Hey, Lighten Up Francis

Copywork – copying down what others have written to develop writing skills, an age old method of learning.
I once heard an NPR interview with a writer (embarrassed to say I can’t remember his name) who practiced copywork everyday for a year. I’ve done it some and can feel my brain shifting in a good way.
I’ll share my copywork for today from Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life. This passage I think has something for everyone in it.

“So after I’ve completely exhausted myself thinking about the people I most resent in the world, and my more arresting financial problems, and, of course, the orthodontia, I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

     I tell this story again because it usually makes a dent in the tremendous sense of being overwhelmed that my students experience. Sometimes it actually gives them hope, and hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously. So here is another story I tell often.

     In the Bill Murray movies Stripes, in which he joins the army, there is a scene that takes place the first night of boot camp, where Murray’s platoon is assembled in the barracks. They are supposed to be getting to know their sergeant, played by Warren Oates, and one another. So each man takes a few moments to say a few things about who his is and where he is from. Finally it is the turn of this incredibly intense, angry guy named Francis. “My name is Francis,” he says. “No one calls me Francis­­­—anyone here calls me Francis and I’ll kill them. And another thing. I don’t like to be touched. Anyone here ever tries to touch me, I’ll kill them,” at which point Warren Oates jumps in and says, “Hey—lightened up, Francis.”

     This is not a bad line to have taped to the wall of your office. 

     Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take it bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.” Anne Lamott

Thank you Anonymous for the gift! And thanks all for reading.

Choices

I change the subject hastily when she asked, “Where’s you daughter? How is your daughter?”

“Good”, I reply, “How’s your son? What have you been up to?”

I choose to focus on how good it is to see this lovely woman I haven’t seen in such a long time.

This is how it goes when you haven’t seen someone who knew you 20 years ago and it’s been that long since you’ve seen them. I don’t really know how my daughter is, it’s been five years since I’ve spoken with her. 

I’m surrounded by people who love me. A dear friend is hosting a gathering in her backyard to celebrate me on my day of birth and that’s what I choose to focus on. 

My brother calls to wish me a happy birthday while mentioning my sister was there visiting not too long ago. He and my two older sisters were all together. I haven’t seen or heard from either sister in a couple of years.

I choose to focus on the fact that he called to wish me a happy birthday. 

I run into another woman I haven’t seen in twenty years. She is proud to be a grandmother now and I am happy for you. She asks how many grandkids I have. She knows my daughter had children. “Two, they are twins” and quickly change the subject. I cared for this woman’s daughter when I had a childcare. We used to gather, with our husbands and our daughters. Where would I begin to tell her I don’t see my daughter anymore, that I miss her and my grandchildren everyday?

I choose to focus on the fact that I am recognized as a mother and a grandmother and this is someone I created good memories with. 

This morning, I choose to honor my sadness. I will give it what it asks of me, to allow the tears, to trust it will pass as all feelings do. 

Then I will choose to go visit a friend.

Re-write your story

This woman walks the talk and I am lucky to have her as a writing coach. She keeps me on track, keeps it real and pushes me forward with a gentle firmness.

“On the verge of self-imploding after a one-two punch of breast cancer and blindness, Ingrid Ricks, NYT bestselling author and mother of two, realized she had a choice: let fear and self-loathing swallow her whole, or give her inner demons the boot and rewrite the soul-destroying stories she was telling herself.”

Tuesday, June 15th, 8:00-9:00 PST AM, she will be sharing how she transformed her life and changed the stories she was telling herself. You will learn steps she uses to keep the negative voices at bay. It’s free and sure to be enlightening.

Register here: Rewriting The Stories We Tell Ourselves



I don’t wear jewelry anymore

I don’t wear jewelry anymore

Did I beg mama to give me the cluster of pearls ring that was my grandmother’s
Or did she just give it to me willy nilly and send me on my way
all I remember is I was around nine. 
Memory is sometimes vague, often it only comes with a certain feeling. 
I remember being in the back yard searching for it, just me. 
Did she know I lost it, I don’t know but I hate that I don’t still have it.

My high school/college boyfriend, yes he was the love of my life really in truly, brought me a necklace of an etched whale’s tooth from his family trip to Hawaii. I still have the Bulova watch he gifted me. Wish I still had him, ha. He is dead though, he died from ALS. His wife invited me to come visit several times before he died. It was precious. 

Mama wouldn’t let me pierce my ears. I took care of that with an ice cube and a sewing needle. I don’t think I got in trouble. She usually didn’t have the energy to punish or guide me. My pierced ears created a tradition, my daughter would always get me a new pair of earrings for my birthday. I kept some of those earrings even though I don’t wear them anymore. 

A few years ago, my ears began to turn red every time I put an earring in. They would itch and burn. The best solution was to no longer wear them. I gave away most of my earrings, kept the ones that hold a special memory in my heart. 

In 9th grade, Mama took me and my older sister, on a ten day tour to Europe. In ten days we went to London, Stratford on Avon, Paris, Lucerne, Rome, (day trip to Assisi), Florence and Venice. My memories are fairly vivid from this trip. We were blessed by the Pope at the Vatican. In Lucerne, Mama announced we could get a special piece of jewelry to commemorate our trip. My sister chose a watch. I chose a sapphire diamond ring. Eventually I passed it down to my daughter. I hope she still has it.

The one last piece of jewelry I possessed from my grandmother, a stunning, unusual turquoise and diamond ring was stolen a few years ago. Traveling through Portland. I went out to my car after a night’s stay at a boutique hotel in the northeast neighborhood. Not only was one window busted out, but two. I had the ring in the car because I was taking it to be repaired. It is gone. I searched craiglist ads, placed an ad. I still think some weird miracle could happen, shopping in Portland and spotting it. Who knows, none of us know. 

There are no excuses


I am writing my story as I remember it and what is true for me.
While I share my struggles and grief, I acknowledge and do not want to discount that my daughter had an experience of me that has caused her to cut me out of her life. I was a practicing alcoholic during my daughter’s crucial adolescent and teenage years. My marriage at the time was full of lies and betrayals. I was angry. She was witness to my drunkenness, my anger, be it shouting, leaving the house abruptly or feeling the tension of my silence. This was traumatic for her. If I could heal her trauma I would.

I can not undo what I did. There are no excuses. There are explanations.

Worthless or just misunderstood

One of the gifts of isolation time during Covid has been time, time to write, time for online writing classes and time to read. Reading other memoir is a great teacher while writing my own memoir. The latest memoir I picked up, What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang is about mothers and daughters, family secrets and how we cannot grow up until we fully understand the people who raised us. I can’t put it down only stopping to re read and underline phrases.
Maya’s mother was a psychiatrist, her father had a temper and did not hold women in high regard.


“Against this backdrop, my mom’s stories provided a glimpse of an alternative universe where people aren’t worthless; they were simply misunderstood.”

This week, I was fortunate enough to have a small piece of writing published by Visible Magazine. A boost in the arm, knowing my writing is worthy of publishing. Maya’s quote worthless vs. being misunderstood struck a cord. I’d like to believe that if some understanding came to be, my family could heal. If grace ever presents itself for the opportunity to understand, I will surely welcome it. Meantime, I’ll accept what is and keep writing.

In honor of National Independent Bookstore Day

This is an excerpt from my memoir in honor of National Independent Bookstore day. Bits of it have been revised but for these purposes I like it. Thanks goes out to John, my previous boss, who has taken the time recently to speak with me about my days working at his bookstore. Lemuria bookstore continues to be a top independent bookstore in the United States in large part because of John’s dedication and hard work.

The Mousehole Cat

My daughter was five when her stepdad and I meet. After eight magical years in Missoula, MT, I had returned to my Southern hometown of Jackson, MS. Paul and I worked alongside each other at a local bustling bookstore. As a previous frequent customer, he had waited on me for years. Eleven years my elder with his salt and pepper hair, beard and blue eyes staring through wire rimmed glasses he looked the part of a wise, caring bookseller. Here we were sitting and working together at the open circular customer service desk, right in the middle of this beautiful bookstore. 

Lemuria bookstore had just moved to this new location a year before. It had grown out of the small space it previously housed. Now it was nationally known for its first editions collection as well as author events. The first editions had its own room, the children’s section, OZ, was like a little store of its own. Visiting authors would read to a packed crowd from their newest book then situate themselves in a booth tucked away up a couple steps. This allowed readers a moment to say a few words to the author while having their book signed, then walk through and down steps on the other side making for the perfect flow. 
It was an honor to meet writers such as Lorrie Moore, Kaye Gibbons, Jim Harrison, John Grisham, Tim O’Brien, Mark Childress and Tom Robbins. I would assist in the signing, sitting next to the authors in the booth, greeting their fans and getting the books opened to the correct page to sign. As the endearing Willie Morris signed and visited with readers of My Dog Skip, I dutifully kept his coffee cup filled with his favorite whiskey.

Behind our little world at the customer service desk, Paul proved to be nothing but helpful. Each morning for my first week of work, Paul would greet me, look at me as if looking into my soul saying, “Frances, let me know if you need any help finding a book, anything, I’m here to help.”

Since I was a single parent, my parents were helping quite a bit with my daughter. Part of the routine was for them to drop her off at the bookstore just before I would be leaving work. She would come behind the counter, proudly sit in my chair while I balanced the register at closing.  She and Paul struck up a friendship. It was so heart-warming to look over and see the two of them drawing or looking through a book. He was giving her undivided attention while encouraging art and reading. Paul would get downright silly with her at times. Over time, his kindness won me over. I asked him if he would like to spend time with us outside of the bookstore, so my daughter would have a male role model in her life. Her dad lived a thousand miles away. He jumped at the chance. He was married, but his wife traveled often for work. On days off, the three of us would find a local hike, visit the Mississippi petrified forest, hunt down the best shaved ice shop or the best local BBQ for dinner.

It was all innocent enough. I cannot remember the reason, maybe he had a book in his extensive book collection at home to show me. I went by his house. My daughter wasn’t with me. We were alone. As I was leaving through the kitchen door, he kissed me. I was baffled but before I knew it, we were sneaking off for private moments together whenever we could. He wrote me beautiful love notes, bought me tasteful romantic gifts. Including a fused glass heart brooch, which I still have. Other gifts were well thought out and much appreciated. When my coffee maker went on the blink, he showed up with a high-end coffee maker that could be set to make coffee as I was waking up. What more could a girl ask for?

Paul eventually divorced his wife and we moved in together. Our bookshelves were full, our decorating taste matched perfectly, and I had a family to cook for. 

The three of us, Paul, me and my daughter found much comfort in each other. Paul loved finding the perfect book to bring home and read aloud to my daughter. There was one children’s book we loved for the story and the illustrations, The Mousehole Cat. A beautiful black and white cat was the main character. The cover of the book was a sea captain with a full gray beard holding the cat. Paul resembled this sea captain with his kind eyes and full graying beard. We felt it was fate, when on the day before Christmas eve, a woman came in the bookstore and shared that she had a litter of kittens that were looking for homes. One was a black and white tuxedo kitty that looked just like our favorite character. Paul phoned me from the bookstore. We quickly made arrangements to have this kitty as a Christmas surprise on Christmas morning. It was magical. Nick the cat, who loved only us, was with us until the end of our marriage.

*Kaye Gibbons wrote one of my favorite books, Ellen Foster.
*Lorrie Moore came to the bookstore to promote, Like Life. She is a delight.
*Willie Morris’s My Dog Skip is also a movie, a tear jerker, highly recommend.

Order and Appearance

Order and Appearance

The mimosa tree was a place of refuge with it’s smooth bark short truck, not too high limbs that were perfect for climbing, sitting in and reading. 

The Seuss-like spiky, pink, white with a bit of yellow puffball blossoms shot up from fern like leaves and put out a faint sweet smell.

Girlfriends came over to climb with me, photos give evidence that we are related to monkeys.

It was the only tree in our large front yard that was mainly green St. Augustine grass with a couple of low growing red azalea bush flower beds. 

Our yard was neat and tidy. In fact, we were Yard of the Month once, and a sign was placed by the local garden club near the street for all to see. Certainly, John Henry, our sweet yard man should have been given this award, but that’s another story.

One day Daddy cut down my mimosa tree because the blossoms were messy. 

The Ethics of Silence

“The ethics of silence are just as tricky. Is it ethical to keep the stories hidden?  If I am to be silenced in the name of niceness, are we not also suppressing the whole truth? Half-truths linger silently, a monument to missed opportunities, a quietness of suppression.” Sandra Hager Eliason

I sit drinking coffee this morning feeling somewhat powerless. 

There is nothing I can do. 

My ex-husband who I haven’t seen in twenty years—except for about 30 minutes ten years ago—made a statement for a legal document that determines me being able or not able to see my grandchildren. He stated that I have borderline personality disorder. He is not a professional psychiatrist or counselor by a long shot. In fact, once when faced with looking at his part in our conflicts at a therapist office, he lashed out at me and told me it was my fault. In talking recently with an ex-boss that my ex-husband and I shared, he had similar issues with my ex not being able to take responsibility for his short comings or mistakes. Some of those mistakes cost the business quite a bit of money.

 My ex and I made the commitment to move in together when my daughter was five. That summer I drove her out West to be with her real dad. On my return home, my now ex-husband sat me down and told me he had an affair with his college sweetheart while I was gone. He begged for forgiveness and I granted it. 
There was another woman a few years later. My bad, I forgave him again. 
After ten years together and another discovered betrayal we eventually separated. Not divorced yet and still going to counseling together, he began secretly seeing his college sweetheart again. 

By this time, my alcoholism was in full swing. Alcohol was my coping mechanism, albeit a very unhealthy one. On top of that, after a hysterectomy my hormones were causing me to feel unhinged after surgically onset menopause. It wasn’t pretty. 

When I discovered this secret developing relationship my heart was broken and all trust issues between us were triggered. It was traumatizing. 

On a drunken night I phoned said college sweetheart and called her a whore. 
She is not a whore, probably a lovely person.

I recall my ex-husband telling me after that incident that she had suggested that I might have borderline personality disorder and he should cut me out of his life.
During my daughter’s college years, she spent summers with my ex-husband and his new girlfriend, now wife. They shared this information with my daughter and told her about the time I made the phone call calling her a whore. 

My daughter and I have struggled since our divorce. Without her knowing of his betrayals, she sees me as the one who broke up our happy home. My alcoholism and behaviors while drinking is what she witnessed. She did not witness or experience his betrayals. 

My ex-husband’s strongest feature is that he is a very nice guy. If anyone challenges that they may begin to feel less than behind closed doors—as in a marriage. 

Writing memoir will not change events that occurred. My hope is that it gives some freedom by sharing untold truths and gives a reader the courage to share their untold truths. 

I share with you an essay, Ethics of Silence by Sandra Hager Eliason published on Brevity’s blog