Monday, September 23, 2013

Wanting What I Already Have

Recently I have made a commitment to begin my days reading something spiritual. My first selection is by Joan Chittister, OSB, a profoundly wise little book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. It amazes me how this book, published in 1991, before the world wide web, still speaks of the same challenges we now face: how to live a holy life in a world that is ever closer and more connected, with technology that dominates our time and consumerism that invades our consciousness. "In a world in which the planet has become the neighborhood and our personal lives are made up of unending streams of people," she writes, "the Rule of Benedict with its accent on the spiritual qualities of life lived in common may never have been more relevant. I have begun to see under the covers of this age-old monastic rule a semblance of sanity to the insanity of   the world around me." (p. 11-12) What would she have made of the "unending streams of people" I can speak to  and they to me via the timeline of my Facebook page? Or a world in which I can download an entire library to my Kindle in less than an hour? Or a BOGO culture in which I get two blouses when I only really needed one, just because the second one was free?
The craziness of this massively inter-connected world is that amidst this plenty we can find ourselves very empty indeed. The shallowness of constant conversation via email and social media does not make up for the lost intimacy of a real, deep, nourishing conversation with a true friend. A closet full of clothes can hide the few, precious, beloved garments that bring back the best and brightest memories. A shelf full of books can camouflage the wisest and most life-changing favorites (like this one) amidst all the others I've "been meaning to read." Wisdom Distilled from the Daily gives us one approach through the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict as interpreted by this wise woman. "We have to come to understand that we have been allotted our portion of the goods of the earth; we have not been given the goods of the universe for our own personal consumption. We own this earth in common with the poor. We have to learn the difference between needs and wants so that the needs of all can be supplied, which doesn't mean that my own life must be narrow or restricted. It simply means I must come to understand the difference between having it all and having everything." (p. 72.)

Having it all vs. having everything. Having it all doesn't make me happier, it just creates more work, more things to dust, more things to wade through. And it leads to a world where a few have too much and too many have too little. Having everything is simply having that--and only that--which is necessary to live a life in balance, where work and leisure, solitude and companionship, the mundane and the sacred exist in equal measure. That kind of monasticism does not require I renounce my family or give away all my possessions or move into a convent. It simply means that I must focus on wanting what I have rather than trying to have whatever I want.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Interview with the Story Circle Network's 2012 Sarton Memoir Winner, Monica Wood

Lisa: Your memoir, When We Were the Kennedys,  tells the story of your father’s sudden and unexpected death of a heart attack and how your family experienced that staggering event. How were able to write about such a painful time?
Monica:  Oh, but the writing was the opposite of painful! I loved being “back home,” even in the fraught year I was revisiting. I have such wonderful memories of my childhood, and my family at that time. Being with them again was a balm to my soul.

Lisa: Who were you thinking of as you wrote?

Monica: My audience for this book, for the first time in forever, was me. Just me. I’d hit a rough patch, both professionally and personally, and I was writing for comfort and consolation, not for publication. It was the most joyful writing I’d done in years.

Lisa: Your memoir is full of your early experiences with the love of words and books and stories. You describe in great detail the reams of beautiful paper that your father brought home from his job at the paper mill and the hours and hours you and your siblings spent filling the pages with drawings and stories.

Monica: Well, I come from Irish stock, and a love of words is in the DNA. Everyone in my family tells a great story. I do wonder, though, if being from a paper-mill town might have nudged me along the writing path. I love paper: I love its smell, its feel, its possibilities. Unlike a lot of writers, a blank page fills me with joy, not dread.

Lisa: Let’s talk a bit about those great family stories. What makes them so powerful?

Monica: I teach memoir writing now, and I don't think I'll ever go back to teaching fiction. I've seen first hand the power of speaking stories aloud, of simply putting on paper the tragic or ordinary or quirky or mundane. I teach in a women's prison and I see every week how their stories not only make them reflect on who they are, but how their stories connect them to one another in a place where human connection can be really risky.

Lisa: What else did you learn from doing the book?

Monica:  I learned that I have one memoir in me. I learned that voice is the key element in memoir. I learned that my skills as a novelist served me well in writing nonfiction.  And I learned that every particular family story is universal.

You can learn more about Monica Wood on her website:

“The Catholic tradition of my childhood—which I recall with affection, some awe, and a measure of yearning—did not allow for randomness. Every word and deed, every sorrow and triumph, every birth and death belonged to a Divine Plan. If at times you thought this Plan unreasonable, senseless, or just plain mean, you were asked to trust that even the most extreme sorrow had to be a blessing in disguise. Almost everything essential came to you in disguise.” P. 160

“We listen, all three, absorbing the sound as children from the coast might absorb the tidal sighing of a nearby sea, an ebb and flow so enduring that after a time the sound appears to be coming from within your own unsuspecting self. It’s been a long seven months, April to November, a tender time bracketed by death. A father, a president; the one grieved only by us, the other by a whole spacious-sky, purple-mountains-majesty, grain-waving country. I listen, with my sisters, in a kind of stupefied surrender, as the mill’s enduring breath smoothes over us, inhale, exhale.” P. 198


Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: When We Were the Kennedys

Monica Wood is the author of four works of fiction, most recently Any Bitter Thing, which spent twenty-one weeks on the American Booksellers Association extended best-seller list and was named a Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie’s Ark, Secret Language, and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award. Her moving memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, is the winner of the Story Circle Network's 2012 Sarton Memoir Award.


“Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in every family, that story—with its implied happy ending—hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad. Then he died.”


Monica Wood’s writing is simply luminous as she magically conjures up a lost place and time — a small industrial Eastern town on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. The story of her father's sudden shattering death and her family's attempt to cope with the incomprehensible loss is brought
to vivid life through her precise and poetic prose. Her skill at characterization is so refined that I felt as though I really knew each of them personally: her no-nonsense little sister, Cathy; her solid, dependable big sister Anne; her forever-young handicapped sister Betty; her overwhelmed and anxious mother and heart-broken Catholic Priest uncle, "Father Bob;" her sometimes incomprehensible Lithuanian landlords the Norkuses and, of course, her beloved dad. Wood’s story begins the morning of her father’s death of sudden cardiac arrest on the way to his job at the local paper mill. Told through the perspective of her fourth-grade self we experience her shock as she struggles to understand what the loss will mean for herself, her mother and her siblings. Her poignant realization that anyone can be taken from us at any time is painfully raw and moving. Through her eyes we watch her family's sometimes incomprehensible response to grief, her mother, a widow, standing still and alone in a dark room, unable to return to her empty bed; her beloved uncle’s hidden alcoholism and brief institutionalization. “We were an ordinary family;” she writes, “a mill family, not the stuff of opera. And yet…my memory of that day reverberates down the decades as something close to music. Emotion, sensation, intuition. I see the day—or chips and bits, as if looking through a kaleidoscope—but I also hear it, a faraway composition in the melodious language of grief….” (p. 7) We watch as young Monica escapes her grief by delving into the world of Little Women and Nancy Drew and attempts to write her own novel poignantly titled The Mystery of the Missing Man. Here is a child in love with words, who copies them over and over on the beautifully made paper her father had brought home from the mill. Here is a child with the keen observational skills of the gifted author she will become.
This is an excerpt from a review that first appeared in the Story Circle Journal and on the Story Circle Book Review Site. To read more visit:



Monday, September 2, 2013

In Honor of Labor Day: What I Like About Weekends, Weekdays and a Little About the Sabbath

Being a piano teacher means most of my home is a public space. My living room connects to the dining room where my piano is located, and all that separates the dining room from the kitchen is a counter. In other words, my students and their parents can see almost the entire house except the bedrooms and the master bath. They have access to the other bathroom off the hallway.

Consequently, on teaching days, most of my house needs to be immaculate. I dust the living room and dining room, completely clean the kitchen and "guest" bath, vacuum and if I have time, sweep the sidewalk and porch leading to my front door. With the labor day weekend, I get a little break from the "my house must look perfect" compulsion.

With that in mind, and in honor of the Labor Day holiday, I thought I would write another list like the one I did about "how I know it's summer." So here, in no particular order, is a list of what I like about weekends. To keep a balanced perspective I followed it with, "what I like about weekdays."

What I like about weekends:
I can allow books and coffee mugs and knitting projects to accumulate on the living room tables.
If there are a couple of balls of dog fur fluff on the carpet, I don't need to panic.
If my husband leaves out his shaving cream and my daughter's toothpaste globs are congealing in the sink, I can ignore them.
I can wear my sweat pants or baggy jeans and a stained t-shirt with socks and flip flops if I want to.
It's OK if there are dirty dishes all over the kitchen counter.
I don't have to set the alarm clock.
I can stay up late and watch a movie.
There are people in my house to share the chores and to have fun with and talk to.

What I like about weekdays:
There are no people in my house; it's quiet and I can get work done.
Things don't get very messy because I have to stay on top of it.
Afterwards I get to read, play piano or work in a nice, tidy, comfortable space.
I get to do things my way.
I get to dress up and put on makeup which is creative and fun.
I have to get up to get my daughter off to school, so the day is longer and I get more accomplished.
I get to do work I'm passionate about and which is rewarding, interesting and even fun.
I miss my family, so appreciate them more when we sit down to dinner and talk about our days.

When all is said and done, what I really like is the switch from one mode to the other, from workday to rest day, like the change of seasons. Maybe that whole Sabbath idea is a good one. I like the idea of the Creator resting after six (or five) days of making something intricate and awe-inspiringly beautiful.