Stage Fright – for Writers?

I never suffered from stage fright – but is there such a thing as “writer’s fright?”

I never suffered from stage fright – not the debilitating, get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-you’ll-have-to-shove-me-out-there kind. Sure, I was excited and nervous before I went onstage, but once I was out there in front of an audience, I was fine.

I was home.

It was fun.

It was real.

I’ve been writing for as long as I had been dancing (from pink tutus to pink toe shoes, days long over) and have been singing (may my singing days end only with my last breath), but yesterday, for the first time, I experienced a kind of “writer’s fright.”

Because yesterday, I gave thumb drives containing the draft of my book to my brothers. I’m not seeking comments from them. I just thought family mentioned peripherally in the book should be among the first to read it.

I’m not sure they will, but at least I can say I gave them the chance. No surprises.

I offered the same opportunity to the Bulgarian. He demurred. But I tried. Then I promised him I would never contact him again.

Sunday, I’ll be giving the book-on-a-memory-stick my two best-friend-former-work-colleagues, and I am seeking their comments.

Which I know will be brutally honest.

Ranging, I imagine, from “are you out of your mind? Destroy all copies of this, now!” to “well, a really great editor might be able to make it tolerable.”

(Of course, I’m secretly hoping for, “this is a work of genius! It’s poignant, funny, gripping, heartrending – I couldn’t put it down! It made me laugh and cry – simultaneously!” or, “this must be published – I’m contacting every literary agent I know and telling them they have to read this immediately!” I can dream, can’t I?)

These friends have never hesitated to be straight with me, and even when we disagreed vehemently, we’d get over it.

So why the “writer’s fright?”

I’m not worried about criticism of the writing itself. I’m happy for constructive criticism that helps me fix that.

I am worried that the book will change the way my brothers and my friends see me. They will read things they didn’t know about before, that might shock them or make them cringe, or see me as weak (even though they already know that I’m ridiculous).

As I watched my book churn its way out of my aging printer (to have a hard copy, in case every other form of backup fails), and clipped into into a (quaint, retro?) three-ring binder,  I felt a kind of resignation.

My truest self is in that book. I don’t know why it is easier for me to reveal myself in a blog, and now a book, intended for large audiences of strangers, than it is for me to share my deepest self with the very limited audience of family and friends.

Is it a tabula rasa thing? Strangers haven’t known me before, so they’ll judge me only on what I put before them? Whereas family and friends know more?

I don’t think so. I think that writers have essentially the same deal with their audiences as actors and improvisers do.
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In the theater, we “suspend disbelief.” We “look through the fourth wall.” We make a deal: “for the duration of this show, we agree that the emotions, thoughts and reactions  elicited in us are not real, and as soon as the lights come back up, we may pretend they never existed.”

Whereas every actor and improviser worthy of being in front of a live audience knows damn well that what happens on stage is much more true and real than what we, outside the theater, agree is reality.

Because real reality is just too much for most of us, most of the time.

So we bury it in stories. Including true ones.

Humanities 101 teaches that artists (actors, dancers, musicians, composers, writers, poets, visual artists etc.) unearth reality for us – often embedded in metaphor, or draped in mystery, or flowing in a melodic line that will get you every time – but that one way or another unmasks something that we ordinarily need to keep veiled. They give us a “safe” way to experience the fullness of our humanity for the duration of the show, or the length of the book. Then we are allowed to go on about our everyday stuff, feeling somehow edified, unburdened or relieved.

(If unmasking reality that most humans would prefer to keep hidden most of the time is your job, is it any wonder so many artists are kind of nuts?)

But hey, all I’ve done is write a memoir (like everyone else in every coffee shop on the planet has done, or is doing right now.) I’m not claiming any great artistic mantle for myself. I just have a true story to tell that I hope has some universality to it, that will help anyone who reads it feel a bit of “real” reality, the reality we don’t talk about, but that we allow ourselves to safely visit in the pages of the books we love.

Wishing you the comfort and catharsis of a good story, a great show, or some beautiful music, I remain,

Your humble, devoted, nervous, wary, and waiting for reactions,

Ridiculouswoman

 

Living Out Loud, or, Middle-Aged Woman Rules, Part Four

“Oomph.” “Umph.”
And “Me-Ow.”

Middle age comes with a soundtrack.

As in “oomph!” every time you sit down, or stand up.

As in “umph” for each step up the stairs.

Or “ow” when the knee, or the arthritic finger, or the kink in the neck flares up.

Sophie cat, up there, makes middle-aged meowing sounds, too, when she plops down on the rug, or heaves herself up on the bed, making it by a claw.  Meee-OOOWW!

There was an episode of Frasier where Martin was niggling Frasier about becoming middle-aged, asking “can you get out of a chair without saying, “oomph?” I’ve searched for a gif of it, but can’t find one. I think it was in an episode called, “Fortysomething.” Ha! Forty! I guess in the ’90s, forty was considered middle aged. But I’m all, “hey, sixty is the new forty! – or thirty five, even! Right? Right???” Cha, I wish.

Lately I’ve added, “aaaaaahhhhhuuuugh” or “ooohwaah” when I bend down (from the waist, to spare the knees – at least I’m still pretty “stretched out” from my younger dancing days) to pick something up.

“Umph” and “oomph” and “aaaaauuuuugh” as accompaniment to my every movement have become almost involuntary.  They help me get through the motions of the day. A little vocal punctuation to help me get up the stairs, out of the chair, follow through on the yard work and the gardening tasks.

But recently I signed up for our local park district fitness center, where sound effects are, um, sort of…not-so-much.

I have begun a six-month fitness plan, intended to get me (us, because my daughter needs to move, too) moving through the winter (winter is coming). While I love a brisk walk through autumn woods, or on a snowy bright winter day, the stark truth is that walking, by itself, will not prevent the creeping return of pounds lost only when I was on my feet all day, lifting and pulling heavy things working in warehouses I don’t work in anymore.

So heigh-ho, heigh-ho, off to the gym we’ll go, where after 10 minutes “warming up” on the treadmill, 10 minutes on the rowing machine (imagining a lovely row down the Cherwell in Oxford, where long ago I’d watch the college rowing teams drill) and a few reps with tiny barbels, I’ll push and pull a cart weighted with 270 pounds, with wheels set to the highest level of resistance, back and forth down half the indoor track as many times as I can (ok, twice down and back) while my daughter semi-reluctantly plays with the heavy ropes.

So far, so good.

Except for the risk that I’ll add sound effects to the proceedings.

Fortunately, many other users of the facility employ earbuds. There are a few ladies of a certain age, like me, walking briskly around the indoor track, or using weight machines set at age-appropriate levels. There are several white-haired gentlemen working to preserve such mobility and physical strength as they may have remaining, and a smattering of younger, mid-career men maniacally testing their endurance on stair machines, treadmills or ellipticals, pursuing conquest, dominance, mastery – or something. We stay out of their way.

All in all, though, this is a pretty laid-back facility.  We seem to have discovered the times of day when it isn’t crowded. Nevertheless, having realized that when in motion I’m in danger of making “oomphing” noises, I have imposed a few gym-inspired middle-aged-woman rules, to wit:

  • Arrive in make-up and lipstick. It doesn’t matter if you’ll sweat it off or shower it off later; what matters is that the other users believe you look like a hag only AFTER a vigorous workout. (Good for you! Way to go for the burn, lady!)
  • Wear BLACK fitness pants, bootcut if you can find them, and a not-too-tight-but-not-too-loose t-shirt in a flattering color, v-necked, because it makes you look a little taller and you’ve been putting that Oil of Olay night cream on your décolleté too, haven’t you, and damn that looks pretty good for a woman of your age, but go for elbow length sleeves, if you can find them, because you’re trying to get rid of your wings, not flap them in public. EEEEEWWW.
  • NEVER shower at the facility. In the name of all that is holy, do that at home.
  • Restrict sounds to millennial-style yoga-breathing – inhale! Exhale as you push! (Wait a minute, that sounds like childbirth….)
  • SMILE, though your legs are aching (you know the tune), Smile, though your abs are shaking, smile, while you push the machine for your tush… Etc.

I’m supposed to get the verdict, or at least some insight, into the source of the ache in my bones from the rheumatologist on Friday. I want to believe I can’t bend the ring finger of my left hand because Mike isn’t letting go, or is peeved that I took off my wedding ring, but from what the doc said on the initial exam, it could be anything from calcium deposits to something systemic and vaguely terrifying involving my liver or pancreas.

I’ll keep you posted.

Until then, I remain, your grunting, oophing, umphing, trying to keep smiling while sweating,

Ridiculouswoman

Serenity in Solitude, Anxiety Alone

Isn’t surviving loss supposed to make you … (l)ess prone to worry and fear?

I enjoy my own company. (According to friends, colleagues and former teachers, I also enjoy the sound of my own voice.  A bit too much, apparently. Fair enough, working on that.)

I have long found serenity in solitude. I enjoy a night at home with a good book and some classical music on the radio. I go to the opera by myself and enjoy watching the crowd watching each other at intermission. I write, and sitting alone at my computer, writing, is probably my favorite thing to do.

Before I met Mike, I had made peace with being a single woman. When I was in college, I drove myself to California from Chicago and back once a year. As a young professional, I took myself to Disneyworld (where one of the “cast members” asked me, when I stepped up solo in the Pirates of the Caribbean souvenir photo studio, “couldn’t you get anyone to come with you?”) and I took myself skiing in Breckenridge.  I went to theater and movies and bars. I enrolled in improv classes and ended up performing 4 shows a week. I had fun. I didn’t stop hoping to meet a guy, but I didn’t pin my happiness on it.

Only then, when I’d learned to be happy on my own, did Mike show up.

What happened to that self-assured solitude?

Lately, when I have a moment or two by myself, cracks appear; I feel my composure  peeling away, flaking off, like the veneer on the antique composition face of Baby Margaret, my Mother’s childhood doll.

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Baby Margaret, my Mother’s childhood doll. She’s wearing a bonnet my mother knitted, and a dress that I wore as an infant.

Right when I need to recapture confidence and even serenity in solitude, I find anxiety when I’m alone.

I was cleaning the bathroom and I suddenly started breathing hard, on the brink of sobs, thinking about taking care of my daughter as I try to help her gain more independence, and feeling inadequate. Talking to Mike, aloud, asking for help.

I’m nervous when driving home from choir rehearsal in the dark. It’s only 15 minutes away, but in my car alone I feel weirdly vulnerable, exposed. Fearful, even. As if I’d left a door unlocked somewhere, putting valuable things at risk.

That’s not me, or at least not who I think I am. I think of myself as strong, capable, enduring; sometimes soft and sentimental, maybe, but no ‘fraidy cat, no scaredy-pants.

I come from hardy stock. Women who gave birth on leaky 17th century ships crossing the Atlantic, or without doctors in remote farmhouses in Maine and Massachusetts. I myself gave birth without painkillers. So I’m disappointed when I feel panic rising.

Mike could calm me down when I felt panicky, which was often, back when I was working high-pressure jobs with toxic bosses or impossible goals. I got some major panic mileage out of those times. It drove my colleagues crazy, and tried Mike’s patience to the breaking point at times.

I kept that panic button pictured up there (with the Hallmark characters called Hoops and Yoyo, who kind of crack me up) on my desk, to remind myself of how charming I am when consumed with anxiety.  Here’s what it sounds like when you push it:

Sweet, huh?

What happened to that confident single woman, who travelled alone, went where she pleased, and knew she could take care of herself?

Well, she got married. Became someone who took care of others, as a mother, a wife, a breadwinner, a caregiver – and now a widow.

Isn’t getting older supposed to make you bolder? Isn’t surviving loss supposed to make you wiser? More open and easygoing? Less prone to worry and fear?

It doesn’t seem to be working for me that way just now.

Which brings out the spirits of the hardy New-England ancestresses in my head, especially Grammie E, a retired New England schoolmarm, thirty years a widow herself after caring for her dying husband, in her mid-70’s, wiping her hands on her apron after producing a kitchen full of  homemade donuts at 5 am, telling me to just pick myself up and go outside for a good long walk, deah.

Then come home and scrub something.

Well, I did get the salad veg drawer in the fridge washed out today. So there’s that.

OK, Grammie. I’ll suck it up and do my job to build my daughter as independent a life as she may want.

And then?

Well, if my knees can take it, I’m going skiing.

Maybe I’ll meet a nice guy on the slopes, tee hee.

Daydreaming is what makes solitude serene.

Awaiting the rheumatologist’s report, while trying-to-stop-feeling-sorry-for-myself-and-get-my-creaking-joints-and-fat-ass-to-the-gym (or at least outside for a brisk walk),

I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, solitary,

Ridiculouswoman

Thankful Thursday Returns

Need more gratitude and laughter. Working on it…

Time for a little gratitude.

Let’s see, here.

There’s this: I’m grateful for my saggy mattress, with the me-shaped trough in the middle. I sink in, it rises up on either side of me and sort of hugs me. Not great for the back, but who doesn’t want a hug right before sleep?

I’m grateful for the inspiration of my daughter’s impulse to redecorate Mike’s room and turn it into a “computer lounge.” After a pretty comical struggle, it’s done, and it looks great, painted a saturated periwinkle-blue, with a new desk, a chair and ottoman and her bookcase. She also moved her stand-up mirror in there, clearing out her bedroom and making that seem much less cramped. Maybe we’ll paint that next.

And then my room. I’m having trouble deciding if I want to paint it – the only color I can come up with that’s different than the current pale yellow, is gray. Gray? Isn’t that kind of, I don’t know, grim? Not necessarily – I can think of it as an extension of the ocean-based palette of blues, greys, greens and sand colors that seems to have emerged in the new kitchen – a nice gentle dove grey might do nicely. And it really does need new carpet. I can feel the credit cards groaning.

I’m very grateful that my daughter and I seem to be pulling through – this time we are taking together is working, I think, to help us both in our grief, to turn it into something we carry with us but that doesn’t weigh us down; to turn from sadness to gratitude for what Mike gave us both in this life, and the sweet whispers of messages we still get from him, from the next.

I’m grateful that sometime over last weekend, this blog exceeded 500 visitors and 1500 views – so, an average of 3 views per visitor. That feels like support, like I’m not so alone in my occasional responsibility-fatigue. It’s good to know readers are out there.

I’m very grateful for the support of a few wonderful other bloggers who have offered consistent likes and comments. You guys lift me up and help me carry on. I’ve added a widget to show a graphic of the posts I’ve liked recently so people who who visit here might visit you, too, there, too. Because you’re really good and I enjoy reading your stuff.

But for all the visits and views, I still have less than 50 followers – Ha! I guess I’m a bit too much of a Debbie Downer for people to want to come back for more. This blog is supposed to be about “learning from loss to live with love and laughter.” I’ve written a lot about loss and love, but not a lot about laughter, lately. I guess I’ve been having a little trouble finding the funny. Working on it.

Speaking of working on it, I’ve signed us up for six months at the local park district fitness center. In the autumn I like to get most of my exercise walking outdoors, and we’ve started doing that this week, now that the weather has cooled a bit. But I know the only thing that really works to keep me from re-inflating to a giant human beach-ball shape is a super low-carb diet coupled with lifting heavy things. My brother the keto guy, who I think is unnaturally and probably unhealthily obsessed with his body mass index, swears by “lifting heavy things,” coupled with intermittent fasting and short bursts of intense exercise. Ergo, the gym. Because, you know, “winter is comin’ “.

So, that’s it for now. Just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, and have a nice day. (Really, I mean it. If I didn’t mean it, we’d be over there in the Snark Tank. I can feel something coming for over there, soon, but not just yet.)

Until then, I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, grateful, looking-for-laughs,

Ridiculouswoman

Middle-aged Woman Rules, Part Three

Dinah Shore was twenty years older than Burt Reynolds, and they had a hot romance.

Made me hopeful.

Until I looked in the mirror right after a shower.

Which caused me to formulate a new middle-aged woman rule to add to the original and as-amended rules:

  • Even if you have a magic mirror, NEVER, EVER LOOK IN THE MIRROR WHEN YOUR HAIR IS WET. Trust me, just don’t.

Corollary:

  • Do your face before you put the stuff that makes your curly hair curlier all over your hands, to work in to your wet hair. See original rules, “manage hair wherever it occurs. (emphasis added.”) Just sayin’.

Pleased that cooler weather has arrived, permitting the use of a hair dryer in an un-airconditioned environment, I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, disheveled,

Ridiculouswoman

Divestiture, Episode 4: Life is a Harold

Life circles back, in complex layers, like a Harold…

I first came across the idea of “synchronicity,” that thing where lots of people all over the planet seem to start thinking about the same thing at the same time, when I became interested in Jung, back in college. (I think the Police song came later. I think.)

As an improviser (after college, but still many years ago) I would experience a kind of synchronicity with my fellow players, when everybody seems to share the same insight or have the same thought or impulse at the same moment. It’s called the “group mind.”

The team I was on performed the “Harold,” from the early days of long-form improvisation. “Harold” is a thirty-minute (or so) performance involving games, scenes and monologues, in rounds of three. Each “scene” would return twice after its first appearance, with each repetition layering over, often in subtle or surprising ways that only come together at the end, on what came before.

It doesn’t work if any of the players try to predetermine or “script” what happens next. It only works if everyone is working off everyone else, and the next thing that happens, happens only because of whatever has happened before.

This sense that everything that happens is somehow connected to everything that happened before has been a theme in my life, and probably in yours, if you stop to think about it. You’ll suddenly remember a past part of your life that seems to have circled back around, but at a new and more mature or complex level. Like standing on a long spiral staircase, looking down at the previous circles of your life.

In my latest round of tidying up, getting rid of piles of old crap that oppress me now, a few moments of this helix-shaped laddering of life hit me in odd and unexpected ways. Which is kind of how it is supposed to work. To wit:

• Someone on one of the Facebook groups I participate in replied to a comment of mine by saying it was “en pointe” – and I said (truthfully) that “Ha! I used to dance “en pointe!” The next day, what did I find in the closet? A box full of old pointe shoes (really, really beat up pointe shoes) that I had saved from my teen years, and forgotten about. Smiled, and tossed them.

• Because I am having a period-style dress made to wear at an upcoming event celebrating the era of my favorite books, I suddenly remembered a dress I had made for myself, by hand. Again, back in college – I was flat broke, but I was one of the soprano soloists in “Messiah” for the Christmas concert, and I didn’t have a dress. So I went out and bought some really cheap red satin (which scandalized the orchestra, angry, I guess, that they had to wear the uniform “concert black.”) IMG_20180910_164019.jpgI ripped apart a sundress that fit me well, to use as a pattern. I laid the satin out on my dorm room floor, and came up with a way to make a criss-crossed bodice that formed cap sleeves without having to cut and sew sleeves separately. I attached that to a long, bias-cut skirt that came to a point in front. Except when I was done, one side of the skirt was shorter than and kind of off-center to the other. So I improvised a ruffle on that side, by hand again, to even it out. I loved that dress and was proud of designing it and sewing it together in a marathon all-nighter, a week or so before the concert. I couldn’t remember what I’d done with it. And what did I find in the closet? There it was, in the very bottom of a box, underneath old college papers, exam books (really? Why on earth did I save those?) and programs from recitals and performances long past. Tossed the exam books and papers, kept the programs and the dress.

• Very recently I wrote about my late husband Mike’s journals and what they revealed to me, after he died. And what did I find in the closet? A journal of my own that I had forgotten existed, that chronicled the first days and weeks of our romance – how we met, where we went together in those giddy, dizzying first days and weeks, and, sadly, how early in our relationship we started fighting. I found the earliest poems – written for me or read to me. My journal consumed only about 15% of the blank book it was written in, blazing briefly with the astonishment of those long, wild first days of love – a love that too quickly sank way down, beneath the surface, submerged for decades under the responsibilities of child-rearing and the stress of a long and difficult marriage; the love that returned to us in a profound, mature and painfully poignant way, at the end.

There’s nothing sentimental about improvisation. It’s there and then it’s not. It’s ephemeral. You can’t recreate a great “Harold.” You can only experience it while it is happening, and maybe remember how great it made you feel while you were in the midst of it.

Not unlike life.

Still tidying up, I remain,

Your loyal, devoted, moving onward one-cleaned-out-closet-at-a-time,

Ridiculouswoman

Divestiture, Episode Three: Boots, Barn Coat, Bike

Empty, yet still full…

These three have been the hardest.

The coat is just called a barn coat. We don’t have a barn, and even if you could have called the big red shed a barn, that’s gone now, accused of harboring racoons. But he liked the coat – great for fall yard work, lined with wool and warm.

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His coat is the beige one on the right, bigger, but made for a man’s flat, rectangular shape. I drown in it, but I can’t button it around me.

It stood up to buckthorn and other hazardous greenery. He’d trim the bushes in the in the summer, and wear that coat to trim them in the fall. I don’t have the gift, or the height, to trim them as well as he did, but now I have to try.

Doesn’t matter that I can’t use it. I love that coat and have held on to it for two years because, along with the boots up there, it forms an image of him in my mind that I don’t want to forget: bundled up, heading out to Home Depot to get something or other, weakened from the illness but determined to show me that he could participate in the manly art of bashing and rebuilding things going on all around him during the lunacy of kitchen- remodeling-while-husband-dying-of-cancer.

I bought him the boots the first winter of his diagnosis, when the infusion made him exceptionally sensitive to cold. At the time, his feet and ankles were so swollen with edema that I was afraid he was already actively dying, when the doc said he should have another 18 months. He hadn’t had the experience with dying people that I had, helping with Dad, then Mom, so he wasn’t afraid of the edema, just inconvenienced and perplexed by it. He couldn’t, or didn’t want to, try the boots on and asked that I take them back. He wore the size-too-big slippers I got him instead, that winter.

But by the next fall the edema was under control. He wanted to go outside, but he only had a shredded pair of walking shoes he refused to let me replace.

Which is when I told him that I had lied to him, I didn’t take the boots back. I hid them in the front hall closet.

“I knew you’d make it, and you’d need them.”

I fetched them, and they fit. He wore them occasionally that last winter, when he had just enough strength to drive himself to his infusions. He wore them the day of the trip to Home Depot, along with a sad, resigned, slightly apprehensive expression that is burned in my memory forever.

The tandem is is the hardest. Mike and our daughter became local celebrities on that bike, riding three miles to and from school every sunny day. He loved that bike.

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Mike and I had a huge fight about him giving a photo of himself and our daughter to a woman he met online. I had good reason to be furious, then. Now, I explained to our daughter that this picture shows just the bike, her feet, and Dad’s feet, but anybody in the world could see it. She said that’s OK.

It’s huge. When he found it at a bike shop 15 miles from home, it wouldn’t fit in the car, but he was so taken with it that he rode it home, solo. We went back to get the car the next day.

From then on, the two of them rode the tandem everywhere, befriending crossing guards, and charming other parents who were picking up and dropping off in cars.

It’s too big for me. I can’t sling my leg over it, and even if I could, I wouldn’t trust my strength or balance to ride her on it, now that she’s fully an adult woman.

Fall is a great season for biking, and as we all know, “winter is coming.” I’ll try to find a church or shelter that will give the coat and boots directly to a person in need. Or I’ll drive around with them in the car as I did last year, trying to spot someone of the right size on the street, who looks like they need them.

A local charity specializes in fixing up bikes and giving them away to people who need them or want them but can’t afford them. People bike a lot around here, some of necessity to and from work, even in the winter. That bike could be a sort of “bike pool” for two people who work at the same place.

Or maybe provide another special activity for another father and child.

I think I’m ready. I’ll always have the pictures – the physical photograph of the tandem, now in the one of our daughter’s “memories of Dad” photo albums, and the other, a memory only, but etched always in my mind, of Mike setting bravely off to the big box hardware store, wincing a little, just to show me he could, wearing that coat.

And those boots.

May they clothe the person who receives them with the love that infuses them. Amen.

Yours,

Ridiculouswoman.