The Truth of a Woman’s Story

Last week I wrote about writing as a way of picking up the pieces. This week I spoke to women trying hard to do just that … pick up the pieces of their lives after Covid. Some downsized, some gave up smoking, some joined AA. Some struggle with where do I go from here? and what changes should I make?

I struggle with that, too. Maybe walking through a field with my dog and savoring the intricacy of Queen Anne’s lace along a streambank provides comfort. Like a pair of jeans worn in over time, the daily routine is a writer’s muse. She gets up in the morning, lets the dog out, makes a cup of coffee and puts pen to page. Soon, very soon, she feels, however illogically, that whatever happens,  happens … or, at least, the way it’s supposed to. 

In the silence of solitude, she thinks maybe she’ll lead a Bible study in the fall, volunteer at a children’s summer day camp (probably not), plan a day for herself (go to Bucks County Playhouse to see a writer’s one-woman show).  She always comes back to this business of a woman’s life. She reads a comment on Facebook. A man takes umbrage at a seemingly innocuous suggestion that writing the truth of her story is risker for a woman than for a man. He is outraged by her outspokenness, demands an apology. Aren’t men just as courageous to write their truth?

In the late afternoon, she relaxes in the shade of the umbrella on her deck and reads Women Talking, a novel by Miriam Toews, a Canadian writer reckoning with her Mennonite past. As she reads, she finds reinforcement that this patriarchal thing is ever present. IT always was and will be forevermore. It was there when she was young and it’s still going strong when she’s an old woman. Which gets back to writing and why she writes. Which gets back to answering the questions, where to go from here and what comes next? How can a woman write a woman’s life, the truth of her story? She has a compass and a map from years of living. So, she moves forward without apology, takes the dog for a walk, reads a good book, revels in her life along the writer’s way.

Writing to Pick Up the Pieces

Following Covid, a lot of us felt as if we were languishing. Finding it hard to pick up the pieces. A man I barely know confessed as much to me the other day. “I don’t know where to go from here,” he said. He hoped to restart his business, but time would tell. That’s probably why I write. To figure things out. Digging deep becomes more rewarding the older I get. Understanding yourself is the best compass to know where to go from here.

As we write, we come back to ourselves. Writers and readers revel in shared experiences … the neighborhoods we grew up in, the people who became our friends, the family-held secrets carried from one generation to the next … the trauma.

The last is tricky for writers. Excitement coupled with fear marks the journey as we strip away the façade and the secrecy, relive the unfairness of it all. Stripping away is good for the soul. Of course, as Virginia Woolf said, a woman needs to have a room of her own. It helps to have financial independence when you write. But it’s not necessary.

This past year as I wrote about events, places and people, the exercise became even a greater touchstone to creativity, self-discovery and empowerment than before. After all, writing is a psychological discovery on a secular and spiritual level. It’s a way to connect, yes, even on social media there’s a human heart beating.

When I wrote Again in a Heartbeat, I excavated the trauma of loss and widowhood at a fairly young age. Writing about cancer and its toll on marriage may not seem appetizing. It helped to take a deep breath, quit censoring myself, feel confident that I offered something of value in my relationships and my words. What whetted my appetite as much as anything was the discovery along the way … my desires and dreams, hopes and false expectations emerged with the story. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.”

Recently, a friend told me she’s not sure what to write anymore. She wants to write, but doesn’t … the energy evaporated. We began talking about her day. So much of it interested me. Surely, it interested her, too. Her story, I knew, would strike a chord with others. She didn’t have to write a book, just a few paragraphs here and there. I told her I was writing because it gave my day meaning, even on those days where I feel I am languishing. So, in a sense, I’m writing to pick up the pieces.

Ireland and The Writer’s Life

In Dublin we followed in the footsteps of James Joyce’s protagonist Leopold Bloom, past townhouses with blue and red doors and window boxes brimming with pink petunias.

Around every corner and turn, Ireland offered lessons in writing and poetry. Whether Irish or not, whether writer or not, Ireland deeply moves you.  From its rugged coastlines to its rolling hillsides flowering with white thistle and yellow gorse bushes … its wild daffodils blooming in profusion on chartreuse meadows … it’s magical.

For the writer, it is pure delight to wander Ireland where Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw produced plays and poetry that changed the world.

James Joyce was a risk taker. Always seeking to challenge the literary conventions of the day and find new expression, Joyce was rebel and outsider. Only by being outside and looking in could the author capture Dublin―indeed, Ireland―although he left in his early twenties for the continent of Europe, never to return. 

Still, as Joyce put it: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

As writers we break barriers, challenge norms and take risks with crafting and presenting our stories. Our voice, our take on the world and our memories are unique and, hopefully, universal. We play with point of view, often merging fiction and memory with imagination as we move from one character’s perspective to the next. The people we have known and loved, detested and admired, take on a life of their own.

Joyce, along with Nobel Prize winner, the Irish poet WB Yeats, combined memoir and fiction … drawing from personal experience, the people they knew and the defining events of their lives and moments in Irish history.

Yeats wrote often about the supernatural, the fairies that came to him in dreams and his quest to understand the nature of life and death. In one of his most famous poems “The Wild Swans at Coole”, he sees them and the Irish countryside again:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

In the footsteps of writers, you pass this way and may never come again. So, if you’re like me, you also take with you a memory, a moment, a realization. You craft this into a story, a poem, a blog post, a way to live and traverse the world and share through the power of words.

This is from a post written prior to the pandemic when I traveled through Ireland in May and June of 2017.

How about you? Can you share a memory of a journey that touched and moved you and helped you craft a story or poem or find a new way of looking at the world?

Women of the East and Southwest

She stands alone with windswept hair, eyes closed as if she were at one with the land. In a nearby courtyard redolent with the aroma of jasmine, a mother and daughter share an eternal moment under high blue skies. The statues of tribal women of the Southwest offer a moment of reflection for the woman visiting from the East.

Who were these women? The legend of the raven penned in black ink on an adobe wall holds the answer. An inverse interpretation to Poe’s sad ‘nevermore’, the raven in Native American teaching symbolizes the magic of darkness. The color black has many meanings and the raven speaks to the awakening that comes from the void.

New possibilities, new meaning emerge from darkness. The woman from the East felt the darkness in her own life, felt herself drawn into a void of lost dreams and expectations. Eventually, dawn’s light returned and she moved on to a new day.

The woman from the East walks from the museum toward the riverbank. Oak trees shimmer incandescent chartreuse.  Gray-green grasses carpet sunny slopes. She feels the sun and the wind on her face just as the tribal women must have felt.

Conquerors stole and raped the land. They trapped animals, mined for coal and turquoise, built railroads and hotels. As word of the healing warm, dry air of New Mexico spread, they pushed the indigenous people off vast lands onto small plots.

The woman from the East stands in the shadows of the women of the Southwest. She draws strength from them, remembers their story … their love of family and of the spiritual life here in this tan and azure land of enchantment.

Women Who Write Memoir

As writers, we move out of the way and craft real life characters and narratives that resonate with readers. Good writing is built on not worrying about inappropriateness. This “confidence of voice” has been especially challenging for women. Silencing confident women remains prevalent in our society. Although I wrote a version of this post almost four years ago now on Women’s Writing Circle, the truth remains that women who speak out are courageous, gutsy and help other women do the same, all of which takes motivation, intent, hard work and fearlessness.

In telling our stories, we accept our imperfections, flaws and our gifts.  The alchemy, the magic of life story writing takes the mundane, the ordinary and converts lead into gold. We bring to the conversation something which “speaks” to all of us.

In Lena Dunham’s bestselling memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, a young woman tells you what she’s ‘learned’:

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.”

The creative medium that is memoir leads to awakening. It opens the possibility of connecting with others. It’s not narcissistic vanity or self-indulgence, it may even be the ultimate act of love…and self-love.

Studies have shown that we are wired to remember stories more than data, facts or figures. The “power” of a story resides in a narrative that brings both the storyteller and her audience together, sometimes in a transformational way. Story, whether memoir or fiction, gives us an opening to teach or persuade, to learn more about ourselves and others. If done with goodwill and intent, this is a gift.

The Year Of Writing and Books

During this past year, writing saved me. Writing evokes tremendous energy. Time spent writing is never wasted. Walks through woods along paths of creamy dogwood and raspberry-sorbet trees, inspire reflection … always a good use of time. She remembered exploring her grandparents’ house as a little girl, especially the second floor sewing room. Pink-cheeked china dolls and a stuffed rabbit in orange overalls lay tucked in baby carriages under crocheted blankets. The old woman goes to her bedroom closet and looks inside at the faded gray rabbit in orange overalls on a shelf next to a worn pair of high heels. What does she have but her memories?

Aging, like lichen on a rotting log, offers crusty lessons. We have no control, are at the mercy of greater forces. All we can do is try our best. This April morning, I see the old woman in a cool, green meadow. Her ambition, her ego, even her bygone relationships become moments of being, always with a pen and a good book by her side.

It’s popular these days to ponder: How did the pandemic change me? But wasn’t I always the girl squirreled away in her bedroom with a good book? Wasn’t I always scribbling in a diary or spiral-bound notebook, or reporting on events, people and places? Wasn’t I always the woman fighting doubt and lack of confidence that what she wrote mattered to anyone but her?

Writing is hard work. Reading helps ease the strain. This year I became a fan of Emily St. John Mandel‘s work because she writes about dystopia and end times. My favorite read, though, Where the Crawdads Sing, for the sheer luxury and beauty of the written word. I opted for the easy read, the page turner. A Kristen Hannah novel: Winter Garden and The Four Winds. Admission and The Undoing by Jean Hanff Korelitz. When it came to memoirs, I picked up Educated by Tara Westover and Becoming by Michelle Obama. I gave up on library ebook rentals. Although nothing kept me busy, everything kept me busy. The days flew by and I couldn’t finish books loaned for only two weeks. Sometimes, it took three weeks or more.

It’s hard to say where the days, where the time has gone this strange and terrible year. One thing I know for certain. Everything comes full circle, back to that good book, back to that open notebook and pen, back to that young girl and old woman trying to write this year and every year.

My Mother’s Robin

When I was a child, spring arrived when my mother cried out, “Look. The first robin!”

No matter that frost in Pennsylvania could linger into May. Mother’s thrill at sighting that small, orange-breasted bird’s return after winter was a sign—spring had officially begun.

That’s what I told my friend because she had just said that spring was her favorite time of the year. “I wonder if it will get cold again?” she’d said.

As we walked through the neighborhood, redolent with the fragrance of flowering pear and cherry trees, I didn’t say that my mother suffered from anxiety and depression her whole life. Or that her joy at seeing the first robin was probably as much about hope as spring. Maybe she expected life to feel better.

For me, spring meant longer days, time dwindling toward the end of the school year…shedding the heavy winter coat. An expectation of summer and barbecues to come of roasted chicken and corn at the old picnic table near the weeping willow. It meant Mother in pale-pink sleeveless dress pouring iced tea from a glass pitcher.

It struck me after I said this about my childhood. “I’ve been around a long time.”

My friend said she felt that way too. “On Easter, my sister and I drank shots of Bailey’s Irish cream from the same glasses our mother used to put eggs in when we were little girls.”

We kept walking, two motherless women.

“I wonder if life will ever go back to the way it was?” she mused. She said a couple people she knew doubted life would return to ‘normal’. “Whatever normal is.”  

“I don’t know,” I said. “International travel…. I can’t see myself in a place like Morocco or Nepal again.”

We walked past a flowering magnolia tree. A montage of white-pink petals spread beneath the tree like a woman’s wedding train.

A bird tweeted its song.

We stopped to listen.

“Maybe, it’s my mother’s robin,” I said.  

The Dream Catcher

Recently, as part of its fundraising, the St. Joseph’s Indian School in South Dakota mailed me a dream catcher. The legend of the dream catcher among Native Americans of the Great Plains is that the air is filled with both good and bad dreams. The good dreams passed through the center hole of the dream catcher to the sleeping person…the bad dreams remained trapped in the web, where they perished in the light of dawn.

Covid and the year 2020 felt like that. A lot of bad dreams trapped in darkness. Now, the pandemic is on the wane, sparking possibilities…indoor dining, splitting dessert with a friend, maybe even a trip to the airport.

For Native American tribes, sharing a dream in community was considered a privilege, not just for the dreamer, but the listener. I felt that many times in our Women’s Writing Circle, a circle like the center of a dream catcher, conjuring timelessness and the universal experience of life told through stories.

One of my recurring dreams this past year was about the American Southwest. I can’t say how many times I’ve dreamed it, but at least half a dozen. In the dream, the same thing happened again and again. I didn’t want to leave. I lingered over lavender and orange sunsets and breathed deep the pungent aroma of the desert floor after a monsoon. In the dream, I kept postponing the flight back to Philadelphia and the darkness of winter. A psychoanalyst might say I was avoiding coming ‘home’, preferring to escape reality…the isolation.

Writing about my dream now, I sort through my thoughts. Where do I go from here? How do I move on from this life-altering year? What brings comfort and contentment? No matter where I am, desert or suburbia, it all comes down to me. Only I can invent my own destiny. So, I put pen to paper…I write for no one but myself.

I also believe new stories will not find their way to other women unless we write them, share them, break the isolation of the past where women remained voiceless and silent.

April is upon us, the month when winter’s detritus is replaced with pink splashes of magnolia and chartreuse trees. Mid-morning sun warms me with hopes that summer’s long languorous days are not far behind. I step out on the deck, soaking up heat and light. My yellow lab, Lily, rolls in joyous abandon and rubs her back on the grass, long white-blond legs pointing skyward. Maybe later, I will start looking at those flights out West. That’s my dream now. Not escape, but renewal.

Many of us are alone and in our sixties and seventies and beyond. Who is the woman alone and what makes her find within herself the strength to carry on when so many have left or died? Maybe the legend of the dream catcher holds the key? Dreams must be shared in the circle of faith, of other women. Bad dreams perish, rendered harmless in the dawn of a new morning.

Now that the pandemic is on the wane, what is your dream?

Welcome to Along the Writer’s Way

“Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will be told.” ~ Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Although some may find this philosophy repugnant, it seems some things do happen for a reason. I had long been thinking about a new website and blog. That said, it’s a steep learning curve. Whoever said that writing was just about writing? As authors know, we find ourselves with the somewhat unenviable task of mastering social media and everything that entails.

So bear with me as we begin this journey, me experimenting with design, blocks, templates, fonts and more, while, hopefully, providing interesting and timely blog posts on subjects from the craft of writing to women’s lives and finding within an ordinary day the extraordinary.

As May Sarton writes in Journal of Solitude: “I have only to imagine what it would be like were there very quiet days, under no immediate pressure, taken from me to realize how precious they are.” And, so, as the light from my window casts its morning glow across the books and manuscripts on my desk, I came to appreciate a new rhythm to my days. The walks with a neighbor, the unexpected visits from my adult children and the conversations we shared, the phone calls and, yes, even the ubiquitous Zoom meeting. As life changes, one thing remains constant—the joy of self-discovery and creative expression “along the writer’s way.”