Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Trusting Dreams

Often before writing my blog, I look for inspiration in famous quotes. But today, reading about trust, I got pretty depressed. Most said: trust no one, or trust only a few. From Stalin: “I trust no one, not even myself.” Johnny Depp: “Me, I’m dishonest, and you can always trust a dishonest person to be dishonest.” It made me wonder, is trust really so rare?

Happily, I managed to find one quote that cheered me up. Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, said, “Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? Sparks fanned by trust turning into flames. The thing is, it’s so easy to doubt myself, to think that I’m not good enough. How can I nurture that kind of trust in myself?

In her middle-grade novel, Dogsled Dreams, Terry Lynn Johnson answers this question. Rebecca, her young protagonist, yearns to become a dogsled racer, but doubts assail her. What if she is not good enough? What if she can’t run the race? She blames herself when the dogs go missing, when she loses the sled and the dogs race on without her, and when the sled overturns as she is giving a ride to a passenger. When Rebecca confesses her fears to Heather, her father’s new wife, Heather replies: “Rebecca, when people do things even though it scares them, that’s called courage. You should be a little afraid of racing. It means you know what you’re doing.”

Rebecca doubts her abilities as a musher even more because she senses the dogs’ trust in her. The dogs trust Rebecca because she knows them and trusts them, appreciating each dog as a unique personality. Racing is important to Rebecca. She desires to do it well. But it is the dogs and their passion and joy for running which bring the race alive for her. Her doubts, that constant questioning of herself, are what make her an excellent musher.

Seems to me that doubting must be good -- it bring about improvement and growth. So perhaps it is not that Rebecca lacks trust in her mushing abilities, but that her fears make it possible for her to become a better musher every day she spends with the dogs. She can trust that innate benefit of doubting. Like Heather said, being afraid means she knows what she's doing.

I’ve always tried to instill in my children the understanding that courage can only happen by overcoming fear. After all, if I did not fear speaking before an audience or receiving a vaccination, where would be the bravery in that? Similarly, without doubts there can be no trust. What an amazing and freeing idea! What is trust if not an overcoming of the fear that somebody (whether it is me or someone else) will fail me? Trust my fears, trust my doubts, trust me. Trust.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Born Wicked and a Totally Irrelevant Hansel and Gretel Digression

A few years ago I went with my brother to hear Orson Scott Card read at Kepler’s Bookstore. I’m a huge fan of his Ender books and their message of communication and empathy. While I didn’t particularly enjoy Card’s presentation (I think my brother and I escaped before it was over), he gave one writing tip that I loved: the number of personalities you develop in your story is exponentially larger than the actual number of characters. Let me explain.

Take, for example, Hansel and Gretel. The fairy tale has five characters: mother, father, Hansel, Gretel, and witch. The mother views Hansel and Gretel as a burden -- two more mouths she must feed, but to the witch they are a food source. Gretel acts dependent, complaining and whiny when she feels Hansel is responsible to find a way out of the forest, but she becomes strong and resourceful when she needs to rescue him from getting cooked. Each character has multiple personalities, depending on the other character with whom they are interacting in any given scene. See what I mean?

Some novelists are experts in character creation. In her debut novel, Born Wicked, Jessica Spotswood manages to create more than a dozen well-rounded characters whose relationships with each other are fluid, revealing often unexpected facets of their personalities and showing their growth. Amazing feat.

Born Wicked
tells the story of sixteen year-old Cate Cahill as she wavers on the brink of adulthood. Cate lives in a world where women are inferior to men, and witches are feared and persecuted. Cate and her two sisters are witches, yet each of them has a different relationship with their magic. While Cate believes being a witch is wicked, one sister chooses to flaunt and the other to appreciate this gift. Once she turns seventeen, Cate must choose one of two options open to women: marry and become her husband’s property, or join the Sisterhood and dedicate herself to study.

But Cate promised her mother before she died to watch out for her sisters. She feels responsible for keeping her sisters safe and their magic hidden. She is torn between trying to protect the people she loves and the future that fate seems to force on her, and as always, suffering brings about personal growth, personal revelation, and many changes.

This is a perfectly crafted novel. Elegant, mesmerizing, and bewitching, filled with life-like, easy-to-love characters. Gushing moment alert: when, when is book two in the series coming out? I can hardly wait. I loved loved loved this novel! I can’t wait for the second one to come out. I want to know what happens to Cate next. I’m worried about her. I’m worried about her sisters. And I totally suspect that their father knows they are witches, even though they’re keeping it a secret from him. This the best kind of writing, when the characters stay with me long after the reading is done, like good friends with whom I want to keep in touch.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Meeting Kindness by the Roadside

I’ve always been fond of the Hebrew song “Good people by the roadside.” In the song, Naomi Shemer, (the lyricist and singer) describes the gifts which strangers gave her: a song to sing on her way, their name, a book a hundred years old. I love the idea of meeting with kindness by the roadside, of our bubbles of life interacting, merging for a brief moment and then continuing each on his or her way. I love the idea that I can learn something from everyone I meet, that each of these moments of connection, no matter how brief, can be a reason for me to grow.

Yesterday I flew home from Rochester to San Francisco and got to experience firsthand the discomfort of winter travel. Heavy snow caused delays in and out of Chicago where I had to switch planes. My first flight was three hours late, which made me miss my next flight, and though I was lucky to get on the very next flight out, the plane malfunctioned, and the flight left three hours late after a gate and airplane change. As I drove home from the airport, exhausted and hungry, it suddenly struck me: despite the potentially frustrating day, I had met only with kindness, cheeriness, and patience from my fellow travelers and the airport personnel.

There was the United agent at the gate in Rochester who patiently spoke with each and every passenger and booked a back-up flight for them, just in case, all the while reassuring them individually that most likely they will not miss their flight at all. There was the kind agent at the gate in Chicago who told me the chances of getting on the first flight out were very high and not to worry and then called me, not ten minutes after, to give me my new ticket. There were the air hostesses who updated us with how the work progressed on the airplane and who kept smiling no matter how much longer their own work day stretched because of the delay.

And there were also the couple with the adorable four year old twins who were going back home, the older woman who listened patiently to the traffic-violation stories of the guy sitting next to her, the Indian family traveling to Omaha, the jovial businessman with the unexpected backpack on top of his roller suitcase, the ever-laughing Kiwi who found herself hours late for the one flight that leaves to New Zealand, where she was going to assist her injured mother. Yet everyone was patient. Everyone kept upbeat, hoping that this time when we get on the plane it will actually take off and get us closer to our final destination.

Fourteen hours after I left I finally reached my home. Yes, I was tired, yet somehow also inspired by these people and grateful for this experience that showed me yet again how many good people there are in this world.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Laugh Out Loud

On the airplane yesterday, I started reading The Frog Prince by Elle Lothlorien. The book caught my fancy because of its name (I love fairy tales!) and the subtitle, “A Romantic Comedy.” My favorite two genres combined! I didn’t really know anything about the content, but it seemed like a light, fast read that would amuse me on the flight.

From its first line, the novel did not disappoint, as Leigh, the narrator, begins the story by announcing: “Everyone agrees that my Great Aunt Tina looks fabulous dead.” Leigh tells the story in a humorous, often unexpected, bubbly voice. She is socially inept, either gushing about her sex research and spewing bizarre facts about human mating habits, or judging each word before she utters it to make sure its “creep factor” is not too high. Her friend Kat tells her, “If I had to think so hard about everything I did, I’d throw myself off the roof.”

For about four hours, I sat on the plane and laughed out loud. I didn’t care if the girl sitting next to me on the first flight and the man sitting next to me on the second thought I was crazy. I just enjoyed the book so much. I laughed and laughed.

The best part about how fun the book is: I left my disbelief (remember my suspending your disbelief post?) on the first page and never looked back. I didn’t mind when Roman, Leigh’s boyfriend, turned out to be the heir apparent to the Austrian throne (only if the monarchy was restored, of course). My faith did not waver when Leigh discovered that Roman had access to private planes and was friends with Prince Faisal of  Saudi Arabia and Princess Isabella of Denmark. A quick google check (for this blog’s purpose) revealed that history does in fact include these two personages. However, Princess Isabella is five and Prince Faisal died in 1975.

I also didn’t bat an eyelash when Leigh and Roman discover that the Austrian parliament had voted to restore the monarchy. Swept away with the humor and wackiness of the novel, any crazy semi-realistic idea that Elle Lothlorien wished to throw my way would have only added to the fun, even a historical event of such monumentality as reinstating a king to his throne. I love to laugh, and I guess I’m willing to do pretty much anything to laugh more.

I always tell my family that for my shiva (the Jewish traditional seven days of mourning), I’d like them to sit telling jokes about me. What a better way to make the move to the next world than on waves of laughter? But even my morbid sense of humor stands in awe before the way Leigh’s family says goodbye to the dead: “my family likes to take pictures of dead people.” Leigh explains as she poses with the dead Great Aunt Tina, “Not just take pictures of them, but have people pose with them like a bride and groom on their wedding day.”

Wow. That sounds like, um, fun....

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Extra Gratitude Bonus: Freedom from Regrets

Imagination is a wonderful asset, but at times it can be a burden, especially if it is out of control and predicting disasters. And my imagination is well-exercised in discovering horrors where none exist. This morning, when I heard the airline agent say that there is no more room in the overhead bins, and can passengers please volunteer to check their luggage, I decided, as we say in Hebrew, to heal the bruise before the injury happened, and checked my little sports bag.

Perhaps I should be honest and start a little earlier, with the challah and banana bread I had baked for Dar. I didn’t want them to get squished under all my stuff, so I put them in a plastic bag and carried it -- a third carry-on -- through security and all the way up to the gate. Being a law-abiding citizen, however, and having an imagination that can’t help but predict catastrophes (and make them seem illogically huge), I stressed about being told that I cannot bring this third plastic bag onto the airplane.

Once those officially-clad gals behind the counter announced the no-room-please-check-your-luggage message over the air, my fears would not let me stay seated, bundled up as I was with three parcels while the rest of the world was forced to carry only one. The agent was quite surprised, to tell the truth. She feebly tried to refuse my little sports bag, but I explained about having my backpack with me, and she gave up, shrugging at the crazy lady who checks in such a small bag when other people attempt to squeeze enormous, industrial-sized suitcases into the narrow bins.

Instantly regrets assailed me. Had I let my fears overcome my common sense by giving up my bag? What if it gets lost?What if there is room in the overhead bins after all? What if we have to wait for a very long time for the bag to come out at the carousel?

I texted the confession of my frailty to Dar, but for some reason he did not get upset. He texted me back that Rochester is a small airport, no problem, and the transfer in Chicago is sure to go well. And suddenly, it dawned on me -- here is an opportunity for a moment of gratitude. In the midst of regret, over-imagination, anxiety and perceived disaster, I can be grateful for having one less bag to carry in Chicago while I switch planes!

The sun rose in my internal sky. My heart lightened. I had found a remedy for my regrets! Opening myself up to gratitude shifted my entire mood. Here was a way to turn bad (or at least perceived bad) into good. Next on my list for today, turning straw into gold. And, just to conclude, my bag came out of the carousel first.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Moments of Gratitude

A few days ago I waited at a stop sign for a bicycle to pass by, a dad with his daughter riding behind him on a trailer bike. As I watched them whiz past, the girl, no more than six years old, released her hold on the handlebars and spread her arms wide against the wind, her little legs pumping the pedals, hair flying behind from under her helmet.

A moment of gratitude for childhood and freedom, for these priceless memories, father and daughter having fun together. A moment of gratitude for the beautiful day, health, love and family.

Later, driving up the hill, a lone egret caught my eye, her graceful body standing erect, white against the green of the grass. Somehow, just watching that one egret, I felt ready to fly, filled with hope and joy.

Often these moments of gratitude are just that, a twinkling of a moment, so small it is easy to miss them if I don’t pay attention, so everyday that I feel it’s a miracle I notice them at all. My daughter’s face as she sits reading a book on her carpet before she realizes I am watching her. My son’s serious face as he plays the violin. The puppies huddled together as a pack on one doggie bed. Holding hands with Dar when we walk into the Farmers’ market. A piece of chocolate melting under my tongue.

My daughter’s Jewish Studies teacher calls these “I am grateful moments,” or in Hebrew, “Modeh Ani.” At school, she allows children to stand up in the morning and tell the entire group of first to third graders what their moment of gratitude is. My mother is going to have a baby today. I won a gymnastic competition. Wonderful, wonderful things happen to these wonderful kids.

According to Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, “Gratitude is a key to happiness,” and “consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives.” I’ve noticed that whenever I let these moments of gratitude enter my life, my heart expands, I feel more connected to the world, and yes, happier, more full of joy.

Ms. Rubin recommends keeping a gratitude journal, writing a few words each day that express thankfulness for something that happened that day, or dedicating a few minutes every day to express gratitude verbally. I’ve decided to have a “moment of gratitude” tweet each day on twitter.

I love this quote by JFK: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” As a writer, I am far too prone to utter words and then completely forget to live by them. But I hope that by writing my joy and being attentive to these moments of joy in order to express them, I will have assimilated the feeling of gratitude into every moment of life, whether it is good, bad, or in between.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What Happens Next???

Yesterday I finished reading Incarnate by Jodi Meadows. The novel came out at the end of January this year, and I had read so many adoring reviews of it that I simply had to buy myself a copy. And my high expectations were more than met.

takes place in the world of Range, where the same million souls have existed and were reborn for five thousand years, keeping their memories from all their past lives. Babies born remember being adults, remember dying many times over. There aren’t really children in Range. Not in the playful, exploratory meaning of childhood. And everybody in Range knows everybody else. There is no mystery to who people are and little room for personal development and growth.

One day, however, one of these souls fails to reincarnate, and Ana is born. Ana longs to find out why she was born and whether she will be reincarnated. The only eighteen year old in a world where people carry the experiences and knowledge of thousands of years, Ana is a breath of fresh air, a girl with a new outlook, new questions, new ideas. And as such she is also a danger.

After eighteen years of living with a mother who did not care for her and treated her as an inferior being, a nosoul, Ana leaves for the main city, Heart, where she hopes to find some answers to her questions. Acutely aware of her newness in this old and jaded world, Ana views everything that happens to her through the eyes of a child.

Like a child, Ana takes responsibility for events which might or might not be related to her. She thinks it is her fault that the soul of Ciana was not reborn, and that she must be the one to discover why and how that happened. She blames herself for failing to save more souls during the dragon attack later in the novel. She feels that it is up to her to discover and understand why sylph and dragons attack Heart.

And also like a child, she is the only one who sees the people around her with new eyes. Through the kaleidoscope of Ana’s mind, the people of Range are free of five thousand years of history -- they can be anything they want to be.

On her website, Jodi Meadows predicts that the second book of her trilogy will come out in winter of 2013 and the third in 2014. I am having a hard time curbing my impatience till the books come out. I don’t often read novels at the forefront of literary development, and I find myself wondering what did readers of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Chronicles do while waiting for the next book? How did Tolkien readers manage the wait for the end of the Ring Trilogy? Seems it can be lucky to come late on the scene of a great work of literature. Then again it can be a good fortune to be one of the first explorers in a new land.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Joy of Banishing My Disbelief

Miracles happen. Especially in books. A burning bush talks to Moses? Sure, I accept that. A bunch of bones become an army of ghosts? Umm, creepy, but ok, I can swallow that. Elves, hobbits, flying kids, witches, people who incarnate over and over again over thousands of years. I believe it. I do. My imagination can accept quite a lot of marvelous happenings.

This is called, in literary terms, suspension of disbelief. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favorite poets, is the one who came up with the term. It is poetic faith, the reader’s willingness to accept incredible, romantic and supernatural people or events as possible within the framework of a novel, poem or play.

Poetic faith allows me to enjoy fictional writing. Take, for example, this story about a normal girl who is chosen to act as an adventurer in fairy tale worlds. That’s an imaginative idea, right? I don’t know any girl who actually does that. But, as long as the girl’s story sticks to the rules which the novel sets starting out, I am willing to accept and enjoy flying frogs, sheep with no mouths, a wizard who is a clown (how terrifying!) and a main character who is an expert in cliches.

The story I’m describing is Anna Staniszewski’s middle grade novel My Very Unfairytale Life. Jenny, the main character, does not fear the danger inherent in adventuring. She easily pops in and out of worlds saving creatures and countries, but she misses her everyday life. Yes, she’s rich with jewels and treasures, but she has no friends.

I like novels where the main character needs to balance their innermost desires with the conditions of their life and the limitations of the world around them. Staniszewski’s  novel, though short, cute, and easy-to-read, still manages to enfold within its pages a discussion of friendship, the power of laughing without a care in the world, and following our heart.

I think the novel’s innate charm is what made me so willing to suspend my disbelief. A lot of Staniszewski’s seemingly impossible details add charm as well as a shadow of menacing darkness and complexity to a story teeming with humor: the wizard’s castle is a huge circus tent and his grounds a mini-golf garden. He tortures Prince Lamb by forcing him to swing on a trapeze. The committee members who send Jenny on her adventures are exact copies of each other, looking alike, speaking in the same voice and at the same time.

I allowed myself to be swept along in Jenny’s adventure, rarely bringing my head up for air, following the twists of the plot through possible, impossible, credible, incredible, just letting myself have fun. And by the end of it, a reaffirmation of family and friends, I was very glad that I allowed myself to rest in belief for at least this one time.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I won’t Go Back to the Dry Cleaning Business

Every week Chip MacGregor, of MacGregor Literary Agency, answers readers’ questions on his blog. Today he answered “How Do I Get an Agent?” I expected him to say something along the lines of: research authors you love and find out who their agent is. Read blogs and agency websites. Write a query and perfect your novel. Make sure to know each agent’s submission guidelines and the correct spelling of their name. Then send your materials out with your hopes and dreams and commence waiting.

But instead of explaining how to send out materials and to whom, Mr. MacGregor tackled the question when are you ready to get an agent. Some of his tips I heard before, of course, like -- you need great ideas, great writing and a great platform. But one tip made me blink fast.

When not to get an agent? Mr. MacGregor responded: “When you're not ready for rejection. This is a tough business. Do you have any idea how many times I hear the word “NO” in a week? If you can’t take some rejection, or if you can’t take criticism, or if you can’t take direction, go back to the dry-cleaning business. You obviously aren’t tough enough for the writing biz.”

Oh dear.

If there is one thing I know for a fact, it’s that I’m not tough. I have a hard time with rejection and criticism. Certain words can leave me devastated and depressed for weeks. Should I then go back to the dry cleaning business, like Mr. MacGregor recommends? Writing is my life. It’s who I am. I’m pretty sure if you took me apart all you’d find inside are ideas and words and fluttering pieces of paper that say “Chapter 3 -- in which Anna Mara learns never to trust old women with moles on their noses.”

I remember one beta reader who told me that all my characters sound the same (NO!!!). Or one reader who told me that my language was too difficult for thirteen year olds (NO!!!). Or a reader who told me that my previous draft was better and the new one bored him very much (NO!!!). I also remember one reader who told me this was the best story she ever read (thank you!). I remember the agent who told me I was a fine storyteller and another who told me she doesn’t do fairy tales but to send her anything else I might have (thank you and thank you again!).

And though it often takes me some time to get over each piece of feedback, I bounce back in the end. I love my book and my writing. Maybe I’m not tough and maybe rejection makes me want to cry, but, to quote T.S. Elliott: “Only those who risk going too far know how far they can go.” And in the words of Helen Keller, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.”

And I am definitely choosing the adventure of writing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Becoming Good Enough

If there is one question I worry about, it is whether I’m good enough. I should probably not have been surprised to discover that my kids similarly question themselves. But I was. Surprised and dismayed. I’d like my kids to grow up to love themselves. After all, I love them and think they are amazing and wonderful. How could they possibly think otherwise? But can I teach my kids to love who they are when I constantly judge myself?

So when my son said, “I’m bad at playing my instruments,” those few words shook me to the core. I love that Uri plays the clarinet and violin. I can barely get a sound out of the clarinet when I try to blow into it, and the violin is so complicated an instrument! Yet Uri took to both with an ease that defies my comprehension, especially considering how extremely different the clarinet and violin are.

After exclaiming and disclaiming (“You play both very well!), I decided to approach the subject from a different direction. I asked Uri what it meant to him to play well. Playing well, was his response, is playing like his teachers or on CD. Wow, I guess he also got the perfectionism gene from me.

I felt inadequately prepared to discuss this. Comparing himself to professional musicians when he had been playing less than a year seemed absurd. I decided to ask Uri’s clarinet teacher, Jeff Sanford, for help. Perhaps he can convince Uri that he plays well. To my surprise, Jeff approached the subject from a different angle. Rather than looking at Uri’s playing as a whole, Jeff tackled one song at a time. He explained that “playing well” is a relative term. The first time Uri plays a song he might struggle, but after a few practice sessions he plays that song well.

I don’t know if Uri understood this completely, but this way of looking at the world was an AHA! moment for me. I judge myself constantly on my performance as a whole. It does not occur to me to say, “Today when I sat with the kids doing homework I did very well.” Instead, when I mess up in one instance (like being impatient before they go to sleep), I say “I’m a bad mother.” I generalize. And almost always negatively.

I wish to apply this idea in my life more often. I hope I’ll remember it and tell myself, “Today my writing flows.” Or, “Today I was very patient and loving to the kids.” Or, “When I listened to Eden before she went to sleep I enjoyed feeling like a good mother. I did well.”

Perhaps it’s time to put generalization to rest, to stop putting myself down. Time to appreciate myself for the little things I do and forgive myself for my mistakes. And while I practice this self compassion, I hope the kids will learn to love and appreciate themselves as well. Nothing like personal example to make this wonderful change.

If you're interested, this is Jeff Sanford's jazz website. I don't know if he has any other life advice on there, but there is good music. To learn more about self compassion, check out this great website from Kristin Neff.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Beauty of the Beholder's Eyes

I can’t help but be bothered by how important a role beauty seems to play in falling in love. I much prefer Fiona falling in love with Shrek. I love that Spiderman is not some ultra-handsome boy and how Superman wears glasses and is a total geek. I like it when the emphasis is on character, not outer looks.

Yet so much love is based on beauty. I googled “beauty research” and came up with the following interesting facts: people tend to believe that physical beauty is a sign of inner beauty. They tend to like those who like them and to think that beautiful people are smarter, more successful, and happier.

The research also says: “Interestingly, while physical attractiveness appears to be the biggest correlator and predictor (for choosing a mate), it rarely appears as most important when directly asked of subjects. Attributes like personality and character usually rank higher. Either people are not aware of how important physical attractiveness is in their selection criteria, or they are not fully honest.”

Yet I believe Belle fell in love with the Beast before she knew how he looked as a prince.  I believe that she could fall in love with the Beast because of his character, the inner beauty of his soul. But if the Beast could not talk, if he struggled with his wild side and could not show his true human nature to the girl, would she fall in love with him then?

I found this dilemma in the White Bear of Edith Pattou’s East whose wild side is stronger than his human part. The Bear does not remember his human name, and Rose, the girl he brings to his castle hoping she will break his enchantment sometimes suspects he looks at her as prey. Every night the bear climbs into bed beside Rose but does not talk to her or try to touch her, and he rarely talks during the day either. When Rose uses the candle given her by her mother and sees the bear in his beautiful human form, she does not yet realize that she is in love with him, but she feels an obligation to undertake the journey to rescue him from the Troll Castle east of the sun and west of the moon.

Because of his lingering silence, the White Bear remained a mystery to me throughout the novel. I could only pity him, and I wondered-- did Rose fall in love with him because of his beauty that her candle revealed or because of some inner trait which escaped me?

Perhaps resisting physical attractiveness’ role in falling in love is not the way, but I will argue that beauty is not just what shows up on our body or face. It can be influenced by character, charm, a smile. I find people’s looks often “grow” on me as I get to know them, and then beauty really becomes "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Or maybe it's the beholder’s eye.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Insightful Morning in the Rain

I had an AHA! moment this morning, a shift in perspective that I would like to keep and apply in my life. It dawned on me that my weaknesses are my greatest strengths. Amazing, right?

I was talking to my mom on the phone, as I often do on my way back from dropping off the kids. And as usual we began to discuss the children’s schoolwork. Sighing over the long hours they spend doing homework, my mother commented that I never had to study. “You did everything chik-chak,” she said. Chik-chak is an expression in Hebrew for quickly, but it could also mean carelessly. “I didn’t want to tell you then,” my mother said, “but I admired how you learned so fast.”

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy tells Mr Bingley: “The power of doing any thing with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.” Rather than appreciate my quickness, I had always taken Mr. Darcy’s reproof to heart. Quickness was bad. Secretly I was proud of how quick I was, yet I felt ashamed of what I perceived as careless and wholly underserved results. I should only do well if I work hard, right?

I longed to become meticulous and studious but did not wish to put in either the time or the effort that was, to be truthful, barely required in order to get much better than good-enough results. See the dilemma? Why work hard if I could get 100% on my history exam without studying? This was the beginning of my flakiness. Never having had to work hard, I never learned how to work at all.

And yet -- can flakiness become an asset? a talent? a tool for moving ahead in the world? “The family tree project you created in seventh grade is more beautiful than your sister’s,” my mother said this morning.

A morning of revelations! My project, more beautiful than that of my meticulous and studious sister’s? See, I remember this project exceedingly well. I started it, I believe, the day before it was due. And I still remember it as a very loud project from how much my mom yelled at me while I was working on it. I remember the crooked titles I made for the photos. Blah.

So is it my mother’s memory that is remiss, or was I overly critical of myself? Is it possible to do well and quick at the same time? Can I finally be openly proud about how fast I am?

And more important, if I can view my greatest weakness, my flakiness (translated to speed), as a strength, can I also switch my point of view on what I perceive as the children’s weaknesses, and begin to see those as assets, strengthening and praising them as talents? If I could do that, I’d finally reach my mothering ideal. Perfection. Or maybe just an acceptance of who we are as we are.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Menacing Middles

My romance novel has been running on neutral lately. Whenever I start writing, doubts creep up if I’m headed in the right direction. It’s the dreaded middle which is stopping me, and I’ve decided I need an outline to show me the way.

Yesterday, coincidentally, two of my friends brought up the subject of middles. One friend told me, after I confessed being stuck, that she sees the subject of middles as an on-going issue in my life. She argued that I easily start new projects or say I’m done, but middles challenge me. Another sign of flakiness, right?

A little while later my other friend called. She is pursuing a new project and confessed she worries about her follow through. She had tried many careers, and what if she loses interest in this new one too? I realized that instead of praising herself for searching for her next goal, my friend believes that her shifting focus is wrong. Switching jobs perhaps means no commitment to the middle of any one job.

But what is a middle and who decides how long it will be?

With books it is easy to recognize beginning, middle and end. My daughter likes to tell this story: “Once upon a time, the middle, the end.” For an opera singer, the beginning, middle and end of an opera are often clear: there’s a first and a last performance and however many in between.

But sometimes in life it’s not so easy to determine what the middle is or how long it should be. I was married for eight years when I decided to end the marriage. Had I admitted failure when I ended it so soon? Or perhaps my failure was not recognizing earlier that the marriage was bad? Perhaps I would have done better to end it sooner?

I know people who have worked in the same place their whole life, and I know others who move routinely from place to place. I don’t think either is right or wrong. As always, it is the circumstances that mean the most, and I wouldn’t want to judge anyone before walking a mile in their shoes.

My life has been, so far, a continual search. A search for love and happiness. A search for self actualization, self faith and belief. Many endings led me to new beginnings, and there were always middles following, some good and some bad, some satisfactory and some that I tried to escape. I don’t have everything (or really anything) figured out. But I do see my life as a journey to explore all I can, with no road map or outline that I can consult. I make it up as I go and hope that at least some of it will turn out to be fun.

Perhaps this is why I love to write. There’s order in a novel. Only one way to follow. It’s easy, simple and clear. And an outline exists, a beacon of light to lead the way to the landing strip of the end.

Friday, February 10, 2012

All You Need Is Love

I am feeling happy today. I have many reasons to be happy, but I think that might be true almost every day, but today I am happy for no particular reason. Not giddy happy. Not high happy. Just pleasantly happy, enjoying the patterns of clouds in the skies, the warm sun, my daughter’s little body in the giant jacket we borrowed from her brother, and my son’s lovely face as he proudly explained to yet another group about broken bones (Human Body Symposium this morning).

I am happy because I love and feel loved. I feel healthy and strong and grateful for the health of my loved ones. I feel happy because I am writing to you about love and how to express love, and I realize that just thinking about this subject fills me with a joy of life.

Giving love, I know, increases happiness. Feeling grateful increases happiness. I want my son, my daughter, my boyfriend, my parents and siblings, my entire huge family to feel secure in the knowledge that I love them. And I want to show them love with more than just words. Sometimes it’s nice to show love when the object of it doesn’t expect it. A hug, a kiss, a squeeze can mean so much.

From Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project I learned to wake up my daughter with a song. Eden is often grumpy in the mornings, but I noticed that when I sing for her, her little face, her cheeks puffy with sleep, lights up, and she opens her eyes to the morning with happiness and joy, secure with the knowledge of my love.

At eleven, my son is a little more reluctant to hug and kiss, but every once in a while he cuddles up to me. He leans his head on my shoulder and just sighs. I find little ways to show my love: making his favorite cheddar cheese bread sticks. Buying him those jello containers he likes. Telling him I love him. Coming to events in his class. Listening when he plays his two instruments. Accepting his little gestures of love.

Gretchen Rubin chose as one of her keys to feeling happier to “hug more, kiss more, touch more.” With the kids, with Dar, my parents and even with the dogs this is great advice! This morning I sat with Chaim, my alpha dog, and I petted him for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, just him and I. The result: I felt quieter, calmer and happier. And if a dog can make me feel so much love, how much better with every hug or kiss from the children and Dar!

So today I feel happy, and I wanted to share the love with you. I hope you can find someone (appropriate) to hug today. Share a kiss with your loved ones. Get that amazing feeling of completeness with someone, human, cat a dog. I wish you a love day, love week and love year. And please remember to spread the love to everyone you hold dear. (Hey! That rhymed!)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

You Think That's Funny?

Many years ago, in a land far away (Israel), a friend told me: “You managed to develop a sense of humor no one but you understands.” At the time, I felt quite proud of this, as I believed my sense of humor manifested my much superior intelligence and abilities. The world was just not good enough to understand my sense of humor. Now, however, it occurs to me that what he said could be taken as less than a compliment. Had he implied that I have no sense of humor?

This is a frightening thought. Could it be true? Could I, in fact, be lacking in this important mental power? Am I innately unfunny? Can I still be taught?

This morning I found Ashley Clark’s blog post on how to make readers giggle. I took a look at her four-point advice, hoping that perhaps she could help me soar beyond elephant jokes and into full-potential giggly fun.

Not surprisingly, I found Clark’s tips funny and promising. She starts with “the more specific you are, the funnier something becomes.” I won’t quote the full example she gives, but it’s funny! I also won’t quote just a part of it, because, you know, it’s the specifics that make it so much fun. However, here’s a really good detail elephant joke. Q: What's grey, yellow, grey, yellow, grey, yellow, grey, yellow, grey, yellow, grey, yellow? A: An elephant rolling down a hill with a daisy in its mouth!

“Establish an expectation for the reader, and then surprise them.” I can think of a good example to this in my Anna Mara novel, but it would be a spoiler, so I can’t tell you that. But here’s a perfect expectation-and-surprise elephant joke. Q: How do you fit five elephants into a VW Bug? A: Two in front and three in the back.

Clark’s third point frightened me: “your quirks make excellent fodder for your characters.” Believe me, all my flaws are distinctly not funny, because they all have to do with being really afraid that people will laugh at me. They tend to be extremely unamusing. At least for me. To distract you, however, from finding my flaws, here’s a fabulously funny elephant joke. Q: What do you call two elephants on a bicycle? A: Optimistic!

“When in doubt, use a kid, a grandmother, or an animal.” And there you have it! We are back to the elephant jokes. Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? A: So she wouldn't fall in the hot chocolate.

In conclusion, and in case you would like to read more elephant jokes, here is where I found mine. Maybe one day, by chance, when I’m not trying so hard, something funny will find its way out. For now I think I’ll stick to elephants. And that joke about the two Frenchmen who find the poopoo in the street. But that’s for another time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Flakiness and Writing

A few years ago I took an interpersonal communication class at Stanford Continuing Education. Our class had a very simple format. We could talk about anything that had to do with the group itself -- no politics or weather. The group I was with ended up asking a lot about people’s first impressions: what did you think about me?” I stayed in the sidelines, feeling vulnerable, but that did not save me from one piece of feedback that had been branded in my memory forever. One of the women in the class told me: “You appear flaky.”

Flaky? I didn’t even know what that meant. According to the Urban Dictionary a flaky person is “Unreliable. A procrastinator. A careless or lazy person. Dishonest and doesn't keep to their word.” Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not perfect, but unreliable? dishonest? lazy? I took that woman’s words really hard. Where she said “appear” I put “are,” and I found confirmation for my flakiness with every appointment I failed to arrive to on time and every promise I failed to keep. She was right. I was flaky! I felt horrified and appalled.

And proving myself otherwise is impossible, because no matter how often I finish tasks, am on time (or even early), or am careful making plans, there is always the one appointment I can’t keep, the book I don’t finish, the party I have to cancel, or the friend I am forced to disappoint. I struggle with flakiness. I told you before, I strive for perfection (being the first to admit I’m not perfect is just a foil). I’m tough on myself for not continuing or finishing projects. I want to be responsible, reliable, thorough.

I get anxious when I don’t write every day. The writing routine is my refuge, what gives me confidence that there’s hope for me yet. But since returning from Israel the writing has been slow, and my progression into panic fast. Fortunately, it seems I’m not the only one who has a hard time getting back to a writing routine. Yesterday I read Nathan Bransford’s blog on how to get back to writing after a long break. Bransford says: “Breaks = kryptonite achilles heel termite ridden ankle breaking weakening things.” He recommends not heading straight to the novel, starting small, picking up momentum until the writing again flows.

I hope he’s right. My achilles heel is lack of faith that my flow can return. But I think it’s time to let go of this particular belief and accept one more facet of my humanness. Sometimes the writing flows and sometimes it wanes. My creativity can become inspired during vacation or disappear in the chaos of being far from home. And as usual, I see my first lesson to learn from all this is to let go of perfection and judgment, of comparison and expectations. My new goal is to let the magic of writing lead the way. That’s my worthy, optimistic, wonderful goal for today.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dreaming, Doing, Flying!

I love Walt Disney’s saying, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Many years ago, at a pivotal moment in my life, I caught a glimpse of boundless skies, of the infinite opportunities the world has to offer. In my heart I knew the opening of the world before me stood independent of circumstances or locations, an invitation to release limitations and rules and let my wings spread and fly.

Yesterday I listened as the kids watched the end of the The Tooth Fairy. The movie’s main character, Derek Thompson, is a hockey player who believes dreams are the reason people end up disappointed. When a young fan tells him he wants to play in the NHL when he grows up, Derek tells him to face the truth. There will always be better, faster, younger players than him. Better give up now than be disappointed later.

But is the fact that there will always be someone better, younger and faster a reason to give up? Take me as an example. Next month I will be 40, and I have not yet published a book. Now take Christopher Paolini who published his first novel at nineteen and quickly became a NYTimes best-selling author. Does comparing me to Paolini say anything at all? I hope not!

Comparison seems an ineffectual way to live, whether I’m comparing my performance to others or to my own expectation of me. And I wonder, why the need to compare? Is there no other way to reach my goals? “If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt Disney said. Perhaps instead of measuring, comparing, judging and criticizing, a better way to accomplish the same goals is by dreaming, doing and believing.

The Tooth Fairy ends with Derek realizing, “You want to fly? You have to believe!” I believe that if I believed I could fly, then I could fly. Every once in a while (and I don’t mean this is in a “we have to put her away in a mental institution before she tries it” kind of way) I feel very close to flying. The air begins to give me that lift, that tilt to the wings, which I just know can release the hold of gravity. And after all, what is gravity but a figment of our scientific imagination?

With my novel, with all my dreams, I know this is true. There is a fine balance, a moment when the dreaming, doing, and believing come together and magic happens. Words fall into place on the page. The man of my dreams comes into my life. I get to send my novel to an agent. And someday one of my novels will be on the shelf of your local bookstore or on your virtual kindle shelf. I plan on continuing to dream better, faster and younger dreams. And with a dash of believing and doing, next time I feel that tilt, that lift to my wings, I hope to let go of gravity, and....


Monday, February 6, 2012

Post-Stress "How Could I Be So Silly" Disorder

I don’t deal well with stress. Symptoms include headaches that won’t go away, tension in the shoulders and a feeling of depletion. Mostly I stress about whether my performance will measure up to my expectations when I feel I have no control over the result.

I’ve been thinking about stress management during my Wilderness First Responder re-certification course this weekend. I wanted to do well, to show myself (and everyone else) that I can assess a patient carefully and knowledgeably under pressure. And I knew the class was objectively stressful -- medical emergencies are frightening, and a calm rescuer can make a huge difference to a patient and anyone else on the scene.

I came to the WFR class this weekend with a strong sense of inferiority. Most people who take the class are guides, rangers, group leaders or search-and-rescue personnel, and I knew that most likely I’d be the only one who never used the training in the past two years. I also expected to be one of the oldest in the class. My first training course had 30 people out of which twenty-six were under 22 and three were over 60. You can guess where that left me. I felt acutely underprepared for this weekend, despite rereading the entire book and scoring well on the sample test. How can theoretical knowledge of wilderness medicine compete with actual field experience? The prospect of the class agitated me beyond belief.

A first glance on Friday revealed I was right. Four EMTs, lots of young people (though not quite 22 anymore), and nearly all but me needed the class for work. I was also almost the only one who had never dressed a wound. A perfect fit to my expectations. The three days of the class passed me with an impossible-to-relieve headache. On Sunday I returned home so exhausted I could barely stand up. I took a calming bath and spent the rest of the evening in bed with Jodi Meadows’ Incarnate, thankful that I now have peace and quiet for two more certified years.

From the safety of home, however, I have a confession to make. It’s possible that I didn’t quite have a reason to stress. On Sunday, after sweating for three hours waiting for the instructors to come and test me on my skills, I finally approached one and asked him why neither one of them observed me. “Oh,” he said. “We felt you were solid on the second day.”

Solid? Me?

I wish I had his confidence. I wish I could stress a little less about meeting with an emergency or at least be able to take the WFR class without hyperventilating my way into another headache. Familiarity might breed comfort if not belief in my abilities by my tenth or twentieth training. The best I can do is figure out what helps me relax at times of stress. A cup of tea might help. Or maybe a thump on the head?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Small Surprises

While I was busy torturing myself for not writing as much as I had before traveling to Israel, the universe had other plans in mind for me. Yesterday, after a couple months spent sending queries to agents, I suddenly and without warning received my first full manuscript request. An agent, for the first time, wanted to see my entire novel.

I’m taking a break to dance a little victory dance. Very little, because this is just one small step, and there is no guarantee that I won’t end up back on square one.

But still, I feel like this is a big deal. An agent wants to read my entire novel! She liked the query and first two chapters enough to want to read more.

But I also want to keep my perspective, because I’ve been disappointed before, and I know myself already: I take rejection hard. What am I saying? I take praise hard too. A no-win situation. You tell me my writing’s good, I get depressed thinking I won’t ever be able to duplicate it. You tell me my writing’s bad, I get depressed about that too, because you really didn’t need to confirm what I already knew.

But this time, I’m going to be nice to myself. I’ve decided to take a new road. Remember my holes in the road blog? I’m going to be happy and hopeful. I’m going to imagine the best outcome: The agent’s going to love the novel and want to represent me, and she’ll give me fantastic ideas for revisions which are going to make me feel like I’m seeing the novel through new eyes. But just in case she decides she is not interested, I also have a plan. I’m going to allow myself to feel sad, but I’m not going to take any step back (and definitely not the ten steps back which I used to take, with my hand clutching dramatically at my heart). Because a full manuscript request is a huge small step. And I’m going to take this full request as an encouragement. I already have some ideas for revision, and I know how to move ahead.

Small step forward. Keeping my eyes focused on my page.

Most important, I am writing. I want to keep going with this fun romance novel I started (did you know the second most popular occupation for a romance hero is cowboy?). I want to get back to all the other ideas which have been born in my mind in all the years since I realized that writing is the only thing I want to do. Because, remember when I told you (and myself) that I’m a novelist? Well, it’s true!

In conclusion, I'd just like to say that all this came about by the help and energy of Dennis, our dog walker, who likes my three dogs so much that he recommended me to the notice of his friend, the literary agent. Thank you Dennis! I always knew there was a reason I kept those dogs around.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ah, the Joy of a Writing Routine!

I had a image in my mind for my month of vacations, and it began, every day, with me writing. In my mind I saw myself producing page upon page of fabulous material which would bring me ever closer to finishing a first draft for my new novel. In Roatan Island I pictured myself sitting with my laptop in my lap on the beach, the wind caressing my hair and the sun blinking in and out of my eyes (such a romantic image). In Prague I imagined myself writing away in a cafe, surrounded by literary-looking types. And in Israel I specifically planned to write every day at my aunt’s house, seating by my grandmother’s little table upstairs.

The result? In Roatan Island I hated everything so much that my mind was not open to creativity. In Prague I walked with my boyfriend from morning till night and was too tired and jet-lagged to think about blogs or romances. In Israel we rushed from cousins to grandmother to brother to friends, and I only wrote once. At least that.

Now I’m home, and I feel like a truck has driven back and forth over whatever order I had in my writing life. I can find a smidgen novel here and a piece of a blog post there, but putting them together seems impossible. I don’t remember how to get back to the routine I had before. I’m disappointed I didn’t fulfill the writing expectations I had. And mostly I just have no idea how to find the flow again.

Coming back from vacation is always hard for me, but most often I face an opposite problem to the one I’m feeling now: usually on vacation I am my better self, I write, I exercise, I spend a lot of time in the fresh air. And when I come back I feel like I’m losing my better Sigal to everyday life, worries and chores. But coming back is much worse when my better self never showed up at all!

So how to get back to writing, I ask myself. This is a corner of joy, not of complaining, and I already whined enough last week. How do I retrieve that rare joy in writing which permeated every moment of my life for the three months before we left on our trip, the confidence in my imagination, the connection which I felt with my dreams?

Perhaps if I let go of how I expected myself to be on these vacations and allowed myself to feel the enjoyment I received from spending time with Dar, my family and friends, I will open the way for the writing to return. Perhaps by writing this page I am already opening the door. And perhaps I held the door closed because I was afraid of the flood of words waiting behind it, yearning to be written. But writing is one area of my life, I really do not wish to dam.