Persistence

Gorkhi-TereljNationalPark67

Everybody tells you that success requires persistence, lots of trying and failing and trying again. Of course, those people have usually already succeeded. Continue reading

On Veterans Day, Another List

My grandfather at Quantico, age twenty-one

 

Last time, I wrote about lists. This time, on the day when we honor all who are serving or have served, whether active duty, discharged, retired, lost, in reserves, or supporting service people (such as those amazing military families), here’s a different list.

This is a list of everyone I know (personally or through others) who deserve to be honored on this sacred day.

Note: because some may prefer not to be publicly acknowledged, I am listing them by how I know them. Continue reading

Lists

list

My wise friend, Dacia Ball, recently gave a talk to a women’s breakfast in which she discussed, among other things, lists. Since I am a huge fan of lists, her remarks resonated with me.

I adore lists. They’re so concrete, an irrevocable record of intent: I’ll get to it, it’s on my list. Putting an item on the list ensures that it will not be forgotten or overlooked. On the list, it’s real. It has value, a place in my schedule.

Continue reading

Feel-Better Stories

Last week, I discovered a genre I’d never heard of: up lit.

One article describes up lit as “the new book trend with kindness at its core . . . novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood.”

dog - hopeful

After the past month—the past two years, actually—it sounds pretty good to me.

Earlier this year, even before the Kavanaugh debacle, I found myself pondering the question, “How do you write about hope in such dark times?”

I wish I had a terrific answer, one with clear steps and guaranteed results. Dots to connect, numbers to paint by.

Because the truth is that when we dig deep into ourselves to write, what we find may be anything but hopeful.

hopeless - hand rising from water

This is an especially disturbing notion coming from a person of faith. I know the gospel, and I’ve read Revelation, so I know how it’s all going to turn out.  (Spoiler alert: Satan loses.) I know that, as Anne Lamott says, grace bats last. Or there’s this wisdom from John Lennon:

John-Lennon-Quote-Everything-will-be-okay-in-the-end-If-it-s-not - 2

But in the nitty-gritty, the day-to-day, this world where leaders spew hatred and mobs cheer it, I’m finding hope hard to come by.

Which is why the idea of up lit appeals to me.

Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

cat - annoyed

I used to know how to do this. Many years ago, when a dear friend was dying, I coped by writing. In between cleaning her house and going to the hospital and sitting with her to give her husband a break, I wrote. At one point, I wrote a story about a man whose dear friend is dying, and I put everything I was experiencing into that story, which turned out to be sad but oddly hopeful.

When I finished that one, I decided that I really needed to smile, and so I wrote a story about a man whose sons had gone into town to fetch the payroll, except a bunch of things went wrong, but in the end, everything was okay.

At the beginning of the summer, I saw a contest for an anthology which would be entitled, “Stories That Need to be Told.” I figured that a story about things going wrong and then turning out all right was exactly the kind of story that needed to be told. The publishers apparently agreed with me, because this week, they awarded my story an honorable mention and asked if they could publish it in the anthology. (I’ll let you know when the anthology is available.)

applause

This morning, I sang three services full of great music about God, Who is totally about hope and the triumph of love. Then, I came home, took a nap, and dreamed about writing a murder mystery. I even dreamed that I wrote the story down, and when I woke up, I realized that I’d only dreamed about writing it down, so I wrote it down before I could forget it. Then, I sat down to write, only to have the story veer off in a different direction (though still involving an untimely death and somebody who may have caused it).

Okay, I grant you: a murder mystery doesn’t sound like hope. It sounds more like what’s in my brain is anything but hopeful. But consider this notion that I found somewhere (and forgot to write down where, so I can’t tell you who said it, but if it’s you, please let me know so I can give you proper credit):

Murder mysteries are the most hopeful genre.

I know that sounds weird, but think about it. In a murder mystery, something terrible has happened: a person has been murdered. A life has been taken. Indisputable wrong has been done.

Then, the detective arrives. This person may be a real detective, or she may be a dog walker, an innkeeper, a quilt maker, or any of a million other professions practiced by the amateur sleuths who populate cozy mysteries. The stakes may be pure justice, or they may be more pragmatic: if the killer isn’t caught, the sleuth (or someone near and dear to her heart) may lose her job, her home, or something else important to her. In Diane Mott Davidson’s first book, a caterer tracks down the killer after someone is poisoned at an event she catered, and she must either find out whodunit or risk her business and/or her freedom. Since cozies always end well for the heroine, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the caterer succeeds in her quest, thereby setting her up for a long-running series.

And that’s the key: in a murder mystery, the murderer is ultimately unmasked, and justice is done.

surprise

That’s what makes it such a hopeful genre. In real life, wrongdoers get away with all sorts of wrongs. They get elected to high office. They get appointed to high positions. They lie and cheat and hide information and manipulate the truth, all with no apparent consequences.

But in the mystery genre, the wrongdoers get their comeuppances. Righteous indignation rises up to correct the course. Good triumphs over evil. The truth is revealed. The price is paid. Lady Justice is satisfied.

justice

We live in a world full of wrongs. This is not a new thing. For people of the Bible, it hearkens back to the time Lucifer fell from grace because of pride. For those who do not subscribe to the Judeo-Christian heritage, the origin of evil may have a different starting point. Either way, no one can deny that it’s not a recent development.

And yet . . .

As long as people have been telling stories, they’ve told stories of hope. They’ve told stories to make each other laugh. Stories have a lot of functions, but entertainment is one of them, and inspiration is another. As far as I’m concerned, if my story makes someone smile, whether in amusement or affirmation, I’m happy.

Remember the story I mentioned earlier, the one about the man whose friend was dying? When I was writing it, I expected it to be full-on tragedy, because that was the real-life situation. Somehow, it turned out to be much more than that. Yes, the friend in the story died, but the death wasn’t the weeping, wailing, soul-crushing event I anticipated:

Joe squeezed Gabe’s hand, laid it down and rose. They could have talked forever, but the truth was that it had all been said a thousand times, in a thousand ways—by the bank of a creek after a funeral, on a summer afternoon over sugar cookies and lemonade, galloping side by side across the meadows when they were young and strong and thought their world would last forever. In a church, as the groom and his best man stood together, watching a redheaded bride walked down the aisle. A year later in that same church, as an infant girl was baptized and all present gave silent thanks that her father had lived to see that day. On a summer’s day, when one man let another ride home alone. In a small bedroom in the middle of the night, one holding the other steady as fierce coughing spewed droplets of blood across a blanket. And now, at the door to eternity, as one of them paused for an instant on the threshold, nodding to his friend one last time.

As he stood by Gabe’s bed, peace, unexpected and inexplicable, began to soothe the white-hot pain that had seared his heart ever since that summer day on C Street. He would miss Gabe every day of his life, and there would be times when the ache seemed unbearable, but for every moment of pain, there would be ten more of joy as he recalled everything they’d shared. There was no unfinished business between them. In words, in actions, in every way possible, everything had been said, and it was good.

At the door, he turned back. Gabe was still watching him. He didn’t wipe his tears, but he summoned a smile as he winked. Slowly, Gabe nodded.

And Joe opened the door, and he stepped outside that room to a world that would never be the same.

* * *

Right now, true up lit feels beyond me. I love the idea, but at this moment, it’s out of my reach.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t get there. And if you’re struggling right now, ditto for you. The only thing I know today is that this whole thing–writing, hoping, living–is a process. So for today, write what you need to write, as bravely and honestly as you can, whether it’s something to make you smile or something that gets out all the hurt and rage and terror that’s consuming you.

Once you’ve done that, when you’re fragile and damp and translucent as the shell left behind by a newborn chick, you might just find something hopeful among the shards. It may not look the way you expected hope to look, but that’s okay. It may be weird and funky and something your mother would never understand, but as long as it’s your way, and your hope, that’s what counts.

woman in meadow

 

For Writers With Day Jobs

I don’t usually share newspaper articles here, but this one is special. I don’t know this writer or her book, but I love her real-life story.

This post is dedicated to every writer who holds down a day job (including parenthood which, from what I hear, is at least two full-time jobs in and of itself) and still manages to carve out time for writing, reading, researching agents, figuring out publishing, and doing all the stuff necessary to put our stories out into the world.

Reprinted from the Washington Post by way of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, here’s the story of Ms. Caitríona Lally and her novel, Eggshells.

Brava, Ms. Lally!

fireworks

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A Dublin janitor wins the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature from the university she cleans

The Washington Post
by Allison Klein
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Trinity College Dublin presented Caitríona Lally last week with the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, one of Ireland’s most prestigious literary honors. The prize committee praised her book, “Eggshells,” as “a work of impressive imaginative reach, witty, subtle and occasionally endearingly unpredictable.”

For the past three and a half years, Ms. Lally has worked as a janitor at the college.

The day the call came from the prize committee, Ms. Lally was so shocked – and the experience felt so out of context – that she asked the person who told her she had won the award to please explain it again.

Of course, she had long known the reputation of the award – an enormous honor given annually by Trinity College to a writer under 40 who shows great talent and “exceptional promise.”

“But at that moment, I couldn’t figure out what a Rooney was,” Ms. Lally, 39, said in an email to The Washington Post, adding that her book had been published three years ago.

Ms. Lally called the honor “the happiest shock of my life.”

Each morning she wakes at 4:45 a.m., pulls on her blue janitor’s smock and heads for the college to clean from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Then she returns home to take care of her 14-month-old daughter, Alice. The day she got the call over the summer informing her she had won, Alice was being fussy.

“I’d been having a rough day – up early for my cleaning job, tearing home to mind the baby, baby wouldn’t nap and was making her feelings known,” Ms. Lally told Trinity College.

Once Ms. Lally realized that she had won the award – and that it came with a 10,000-euro prize (about $11,500) – she described it as “just pure magic.”

Ms. Lally had not applied for the award; the prize committee selects the nominees. Winners over the years have become some of Ireland’s best-known writers, including Anne Enright and Frank McGuinness.

The benefactor of the prize is Peter Rooney, who took over from his uncle, Dan Rooney, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and chairman of the Steelers, who died last year.

Ms. Lally said she plans to use the prize money to pay her bills and provide day care for her daughter, as well as buy a water tank for her attic.

“I’d rather say I’m bathing in Dom Pérignon and flying first class to Las Vegas, but practicalities take priority,” she said by email.

The author’s path to literary acclaim has been marked by plenty of rejection and job hopping.

Ms. Lally attended Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate student and studied English. To offset expenses, she worked as a custodian for the college while she was a student.

“I spent a couple of summers working as a cleaner in Trinity,” she wrote to the Post. “I spring-cleaned student residences after they vacated them, then worked as a chambermaid when guests came to stay in the college in the summer months. The spring cleaning was tough work – a year’s worth of grime doesn’t shift easily!”

She became close friends with some of the other housekeepers and said she enjoyed her college experience studying literature.

After graduating in 2004, Ms. Lally worked as an English teacher in Japan for a year and then traveled a lot. Back in Ireland, she held various jobs, including as a copywriter, and she went to New York for a time as a home helper. She found herself unemployed in 2011, which was when she got the idea for “Eggshells.”

“ ‘Eggshells’ is about a socially isolated misfit who walks around Dublin searching for patterns and meaning in graffiti or magical-sounding place names or small doors that could lead to another world,” Ms. Lally wrote to the Post.

“I spent the guts of a year wandering around Dublin in 2011, the year I was unemployed. I had been laid off from my job in the recession and was walking the streets myself looking for ‘staff wanted’ signs, and came up with the idea of my character, Vivian, who’s just looking to belong, to connect with someone,” she said.

Ms. Lally finally got a job in data entry and decided to develop Vivian’s character and write her book. Once she finished it, she entered it in a competition and won, with her prize being a day pitching her novel to agents and publishers. She got an agent and a book deal.

“There were many, many rejections, but after hundreds of job rejections, I think I’d gotten used to being told ‘no,‘ “ she said.

Her book was published in 2015, the same year she found herself out of a job again. She had remained friends with some of her old cleaning buddies from Trinity, and they told her the school was hiring housekeepers. “I went back,” she said.

She said she finds cleaning large empty rooms, especially beautiful libraries at the college, to be peaceful.

“In my current area, I have no bathrooms, thankfully – just offices and lecture rooms and a library,” she said.

She and her husband, who is employed by the government, live in Dublin and had their daughter last year. Ms. Lally said her janitorial job works for her schedule as a mother and is a great fit for writing. She’s finishing up a second novel – and not planning on giving up her morning work.

“It works well with my writing life. I’ve had paid copywriting jobs before, but it was hard to motivate myself to sit down at the computer and write my novel once my paid work was done,” she said.

Her advice for anyone who wants to write a book? Have a paid job that is not stressful.

“It’s very hard to write if you’re emotionally drained after work, or have a job that you dread,” she said. “I know that cleaning is some people’s vision of hell, but it works for me. The bills must be paid, and until that six-figure sum comes a-knocking, everyone needs a day job.”

Two and a Half Careers

juggler

When I was in my twenties and possessed unlimited energy, there was a brief period when I had three jobs. Continue reading

Not Nothing

shame
“My biggest fear was, do I look like someone just attacked me?” she said. She said she recalled thinking: “I’m not ever telling anyone this. This is nothing, it didn’t happen, and he didn’t rape me.”

 

These aren’t my words. As reported by the Washington Post, they’re the words of Christine Blasey Ford, whose allegations of attempted rape against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, are rocking Washington.

 

As the #MeToo movement has made horrifyingly clear, sexual abuse and harassment have raged unchecked for too long. Many of us recall the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Clarence Thomas when Anita Hill, an African-American law professor, testified before the all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she’d experienced when working for him. The parallels between then and now cannot be ignored.

 

What caught my attention today was Professor Ford’s own response to her attack: he didn’t actually rape her, and so it was “nothing.”

 

I know how she feels.

 

The year was 1974. I was fourteen years old. On a Sunday evening, I was babysitting for the Platts, two doors down from our house. The doorbell rang. I opened the door to find the nice-looking blond boy from across the street. He was probably two or three years older than I was. We’d never actually spoken; I just knew who he was because he lived nearby.

 

He pretended that he thought I was Mrs. Platt, and I was naïve enough to be flattered that he thought I looked so mature. When you’re not one of the pretty girls, one the boys flirt with and ask out, a compliment from an older boy is a big deal even when it doesn’t quite make sense. I don’t remember why I let him in – did he ask? Must have, because I doubt I’d have invited him in. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to. But he came in. The Platts’ German shepherd didn’t like him. I should have remembered the old adage, “You can’t fool dogs or kids.” Instead, I told the dog to settle down, and we went into the living room.

 

He sat on the sofa, right next to the right arm. There was a framed poster of a sunset on the wall across from him. He said, “You should see this.” I stood near him and looked at the poster. I remember seeing the glare of light on the glass. I told him I didn’t see anything special. He said, “Get down here.” I didn’t know what to think. I was woefully inexperienced with boys, and I knew who he was, so it didn’t occur to me that he might “try anything,” but the whole thing seemed odd. I bent down, and he patted the sofa arm and said, “No, sit here and you’ll see it.”

 

I sat. He immediately reached around my waist and pulled me onto his lap. With a grace I didn’t know I possessed, I rolled right across his lap, stood up, and told him to get out. I don’t know what I’d have done if he hadn’t left, but he did, and I locked the door behind him.

 

I went upstairs to the Platts’ bedroom and tried to find something on television to distract me. I ended up with “Kojak,” which I didn’t care about, but I needed something to keep me from thinking about how stupid I’d been to let him in. Because in my mind, the whole thing was my fault. If I hadn’t let him in, nothing would have happened. I didn’t think about the boy who clearly knew his adult neighbors were away and had come over to prey on the babysitter. I didn’t think then about how he’d seemed taken aback by the German shepherd who clearly disliked him and how possible it was that he’d only left out of concern that I might sic the dog on him if he didn’t. All I could think about was how it was my fault because I let him in.

 

He and I never exchanged another word. Ours wasn’t a street with sidewalks, so it wasn’t as though we’d encounter each other while out strolling on a summer evening. I occasionally saw him at school, but if he recognized me, he gave no sign.

 

I never told the Platts what took place in their living room. I didn’t tell my parents, because I was convinced they’d tell me that I shouldn’t have let him in, making it somehow my fault. The only person I told was my friend Wendy, and I don’t even remember that; I only know because later, she said something about not babysitting “because of what happened to you.” I didn’t even think of it as anything that had “happened.”

 

Professor Ford is quoted as saying that “[s]he was terrified . . . that she would be in trouble if her parents realized she had been at a party where teenagers were drinking, and she worried they might figure it out even if she did not tell them.” How easily we shift the blame to ourselves.

 

Like Professor Ford, I told myself that nothing had happened because I hadn’t been raped. He’d tried, I’d avoided, and he’d left. I told myself it was a non-incident, and for years, I never thought of it at all. Remarkably, as I write this now, I am not even certain of his name. All I know is how he looked standing on the Platts’ front step, straight blond hair and guileless face, flattering his way into the house.

 

When the Access Hollywood tape came out during the 2016 election, it brought everything back. Hearing the women who talked about being harassed and manhandled by the man some people later elected president. His attack on them for not speaking up sooner was based on one gigantic fallacy: that if they’d spoken up, they wouldn’t have been blamed. That nobody would have told them it was their fault for opening the door or allowing themselves to be flattered by a patently ridiculous compliment. That someone would have said, “You did nothing wrong.” That they wouldn’t have been made to feel stupid, as if they’d somehow invited him to do what he did. That nobody would have minimized it, laughing it off as a young guy making a pass, because after all, isn’t that what guys do?

 

Maybe, but with the hindsight of decades, I’m not so sure. What happened to me that night reeks of cold planning. That boy knew the Platts weren’t home. He knew a babysitter was there. He had a lie prepared to get himself in the door. He didn’t flirt or treat me like someone he was attracted to, somebody he liked and might want to ask out. Instead, with barely a few minutes of conversation, he manipulated me into a position where he could grab me. If it hadn’t been for the German shepherd that he apparently thought I could control, I truly don’t know what would have happened.

 

I was one of the lucky ones. Believe me, I know that. But decades later, it still chills me to think of what could have happened and how I never told anyone because he was barely out the door before I’d convinced myself the whole thing was my fault for letting him in in the first place. If a fourteen-year-old girl came to me now and told me this story, I’d be the first to tell her it wasn’t her fault, not one bit, but even as I write this, there’s a part of me that says “Well, you know, I could have prevented it, so it’s kind of my fault.” We tell women to be careful, not to walk alone in certain areas, to lock doors and windows and carry pepper spray and alarm buttons, as if a failure to abide by these rules would mean that if they were attacked, they were somehow complicit or contributorily negligent because they failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the crime. Really? It’s the woman’s fault? Since when? Since when, goddamit? Are men really so weak that if we don’t keep them from attacking, they’ll have no choice but to pounce? Are they really that pitiful?

 

If you’re like me, nobody taught you how to respond to this kind of behavior. We didn’t learn how to be the German shepherd, and for a lot of us – especially those of us raised in the 1960s and 1970s by parents who were products of the 1940s and 1950s – that’s something we needed to learn. Most of us were raised to be nice and polite and accommodating and considerate. We weren’t taught to tell an obnoxious handsy guy to get the fuck away from us because nice girls don’t use that kind of language.

 

So far, the details that have leaked about the attack on Professor Ford reveal that she tried to escape, tried to scream. Her drunken assailant’s inability to remove her bathing suit saved her from further assault. Only her assailant’s drunken friend jumping on top of both of them, sending all three tumbling to the floor, enabled her to escape.

 

In other words, on that night, all that stood between a girl and her rapist were booze and a piece of spandex.

The lawyer in me says, “Slow down. These are just allegations. Nothing has been proven.” But if I were defending the accused, I’d be very, very concerned. Even assuming my client credibly stated that he did not recall the incident, so what? Professor Ford says he was “stumbling drunk” that night; assuming this to be so, his claimed lack of memory isn’t determinative of anything. More troubling would be such facts as the victim telling her then-fiancé about the assault in 2002 and the discussion in therapy in 2012—an important chronology, because she made these statements long before the accused was a nominee for the highest court in the land. As defense counsel, I would also have to address her initial reluctance to speak publicly, the fact that she has already passed a polygraph test, and her willingness to testify now.

 

Professor Ford is intelligent and credible. She knows that going before the world to recount what happened will be grueling. She knows that every effort will be made to paint her as a liar, a tool of desperate Democrats seeking to smear the nominee. She knows the world will be watching and judging. I expect that she also knows that, like Anita Hill, her life will never be the same; notwithstanding her professional accomplishments, her name will now forever be synonymous with this moment in history. And still, she is not backing down. 

 

If I were advising Judge Kavanaugh, this would be the moment where I would recommend that he withdraw his name from consideration for the Court.

 

Because what happened to her was not nothing.

 

 

Photo credit: Volkan Omez on Unsplash