Thursday, October 28, 2021

Been There Voices: Joyce Wycoff - Gratitude for Life, a journey into journaling


When I was 10, someone gave me a 5-year journal and I fell into enchantment with the idea of writing my life. One likely ending of that not uncommon story is: here I am going on seven decades later with a trunk brimming over with journals filled with life stories and transitions. 

It didn’t quite happen that way.

My journal was green with a nubby leather-like cover and a cute lock with a tiny brass key. It was all mine and I was going to write my secrets on its endless pages. It didn’t take long to find the fly in that inviting dream. All my secrets revolved around my troubled relationship with my mother and there was no way that tiny lock was going to keep her from reading what I wrote. That was a path leading directly to disaster.

My solution: a code. The problem: I couldn’t remember the code and was afraid to write it down somewhere. I should make it clear: my mother was not an ogre but she did have red hair and the temper to match. My best strategy was to stay out of her way so I escaped into books and left the idea of keeping a journal behind.

However, two seeds had been planted … one grew quickly; one barely sprouted. The first seed grew into a magical cloak of many colors that let me blend in with any group. I became a young yogi, able to twist my body, mind, and spirit into a thousand forms, seamlessly fitting into the groups around me. Only my feelings wouldn’t conform, so they were put into a dark corner where they wouldn’t cause problems. The second seed went into that corner also, languishing but never quite dying.

Decades pass. I marry, divorce, marry again and become a widow. The dream of becoming a writer … about someone else’s life … flickers wildly, always meeting rejection. Journals reappear, collaged pages with abstract words but no context, hinting at possibilities with muted whisperings of an inner life. Most pages remained unblemished while glittery covers suggested a richness unfulfilled.

Grief does what yearning couldn’t. A siege of losses breaks me open and art walks in, speaking in a language I feel but can’t articulate. Behind it rolls a tsunami of words pulled to the shore of my deserted island of self.

Poetry begins bubbling up in the strangest places. Memoir acts as if it has a story to tell. I seem to be a passenger on a bus going somewhere but no one tells me where. 

I think maybe I’m supposed to be a poet so I apply to an MFA program. Rejection. I apply to the most prestigious writers’ conference on the west coast. Rejection again … four times again. 

I start my own newsletter and for eight years, no rejections. I write about outside things, useful things … corporate culture, innovation, creativity … while a cauldron of ghosts and eyes of newt bubbles away deep in the forest. 

I flee to Mexico, thinking to flood myself with a new culture. In spite of the color, the stories, the exciting vitality of Mexico, I don’t find myself. 

I return home not knowing why. However, words and images begin to pour themselves into little books, books only I will publish, books only a few will read. But, there I am, growing more visible on the page, taking that tiny second seed out of the dark corner, watching it stretch toward the light.

For a writer, I’m told, success is being published, ideally by a big name publisher with a big advance. For an artist, I’m told, success is having canvasses snatched up by eager clients and showing in a gallery whose spacious walls are devoted to one or two stunning masterpieces. 

All of that would be nice. However, for me, a different yard-stick of success is emerging.



When I was in the fourth grade, Charlene Storm was the princess. Thin, beautiful, and creative, she wrote plays the four of us girls in the fourth grade (country school) would act out during recess. I wanted to write a play. So, I did and submitted it to Charlene. She was gracious about telling me that she couldn’t read my writing, which, at the time, was a tiny, unreadable mess. 

(Aside: the only “C” I got in school was in “writing” which was what school called penmanship. I have to wonder if that was a factor in a life-time of trying to be a writer and considering myself mediocre, a c-level writer.)

I think back to that first rejection often and wonder why I didn’t just rewrite my play more legibly and resubmit it. Instead I ate that judgment, that platter of rejection, and let it become part of my core belief about myself. I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t good enough. That role was reserved for pretty girls whose waist bands never crumpled and whose petticoats never slumped bedraggled below their poodle skirts.

It has been a long, slow journey but I now know I am a writer … because I write; and know I am an artist because I make art. I am successful at both of those things because they come from my inner core; they are reflections of who I am. That is success enough. Rejection is just a puff of fog that I walk through on my way to the next writing, the next piece of art.



That ten-year-old child with her unused 5-year journal could not have imagined where we would wind up, the adventures we would have, the growing pile of writings and art with my name on them, regardless of their recognition by the world of judgment and fame.

And, that unloved seedling of creativity is now out of its dark corner, flourishing as I step into another aspect of myself. I have now become a maker of journals. 

Five years ago, I created a gratitude journal and am now remaking it with a dear friend. This morning, it called to me, inviting me to walk into a shadowy part of my journey as I explore  questions to help me and others explore our own selves and our journey in this "one, wild and precious life."

For all of this, I am truly grateful.




Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Been There Voices: Becky Ripley - One thing my mother said to me

Here’s  Mom, me, and my sister—prepping for a family holiday meal.

The one thing my mother said most often was, “Here, you must be hungry.” The older she got, the more she wanted to feed us from the moment we walked in the door until we left a week later. Before dementia, Mom was an exceptional cook and baker. Food was her language of love. Lots of love.  

A few years ago, I was on an early morning coaching call in my parents’ home office. Mom tiptoed in with a plate of fruit and banana bread and a cup of tea, stage whispering, “I thought you might be hungry.” So dear, albeit so distracting.

 

I shared the following food story during the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral. “I happened to be home for a visit when iconic basketball coach Bobby Knight arrived, hoping to recruit my much younger brother Rod to play for Indiana. Knight got to the house about 8 in the morning as scheduled — just as Mom was pulling a pan of homemade sweet rolls out of the oven. I think Bobby fell a little in love with Mom that day; her warm welcome and delicious baked goods made such an impression that he sent her Indiana sports attire long after Rod declined his offer to be a Hoosier.”

 

All of my friends and family would agree that I didn’t fall far from the feeding tree. I, too, speak the language of love via bodily sustenance. No one has ever left our house hungry.

 

I regularly express gratitude to my dear mother for my culinary talents, my efficiency, her unconditional love, and so much more. Rest in peace, Mom, and thank you.


** Becky RipleyColumbia, MD, lover of life and card making

Click here for more about Becky and other Been There Voices  

________________________________________________________

Been There Voices is about us, our lives, our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows, our lessons and our gradual, hard-won wisdom. We have survived and thrived throughout whatever has come our way.

The reasons are arbitrary and not intended to dismiss half of our population, however, this project focuses on the stories of women, and begins with fourteen women, well-polished grains of sand on the beach of life, tumbled by the waves of time until their light shines through, offering their stories, joys and sorrows, to the ocean of wisdom.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Been There Voices: Anita Perez Ferguson - Changing Seasons

 


From my morning journal, some thoughts on seasonal change;


A hazy sky draws a veil over the summer past.

Vivid colors withdrawn, gentle breezes subside.


I beckon an autumn mystery

And commence the act of waiting

Inhaling my yearning

Exhaling anticipation.


The season is slow to reveal itself.

October does not withhold my wish.

This year my own vision, now blurred, delays the promise. 

** Anita Perez Ferguson, Santa Barbara, CA, young adult historic fiction author

Click here for more about Anita and other Been There Voices  

________________________________________________________

Been There Voices is about us, our lives, our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows, our lessons and our gradual, hard-won wisdom. We have survived and thrived throughout whatever has come our way.

The reasons are arbitrary and not intended to dismiss half of our population, however, this project focuses on the stories of women, and begins with fourteen women, well-polished grains of sand on the beach of life, tumbled by the waves of time until their light shines through, offering their stories, joys and sorrows, to the ocean of wisdom.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Love Letters to My Life #40: Words that opened a new door

(We know the day we were born, but most of us do not know the day we will die. This love letter to my life is written on the day I've designated as my death day: the 17th of every month, and reminds me to be grateful for my incredible life.)  

 "One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreaming.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance...I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck."

  -- Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek

I think I had just turned 30 when I bought Annie Dillard’s book and read the passage about the tree with lights in it. It threw me into a tailspin. What was she talking about? I read and re-read that passage; copied it into my journal; turned it upside down and backward. Still I was mystified.

Years passed and I kept looking at trees, trying to find the one with lights in it. And, then, there it was in Yosemite. Long-needled Jeffrey pines catching morning sunlight as if plugged into their own solar panels. I rejoiced in my new awareness and spent (and continue to spend) endless attempts to capture those lights with my camera. 

One Christmas as we headed to June Lake for skiing, I was telling the girls about Annie Dillard and her tree when we turned a corner and there it was again. A huge pine completely wrapped in twinkling lights. It made me laugh, but also made me realize that what Annie was talking about wasn’t strings of Christmas lights and wasn’t sunlit needles. 

It was Annie having an enlightened moment, a moment of seeing with new eyes. I was never going to see that particular amazement because it was Annie’s. 

I admit glowing pines still stop me in my tracks; I still yearn for that moment when the world shimmers all my cells into a connected network of wonder and delight.

This yearning feels like the pain of unrequited love, a tightening in my chest, salt-water brimming my eyes, knowing I may never experience that particular grace. I wonder if it would have been better to not know about the trees with lights, to not feel the emptiness of not being able to glimpse that miraculous world shown to others?

And then I think of my life without even the possibility of seeing those light-filled trees and all I can do is be grateful for having a new door cracked opened. That brilliant passage changed me, made me a seeker, lured me into new realms of wonder, opened me up to the beauty that surrounded me.

So, this is my long neglected, but heartfelt thank you to Annie Dillard, a remarkable seer who gave me a gift I’ve spent decades unwrapping. Even if I never have that stunning enlightened moment Annie describes, her words are part of who I am and my life is richer because of her.


Wikipedia on Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:


This is a 1974 nonfiction narrative book by American author Annie Dillard. Told from a first-person point of view, the book details an unnamed narrator's explorations near her home, and various contemplations on nature and life. The title refers to Tinker Creek, which is outside Roanoke in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Dillard began writing Pilgrim in the spring of 1973, using her personal journals as inspiration. Separated into four sections that signify each of the seasons, the narrative takes place over the period of one year.

The book records the narrator's thoughts on solitude, writing, and religion, as well as scientific observations on the flora and fauna she encounters. Touching upon themes of faith, nature, and awareness, Pilgrim is also noted for its study of theodicy and the inherent cruelty of the natural world. The author has described it as a "book of theology", and she rejects the label of nature writer. Dillard considers the story a "single sustained nonfiction narrative", although several chapters have been anthologized separately in magazines and other publications. The book is analogous in design and genre to Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), the subject of Dillard's master's thesis at Hollins College. Critics often compare Dillard to authors from the Transcendentalist  movement; Edward Abbey in particular deemed her Thoreau's "true heir".

Friday, October 15, 2021

Been There Voices: Susan Larson - Longing for one more visit with my mother

 My mother, Evelyn Jean Irvin Bagwell, was born in Arkansas in 1924 and died in MS in 1978. She lived a relatively short fifty-four painful years. She was the last of five children and she was born at home, delivered by a country doctor who was, apparently not very skilled with the use of forceps. This left her with damage that affected her left ear and eye. And a fatal cerebral aneurysm that was silently growing throughout her life.

Her three brothers were all sent to university but she and her sister were expected to marry well. Her bothers and sisters did all marry well but my mother had a “lazy eye” from her forceps delivery and that probably impacted her suitors.


It isn’t so much “what my mother told me” but the strength she showed me living through unspeakable adversity. It is one of life’s tragedies that so many of us don’t fully appreciate our mothers until it is too late. Since I was the eldest of five, Mama often called on me ,“Sister Sue”, for help with something and anyone who is the oldest might recognize the feelings of being called on too often.


Oddly enough, my mother and I had much the same personalities and pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior for the times we were growing up.  Hence, we were often yelling and screaming at each other as I entered my teens. I still cringe at my behavior.


She met my father in Seattle and they married in 1948, from that point on she was constantly pregnant, bearing five unruly children, one a set of twins, and several miscarriages. Not only was he an alcoholic, but he worked in a shipping company and they went on strike several times that I remember and her tiny diamond engagement ring was pawned and returned after each strike was over. In addition to his alcoholism, he was a severe asthmatic and went to a dusty baseball game, came home drunk and died on the couch just before my tenth birthday.


This led to our move to MS to be close to my father’s family because her family was all over the US and she got so little with Social Security, she couldn’t afford to live in a big city. And with five children under the age of ten, she couldn’t work.


Not long after we moved to a tiny town in MS, she began to experience severe headaches and my grandfather came and took her to the University Medical Center where they discovered the inoperable aneurism. It was located on the right side of her skull near the temple area and every time her heart beat, blood would pulse through the vein, sticking her skull, and it finally wore away her skull, then pressing directly on her brain. This left her increasingly paralyzed and within four years her windpipe would not close when she ate, leading to horrific coughing and gagging at meals. Imagine, five little kids terrified and running to get neighbors to help. She went into a nursing home at age fifty, confined to a wheelchair she could push with her one good hand and the only thing she could eat was yogurt. She literally wasted away.


Through all of this, each of her children, except Herbie who committed suicide in 1977, each grew into strong successful people. She never drove or owned a car and my cousin come and picked her up for family gatherings and he told me once, “Aunt Jean always had funny stories to share” as he drove her to and from different things. I never heard her say a mean word about my father and she would often joke “whenever he hung his pants up, I got pregnant.”


I learned from her the value of small gifts. One time she told me a neighbor lady, Ruth Grimes, came in her car and took her around to see the dogwoods in bloom. She talked on and on about how beautiful they were.


By that time I was living in Jackson and each month I would drive up to the nursing home and take her to visit relatives or just drive around the little town where we had lived. She would try to eat something and end up almost choking to death. She always wanted to stop for a beer and managed to drink most of it. I was working for Blue Cross at the time and traveled to hospitals for problem cases and in-services. Whenever I was near the nursing home, I would stop by, all dressed up in my suit and she would just beam while we visited as she would tell everyone we passed “This is my daughter, Susan.” Never mind they all knew who I was.


It was a tradition that she would come to my house for Christmas and spend the night. This was the highlight of her year. On Christmas Eve, 1978, my brother was driving to pick her up and bring her to my house. The attendant got her up to the bathroom and washed her face, getting her back into bed to wait for breakfast. When they went back, she was dead. The doctors had told me that when it burst, it would be like turning off a light. And it was. She was only fifty-four. It is still heartbreaking to me but I know she died happy.


As children we all called her a hypochondriac and thought she was addicted to drugs. We were all sent to live with family members for extended periods of time because she was so frail and could barely feed us. But I remember how cold it was in the winter and we only had a space heater in the dining room. Every morning she would get up and warm our socks, underwear and clothes in front of the space heater before we put them on. She fed us oatmeal before we walked to school because it would “stick to our bones.” We never understood the physical and psychological pain she endured every minute of her adult life ... until it was too late.


Now at seventy-one, I long for one more visit with my mother.


*** Susan Larson, Ajijic, Jalisco, MX, explorer of the edges

Click here for more about Susan and other Been There Voices  

________________________________________________________

Been There Voices is about us, our lives, our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows, our lessons and our gradual, hard-won wisdom. We have survived and thrived throughout whatever has come our way.

The reasons are arbitrary and not intended to dismiss half of our population, however, this project focuses on the stories of women, and begins with fourteen women, well-polished grains of sand on the beach of life, tumbled by the waves of time until their light shines through, offering their stories, joys and sorrows, to the ocean of wisdom.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Been There Voices: Dolores Forsythe - My Mother

My Mother, Opal, was the youngest of eleven children, her father died when she was a toddler and her mother was left on a remote farm in the country to raise her children with no income. Opal and her sister’s dresses and her brother’s shirts were handmade from flour sack material. The manual sewing machine with the foot treadle was a valued possession. There were no “store bought” clothes and the holes in the soles of their shoes were patched with newspaper. During her childhood my mother’s paper dolls were cutouts from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. She told me she would pour over the beautiful dresses in the catalogue and dream of someday having a “real” dress.

At eighteen, when I was two years old, she married my factory assembly line stepfather who already had three daughters. So, as her mother her now electric sewing machine was her salvation. Not only did she make all the clothes for the five of us but she constantly altered hand-me-downs from cousins and even her own dresses for our school clothes. I guess in all those years of studying the Sears catalogue she picked up a few fashion tips and tried to make our dresses more than just functional.

I remember in the ninth grade I was going to a school dance and she made me a pink gingham dress she altered by adding a huge matching fabric bow that draped over one shoulder. She was so proud of it. I was too until I got to the dance and all the other girls had beautiful dresses which were, of course, store bought. Not one boy asked me dance the entire night. I felt like the ugly duckling. I blamed it on the homemade dress.

When I got home, she asked me “Did you look as good as the other girls?” I told her I did. But from then on, I hated hand me downs and homemade dresses.

Happy birthday, Dolores!

-- ** Dolores Forsythe, Coronado, CA, jewelry designer

Click here for more about Dolores and other Been There Voices  

________________________________________________________

Been There Voices is about us, our lives, our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows, our lessons and our gradual, hard-won wisdom. We have survived and thrived throughout whatever has come our way.

The reasons are arbitrary and not intended to dismiss half of our population, however, this project focuses on the stories of women, and begins with fourteen women, well-polished grains of sand on the beach of life, tumbled by the waves of time until their light shines through, offering their stories, joys and sorrows, to the ocean of wisdom.