. We don’t know how many of its nine lives that Cat had left—maybe none.

Curiosity must be pretty powerful if all the cautionary tales built around it come equipped with repercussions this devastating.

Does curiosity really matter?

Many experts and luminaries agree: curiosity is key.

Brené Brown, a researcher known for her lectures on vulnerability, describes curiosity as the “super power of middle age” and the best way to weather rejection. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés examines the pervasive “trivialization of women’s curiosity” in stories like the Bluebeard fairy tale, and asserts that questions, especially those one is forbidden to ask, are “the keys that cause the secret door of the psyche to open” causing a “germination of consciousness” and the ability to recover vitality. In a recent interview, writer Margaret Atwood, when asked how she had remained prolific, active, and sharp into her eighties, told Tim Ferriss that it was curiosity that kept her thinking, writing, and publishing work. Re-framed, the upside of being curious sounds pretty good.

What about the consequences of keeping quiet?

What if the squelching of curiosity invites other forms of narrowing? What if a reluctance to ask questions leads to a fear of taking risks? Risks like… applying for good jobs, trying out a new love or hobby, choosing the riskier dream path with big rewards over the safer one that keeps you trapped in a smaller life. Maybe a stunted relationship with curiosity feeds inaction and stifles the ability to wonder what if. What if I could do that, try that, be that?

What now?

Maybe curiosity never got pushed to the edges of your life. Maybe you followed every stray thought, whim, and wondering to a satisfying end. Or maybe your questions got you into enough trouble enough times that you stopped asking them out loud. Maybe you saved up your wonderings and what ifs for private spaces and research. I think there’s hope even if you took a long break from investigating the mysteries and silences and untold stories that floated about you. For one thing, we have Alice holding down the fort amid all those stories in which females and their curiosity catalyzed destruction. We can be like Alice

Alice didn’t slip down the rabbit hole accidentally; she made a choice. She drank from the bottle and she ate the cake, even knowing they might change her. Alice found wonderland to be “curiouser and curiouser” at every turn (which any good explorer would if she’s really paying attention), but the strangeness did not stop her. Not ever. Alice traveled a wonder-filled dream world, led by her own curiosity, encountering strange folk and surreal situations, and she never stopped looking or asking questions. And…

The world didn’t end because of it.

Alice got home just fine—she returned to her family, pondered what she’d seen, and, no doubt, slept in her own bed that night. Where she might dream of wonders again.

*

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhotos by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Keeping a Journal Isn’t Virtuous

“Oh, I could never do that. I don’t have the discipline.”

I’ve been thinking about the benefits of keeping a journal, which got me thinking about walking. I lived in New York City for many years, and I walked a lot. Not to “go for a walk” but to get from here to there. Especially during the years I lived in Manhattan, walking was usually my preferred mode of transport – from home to work to entertainment / friends and back home at night.

Before.
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels

Then, when I moved out of New York City, I stopped walking. My method for arriving at most of my customary destinations no longer worked. I had to use a car or bus or train or combinations thereof to get anywhere at all. First came years of disbelief. “People get in a car to go somewhere just to go for a walk. That’s insane!” Eventually I accepted my new non-walking reality. Years went by, and I reluctantly grew accustomed to driving everywhere.

After.
Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Pexels

During the pandemic I began to make plans with friends to meet up outdoors, where we could chat safely while getting in some steps. As the months went by, I began to form a new habit of going for walks. Still, though, each time I go for a long walk, I confess to feeling virtuous. I expect I’ll get over myself, but at this point the habit is new enough that I remain self-conscious about it. In the early stages of a new habit, it can be a short distance between awkward self-congratulation and slamming on the brakes. “Oh, I tried it for a while, but it didn’t work out.”

Lately, several people, discussing why they don’t keep a journal, said similar things like: “Yeah, I never got into the routine. Good for you, though, for having the self-discipline.”

“Sometimes I wish I had developed the habit years ago. It’s too late to start now.”

“I never found the time for a journal. I’d start one and abandon it after a few days.”

I guess I can understand why people make remarks like that. I imagine it has to do with unfamiliarity, the way I had come to feel about walking distances.

Now.
Photo by Marta Wave on Pexels

My rediscovered and morphed version of “going for a walk” rather than just walking as transportation is still new, not automatic the way journaling has become for me. I need to give myself a little boost to stand up from what I’m working on, get the right shoes on my feet, maybe even drive somewhere, and walk around outdoors. I imagine that a similar hesitancy is at play when people distance themselves from the possibility of starting a journaling practice. To establish either habit takes some time and determination.

Journaling isn’t a panacea. It won’t appeal to everyone. I suspect, though, that a journaling practice can benefit people who assume it’s not for them. Yes, it requires a commitment. Yes, it rewards some regularity of routine. Beyond those constraints, however, it’s incredibly flexible. Like a good friend, it’s there when you need it, even after you’ve been apart. Like a trusted mentor, it provides perspective and guidance. Like a spring day, it’s refreshing and energizing. Like an inner sanctum, it’s private and safe.

Nothing at all to do with virtue. Like going for walks, journaling is its own reward.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

The Witchcraft of Older Women

Today is Sunday.

Regardless of what day you’re reading this on I’m writing it on a Sunday. I know it’s Sunday because I just took my alendronate sodium pill. That’s what my husband calls my “bone pill.” I have osteoporosis. I take my “bone pill” once a week, first thing in the morning. I’m not supposed to eat for 30 minutes after taking the pill and I’m not supposed to lie down. I usually take my dog for a walk.

My dog, Zoey. Wanting something. A walk? A treat? Needing to poop?


I’m not even that old, but as Indiana Jones said, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”


I’m a cancer survivor and a brain aneurysm survivor so it’s not too surprising I need a pill to keep my skeleton from crumbling under me. It’s just one of the pills I take. Most of them are vitamins. I tend to forget whether I’ve taken them or not so now I have the truest badge of old age – a multi-day pill container.

What day is it?


I’ll blame it on writing. Writers, just like all creative people, lose track of time. And days. And weeks. And years. So now I have a pill container to help me keep track, but I still couldn’t tell you how long I’ve been working on my latest writing project. Four years? Five years? I can’t remember. Maybe I need a multi-year pill container for my writing projects.


The last time my writing group met we talked about how history and the media- books, movies, even YouTube – have stereotyped older women. The witch, the crone, the “Karen.” These are women who society sees as troublesome. They are past their usefulness and a menace to society. At least they’re not burned at the stake anymore.


Fortunately today’s older women have role models that help us reject and defy these negative stereotypes: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Angela Merkel, Katherine Johnson.

Angela Merkel. I think she’s brilliant. Photo By Martin Rulsch, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30227377


But I wonder how these ancient stereotypes – dare I say archetypes – began? Why is the witch old and ugly? Why is the crone thin and grey? Why is the “Karen” hated more than the worst criminals?


According to scientists there are only three mammal species that experience menopause. Humans, killer whales and pilot whales.

Pilot Whale. Photo: NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION | U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/long-finned-pilot-whale

These three intelligent species share more than menopause. They share close relationships with family and friends, with children and grandchildren. But it’s their relatively long lifespan that really sets them apart. Post-menopausal females teach and nurture the next generation. Since no more energy need be spent on having babies, they can use their time and energy on their daughters’ offspring. The older women have forfeited their ability to reproduce so they can help their grandchildren survive. This is known as the ‘grandmother hypotheses.’ (source NPR)

Consider how antiquity looked at the life changes a woman goes through:

The young girl is bright and inquisitive. She is daring and can outrun most of the boys. She is often stronger and bigger that the boys. She can fight them easily and chase them away. Then…


The boys are bigger than her. The same boys who use to chase her and lose now can chase her and win. Life is so unfair. The boys are gaining ground, moving ahead, exploring the world.


Consider the new mother. She can’t spend her time philosophizing. She can’t spend her time exploring. Every waking moment must be spent on one thing: the baby. How to take care of it, how to keep it alive. Keep it healthy. Protect it, make it strong. Make sure it has all its needs. The new mother can seem dull witted because she is sleep deprived. She has one obsession, her child.


Here is where the Grandmother Hypothesis blooms. Who steps in to let the young mother sleep? Who loves her baby as much as she does? Who can help her raise this young individual to become a healthy member of society? Because what is a civilization without children who have been protected and nurtured and trained and taught by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters?

My mother, Stella Jones, holding one of the many children in her life. 1980s or so.


Finally, after many years of toil, she no longer needs to run away from boys because they are no long chasing her. Her children are grown and her skin and hair shows her age.

But something magical overcomes her. She no longer has to prepare for her monthly cycle (I won’t go into what menstruation was like before the conveniences of modern sanitation) and she can do whatever she wants without worry of pregnancy or monthly pain. That must have seen like magic. She can hike a mountain or swim a lake anytime.


But most of all….


She finally has time to think. She has time to philosophize and seek the wisdom of the universe. Menopause gives her freedom and throughout the history of mankind, including right now in the Ukraine, freedom is a radical idea.

Image courtesy of Facebook campaign in support of Ukraine, March 2022
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BACCA Writers

Gotta-Gotta Has Its Uses

It’s snowing as I write this on a Sunday afternoon in January. The white stuff has been coming down in central Virginia steadily and relentlessly for more than five hours. It’s expected to continue for quite a while, after which it might shift to freezing rain tonight.

When it snowed here two weeks ago, my neighborhood lost power. Living in a completely electric-powered dwelling, I was left without heat, light, and internet, and did not have the use of kitchen appliances. Lucky for me, the power came back on later that evening. (For some people in the area, the power was out for as long as a full week. The public utility – cough – Dominion Energy – cough – has a lot to answer for.)

When the weather predictions about this snowfall began several days ago, reports differed from one source to another. The chatty woman at the UPS store told me to expect over a foot of snow. NOAA’s forecast predicted half of that. Two apps on my phone disagreed – because it’s impossible to predict the future. Even for weather experts.

I noticed I was feeling keyed up and udgy this weekend, and I knew why. Those cold, dark hours earlier this month, when the public utility gave us no projected time the power might be restored, were uncomfortable and full of uncertainty. Were a lot more of those hours heading my way? Thoughts – planning, list-making, trading bits of advice with friends – occupied my attention as I went through the steps. Do the laundry. Whiz up extra nutrition-packed blender drinks and keep them outdoors in a thermal carrier. Doublecheck that the shelf-stable food supplies are plenteous and accessible. Fill the thermos with boiling water. Go for a long walk the day before the storm was due, even in cold weather, because there may not be any walking possible for a while. Complete all the next several days’ essential desk tasks, just in case I won’t have the use of a computer. Make contingency plans with friends who have 4-wheel drive and/or a spare room, if my power goes out and theirs stays on. Sad to say, I’m developing a bad-weather routine. It did not include creative writing – not even this blog post.

a metal thermos bottle with the cap off
Fill the thermos. Image from PIxabay.

My usual weekend sort-of routine has been disrupted. I’ll admit that I enjoy a certain amount of routine in my weekends, especially during the past 20-odd pandemic months. If it’s Sunday, it’s time for a long walk in the woods, followed by a laundry or two. If it’s Saturday, I get to read a book. I might do more in the kitchen than during the week, fixing something for dinner that requires longer prep time, or baking. Typically, in an aspect of my weekends that I treasure, these activities all happen without deadlines or timetables. I mosey from one thing to another, taking breaks as they happen.

It felt like all those relaxed weekend possibilities went – poof – once it was clear this snowstorm was coming. The “gotta-gotta” engine was running things. That engine used to run my life a lot, and am grateful that it doesn’t so much, these days. My body remembers how, though. The elevated heart rate, shorter breaths, easily distracted thinking – oh yeah. Like riding a bicycle. As I explain in the “Come to Mama” tool in my book, FLOAT, “A self-defeating, buzzing energy I’ve come to call ‘gotta-gotta’ takes over when I’ve been in the land of windowless light, filtered air, and hard surfaces for too long. Gotta-gotta is the welcome mat for workaholism, compulsion, and further depletion. In the throes of gotta-gotta, proportion and balance don’t have a chance to be taken seriously.”

I noticed gotta-gotta taking over this weekend. While I understood the wisdom of making plans to take care of myself and my short-term obligations, I didn’t want to see my hard-won equanimity buried in a snowdrift until springtime. I wanted to use the gotta-gotta when it was called for, and then drop back down into something that works better long term – something calmer and deeper. There’s good news on that front.

I’m glad to report that, although it’s still snowing, I’m getting to the end of this blog post. This wasn’t possible to write while in the throes of gotta-gotta. So, although there are now several inches of snow outside my front door, and they’ll need to be dealt with before I can venture out, it’s also true that indoors the lights are still on, my heartbeat is back to normal, and I plan to fix another cup of tea as soon as I wrap up this post.

Another cup of tea. Photo by Ayla Palermo

Stay safe and sound, everyone. Here’s to calming down enough to write.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

Categories
BACCA Writers

Sometimes “David” is a middle aged woman named June Allen

The date was Wednesday, March 20, 1974.  The place was the Louisa County Courthouse.  The event was a hearing to determine whether the geologic fault running beneath the nuclear reactors at the North Anna nuclear power plant was safe. The existence of a fault wasn’t in question. Neither was whether Vepco purposely hid the existence of the fault from the AEC and from the public for three years.  At issue was the age of the fault and the likelihood that it was currently active (or could be reactivated) and could jeopardize the four proposed nuclear reactors enough to flood the surrounding cities, towns, and farms with radiation.

The three-man Atomic Energy Commission Safety and Licensing Board had set up the hearing in Louisa County to listen to testimony from Vepco personnel, paid experts, upset landowners, and concerned scientists. Neither Chairman John B. Farmokides nor the other two men on the board, R. B. Briggs, a nuclear safety engineer from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Lester Kornblith, Jr. an Atomic Energy Commission engineer, had any idea the hearing would go on for twelve long days when Chairman Farmokides called the hearing to order. (The Central Virginian, April 6, 1974, AEC Panel Concludes Twelve Day Hearing)

Most of those testifying were male.  All three board members were male.   All the Vepco personnel as well as their subcontractors were male. All the lawyers representing the AEC, Vepco, the state of Virginia, and the North Anna Environmental Coalition were male.  It’s possible that on some days the only woman in the entire Courthouse was June Allen. Forty-two year old June Allen most embodied the North Anna Environmental Coalition yet it’s more than likely every man in the room thought she would soon give up.  They probably thought she’d return to cooking or cleaning or whatever middle-aged women from Charlottesville did in 1974.  What could one lone woman and a handful of cock-eyed environmentalists do to halt Vepco’s plans to build one of  the largest nuclear power plant in the world?  How could this middle-aged schoolmarm stand up to the combined might of the Atomic Energy Commission and largest taxpaying corporation in the state?

What neither Vepco nor the Atomic Energy Commission knew was that June Allen had never been content to watch injustice from the sidelines. She wasn’t about to scurry back to Charlottesville.  What neither Vepco nor the Atomic Energy Commission knew was that June Allen had a history of advocating for the most vulnerable members of society against the most intractable foes.  

Uphill battles & seemingly lost causes didn’t discourage June Allen.  They spurred her on.

June Allen photo courtesy of her 2010 obituary

In the 1960 United States census, over one fifth of the population was living below the poverty line. In 1962, social critic Michael Harrington estimated there were between 40,000,000 and 50,000,000 relatively invisible poor people:  Unskilled workers, migrant farm workers, minorities, people for whom work was sporadic, demeaning, and demoralizing. They were without adequate housing, education, and medical care. (American Social Policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s, by Jerry D. Marx, Ph.D., M.S.W., University of New Hampshire) Civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining the cause of the 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, focused on the poor in a land of plenty:

 “I believe what happened in Los Angeles was of grave national significance. What we witnessed in the Watts area was the beginning of a stirring of a deprived people in a society who had been by-passed by the progress of the previous decade. I would minimize the racial significance and point to the fact that these were the rumblings of discontent from the ‘have-nots’ within the midst of an affluent society.”

(On 17 August 1965, Martin Luther King arrived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the riots. His experiences over the next several days reinforced his growing conviction that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) should move north and lead a movement to address the growing problems facing black people in the nation’s urban areas. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University)

In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared “unconditional war” on poverty.  As Johnson put it in his 1964 State of the Union address, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”  His efforts resulted in the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (which established the Job Corps, the VISTA program, the federal work-study program and a number of other initiatives), and, most importantly to millions of disadvantaged children, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (Washington Post, January 8, 2014, Everything you need to know about the war on poverty By Dylan Matthews)

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was created to distribute federal funds to school districts that had a high percentage of students from low-income families. It was designed to close the skills gap in reading, writing, and mathematics between children from low-income households who attend urban or rural school systems and children from the middle-class who attend suburban school systems. Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act supported special education and became the basis of the Education of the Handicapped Act. (Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 by Catherine A. Paul)  School districts all over the country rushed to find educators and administrators capable of implementing the massive intricacies of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In January 1966, June Allen became the first fulltime coordinator of Albemarle County’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs making her one of President Johnson’s unsung heroes of his war on poverty. Born in 1932, June Stone Allen was a native New Englander. She was Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Vermont. She had a Master’s Degree in Music Education from the University of Arizona and graduate work in English at Harvard.  Before moving to Albemarle County, she taught high school English in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.  She came to Charlottesville in 1963 when her husband, Dr. Phillip Allen, joined the University of Virginia medical school faculty. Before being recruited to implement President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act in Albemarle County, Mrs. Allen taught music at the Trinity Program in Charlottesville and at Head Start. In 1965 she taped “Patterns in Music,” a series of fifth-grade music lessons for WCVE, the Richmond educational television station.

As the first fulltime coordinator of Albemarle County’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs, June Allen started several of Title I and Title III programs including “Summer Skills,” “Greenwood Grows,” “Prime Time,” and “Candid Classroom,” but it was in the two language programs she designed that her gifts as an educator shined: “Language Lift” and “SP-EAR”

“Language Lift” was designed to stimulate oral language and reasoning ability.  The premise for this combination was that both were essential for success in reading, especially for disadvantaged children. The program was widely admired and was recognized by the Office of Education as “outstanding.”  (There was no mention in the source article of whether the “Office of Education” was a local, statewide, or federal Department of Education.) Two reporters from the Charlottesville newspaper The Daily Progress won prizes in writing for their pieces about the “Language Lift” program.

Like “Language Lift,” the “SP-EAR” program was a joint effort between the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.  “SP-EAR” focused on the “hearing handicapped and the speech impaired” with particular attention on oral language.

In 2021, Albemarle County has Title I programs in 6 elementary schools. Funds support reading and math instruction through teachers, teaching assistants, instructional materials, professional development, and program support for over 300 students in the county. (From Albemarle County Schools website https://www.k12albemarle.org/our-departments/instruction/title-i)

After years of fighting in President Johnson’s war on poverty, taking on Vepco must not have seemed nearly as daunting.  A month before the Atomic Energy Commission’s Safety and Licensing Board hearing began, Richmond Times Dispatch reporter Jean Purcell interviewed June Allen.  This same insightful reporter had interviewed Louisa County High School Councilor Mr. H. Spurgeon Moss as rising waters from the dammed North Anna River threatened to cut across his driveway and strand him in his home.  As with her article about Mr. Moss, reporter Jean Purcell saw the David versus Goliath battle shaping up as another dedicated educator tangled with Vepco and their billion dollar nuclear power plant. Modern eyes may read Jean Purcell’s description of June Allen in the February, 1974 interview as too flowery, even condescending, but in 1974, one professional woman interviewing another professional woman was certainly a rarity in Virginia and perhaps a rarity throughout the world:

“Willowy and gentle, a poet and a musician, June Allen’s interest had been largely in the fields of music and language arts, and in developing language teaching techniques for disadvantaged children.

But she can be aggressive without being abrasive, courteous without taking on the qualities of a Uriah Heep.  Her birth and upbringing in a puritanical environment in New England have fused in her a strong streak of what she considers the rightness of things.

Membership in Phi Beta Kappa attests her academic achievements.  As a friend said of her recently, “I never cease to be amazed by her basic intelligence, her articulation and her smoothness.”

All those qualities have been useful—more than that, necessary—in her work with the North Anna Environmental Coalition to block construction of the power plant as it is now planned.

In preparation for a March 20 [1974] hearing on the safety of the North Anna site in light of the geologic fault, Mrs. Allen and others in the coalition are hard at work.

‘I think it is a matter of survival.  I genuinely do.  We are developing something that has the power to destroy us,’ she said.”

(Richmond Times Dispatch, February 25, 1974, Atomic Power Plant Foe is an Unlikely Adversary by Jean Purcell)

June Allen and the North Anna Environmental Coalition had reason to distrust Vepco. They had reason to be wary of the Atomic Energy Commission as the hearings began.  Far too many voices echoed the sentiment that the AEC had already decided to support Vepco long before the hearings began.  Rumors rippled through the Courthouse that the AEC would give Vepco permission to continue building the North Anna nuclear power plant regardless of what was uncovered regarding the earthquake fault under the nuclear reactors.

Author’s Note: I’ve found very few articles about June Allen and nothing on her life after leaving Virginia (other than her obituary). If you knew June Allen or any member of the North Anna Environmental Coalition, please leave a message below. I’d like to learn more.

Albemarle County, Virginia, is located about thirty miles west of Louisa County (site of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant.)  In the middle of the 726 square-mile county is Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.  Albemarle County is where President Thomas Jefferson built his famous mansion Monticello, and President James Monroe built his less famous mansion Highland.

Headline image of two workmen atop the North Anna Dam courtesy of The Central Virginian Newspaper

Categories
BACCA Writers

“Happy Idling:” The Essential Nothing

This month the deadlines are stacked up like flapjacks, but I do not want to work. All I want is to go outside and soak up as much of the light and color the short days will allow.

For once, October wasn’t a diva and saved some glory for November. Usually, we only have the subtle pink and burgundy oak leaves left by now. But this year, the sassafras leaves are still waving, the ginkgo is more green than gold, and sunset-colored maples are competing with the Christmas lights that have already gone up. Autumn is taking its time in spite of the calendar, and I just want to be in the middle of it while it’s happening.

Meanwhile, that little pile of to-dos I thought I had under control is cascading into chaos, threatening to take me with it. I’m using my tools—I’ve got the whole mess micro-mapped, broken into baby steps. I thought I’d be less daunted if I broke it down. I thought I’d just soar through, but I’m moving at more of a meander.

The potency of liminal time

Lucky for me, I have Brenda Ueland backing me up. In her slim, hope-packed manifesto, If You Want To Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, first published in 1938, she proposes that the “idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong.” Instead, she promises, “the imagination needs moodling,—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

I love this. In this light, afternoons spent pondering, strolls outside spent gathering petals, rocks, leaves—all have value. It isn’t laziness or just avoiding the inevitable to stay in bed for a few extra minutes some mornings. Maybe those quiet, just-waking moments, when pieces of dream and thought drift down together in new interlocking orders, are as important as the work I’ll get around to after. In that liminal time, crucial creative energy accumulates, banks up, gathering in potency so it can fuel the creative work of another time.

I know this from dabbling in other disciplines—recovery days are as important as running days. If I want to run next week, or when I’m 75, I have to give myself days in between to stretch and rest, refuel and heal. The garden teaches this too. You can’t plant tomatoes in the same patch every year—the soil needs fallow time so it can be replenished.

For the sake of today and tomorrow

I try to hold this all-too-appealing permission slip in balance with other advice that I know to be true, including the undeniable prescription that, to be a good writer, you need to write everyday. Still, Brenda Ueland makes good sense when she says that “what we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing.” What she calls a “span of idling yesterday,” therefore, is essential. Racing from one task to the next so that we can get it all done doesn’t lead to the best work, she argues, because “good ideas come slowly” as a result of “clear, tranquil and unstimulated” time—and the more slowly they come, she says, the better they’ll be.

Still, deadlines loom, and I can’t pretend otherwise without disappointing myself and others. So today, I do a task and cross it off the list. Then before the sun goes down, I give in to “unstimulated” time. For the sake of the novel I hope to start next year, I get myself under the ginkgo branches to check on the progression of green to gold.

*

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhotos by the author.