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Archive for March, 2008

Beverly Beckham at Buttonwoods

Beverly Beckham, columnist for the Boston Globe and writer and advisory board member for Grandparents.com spoke at Buttonwoods tonight.

She is as warm, sincere and funny in person as she is in her columns. Her humility, generosity and vulnerability show. She is engaging and interested in the thoughts of others. She was the guest speaker but eager to share not only how she became a writer but a column she’s finishing up, showing how she struggles with some pieces, and literally letting the audience witness part of her process.

She welcomed feedback and ideas from the group not needing to know if people were “real” writers, wanting to know how what she had written was received.  She showed she is a real writer, and each piece is new and tender, and we could witness her working her craft and see that even a successful well-known columnist still revises, reworks, struggled with tone and word choice and closure.

She is warm and real and while I share a few gems she shared with the audience I was most wowed by the huge personality packed into her petite frame. Huge as in a strong and distinct presence, a one-of-a-kind human being rather than huge as in loud or arrogant or know-it-all.

She told us she was thirty before she started writing seriously and at the time was a mother with three children and a daughter with an ailing mother. She talked about getting up at 5am and at one time writing three columns a week plus opinion pieces. She said she worked from 5am until noon.

She talked about her first break into newspapers when she wrote about the joy of racquetball. She said she handed in a seven-page piece. She had spent tons of time researching the piece and was told to cut it down. It was informative and also she wanted others to know, “If I can do this anyone can,” feeling about the sport.

She talked about her elation after the column was published. She joked how everyone at the Herald thought she was an athlete and everyone at the gym thought she was a writer. She said it was perfect.

She talked about a trans-formative moment when she had read a passage in a magazine from a book entitled, A New Kind of Country by Dorothy Gillman. It was about a woman in her 50’s who bought a place in Nova Scotia and was discovering who she was. There was a passage (and I’m paraphrasing her paraphrasing) where God asked, “What have you done with the talents I gave you?”

“I was cooking for my husband and sons,” the woman answered (again paraphrasing).”

God’s response was, “When I gave you those gifts you didn’t have a husband and sons.”

She said it was Catholic guilt that got her writing – guilt about not using her gift.  She talked about how much she loves her job but that writing was never an easy profession.  She said she spends hours sometimes laboring over the correct word.

She talked about her husband’s encouragement and how he pushed her and said things like, “You can’t get worse at something you keep doing.”  When she complained about the quality of anther’s column he encouraged her to write her own and submit it to the boss of the writer she was underwhelmed by and how that eventually led her to regular columns.

She also spoke highly of a woman at the Patriot Ledger (wish I had caught her name so I could pay tribute) who didn’t reject her writing but said, “Let me tell you what you did wrong,” and then published the revised piece.

One interesting thing she said she has learned about writing is that the pieces she thinks are best, often aren’t as good as she thinks and the pieces she thinks are bad often aren’t as bad as she thinks. She said that gives her some comfort.

She said the columns she likes to write most are the ones that hit upon universal themes. She said, as a writer, nothing (experience wise) is wasted. She’s not afraid to share her opinions, point of view or worried about being too self-revelatory.  She quoted C.S. Lewis saying, “We write to know that we are not alone.”

It’s hard for me, in my own words to capture her charm. She’s funny and self-deprecating and tells wonderful stories. I’ll continue to be a fan of her writing and insights and columns.

The last Boston Globe column of hers can be read at:

http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/03/23/a_faith_that_falters_is_restored_1206252166/

A brief bio of her is on the grandparents.com site. Here’s the link: http://www.grandparents.com/gp/corp/advisoryboard.html

The home page for grandparents.com is:

http://www.grandparents.com/gp/home/index.html

She really is as good, and I don’t just mean a writer but a person, as she seems to be in her writing.

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A study came out in today’s Globe citing that two things make adults more likely to develop PTSD:

one is an experience of childhood abuse

the second is a gene mutation

The combination is brutal but I’m gonna have to get my hands on the study to untangle what’s really being said.

Here’s a blurb from today’s Globe:

“Researchers found that specific variations in a stress-related gene appeared to be influenced by trauma at a young age – in this case child abuse. That interaction strongly increased the chances for adult survivors of abuse to develop signs of PTSD.

Among adult survivors of severe child abuse, those with the specific gene variations had more than twice as high a score (31) on a scale of post-traumatic stress, compared with those without the variations (13),” and here’s the link to the full text.

http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2008/03/19/study_links_gene_variants_stress_disorder/

Here’s a link to the JAMA abstract. Apparently, it’s adult PTSD being discussed and the development of it partially caused by a childhood trauma abuse history AND a gene. I’m still trying to understand if children abused and without the gene have the same high incidence of PTSD in adulthood after a trauma.

I’m not a doctor but I can’t see if they teased out if the gene was NOT mutated but abuse WAS present and that reduced incidence of PTSD in adults after trauma. Maybe I’m just not understanding this.

In any case, genetics and environment each and together seem to impact adults after trauma. Interesting. I’ll keep reading.

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How Sexy is Writing?

This is a topic our entire writing group tackled. Here is my take. It’s about a time in my life, over 20 years ago, where I was confident, arrogant, vulnerable, young and writing!

How Sexy is Writing? 

I went to elementary school in Boston during the early 70’s. Integration was happening and free meals were part of the education plan. Feeding bellies was as important as feeding minds. It was a huge transition when my mother married up the socioeconomic ladder landing us a home in Harvard, MA. We went to a school where kids of color stood out like shooting stars in a night sky.  

By senior year I was one of the 2% not attending college despite being an honor roll student. Dr. Stocking, my English teacher had a sit-down talk, his bow tie was at eye level. He pressured me to go to college as soon as possible, I’m sure, at the insistence of the administration. But there was no talking cure for me. I couldn’t afford to go. I was a street-smart girl. I had another plan. I had arranged to start an internship at The Harvard Post newspaper the Monday after my graduation.

How sexy is it to have a press pass, cover town meetings and work for the local paper at eighteen? How sexy is desire when appetite is large enough to eat shyness? I had to make scripts for myself before talking on the telephone and would not let anyone in the office hear me speak on the phone. I stored pockets of courage and emptied them as needed, battling my fears directly to discover I could maneuver around them in order to chase my dreams.

 

I was fearful, socially inept and able to hide behind long bangs, glasses, a notebook and a pen. I walked to meetings when I didn’t have a car. I spent hours on short news briefs where I didn’t get a byline. I called hospitals to find out the condition of a man who had crashed in a small plane. I was amazed to get through to the nurses’ station because I was that thing called the press who represented the public’s right to know.

 

 

I learned to wield an exacto knife with precision, cutting away excess paper so that stories, once typeset and waxed could be adhered to what looked like a room of slanted drafting tables. All 16, 20 or 24 pages of the paper would be laid out across the room. There were news stories, an illustration over the editorial, letters, “soft news,” profiles and photos of children at the Apple Blossom Festival.

 

 I was an intern who became a feature writer, reviewer, columnist and reporter. Going back to the status of student would be a demotion. I loved watching the publisher’s baby crawl the floor eating crumbs while her mother talked to the editor.

 

 

The stipend I received was low so I worked a second full-time job to save for college and pay the bills taking line ads over the phone for the classified section of a large regional paper. At the small weekly, I was a woman honing her craft.

 

A full year after graduation, the Class of 1985, my class, started trickling back to town from college. My editor asked if I could cover the next classes’ commencement for the paper. So, with a task and a title this professional was heading to the ceremony of the Class of 1986 with credentials.

          

  I wore a designer blue silk “work” shirt borrowed from my mother. It had thick gold buttons and cuffed arms hugging my wrists tight, a tailored skirt with a slit, professional but sexy four inch heals that brought me to a stunning six feet. My long brown hair was up, tight, held by a pen and long curled tendrils fell down, softening my face. I was a knockout with a notebook.

I was the press, a reporter, an adult with a job, story and assignment. I drove to the graduation in a yellow Datsun to the parking lot, pulled out my purse, pen and notebook and headed to the gym. I was a little late and a lot excited. I waved to old friends, too busy to stop and chat. I envisioned walking through that auditorium like a brainy model on a runway, walking past row after row of peers on bleacher seats as I headed to the front row reserved for the superintendent, the principal, the selectmen, fire and police chiefs and of course, the press.

Only three stairs stood between me and my fantasy. I caught my heel on the first one. I fell hard breaking one, cutting a leg which left a blood trail down my shredded nylons. The pinstriped tight slit skirt became slutty as the rip reached up my thigh. The top button of the shirt didn’t survive the fall which was unfortunate as the new low cut revealed a filthy old bra so large it could have doubled as a life jacket or bullet-proof vest.

I didn’t have time to take the nylons off, to remove the blood from my scratched leg and so I entered the auditorium looking like a polio survivor, one leg shorter than the next, hobbling. My hair was disheveled and I was holding the back of my shirt to keep it from revealing my bra and my inability to escape my poor beginning in life. I was far too dispirited to notice any pain. At least I still had my pen and notebook. Disheveled, dirty, hobbling and trying too hard – that was me. I could almost hear a thousand people sigh collectively and whisper, “She hasn’t changed a bit.”

 

How sexy is writing? Sexy enough that I knew, at nineteen, that I couldn’t go home or ask someone to fill in for me. There was a story, a deadline and a reporter on duty. I knew where I had to be and took my seat in the front row. As soon as my pen hit the paper, I was her, the capable girl, the smart one, dedicated and writing.

 

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Here’s the scene. Three five-year-olds sitting at the dining room table. Two are sucking on Fudgesicles and one is scraping the top of the frozen apple sauce. The one with the frozen apple sauce would be mine and she asks me to pull back the aluminum top.

“There you go baby,” and her friends laugh and smile.

“She’s not a baby,” one of them says.

“I know, but she’ll always be my baby,” I say.

My daughter says, “She says I’ll be her baby even when I’m forty.”

Kai’s friend, D, joins in, “My mother says she’ll love me even when I’m dead.” Silence. “Or when she’s dead.” Silence.

“She’ll always love you, huh?” I say as though what she said was as common as passing the salt. Then I remember, her mother is a Buddhist and so is she.

“Some people, like Buddhists, believe when you die you come back to live again in another form.”

“I’m a Buddhist,” D, jumps in.

“Some people believe when you die you go to heaven.” I add because I know A. has been baptized and has talked about God and heaven and I don’t want her to feel excluded. She’s just taking it all in, half listening and half eating.

“We’re Unitarian,” I say, but the truth is, K, has only gone to a few services at the Unitarian church geared towards her. And while my husband and I married at a Unitarian Church and have tried to find other churches, and quit the UU way, we’ve been as successful as most smokers. We say we want something more direct, specific, grounded. Well, my daughter is five and I was still church and faith shopping. So, me trying to spare her a search and help her feel grounded in the wider world is not working well if she’s got nothing but saying a “I hope they are o.k.” wish when we pass an ambulance.

I finally decided that though I meditate, though in many ways I live like a Buddhist who doesn’t eat meat because it’s animals (and haven’t for 27 years now), and believe in taking bugs outside when they come in, and believe in non-violence (almost always), I also pray. I’m a wanna-be-Buddhist and a Just-in-case Catholic. My mother got us baptized “just in case” and that God concept snuck in pretty well as I’ve never been able to shake the concept.

Anyhow, what I finally realized is that I can be this kooky searching seeker, always restless and sometimes praying and sometimes meditating AT the Unitarian Church.

What is important is the shared values of community, and not just the town, or friends, but ALL people, and yes, needy people in the town and in the city and in other countries. The social activism appeals to me. The place to share “joys and concerns,” and the rallying to support causes and people. But also, the way of looking at the world and the people in it as interconnected.

One friend has a spouse who calls the UU Church the “Church of anything goes.” I take no offense. In some ways, it’s what I love. My husband used to joke it’s the only church where you worry a little about being offensive if you say “God” in the wrong context or company.

But they have poetry memorization as a way of stilling the soul and centering, and meditating, and lessons about the bible and buddhism. They have places where children are treated as humans at various stages of development and a warmth and openness that I feel when I am at a service or with the people volunteering with the kids.

I admit sometimes I want to be lectured to by someone convincing who can tell me how to be and live so I know exactly what to do as though there are some rules to life and living and if I’m “good” and “right” my family might be spared disease or tragedy.

But I’m old enough now to know that community is sometimes the only answer, the only psalm, the answered prayer and that the meditations done at the beach or in a community of a few hundred coming to give or get something or simply acknowledge the soul is grounding. I wake up with arguments on my mind. Questioning is a part of who I am and that’s not changed in all these decades I am just finding people, places and pockets of my own self where it is an acceptable way to be.

I want my daughter to know that the world is bigger than our home, our family, our street and our town. There are many ways to be, many different types of people and various role models. Home can feel like the whole world. School can feel like the whole worls. Safe other places, outside of home and school, are essential.  

But back to the dining room table. After I say, “We’re Unitarians,” my daughter stops and looks at me. “Me too?”
“Yes,” I say.

“But I thought I was Chinese,” she said.

Well, it’s not the most diverse religious group but I don’t think that was the commentary she was making. I did explain that she can be both Chinese and Unitarian and D could be both Buddhist and Hispanic and A could be Christian or Protestant and Caucasian.

I love little minds. So smart. So direct. So curious. And I am glad to be getting into the routine of being connected with the Unitarian Church within my own self. When I said, “We’re Unitarian,” I didn’t stumble or mutter or say, “I think,” or “for now,” but felt at home with the words, the concept and all that it means.

I just love kids! That too can never be said often enough and is easy to forget when exasperated, but I just love them and how they think and express.

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A friend sent me a great article about writing. To read it all, go to www.hollylisle.com it entitled, “Ten Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice.”
Here are a few gems:

“Style is watching your use of adjectives and doing a few flashy things with alliteration. Style without voice is hollow. Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.”

“You cannot be a snob — don’t write off any genre or type of book as being without redeeming qualities or lessons to teach you. The more you read, the more you will acquire a visceral instinct about what works for you, and an equally compelling instinct for what doesn’t.”

“If your heart is beating fast and your palms are sweating and your mouth is dry, you’re writing from the part of yourself that has something to say that will be worth hearing. Persevere. I’ve never written anything that I’ve really loved that didn’t have me, during many portions of the manuscript, on the edge of my seat from nerves, certain that I couldn’t carry off what I was trying to do, certain that if I did I would so embarass myself that I’d never be able to show my face in public again – and I kept writing anyway.”

I’ve never read a word of this woman’s work. But now, I will. For the URL bringing you right to the article, go to:  http://hollylisle.com/fm/articles/wc1-6.html

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