A win at the Philadelphia Writers Conference!

I found a suspicious envelope in my mailbox Friday that threatened to be exceedingly convincing junk mail. It looked eerily authentic as something personal, but I’ve gotten this stuff before and I was not expecting much.

When I opened it, here’s what I found!

I attended the Philadelphia Writers Conference in June but left before the awards ceremony. Ah well! Foolish me.

Regrettfully, I missed the chance to hear my name called, hear a smattering of applause, hear anything they might have said about my writing, and missed the joy I might have felt for the past few weeks knowing I’d won a prize.

Happily though, it is here now!

 

LOST – Another win at the West Chester Story Slam!

“So even though it doesn’t sound likely, you can be lost and alone and not even know it”. That’s how I started my story Tuesday night when I stepped back up to the microphone at the West Chester Story Slam. The topic, LOST, was perfect for me, because I recounted growing up on an isolated estate just outside of NYC where it seemed no one was ever home, and I ended up arriving at adulthood unaware of just how lost I was.

As I told the crowd gathered at the Side Bar Restaurant, I love telling stories about my life because it helps me connect with people. Despite my unique circumstances, listeners relate to the depiction of isolation and insular thinking that was the hallmark of my childhood. I know because some stepped up to me afterwards to say they appreciated hearing my story. As they did I thought to myself wait, didn’t you hear me….I grew up surrounded by thousands of acres of trees. How can you relate to this?? But that’s what I’m talking about, sharing my stories has the power to connect me with people even though on the surface you might not think we had much in common.

Thanks to everyone there Tuesday night, but especially to Diane Yannick with whom I tied for first place. Because of this win we are both now slated to tell stories at the Grand Slam on November 1!

Thank you to my first beta reader!

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A few weeks ago I met with a woman I did not know, my first beta-reader for my manuscript of You’ll Get Over It, Jane Ellen, specifically to get her reaction. She, of course, knew all about my life and had opinions on it, and that was a shock. It was a surreal experience. Because I grew up in isolation one of my childhood dreams had been to have a witness, someone there to see it all unfold, so I wouldn’t have to live it alone. I used to tell the stories of my life to the trees, to the air, to no one, pretending there was someone there, and practicing in case someday someone would be there. Now that I have done that, told the stories to that nebulous someone out there, it feels pretty crazy.

She called the book “compelling” and “honest”. I was aiming for that! She said that the characters were living in her head even when she wasn’t reading the book. She even put in writing on my feedback questionnaire this: “It was also a powerful reminder of the importance of staying in touch with one’s feelings. From the standpoint of a writer, it was a strong example of powerful writing techniques.” When I asked what the theme was she wrote, “Finding one’s own voice, self, and sense of purpose in spite of great family challenges.”

She is a co-director at the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project whom I’d met at a writing workshop two years ago where I got her name and email address. So glad I dared to contact her recently asking if she’d be up for reading my story. I could not have asked for a better first beta-reader experience. Many thanks, Janice.

My winning story published! Yay!

The text of my winning story from the West Chester Story Slam, told in January 2014, was recently published in this anthology of stories. This is when I stood at a microphone in front of a live audience at Ryan’s Pub and told the silly account of how I explained to my son how babies are made after it became evident he wasn’t clear on some of the facts.

Some say it’s about how sex education differs by generations, but I say it’s about showing respect to your kids even when you must embarrass yourself. It’s about sacrificing for kids because you’re a parent. Either way, I am quite happy it was selected to appear in this anthology.

Here’s a link to the video of me telling the story.

WC Story Slam book cover

Reading at Chester County Book Company

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I always jump at the chance to read my work aloud. I just love doing that because I find it fascinating to see what people think of it. I also get to hear how it sounds out loud, for real. It’s one thing to read aloud in your dining room and quite another to do so in public with everyone looking right at you. This was a successful reading and folks came up to me afterwards to talk about the story I read, “Lots and Lots of Love and Kisses” an excerpt from my memoir.
Here are a few photos of me at the podium that night, May 18, 2015.

Reading with kids is a joy

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Today I started volunteering at a local elementary school, reading for thirty minutes separately with two second graders. I’ll be going every week throughout the school year to be their personal cheerleader in reading.

We had a lot of fun because discovering the story together, was a delight. Even though I know the story already, and even though I read it twice in one hour, it was a special experience each time. Each of the kids saw different parts of the story as significant and each was excited by different parts.

The little girl I read with was ridiculously cute, asking me when I would be coming back. She was clearly keeping tabs on me, calling out as she left, “See you next Thursday!”

Why saying ‘thank you’ matters so much

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I cannot say enough good about thanks.

At the bus stop today, which I visit regularly to stay in touch with my youngest neighbors, I showed the kids how to get my dog to do tricks in exchange for treats. One little girl was so charmed as my dog dutifully came to her on command, that she said to me quite directly, “You come back tomorrow and we’ll do this again.” Once the older kids were on the bus and she was headed back home her mom insisted she and her very young brother say thank you to me. She didn’t let them off the hook when it seemed a little difficult. They both knew, they’d been down this road before with mom, and they said their thanks. I thanked them in return for being great friends to me and my dog.

The parents of my piano students do the same. After every lesson they instruct their children to say thank you to me. I in turn thank them for working hard and for being great students. Kids don’t always want to do this. When my kids were little we called it a ‘proper thank you’ and it required that you look directly into the eyes of the person you were addressing. It matters to me that we acknowledge one another.

Friends of our stopped by last night to say thanks for a favor we’d done them. They stayed and chatted and let us know what it all meant to them. We shared in the joy of having a connection. We said thanks back for being great guests and for acknowledging our favor.

The reason I bring all this up is because saying thanks is part of how we get to know ourselves. It is a significant means by which children learn who they are. My MANTRA! Helping kids know who they are! It is important to me because it is the reason kids ever leave home and get jobs. They are itching to go and be who they are and live the life of a grown-up after all those years of being a kid and just thinking about it.

Saying thank you is a way to become aware of what they like. They are grateful and they say it out loud. Parents help kids know this about themselves. Know what they like. Consciously. Out loud. And this in turn helps them get to know who they are. And then they often hear back why the other person is grateful for THEM. Bonus that kids then learn even more about themselves. Teaching children to be grateful, to show gratitude, to not take the world, even neighbors and piano teachers, for granted, is a gift to your child because it is a doorway to helping them learn who they are. If they know who they are they have a chance of figuring out what to study in high school, in college, and then into the work world. Knowing who they are helps them direct themselves in life.

There are a whole bunch of other benefits to saying thank you, like bringing a positive spirit to those you interact with, like character building which is shown to be a key to doing well in school, like inspiring others to be conscious of themselves, like teaching children how to treat their parents once they themselves have become teenagers and then adults, and on and on. And there are, of course, many additional ways to learn who you are. But saying thank you is a cultural norm that I love to see young parents teaching their children. It is good for children, it is good for parents, and it is good for us all.

Under My Own Personal Sky – Faith

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Because I wanted to I stood on a stage and told a story of faith to a gathered audience of folks contributing to a local charity. There were ten stories told that night and you can learn about them at the Center Stage link at http://www.wcstoryslam.com. Mine was about allowing myself as many churches as I want, but holding in highest regard the one I find under my own personal sky. The video the producer took that night failed by the time my story came up (I was the closer), so I told the story once more to a group of gathered women in a private home and tried to videotape that. It’s a bit rough due to ringing telephones but it is a video. The text of my talk is as follows:

Under My Own Personal Sky

My faith hasn’t wavered much over the years. I’ve had the same sense of what I believe in since I stood under my own personal sky, alone and isolated, on the vast private estate of my childhood. I grew up in a place so big it had three lakes. There were 70,000 acres of trees out my back door. And it had a sky under which it seemed God himself heard me speak, answering with strong winds, teeming clouds and raindrops that pelted my skin.

I was raised Presbyterian, locking up the church with my folks every Sunday since Dad was head of the Session and Mom, the church secretary. I helped wash communion glassware and put folded tablecloths away after each fundraiser. Once we had a family of our own, my husband and I did the same with our children, teaching Sunday School and serving on committees.

Twelve years into raising our family Presbyterian I spotted an odd note on a congregational meeting vote card indicating the funds we were approving were being used in health insurance benefits that allowed abortions. And it bothered me that someone had highlighted this detail. There were other rumblings that led me to discuss with the minister just who we are. Turns out there are different factions of Presbyterians and some don’t like homosexuals, and some don’t like abortion, and some don’t like women to have certain roles. I was disappointed in myself for blindly following a faith that I possibly didn’t even agree with. Since when had my religion become so political?

I reluctantly decided that allying myself with folks who draw such lines didn’t feel right, and we started more often to attend the Quaker Meeting two blocks away to sit in silence, because after all, for me, checking in with yourself is the way to find your faith. To welcome silence, to stop each week and remember your spirituality, to be reminded of your own truths, is what makes sense to me.

About seven years after starting at the Quaker Meeting, I got a letter in the mail indicating I needed to come in to the Presbyterian church as a member in good standing to cast my vote. Apparently ideas like the one I’d seen on a congregational vote card had grown, camps had set up, and folks couldn’t tolerate one another anymore. I’d been gone so long I’d missed the big fat ugly fight that was culminating in a showdown next Sunday at 10:00am. Please be in attendance.

This letter urged me to make my voice heard in an attempt to salvage a community in crisis. Only when I got there it was like third grade… microphones set up for those ‘in favor’ of a break over here and those ‘against’ over there. Official proctors manned timers to make sure no one spoke longer than two minutes, red and green flags were held up to let speakers know when their turn could begin and end. I stood and said that I wasn’t too up on the specifics of the furor, but I was sure we should not let our differences divide us. That we had come together for a common purpose in the first place, and deciding that some of us were more right in our praise of God, or in our interpretation of the words we share in our effort to find God, could not be right. And between these imploring words, as I watched a divorce unfold, even though it had been me who left in the first place, I heard my own heartbreak.

Two days later I got a call asking me to be a deacon in the newly formed Presbyterian church. I assured them I was Quaker. They wanted pastoral people who cared, I was told. So, I said yes because I love the church, whichever one you want to talk about. Whichever one has us coming together to share the struggles of being human. I worked hard on behalf of my Presbyterian colleagues helping us get established again given that the minister, most of the support staff and nearly half the congregation had left to set up their own church elsewhere where they could more freely exclude whomever they wanted. I served eighteen months as a Presbyterian deacon even while attending the Quaker Meeting.

A few months later I was emotional as I spoke at the Meeting House. There is great respect for sharing honest thoughts there, and even I felt a reverence for the truth in my words. I said that in attending any church I appreciate seeing the faces of people who have known me for years. I don’t have much of an extended family so it matters to me that there are people from my past still with me in my life. People who have known me a long time and haven’t walked away. People who want to connect.

So I have my foot in two churches it seems, the Presbyterian and the Quaker…but I have my foot in a third church as well, one that straddles both, really… and that is the church under my own personal sky. It’s the one that tells me people are human no matter what religion they practice.

And so I am allowed two churches. I am allowed ten churches. Because sometimes I walk the beach on a frosty winter morning, alone except for the sunrise and I tell God my life. I tell of my struggles to do what is in my heart. I tell of my fears and my wishes and my heartaches. I tell God that I want more than anything to connect with the people around me and to feel them loving me and me loving them back, whatever religion that makes any of us. However many kinds of churches that takes.

And for that… I have perfect faith.

West Chester Story Slam winners polar opposites

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I went to the West Chester Story Slam again last night to watch and learn what it is to tell your story. I am also sizing up the competition so I can be prepared to compete in the Grand Slam storytelling event in November. I am eligible for that since I am this year’s January winner (see my video tab above) and all the year’s winners compete against each other at the end of the year. It gave me a chance last night to talk to the winner and ask him about his process. Even though he is about as smooth as they come, easily rattling off his story and hilariously, I’ll add, it turns out he preps just like I do. He writes and he rehearses and he does all the things I was sure I was doing as extra work that ‘real’ storytellers surely do not have to do.

But the real winner of the evening was a gentleman I’d never seen there before. He stood and told a spellbinding story of childhood sexual abuse of a sickening proportion. I went looking for this guy just afterward but I think he left quickly because it had to have been a monumental feat to do what he did. Michael Trageser told a poignant, eloquent, heart-wrenching story that ended with him admitting he is wracked as an adult by guilt and shame and cannot carry on in an adult role because of his haunting, debilitating past. I wanted to find this man and tell him how proud I was of him for standing up there and telling his story. It’s hard to tell your story when it isn’t about your life having been ruined at the age of five, so to do what he did, I am sure, was excruciating. I wanted to let him know that by telling his story he starts conversations among people that then allows light to come to a topic that is usually hidden in the dark. I wanted to tell him that although he feels he cannot carry on in an adult role, he is indeed doing something only adults can do, and that is to bear witness to a childhood stolen, for all the kids out there too young to speak for themselves. I wanted to tell him to keep telling his story, to contribute as an adult to the rescue of children who are so victimized. Being brave enough to tell your story is scary, and this guy did exactly what he should do, and exactly what only he can do.

I would have liked to have talked to this fellow. I would have liked to have urged him to forgive himself for the life that happened to him, and to encourage him to continue to share his story as a way to heal himself and help others. I really liked that guy.