Tag Archives: shelter cats in Phoenix

Memoir Writing Lesson #9: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Tell me about a time you washed the dishes. 10 minutes, go:

Until I read Thich Nhat Hanh, the only big events that involved washing dishes were the holiday dinners where the kids wash the dishes for me. I put the good china and silver away, after they scrub and dry them. But when I discovered The Miracle of Mindfulness I saw the daily routine of dishwashing as something more than one more chore to check off my daily list. He teaches that when I wash the dishes, I need to wash them in order to wash them. Period. I need to be in the present and feel the soapy water on my skin, the temperature of that water, and the adhering crumbs of food under my fingertips. I need to experience the slippery surface of the plate when it comes clean and watch the clear water rinsing off the dirty, seeing it come down in little rivulets. In short, I need to become “one” with the experience.  When I wash the dishes this way, I am part of the little sink area, the double stainless basins, the graceful chrome faucet, Planet detergent, foaming handsoap, and the big window–unblocked by curtains or shades–that opens out on the green of our trees, the oleanders and bougainvillea, the flagstone walkway, and the little brown fountain. In the morning, the big gecko performs his pushups and suns himself directly in front. In the summer, hummingbirds fly up to greet me.  In the evening, I can better focus on the washing itself without being distracted by the “moment” of the gecko, the hummingbird, or the buds and seedpods hanging from branches.

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What a difficult one. You know how when you park your car in the same lot you park all the time you can’t find it because you can’t remember where it is? That’s because all those times have blended together–and it’s hard to isolate that one time today you parked it. Same thing with washing dishes. I wash them almost every day!

But I’ve written about dishwashing twice before, both related to the concept of mindfulness. The first post was on January 19, 2013, and the second was almost exactly two years later, on the anniversary of my mother-in-law’s birth, January 29, 2015–right when my father was so sick and we didn’t yet realize he was dying. So while I didn’t focus on one time I washed the dishes (oh, there was that time I cut myself in the water and turned it red), at least I wrote about dishwashing.

So was what I did good for memoir? The general rule is to write the specific event. The one time something happened. If it happened a zillion times, choose one time and write it that way and have it represent all the times it happened. I didn’t do this here. The assignment I give myself is to go back and re-write the above into a single occurrence.

Is there a place for this overlay of experiences in memoir?

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Write about a time you washed the dishes.

My dear Kana

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Memoir Writing Lesson #8: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Write for 10 minutes about Jell-O. Go.

In my mother’s grocery cart I was used to seeing a few boxes of Jell-O, along with Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and Chef Boyardee ravioli, which my mother pronounced raviolah and the neighbors called raviolee. For years I didn’t question why Jell-O was one of the main food groups. Meat, potatoes, vegetable from a freezer box, store bought dinner roll, and of course, Jell-O. That’s what we ate too often for my taste. Jell-O was a suitable dish for church potlucks. And when it came time to bring dishes to Grandma’s for holidays, Mom or one of my aunts had to bring the Jell-O: two-sided, one cherry and one orange; mint-green made with the lime-flavored mix and cream cheese; or a plain color with mandarin orange segments or canned fruit cocktail floating like thumbs and pinkie toes in formaldehyde. Jell-O was tolerable when other parts of the meal weren’t: lima beans, beets, and brussel sprouts. Then Anique moved in across the street. She wasn’t part of the family. They had six kids, all under the age of ten, and I babysat for those kids. When Anique arrived as an exchange student from France (although she was German with a German last name—the W like a V), I no longer had to babysit, but walked across the street to see her anyway. On the day we met, I asked her what surprises she had found so far in America. She didn’t even have to think about her reply. “Jell-O!” She shuddered when she said it. I asked her if they had Jell-O in France. She laughed and told me that French people would never eat anything so disgusting. Although I didn’t really change my opinion of Jell-O—I’d never respected it or even loved it, but it was tolerable on its own (i.e. no floating garbage)—I could see it from her perspective. I no longer took it for granted that Jell-O was a major food group.

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 I realized after I wrote this that the memory of Anique’s words was so vivid to me because it was a defining moment: I no longer had to see the world through the eyes of my family.

Go ahead and try it. Write about Jell-O for 10!

We always have black kittens and cats available at the shelter–except around Halloween when they are not up for adoption.

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Memoir Writing Lesson #7: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Write about coffee.

Ten minutes on coffee? Goldberg figures everybody drinks it, or if they don’t, they stopped for some reason. But I have never had a cup of coffee. I don’t know why. When I was a kid my mother’s two younger siblings, my aunt and my uncle, didn’t drink coffee either. All three of us liked ice cream, and we all preferred it with baby spoons so we could stir it up with Hershey’s chocolate and then mince our way through it with those tiny spoonheads. But coffee? No. My dad was a big coffee drinker. He never drank water, but drank coffee instead. His blood must have been part coffee. My mother also drank coffee, but a human quantity (unlike Dad). Whenever Dad wanted to rest from his relentless expression of hyperactivity, he’d hold out an empty coffee cup and ask my mother to pour him some coffee. I never liked the smell of coffee, a smell I associated with an odor of garbage, something that is over and done with, discarded. Like cigarette butts. Empty cups and overflowing ashtrays. On road trips with my parents, we had to stop for “a cup of coffee.” It was never for a Coke or a burger or a snack. But a cup of coffee. And my father took that quite literally, ordering himself coffee. When I was young, it was coffee with cream. When I got a little older, he drank it black. Until the year he died, my father drank coffee at 11PM every night, just before bed. By the time mom climbed into bed after him he would be asleep. That last cup never kept him awake. Maybe my father’s relationship with coffee had something to do with his undiagnosed (except by me and, later, my father himself) ADHD.

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Go ahead and try it. Start here: Write about coffee.

Simon who lived at the shelter and just went to his own home!

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Memoir Writing Lesson #6: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

“Name three times when it came to you clearly that you wanted to write a memoir. Go. Ten minutes.”

Just after we moved to Phoenix, the gardener handed me a piece of junk mail and asked if I wanted it. The brochure from Gotham Writers Workshop offered online courses. Since I work at home (now that I’m retired from teaching) for our business, an online course appealed to me because I could fit it in “whenever.” When I looked at the genres, I suddenly knew I wanted to study memoir writing. I had an unfinished story that I’d inherited, so to speak, and I wanted to be able to share it. Maybe I wanted to be able to monkey around with it, try to figure things out. Maybe I wanted to solve the mystery and air the secrets. If only I knew them. I’d already studied poetry and fiction years ago when I got my MFA. Creative nonfiction barely existed in those days–and our program didn’t offer them. I wasn’t smart enough to think about memoir as a vehicle for my story in those days, although I tried over and over with poetry. Most of those attempts fell flat. So I signed up for my first memoir course.

Another time I knew I wanted to write a memoir was when my father did something that upset me very very much. I was middle-aged and he was treating me as if I was a kid. And as if I was wrong. When he was irrational and vindictive. Rather than talking to me, he mailed me a letter. When I got it, I was so upset I picked up the phone. Luckily (not) for my mother, she answered it and got my wrath dumped on her. After a conversation where she tried to defend my father as I accused, I finally had enough and said, “This is why I’m writing a book!” While my comment was as vindictive as my father so often was, I don’t think my intent was: I needed a place to vent and sort out the insanity of what I’d been put through for so many years.

The third time I clearly realized how it important it was that I write and finish my memoir was when my father died. While he was dying, we talked every single day. It wasn’t all small talk. My father was compelled to talk to me about the past and our relationship. He apologized. He explained. He told me things I didn’t know–about himself and about me. I finally had the ending for my story, and I also had the reason others would want to read it because it became a story of forgiveness as much as a story of survival.

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I find some of the structure of Goldberg’s sections amusing. After naming this exercise, she goes off on a tangent of how important it is to find writing friends (thank you thank you for my writer friends–I love you!) and going to readings (and similar writing or writer-based activities).  I’m not sure how that subject connects with the prompt, but I think the prompt is important because knowing what made you want to write a memoir helps you to find your (true) story.

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Name three times . . . .

Moe is one of two long-haired feral brothers living in the roaming room at Home Fur Good in Phoenix. They are doing well at getting socialized. Moe’s brother Maverick is perhaps more social than Moe. His fur is darker in tone, and he is a bit bigger than Moe. But Moe is the one who wanted to pose for my iPhone. Gorgeous boys, they need to be adopted together.

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Return to the Nest

My father passed away two weeks ago. That is when the hummingbird returned to her nest with the intention of starting  a new family. She did lay two more eggs before I traveled to Michigan for my father’s funeral and to spend time with my mother. When I returned this week, she was still on her nest. I am awaiting the new babies.

hummingbird's returnMany times I’ve read stories where a bird visits when a parent dies. I can’t help but wonder if there is a connection here.

The funeral was good. Many people spoke about my father, and my daughter sang “At Last” (the song popularized by Etta James). A military ceremony was held at the National Cemetery. The flag that draped his casket was given to my mother. My uncle put it in a hand-crafted flag case (made halfway by my father and then finished by a friend of his) and then my brother added the casings from the gunshots fired during the ceremony.

The days that followed the funeral I organized my mother’s basement, particularly the family photographs that were strewn throughout. I discovered 150 photo albums and collected loose photos into two cartons, in addition. Hubby bought my mother hanging plants and a rose bush and replanted an indoor plant for her. He taught her how to take care of them. He fixed her front door and her toilet.

I feel very far away from writing now. But hubby and I did make it to the shelter last night for the kitties. It had been too long. We have a new mom and her five babies. Her name is Galaxy as she is all black–and so are all five babies. If I had named her I might have called her Dionne after the famous quintuplets.

Galaxy and her kittens

We have a lot of all black cats right now. If you’re in the Phoenix area, think of how much one of these little guys could add to your home. We have Nakana, Milo, Ebony . . . .

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Please excuse me if I’m slow to get back to blogging. I hope to be fully back next week! xoxo

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