Like most of us living in the ever-expansive pandemic lands, I’m looking toward a pocket-size gathering of just our household and our sister-in-law (part of our posse and pod) with the windows cracked open, chairs set far apart, and masks on when not eating. Two out of our three kiddos will be Zooming in, and we’ll likely call other family, including my sisters having a bigger outside gathering because they don’t live in a place that hosts winter.
It’s an odd sensation to be planning a meal for so few. While my sister-in-law is doing the heavy lifting of heavy carbs (stuffing, mashed potatoes, dessert, and oh yeah, the turkey and gravy), and my son is baking the rolls, we’re all about the fruit and vegetables here. We seem to be mainly about cranberries though. I bought four bags of them, figuring we might as well have twice what we need for Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish (oh, the wonders of mixing sour cream, onions, horseradish, and cranberries). Then Ken, thinking we had forgotten the cranberries, bought a whole bunch more. In the end, we probably have 32 ounces of cranberries per person, so they’ll likely be cranberries in the carrot salad, cranberry muffins, cranberry stir-fries, and other ways to use these tart little bursts.
Then again, when I think about it, the cranberry might be the perfect fruit for the resilience and adaptability we need for 2020. They usually need to be sweetened to taste good, but they fare well frozen, fresh, dried, or tossed into an infinite amount of recipes. They also call on us to be more imaginative and adventurous while tending the home fires (or stovetop or oven). They also bring together, in one small bite, the sweet, tart, tangy, bitter, and surprising taste of time.
Which leads me back to this time when all these holidays and traditions we do alone or with our laptops at the table, will next year (I hope and pray) seem so outrageously rare. What will it be like to look back on 2020 Passovers, Easters, July Fourths, Thanksgivings, and all those fabled December holidays as the great exception to the rule, the big rock in the river of our lives that we paddled around, the deviation to the norm? At the same time, like biting into an unexpected cranberry, this time is the strange episode that makes us see the story behind and ahead of us with new eyes that can take in a wider vista of gratitude.
Shay and I sit on the porch, exhaling. It has been a week, a year, and a close-to-four year thing. There’s still so much wrong with our country, Covid cases are rising daily to proportions of great anguish, millions of people voted for someone who denies reality (the pandemic, climate change, etc.) and the rights and dignity of so many humans, and untold beings suffer.
So much is too much or not enough, especially over this week when I’ve been hitting the GABA (to help me calm the $%#% down), the Pepto Bismal, and the pillow only to wake up anxious or excited at irregular intervals. I’ve done more math, including all sorts of contortions with percentages and adding very big numbers, in the past three days than I have in the last decade. There have been many hopeful or freaking out phone calls punctuated by big bouts of googling various angles of the same question. Yet in the end it seems certain a good outcome (mostly) will prevail.
Life, as Ken often reminds me, comes point-blank at us, often overfilling our imagined capacity. Then there are pauses, like right now. I sit with my tired brain and finally calm digestive tract, surrounded by the sunlight-filled leaves of the hackberry tree, the loving eyes of our old dog who struggles to walk, and the balmy air of a sweet autumnal day. Once again, I’m so happy and grateful to be here in every possible way.
Suddenly, I’m searching for sweaters, cursing the lack of mittens with me for a walk, and shiver-driving around town for the interminable stretch until the car heater kicks in. But winter is like that: it shows up, uninvited and wearing its heavy steel-tipped boots, then eats the cupboards bare (or was that me?).
Then again, in October, this kind of house guest should be expected to drop in for a few days, make us forget our complaints about heat and chiggers, and sweep out the luminous spiderwebs and sweet songs of crickets. Soon, Thursday actually if the weather prediction is accurate, summer takes back the wheel (highs of 86!) until the next too-soon cold front. There’s no doubt on who will win this back-and-forth autumnal clash.
Still, although it’s inevitable — and given the state of climate change, I’m even grateful for it — it’s still a deal to wake up one day and realize that days of porch-working and -lounging are no longer the mainstay but the rare-and-relished short stretches until sometime in March when the back-and-forthness of the seasons flares out in technicolor again.
The challenging of winter’s not-so-sneaky preview now is all-the-more apparent in pandemic time. For many of us, being outside has been our saving grace, if not among other humans, at least among dogs and dogwoods, distance herons and near-by ornate box turtles, butterflies and butterfly milkweeds. But from what I’m learning — and you may be too — what this means is that we need to bundle up and get our butts outside anyway, walking briskly in the icy air to touch base with the ultimate base of this living, changing world. That’s why I walked with my friend today, and one pandemic benefit is that I had a warm mask to wear when my nose got too cold.
Gaslighting. What a useful word that, when I first heard it, snapped a whole lot of abuse and shaming I suffered into a new and true reality. That’s because gaslighting is manipulating someone into questioning her take on the world, and at its most extreme, her sanity.
The term for this systematic psychological manipulation originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light and was popularized in the 1944 film of the same title (starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten). In Gaslight, a husband convinces his wife that she’s insane, mostly by incremental changes in their home, such as slowly dimming their gas lights while acting as if nothing has changed.
Having grown up with a father who constantly beat into me (by word and by hand) that reality was a land that didn’t include me or I obviously couldn’t even grasp, I grew up sensitized to many manner of experiences that reinforced gaslighting. Being a woman in a patriarchal culture with the added layer of working in academia for 33 years (which, even among spectacular educators and student-centered learning, has plenty of tiny gaslight villages) provided me with lots of grist for the mill.
I’ve been a teenager told her calling to be a poet was a pipe dream. I’ve been a young reporter, activist, non-profit employee, and faculty member told that her ideas were “interesting” with a patronizing chuckle or told I didn’t understand how things are because I was too young, female, naive, sensitive, intense, or other terms was used to put me on the shelf. As I developed new things that did mirror Reality with a capital R — such as Transformative Language Arts, which focuses on learning who we and our communities are through arts-based inquiry and experiential learning — I faced years of academic edition gaslighting, often manifested in men telling me what was and wasn’t real scholarship or the purpose of an education.
How many times have I and so many of us (especially if you’re female, LGTBQ, living with serious illness or disability, a person of color, or low income) sat in rooms where someone *calmly* and *logically* mansplained to us why what we asked or said was irrational, unrealistic, impossible, or just crazy-wrong? How many times have we heard “Let’s not let our emotions run away with us” by someone who was backhoeing in made-up rationale actually based on their emotions and on burying our spirits? How many times have we heard we’re too much or not enough?
Even writing this post, I realize my hands are shaking and my heart is racing because I — like so many of us — have had to endure people in power trying to turn down the gas lights of my own and so many others’ innate power to create, speak our truths, and live authentically. Make no mistake about this: gaslighting is all about power. It’s designed to take away, diminish, or otherwise obliterate our power to believe in ourselves, to speak and act for change, and to feel the full weight of our voices and visions.
Which brings me to why I won’t watch the debates.
The two specimens from the party in office exemplify two sides of the gaslighting coin. One screams, belittles, sabotages, name-calls, changes course in a split-second, and yells some more. The other talks steadily wearing a mask of calm logic completely impenetrable to all reality except for a fly landing on his head. Both divert, obstruct, talk over others, and are obviously convinced that any agreed-upon rules or norms don’t apply to them. They also both use the formula of lie, deny, and repeat multiplied exponentially until they and their followers believe what they say is as solid as bedrock.
I’m not saying the challenging party is perfect, but they are talking some undeniable reality: Yes, climate change is real. Yes, Covid-19 is far more deadly than the flu, and hey, America has 4% of the world population, and over 20% of the cases of this lethal and, if you survive, potentially life-long disease. Yes, people of color are systematically targeted by many police departments, and they die and suffer at much higher rate due to racism, the pandemic, and economic disparities.
I believe that the debates are important in showing us more of what this next election is truly about, and they can be helpful in both mobilizing the base (for both candidates) as well as helping undecided voters decide. But as someone who is a recovering gaslight survivor, I have left and will leave the room each time they’re on, taking long, slow deep breaths, reminding myself that I’m not in any danger at this moment, and opening my heart to all of us who have been told there’s something deeply wrong with who we are and what we know. And I will tell us now and again: you are enough.
Yesterday, we rushed down the driveway to pick up my car from one repair shop to take it to another. But Moxie-dog chased us down the drive, Ken got repeated phone calls interrupting us making plans, and he ended up driving to the wrong place later to get me. Waiting on the sidewalk for him to drive back to the right place, I called my daughter, only to have extraterrestrial screeches disrupt us. By the time we got home an hour later, there were more mishaps involving mistaking a tanning salon for haircut place where Ken needed to drop something off and a lost wrench.
But that’s how life is, isn’t it? It’s usually not one small mishap but a series that snags us. Because this is far from my first pile-of-mishaps rodeo, I told myself it was just one of those elongated stretches of slapstick time when either you yell or laugh. I chose laughter, but I was still pissed off.
What I’ve learned, and I’m sure you have too, is that all of this can and does change on a dime. Take Sunday night, for instance, when I was crazy-angry and exhausted thanks to a jumbo-plate serving of stress noodles with a side of a migraine salad. But a short time later, when I went downstairs to apologize to my son for losing it, everything turned to sweetness and light. Within an hour, we were all watching the great documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, which put everything into much vaster perspective.
For years now, I’ve been trying to remember when good things or bad things pile up that this is what they do. An unexpected check comes in the mail, a long-lost friend sends a love letter, a cat purrs on my chest, and a lovely breeze sweeps through with the scent of summer’s last roses. An hour later, it’s be the opposite. When things are just as I like them, I try to remind myself that this too shall pass as well just as it does when everything’s got to shit.
Some of us are better, and all of us are better at one stretch than another, at riding the waves with a big-picture perspective that everything is in motion, is changing, is getting what we might call worse or better. Then again, life is so much a maybe reality:
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.” “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
Which goes to show that we rarely know what these waves mean or even what we truly want (barring our common desire for sane and compassionate leadership, action to slow down climate change, world peace, and an end to hunger, racism, and other forces that harm us). So what does this mean for an afternoon of crossed wires and frizzled frustrations? Just that life doing its thing, pummeling our idea of how things should be before rolling out to sea to carry us on glimmering waters before the next wave and next dazzlement.
The Days of Awe — the 10 days between Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), it’s time to clean up our act. We reflect on our thoughts and deeds, words and actions over the last year which may have hurt others, then reach out to the injured party to apologize and make amends. Based on the premise that only we can fix our own human messes, this stretch of time calls us toward self-reflection and right action.
I speak of “we” here even if, dear reader, you’re not Jewish because I’m thinking that 1) we all could use all the new years we can observe at this point, and 2) in a year when so much is beyond our control (a pandemic, climate change, systemic racism, and escalating polarization between people), it’s helpful to consider what we can do. We can look at our own participation in and perpetuation of what hurts each other (humans and other species) and the earth, consider what small step or few words might help, and step up to do some good.
It also feels to me like we’ve been in the Days of Awe since about March 14th when the pandemic shut down life as we knew it and opened up big fears and spaces, possibilities and dangers about how we live. After all, the “awe” part of these days isn’t just what dazzles and pleases but also what shocks and scares. So often over these last six months, I realized how much less I understood than I thought about everything from the pacing of my day to assumptions I made about racism. There’s nothing like living with a mysterious global threat to wake a person up out of her long inscribed and sealed ideas about her life and the world.
But then again, the Days of Awe are also and always about asking to be inscribed (at Rosh Hashana), and then sealed for a good year (Yom Kippur) in the Book of Life. Traditionally, this is a book God reads to judge our actions, but I see it the life we’re writing ourselves into through all we are, do, and know as well as the life force at large. So why not read over the book of life we’ve drafted this last year to see how to make small repairs, big amends, and deep commitments to live boldly and act lovingly? Or as the Talmud says better: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
I wish for all of us to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year, and I leave you with a poem I wrote about all this as you move through your own days and nights of awe and so much more.
Entering the Days of Awe
Let us walk unfettered into these days
unfurling in the sun, wide fields of old grasses
bracketed by sunflowers and pebbles.
Let us step into the lapis sky that fastens itself
to the driveway, the sidewalk, the worn leaves
of dying summer under new leaf fall.
Let us give up the wasteful thinking,
the 2 a.m. anxieties over what cannot be changed,
the waking with a gasp. Let us stand in the morning,
the new chill of the air clearing the disgards of time,
fear, reaching too hard or not enough.
Let the wrongs be made right. Let forgiveness
overtake the words we hear and pray, the stories
we’ve made and tilted. Let us remember this dreaming song
from all our beloveds long gone or just over the bend,
each note engraved with lost lands, singing
of how good it is when we dwell together.
Let the peripheral vision in the days of awe show us
the world, the first seeing of the heart, the last pulse
of those we love who travel with us. Let the wind shake
the trees, the tattered leaves shine, the last butterflies
flash their orange, the first dark blue of night
open into a panorama of past and present light
on its way to us all.
Let the next breath we take inscribe us in the book of life.
Let the next breath you give welcome us home.
~ Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
As the black-eyed susans and sunflowers eking out their blossoms in the dry heat of summer’s end, I’ve been singing the line, “It’s time for a few small repairs,” from Shawn Colvin’s song, “Sunny Came Home” to myself a lot lately. Fifteen months after the tiny potent disk of radiation visited my right eye for five days, I’m in the middle of a lot of post-cancer clean-up, none of which is overwhelming in its parts, but all of which it’s best not to think of all together.
More precisely, I have cataract and scar-tissue-removal surgery coming up on the 16th, and before and after that, I’m seeing a lot of my dentist because, do you know that radiation and other effects of cancer can cause many cavities? I didn’t know this, but I sure do now that I have 20 cavities, a likely root canal or two, and some cap replacement in my future. But here’s the deal: it’s not so much of a deal, not if I make it into one.
This is a moment when all those years of therapy have paid off better than I imagined because I learned that so much of what we whip up to be crazy, overwhelming, and painful isn’t necessarily so (I also have a therapist who calls me on any sentence I begin with “What if…?”). I think the last year especially testified in the voice of millions to us about how little we know of what will happen.
If I were a runner, I might use the analogy of breaking down the repairs into the legs of a marathon, but I’m a writer, so here goes: If I look at the next few months as a short-term writing project, I’m fine. That’s because I’ve learned over the years that it’s always best not to think of the whole book or essay at once, but each line or passage at a time.
Each little repair is a few pages I’m drafting over a few hours. Yup, there are some difficult paragraphs, like the pointed ones involving needles, and there’s also some when-will-this-end stretches of writing ahead as we drill down, sentence by sentence. Mostly though I just have to sit still while drugs are pumped into me (the surgery) or hold my mouth open while watching penguins slapping their feet down to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive” (my dentist thankfully plays old rock songs to nature films). At the end, there’s trimming and polishing, then I’m out of the door, maybe a little tired, but mostly a lot grateful that I got this part of the book drafted.
The thing about a few small repairs is that they’re do-able an in the known category of life as opposed to so much else in the world. I can do my part, but I can’t fix the pandemics of the virus, our country’s and world’s racism, or our planet’s climate change. I can’t control the many people wandering through grocery stores without masks on despite the rules to wear one, or — and why is this always older white guys? — the people defiantly wearing their masks pulled down below their noses. I can’t heal my friends who are suffering through life-changing diagnoses or, months after having the coronavirus, wondering if their lungs will recover their full capacity.
But I can sit relatively still with my mouth or eye open, breathe in and then out slowly for a count of four or more, and thank my lucky stars that I’m not in pain and I’m blessed beyond blessed with community, family, friends, and a wonderful home. Mostly, I can rejoice that I’m still here, and just in time to look at all this late-summer flowers, all being their own kind of small repairs to this world.
A year ago, driving a mountain cabin to Denver to see old friends, we had no idea. It just seemed that life would go on like this with annual vacations 500 or more miles from home, easy forays into restaurants, and being able to enthusiastically hug pals. Yet there’s something heartening in realizing how much can also change for the better in a year, so here’s what I woke up imagining for a year from now.
In August, 2021, it’ll still be hot in northeast Kansas, and I’ll be sitting exactly where I am now: on the porch with the ceiling fan above and the floor fan beside me. When I head into town, I won’t bother to make sure there’s a mask in my purse because, by the dog days of summer ’21, there will be an effective and safe vaccine widely disseminated. I’ll head to the city pool to cool off, and this time, it will be full of water and people (it’s empty of both now). Heading back home, I’ll stop at the Merc, our food co-op, to pick up some sweet corn to grill along with the zucchini and potatoes we just harvested from the garden.
I’ll listen to NPR telling of how President Biden has now, seven months into his term, completely reversing all the previous occupant’s executive orders that diminish and threaten the environment, immigrants, healthcare, small businesses, and so much more. Vice President Kamala Harris will be giving a news conference on how the United States, now firmly back in the Paris Agreement on climate change, is making big headway on the economy through the growing renewables industry. Some familiar voices from the campaign trail of 2020 will pepper the news, including cabinet members Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker or secretary of state Susan Rice, and progressive conscience of the party Bernie Sanders. I’ll delight in the relief I feel when it comes to evolving policy and resources for education, healthcare, police reform, commerce, and so many other aspects of American life. I might even send a note to our new senator Barbara Bollier to thank her for supporting Biden’s initiative to start Medicare for people at age 60.
Back in my kitchen, I’ll marinate vegetables just like I do now as I feel a greater lightness (or perhaps it’s just because I’ll be better rested from not waking at 2 a.m. to worry about things like the post office). While Ken is heating up the grill, some good friends will show up for the first time since B. P. (Before Pandemic) for dinner, bringing some homemade bread with them. I’ll hug them long and tight, all of us laughing in joyful relief. We’ll soon head to our table on the back deck to watch the expanding thunderhead to the southwest. Just before dessert, maybe a peach pie I make with local peaches, the rain will start, and we’ll rush inside, clutching glasses and balancing plates.
Later, just as the sun reaches the horizon, we’ll head out again to find a double rainbow to the east. We’ll stand in the sun shower laughing and pointing to the sky, joking with each other that, sure, the world is still a mess in a million swirling ways, but look at all that happened, that could happen, in a year.
Hours later, I’ll step out on the deck in my nightgown, the soft wind and loud katydids doing their thing, look out at our farm, spread my arms, and say, thank you, thank you, thank you.
I just returned from writing poetry on the porch at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow to write poetry on the porch of our place. Being outside continually jolts me out of my inside-mind with its cast of thousands to make space for other beings who, if we just pay even a small smidgen of attention, will mosey on, fly, charge, or buzz through.
At Dairy Hollow, the most dramatic of these guests — although actually I was the guest in their home — was a young buck, racing about four feet from me on the other side of the porch railing. He was young, strong, handsome, crazy-fast, and once he got past the house, curious. But then I find a lot of the deer and other critters in Eureka Springs all-too-acclimated to humans, pausing easily in their grazing or romping to take us in, shrug their shoulders, and return to the grass or the path. The buck also seemed quite content to engage in a long photo shoot with me and my phone, posing with his perfected aloof-but-handsome gaze.
The next night, a slim fox stopped in her tracks just across the street. “Hello,” I said quietly. She seemed skeptical and slowly merged into the trees nearby. Dozens of brown morpho butterflies — often tinged in their middle with turquoise melting to brown — titled their dark wings on one diagonal or another into the low and high flowers to drink their lunch. There was also a bird I couldn’t see and had never heard before scream-chirping at me at regular intervals, so insistent and so loud that I would leap out of my chair to scan tree tops trying to see where this alarm was coming from. By the time I left Arkansas, much of this menagerie had made its way into the poems I was writing or revising.
Back home, it’s hummingbirds, monarchs, and at night, barred and great horned owls. At dusk, the changing of the guard from cicadas to katydids. Of course, there’s a lot of other wildlife here I try to avoid, namely Mr. Chigger, Ms. Tick and Overlord Timber Rattler. There’s also the somewhat domesticated wildlife — two sofa-like dogs who spread themselves out on the porch while I work, and a small pouncing kitty. At times, it’s a precarious balance; just last month, we lost our beloved big cat Sidney Iowa to what we suspect was an itinerant cougar. The packrats have discovered that their favorite food is it the innards of Ken’s Honda Fit although they also enjoy chewing apart every rat trap he sets for them. So we have to be watchful as well as budget a lot for automotive electric repairs.
In the balance, I know how lucky I am to draft, sketch, compose, revise, re-compose and otherwise inhabit poetry while co-habitating with the critters who live here. They continually nudge me out of my human-centric view of the world and show me the real ground, teaming with all manner of the wild we can’t even see most of the time. Here, even and especially as so many species are going extinct, is where we truly live.
Sometime in my early teens, I discovered Carole King’s Rhymes and Reasons, and like I had done with Joni Mitchell’s Blue (was there ever a more perfect album?”), I listened to it over and over, embedding every nuance of note and syllable in my psyche, especially replaying the lyrical and gorgeously orchestrated “On the First Day of August.”
That song grabbed me from the core of my yearnings and dreams because, more than anything, I wanted someone to love me. To be honest, that was probably my biggest dream of all, even more than holding my first book of poetry in my hands or strolling up to the glittering stage to collect my Oscar (although I had my speech well-rehearsed).
I was a late bloomer when it came to the boyfriend game. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my inability to act like I didn’t care and my propensity to put myself out there like a labrador retriever puppy wiggling on his back didn’t win me dates except for mismatched matchmaking forays with boys so geeky they ignored me to read Dune. My step-sister devoted herself to finding me a date for the senior prom, which turned out to be a disaster, but I appreciate her persistence in asking so many guys. College, on the other hand, was better, but also worse because while everyone seemed up (more or less) for sex, few wanted anything beyond that (which brings to mind another Carole King song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”).
I accumulated little badges of heartbreak like an Eagle Scout, and by the time I was 23, I felt too old for love. Then I hit the jackpot: meeting, getting involved with, marrying, having kiddos with, and now about 38 years since we were introduced, growing old with Ken. Which brings me back to “The First Night of August.”
In some of Ken and my early camping trips, often illegally setting up a tent in some hidden Kansas field or Colorado forest, it seemed we were always sleeping under the stars — aka in sudden storms that soaked us and almost blew away our tents or in the midst of a million mosquitoes with a mission — on the first night of August. Sometimes I would sing this song to him or at least hum it repeatedly in my head. As our camping trips expanded to fly-ridden yurts with three children who were fighting with each other over who wanted most to go home (although they say now they *ahem* loved those trips) or throwing up on each other from altitude sickness), I would still sing that song each August 1st, usually while walking to the car to get more blankets or see if I could find someone’s glasses.
Now — so far away from the days of taking a big vacation without fear and precision-planning, and so long after those toddlers and babies we camped with raced through campgrounds in their underwear — the song returns to me along with August 1st. The piano opening — each note ringing through my upstairs bedroom facing the backyard in Manalapan, New Jersey when I was 14 years gold and crazy-lonely — also rings through this surprisingly refreshing breeze on the porch as I watch the swaying hosta blossoms, the sleeping old dog, and Ken’s car, surely still under attack by packrats (another story). I sing along with King, all these years held in this song holding me:
“On the first day in August/I want to wake up by your side/After sleeping with you on the last night in July/In the morning/We’ll catch the sun rising/And we’ll chase it from the mountains to the bottom of the sea.” Listen to it yourself right here.
Whoever you are, I hope that something — if not someone — holds you in your dreams this first night of August.
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