Today I provide the guest writing prompt at storyaday.org. This site is considered by Writer’s Digest to be one of the “101 Best Websites for Writers” so take a look at https://storyaday.org/ to learn how you can mine your memories for writing gold.
Apparently my high school superlative award is very important to me! My classmates thought I could eventually get something done so I keep a framed picture of this yearbook drawing near my desk for emotional support. I’d hate to let them down.
They should not be worried though because I don’t seem to be giving up on this project. My latest beta readers have provided feedback after I completed a major restructuring of the story this July. It took a whole year because I read three books on the craft of writing after a Simon and Schuster editor suggested I needed attention to the underlying themes. I took notes on each book then applied those notes to the manuscript, then rewrote and reworked and reconsidered. That editor was quite right and I am forever grateful to her for taking the time to comment. Now I have addressed those themes and my beta readers have noticed.
I paraphrase below what one of my recent readers said.
“You have a phenomenal resolution to the circumstances of your story, showing tremendous strength and courage as you face the dragons and giants of your life and try to connect with them. So many people would benefit from your story because it shows a person can come out of terrible circumstances and rise above them,offering hope while working towards reconciliation.”
So, for all of you high school friends out there who thought I was most likely to succeed, do not give up yet. I’m almost there.
I recently learned of a podcast that is pretty funny and useful for settling down. It is called Sleep With Me (https://www.sleepwithmepodcast.com/.) There are hundreds of episodes and it is designed to help people fall asleep by telling really boring stories. These are “bedtime stories to help grown ups fall asleep in the deep dark night.”
The one I listened to was called “Baked Beans: The Adventures of Mr. Triangle and Isosceles.” A town of math-appreciating people will see a show that they must pay for with cans of baked beans, but there is trouble when it is realized that the wagon scheduled to carry all the cans of baked beans cannot stand the load. This story, told by a man who drolls on and on, often stumbling around for words and deftly emphasizing little parts of speech that make you stop and question what you just heard, breaks all the rules of writing by never getting to the point, using mindless dialogue, reiterating points and leaning on cliches.
The other one I heard was called something like “20 Steps to Self-Skin Care” and the first ten minutes were devoted to applying one’s fingertips to the face very deliberately and specifically in order to execute a light massage he called “running through Strawberry Fields.” It’s hilarious and relaxing and soporific.
I am planning on sharing this with the students in the Creative Writing class come Fall because it really drives home the idea that good writing should not put one to sleep.
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.
When I was younger I remember making up things. Exaggerating. Pretending to know things I did not know. And spouting off about things, digging a hole for myself I sometimes could not get out of. I see now, clearly, that that was my insecurity speaking. I was afraid of the truth of the matter. That I didn’t know something. Or that I would look stupid. Or that I was worthless as a person. No, really. My childhood ears were filled with words from authorities around me that implied and outright told me that I was full of crap. And that was before I started making up things. Making up things was a way to try to stem the tide of the ever increasing idea that maybe they were right, I didn’t know anything. I was stupid.
Making up things, lying, exaggerating, whether you are a kid or an adult, is a way of hiding. Of hiding behind ideas and words and attitudes that feel safer than the real ones. Admitting you don’t know something is tough because in the wrong company we run the risk of being made fun of.
Admitting who we really are, and encouraging our children to do the same, is a gift because we cannot move ahead in life, or grow as people, if we hide behind made up ideas and silly postures. Kids need permission to not know. We all do. No one can have all the answers all the time. Telling kids they are stupid, or bullying them inspires a reaction like the one I had…to try desperately to seem to know it all.
I posted this a few years ago but not much has changed in terms of my teenage boy challenging me.
I just started in cataloging all the boys and men I’d ever dated. We were alone in the car with 90 minutes in front of us, just my teenage boy and myself, so I started in. I knew of no other way to impress upon him the concerns I had about his relationship with his current girlfriend. You don’t tell teenagers directly what you want because they in turn, in keeping with their job in life to separate from you after a childhood of deliberate bonding, reject it. So the next best thing is to open myself up and share my personal experiences.
Turns out my litany of boyfriends, and there were not that many really, seemed a little interesting. And I say that not because of anything my son said, instead it was because of what he didn’t say. He didn’t say a word. For over an hour he said nothing as I detailed the reasons why one guy was good and another not, from my perspective as as teen and young adult, back in the day. I explained about the one who dropped cigarette ash on my rug, the one who was a high school dropout but doted on me like I was a queen so I stayed with him for five years, the one who had tons of money and a Porsche but his friends didn’t like him, the one who couldn’t ever find time for me, and those that had only one thing on their minds. I told him the entire experience of meeting his father and how we developed our relationship and why I liked him better than the others even though at first it was not so clear. I told it all minus the sexy parts. And he remained silent. But I could tell he was listening, and he even had a few questions, particularly about his father and me. He said it was cool that Dad really liked me even though I wasn’t that sure at first. He liked that part. The tenacity of his father, in love. Hmmmm.
The point is I needed him to know that staying with a girl for years, because it is easier than breaking up, is not that great an idea, and why. I threw in some examples amidst the smokescreen.
A few months later he broke up with his girlfriend. I was surprised, that is, until he pointed out that it was me who told him to do it.
My little piano girl heard me say she should play the G scale with two hands and she immediately said, “I can only do one hand.”
“That’s funny”, I tell her, “because you were doing two hands just fine last week, so let’s just check, try it with two hands.”
“I can only do one hand,” she tells me.
“I heard”, I tell her, “but let’s just check and try it with two hands.” So she tries it with two hands and of course it is more than just fine. “Didn’t you just say you could only play it with one hand? And didn’t you just play it with two hands?”
“Yeeeees”, she admits.
When we open the lesson book and look at the latest assignment she says, “Bleck.”
“Bleck?” I ask.
“Yeah”, she says, “bleck.”
To make a long story short she of course played that one just fine too and I reminded her of her proclamation ahead of time, and that it didn’t really fit.
On the next page I see her check herself before she says anything. I ask, “Would you like to say something really negative and then we can cross it out after you play the piece real well, or would you like to say something positive.”
“I don’t want to say anything negative.”
I just wish there was someone following me around reminding me every time I attempt to sabotage myself or sell myself short, because it is surely as frequently as this little girl. Dang.
I had a fantastic birthday this year and all because I granted myself permission to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I stayed home to write. And my husband brought me lovely meals to sustain me while I wore myself out crafting sentences and following blind leads down internet paths I rarely tread.
It is a guilty pleasure to spend hours getting lost in conveying ideas through words.
When I was little and when my mother was mad at someone, which seemed to be often, she’d say, ‘they’ll see’, or even,’someday they’ll find out’, as if there would be a final day of reckoning. Don’t get me wrong, my mother had a hard life and being mad at folks was absolutely legitimate, if you ask me. But I got the impression, as a child, that there would eventually be a time to confront everyone who had been mean to her or hurt her, and then they’d learn the truth of the situation and be sorry and my mother would feel better. But I watched her life and I know for sure that that day did not come. My mother went to her grave not having said aloud the things that bothered her and that hurt her and held her back. She bit her tongue her whole life; she waited for a day that never came. I was disappointed when I realized that clarity never came for her. She never got to hear the other guys’ side of things or air her own grievances or say aloud her pains or unload her heavy chains. She carried around so much pain with her everywhere she went, and always with the idea that someday it would all be lifted and the truth would shine. But she spent her life essentially waiting to die, if you ask me, because by not saying aloud her truths, her honest feelings, messy as feelings can be, she lost out on a lot of living. If you ask me.
So, as much as I don’t like it either, I am living my life by confronting those who bother me, and addressing the issues of today, today. I would love to imagine that someday, instead, it all comes clear magically to anyone with whom I’ve had an issue, but I have witnessed it going another way. I am not counting on that. I am living now, while I am here, and saying what’s on my mind today and not waiting for some mythical day of reckoning.
being yourself, change, dreams coming true, express feelings, fear, Goodworks, higher power, inspire, Jane Butler, Jane Paffenbarger Butler, joy, Quaker Meeting, security, teacher, trust, words, writing
Yesterday, Sunday, I wrote this.
I have no desire to run into myself today, in fact, I am actively trying to run away, hide, be somewhere where I won’t know what’s on my mind. Others drink, I hide. So at the Quaker Meeting, (and really I didn’t even want to be here because I know that just like when I was a kid, alone in Arden, there is nowhere to go to get away from myself), I sit on the back bench in the corner, eyes wide open hoping to stay present and aware of today, and not fall backwards into memories of what once was. Typically, like most everyone else my eyes are closed, but not today.
Working on my memoir, rewriting it, re-reading it, reliving all the old stories, and tough ones too, is tricky. Reading in detail scenes of me as a young adult afraid my father would stalk and kill me, or remembering finding people for the first time I felt I could trust, and remembering the isolation of a whole childhood, immersing myself in all that so I can tell it to you clearly and accurately, so you can feel the story, too, is dangerous. It’s hard not to relive a little of it and forget that it is all history and no longer really my life. Oh, I wish I could say I don’t suffer from any of that anymore but I do. I do all the time, just not so acutely.
So I am sitting in a back corner of the Meeting House now as I scratch this out on a shred of paper, trying to put myself back together after another early morning session of working on my manuscript. It’s okay, I tell myself, things are different now. I am able to relate, able to feel, able to be, so much better. Yesterday at Goodworks, where we make houses safer, dryer and warmer, I eagerly volunteered to go under a deck in the mud on my belly, with Ed my new friend, to jack it up and put in a new 4×4 support at a joist to lift the sagging boards. I loved it. Thank you, God, I loved doing that. I loved it because of getting dirty, and accomplishing a task with a team, of helping, of it raining and me getting to be among the elements, of comraderie and discipline and patience, and hardly any of that was for the homeowner whose home we were improving.
Earlier this week I told the ten-minute version of my life story to a gentleman I am trying to help through my church, who otherwise would have no way of knowing who I am. I tried to explain why I am so passionate about the things I chose to do. How I feel alone and want to connect. Oh, he felt my passion to help he said, the first time we met weeks earlier, but now he understands it better. I opened my 1983 personal bookkeeping records and walked him through my finances for that year. All I did is read each line, $65 for gas this month, $385 for rent, etc. to show how to make a budget using actual people’s real numbers. Then we moved on to 1990 where I had assets beyond my engagement and wedding rings, and the record was typed and not handwritten. By 1996, it was computer generated and I had Certificates of Deposit. I spent twenty minutes discussing everything I know about how CD’s work before our time was up. The gentleman wondered if we could do this again, and next time maybe discuss money market accounts. I have no special financial training but it seems my past isolation has led me to keep careful records, always aware I am on my own with no one out there to catch me if I fall. But I love life in the moments that I am sharing what I know.
I do these kinds of things to feel like I am part of the human race. To be one of the people who helps and not a lonely person at home disconnected and confused even though that is the default world I sometimes live in when I read my own book too much. Because that is how it used to be.
At the Meeting House I would crawl into the corner behind me and exit my life if I thought I could, because working on my book is hard. But I am determined to finish this year and get it off to publishers and be done with this phase of telling my story. I’ve got my eyes open at Meeting today because I just don’t want to look back.