Tag Archives: writing

Renewing My Vows

The last time I wrote a blog for A Corner of my Mind was two months ago. A lot has happened since then, good and bad. A lot of it was crazy making stuff that took me away from my writing. Yesterday, amidst a lot of stuff going on (all good), I looked at this wrinkled scrap of paper I’d taped to my computer. It contained my New Year’s Resolutions from a couple of years ago. The last item was, Write a blog every two weeks.

I’d managed to do that pretty well until November. As I sat there yesterday, I vowed that I would get back to doing so ASAP. Nothing like the present to achieve that goal.

I’m not sure what sent me off the rails. True, I didn’t have the use of a computer around Thanksgiving. When I did, I was dealing with police detectives investigating our burglary, and with contractors who were rebuilding our home after our flood.

Then the fun stuff started with our grandson’s visit with three college friends to our condo in Hawaii. After the friends left, the whole rest of our family came for the Winter Holiday. We have three grandsons in college–a whole subset of culture. One night I cleared out my freezer by making every kind of junk food stored there–perfect college fare. Then we have two granddaughters. The seven-year-old adores her sixteen-year-old cousin!

I love watching my family interact–it’s a grandmother’s delight. I didn’t want to miss a moment of pool time hi-jinks or even just sitting around talking. We’re only together now for a short time, once a year, so forget writing.

But by the time they left on January 3rd, I’d gotten out of the habit of sitting in front of the computer and putting my thoughts on paper. I started doing things like making soup, watching football and ironing. Fortunately, I started teaching my memoir writing class on January 7. This got me back on track with a chapter in my own memoir. And I remembered the feeling of being in the zone that I can only get from writing.

So once again, I’m baaaccckkkk! Happy New Year!!!


Getting into the Spirit of Things

I’m hoping to get into the spirit of things. Of anything. Right now I’m so worn down by life and Life that I need to go back to bed, pull the covers up to my nose and stay there.

 

This is actually an attempt to get myself back into writing. I haven’t been able to write since the election, when I wrote with such hope and naivete that Americans stood together. It hurts me to look at that post. I despair at the divisions in our country. I believe a rift in our population was revealed and will stand irrevocably. I think of Rodney King a lot. “Why can’t we all just get along?”

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Rodney King.

 

 

“We have to get on with things”, my cousin said. And I thought, she’s right. The sky is not falling no matter what is happening in this country I once thought I knew. Even though Donald Trump will be president. Even though we won’t have the expert and wise guidance of Hillary Clinton. Even though the ADL and Southern Poverty Law Center are reporting unprecedented acts of hate. Even though Richard Spencer, leader of the Alt-Right, is gaining a platform in this country. Even though Trump won’t make a statement against these acts.

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Even though hate won. Even though my dream of a pluralistic society has proved to be an illusion–the sky is not falling. The sun did rise and it did set. And the sky is not so polluted yet that I could even see it.

I meant to get into the spirit of Thanksgiving.I truly did. It’s my favorite holiday.

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I did make our traditional dinner and decorated the house. I looked forward to our family being together, all five grandchildren, our children and nephew sitting around the table. We always hold hands and say what we’re thankful for. There’s always a lot of laughter and love and gratefulness. This year, though, our daughter got so sick she was hospitalized. She and her family couldn’t make the trip down to California. Instead, I needed to go up to Seattle to help her. So my husband’s cancer treatment and the side effects of radiation and hormone therapy got placed on my back burner.

Someone texted me asking if I felt like Job. “No,” I wrote back. “The Perils of Pauline.”

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Certainly life should not be so melodramatic. But then, on a dark and rainy night, I had the car accident with my four-year-old granddaughter in the car. My worst nightmare. With that, I lost my sense of perspective. (I’d already lost my senses of humor and hope on November 9.) It seemed that life was perilous without relief. I couldn’t take a breath or unhunch my shoulders. I was in high alert for the next assault.

Today, my spirits are finally up, a bit. Austria didn’t vote in the far right leader, Norbert Hofer!

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And the Army Corp of Engineers will not immediately grant the Dakota Access Pipeline the right to cross the Missouri River next to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation!

My husband is almost done with his treatments and our daughter is much better. And I could write a blog. So see, good things can still happen.

And if you really don’t agree with what I had to say today, please keep it to yourself. I’m a bit tired and not my usual tolerant, feisty self. Since this is still a free country, you can always unfollow me. Feel free.

R.K.VR.Y Quarterly

This is a fun interview I did with Laura Taylor for rkvry quarterly. My essay, A Fine Line, is in its current publication.

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A Fine Line

My essay, A Fine Line, is published at http://rkvryquarterly.com/

 

“A Fine Line” by Cyndy Muscatel

If only I hadn’t decided to go out on deck that night.

Anchored in the middle of the Galapagos chain of islands, our boat floated on the Equatorial Line with the ease of a high-wire aerialist. The lure of the night sky called, and I slipped out of our cabin to stand by the rail. How could I not go out and see the Southern Cross high above me to my right—the Big Dipper and the North Star to my left? I was smack-dab on the middle of the earth.

Who could have guessed that one of the mosquitoes using me as target practice that night was illiterate? We were in a “No Malaria Zone,” dammit. I’d checked twice with the CDC before we left for South America. My luck—Ms. Quito Mosquito, an Anopheles by genus name, was an empty-headed beauty queen who didn’t care about the pronouncements of the World Health Organization. She was an indiscriminate vampire who’d gotten mixed up with some malaria folk. Filled with their plasmodium, she paid it forward, thrusting the microscopic parasites into my bloodstream. I really don’t blame her. She was a fact of Global Warming. I became one of its victims.

I almost died. That sounds so melodramatic I feel embarrassed to write it, but it’s true.

“Her fever is still spiking at 105. Now her kidneys are shutting down,” the doctor said to my husband. They stood on either side of my hospital bed talking as if I weren’t there. I was—I just didn’t have the energy to open my eyes. I was so weak by that point my body couldn’t even gain purchase on the bed. The nurse’s aide would pull me to the top, but I’d slip to the bottom within an hour.

“Well, what do we do?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “But I’m thinking she has only twenty-four hours left to live.”

“What are you talking about? For Christ’s sake, she’s strong and healthy. She just did the Inca Trail two weeks ago. You better figure out something.” The aggressiveness in my husband’s tone was comforting. Although he knew nothing about taking care of someone who was ill, his Type A personality got things done.

They moved out of the room, but I could hear the murmur of their voices from the corridor. I tried calling out, “What are you talking about?” but my feeble attempt went unheard. What was the doctor saying out of earshot? I wondered. Could it be any worse than what he’d just said?

We’d been having problems with the doctor from the beginning of my illness five days before. My first symptom had been an aching in my legs, which spread to all my joints. That morning I was supposed to pick out granite for our house remodel. I told my husband I felt achy and exhausted—we both attributed it to our arduous trip in Peru and Ecuador. I drove myself to the warehouse, but by the time I got there I felt I couldn’t keep my head up. I managed to choose the granite and through force of will to make it home and to my bed. From then on, the world became murky.

I do remember calling my daughter in Los Angeles and telling her how sick I felt. She started keeping close tabs on my symptoms and began plugging them into the computer. On the second day, she called the doctor to tell him she’d been checking online and she thought I had malaria.

He freaked out. “Don’t you ever call me again with this kind of crap,” he told her. “I am the doctor—I make the diagnosis.”

Even though we’d just returned from a third-world country, he refused to consider the possibility that I had an infectious disease picked up on my travels. He was obdurate until he got scared that I would die. In desperation, he relented. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too late, and fortunately the infectious disease specialist was from Pakistan. He’d seen malaria many times and put me on the malaria antibiotic doxycycline. Within eight hours I was able to sit up and dangle my feet over the side of the bed.

The next morning, the aide who had wiped my face and arms with such care for four days while I shook with fever was able to guide me into the bathroom. It was the sixth day since I had fallen ill.

“Oh my God. My face is so yellow,” I said when I looked into the mirror.

“Not as yellow as it has been. It’s much better,” the aide said.

I looked again and thought the color appalling. Then I saw how thin I was—beyond gaunt. I hadn’t eaten anything since the aching began. When they weighed me, I had lost fourteen pounds. I also lost my appetite. It took days until I learned to eat again. When they brought me a tray of food, a slab of something covered in gravy, I was so nauseous that I almost passed out. Finally I was able to nibble on soda crackers and sip some ginger ale.

For much of the acute stage of my illness, I was in Hallucination Land. Once I was hospitalized, I saw myself in the Chicago train station every afternoon at 4:00 p.m., waiting in line to buy a ticket to Syracuse. It was always my turn next. On the Sunday the neurologist administered the spinal tap, I hallucinated up a soothing mid-century décor for the procedure. The room was low-lit with futons in aqua and coral. That night I was forbidden to move for eight hours, but the bone-aching pain made me toss and turn. A handy-dandy hallucination had me imagining I was cradled in the arms of four strong women, although in reality it was my husband holding me tight.

I had other mental experiences that were not exactly of the “real world.” I saw a faraway light with a door sliding shut on it. I knew if I didn’t keep the door open, it would be the end for me. One afternoon I was overwhelmed with the effort. “I’m too tired,” I said in my head. “I’m going to let it go.”

But my father came to stop me. I think he was dressed in one of his satin smoking jackets. He’d been dead for two years. “Daughter, we don’t give up in this family,” he said.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll keep trying then.” Knowing he was close by, the task no longer seemed as difficult. Dad was as real to me as the nurse who came in to take my temperature. Maybe more real.

Then there were the children only I could see reflected in the blank television monitor. Dressed in white, they stood around my bed, which was now in a lush garden. I leaned forward and a cherubic baby popped up from behind my pillow.

“Maybe they were angels sent to guide you to heaven,” my friend Else said when I told her later.

I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t it. They were taking care of me. I am safe with them by my side.” It was as clear a statement as my slurred speech allowed.

The slurred speech thing got me into trouble. In my head, I heard myself talking normally. I had no idea that the thirteen words came out as four aloud, and garbled at that. My husband thought I’d had a stroke. My son and daughter, both hundreds of miles away, were frantic. Friends who came to visit me in the hospital told me later they cried at the elevator when they left. They all thought they had lost me. I, of course, was in oblivion.

Going back to the general topic of malaria for a moment, the parasite burrows into the liver. I know this because malaria has become a hot topic, and it was the cover story in National Geographic. That’s why I was jaundiced. But I can tell you from experience that those little buggers hit each body organ hard. Talk about the domino effect. As they circulated, the newest system they entered went wonky. I had MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, a colonoscopy…you name it. But I felt it was my head, inside and out, which took the brunt of the barrage. I lost everything from memory to handfuls of hair. Parts of my memory, short and long term, were wiped clean. Even today it’s hard to figure out if I’m having a senior or a malaria moment. One strange aside is that my ability with numbers increased. I am better at math and can memorize numbers that I never could before. As for my hair, it seems to have highlighted memory. Lots of it still falls out every year in May—in memory, I guess, of my case of malaria.

Joking aside, the language issue was tough on me. If I am vain about anything, it is my facility with language. Words have always come trippingly to my tongue, but for months I had aphasia—I might have said fork when I meant foot. Some words were simply gone. Like Ottawa. I was reading Middlesex and I had no idea if Ottawa was a place, a car, or some kind of food. Not knowing made me feel as if I were surreal. I couldn’t write for a year—couldn’t put the proper mix of words together. It was so frustrating, I abandoned the effort. This from a person who thought the essential items to bring to the hospital besides clean underwear and lipstick were a pen and notebook. I wrote every day while I was there. I kept the notebook—none of the handwriting looks like mine.

When I went home from the hospital, I was still very sick. My recovery was no faster than the pace of the tortoises we’d watched in the Galapagos. I had a fever and a cough for months. I woke up sweating and parched every night. I could not get my energy back. I also used to have the shakes all day long. Those tapered off, but even now, six years later, if I get overtired, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, shaking. And I could not get my energy back. I didn’t have that buffer between feeling tired and complete depletion. It’s only in the last year that I don’t have to nap each day.

As I reread what I have written, I am struck by how close I was to dying. I wonder when it is finally my time if Dad will be there again, this time to welcome me in. In? In to where? Heaven? But I don’t believe in Heaven, do I? Or life after death, for that matter. I believe that when we die our individual spark leaves our earthly bodies and soars back into the teeming, churning mass of the collective energetic field of the universe. But what if I am wrong? What if on that May afternoon when I looked into the television that wasn’t turned on and I saw a lush garden—what if I were seeing heaven?

When you almost die, it does change you forever. As my body started to shut down, I didn’t think about the novels I never got published or whether I’d been a good mother and grandmother. I accepted I was dying and I had few regrets. Except I remember distinctly asking myself, But what about the fun I was going to have? Where did the time for enjoyment go? It will be a shame to miss out on that.

I have never forgotten that. I have a worker-bee mentality, but I am getting better at plain enjoying life. I also lost my ambition. I had a novel half finished and completely outlined. I think it was good—I liked the characters and the plot was strong. At first I wasn’t strong enough to go back and finish it. By the time I got my concentration and language back, I’d lost interest. I eventually returned to magazine writing, doing feature interviews with entertainers, authors, politicians, and professional athletes. But when my editor quit, I left with her. I wasn’t willing to put up with the unsteady ego of a new broom. And I don’t miss it. I love the freedom to be able to travel whenever we want. I love the freedom to be able to write an essay, a blog, a poem, or a short story without feeling I have to have it published to prove myself. I want to experience life not to only write about it. I no longer think I have an endless stream of days, so each one is more precious than before.

If I could, would I change that moment and not go out on the deck? Part of me says yes—I have certain health problems that I know were brought on by the trauma of the disease and the fever, and I’d certainly like my full head of hair back! But the experience is part of the fabric of my life. I have learned so much from it. Besides, I got to balance for a while on the greatest equatorial line. I got a peek into eternity.

 

New Year Resolution Assessment

I thought that since half a year has gone by as well as my half birthday, I should assess how I’ve done on my resolutions from January. Here they are:

  1. Be happy with myself at my age.
  2. Stretch after my walk.
  3. Eat healthy.
  4. Think the thought that makes me feel good not the negative or fearful one.
  5. Don’t be the Grandiose Co-Dependent.

These are not what I remember. They are well and good, but in my mind I’d written:

  1. Write a blog twice a month.
  2. Work on the book.
  3. Do ten minutes or more of Rosetta Stone Spanish every day.
  4. Eat healthy.
  5. Stretch after my walk.
  6. Accept myself at my age.
  7. Take computer lessons.

It’s amazing what is and what we think is. Here I was supposed to be happy with myself and I was only trying to be accepting of the wrinkles, flab, and aches. Then I was feeling guilty if I didn’t write a blog every other week. As for the Rosetta Stone, a whole week could go by and I couldn’t seem to find even one ten minute segment to practicar Spanish. One good thing is that I’ve been working on my book lately with the help of an editor and mentor. It’s like a physical workout—I need a trainer or I’m not showing up. The same goes for writing my book—I now have Laura to keep me going.

To continue my analysis, I can count on the fingers of my right hand how many times I have stretched after my walk. That is sad because each time I do, my back, knee and foot feel so much better. Also when I go to my stretch class, I feel much better. Wait, can I count my stretch class? We even use the foam roller in there.

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And how about Pilates? Does that count? Those two classes keep me moving and I appreciate the instructors so much.

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I have tried harder to eat healthy but let’s face it, I will always drink Cokes and wine, and eat foods that do not enhance my body chemistry. Because, like the song says, “I’m Only Human”. And I love to eat. And I’m grateful I can. My sister-in-law’s brother gets his only nourishment through a food tube to his stomach. If that were me, and I didn’t love my children and grandchildren so much, I’d go the Kevorkian route.

I do think I made some headway on numbers 4 and 5 on the first list, without being conscious of it. I have caught myself a couple of times awfulizing or catastrophisizing and backed away from the dire thoughts. That is big for me. Last week I started going into a funk about how time is passing so quickly. My oldest grandchild is one year away from leaving home to go to college. How can it be? But, I caught myself in time and reminded myself to think thoughts that make me feel good. The melancholy dispersed much quicker. Finally, I am practicing to be less co-dependent. I’m not as sweet and compliant as I used to be. I still have trouble saying NO, but I have done it at least twice.

My plan is to combine the actual list with the one in my head for my goal setting for the second half of 2015. I’m primed for it anyway because I’ve already taken two computer lessons. Might as well continue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Do’s and Don’ts: Beware of Dead Ends

Endings Can be Tricky

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Everyone always emphasizes how important the beginning of a story is—you need to catch the editor’s eye and the reader’s interest. This is true, but endings are vital to the integrity of a story.

This becomes apparent when the ending just doesn’t satisfy. Some endings seem rushed as if the writer had a deadline and just threw together something that would be okay. Other endings may feel too wide open—that the author copped out of creating a conclusion. Or others just don’t seem to fit—you feel the author should have left well enough alone and ended it before.

This last is true of the novel, The Light Between Oceans. The book, excellent by the way, has a lyrical, other-world feel. I felt it should have ended at chapter 36, but author M.L. Stedman writes a wrap-up chapter that is unnecessary. Worse, it takes away from the whole narrative.

 

Which way to go?

Which way to go?

DO know that endings are super important. When I wrote for newspapers and magazines, I knew my last paragraphs could be cut if there wasn’t enough space. Accordingly, my last paragraphs were written to be expendable. Fiction or Essay are a different story. There is a significant build up from Beginning and Middle to End. While I was never upset when the editor cut an article, I would have been if she took the end off of one of my humor pieces. Often, the end was the whole point. The only time I have had the last paragraph deleted from a short story was when my “Her Father’s Daughter” was published. That time I was upset because the story turned on the last line.

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DON’T listen to advice about the end of your work unless it makes sense to you. When I finished The Light Between Oceans, I had this feeling that Stedman’s critique group told her she should explain more of what happened. So she wrote a final chapter, but it didn’t grow out of the narrative thread. Sometimes when I finish a story and my husband reads it, he’ll say, “But this isn’t done. What happens?” I do favor open endings, but sometimes I’ll add more for him. This worked well in the “Anniversary Waltz” short story, perhaps because the main character is a lot like my husband.

 

Don't get sidetracked.

Don’t get sidetracked.

Writing Aerobic: At the end of …

Celebration Time: The Follow Through

Lesson 52

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This is a landmark day for me. One year ago I decided to start this writing blog, Writing Do’s and Don’ts. I wanted to give people useful hints to improve their writing experience. I wanted the advice to be brief and to the point. I wanted to inspire people to write—give writing prompts and assignments that might light a fire in the writer’s belly. I was inspired to do this by my writing students. “You should be sharing what you do for us,” one said. “Are you writing a how-to book?” asked another. “Everyone should get the chance to do your writing aerobics,” someone else said.

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So, I began.  I made a vow to myself that I would write one lesson a week come hell or high water. (I do love some clichés!) Once a week—one do and one don’t. As I continued, I saw that a “how-to” book was in the making. All I had to do every week was write one entry. Here we are one year later. Lesson Fifty-two! It’s a testimony to perseverance, if nothing else.

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I learned a lot during this year about writing and about life. I do believe you have to keep going. You run your race. You do it on your own terms. You don’t  check to see what other are doing. You keep your eye on your own ball.

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My plan is to continue, and also to cull out the best of the lessons, organize through subject, and create a book. I’ll let you know how it goes.