What I wish I didn’t know

Featured

Every morning this October I’ve been getting up at 4:40 a.m. to meet my Fall Writing Circle via Zoom by 5:00. Eight writers, plus one amazing coach, gather around our screens from Paris, to Boston, from Virginia to Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, Chicago. Here on the West Coast the sky is still dark, an owl calls out on most mornings, and in that near dream, early waking day crease we set intentions of what we’ll write about and then get to the work of putting down words.

My intention on Tuesday was to be some sort of witness to the creatures impacted by the oil spill along my beloved Southern California coast. The pollution was spreading even as I wrote.

Susan Greene Photography

This piece then appeared in Voice of OC.

“The Oil Spill Couldn’t Be My Fault”

Isn’t it amazing we all have so many N95 masks and pairs of blue nitrile gloves that we even know what those items are when they top the catalog of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s list of “Things To Donate” after the oil spill?

We all have so many N95 masks because we’ve been thinking so hard about ourselves and, of course others, but less about sea creatures like blue whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins unless we’re on that diesel-powered sightseeing boat, or except for that one sea lion that swam parallel to me in July, following me for more than a mile on my birthday walk at Crystal Cove State Beach. “Aren’t we both trying to figure out where I’m going?” I asked and it surfaced at the surf line again and again, fixing those brown liquid eyes on mine.

We’ve been thinking so hard about ourselves and, of course others, that even though we might intend to stop needing, wanting, using crude oil we definitely need, want, and use all the things that Amazon delivers Free! Within 24 hours for Free! A 20-pair pack of blue gloves to keep our hands clean delivered. Free! And who are we kidding? We’re no Greta Thunberg, we just drive a seven-year-old regular gas-eating car because those new electric ones are so expensive, like electric bikes, and wind power isn’t good for birds, we all know that, and we live on a giant hill two miles from the nearest market and we’ve all just got to eat and who can walk for food?

We might intend to stop needing, wanting, using all the things crude oil can deliver but without jet fuel how can we fly to some other beach place, like say, Kauai and snorkel above the reef ringing Anini Beach to be brushed by a sea turtle before the reef dies? I mean, we love the ocean and the ocean animals and we want to swim with them, right, and show our grandkids how a white paper plate and ribbon strings can be crafted into a jelly fish so they can learn about and love the ocean too?

To be brushed by a sea turtle is to feel touched by an angel. You know you’re not supposed to touch them, but if they touch you first it’s not a crime. Is it?

Where is the crime? Everyone wants answers to whose fault it is that the thing buried deep underground, the pipe from an offshore platform named Elly, decided to leak 144,000 gallons of crude oil into our Pacific. Some say it was a ship’s anchor, poorly place, that caused the gash. Blame it on the pandemic. The line of cargo ships waiting to be let into port stretches for miles and miles. There’s a crush of stuff waiting on the waves with not enough dock workers to work the dock so yeah, blame it on the sea captain who didn’t know where to park. Someone’s gotta pay for this disaster.

Meanwhile, over at Oiled Wildlife Care Network a rescue group working out of the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine School, a report has been initiated and the count begins for Pipeline P00547 Incident Wildlife Recovery, a detailed list of creatures found doused in oil. As of Tuesday, October 5, 2021 it read like this: Three Western Grebes. One Sanderling. One Eared Grebe. One Ruddy Duck. One American Coot. One Brown Pelican that had to be euthanized because it was too injured to save.

Is it the pelican I watched this summer, skimming the sea in Laguna? Probably not, there are hundreds of pelicans. And anyway, what’s the loss of one small thing?

Susan Greene Photography

Thank you for reading. Thank you for thinking along with me that, whether we pause to recognize the fact or not, every life, every action, on this beautiful planet is interconnected. Volunteer applications to help with the clean-up effort are now being accepted through Cal Spill Watch.

Catherine

P.S.
For more exquisite pelican photography, check out Susan Greene’s post, “A New Perspective,” over on Backyard Sisters.

And if you’re ever looking for an amazing writing coach to help with fiction, memoir, finding an early morning writing circle, or perhaps writing a book in a year, I’m having the very best experience with Diane Zinna. And if writing isn’t your thing, then let this be the sign you’re waiting for that, whatever your thing is, life is so much sweeter when you surround yourself with a group that supports and uplifts you. Did you know that pelicans are gregarious birds? Social animals which generally hunt cooperatively? Go find your fellow pelicans.

Write, right your life

Polaroid

I just got off the phone with a woman who’s thinking about starting to write her life story. But she’s not sure she should spend time on herself, because as she put it, “I haven’t done anything unusual. How can I write a whole book about nothing?”

Something I once told my “Composing Self” college students jumped to mind. I assigned the students a photo essay project, to create a collection of nine photos and nine pages of prose, about anything that represented themselves. This wide expanse of possibility had some students frozen. To help them determine how, or if, their lives reflected meaning, I gave them this homework; I gave the woman on the phone today the same suggestion.

Write down what you believe is important to you.
Then go about your day.
Focus on a few things that catch your attention. Study them. Jot them down. Photograph them if you like.
Return to your belief list.
Maybe you really aren’t doing anything unusual. Or, a
re you putting your body where your heart insists your values lie?
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until you discover how your experiences do align with your beliefs. Or, if they don’t make a plan to make it so.
This is all you need to do and everything important to write, right your life.

I’m sharing this prompt with you because in September, 2020 it seems essential to be intentional with our actions. Of course the idea of writing a personal belief statement isn’t original. There are religious creeds, artist’s statements, and political movement manifestos. All are essentially statements about what directs a person’s behavior, their lives.

One of the most beloved and enduring public declarations of this practice is collected at “This I Believe: A public dialogue about belief – one essay at a time.” On the site you’ll find thousands of entries from a wide range of well-known figures, yes, but the majority of these essays are from ordinary people trying to discover their beliefs through the action of writing. One of my favorites, “Thirty Things I Believe,” was written in 2009 by Tarak McLain in honor of his 100th day of kindergarten. Some of his beliefs are:

I believe everyone is weird in their own way.

I believe people should not give up.

I believe love is everywhere.

While writing a personal belief statement isn’t new, the idea of using a personal belief statement to organize and focus a life story, is unique to my story coaching approach. I’ve come up with a name for this type of project. “Write, Right My Life.” When I work with clients we aren’t strictly writing memoir, not straight forward autobiography. I’m helping humans focus on writing the life elements that show how each unique individual led, and is leading, their “right” life.

When people come to me, ordinary people who “haven’t done anything unusual,” it’s important  for us to discover together how “nothing” lives have really amounted to everything.

From a photo of an ice cream truck, I urge forth the story of a childhood summer ritual of chasing ice cream trucks with siblings and parents, cousins and grandchildren during family reunion weeks. I believe in spending time with my family.

The way Saturday afternoon drum jam sessions reflect a lifelong obsession with music passed from grandmother to daughter to grandson. I believe I must make something beautiful every day.

The Polaroid photography scavenger hunts that are part of every road trip become one chapter on travel. I believe in paying attention to what is new.

Try writing out your personal manifesto. Focus on what you really believe. Then check in with your actions and see how aligned they are with your beliefs.

As for what I believe, here are a few things:
I believe in anticipation and reflection.
I believe in trying again.
I believe in trying again and again and again after that.
I believe in myself.
I believe in you.
I believe in the deepest center of all humans there is at least a flicker of goodness capable of flaring and spreading at any moment.

May you find a little time to write, right your life this week.
Catherine

If you’re more interested in what it looks like to Write, Right My Life – how long it takes, how much it costs, if you’re too old to begin, or too young – check out the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Will you listen?

Laughing Mama&Leah

Do you remember the sound of your great-grandmother’s laughter? Do you remember her stories?

When I’m not writing my own poetry or essays, I’ve created the best job in the world. I listen to, and write down, stories of people’s lives so they can leave a printed legacy for future generations. Or, for those who have the desire to write themselves, I create short assignments and an outline with the end goal of the story of a life.

Frequently these sessions are a gift to parents from their children. I smile when I get approached about this, because of course it’s a grown child’s own gift to be able to hold the previously unrecorded story of a parent.

The absolute most rewarding aspect of my job as family story coach is when someone looks at me across a kitchen table and says, “Thank you for listening. I haven’t thought about that ______ in years.” I tear up more often than I’d like to admit.

Turns out that small details like plummeting downhill on a first red two-wheel bicycle, or sweeping up into a hot Midwestern summer night on a Ferris wheel, are elements of a life that might have been forgotten if I hadn’t thought to ask, “Do you remember your first broken bone?” Or, “When was the first time you held a boy’s hand?” These small memory jogs frequently lead to a deeper story. Of a first career inkling, or a lasting love.

So many people say, “Why would I want to write my story? My life isn’t extraordinary.”

I respond, “Of course it is, especially to those who love you.”

Some say, “Why should I tell my story now? My life isn’t over.”

I say, “Thankfully, that’s true. But at some point, the distant past fades. It might be forgotten altogether. Can we start with when you were small?”

Here’s a secret. To me, each life is extraordinary. All the human ways we find to grow and learn, to make mistakes, to recover, to be brave or timid, to love hard or hardly love. We are all amazing in our complexity and in our simplicity of wanting to be heard.

Listening is a great act of respect. It sows dignity and reaps understanding. And if you listen very carefully, there’s usually a moment of mirth just about to be called forth. To be in the midst of spontaneous laughter is such a gift.

Women’s History Month seems like a good time to commit to listening to a female ancestor’s story. Or, decide to finally tell your own. Write it down. For now. Or for later. You really are more extraordinary than you’ll ever know.

Reach out in the comment section below if you’d like a few prompts to get you started on beginning to write your life, or if you’re interested in learning how we could work together.

Now go be you, in all your ordinary glory.