Thursday, September 15, 2016

Finding passion in work

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I’ve always wanted to do work that I love. I would read about people who had turned their passion into a career. And then I’d look at myself.

Seven years ago, I was working in the local office of a large corporation. I spent my days sitting in a cramped cubicle writing technical manuals. It wasn’t my life’s dream but it was a good, solid job. I held a senior position that paid more money than I had ever earned. The people were nice. The coffee was free.

My mother died a few weeks before I accepted the job. She had always worried about me, working the freelance life, the constant search for a paycheck. Going without. Finally, I would have a title and a steady income. She would have been proud of me.

But after four years, I felt the urge to move on. I had been a tech writer for a long time, long before this job, and was eager to try other genres of writing. Kurt Vonnegut once remarked that technical writers and newspaper reporters were “freaks in the world of writers.” They are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing, he said, whereas most writers bare their soul.

I tried on a few hats, applied for a few (hundred) jobs. Marketing writer. Copywriter. Content specialist. Nothing seemed to fit.

Then I read about the craft and business of storytelling. Writing stories seemed like something I could love. I’d had a taste of it once, when I wrote a story for a local newspaper.

Of course, one story does not make a storyteller.

I had a lot of learning to do.

* * *

I learned three things. One, I can be impulsive. Two, never quit your job during a recession. Three, don’t give up, despite what others say.

I’m a work in progress.

Sometimes late at night when I’m feeling discouraged, I find inspiration in the words of Hemingway. In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, the author discussed writing a story in the first person. He said that to be successful in telling your story, you must create a story “that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory.”

There are a million reasons to tell a story. But it seemed to me that making the reader feel present in the story—and walk away remembering it—was a damn good reason.

I love to write. I love the mechanics—the endless drafts, the details, the research. I love talking to people about their special stories and learning about their personal history.

“I’ve never seen a job for a storyteller,” a friend said when I told her of my new direction. She advised me to apply for welfare.

On my worst day, I worry she might be right.

On my best day, I imagine myself as chief storyteller, keeper of the narratives.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lunch with Mom

On a bright Saturday morning in the spring of 2005, my mother and I sat in the kitchen of her apartment eating shrimp salad sandwiches and drinking cups of strong black coffee. Our Saturday lunches had become a habit over the past couple of years, ever since my father died. On this day, as always, it was just the two of us. We ate at the Formica table. My mother served the shrimp salad on slices of rye. We shared a plate of fries.

My mother was seventy-nine years old on that spring day. Wife, mother, grandmother, widow. She wore white slacks, a white pullover top, and her favorite purple slippers. Her white hair was combed into a bouffant style.

The one-bedroom apartment was on the fourth floor of a suburban midrise, just off a busy thoroughfare, a few miles from where I grew up. My parents had moved to the apartment after ending their Florida retirement and returning to their hometown of Baltimore.

The windowless kitchen was illuminated by a fluorescent ceiling light; a table lamp softened the mood. Microwave, toaster oven, electric can opener, and portable TV vied for space on the counter. There were two pantries, one for food, one for all the pots and pans my mother had accumulated over decades of cooking for her family.

My mother took a bite of her sandwich, then ate a potato. Her fingernails were polished in beige. Mouth lipsticked in red. Hint of perfume.

She rarely ventured out on her own during those spring days. I shopped for her groceries, and the gourmet deli around the corner made home deliveries. A nice lady came by on weekdays to help with chores.

My mother had cancer. She had learned the news a few months before our lunch. The disease had progressed, the doctors said. Still, we were hopeful—we had to be. The alternative was unthinkable. She was receiving a new top-of-the-line radiation therapy.

We finished our sandwiches. My mother scooped the leftover shrimp salad into a plastic container for me to take home. She set out a plate of chocolate cookies for dessert, and replenished our coffee cups. We each ate a cookie. I helped her clear the table and stack the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

We carried our coffee cups to the den. It was just off the living room. The apartment complex called it a solarium, marketing jargon for a tiny nook with windows overlooking a wooded view. My mother turned the TV on—there were three TVs in the four-room apartment. She sat in my father’s armchair, I sat in hers. We watched a TV chef prepare pasta.

My mother and I discussed her funeral arrangements. We talked about what would happen to her personal belongings. Who would get the antiqued gold lamp and the crystal punch bowl. Many of the pieces of furniture in the apartment were from my childhood. I grew up eating supper at the Formica table.

“I’m sorry for all the arguments,” my mother said. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

I told her it was okay. I started to cry.

Like most families, we’d had good times and bad. We had laughed. We had wept. We had bickered. We had yelled. We had swept the arguments under the carpet. My father was the peacemaker, my mother the peace-breaker. That’s why she was apologizing. She had never apologized before. None of us had. We weren’t like that.

There is a line in a poem by nineteenth century Scottish poet Thomas Campbell: “To live in hearts we leave / Is not to die.” My mother worried that she would be forgotten. We even argued about it.

Not a chance, Mom.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

What life has taught me, so far

Believe in yourself.
Turn up the music, tap your foot.
Eat dessert first.

Accept that not every issue is black or white, this side of the fence or the other, right or wrong. Allow some gray to seep into your life.

Don’t be afraid of bugs, they’re smaller than you. My father used to tell me this.

Fall in love. Deeply. Passionately. Even if it doesn’t last, you’ll be a far better person for having given your heart to another.

Every year, make a list of regrets. Then do something about them.

Create happy memories.
Show interest in others.
Stay in touch with grade school pals.
Say thank you.
Send birthday cards.

Save every birthday card that you are fortunate enough to receive. Put them in a box on the top shelf of your bedroom closet. Later on, when the well of wishes dries up (and it will), you’ll appreciate the cards, and even read them.

When making a list, never have a 1 without a 2, an A without a B. It’s the golden rule of list-making, courtesy of my tenth grade history teacher.

Welcome a pet into your home. It will keep you company, and teach you to love unconditionally.

Do something nice for someone.
Do something nice for yourself.

On Sunday mornings, wake up early. Put the coffee on. Bring in the newspaper. Scramble eggs. Enjoy the day.

Learn your family history. You should know where you come from.

Give someone a hug.

Pay your bills on time.
Tell the truth. (It’s easier in the long run.)
Don’t hold a grudge.

Read old detective novels.
Never sell your Beatle records.
Keep your report cards.

Don’t nag.
Be patient. (Things take time for a reason.)
Be handy.

Attend your high school reunion (but don’t expect much).

Don’t waste money buying cheap furniture. Leave rooms empty, until you can afford to buy things that last, things that truly matter.

Bake your troubles away. A loaf of bread. A pie. Chocolate chip cookies. The calming act of mixing and kneading, sifting and stirring, will take your mind off your woes. And then you get to savor the tasty rewards. Life is heavenly…

To be continued.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The best things in life

“The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive,” said Coco Chanel.

Expensive is nice if you can afford it. I admit to splurging on a pair of shoes or a bottle of perfume. But the very best things in my life come with memories…like pistachio ice cream. When I was in elementary school, we lived around the corner from a diner-cum-ice cream shop. My mother would take me there for lunch. We’d sit in a booth and eat burgers and drink sodas and play songs on the jukebox. Then we’d get pistachio ice cream cones to eat on the way home.

The day of my high school graduation. I’d give up pistachio ice cream to have the chance to relive this day. It was a hot June afternoon. The school I attended, a two-story red brick structure from the 1940s, did not have air conditioning, so the graduation ceremony was held in the auditorium of a new school in the next town. Afterwards, my mother prepared a special family dinner to celebrate the occasion. I will never pass this way again.

Sometimes the best things in my life are the simple things, like the quiet of an early morning (the perfect time to write), or receiving and offering words of appreciation. Thank you for your help. Thank you for a job well done. Thank you for being my friend.

Have you ever had a day when everything hums along and nothing breaks, leaks, hisses, spits, or pees on the carpet? That day.

Summer cookouts in the backyard.
Reading a good book.
Staying up late.
Falling into bed after a long day.
A favorite song.

Being lucky. You know the definition of luck? It’s opportunity meeting preparation. You must prepare yourself to be lucky.

The scent of breakfast. One night, not long after I moved into my current home, I woke up at 3 a.m. The local fast-food restaurant was cooking breakfast. Eggs, bacon, toast, coffee. It was springtime, and my bedroom window was open. There must have been a zillion calories wafting in the breeze. Delicious!

And this: When you’re given another day, another chance to make things right. It’s the ultimate best thing in life.

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