--Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible--
--Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond--
--The door to spirituality truly must be opened from the inside--
I just completed a four-week class on the life and work of Jalalud’din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet. Rumi is not new to me. I first discovered him as a teenager and have been reading and loving his work ever since. Isn't it amazing that he remains, after more than seven centuries, the most popular and well-read poet in the world. Rumi believed that art both heals and transforms. He believed human beings were sent into the world to do a particular work specific to the person. We all have many branches and we spread out in thousands of different ways. Rumi asks us to remember “the deep root of your being.”
For me, that deep root is writing, especially poetry. I know this by my behavior. Whenever I wake up with a poem, or the seeds of one, inside my head, I go straight to the kitchen table, still in my pajamas, pull out a notebook and start to write. I keep writing until there is nothing left inside me.
Sometimes this process goes on for hours and I will end up with 50 different drafts. And once I get it right, I feel ecstatic. So happy I want to become a whirling dervish, dance around and sing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But this is what it feels like to be in touch with the deep root of your being.
The following poem is the first one I’ve written since taking the Rumi class. I woke up with the image of the dandelion and how it propagates itself--blazing yellow flower--cottony ball tumbling into wind--and the following spring, another blazing yellow flower. From there, my mind leapt to my children, the death of their father--his cremation, his ashes and the box that held them.
It was interesting for me to see the subtle influences of the Rumi class in this poem--(its facilitator was one of those guides sent to me from beyond). My original title was “Cremation”. It didn’t feel right. The title needed to reveal something about the poem not completely obvious from the content. When I shared it with my daughter (who often acts as a midwife to me during the birth of a poem) we came to realize this one is about transformation and the fluent nature of time-- past, present, and future. It's about Samsara—the Sanskrit word that refers to the theory of death, rebirth and the cyclicality of all life. Something Rumi was very familiar with and was part of his teachings.
Where Time Touches Eternity
At the crematorium, a man in a black suit,
yellow rosebud tucked into his lapel,
hands her a mahogany box carved with sailboats.
“It’s heavier than it looks,” he warns.
“Six pounds, thirteen ounces.”
In the first photo pasted in her baby book,
she is swaddled in a pink blanket,
six pounds, thirteen ounces,
cradled in the crook of her father’s arm.
His face, often stern, is soft,
frozen in wonder as he greets the last
of his five children—the daughter who
thirty years later will mother him
as he moves from professor to toddler--
like a birthing gone backwards.
She will walk him through a meadow of
dandelion blossoms—tiny yellow suns that blaze
and bow with the breeze. For a summer moment,
she’ll pause to weave daisy-chain necklaces and
with a boy’s heart he’ll greet honey bees fat with pollen,
then turn his attention to one flower gone to seed--
a cottony bubble to carry his wishes into the wind.
Though she would always be his child,
he could no longer place himself between
her and the rest of the world, no longer weather
the first blows for her. But for seven years, she
stood up for him, believed her love could save him.
As she straps the box onto the passenger seat,
she hears his voice, as she has many times.
She now knows the dead never stop talking.
This time he says, “Let’s go for ice cream.”
She laughs out loud and pulls into Baskin-Robbins
for his favorite—a double strawberry waffle cone.
Later, she’ll find the tree where he carved their names,
scatter some ashes into the wind—her wish that he,
like the dandelion, might blow across the hillside,
replant himself, then rise up and take a bow.
John Martin Taedu Clayton blowing his wishes into the wind
We all have things in our lives we regret—grief and losses that weigh us down. My brother Grady's death is one such grief for me. He has been dead for 17 years, but it's a rare day I don't think about him, remember something from our childhood when he was the boy who loved me best. He was big brother to me, but often played the father role as well.
He was the one who took off the training wheels and ran along side my wobbly bicycle as I learned to ride. (As many of you know from my earlier blogs, our father was crippled by a grenade during WWII) It was Grady who tightened my roller skates with a key he kept on a string around his neck, taught me how to climb trees and shoot a Beebe gun. In the third grade, Grady took me to my first, and only father/daughter dance. I was so proud of my handsome, big brother. After dinner, when weather permitted, we played outdoors with the neighborhood kids until the street lights came on and told us it was time to go home.
On warm summer evenings, after we’d had our baths and were dressed in pajamas, our mother would sometimes spread a quilt on the grass in the backyard. Grady and I would sprawl out on our backs and look up at the stars. He’d point out the big dipper, but I couldn't see what he saw. He told me to connect the stars with an imaginary line, like in the connect- the-dots books that entertained us on rainy days. And it worked--I saw the big dipper for the first time.
It was also Grady who helped me move into my dorm room and later my first apartment. He used to visit me at the University of Delaware and take me out for dinner. What do I regret? My beautiful brother gained an enormous amount of weight as a middle-aged adult. He became so heavy it was hard for me to look at him. I never, not once, stopped loving him, but I did stop looking at him. And I'm deeply ashamed of that. Beneath the weight, my brother was still there. And all I needed to do was look into his eyes to find him. I miss him so much. Each spring when the forsythia bloom, I look at those clusters of yellow blossoms and think of him.
There are no streetlights in my neighborhood now. But when night falls, I often look up into the star-studded sky and imagine him there, gathering the dust and sprinkling it on the people he loves. It took many years for me to write a poem about the day he died. I will share a portion of it with you—the part where, by the magic or poetry, he is brought back to life. Ironically, I wrote it on the 17th anniversary of his death. It came pouring out of me, as if it had been inside all along, just waiting to be seen.
In the photograph that precedes it, I am three years old and Grady is six. He was a beautiful boy. Adored by his little sister. And now that he is gone, I wish I'd loved him better--especially at the end when it would have mattered so much to him. He loved his family and his church. When he was mobile, he was the first one to offer help to others. And when he was no longer able to move around so easily, he had a telephone ministry with those who were in need of a gentle giant with a sympathetic ear.
My big brother taught me many things in life. In death he taught me to always remember love is so much bigger than embarrassment or shame. None of us are perfect. And maybe it is the imperfect who are the truly beautiful people--the real heroes among us.
THIS WEIGHT I CARRY
On the March day my brother’s big heart
stopped beating, forsythia burst into
yellow blossoms outside his bedroom window
and one crocus opened its purple-petaled eye.
Each blade of grass seemed numbered as it bent
beneath black boots that marched him across his yard.
Neighbors spoke in soft whispers,
clutched Bibles fat with mercy for their home-bound
church brother. As his body was taken away,
they hung their heads, then hurried home
to bake him chocolate cakes and casseroles.
How easy it is to love what is gone.
As minutes tick back into memory, I disassemble
my big brother and me. Break us apart like
pieces of a gigantic puzzle, fragments of love
stronger than obsession, fear or shame.
When I connect them to the place fantasy and longing merge,
we will stretch our arms, weightless as wings, and fly.
Together we’ll wade barefoot in the shallow creek
behind our house in Collins Park, listen to our mother
sing hymns in the garden while sun dries our mud pies
on the flat rocks. We’ll hold our funeral processions
for dead birds, oatmeal-box coffins lined with
fragrant orange peels that linger on our fingertips.
The ebony trill of my clarinet in the summer air.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
From Essential Rumi
For me, as I suspect is true for many writers, I need to write about powerful experiences before I can fully comprehend them. This Christmas my son and his family from Chicago rented a house In La Jolla and we travelled down from Oregon to spend Christmas together. My daughter lives in San Diego. The day before we arrived, their father, my ex-husband of almost 30 years, was admitted to the hospital. He has been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for several years.
December 20, 2014 – I am in the hospital in La Jolla with my two kids and their dad who is near death. He has pneumonia and a urinary tract infection. He can’t eat or drink anything without aspirating it. And he can't cough. So he is receiving no nourishment. He looks as if he weighs about 80 pounds. His directive indicates he does not want a feeding tube, so I suspect he will die while we are here or shortly after we leave.
When I stood over John's bed, he was awake and his face broke out in a big smile when he saw me. He was having a lucid day and he knew exactly who I was. It was clear he wanted to say something to me, but his voice was barely more than a whisper. I put my face very close to his and he said, "I'm sorry." It was heartbreaking, but beautiful and sincere. I told him I was sorry, too. I told him it was okay.
After the divorce, we made a big effort to stay friendly, to share holidays so the children didn't have to choose between their parents. I'm not saying there weren't rough times, there were, but something fundamentally strong and good remained between us.
December 25, 2014
This turn of events certainly changed the face of Christmas. But not in the way one would expect. In many ways, it was the best Christmas ever. John gave us the kind of gifts that matter. The ones you don't have to unwrap or open. He gave us moments of lucidity, laughter, forgiveness, reunion, memories, and his profound courage as he fought to hang on a little longer. Our family was reunited in this final act of love.
It will be with heavy hearts that David and I leave La Jolla tomorrow, but we are comforted by Hospice and the enormous support and relief they have already provided to Bonnie. She has worked hard and long on her father's behalf. He could not have had a better advocate or daughter. My heart is bursting with pride for these two remarkable adults our children have become.
It is hard to see my grown children crying as they so tenderly care for him. They read to him from I Corinthians. As I watch them, I see such love on their faces. I suppose no one can ask for more than to be surrounded by the people who love you as you pass over. At first I thought I'd be really uncomfortable here--what is my role? John and I divorced nearly 30 years ago. And yet what I see is that love doesn't die. You can get pretty angry with someone, but if you ever loved, you always will.
There has never been a time in my life when I've been more proud of Bonnie and Dave as they watch over their dad as he passes from this life into the next. Today, they read to him again from I Corinthians—such an incredibly beautiful passage about what it really means to love—and before we left, they stood together at his bedside singing acapella every verse of Amazing Grace--one of John's favorites. The halls in the hospital quieted as others stopped to listen. All I could do was stand beside them with tears streaming down my face. What a testament to the power of love. I have been blessed with incredible children and how could I not continue to love, on some level, the man who made them with me.
December 26, 2014
This morning my son and I visited the assisted care facility to say goodbye to his dad. We both knew we wouldn't see him alive in this life again. He looked so small, still, and weak. Hospice has taken over his care and no extraordinary measures are being given to keep him alive. He is fed only if he asks for food. I stood by his bedside for a moment, touched his cheek and kissed him on the forehead, whispered, "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places." His eyes fluttered, but didn't open. I stepped back and our son moved into my spot.
When David spoke, his father opened his eyes and said, "Davey, I'm trapped in this cage," then shut his eyes again. Dave and I spent a few moments crying in each other’s arms. I told him he'd been a wonderful son and that his father had been proud of him his entire life. I told him that I saw his father when I watched David be daddy to his own small children.
And then we left the room, closed the door and walked out to the car. There were no more words.
As Rumi said, "The world was too full to talk about."
The next stop on our blog tour is Grants Pass, Oregon—a small town nestled on the banks of the Rogue River. It’s a picturesque place surrounded by the Siskiyou and Cascade Mountain ranges—an ideal setting for the writing life to unfold.
I’ve been passed the torch for this “My Writing Process” blog by the very talented Helen Hanson, author of three technothrillers including 3 LIES, #1 on Amazon’s Best Technothrillers list. All that fame, and she's a really nice person, too. Check out Helen’s work here: http://www.helenhanson.com.
What am I working on?
While I have been writing fiction for more than a decade, Wellstone Press published my first collection of Poems, A Question of Mortality, earlier this summer. As most of you know, poetry rarely makes any money. It is a labor of love—a passion that rises out of a need to understand more about our lives and how we choose to live them.
While giving public readings and actively marketing the poetry collection, I’ve been rewriting my novel, Redemption Lake. Liz Kracht, of Kimberly Cameron Agency, is representing this novel. Our first series of submissions brought 7 rejections. I’ve read each one of them carefully, trying to find a common denominator and understand the reasons for the rejections. Once I had a firm handle on the problem, I asked Liz for the opportunity to rewrite before our second round of submissions.
It’s been a fascinating process and I’ve had to revise a character I thought I knew well, digging deeper into what makes him uniquely Matthew Garrison. Matt is a seventeen-year-old boy, a poet, who is in love with Crystal Reynolds, a thirty-three year old woman and the mother of Matt’s best friend. After the worst night of his life, Matt visits Crystal, finally tells her the truth about his feelings. They drink too many beers and before the night is over, they have sex. Matt is happier than he’s ever been. Crystal is horrified by what they’ve done and insists this can never happen again. She takes Matt’s keys and makes him sleep off the beer before driving. When he awakens, he finds Crystal murdered.
I’m nearly finished this rewrite and I think I’ve addressed the problem of editors not connecting with Matt as deeply as they wanted to. Unraveling a character to get to his core emotions is not always easy—because in doing so, writers are forced to confront many of our own demons.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I write family dramas, often encased in a mystery:A seventeen-year-old, estranged from her father and stepmother, is babysitting her two-year-old half sister, Emily, when she is kidnapped from Ashland’s Lithia Park playground.
A teenager who murders her rapist father, disappears, renames and reinvents herself. Twenty years later, she is living a good life as the wife of a medical school dean, when their five year-old son is diagnosed with a chemotherapy-resistant leukemia and needs a bone-marrow transplant to survive. She must go back to rural Kentucky, find her birth family, and face murder charges in an attempt to save her son.
Unlike a typical mystery, where the primary concern is to find the perpetrator, I am equally concerned with the family dynamics and how tragedy unravels each life and forces the character to confront their inner demons and grow in ways they didn’t believe possible.
Why do I write what I do?
At a recent PNWC (Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference) I listened to Bob Dugoni give a keynote address in which he asked us to write down some of the things that have defined us as individuals.
I am defined by my family of origin, by growing up with four brothers near the Delaware River and by having a father crippled by a grenade during World War II. Though I was neither conceived nor born at the time of his injury, I was and continue to be defined by it in some important ways. Two of my brothers died at thirty-nine. One a suicide, the other a victim of a hit and run accident. My mother was a southerner, with a beautiful singing voice. I believe much of my poetry arose from the sound of her voice filling places that would otherwise be dark. I am defined by my two children and the many lessons they taught me about life and what it means to be human. Perhaps the first requirement for good writing is some kind of truth—a connection between what is being written about and the author’s own experience in the world of fact, dream and imagination. I was grateful for Bob Dugoni’s exercise and pleased to realize I am writing what I was born to write—Family Dramas.
How does my writing process work?
I rarely start a novel without knowing how it is going to end. Often an ending is implicit in the beginning—so the two are symbiotic and the beginning needs the ending to proceed. In the writing of my last few novels, and I suspect all future ones, I write a “step sheet”. In this document, I give a brief summary of what happens in the scene, how it moves the story forward, and how the characters are changed by the events of the scene. I usually have about 60-70 steps before I start to write the novel. These steps are not cast in stone and they change frequently. But it is much easier to throw out a paragraph than it is to dump a 20-page scene. Doing a step sheet allows me to see the manuscript it its entirety. I indicate the growth for each of my characters (pole to pole--so they are dramatically changed by the events of the novel.) And one of the most helpful tools for me in writing a novel is the central dramatic story question. (CDQ)
Will Catherine Henry face a past in which she murdered her rapist father in order to save the life of her 5-year-old son? Once I have the CDQ in place, I use it as a guide for what should and should not be in the novel. Each scene in the novel should be propelling us toward the answer to that question. It saves a lot of unnecessary work, cutting and rewriting.
When I decide to write the opening line of a novel, I have a strange, but necessary ritual. I put on my writer’s cap and sit at the kitchen table with a yellow-lined tablet. I always write the first line in longhand—searching for a hook, a sentence that raises a story question and will entice the reader to go on. I may fill several pages with “first lines” until I find the perfect one. Once I have it, I head to the computer and don’t write another line in long-hand until it is time to start the next novel. I know. It’s weird. Writers are weird and usually proud of it.
It is my pleasure to introduce you to Peter Hogenkamp, a Vermont physician, husband, father of four and author of The Jesuit Thriller series. Several months ago, Peter started a website called Prose & Cons where industry professionals and authors, most of them represented by Liz Kracht of Kimberly Cameron, come together to share their writing lives and insights in blogs that are posted on a daily basis. Check it out. And learn more about Peter at http://peterhogenkamp.com