Archive for February, 2011

Writing From the Heart

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of attending a short presentation by Joan Brady, an authoress of international renown whose first book, God on a Harley, was a New York Times bestseller. Ms. Brady immediately caught my eye: an attractive woman in her late 50’s with strawberry-blond hair, wearing a top that was yellow/green bordering on neon.

Never having read anything by Ms. Brady, I sat back to listen. I had heard that God on a Harley had a spiritual theme, which intrigued me because I love to ponder this same topic in my own writing.

From the very beginning, Ms. Brady’s story was unique and captivating. But what impressed me the most was this author’s humility and authenticity. She had been a nurse for 22 years prior to embarking on her writing career, and the stories of her hospital and patient experiences were harrowing. Clearly she was no stranger to the full range of human emotions that tend to surface when people’s loved ones are sick or dying in a hospital bed. Pain, fear, anger, grief, joy, love, compassion, relief, dread – to name just a few – plus everything in between.

Experiencing life-and-death human drama nearly every day for over two decades had resulted in Ms. Brady feeling burnt-out, helpless, confused and angry at God, whose existence she questioned in light of witnessing so much suffering. Agonized by her own feelings of sadness and emptiness, she took pen to hand and began to release the pain through writing about it. Her notebook became her confidante and comfort, and in it she purged herself of all the questions she had for God about everything. And this was before she even fully believed there was a God.

Fortunately for Ms. Brady and for millions of people who have read her books, somewhere along this journey she did begin to believe in a loving and protecting God. And frequently, when faith and hope emerge from ashes, life-changing choices and miracles start to occur. Turning her back on her long-term, financially-stable nursing position, Ms. Brady packed up all her belongings and drove to the west coast to pursue a writing career. With limited money and no clear plan for her new life, Ms. Brady traveled across the country and wound up renting a small apartment in San Diego. At this point, she had penned the manuscript of God on a Harley several years earlier. However, after submitting it to numerous publishers over a period of six years, she had received only rejection letters.

Ms. Brady was nearly destitute and doomed to be evicted from her apartment when God on a Harley was finally accepted by an agent, resulting ultimately in a $250,000 advance from a large publishing house. This was the start of Joan’s successful career as an author. In addition to having several books published in the United States, she has a huge readership internationally, particularly in Spain.

In spite of her obvious prestige as a best-selling author, however, Joan Brady is a self-professed “Jersey girl,” and I could tell that she says what she means and means what she says. Direct, honest, and self-effacing, Ms. Brady impressed me by relating to all the aspiring authors in the room, including me, letting us know that she has and still does experience the ups and downs of the publishing business. What a relief to know that even a highly-regarded author still struggles at times with writing, just like me.

It is not surprising that God on a Harley, which I am now halfway through reading, conveys the simple and timeless truths that we all forget in this world of money, power, and prestige. Namely, the beauty and significance of each person as a gifted and capable individual, worthy of self-respect and respect from others. Granted, I am not done reading the book, but I suspect the main character will learn how to see herself in a loving light, the same light in which God sees us.

Ms. Brady’s talk revealed something of her personality and attitudes, and I found them fully consistent with someone evolved enough to compose a book dealing with the spiritual. Put another way, she seems like a genuinely loving person. Ms. Brady shared with us that she writes from her heart, and I will remember that piece of wisdom forever, I hope. To me, that is when we are doing our very best writing, when the words come from our heart and soul. This is expressing something of God to others, I believe, and what could be better than writing for such a purpose?

I thank Joan Brady for being harmonious in her beliefs, attitudes, actions, and words. It is rare to meet someone with the love, maturity – and in Ms. Brady’s case, imagination and talent – to pull this off.

Happy, Happy Flowers!

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

I pass this bush almost every day while taking my dog Oscar for his walk. The plant gets happier and happier – more little flowers popping out each day like miniature smiles. For months, these pink bits of perfection have continued to cover the feathery branches. It makes me wonder: when will it rest, when will it be done? The way I get swept up in its beauty, I secretly hope never.

Big Sister, Little Mother

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

What the world would have us believe about childhood is usually at complete odds with the real experience of our early years within the family unit. Unfortunately, we have no perspective on this until we’re older and most likely struggling to resolve problematic personal issues by looking back on those days.

Like all infants, my universe was the people in my immediate family. They were everyone and everything. Their faces, smiling or angry; their words, gentle or shrill – what does a child have except instinct to guide him or her to sources of comfort and security in those preverbal years? So it must have been instinct that drew me like a magnet to my big sister. I was completely taken with her, probably way before the time my mind was even capable of storing memories.

With a delightfully round face and enormous brown eyes, my big sister was gentle and harmless. But best of all, she had endless time for me! Time to talk to me, play secret hiding games with me, giggle about mean grown-ups and strange kids with me, watch TV with me, and fight with me.  She was inseparable from my world as I knew it, and from me.

Honestly, one of the things I liked most about my sister was her size. Despite being two years older, she was still shorter and smaller-boned than me. We would spread our hands and fingers apart, then bring them together – hers against mine. Always my fingers were longer, and my hand entirely eclipsed hers. I felt bigger and stronger than she, able to dominate if it came down to fisticuffs. And with my wild and tempestuous nature, it did indeed come down to that often enough. Being physically superior to my sister gave me a sense of having some power. (It seems to me that survival within a family is sometimes no different than in the jungle, where the brawnier animals secure their position over those more frail.)

Big sister – I needed her gentleness even while sometimes taking advantage of it, a dependency that helped and hurt. But allow me to endure, she did… We gave each other comfort on those nights when we lay only a few feet apart on our twin beds, listening with fear and anguish to our parents’ yelling voices. Mercifully and reliably, she was by my side when we found out that our beloved kitten had been killed by a fan-belt blade while trying to keep warm on the engine of a neighbor’s car. And hers the first face offering consolation and the possibility of redemption when my butt was sore from a spanking and my spirit bruised from shame.

Mostly, though, we played and teased and made endless entertainment from nothing at all. Boring car rides were perfect for tickling and poking and uncontrollable laughter. In our bedroom, a cast of stuffed animals had names and lives of their own as they talked to each other in the voices we gave them. At the beach, adrift a few feet offshore in our “floatie,” I was “Cap-i-tan” and she was “Mate-y” as we adventured on the high seas. And how can I forget our “foot wars” as we watched television on our parents’ big bed – lying flat with the bottoms of our feet joined in the air, each of us pushing against the other with our backs arching up off the mattress?

In the later years, we would lay side-by-side on her double bed listening to “Mystery Theater” on the radio; in the darkness we talked and giggled about boys we liked, grievances with petty girlfriends, and the elusiveness of belonging to the “in” crowd at school. It was a routine I grew familiar with, until it was over forever.

Inevitable it was that my sister – my closest confidante, partner in fun and crime – would grow past me and dive fully into fascination with her peer group. To compete was impossible, and slowly, painfully, I became aware that I was nothing more than an inconvenience to her. She drifted away and was absent from my life in what seemed like seconds. Probably this was normal and natural, of course; she was older than me. But its suddenness was acute, magnified by a tragic absence of anyone else in my life to fill the gap. Outside the family I was shy, introverted, and unable to make friends easily. How I wished for just a small portion of my big sister’s poise and social skills! Feeling abandoned, alone, and inferior, I was paralyzed with fear and choked by grief that I could not even identify.

With no wisdom or experience to draw on, I began a decades-long detour of trying to imitate what I believed to be my big sister’s superior qualities and ideals. Looking back, I suppose this made sense at the time. After all, she had done a better job of winning my parents’ and others’ approval than I ever had. My sister, therefore, became the model of whom I should be; her life the template of what my own life should look like. With my faulty illusions in complete control, I strove to fit myself into someone else’s formula for living.

The next 30 years – though rich and fulfilling in many areas – were marked by my harsh and unrelenting self-judgment, countless disappointments and unmet expectations, and an abundance of negative drama. Inside me was an enduring undercurrent of unhappiness. It all finally culminated in the deterioration of my marriage, after 17 years together and having three children with the person I had chosen for a husband.

The wonderful thing about crises, however, is that they can result in positive, fundamental changes in a person, depending on how the individual responds to them. In my case, I finally became humble enough to be teachable. And did I ever have a lot to learn about loving myself! The lessons continue today, and I keep paying attention because they are directly related to my peace and happiness, not to mention my continued survival. Thank God.

My big sister – I love her still and more than ever! But the way I love her today doesn’t compel her to be my mother or my perfect-life model anymore. Bless her for being that when I needed it. In a very real way, I owe her my existence. Our childhood bond gave me joy that I could remember in later, sorrowful times.  It was my sister who taught me that love could be simple, could be full of freedom and laughter.

I’m grateful to God and my big sister for these early lessons in love, which I suspect are most easily grasped by a child anyway.