quiet your thinking brain…

If you’ve been in a yoga class, you might have heard some version of “quiet your thinking brain.”

Eliminate the monkey chatter.

Clear your head of thoughts.

Let go of anything not serving you.

Yeah, right… these prompts led me to ponder my grocery list or otherwise mentally fidget, wondering how much longer we’d have to recline (or worse—sit) in stillness before we could actually “do” yoga (i.e. move the body). Then in yoga teacher training, one of our assignments was daily meditation. Most days, I practiced the minimum recommended amount of five minutes. For six months I made time every day but never achieved stillness of mind, never felt the nirvana others raved about. Meditating was a chore, and after I graduated with my 200-hour certification, I stopped.

Last April, my sister was visiting and told me about her daily meditation practice and how it helped her cope with anxiety, emotions and stress. She recommend I download the app Insight Timer and while I’d once downloaded Headspace to no avail, I gave it a try. Skeptical and open at the same time, I started off easy, listening to a few guided meditations, recordings where people with soothing voices (British accents reel me in) taught me seven ways to welcome the new day or to visualize abundance pouring into my open head. Gradually, I traded these vocal guides for a timer.

Now I serve as my own guide.

To inspire a vibrant practice, I set up a meditation space in my office/yoga room, complete with candles and other personal items for inspiration. But just as often I greet (and/or close) the day from the comfort of my own bed. I might sit in front of the window if the sun or moonlight is shining in. When negative energy overcomes me, I try to take a time out. I’m not always able to redirect my thoughts, but at least the practice of conscious breathing and breaking from device-land soothes and grounds.

It isn’t always easy, but today marks 365 days in a row of meditating.

I get it, meditating isn’t for everybody. But honestly, I didn’t think it was for me, and now it’s such a part of my morning routine, I’d no sooner forget to meditate than to brush my teeth. On days I don’t do either, hell has really broken loose.

I don’t have time, I hear people say. But if you have time to scan social media feeds, you have time to put your phone down, close your eyes, and focus on the rise and fall of your breath. If you have time to read this post, you have time to sit in stillness. Who cares if you spend those initial minutes trying to remember what you forgot to buy at Target? Taking quiet time for yourself each day is the least you deserve.

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This year in writing

In the spirit of retrospection—and also recognizing that without Facebook to update the friendly masses on my writerly aspirations, contributing to my underused blog is the best way to let the world know what I’m up—I feel the urge to share the latest and greatest adventures in writing.

I started off the year working on a new novel (yes, this marks number three for those keeping score) written mostly during November 2016 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated). In January, I joined a critique group (recently dubbed La Madeleine Writers in honor of the Bethesda cafe where we convene) which meets monthly, inspires daily. I recruited new beta readers and when those readers funneled back dissatisfaction with the novel’s ending, I edited, wrote and rewrote and found new suckers readers to take on a revised version.

Then I edited and wrote and rewrote some more.

As a self-imposed May 31st deadline to have a query-ready manuscript approached (for those who don’t know, I amicably broke up with my previous agent in 2016) I snuck in writing/editing time when I could, mostly at five o’clock in the morning before sun, kids, and cats rise. I started with a light pitch in June, sending the manuscript to a handful of literary agents.

While those queries did not yield a match, one agent provided feedback. Detailed feedback. And engaged in a back and forth exchange where I could ask questions, which she promptly answered. If you aren’t a writer struggling to forge this impossible seeming professional relationship, you don’t understand how glorious and rare unsolicited feedback is in a world of form letter email rejections. (The process isn’t unlike online dating.) Her suggestions made my manuscript stronger, even if we didn’t find happily ever after.

In August, I submitted my novel for #PitchWars, an online contest pairing aspiring authors (aka mentees) with agented/published authors or others in the industry (aka mentors). Mentors help mentees edit their novel/pitch in preparation for an agent showcase round, where matches are made in heaven. I wasn’t selected as a mentee, but made a writer friend out of my dream mentor. Her advice has helped me improve in immeasurable ways, and she always responds immediately to my “what do you think if I xxx” texts.

In November, I hired Hyphen Craft, an editing service recently established by former literary agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock. She honed my Twitter pitches for #PitMad and reviewed my submission package (i.e. query letter, synopsis and first ten pages) advising on what grabs—and holds—an agent’s attention. In the process of all that fine-tooth comb editing, together we realized my working title didn’t convey the serious aspect of the manuscript. I vowed to spend Christmas batting around ideas when out of the blue, I got an email from her with an inspired (secret, for now) title suggestion. That’s working overtime!

Also over Christmas, I read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, and while he doesn’t know me—and doubtfully remembers the time I went to a birthday party at his house when I was 12 years old—his words helped propel an aspiring author (and fellow Mainer) forward during a time of despair. So as the new year approaches, I continue to edit, write and rewrite. I have no deadline in mind, but I maintain hope I’ll find my perfect literary match.

Then maybe I’ll try online dating again.

My favorite reads of 2017

I just added to Goodreads the latest (and probably last) read in 2017, marking 110 books read this year, 35 more than the goal I set in January.

I hear you ask: how do you have so much time to read? And to that question I respond, I wish I had more time. To be a good writer, I have to be a voracious reader. Thus the librarian recognizes me, Amazon gift cards put a smile on my face and a stack of untouched books pouts next to my bed, each wanting to be the next up. Also facilitating my reading appetite, I gave up cable TV in 2015 and Facebook in 2016, two conduits of time suckage. I sleep and read better without the digital distractions. Not that I don’t partake in social media (hello, Twitter) or watch TV; Project Runway, Game of Thrones, the Bachelor franchise and Veep vie for my attention. But I like books better. And I love recommending books. Not every story is for everybody, thus I put careful consideration into what books I push on which friends. But hands down, the following were my favorite reads of 2017.

Fiction:

Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge. The last book I read in 2017 is one of my favorites. This gripping account of castaways stranded on a remote island reeled me in and left me sobbing.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The most anticipated book of 2017 did not disappoint as the story effortlessly floated between points of view (so hard for the writer to pull off). I cared about each character and felt their absence once I was done reading.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. No one conveys disaffected suburbia better than Perrotta and this tale made me laugh out loud. As a Gen-X-er, it was refreshing to read about a woman my age taking on life’s challenges from parenthood to dating.

Touch by Courtney Maum. I cannot stop thinking about this book and how prophetic the notion that someday our digitally obsessed culture may pay for human touch. This work of fiction inspired real life efforts to connect on a deeper level than our handheld devices permit.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The old school Hollywood glamour and grit of this novel kept me turning pages and the love stories gutted me. I read the last 150 pages on an airplane, where my body heaving sobs earned me sympathetic glances and the offer of a package of tissues.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. I felt like I was taking that New Year’s Eve walk with Lillian, who in my perfect book world could meet A Gentleman in Moscow. A lifetime of ups and downs recounted in one night, this story will forever make me look at New Year’s Eve—and a life well lived—differently.

Nonfiction:

Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. I am not including my dad’s book just because he’s my dad. Hudson Booksellers listed it as a top ten of 2017, as did the Washington Independent Review of Books. This account of a little-known troop of Jewish naturalized American soldiers returning to their homelands to fight Hitler tells a story of redemption, patriotism and bravery.

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden. I am a sucker for gut-wrenching stories and listening to Biden talk about his son’s illness and death gave me new perspective on the former Vice President, his family’s strength, and what it means to be a public servant. I only rolled my eyes a few times.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. I like nonfiction books that teach me something I don’t already know, and though I live in an urban area not immune to poverty, reading the housing struggles of the Milwaukee families profiled in this work reminded me how even when times are tough, how very lucky I am to have a roof over my head and not have to choose between food or shelter.

What were the books you couldn’t put down? Give me your recommendations. I’m preparing my list for 2018.

Happy reading!

hello, 2017

Two days ago, I stood waist-deep in the Hawaiian surf and braced against the push-pull of the ocean. I dug my toes in the sand and tightened through the core as stronger swells moved by and through me; I relaxed slightly when I detected the undertow had let up. Yet I remained vigilant against the natural force more powerful than me; 2016’s many surprises trained me well.

I contemplated my goals for the new year. Some I could count. Lose weight. Write more. Double the yoga hours I teach. Go on x number of dates. Save money. Volunteer. But many I couldn’t. Put the phone down. Listen better. Be more patient, thoughtful, present. Experiment. I grew agitated with this exercise. Should I set 17 goals? Or one for each month of the year? One quantifiable and one unquantifiable a quarter? A combination of work, family, creativity, travel?

A new swell of bigger waves moved in and I tried something. I didn’t grip so hard. Sure, the tide pulled me a little this way and pushed a little that way. That is life. I don’t want to constantly brace for the next big one. And I don’t want to make a super specific list of goals. Instead I’m recommitting to living an authentic life. When I focus on manifesting what makes me happy and healthy, I naturally achieve the named and unnamed goals embedded in body, mind and spirit.

If I can do that I will truly experience a happy new year.

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.