NaNoWriMo: when failure is success

A few years ago, my writer friend, I’ll call her Pav, asked if I was participating in NaNoWriMo. I grew up in the 70s, so I thought she was saying Na-Nu Na-Nu, and if you have to look that up, you’re too young to read my blog.

NaNoWriMo —short for National Novel Writing Month— always falls in November. Because absolutely nothing big happens in November, us creative types have gobs of extra time to commit to the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. (For those who don’t speak word count, that’s about 200 pages of a book.) The “rules”state that a writer starts with a fresh page and a great idea and lets the goal spur along the creative process, with the comfort of knowing lots of other neurotic writers are struggling right along with you.

In late summer, I started work on a new novel. Then my efforts stalled, not for lack of a storyline, but because I wasn’t dedicating time to write. I decided I needed NaNoWriMo to return my focus to the work and develop the habit of scheduling writing time into my day. (Also to fire up my competitive spirit even though I broke the start with a blank page rule.)

I set a daily goal of 1700 words, but in the first week, tried to outdo that pace to account for visitors at Thanksgiving and other distractions. I ended up with two zero-word days (Thursday after the election and Monday before Thanksgiving). I had one 3062-word day, which was exhausting (especially since I also baked two pies the same day). In the end, on my last day, I wrote 3,058 words, ending the challenge 362 words short of the goal.

At first I was disappointed. I failed. (You can imagine the hysterics. “I’m never going to be a published author.”) But I took a step back and viewed my accomplishment from a different angle. I started off NaNoWriMo with a hodgepodge of words and scenes with the ultimate goal of ending the challenge with the first draft of a novel. I achieved that goal. Now I get to cut. And edit. And pare down the times I added a bunch of “that” phrases to boost my word count. Kidding on the last point. Sort of.

Hey, we are motivated by what we are motivated by, and word count goals work for me. The days I found hard to make my 1700, I cut huge passages or left placeholders because the scene hadn’t come to me. I had the ending written when I started this process, but my story went in a different direction. Now I need to fix it.

The challenge over, I feel a little rutterless today, but my novel deserves a night away from me. Goal number one for tomorrow: begin to rewrite the end.

 

With gratitude

 

This year more than any other continually challenged me to remember all that I have. On this day of giving thanks, I share the following entries from my mental gratitude journal.

Friends who feel like family. Near and far, I love you.

Everyone who helped (whether I asked for it or not) get me through two bad and unlucky injuries; three months in a wheelchair would have been horribly lonely not to mention on the edge of impossible without you.

Friends and family who encourage my writing, get my jokes, and listen patiently when I say,“last night, I had this dream..”

Hugs from my boys, growing into curious, caring, open-minded young men who still like to spend time together —and often with me too. (Though the younger one is pushing it with his insistence that the world looked like a black and white film way back when I was born.)

The honor of witnessing the union of Rachel and Sandra and seeing the looks on their kids faces as the deal was sealed.

My Latvian grandparents —dead more than 20 years— who rejected fascism and escaped tyranny en route to gaining passage to this great nation. (I’ve been wearing my grandmother’s ring as a reminder.)

Shelter. Creativity. Resources. Health insurance. Good skin. Wine. Fall foliage. Books. Yoga. Cats.

And while I’m at it, freedom of the press. Freedom of speech. Freedom to make my own health decision. The right to vote. A passport that can get me nearly everywhere.

The list goes on, but my pie needs to come out of the oven.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Goodbye, Facebook

I first signed up for Facebook in 2008 shortly after returning home from my 20-year high school reunion. At the time, I was emotionally transitioning out of my job in the U.S. Senate. Facebook represented a fun and easy way to remain in touch both with old friends from high school I didn’t call or email regularly and colleagues whose daily presence I wanted to keep in my life.

Then my family got on Facebook. After a brief period of not putting my kids’ cute faces on the internet, I embraced the convenience of posting their photos and the funny things they say so my siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins can keep up with their lives. All without my having to write a single letter or schedule a time to talk on the phone.

Like most users, my roster of “friends” ebbs and flows. Occasionally, I unfriend (thanks, Mark Zuckerberg, for adding this vocabulary word to the English lexicon) people who I don’t think would recognize me if we collided with hot coffee. But then I meet a new person, enjoy our brief conversation and five hours later, Facebook deems us official friends. The world feels brighter. Smaller. More accessible.

Facebook has been great for distributing my writing. (Shameless plug: you can sign up to get blog posts delivered to your inbox.) Facebook connected me to Latvian cousins living in Canada. Facebook makes it possible to ‘chat’ with friends abroad. But Facebook is no longer just a quick sharing of our current condition. I miss the days of status updates in the third person. Remember? Chelsea Henderson is listening to Hamilton. The Facebook of today is perfectly filtered and cropped photos of kids, meals, pets, projects, outfits, and sunsets. Facebook knows when we’re celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, changing jobs, drinking wine, entering or leaving relationships, having babies. Facebook is who we tell when we’re on vacation. With our humble brags, we invite a constant invasion of our privacy.

Facebook gave me a false sense of closeness while enabling me to drift farther apart from my core.

And over the last month, we’ve used the site to engage in new level of political debate, which is healthy. I don’t think it’s good to shroud yourself around only those who think exactly like you. So I sucked it up when people I don’t know wrote hate-filled comments on my public posts. (By the way, I’m what’s wrong with America.) I resisted the urge to write my own frothy responses because hate begets hate. But then news of the pervasiveness of fake news shared and re-shared on the site sent me over the edge.

I need a break.

Goodbye, Facebook. I’m taking a hiatus from now until the end of the year, at which time I will reassess. In the meantime, I vow to call friends and family more. I might write a letter. I look forward to filling up time usually sucked away by Facebook with reading, sleeping, writing, and preparing wonderful foods that I’m sorry you won’t see pictures of unless you come over to share a bite.

I look forward to this journey and encourage you: post less, connect more.

 

 

What next?

Dear President-elect Trump:

You will be our nation’s next president. With your victory, you baffled pollsters, emboldened supporters and left half the nation in shock. I promised my kids that if you won, I’d model the good sportsmanship I instilled in them. So I will not claim the election was rigged. I won’t demand recounts. I won’t suggest the Russians hacked voting machines and delivered this election to their horse.

But I will work with every breath I have to fight  the divisive and hateful policies that underscored your campaign. I will work with every ounce of energy I can to continue to fight for the causes I believe in, especially those you mock. This victory is not a mandate. It reveals huge cracks in our society; it’s now in your purview to oversee the mending. You won. Now you have to lead.

I know you think you can do it all on your own, but let me offer a few suggestions.

Stop the hateful rhetoric. You’ve insulted blacks, hispanics, muslims, gays, the disabled, and women. (Note: sorry if I left anyone out.) You won this election on the backs of white uneducated men, fanning racist and xenophobic flames in the process. Stop. You weren’t elected president of old white men. You represent us all now. Act presidential. Set the tone and the example.

Stop investigating Secretary Clinton. Over the last 25 years, Congress has already wasted an estimated $500 million taxpayers dollars investigating her. Don’t be a sore winner. Do not follow through on your campaign promise to “lock her up.” Treat her with dignity. Call Congress off her tail. Treat her with dignity.

Retire the word tremendously from your lexicon. You claim to be a man of many, many words. Use them. Amaze us with your eloquence. Inspire us. I challenge you.

Take a crash course in civics. It’s just off putting to have a president who doesn’t know how many articles are in the Constitution and who might not even be sure how bills are passed. Americans clearly said they want an outsider, but it’s actually kind of useful to have a basic understanding of how things work around here. You don’t get to rewrite the rule book. Not without help. Three branches, checks and balances and all. (Thank you founding fathers.)

Yes, I’m tired. I’m sad. And I am fearful of what kind of president you will be. As you measure drapes and plan your inaugural speech, I hope you learn to accept criticism, learn that a president doesn’t have to appeal to all the people, and you don’t have to lash insults at those who don’t embrace you. What’s great about America is we don’t have to like our leaders. We can speak out against them and advocate for alternatives to their policies.

I wish you luck. Our futures depend upon your success.

 

what locker room banter enables

Labor Day weekend, I got off an airplane and followed signs to the train. I had a bounce to my step; a glass of wine and reunion with a dear friend awaited me at my final destination.

“Excuse me,” a stranger stopped me short. “Do you know which way to the train?”

“No, but I can read.” I pointed to a bank of signs.

“Oh, are you going that way too?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“Maybe we can walk together.”

“Sure,” I responded curtly. I don’t like to talk to strangers, but I figured I should be nice. He introduced himself. A little voice in my head said “give a fake name” but I stumbled over what alias to use and ended up offering the real deal. He told me he’d just landed from LA and expressed frustration that time on the tarmac exceeded time in the air.

“Where you coming from?” he asked.  When I said DC, he exclaimed over the length of the flight.

“Actually, I like having five consecutive hours when no one can bother me,” I said.

“Oh, am I bothering you?” he asked.

Yes, I thought. “No,” I said.

“Well, I imagine a beautiful woman like you is used to being bothered.”

Inward cringe. Outward smile.

Train in sight, I walked a little faster. He picked up his pace too. We boarded, and I grabbed a spot on a bench next to other riders, ignoring his effort to steer me toward abutting seats.

“So, I have a hotel at the airport,” he said nonchalantly. “You should stay with me tonight.”

A thousand voices screamed in my head while the people around me remained silent, lost under the influence of headphones or desire remain uninvolved.

“Oh, that’s okay. I’m staying with my friend I haven’t seen in a long time,” I said, eyes glued to the transit map, willing my stop to come faster, but also scared he’d exit the train with me.

“I’m just saying, it’s a nice hotel and you’re welcome to join me,” he offered a few more times. He insisted I take his number in case I changed my mind. Three minutes felt like a lifetime. Mercifully, my stop arrived. He didn’t follow me but called out, “I’m in town ’til Monday” as I bolted off the train. While the car carrying him pulled away, I deleted his number and moved on with my weekend. But a nagging dread plagues me still. Why was I polite to a sexual predator? Why didn’t I scream? Cry for help?

As women, we are sadly accustomed to unwanted sexual advances and too often resign ourselves to abuse rather than fight off the abusers. We mostly endure the agony of our experiences alone, but this past weekend, social media witnessed an explosion of women sharing stories of their first sexual assault. Emphasis on first, because most of us have sustained multiple. These accounts were heartbreaking to read, but oddly refreshing to write. For too long I swallowed back pain, asked what I did wrong, hid incidents from loved ones, and let shame silence me.

My silence ends now.

These assaults were embarrassing, like when I was nine and my babysitter’s boyfriend’s uncle tried to put his hand up my skirt. These assaults confused me, like my freshman year of college when my dorm crush sweet-talked me into my first sexual experience, then refused to see me again, rendering my first time a one-night stand. These assaults were incomprehensible, like sophomore year when I was raped by a man who found me passed out in bed and senior year when I was raped by a guy who laughed at no. Verbal assaults, so-called “lewd” comments by “boys being boys,” number too many to recount. Trust me; “banter” is not harmless.

My experiences aren’t unique. They contribute to the sad “locker room” narrative of a society that enables assault and often blames the victim while asking her to smile, act nice and hug on demand. We must rewrite the script, and we can start by not putting a sexual predator in the White House.

 

 

15 years later

I almost forgot the date. But then I stepped outside into a bright sunny day and in a flash, my mind rewound to another blue-skied morning. Why do we universally remember the remarkable sky on that dark day?

I took a moment to reflect and went on with my to do list. Helped shuttle kids for my older son’s 15th birthday outing. Watched Wallace and Gromit with my younger. Edited my latest manuscript. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Plans to show (for the first time)  9-11 footage to the boy born four days after tragedy struck were postponed due to his homework load. “Hmmm. I’m not going to cry today,” I thought.

But it only takes one story of loss to unleash the tears. And now they flow unimpeded. And I’m reminded—

I was scared out of my mind on September 11, 2001. Scared for my safety. Scared for the unborn Jack. Scared for my city, my family, my friends, and my country. But I was also grateful. For a secure place with loved ones and strangers alike to watch horror and sadness unfold. For those who provided comfort, not just to me but all around. And mostly, for the heroes of the day, some whose courageous acts we didn’t yet comprehend.

As a heavy layer of dust settled over us literally and figuratively, I wondered how the world my child grew up in would differ from the world I experienced in my youth. And suddenly the answer is clear. Today, the threats may be different, but our humanity remains intact.

rebuilding trust

The day I can walk is circled in red on my mental calendar. No one is more excited for the ditching of the wheelchair than I am, except perhaps my chore-burdened kids and those dear friends who cook/shop for me and cart me around. But even with this anticipation in mind, I was not prepared for such bold instruction from my PT on Tuesday.

“Stand up.”

I promptly responded by bursting into tears. “No,” I sobbed. “I can’t.”

My amazingly patient PT assured me I could. He made me try again. And again. And again, until I actually put weight on the right side to press up to a standing position.

“Mountain pose,” I whispered, rolling my shoulders back but still pouring more weight into the left side of my body.

The thrill was short-lived.

Under orders to practice this new party trick at home, even after initial (supervised) success, I still cried with subsequent attempts. I don’t know where these tears come from. It’s not like I want to be confined to a wheelchair or my first floor forever, though this cocooned life has kept me safe for these past three months, a feat I wasn’t able to achieve the last time I walked on two feet.

I trust the doctor’s prognosis. I trust the PT’s assessment that I’m ready. But I don’t trust myself. All it takes to screw up is a slip, a twist, a misstep. My reputation for klutzy behavior taunts me, and not even the deep breaths that normally move me off the ledge help.

I have another PT session in a few hours, and since he gave me a preview of what to expect, I know today’s visit will include taking baby steps. I can’t think about it without succumbing to tears and dread, the first time I’ve not looked forward to PT, which basically substitutes for a social life these days.

I’ll be ready to go when my ride arrives, but how can I trust my body do as commanded when the order is given?