The Writers Block

August 14th — How did that happen? It seems like just yesterday I was planning my trip to New Jersey to attend a family wedding and heading up to the Catskills for a reunion with my book club of 30+ years. I missed my July blog completely and now I’m wondering how to get in all the summer delights like baseball games and pool time in the few remaining weeks of summer.

Yesterday I stopped mid-chapter 41 of Book 2 in my Holly and Ivy mystery series and was eager to get back to it this morning, but in addition to planning summer pleasures, I’ve got this growing list of things to do, and at the top of the list for days has been a note to post an announcement about the wonderfully inspiring speakers, Anna Katherine Freeland and Carole Gallagher, who presented at our Sisters in Crime local chapter on August 3rd. Then I remembered I’d previously written a blog about The Writers Block, a workshop these two women facilitate at Perry Correctional Institute, a maximum security detention facility here in South Carolina. I decided I had to sit right down and get this blog out to the world.

Every Tuesday Anna Katherine Freeland and Carole Gallagher drive to Perry and work with a group of men who are part of the prisoners Character Based Unit, a program initiated by prisoners and “composed of men who have indicated a desire to make changes in their lives, even if they will spend the rest of their lives there.” The two women co-facilitate a weekly writing workshop where the men write in response to writing prompts, and the entire group participates in reading and discussing each piece, offering constructive critiques, starting with the strengths of the pieces they share.

Available at: www.thewritersblockproject.org.

The Writers Block has published Didn’t See It Coming, an anthology of their work. Reading their words, I find it just a little heart-crushing on this cloudy morning thinking that perhaps if these men had such inspiring teachers as Anna Katherine and Carole when they were in school to help them articulate in writing their universal feelings of anger, frustration and despair, they might not have committed the crimes they did.

The fact that these men now write to express their deepest feelings is quite moving. The fact that they do it so well is downright awesome. Learning that the men in The Writers Block write with a limited library, no internet access, no computers, with pen and paper, I am ashamed of my all-too-often, self-indulgent complaints and excuses for procrastinating when I know I should be writing.

In a blog I wrote last October, I was voicing the lamentations of a writer riddled with self-doubts, “wringing my hands, feeling like a fraud and a failure, wondering what in the world makes me think I can write.” That’s when I read the poem below written by Arimatia Buggs, a member of The Writers Block, in response to the writing prompt: “I write because”.

I write because I must
I write to release
To bring inner peace
To make sense of confusion
To focus life’s kaleidoscopic illusion
To mend the souls of those broken kindred spirits
Who feel what I feel and see what I see
But never penned the words so it was left up to me
I write because I must
I write because of peace, love, joy and pain
Stress, hurt and strain
I write to appreciate
I write to innovate
I write to reveal
What I see, know and feel
To cry and to vent
To forgive and relent
To reminisce of time spent
I write because I must
I write to breathe
I write because I believe
You can achieve everlasting life when you write
Living forever on a page
Then reincarnated–through reading–through windows of
The soul to stand again upon life’s stage
I write because I realize I am who I am because of words.
Words that moved me, taught me, grew me
Made me into the man that I am
I write because I must.

Inspiring words, indeed. To get a copy of Didn’t See it Coming (only $15), to donate to the project, or to learn more about The Writers Block, visit www.thewritersblockproject.org.

Retreat…No Surrender

Dictionary.com lists six definitions for the word retreat. Quite possibly the first one that comes to your mind, as it does to mine, is this one: “the forced or strategic withdrawal of an army or an armed force before an enemy.” This definition has a negative connotation, associated with surrender and defeat. But the retreat I want to talk about today is “the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy; retirement; seclusion.”

Laurelwood, the exercise and yoga facility at Skyterra (www.skyterrawellness.com)

Last week I spent seven days on a retreat…not the religious kind, though it definitely had its moments of spirituality. This retreat, focusing on health and well-being, took place at the Skyterra Wellness Retreat located near Brevard, North Carolina.

Why, you might ask if you’ve been following my blog, would someone, who is healthy, retired and spending most of her time walking the dog, gardening and reading, need to go on a retreat? I acknowledge that I am very lucky to enjoy good health, but I have noticed lately that I’m not as strong as I used to be and my balance is not what it should be either.

Many people go to Skyterra to lose weight. The program does provide nutritious meals and daily strength-building and yoga classes. But Skyterra’s focus is not weight loss. It’s healthy eating. Not exercising to burn calories, but exercising to build strength and improve mobility. This program is about health and wellness for individuals of any age, but particularly ideal for retirees who want to stay fit, active and able to enjoy our retirement.

I must admit the first day I was terrified that I would hurt myself. Everyone else seemed to be able to stretch and perform the exercises I could not. When it came to modified push-ups on an elevated box, I completed one, but got stuck in the down position on the second one requiring help to get back up. Bending, I could reach just a bit below my knees while everyone else was touching their toes or grasping their ankles. The day we did a class on balance, I had to stand near a wall when standing on one foot in order not to tip over, while others were fully stretched out, leaning forward like soaring eagles standing on one leg.

I wanted to take the whirlpool bathtub home with me.

After Day 1 I was certain I would not be able to get out bed on Day 2, but guess what? I had no aches or pains the next morning. I think the Epsom salt soak in my whirlpool bathtub had a lot to do with that. But I also think the yoga classes in the afternoon helped restore the muscles that got tested in the morning. Skyterra’s unique blend of activities gets you to move outside of your comfort zone, then helps you get back to center.

Yes, Day 1 was a humbling experience, but at no time did I feel embarrassed by my limitations. The people in my group were just lovely and encouraging, and the young instructors at Skyterra are truly amazing. They pay close attention to everyone and work with you on the areas where you are weakest, assuring that you don’t get hurt. Their support and encouragement is truly heartening.

On Day 2, I no longer worried about hurting myself. I did my best. It didn’t matter that everyone was better. By Day 6 I could feel that I was stronger and I could actually stand on one foot longer without tipping over. On Day 7, when we were re-assessed, I’d lost 2 inches off my waist, 1.4 % of body fat and gained 1.1% muscle mass. Not bad for a 65 year old, right? I admit it. I’m quite proud of myself.

Additionally, I feel confident that I can continue to improve because the strength-building and mobility routines we were taught, I can do at home. All participants received an email with links to videos of the many exercises we performed daily.

Skyterra is an amazing program for the body,but it is  much more than just a physical improvement program. The Skyterra approach nurtures body, mind and spirit. The lectures on stress management, improving sleep, goal-setting, menu planning and self-compassion all help nourish you mentally and physically.

Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Skyterra is the ideal setting for a retreat. Walking the property, hikes to the surrounding waterfalls, sitting on the dock by the lake all provide opportunities for contemplation and self-reflection…something we rarely do at home with those bills to pay, that closet to clean out, and…well…you know.

Nina and I on a hike to the waterfalls.

One more thing…all of the people at Skyterra, from the Owners to the Instructors to the Chefs, are just so darn nice, you can’t help but feel welcome and at ease. So if you’ve been considering a vacation, or you’ve actually wanted to go on a retreat, I recommend Skyterra. I went with my friend, Nina, who flew into Asheville, NC from New York, but I assure you Skyterra is a place you could travel to by yourself and feel perfectly comfortable.

Yes, aging brings with it some physical limitations, but with a little bit of effort  we can reduce the negative impact of those limitations. If you can, go on a retreat for your body, mind and spirit. Remember…you’re only old once. Don’t surrender.

Didn’t See It Coming

November begins in just a few days and I was beginning to despair that I could come up with a blog topic for October. Oh, lots of ideas have come and gone, but I just couldn’t seem to settle on something I really wanted to write about. Actually, I confess, I haven’t been able to write at all this month. My moribund search for an agent along with a rejection from a publisher sort of took the wind out of my sails. I spent much of this month wringing my hands, feeling like a fraud and a failure, wondering what in the world makes me think I can write. Knowing all writers experience moments of dejection and self-doubt was no consolation.

Instead of writing, I spent one day clearing junk off my laptop and discovered an article entitled Ten Steps to Becoming a Writer by Joe Bunting of The Write Practice (thewritepractice.com). That motivated me to at least start typing a journal entry every morning. Here’s how my first entry on Monday started:

From A.Word.A.Day (www.wordsmith.org)

 ORNERY
adjective: Having an unpleasant disposition: irritable, stubborn, combative, etc.
 Yes, today, I feel ornery. I want to indulge in being ornery. I don’t want to be Ms. Nice Guy. I want to rant and rave and rail against everyone from the unwashed masses that simply annoy me to anyone who makes demands on me. I don’t want to be the sane one, the smart one, the responsible one, the one who knows better.”

It went downhill from there.

Then on Tuesday night my sister and I went to Centre Stage to see Luna Gale, a powerful play in the theater’s fringe series. (If you live in the Greenville area, try to get to see it.) Before the performance, we stepped into the theater lounge and on the counter I noticed a stack of paperback books entitled Didn’t See it Coming. I picked one up and saw it was the work of The Writers Block Project.

I first learned about The Writers Block when Scott Lewis, the warden at Perry Correctional Institution spoke at our Sisters in Crime meeting earlier this year. Perry Correctional Institution is a maximum security prison here in South Carolina which has instituted a Character-Based Unit “composed of men who have indicated a desire to make changes in their lives, even if they will spend the rest of their lives there.”

The Writers Block Workshop is one of the classes the men can enroll in as part of the behavior contract they sign when they are accepted into the Character-Based Unit. I bought the book and read the section entitled “I Write Because…” I immediately knew what I had to blog about…what I had to share with you.

Below is a poem written by Arimatia Buggs in response to the writing prompt: “I write because”.

I write because I must

I write to release

To bring inner peace

To make sense of confusion

 To focus life’s kaleidoscopic illusion

To mend the souls of those broken kindred spirits

Who feel what I feel and see what I see

But never penned the words so it was left up to me

I write because I must

I write because of peace, love, joy and pain

Stress, hurt and strain

I write to appreciate

I write to innovate

I write to reveal

What I see, know and feel

To cry and to vent

To forgive and relent

To reminisce of time spent

I write because I must

I write to breathe

I write because I believe

You can achieve everlasting life when you write

Living forever on a page

Then reincarnated–through reading–through windows of

The soul to stand again upon life’s stage

I write because I realize I am who I am because of words.

Words that moved me, taught me, grew me

Made me into the man that I am

I write because I must.

Today I, Sally Handley, write because I have been inspired by Arimatia Buggs. Didn’t see it coming.

****************

To get a copy of Didn’t See it Coming (only $15), or to learn more about The Writers Block, visit www.thewritersblockproject.org.

Dolce Far Niente

Livingston ManorSummer is coming to a close. Even here in South Carolina the weather has cooled just a tad. School actually started last week in the Palmetto state. This morning I awoke early and saw a school bus picking up students at 6:25 AM. That is so wrong!

I feel total sympathy for these youngsters, deprived of the last two lovely weeks of summer. I know summer technically ends in September, but growing up, Labor Day always signaled summer’s end and the days leading up to it were savored, held on your tongue like that last piece of penny candy fished out of a little brown paper bag.

I’m an adult and I know I should be writing, but even I, of iron self-discipline, had to force myself to start writing this blog. The only thing that made me open my laptop this morning was my horoscope in today’s paper that warned, “You are committing daily acts of self-sabotage.” Ominous words, indeed! I haven’t written anything in weeks.

Still, I can’t stop rolling around in my mind a fabulous Italian phrase I learned from my friend, Nina, this summer. “Dolce Far Niente”… the sweetness of doing nothing. Yes, that to me is what these last, languorous days of August are for. Not for weeding and pruning, but for sitting on the porch or patio, sipping a cool drink, watching the grass grow. Not for swimming laps, but for bobbing on a noodle in the swimming pool. Not for working, or even planning, but for the sheer pleasure of doing nothing.

“Unlike aquatic species, the turtles have the ability to travel upland and estivate for the remainder of the summer.”

“Unlike aquatic species, the turtles have the ability to travel upland and estivate for the remainder of the summer.”

Another new word I learned this summer from my subscription to Wordsmith.org is estivate which means “to pass the summer in a dormant state”. If you read my January blog, New Year’s Confessions of a Retiree without Resolutions, you may remember I lamented the fact that I felt like a tortoise in a world of gnats and humming birds. How apt that Wordsmith’s sample sentence used to illustrate usage of the word estivate was this: “Unlike aquatic species, the turtles have the ability to travel upland and estivate for the remainder of the summer.” It’s official. I’m now adopting the turtle as my personal mascot.

Right now, I invite you to indulge yourselves, my friends. No matter how crazy, busy your life has become or how accustomed you are to constantly being on the go, take at least one day to sit down in the shade and reacquaint yourself with the sheer pleasure of doing nothing. September will be here soon enough. Estivate while you still can!

Happy Father’s Day!

James Francis Handley 1925-2000

James Francis Handley
1925-2000

In August 1945 my father, who was 20 years old, was on board a US Navy minesweeper bound for Japan preparing the way for marines to launch an invasion. The invasion became unnecessary when President Harry S. Truman and his advisors decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war with Japan. It’s hard for me not to applaud that decision.

After serving in the Navy, my father returned home to Pringle, Pennsylvania, married my mother and joined his father as a loom fixer in a textile mill. Back then fabrics were still being woven and produced in factories in the Northeast. My grand-father lived with us and he and Dad worked both day and night shifts at the mill. I remember because sometimes they slept during the day, and we had to be quiet as we played.

When Dad was not working, we did just about everything as a family…food shopping, church on Sunday, television at night, trips to the lake for swimming and picnicking in the summer and ice skating in the winter. I don’t remember interacting with my father alone much in the early years of my life. My mother was the disciplinarian, making most of the decisions regarding my two sisters and me. She didn’t work outside the house until I needed braces when I was in sixth grade, so my mother was the day-to-day “supervisor” in our world…not my father.

Galway Bay, 1980.

Galway Bay, 1980.

When the textile mill closed in the early sixties, my father got a job with J.P. Stevens at a small research facility they maintained in Garfield, New Jersey even after all the production mills moved to the unionless South. I remember my mother telling the story of how my father got the job with the very real conviction that it was part of God’s divine plan. My mother and father were out at a local bar one Saturday night. A man, I don’t recall whom or his connection with my father, came into the bar and struck up a conversation with them. He worked in New Jersey. When he learned my father was looking for a job, he said he’d seen an advertisement for a loom fixer in the paper and that he had the paper out in his car. He actually went out and brought the paper in for my father…further evidence of God’s hand at work.

Dad could fix anything and was always working when he came to visit.

Dad could fix anything and was always working when he came to visit.

My father applied for and got the job, and for the next four years he commuted to New Jersey. At least, back then, that was our idea of commuting. He lived with my cousin Carol and her husband in Rutherford, NJ during the week and only came home on weekends. Monday mornings he would leave our house in Pringle at 5:30 AM and drive straight to work in Garfield. Monday through Thursday he stayed at my cousin’s. Friday after work he’d drive back home to us. We all knew when he was on his way up the street because our dog, Sparkle, would start wagging her tail in excitement even before any of us heard the car.

Reflecting back on that time compared to now, I wonder how many men would do that for their families today? Four years? Would they do it for six months even? It is remarkable to me now looking backward. Never mind not seeing your family or sleeping in your own bed four nights out of seven. The weekly drive alone was grueling and hazardous. Today’s interstate highways have changed all that, but in the early ‘60’s Route 80 didn’t exist. The drive consisted mostly of windy, two-lane roads through the Pocono Mountains to the Delaware Water Gap, followed by Route 46, a slightly better road because it was a divided highway, but the going was slow because it had lots of traffic lights. In the winter, the Friday night journeys through the Poconos back to Pringle were downright treacherous. In spite of all that, I don’t remember my father ever not coming home for the weekend.

As I mentioned, my mother was our most constant influence, but there were a few occasions when she turned us over to my father. The day of my cousin Marie’s shower that my mother was hosting at our house was rather memorable. My little sister, Mary Ellen, was only about two years old, so she got to stay home, but my mother must have instructed my father to take my older sister, Jane, and me out for the day. We were probably five and nine. My father took us to a local bar with him. It was a great day for us. Coca Cola and candy bars flowed freely and we played pinball sitting on top of bar stools. All the men got a big kick out of us and kept supplying us with coins to play. What a great day!

Jane, Dad and me at the amusement park.

Jane, Dad and me at the amusement park.

I don’t remember how my mother found out where we went that day. I vaguely remember being told something like “Don’t tell your mother.” I didn’t. But we lived in a town one-mile square where we were related to just about half the people in town. Someone told. The next time my father took us for the day, we went to Angela Park, a now-defunct, but then brand new, amusement park. That was fun, too. But to this day, I believe I owe my great fondness for sitting at bars to that first time. In restaurants with a bar, I actually prefer to eat at the bar than at a table, much to the dismay of some of my female friends, who, in my opinion, missed out on going to a bar with their fathers, a rite of passage generally reserved for boys.

I have lots of memories of my father driving us places. Along with the textile mills in the North, Sunday drives with the family have also become a thing of the past. Hard to imagine a time when just getting in a car and driving around country roads for an hour or two was considered a pleasurable way to spend the afternoon, something adults and children alike looked forward to. My favorite memory was a drive on the old Chase Road near Huntsville Dam one Sunday afternoon. A little black dog started to run alongside the car and my father stopped and let her in the backseat with us. That was Sparkle. She was just a puppy without a collar, who picked our car to run after…apparently another divinely ordained occurrence. Our first dog. Another great day!

My father died from Alzheimer’s in 2000. A few months after the funeral, my younger sister, who along with my mother, cared for my father to the very end, asked me about Dad’s Days at Douglass College where I went to school. I hadn’t given much thought to those uniquely, all-girl college experiences in years. I told her how my father drove down to New Brunswick by himself every year, and how we would spend the day at various activities around the campus. I would choose our agenda. I vaguely recall bus tours of campus, but in general whatever we did was largely forgettable. One instance I do recall, however, was a really lame performance by a young woman who forgot the words midway through the Ave Maria. I remember a polite exchange of glances between my father and me, and our laughing about it afterwards. I also remember having lunch with my first year college roommate and her father, a college graduate himself. Later my father remarked to me how good it would be to be a professional like my roommate’s father. That evening long after our fathers left campus, my roommate told me her father said he wished he could be like my father who was so personable and easy to talk to. I remember thinking to myself that I was the luckier of the two of us.

Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

As one of three sisters and part of a family that always did most everything together, I have only a few memories of experiences that my father and I alone shared, those four Dad’s Days among them. I knew the concerts and lectures we attended on those days were not exactly the kinds of things my father enjoyed doing, yet he came all four years. I asked my sister what made her ask me about Dad’s Days, and she told me that she was going through his things after he died. In a box in my father’s drawer, he had saved the pins he’d gotten each of those Dad’s Days. At that moment I felt sorry for those who inherit only money and property, lesser gifts than the simple, yet certain evidence I received that day that my father loved me and treasured moments that he and I alone shared. What a great day!

Ode to a Thimble…how a little piece of plastic inspired me

Because I was busy this week writing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I didn’t get to write a new blog post.  Instead I pulled out this item I wrote a few year’s ago to share with you.  Hope you enjoy it.

Yesterday I invited two friends to lunch on my patio.  It was Monday.  Can you image that?  I’m preparing to close my business at the end of the year, so I no longer feel the need to spend every free minute trying to develop new business.  I am 60 years old, and sometimes when I say that, I can’t believe it’s true.  I don’t feel the way I imagine a 60 year old feels.  Or, perhaps it’s just that I feel no different than I’ve always felt.  In some ways, I feel better, stronger…surely wiser, but I digress…

The yellow thimble sitting in my sewing basket, easy to locate even after a 750 mile relocation.

The yellow thimble sitting in my sewing basket, easy to locate even after a 750 mile relocation.

The real reason I’m writing this is to pay homage to a homely little object…a small, yellow, plastic thimble that has resided in my little sewing box for as long as I can remember.  My sewing experience has been limited to button repair, and the occasional hem.  I never use the thimble when I sew.  I’ve only ever used it when I bake cookies.

That may sound strange, but there is a recipe in my well-worn Joy of Cooking called Jam Tots.  It calls for you to bake the cookies for 5 minutes, then open the oven, and using your thumb (which I don’t recommend because the dough is just too hot), or a thimble, depress a hole in the center of each cookie.  Continue baking for 8 more minutes.  Next you allow the cookies to cool and proceed to fill them with jelly or jam.

I discovered the recipe probably 30 years ago.  My mother, father and two sisters re-located from New Jersey to South Carolina.  I inherited all of the leftovers in their refrigerators, which included 3 or 4 jars of jelly.  I didn’t eat much jelly, so I wondered what to do with it all.  Now, I’m sure you are thinking, “You could have just thrown it out.”  Somehow, in spite of the fact that I was born in 1951, the dead center of the Baby Boom, I was a child of depression era parents.  We didn’t waste anything.  And I went to Catholic school where we actually learned proverbs like “Waste not; want not” in school.  Do they teach children proverbs anymore?  I wonder sometimes, if they teach them anything.  But again, I digress…

So back to the jelly surplus.  One weekend I opened my Joy of Cooking in search of uses for the jelly and discovered the Jam Tot recipe.  I went to my sewing box, which was a Christmas gift from my mother a few years before.  There was a yellow thimble, which I put to use baking my first recipe of Jam Tots.  They were quite a success, and I even remember taking some over to the elderly woman who lived next door.

That was nearly 30 years ago.  Since then I moved to a condominium where I lived for 5 years, and, as a result of the real estate boom in the 80’s, I was able to sell my condominium and buy the house whose upstairs apartment I had lived in when I first discovered the Jam Tot recipe.  Last year a friend of mine gave me a jar of Lemon Raspberry Marmalade.  Once again, I pulled out my Joy of Cooking, sought my thimble and created a very “adult” cookie that was a hit with my book club.  Yesterday, I realized I didn’t have a satisfactory dessert for my patio lunch, and at the last minute decided to bake another batch of Jam Tots with Lemon Raspberry Marmalade…you see I’m still not a big jam/jelly/marmalade consumer.

As I put the cookie dough in the refrigerator to chill, I went to look for the thimble.  And, of course, it was right there in the sewing box, waiting to serve.  As I picked it out of the box, I was struck by how infrequently I used it, but how perfect it was for the job at hand.  What also struck me was the fact that sometimes I can’t locate something I bought last week, but the thimble was exactly where I knew it would be, where it has been for more than 30 years.

This humble little piece of plastic has been with me for most of my adult life, and that I found momentarily awe-inspiring.  In a world where thimbles have become ‘useless’ collectibles, and where I have made three trips to Best Buy to dispose of obsolete and broken electronic and digital equipment that I’ve owned for less than five years, this little yellow thimble survives and has purpose.  As I embrace my 6th decade I am delightfully inspired by a thimble.

My Inspiration!

My Inspiration!

 

Jam/Jelly Tot Recipe

Makes about forty-two 1-1/4 inch cookies

Cream 1/2 cup of white or brown sugar with 1/ 2 cup butter.

Beat in:

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 2-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Roll the dough into a ball and chill briefly for easier handling.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.  Pinch off pieces to roll into 1-inch balls.  Roll the balls in sugar, or for a fancier cookie, in 1 slightly beaten egg white, then in 1 cup finely chopped nutmeats.

Place them on a lightly greased and flowered sheet.  Bake 5 minutes.  Depress the center of each cookie with a thimble or your thumb.  Continue baking until done about 8 minutes.  When cool, fill the pit with one of the following:

  • a bit of jelly or jam
  • a preserved strawberry
  • a candied cherry
  • a pecan half
  • a dab of icing.