Q&A #2: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Press clueless as to “whom” should take over . . .

http://callingextra.com/blog/

Calling Extra_NY Times

Recently I received this cry of outrage and a request for clarity from a fellow book lover and avid reader of magazines and newspapers who is dismayed at the state of English usage in the media. A summary of her complaint, and my thoughts, follow. Comments are welcome.


QUESTION

Hi, Pam.

Tell me if I’m wrong to object to the state of English usage in print and online media. I realize that I am either getting old or that I have read so much grammatically incorrect material that I don’t trust my own judgment anymore.

Case in point: I recently read this headline on the front page of the Star-Ledger: “Poll: Clueless as to whom should take over after Christie.”

My reaction when I read this was that when the paper reorganized they must have fired every editor. Did I overreact? I never thought I had trouble with “who” and “whom,” and my gut says “who” is correct because it’s the subject of “should take over.” But, again, the errors that make it into the media these days have become so prevalent that I’m no longer confident.

Obviously, I’m turning into a grump when I read, but I have found a few examples of sentences that are so bad they are incomprehensible. Here is another marvelous example, also from the Star-Ledger: “…the conviction should be reversed because the trial was wrought with errors.” This is a case of a “big word” heard somewhere that was not distinguished from the correct one it sounds like. I have been keeping little notes of these. In yet another example, it seems as if the CNN anchors have a particular predilection for trying to sound educated without knowing what the words they use mean.

Yes, I have become a curmudgeon, and I “hone” right in on the mistakes! (This error is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning—or is it?) Publications today are not only poorly edited, but they may not be edited at all. It seems the Star-Ledger is copying articles from its NJ.com site verbatim to the next day’s print edition—it’s fun to see first thing in the morning that there was flooding in North Jersey this afternoon. No editing is done for the transition to print, and since the material was first hastily prepared for online news, probably none then either. Increasingly, I wonder why should I waste my time reading what these uncaring journalists produce.

At some future date I plan to write a blog rant about examples of why it is no longer a rational idea to tell young readers to peruse news, printed or online, in order to improve vocabulary and grammar. When I went to school and they told us to read newspapers and magazines to improve our English usage, the teachers could never have foreseen that this would become disastrous advice.

But before I make a fool of myself in my own rant, tell me if I’m wrong. Sometimes I am afraid I may be out of touch with the times.

Thanks for your help!

~ M


Leonard Cohen_New Skin for the Old Ceremony
In “Who by Fire,” Leonard Cohen got it right on 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony

ANSWER

Dear ~ M,

Oh, my. You address so many worthwhile examples of deteriorating language usage that it’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with your first example: “who” versus “whom.” You are correct: “who” is the subject of the sentence, the one that “should take over.” Kudos (which, by the way, is a singular noun, not a plural—but I’m sure you knew that) to Leonard Cohen, who got it right in his lyrics to “Who by Fire” from the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony: “And who shall I say is calling?”

The use of the objective pronoun “whom” in place of the subjective “who” is a case of overrefinement, or the incorrect use of grammar or terminology because it seems to “sound better” or “sound right” to the uninformed writer. This is somewhat surprising in the case of “whom,” which sounds almost hopelessly archaic and stilted in most contexts. Yet we have Tony Soprano’s Jersey paper trying (albeit not succeeding) to sound refined!

Another example of misguided overrefinement is, “I feel badly whenever I read a sentence with incorrect grammar or word usage.” No, I don’t—I feel “bad” because “feel” is a statement-of condition-verb and therefore takes an adjective, not an adverb.

You may be interested in reading the lengthy discussion of “who” and “whom” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (which is available online via subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries). Similarly, reading Leonard Cohen’s explanation of his “Who by Fire” lyrics should drive the point home that “who” is subjective. But, briefly, “who” is equivalent to the nominative pronouns “I, he, she,” whereas “whom” is equivalent to the objective pronouns “me, him, her.” But “you” can never go wrong (at least in English grammar) by resorting to “who” in contemporary usage. It’s much better than making an “arse out of oneself” by sounding archaic and overrefined.

As to your other examples, and more significantly your general complaint about the sad state of English-language usage, I can but sigh in commiseration. I understand very well through my brief study of linguistics (and by just being alive) that language does and must change. But “change” is not a synonym for “deteriorate.”

As amazing and wonderful as electronic media are, they make it so easy to create errors and to not care that you’re doing so. Even our smart phones auto-correct—or at least auto-retype, and not always correctly. (And we won’t even mention spellcheck. My spellchecker wanted to change “whom” to “who” in the title of this post, which is good; but later it wanted to change Leonard Cohen’s song to “Whom by Fire”—although maybe this is understandable out of context because of the use of “by.”) But the print media are not off the hook. For example, I just started reading a contemporary mystery book that was gorgeously produced to be a visual treat, designed with lovely typography and even printed on fancy patterned and deckled paper. Yet I found this on pages 17–18:

“. . . what is the matter?”

“THREE MURDERS ARE THE matter.”

Why on earth would they have capped everything but the last word? All you need to do is read this aloud to hear how the emphasis is totally lost in the error. I found other mistakes as well, and even though they were likely proofreading oversights, they marred what otherwise is an enjoyable book. These things distract me terribly, and just about every book I pick up is fraught with errors.

The one thing slovenly writers and careless editors don’t get is that their work loses credibility when they degrade language instead of elevating it. I try to be careful in any medium in which I write, including texts and emails—and of course this blog. Yet I recognize that the sheer speed that is available to us electronically is contributing to haste and sloppiness. Back in the day when you and I were in school, we were taught handwriting with fountain pens and typewriting on manual machines, both techniques requiring care and precision. Say “cursive” to kids in school today and they’ll likely think you’re swearing because your touch screen has you writing “Love to my little duster” when your phone attempts to “correct” your mistyping of “sister.” (To this day, my sister calls me “Big Duster.”)

The last bastion of good writing in print and online may be the remaining premier newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and certain high-level magazines, such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The Economist.

Let’s home in on this in a future post. I hope you will contribute further examples not only of mistakes, but of excellence in writing. I know it’s out there somewhere. And we can at least set a good example in here.

Serenity . . . & Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Reposted from The Patient Path January 16, 2015

Tian Tan Buddha_Cheri Lucas Rowlands on WP_2015-01-16

“Serenity” by Cheri Lucas Rowlands, WordPress Staff Member

Mid-January already! So much to write, so much not written. But I am being patient on the path as I sort through my list and take my to-dos all the way to dones.


While I gather my thoughts, I thought you would like to hear from someone who is showing great grace under health pressure. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things (signed copies are available through her Two Buttons online shop), posted an update on Facebook the other day (1/14/15) about having to cancel a trip to India to take care of herself—take a look: “Trust the Timing of Your Life.” She was planning to attend a literary festival in Jaipur, a city I have visited. Not only did the title of Elizabeth’s Facebook post arrest me—because I can so relate to her message on several levels, having canceled my own trip to India last year to take care of myself (story here)—but today I saw this lovely image of Buddha by WordPress staff member Cheri Lucas Rowlands, taken on her recent trip to Hong Kong, where she visited Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. I thought of Elizabeth as soon as I saw Cheri’s post today. No doubt Elizabeth Gilbert would approve, and love, this image. She has quite a wonderful marble statue of Buddha outside her Frenchtown, New Jersey shop, Two Buttons (that’s me with the Buddha below), which contains troves of treasures from Asia, as well as signed copies of her books. And it’s right in my own backyard. I have visited the shop several times and brought home a few lovely items. My husband, who is from Mumbai (Bombay) and travels throughout Asia frequently,* was also very impressed and heartened by the authentic collection of mostly handcrafted objects from his favorite parts of the world.

Two Buttons Buddha & Me_2014-10-10

Last summer, I also had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth speak during our Hunterdon County, NJ, tricentennial celebration (check the calendar for August 9, 2014). Now that we know the title of her next book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, due out in September, I think she was giving us not only a glimpse into her creative process, but a peek into her near future. She gave an inspiring, heartwarming, magical-yet-down-to-earth talk, adjectives that describe Elizabeth herself. Soon after, I read and very much enjoyed The Signature of All Things. You can follow Elizabeth on any of her many social media sites. Do so—it’s worth bathing in the glow of her life, even when she is facing challenges. Her brand of serene joy leaps off of each page. And if you’ve ever had the delightful experience of hearing Elizabeth speak, you, too, will believe in magic. . . . Oh, yes—and read her books.


*In fact, he is leaving on Sunday, 1/18/16, for India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. I opted to wait until the next trip to accompany him to India—more about this later.

Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer No More: Lessons from the Ghost of Christmas Past

Reposted from The Patient Path 12/19/13

The Patient Path takes a literary detour “in keeping with the situation” . . . Christmas. View the only manuscript version of Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. 

A Christmas Carol_1843_50%  


A Christmas Carol was published 170 years ago today, on December 19, 1843. Click the book to view the only manuscript version of the novella, which is housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Do take a look–it’s a treasure.  

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Ghost of Christmas Past

Yesterday’s post, “Emotional Reflections in Blue Places,” was my attempt to connect my current medical story–which is so much more than a mere “organ recital”—and the deeper reality of my life. But more important than my personal experience is what anyone’s life–or life itself–is truly all about, as far as we mortals can understand it. As I mentioned yesterday, I defer to the three-ghost device Charles Dickens used in my favorite story—which, of course, is not just a Christmas tale—to try to figure out what is true and eternal and to put my limited understanding of temporal existence into the context of whatever that is. In my opinion, Dickens captured in his 1843 novella the essence of what it means to be human. And he did it by imagining what can be learned beyond the boundaries of time as we know it in our three-dimensional world—a fascinating prospect.

Reliving Dickens’ moral tale of “reclamation,” or redemption, is the very essence of Christmas for me. More than that, it exposes and explores the nature of what life is about here on Planet Earth—a very strange and wondrous place that often defies comprehension. The heart of the story is that it teaches us how to make the journey of life a bit easier for the others who are our “fellow-passengers to the grave,” those whose fragile hearts we carry in our hands as we walk along the roads of human experience–those traveled and those less so–together with them. Humans can be the most self-serving and cruel of creatures. But they can also be self-sacrificing and heroic, relieving the suffering of other people—and of animals—in moments of spiritual clarity when their better, higher natures guide their hands in healing what their lesser, lower natures may have harmed, intentionally or unconsciously. One moment of kindness can redeem a lifetime of pain. Why, then, do we indulge our small minds rather than expand our inflatable hearts?

How different things are this Christmas from last year. Then, I had no idea that the problems and worries that plagued me would be overshadowed months later by a life-threatening disease, which, thankfully, is now coming under control. How much precious life force do we expend in the worthless pursuit of self-centered concerns that are not only transitory, but trivial—as if time were at our command to spend and waste from a limitless supply of vital life force? In some ineffable way, I believe that whatever makes up the true basis of life is beyond the mere physical, which is confined within and dictated by the passage of time. Perhaps true experience—which, when you think of it, is quite an abstract thing—lies in a dimension where all things that have ever happened, are happening, and will happen co-exist, in a sort of matrix. I can’t pretend to know, but contemplating what may be possible leads me to believe that whereas biological life occurs in time, experiential life exists, somehow, beyond it.

The Ghost of Christmas Past has the job of leading us to a place beyond time where we can think about our lives. For me this year, that has taken on a new meaning, now that my life—which I have not always valued–has been threatened. Yet I know there can be worse diagnoses than cancer. In the span of my 61 years, I have experienced many things that have eroded my love of life and interfered with my ability to appreciate it: parental separation and eventual divorce; the loss of a baby sister to a “death” that turned out to be an adoption (see My Sister’s Story a difficult and lonely childhood that led to a terribly insecure and painful adolescence and young adulthood; a misguided first marriage that eventually ended in divorce; years of infertility that were, however, followed by the blessed birth of my only child (Matt); single motherhood accompanied by identity crisis and profound confusion leading to inept parenting of my beloved son and even worse management of my own life; remarriage requiring sometimes bewildering adjustments; the death of my father (I will be writing My Father’s Story soon); the death of my childhood friend not long after (see My Friend’s Story); the loss of, or distancing from, many other friends over the years; job and career challenges that were always far beyond what I thought I could handle and that consumed so much of my life’s misdirected energy; recurrent crippling depression, anxiety, and loneliness; chronic serious weight issues–a factor in uterine cancer, other health problems, and most of all in not developing a strong sense of self, which may have helped me make fewer errors; the loss of jobs–and eventually my career as I knew it–which profoundly altered my sense of who I am in the world and destroyed any hint of financial security; near bankruptcy with no clear plan to resume solvency; and, recently, potentially fatal illness that I am still grappling with. And I’ve left a lot out!

Notice, of course, that many gifts are woven throughout this litany of challenges. I’ve also left out so much good. It is the lesson of the Ghost of Christmas Past during pre-Christmas reflection to help us realize that every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we. And I believe the Ghost of Christmas Present will help me acknowledge the beauties among the beasts.

For now, the Ghost of Christmas Past is beckoning me to the holiday of 1983. At that time, and for the first (and last?) time, I felt as if my notion of who I thought I was completely merged with the actuality of who I truly was, if only for the moments beyond time when I could sense that I was an inextricable part of the fabric of life. I was no longer just an observer: I had become a full participant. I remember spending glowing moments in front of the fire in our next-door neighbors’ living room. They had invited another thirty-something couple over for Christmas cheer, and we were happily chatting in a warm, convivial atmosphere that I believed would not end, they drinking wine, I drinking ginger ale. I was protecting the contents of my (now absent) womb, which for that shining moment was doing what it was destined to do. Two-and-a-half months pregnant with my first and only child, I felt like the most important woman on the face of the earth–and the most sanctified of mothers.

This madonna-like impression of myself, of course, faded pretty quickly. But it left a permanent change in me because I felt I was sharing in the profound experience of bringing forth life, accomplishing what I think of as my most important mission, then or ever. Sitting there talking about my hard-won pregnancy, and then drifting to a dreamy place where I felt connected to every other person—and, especially, to every to other woman—was transcendent. Yet, even as I write this—and believe it—in no way do I mean that women who have not borne children are themselves any less the children of the universe. Birth takes many forms. And nurturing—of babies, fellow creatures, or ideas—is the highest endeavor of every human soul.

Thank you, Ghost of Christmas Past, for reminding me that what I recently lost had already fulfilled its consecrated purpose. I have no reason to mourn, and a marvelous 29-year-old reason, among many others, to rejoice—as I’m sure the The Ghost of Christmas Present will remind me.


 

Ghost of Christmas Present
THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT–12/24/13

Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS YET TO COME–12/31/13

Turning Back the Clock and Looking at “The Fault in Our Stars”

Reposted from The Patient Path  November 3, 2014

 Time & Stars  On the Monday after we turned back our clocks in 2013 (November 4), I received a phone call at 9:17 AM, about the time I am writing this post the Monday after we turned back our clocks in 2014. You tend to store certain moments as if they’re in an ice-cube tray in your freezer. But time cubes don’t melt. They remain sparkling and whole for us to either love or learn from—and maybe both.


A year ago at this time, I wasn’t projecting into the future to imagine how I would feel on my one-year anniversary. What I recall is having an intensity of focus on the problem just presented to me as if everything I’d ever learned or accomplished needed to be mustered to the front lines to do battle with my microscopic enemy. Attacking my attacker—uterine cancer—became my job. Actually, I had two microscopic enemies: the one in my womb, and the one on my scalp, which were diagnosed—and treated—in the same months.* So now, with a cancer-free dent in my scalp, I am gearing up to repeat my colposcopy and my mammogram, both of which have thus far been negative. So I hope I am cancer free all over. I don’t have a lot more to say that I haven’t already said in these blog pages except that I never did feel like a cancer patient. Ironically, considering my lack of paid employment these days, I have felt like somebody going to work—on a repair job. But what I will say is that the fear of having a repeat problem hovers in a thought balloon that travels around with me. Others have told me the same thing. But perhaps no one has dealt so eloquently with the progression and recurrence of cancer as John Green. So rather than explore my interior world of spiraling thoughts, I refer you to his wildly popular young-adult bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars.

The Fault in Our Stars

The youngest member of our reading group recommended this January 2012 book, and I’ve just finished reading it. Our local library also showed the film version from June 2014 last week. What I’ve come to realize is that “young adult” refers to the age of the characters a whole lot more than it does to the themes explored in their stories. The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak is another good example of this. This is not a book review, but it is a citation of excellence. Green’s protagonist Augustus, opening his heart to Hazel, the story’s narrator, managed to capture what for me was the message and the meaning of the book:

I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.

Cancer be damned, he seems to be saying. I’m alive and I’m in love. Nothing else matters. A bit later, he explains a bit more about his take on “oblivion”:

Sure, I fear earthly oblivion. But, I mean . . . I believe humans have souls. . . . The oblivion fear is something else . . . that I won’t be able to give anything in exchange for my life. If you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve gotta at least die a death in service of a greater good. . . .

Love and the greater good are fiercer and more powerful than the threat or even the reality of death. That’s what I hear him (Augustus/Green) saying. Beliefs are personal . . . and much too complex to discuss here. Read the book for more clues about John Green’s own belief system (he evidently intended to become an Episcopal priest at one time). The point here is that these young people, traveling down a dark road without any high beams, were not their disease. They were themselves, their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual selves. That’s the lesson of illness: that endangered life is still life. And it’s all we have and all we really know from within our own experience. Certainly, we all travel through time as packages of individual existence. But something—life—is better than nothing (at least in the absence of extremely suffering or cruelty). And perhaps the best we can do as captives of the clock is to give ourselves the gift of untying somebody else’s ribbons and seeing a little bit of what is inside their package. That act alone defies the notion of meaninglessness.


John Green took his title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2; Cassius): “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves. . . .” But he certainly didn’t take the meaning. By flipping it, he celebrated the blamelessness, the wisdom, and the divine spark of his young star-crossed lovers. And for me, he succeeded in stopping the clock. He enabled me to return to the young place inside myself that was also blameless and wise, a place where the divine spark of my life, and every life, exists beyond tears, beyond stars, and beyond time. A place where cancer fears to tread.

Infinities 2

“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”


* Also see related posts on The Patient Path: 

Illness Is Not Identity: Butterflies Are Free

Reposted from The Patient Path March 31, 2014

Butterflies

“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to [me] what it concedes to the butterflies!” – from Bleak HouseCharles Dickens.

If you’re not familiar with Bleak House, one of the most complex—and one of the most rewarding—of Dickens’ novels, perhaps you’ve heard this quotation in Butterflies Are Freea 1972 film (based on a play by Leonard Gershe) about a young blind man, Don (Edward Albert), who rents his own apartment to become less dependent on his overprotective mother (Eileen Heckart). As she still struggles for control, he meets his neighbor, Jill (Goldie Hawn), a “free spirit” who inspires him to become his own person. After she tells him that the Dickens’ line is her favorite quotation, he writes a song about his spirit learning to fly.

For several years, long before I was diagnosed with and treated for uterine (endometrial) cancer, I have thought of the butterfly as a personal spiritual symbol. Many cultures and traditions turn to this beautiful winged creature to symbolize the soul and other essential aspects of life, such as metamorphosis. Few things top the list of shattering changes more than potentially life-threatening illness. Yet, even when it is serious, illness is only part of our life experience. True, it sometimes commands center stage. But in the next act—or even in the next scene—some other, deeper aspect of who we are takes its star turn.

butterfly-totem-temp-300

By no means do I intend to diminish the supreme challenges faced by those who are debilitated by illness or injury or to dismiss uncaringly the anguish of those who have lost loved ones to terminal disease or early death. But the message of the butterfly is available to all, even to those who suffer. Because even if we sprout wings that don’t have the strength to free us from the pain and limitation of earthly life, they can still help our spirits to soar. If we don’t have the strength even for that, our spiritual wings can at least help us float gently on the soft winds of the universe as it continues on its infinite course, reminding us that we are part of all that is, ever was, or ever will be.

Having passed through the metamorphosis of serious illness, I think back to decisions I’ve made that both hurt me and helped me arrive at the place I now find myself. And I’ve had to face that many of the external markers of identity are now lost to time—reproductive status (first in menopause and now in the absence of organs), the joys and responsibilities of young motherhood (my only child is now a man), marriage and name change (one divorce behind me and a total of three last names), the comradeship of friends and colleagues (many losses and gains over the years), the pride and sustenance of career and income (gone and none at present), and so on. These things have shifted so significantly that at times I feel adrift in the cosmos, unanchored to earth or to anything that feels comfortable or familiar.

But these moments pass. And I realize that what remains after pseudo-identity is irrevocably altered is the emergence of what lies beneath and within, which can be surprising. Having lost so much, and having spent so much time alone confronting my very existence, I nevertheless have experienced an integration of the essential aspects of myself with how I navigate external life. I discussed some of these things in the March 14, 2014 post, “Reading & Writing as Therapy.” The message was simply this: Find, or rediscover, what you love. This tells you who you are.

It is my hope for all who face grave or passing illness, permanent or temporary loss, and terrible loneliness or even somber solitude that they can find their butterfly selves by turning inward to where they can see that the outward path is visible but ephemeral—and also by connecting with similarly affected, like-minded others, who can not only share their experience, but enter into it with them.

Reading & Writing as Therapy

Magic Book_27%   The Magic Book…A True Treasure

 The Silver Pen Pin…A Lovely Gift Silver Pen Pin

As you recover from a serious illness, all things therapeutic become achingly important. One of the most vital is reconnecting with who you feel yourself to be, beyond the reaches of cells gone bad.

Reposted from The Patient Path March 14, 2014


The question of identity arises for each of us at some time, or times, in our lives. Soon, I will be writing the story of what happened to my once fascinating and lucrative career. It was a terrible loss, one that, almost more than any other life event, has affected my sense of who I am.

But before I explore my working girl story, I think I need to ground myself in my life girl story. Although these stories seem to intertwine like yin and yang symbols, one thing I’ve learned is that this is an illusion. What is real is what you love; if you’re fortunate, your yin-yang endeavors will blend beautifully.

Book & Pen Composite

You’ve probably heard many people say they’ve always aspired to be a writer. I have always aspired to be a reader. In fact, one of my main regrets in life is that I haven’t read more.

But, in truth, like so many others, I want to write. Why? Because expressing myself this way just seems a whole lot safer than being a live performance artist. Writers can express thoughts, notions, inspirations, intuitions, feelings, impressions, insights, experiences, and maybe even profundities from the other side of the stage or screen. Sometimes, releasing your ideas will be good self-therapy. Other times, your efforts may resonate with others and do some good in the wider world.

My point is that whereas I said above that the yin-yang intertwining of career and life is an illusion, the interconnection of reading and writing is not. I know many people read who do not write. I have even heard of writers who do not read. But my sense of it is that these two things that are so dear to me are two halves of a whole.

In the December 19 and December 24, 2013 posts, I mentioned “the coin of life”:

. . . every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we.

Similarly, I cannot imagine writing without reading, as if they were two sides of a postcard from the universe. And for some of us, it isn’t possible to read without also writing. I myself am always flipping that card in an effort to see the beauty of both sides as often as possible.

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

Although I’d been an editor and technical/medical writer for many years, as well as an English major in college, I am ashamed to say that I never seemed to have the energy or focus to read very much. Oh, I dabbled. I would take armloads of books from the library each week, buy books from bygone bookstores (sigh), order books online. . . . But I rarely did more than browse them or, worse, let them sit around me in piles as if I could absorb their magic by some sort of psychic osmosis. They did make my rooms look inviting, lived in, and important somehow. But using books as decoration is good only if this inspires you to actually read them.

After I lost my career back in 2011, I was very fortunate to have found a reading group at a local bookstore in Flemington, NJ—Twice Told Tales–Moonstone Mystery. Our group met yesterday to discuss The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. And, yes, we did discuss it. I’ve heard others say they’d given up on book clubs because people did almost everything but talk about the books. I’m not saying we don’t talk about other topics. I’m also not saying we don’t eat and drink. And I’m certainly not saying we haven’t formed friendships. (In fact, the ladies from this group have stepped up to help me during my health crisis almost more than anyone else in my world. And one of them, Susan, gave me the pen pin pictured above.) I am saying that we talk about the books. And, lucky me, I’ve read books I wouldn’t otherwise have been inspired to read, many I’d never even heard of. And, double lucky me, we have not one but two groups—a general-interest group and a mystery group. Heaven.*

Book & Pen Composite

Another serendipitous event occurred in 2012, when I stumbled into a writing group.† I’d never intended to join a writing group, but I wandered in on someone’s invitation and decided to stay a while. After participating in some presentations, writing exercises, and administrative activities, I ended up in two small offshoot groups. It was in the smaller groups that I actually started writing. Since then I have remained in only one of the groups, and it’s been such a delight. All of it was a learning experience. But in our small biweekly group, we’ve experimented, explored, and exploded with ideas, and it is a great pleasure to see the creativity blossom in my fellow members. Although I really have barely started despite several efforts, since my health setback I have found renewed interest in the writing side of the card. Currently, I am writing a story about identity.

I began this blog in November 2013, just days after discovering my diagnosis of uterine (endometrial) cancer. Initially, my intention was to let others know what was going on and also to encourage people to be their own best advocates as they negotiated the healthcare system. The blog has gone in a few tangential directions since then, although the primary goal is still to reach out to “patient patients” as they embark on healing journeys of their own. Lots of topics remain to be explored, and as my energy increases I will be getting to them. But it has been my happy discovery to find a way to communicate and connect with others through writing—this blog, other blogs (more on those later), stories for the writing group, and professional material (in the near future, I hope).

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

It is my love of reading and writing that is helping me (re)discover some of the most important facets of myself. No disease, job loss, or other trauma can separate me from them. What a powerful lesson this has been, and I’ve found no better therapy. At its best, reading lets the whole world—the whole universe—in. At its best, writing lets your whole world—your whole universe—out.


P.S. For those who have trouble reading print books, I highly recommend unabridged audio books, especially by single narrators. They’re marvelous. Sometimes I both read and listen to a book, alternating chapters, which lets me continue with a story while walking or driving—or even while trying to fall asleep in the dark.


*One genre of book I have always managed to read more than others is mysteries, and I will also be writing more about them in the near future. I have have written about two authors previously: Anne Perry and Tana French.
†I’ve written about the writing group previously here.

You Can’t Unbreak Glass…but the Fragments Can Be Contained

Aqua Glass Desk Lamp - 2_50%

Reposted from The Patient Path March 6, 2014

Lessons from a pretty, but fragile, aqua bulb lamp


Shattered Glass & Fragmented Spirits

Part of my personal treatment plan is to sort through all of my possessions—mounds of them, many of them paper records and memorabilia—and consolidate and clear out as much as possible. This is excruciatingly difficult. I am a collector of personal and business organization books and have poked my nose in most of them, but practical advice disintegrates in the face of emotional attachment to the things that give silent witness to your life. Coming face to face with the reality that our time here is finite has had the effect of making me yearn to locate, categorize, and memorialize “lost” mementos from a past that is quickly slipping away while simultaneously making me want to travel lighter and more open into my future. Most of my efforts thus far have been on the order of redistributing, rather than discarding, these things. But I feel the need to know what I have, and where I have it, before I can take bolder steps—I’m not quite ready for big leaps just yet.

I had just managed to clean up my home office to the point that I wanted to prettify it a bit and get it ready for whatever is next. The story of my career is difficult and painful and will wait for another time. At present, my work—my most important job—is to continue to heal and take care of myself while better managing my immediate environment, not only my physical home, but my personal world. So, despite not having an income, I decided to make a few small investments around the house to raise the level of order, calm, and attractiveness a little. Clearing out one small space or adding one fresh touch has powerful cleansing and lightening effects, and the more I do the better I feel. (That is, until I unearth yet more boxes of stuff—my things from my past and my grown son’s things from his past that he swears he doesn’t want—but I don’t quite believe him.)

A week or so ago, I wandered into Pier 1 and found the desk lamp pictured above, which has a white shade lined with the same aqua color as the pretty glass bulbs. I might not have chosen this lamp in isolation, but I knew it would look good in my existing office, which is painted in calming aquamarine colors. It looked so good in the office that I was then inspired to replace a utilitarian black pole lamp with one that matched the desk lamp. Then I looked at the “light naked” second desk in the office and thought I’d better buy a matching desk lamp while it was still available. So I ordered the second aqua desk lamp online and went to Pier 1 yesterday to pick it up, happy with my decision (a rarity).

Well, maybe because it was Ash Wednesday (although I’m not Catholic or a practicing Protestant), or maybe because I was overwhelmingly fatigued (although I’d slept OK), or maybe because I have a lifetime of careless habits (no “althoughs” here), I came home empty handed. I had expected the lamp to be boxed up, as the others were. But it was bubble-wrapped. The saleswoman gave me an explanation I didn’t quite follow, but assured me it wouldn’t have been wrapped if it weren’t in good condition. Nevertheless, she offered to unwrap it and let me inspect it (they don’t offer discounts for floor models). Everything looked good, and the sales clerk rewrapped it and handed it to me over the counter. I put it on the floor as she came around the counter carrying the shade, asking me whether I needed help getting the lamp to the car. As I was rapidly trying to figure out how to manage the lamp, the shade, and my purse, I turned toward the clerk, and the purse hanging from my left arm knocked the bubble-wrapped glass lamp to the floor, shattering those pretty aqua bulbs.

The clerk called her manager over, and they were very nice about it and ordered me a new lamp, returning this one to inventory as “damaged.” This could have gone another way, but I was grateful that these ladies were so gracious and professional about the situation. I apologized and told them I felt terrible, not because I was leaving empty-handed, but because I had “laid to waste” such a pretty lamp. It had felt so heavy and looked so sturdy with its solid metal square base; but in the end, it was quite fragile.

While thinking with sincere regret about being so impulsive and careless, I reflected on the paradox of sturdiness and fragility—this solid-based lamp had survived the handling of manufacture, transport, and store display for who knows how long and had remained upright and intact until circumstances (me) caused it to come crashing down, shattering its delicate heart. It was painful seeing those aqua shards inside the bubble wrap; but as the sales clerk said, at least the fragments were contained.

This seemed like a good analogy to human circumstances, but with a twist: as strong as life may have made us, and as sturdy as we may be on our own feet, some quirk of fate can knock us down at any time. The difference between a shattered lifeless object and a fractured living soul is what we do about it. The lamp had fallen and couldn’t get back up; it couldn’t be repaired—but I could order a new one. I, too, had fallen, but could get back up; I couldn’t order new body parts—but I could repair my spirit.

Maybe we all have a sort of spiritual bubble wrap around our own fragile parts–we may fall, we may crack; but the fragments can be contained, and our essential selves can remain intact. Our attitudes can shift. Our hearts can heal. Our spirits can revive.

Notes of Gratitude 

As I sort through my past, I feel keenly what I have lost. My physical losses are internal and invisible. My nonphysical losses are ephemeral and unseen. But I am thankful that all of these things have been a part of my life. Contentment may not be mine, but as spring approaches and I continue to mend, I realize that although I can’t restore what I once had, I can refresh my life. This is a solitary and mostly lonely process. The flood of support and attention I received at the beginning of my health crisis has become somewhat less as the situation has become the new normal and has been absorbed into my changed life—and other people’s perception of it. But as with the bereaved after a funeral, we are all left alone to cope with grief, loss, and an altered life after everyone goes home, back to their own lives and their own challenges.

Yet support still comes, now in an occasional gentle wave. Any act of kindness or caring is balm to the spirit. My hope for us all is that we can journey through life knowing we have our fellow travelers’ hearts in our hands . . . and that they can be shattered like glass lamp bulbs when knocked off of their (apparently) sturdy base.

Pictured here are two symbols of gratitude:

In an eerie portent of things to come, for my 60th birthday in 2012, my sister, Vicki Sue, gave me a “Kohl’s Cares” package of coordinated pink-ribbon birthday gifts—Kohl’s donates 100% of the net profit to support breast cancer. By doing something caring for me, she was doing a kindness for unknown others. The strange thing was that this scarf wasn’t so “pink,” but more a peachy salmon, the ribbon color for uterine (endometrial) cancer—with which I was diagnosed a year later:

Peach Ribbon 1_50%

And last week, friend Kathryn and I had a lovely lunch in a local teashop, a very special place, at which she presented me with my first and only official uterine cancer ribbon pin:

Peach Ribbon 2

Finally, a special thanks to the ladies at Pier 1 for ordering me a new aqua glass lamp. I promise to treat it with care.

A Bit More about “The New York Way”

In my February 20, 2014 post, I described “The New York Way” of delivering radiation treatment post-hysterectomy for uterine (endometrial) cancer and also discussed some side effects of vaginal brachytherapy. My short-term side effects are now subsiding, but about a day after the last post and a week after my third and final brachytherapy treatment on Valentine’s Day, I developed full-blown cystitis (constant irritation and burning on urination) and increased bowel changes (gas, frequent BMs, and some leakage). Apparently, these effects were right on schedule according to some of the online patient information I’ve come across. (I’ll update the technical information in a future post.)

Back around the winter holidays, starting a week after my hysterectomy, I had a bout of lymphorrhea, as discussed in the January 10, 2014 post. To make sure I didn’t have a fistula between the bladder and vagina, my surgeon had prescribed a “dye test” using phenazopyridine (Pyridium), pills that turn urine orange—and are also used to soothe the urinary tract for patients with an infection. (I passed the test—no orange showed at the top of the test tampons, and the lymphatic leakage stopped soon after.) I don’t know why, but he had given me several refills of the pills, so (without calling anyone) I went to the pharmacy and got more Pyridium to treat my cystitis. Note that these pills do NOT kill the microorganisms that cause UTIs, but I didn’t have an infection, just burning from the radiation. I took the pills for a week, and they did indeed help. I no longer have burning. The bowel issues have also improved.

What hasn’t improved much is the fatigue, which is worse some days than others. Often, it is related to exertion as I become a bit more active, but not necessarily. I am also waiting for the longer-term side effects to set in and believe I am just starting to notice some of those effects now. But I will discuss these in detail after my first post-radiation checkup, which has been pushed back from March 17 to March 25, when I will also have my first three-month surgical checkup. At that time I’ll know more about radiation effects and how to manage them and will also discuss more of “The New York Way” with my doctors as I continue to read and learn more about different treatment models.

But what’s on my mind now are effects that aren’t physical and healing that isn’t allopathic.*


*A system of medical practice that aims to combat disease by use of remedies (as drugs or surgery).

Part 2, Update: March 19, 2014


Radiation-Related Posts on The Patient Path:

January 10, 2014 (“Orange Pee & Radioactive Tampons”)

January 16, 2014: Preparing for Radiation (“Looking Back & Forging Ahead to Radiation”)

January 24, 2014: 1st Treatment (“My First Encounter with a Radioactive ‘Pig’”)

February 5, 2014: 2nd Treatment (on 02/04/14–“The “Demon Seed”)

February 12, 2014: A Postponement (“A Glowing Valentine’s Day–02/14/2014”)

February 15, 2014: 3rd Treatment (on 02/14/14–“21 Shades of Gray for Valentine’s Day”)

February 20, 2014 (“Radiation ‘The New York Way’”)

Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 2

Anne Perry's Necklace
Pamela wearing “her and Anne Perry’s” beautiful blue sparkly necklace.

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 1 Is Here

Originally Posted on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.


In Part 1, we left off where my friend Pat said, “You have to go up to her [Anne Perry] and tell her she got your necklace!” And I heard myself say, “I would never do that!”

Walking toward the next session, I spotted Anne Perry casually standing over a trashcan, eating one of those bagels. Unprepossessing as the image was, being in the same circumstances as the rest of us made her seem approachable—unfortunately for her. Again, I watched myself walk toward her and heard things come out of my mouth that some unseen ventriloquist with a bad sense of humor made me say: “Hello! Did you happen to just buy a beautiful sparkly blue necklace at the jewelry stall?” “Yes, I did. Did you want it?” “Well, I was thinking of buying it yesterday, but I told myself I’d wait ‘til today, and if it was still there I’d purchase it.” “Oh, I’m so sorry—but not enough to exchange it.”

Her friendly yet frank response had actually charmed me, but I now knew what “being mortified” felt like. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean that! The vendor offered to make me another one. Now we’ll have a psychic connection.” Twit! But did I stop?

“Let’s walk,” she said. “Are you going to the next session?” “Yes, I’m looking for Meeting Room 6.” “So am I. I’m on a panel.” As if I didn’t know. And so we walked—in the wrong direction—as I chattered on about her books and characters, making mistake after goofy mistake as I mixed them all up and she gently corrected me. I could no more stop myself from spouting gibberish than I could avoid sounding like my mother in the presence of my son.

We parted so she could speak and I could listen (which is what I wish I had been doing all along). She repeated some of her comments from the previous evening, but I would have listened to the same remarks multiple times if I could self-correct the earlier conversation—at least in my mind. In take two, I would make myself sound authoritative and confident, someone Anne Perry would remember for her prescience and insight—not someone who coveted her blue sparkly necklace and made inane comments about her books.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that she’d probably had many hundreds of similar encounters and that her gaze was ever fixed on that far horizon, not on me. She would never have registered me as an individual, but that was OK. Just listening to her eloquent commentary made me want to be a better person—and a writer.

Anne Perry, even though she had endured a dark episode in her own early past (or possibly because of it), is a penetrating yet compassionate observer of human existence. She articulates with ease matters of the heart, mind, and soul, and she does it with kindness, even gentleness, despite her imposing presence—tall, forthright, unabashed. She has no children, she says with what may be a tinge of regret. Yet I sense her to be a tender, if firm, mother to her brainchildren, and I can imagine her caring deeply for the people in her life. She stated that the whole purpose of her five-part WWI series can be summed up in a single sentence: “I will not leave you.”

The day after I returned home, my husband and I went for a leisurely walk in nearby Ken Lockwood Gorge. A narrow arm of the Raritan River flows through the wooded, rocky area, and the bank running alongside is flat and easy to stroll on, as well as tree lined. It is difficult to imagine a more serene setting. I watched the water gently moving over, under, and around the rocks on this beautiful day—no tension, no struggle, no indecision. The crystalline water reminded me of the necklace—not in color, but in clarity. Clarity, I realized, is the gift your mind gives to your spirit when the stream of consciousness flows unerringly around perceived obstacles.

Decisions I had deferred for lack of clarity now demanded to be made. It was hard, because selecting one thing means letting go of another. Recognizing this natural rhythm of life, however, makes the transition between the world you live in pre-decision and the one you inhabit post-decision short lived and relatively peaceful. By the day of my birthday, I had begun the post-decision transition from anxiety to acceptance after making some hard choices, even as I knew I was on the road to another pre-decision period about more challenging matters. This steady movement based on decisive action, though, is a precious gift and was my best birthday present, one nobody else could have given me. Letting old things burn away leaves clean spaces for new ones to germinate.

One of my to-dos in honor of having made it through another year was to head back to the Frenchtown shop to see whether the kitchen accessories I had passed up a week earlier were waiting for me. There they were. Now here they are. But they are not material possessions to me, any more than the necklace would be when I got it. They are physical manifestations of aspects of myself that I wasn’t completely aware of. What lives deep inside is reflected outside yourself once you achieve clarity. So it follows that making decisions would be much easier . . . I hoped.

A few days later, Chris emailed: “Forgot to ask. I had made two versions of the necklace, 20″ and 18″—the one you and Anne Perry looked at was 18″.  Is this what you wanted?” She’d forgotten about the measuring tape, but that was OK: “Yes, 18″, beautiful blue mixed with pewter. Just like Anne Perry’s.”

I went with the 18-incher because I wanted a twin of Anne Perry’s necklace, which had almost been mine. After the email exchange, I searched for some Anne Perry factoids to supplement my musings and came upon an interview she had done for the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes. I stopped open-mouthed when the interviewer, as a follow-up to Anne’s statement about hope, asked her about why she thinks American audiences are more “optimistic”: “I think if they see something somebody has possession of that they want, they . . . think, ‘How can I acquire one of those? How did you get it, so what can I do?’ There’s a generosity of spirit and an optimism that I hope they never lose.”

So necklace envy proves I’m a typical go-getter American (!)—one with a generous spirit, if not an optimistic nature—even though I had seen the object of our desire first. But perhaps my wanting the same necklace Anne Perry chose was a sign of optimism, of the hope that we had something even more important in common than a blue bauble: a love of writing. Well, maybe. But this would require decisions—and decisions are so hard. In the same interview, Anne Perry explained that this is because we need to be put to the test, pushed to the limit, before we know what we really want:

I have a little exercise that I make my main characters go through. Imagine that you are standing at the edge of the world, at the end of the world; volcanic darkness is coming; there is the abyss. It’s just you and Satan, nobody else left. And he says to you, “What do you really believe? If you tell me the truth, I have no power over you. If you lie, you’re going over the edge. And you are never coming back.”  . . . Then you discover what your deepest core values are.

The lesson of the necklace for me is recognizing that clarity is the basis of all good decisions. Those watery-hard, brilliant beads were meant for me after all, and somehow I knew it. When the necklace arrived, I put it on and had a photo taken as I was thinking: To capture the essence of what it means to be human; to articulate it so that others can benefit from it; to entertain, elucidate, and educate with kindness and generosity . . . these are marvelous qualities for a writer. I’m not Anne Perry; but I can let her inspire me. And I, too, want to be a writer.

There, I’ve said it, even though some Anne Perry hope would be an asset at my age. I will imagine the picture of me wearing the “blue sparkly,” as Chris calls it, on a book jacket. And I can at least imagine Anne Perry wearing her own blue sparkly on a future book jacket of hers. I can further dream that each of us is as content as the other that our work has manifested itself in its highest form, each of us having achieved the best version of herself through making sound decisions based on clarity—mixed with a little courage.

One of Anne Perry’s favorite quotes, from Henry Ford, sums up the essence of decision-making, no matter the choice—from purchasing a necklace to changing a career:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t . . . you’re right.

Might as well think I can—in the spirit of American optimism as seen through the eyes of Anne Perry, who I’d like to believe is now wearing our necklace.

Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 1

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 2 Is Here

Originally Posted October 5, 2013, on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.


On Friday, September 20, with time to kill at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany—my first convention for mystery/crime/thriller writers and fans, I browsed the vendors’ stalls. Typical for writers and readers, on this gorgeous day we were indoors, inside “The Egg”—the oddly shaped and named convention center. My eye caught a hypnotic blue sparkle and wouldn’t let me move past it. Bluebonnet, dark cerulean, fiery cobalt, medium sapphire, fresh blueberry, intense indigo . . . I had no idea what to call it, other than “spectacular.”

I lingered, gazing at the brilliant light coming from the faceted glass beads, blue with a hint of purple, calling to mind the colors of both water and rock, of liquid and solid. This infinite pairing created something beyond the elemental, something cosmic and unified. Although it was September, my birthday was just days away, and sapphire is, after all, my birthstone (this color was close enough), it was hard to justify the cost of beauty—even when it came with matching earrings. So simple, so easy to reach for. But so complicated, so hard to decide on.

“With a name like that, I hope you’re not in construction.” The jewelry vendor, Chris, grinned amiably at me, nodding at my nametag. I smiled dutifully, explaining the origin of my husband’s last name and the British pronunciation, “Con-TRAC-tor.” “Ah. Then I hope one of your children doesn’t marry someone named ‘Expander.’” After puzzling over this for a moment, my mind contracting and then expanding, I laughed—this was a first after years of repetitive namejokes. My former married name was also British, so Bond, Pam Bond, was used to it.

The next panel session was about to start. So I left the vendor stall, glancing backward as I moved on. I guess saying no to yourself is a decision. . . . Anyway, I wanted to hear what the “new” (to me) authors had to say. I was nibbling on tidbits from so many writers, but it was like grazing at a buffet of appetizers. I longed for an intimate supper with a writer whose work—and mind—I could feast on.

My reading group unexpectedly decided to leave for home the next day rather than on Sunday, so Saturday was a bit rushed. Albany more or less shuts down on the weekend, so the only food available inside was free bagels and coffee, as well as rapidly depleting trays of finger food—no restaurants were open on the concourse, and only one food truck stood in the plaza. The volunteer organizers hadn’t planned the feedings very well, but I was somewhat pleased that writers who were respected worldwide were mingling with their fans and muddling through the same predicaments we faced. Tepid coffee and dry bagel downed, I followed my group’s lead and made a decision: if that blue sparkly necklace was still there, I’d make it mine.

And then I saw her. Anne Perry, the international guest of honor and one of the contemporary authors I admire most, stooping over the jewelry vendor’s wares. Her historical crime series—finely wrought literature cloaked in mystery (“Like reading Thackeray edited by Elmore Leonard,” according to Booklist)—had unveiled a Victorian London that I could feel myself living in. Her plots involve all strata of society, its inhabitants meandering through sections of London and aspects of life that grab hold of your imagination and fix you so firmly in another time and place that you find yourself at dusk looking for matches to turn on the gaslight. Her massive amounts of research shine between the lines in condensed form, like laser beams illuminating the places and people she has crafted—and whom she makes you care so terribly much about.

Through her Monk and Pitt novels—two of her series—we get to explore deeply an era of shadows and mist, of a prosperous yet repressive conventionality lying atop nineteenth-century social ills and aristocratic complacency, a mask that was gradually torn away by Dickens, Darwin, Freud, Maxwell, and the Industrial Revolution. The Pitt novels take place roughly during the time of Jack the Ripper, who had lured Anne Perry to this period—a figure that her stepfather, she has said, believed was never caught because he was a politician!

And then I watched myself go up to her, momentarily forgetting the necklace. I heard myself say: “Excuse me, Miss Perry, I don’t want to interrupt you. I just wanted to tell you that you’ve given me many hours of pleasure through your work. And I really enjoyed your talk last night.” Fan babble. I hadn’t known I was capable of it, having always vowed to remain silent in the presence of celebrity so I wouldn’t succumb to mush-brained utterances. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” Although she looked at me, her focal point was somewhere on the horizon of her interior landscape. I wasn’t surprised. Reality couldn’t compare with her inner vision. I left her to her jewelry gazing.

The night before, I’d gotten close to an “intimate supper” by taking in an hour of Anne Perry talking about her work, passionately and compellingly. She related a story about her five-book World War I series, a treasure I’ve reserved for future reading, in which she named a main character after her grandfather. She has him carry a picture of Dante’s bust to the battlefield because, she says, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them,” and The Inferno exemplifies the torments from within for her—and for her character. When her mother learned of this metaphorical use of Dante’s image, she asked, “How did you know?” “How did I know what?” “That your grandfather took a picture of Dante to war with him?” Anne had never met her grandfather, who died before she was born, and had never heard this story. She and her grandfather had a psychic connection, she said; and this series was “close to her heart” because of it.

Turning back toward the jewelry stall, I saw she had left. I decided: I would purchase the necklace. I walked over to the spot where it had lain. Gone! My heart thumped and slowed, and I rued the previous day’s indecisive decision that caused me to walk away from something I now felt sure was meant for me.

This was a pattern. The day before we left for the conference, I had found in a Frenchtown shop a set of pottery kitchen accessories in colors that reminded me of the sandals with ice-cream-colored straps I’d worn and loved as a child. These fifties-style kitchen accoutrements took me back to an era of innocence and possibility, a time when I felt like me because I knew what I liked, what I wanted—a time before others started calling me a “person.” Persons lose their identities; children do not.

Then it occurred to me: Maybe indecision and decision intertwine, like yin and yang symbols, one blending inevitably into the other. This means that indecision is an inextricable part of decision-making. And maybe the point is to accept this and make choices without fear, knowing that another option will appear and that another decision is waiting just around the corner. I suddenly felt that my indecision about the necklace had a purpose: it was meant for her.

I looked up at the vendor. “Chris, did Anne Perry happen to buy that beautiful blue sparkly necklace I was looking at yesterday?” She looked down at my nametag and smiled in recognition, saying animatedly, “Yes, she did! And she also bought my friend’s book!” As I absorbed this news, I realized that Anne Perry had, unknowingly, created a psychic connection with me by choosing my necklace. I was quietly thrilled. Maybe my indecision was my anonymous gift to her—and indirectly to myself because now I felt connected to someone who had manifested her passion through her work.

Then Chris said: “You know, I have a small bag of those beads left. I can make you another necklace just like Anne Perry’s.” Aha! “That would be wonderful! Thank you so much!” My indecisive decision had turned out to be a gift to both of us after all. Chris got out the measuring tape, and we decided on a 15-inch choker on the advice of my friend, Pat, who had wandered over. Pat is very outgoing and had gotten her picture taken with Anne Perry the day before! She said, “You have to go up to her and tell her she got your necklace!” Was she kidding? “I would never do that!” I heard myself say to Pat.

In Part 2, we’ll see whether I would—or would not—ever do that to Anne Perry!

The (L)On(e)ly Editor: A “Rewriter” Among Writers

writers_crop380w

It started in May 2012 with a tap on my shoulder after an author talk at the local library. At the end of the session, I raised my hand and boldly mentioned to the new author, a local fiction writer, that I was an “out of work editor.” She wasn’t particularly interested, but the man sitting behind me apparently was.

Something about the word “editor” must have resonated with the shoulder tapper, who explained that his creative writing group met every Friday afternoon at the library. Would I be interested in joining them? He didn’t exactly say why he’d invited me, but now that the world of academic editing didn’t seem to want me to rewrite (I use the term very loosely) anymore, an invitation to actually write caught my attention. At first, I was only mildly interested in being the token editor in a group of adult nonprofessional (unpublished) creative writers and wasn’t sure  I was ready to join their ranks as a writer. But I decided to try it and find out.

What had begun a year or so earlier as a fiction and memoir-writing group, the project of a creative writing student who had since moved on after graduation, had become a spinoff in which a few people were writing, but many were not. We continued to meet and tried various ways to inspire ourselves to write through DVD courses, in-person exercises, rotating facilitator-led sessions, and the like. I occasionally presented some editor-type input. But except for a few people who submitted writings now and then (at least since the time I joined), this was more a gathering than a group.

Some months later, at a time when most members apparently felt the need for change, we elected a steering committee (of which I found myself chair for a while) and split into subgroups according to writing form: long fiction, short fiction, and memoir/anything goes. Suddenly, these smaller groups—four or five members in each—were actually and enthusiastically writing. And now I faced a double challenge. Wanting to seamlessly transform myself from academic editor to creative writer, I was eager to start writing fiction. But finally finding myself one among other writers, here I was with my purple editing pen ready, but my own writer’s fingers suspended over the keyboard—I was fearful of making the transition. Being the only editor in a group of writers was confusing, creating a dilemma born of the ability to see the value and potential in the work of others combined with the humility—and fear—of finding out what others might see in the work I would do when I finally found the courage to start.

Despite my identity crisis, I began to write and turned in a couple of chapters from my new historical mystery novel and a few sections of a historical mystery novella, seeds planted in unfertilized soil. But unable to remove my tight-fitting editor’s hat, I stumbled over my  efforts, getting in my own way as I wavered between fact-finding and free-flowing thought. Roughly mashing together hasty research and stories with no clear direction because I couldn’t decide on the genre or what I wanted to happen in the worlds I was creating, I realized my yarns were actually twisted balls of threads—but, judging from reactions, evidently yarns with merit, and maybe even a little magic. So much to write, but so much to learn. . . .

As if teetering on the razor’s edge between editor and writer hasn’t been difficult enough, I am still learning the subtle differences between editing in a professional environment and critiquing in a nonprofessional peer setting. Beyond that, I need to understand how critiquing induces good writing. But as an editor-cum-critiquer, how could I possibly stop being authoritarian? Even though I know creative writing has somewhat fluid rules, I can’t not see things that editors are taught to home in on. Yet I know this isn’t exactly what beginning authors are looking for from peer reviewers—they want to create good stories and interesting characters. They seek critiques more than tweaks, impressions more than prescriptions.

At one meeting, I asked my writing colleagues how they thought critiquing creative writing differed from editing it. Someone said these were right- (critiquing) vs. left- (editing) brain activities. This begins to get at the differences, but distinctions remain somewhat difficult to articulate. The repertoire of editorial skills I’d acquired as an academic editor had left me ill equipped to answer my own question—or even to ask it in the first place.

After further reflection, however, here’s what I think I know: Critiquing is not synonymous with editing, by which I mean the hands-on reworking of text, one eye on the details, the other on the whole picture. Critiquing is reacting—not redacting—by asking questions and suggesting other approaches. Yet the two functions have significant overlap, not the least being their primary purpose—to help authors improve their writing. And the fastest way to learn what critiquing is? Submit your own work for peer review.

As a newcomer in a creative writing group, you need to leave your biases at the door and recognize that—unless you are a published author—the others in the room actually are your peers. You can’t stand apart as an editor, as a teacher, or as a competitor. You’re laying bare part of your soul and inviting virtual strangers and incipient friends to comment on it. Remembering what peer reviews were like in my technical writing classes in graduate school, I feel lucky to be among gifted amateurs who haven’t learned or been exposed to the vitriol of aggressive, cold judgments. Sitting in an intimate group of fellow writers talking story, character, and craft, while sometimes tedious and stressful, has been overwhelmingly some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

An editor in a professional situation stands apart from authors and their brainchildren, coolly observing how well the work has been rendered. Being removed makes this kind of work possible, even if one is passionate about the editorial process. (I am not exploring here the various editorial roles one finds in publishing houses, but generalizing based on common notions of what hands-on editing is.) Critiquing in a nonprofessional peer-to-peer setting is more personal, more interdependent. It is also, to some extent, more subjective than editing—critiquers are often blatantly contradictory. Critiquing is also more emotional, dare I say it, and somewhat less cerebral—but no less thoughtful—than editing. Those who critique, unlike those who edit, have more responsibilities to authors’ dreams and fewer rules about how authors express them.

What do writers want from peer reviews? Accolades, of course, oohs and aahs, hearing that the reviewers couldn’t put the writing down—that it made them cry, or laugh, or relate, or change their lives—or, best of all—write better themselves. Short story, novel chapter, memoir . . . it doesn’t matter. Authors want to wow those who read them. Then real life happens. An author might submit something for group review only to be greeted with silent stares—how deflating!—or serenaded with earnest comments about what could have been better—damn, they’re right!

In a supportive environment, authors may feel a bit chagrined when their reviewers seem bemused rather than bedazzled, but they will go home and write better as a result of insightful reactions to their work. Good editing may achieve a similar result, but it feels very different to be instructed rather than inspired, revised rather than reinvigorated, edited rather than enlightened. Hands-on editing puts the final burnish on good writing. Heart-to-heart critiquing fuels the fire that creates it.

My group members and I are not all that different as writers, so we can nurture one another’s talent, expressed or latent, without class distinction. As students of writing, we are self-taught. Amateurs we may be, but in some cases gifted ones. Who knows? We may even incubate something publishable, although what that means in today’s changing world of publishing-house mergers and self-publishing technologies requires a lot of educated guessing and adventurous exploration to figure out.

Having reviewed my group members’ work and experienced their critiques of mine, I am convinced not only of their evolving talent, but of their good intentions. Undoubtedly, whatever I continue to produce as I learn to translate the inner world of my imagination into shared experience through writing will be flawed in some way or another. But in my group, the review process is handled with kindness, humor, and a sense of mutuality. Gradually, this editor is becoming a writer who critiques and a reviewer who is critiqued.

At this stage of life, moving toward the creative side of the writing world is beginning to feel liberating. And doing it in an environment where people care as much about others’ work as they do their own (well, almost) is truly enjoyable. If any of my stories ever make their way from my head into others’ hands, that will be the ultimate critique—and proof that writing isn’t necessarily a lonely enterprise.