Sunday, July 31, 2011

Too much stuff

I have a confession to make.

I am a fourth generation pack rat. After my great-grandmother passed away in 2004 (at 109!), it was discovered that an upstairs room in her home (the rest of which, at least in my memory, was pretty spotlessly neat) was filled to the brim with old things, piles of clothes, old coffee tins (from the 20s and 30s) and who knows what else stuffed cheek-by-jowl into a tiny bedroom and its adjacent closet. Her eldest son, my grandfather, was also a saver, most likely as a result of the living through the Great Depression, holding on to things because they might, someday, have value or be of use to somebody. He was also a fixer, and, after he retired from the Navy, would often buy broken things (radios, drills, etc..) at the PX and fix them, then give them away. Most of the excess stuff was relegated to the attic or a large barn he built in their second back yard, but it was still there.

Naturally, my father inherited it from him. Because my grandparents died tragically, my dad tends to hold on to things that were theirs, regardless of the fact that certain items are beyond useless (a 1960s behemoth of an adding machine that must weigh at least 20 pounds, for example, and rightly belongs in a museum). My mother has to practically sneak bags of donations out of the house, because he'll go through them, saying "someone can use/wear this," despite the fact that no one has worn it in 10-odd years or it's been gathering dust. But he's getting better. Recently, we cleaned out a storage unit filled with things from my grandparent's house. Over half the contents were donated or thrown away. Progress.

While I'm far from being a hoarder, I also have the tendency to hold on to things, mostly because they have sentimental value. At the same time, I realize things are not people and that memories can serve. Looking for a certain notebook this morning with the eye to writing a completely different blog post, I realized I'd gone through several different drawers without being able to find it (I still don't know where it's wandered off to), and that most of the things in those drawers were completely useless (a reporter's notebook filled with meeting notes from 2005, old copies of Magnificat that are three years old, back issues of magazines that could easily be recycled, cassette tapes from the early 90s --"Rattle and Hum," anyone?) and need to be tossed or donated posthaste. I also have far more dishes and flatware than a single woman really requires.

And I'll admit I'm not the most organized of girls, but have I aspirations. :) I long for a clutter-free home, and make a concerted effort to donate items several times a year. A move would be the ideal way to cull junk I've accumulated over the nearly six years I've been in my apartment, but that doesn't seem in the cards right now. My brother, Daniel, who moved across country to Oregon about five years ago, took only several large suitcases with him when he left, and is scrupulous about keeping too many things out of his house that don't serve a purpose by being there. He's proof that the pack-rat gene can be conquered, and it gives me hope. :)

I read in a magazine not too long ago that a good exercise one family used when they realized they had too much stuff was to play a game they called "We're moving to Europe." The idea being, rather obviously, to imagine that you're making a transatlantic move and can only take so much with you, making getting rid of dead weight imperative. Perhaps it's something I should try.

Friday, July 29, 2011

So tonight I did a favor for my friend Pam, the editor of the Punta Gorda Herald. She's working on her next issue, focusing on the theme "Girl's Night Out." She's been talking to women about what they like to do and where they go when they get together. There aren't a lot of options around here, and she'd been to several places already. Tonight, she wanted to go take some pictures at Jack's -- a restaurant in downtown Punta Gorda that has a ladies' night later in the evening on Thursdays -- and since she didn't want to go alone, she asked me to go with her.

Now, I did a bit of clubbing in college. Nothing too crazy, but I certainly owned the de rigeur black clubbing pants and a couple of skirts that were, in hindsight, probably too short. I hit the Late Night Library ("tell your parents you're at the library!" was their tagline), a few times (where, one night, someone opened up an entire can of pepper spray, causing the place to be evacuated since no one could breath), and got grabbed by drunk guys at the country-western bar (the name escapes me, but for a while there I could line dance with the best of them). But the regular clubs that played nothing but music with a throbbing bass line were never really my thing. Before too long, the only clubs I went to were to some of the bars to hear local bands (6 Degrees!), to Floyd's for Old Wave Night (which a number of us from the Catholic Student Union used to hit after Mass and dinner Sunday nights for the 80s music) and, more often, either Gordo's or Atlantis for hours of salsa dancing.

So as Jack's morphed from people eating a late dinner into a club, complete with flashing lights and deep thrums of bass (no one was dancing to), I just felt out of place. Actually, I just felt old, despite the fact that I was certainly younger than some of the other people there. It all just felt very surface. Women gathered in clumps near the bar and men, beer in hand, stood in separate groups eying the women from across the room. It reminded us both a little of junior high, actually, only with alcohol. It was so loud, we could barely hear each other. Pam, who is six years younger than me, said she felt the same way. After she got the photos she needed, and we'd had a drink apiece, we both decided to leave. It had only been about an hour.

I can't imagine going to a club (or a club-like environment) with the intent of meeting someone. And while I like going to one of the local pubs for a pint or two, even when I was in college I didn't go out drinking just to drink. It never held any appeal. I suppose it's because I want something more than just the superficial.

Anyway, on Sunday afternoon, Pam, myself and a few other ladies are going to have our own girl's outing, something with a little less bass and no strobe lighting. We're going pottery painting. :)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thoughts on being single

So I'm on day six of my 40-day writing commitment and I'm doing quite well. I've managed to write every day so far, even if only for a little while. Three cheers for dedication! Now if only I can get back into that exercise routine...

Fitness aside, I've spent a little time reviewing some things I've written in the past. One, a piece of fiction I started last year, I've decided to put more effort into and see if anything comes of it. I also found the below, some compiled reflections on faith and being single that, at the time, I titled Vignettes (probably because it doesn't have a solid conclusion).

I wrote them in March of 2008 (and very proud of my quote usage I was, too, although I was probably reading too much chick-lit at the time), and was clearly intending to do something with it, although I can't recall what. References I make to "not too long ago," are now three years in the past. It made me laugh, though, as I reread. I liked it when I wrote it and I still like it now. I probably didn't post it to this blog (which has been around quite a while now, even if I've only been more consistent posting to it recently) because I wasn't brave enough, and (gasp!) someone might actually read it. Maybe it's a symptom of being a few years older, but I care less about what people think, in terms of my writing, than I once did. I also received some positive reinforcement about it from a friend, who thought it was worthwhile to put out there as well.

And while I'm sure that, having had three additional years of single life go by, I could add to the piece, what is here still stands on its own, I think. So, barring a few tweaks and an update or two, here 'tis:

“Someone will come along someday. I hear Florida is a good place to find wealthy widowers … Of course, I hear they go pretty quickly. Both to marriage and death. Better hurry!”
From “What a Girl Wants” by Kristin Billerbeck

You know, if only the man I wanted was a wealthy, or even remotely well-off, widower, I would have my pick. The roads, stores, restaurants at 4 p.m. and indeed the very ground in Southwest Florida are thick with them. As my cousin Carrie once said to me jokingly, “If you wanted a sugar-daddy, you’d be all set.”
But I don’t want a wealthy widower. With all due respect to the retirees, I would prefer to date a man who’s closer to my age range than to my grandfather’s. The only problem is, there don’t seem to be any unmarried ones here.
Not too long ago, my friend Lance suggested I join a grandmother’s group at my parish.
“Maybe they’d have some grandsons your age,” he said before his wife Nicole slapped him playfully.
Well, even if I was that desperate about being single at 30, I couldn’t join a grandmother’s – or any other woman’s group – down here if I wanted to. They all meet during the day, sometime between 10 and 2, when I’m at work. So much for ministering to young adults, huh?
As far as single’s groups at area parishes go, there are a couple. But I don’t qualify for any of them, seeing as I’m under 45 and all.
And as for the potential grandsons, I very much doubt that any of them live here. They’re probably in Boston, New York, Chicago or Saskatchewan.
One of my college roommates, now a youth minister, used to go to a number of conferences. She would always come back and say something like, “I met this great guy. He’d be so perfect for you! Only he lives in Arizona.”
I’d scoff at her and say “Well, what good does that do me here?” I used to think that God would plunk a man into my lap wherever I was and that would be that. Nothing like that has happened yet.
But God certainly works in interesting ways. My friend Amanda joined one of the Catholic dating Web sites. She started sending messages back and forth with a man who lived in Massachusetts who volunteered with FOCUS ministries. Before they even met officially, they were dating. She said everything was so easy…but she still had doubt. “God is crazy…but in a good way,” she’d tell me. After five and a half months, tons of phone calls, Internet chatting sessions and flying back and forth to see each other (not to mention the fact that it turned out he’d known a friend of hers at Steubenville), he proposed. A little more than a year after she’d been mourning the loss of a relationship with a man she thought was the love of her life, Amanda found the true one (2011 update: they’re now expecting their second child).

I think sometimes that, for those of us who are still single, we lack the faith to believe that God will do amazing things like that for us, or that we are somehow less deserving of love like that that seems to just appear out of thin air. But that’s not the case at all. I have to remind myself that God is working in me and molding me for that other person, and vice versa. My best (now very happily married) friend and I used to think that love would just come. We both thought that we’d go to college, meet the man of our dreams, graduate, land a fabulous job and live happily every after. Looking back now, I know that didn’t happen because I wasn’t ready. I still don’t know if I am, but I do know I’m closer. My faith tells me so.
“(He) was the constant ray of hope in my life. The Omnipresent Potential. A reason to buy new clothes. It was the hope I was addicted to.”
 From “What a Girl Wants” by Kristin Billerbeck

Hope is a heady thing. And it doesn’t take much to feed it. An e-mail. A sentence. A word of greeting spoken in passing. I will readily admit to having spent countless hours overanalyzing nearly everything a crush has said to me. Sometimes, I brought a friend along with me in these trips to happily-ever-after land. In fact, it was better that way, because you had someone to gush to. And if she happened to have a crush of her own to analyze it was even better. It was like crack.
More often than not, my crushes didn’t live in the same city as I did. There was the brother of a friend I met on a retreat. A crush who finally asked me to dinner the night before he moved across the country for work but then maintained a nearly three-year correspondence with me. Another who was the classmate of a former roommate at a different university (you follow?). I lived for their e-mails, imagining they were the modern version of love letters. The distance made it even easier to imagine different meanings to the words they wrote to me.

Even Charles Dickens commented on this once. I came a cross a quote in "Nicholas Nickleby" that reminded me so much of this. For some reason, it surprised me to no end that Charles Dickens would know what I felt 150-odd years later.
"Mystery and disappointment are not absolutely indispensable to thegrowth of love, but they are, very often, its powerful auxiliaries. 'Out of sight, out of mind,' is well enough as a proverb applicable to cases of friendship, though absence is not always necessary to hollowness of heart, even between friends, and truth and honesty, like precious stones, are perhaps most easily imitated at a distance, when the counterfeits often pass for real. Love, however, is very materially assisted by a warm and active imagination, which has a long memory, and will thrive for a considerable time on very slight and sparing food. Thus it is, that it often attains its most luxuriant growth in separation and under circumstances of utmost difficulty."      

Dickens had a sense for human nature. And that doesn’t change much.
And it seems like most of these relationships that experienced “luxuriant growth” were the ones that didn’t have a concrete ending. There was still some kind of a connection, or no closure. For myself, and for some friends, those are those are ones you carry with you. The ones that make you think, “what if?” For far too long.
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first night of a two-night presentation by Christopher West (who I was able to meet with briefly—I had him sign a book for me). He spent that evening addressing the women in the audience. Being a reporter, I of course took copious notes, and I’m glad I did, since I’ve gone back to read them several times. One of the things he said that stuck with me (and there were many) was that when we as women look to men to satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts, we commit idolatry. I’d never thought about it that way before, and thinking about all the time I spent worrying/wishing/wasting time thinking about and overanalyzing the relationships that almost were, well, that’s what I was doing. West said man can only be “a faint glimmer” of what Jesus can do for us. God will woo you if you let Him.

“The date was nothing like I expected it to be. Not that I knew what to expect. But I did have the odd imaginary scenario in my head, ranging from dreadful (he doesn’t turn up; it turns out he’s a Nazi) to fantastic (we end up … on a speedboat on the Thames and he asks me to marry him) …”
From “Can You Keep a Secret” by Sophie Kinsella

Not too long ago, I agreed to meet with a man I’d been exchanging e-mails with on a Catholic dating site. He was going to be visiting the area to meet with his spiritual director (so I figured he couldn’t be an ax-murderer, right?) and wanted to meet for coffee. After finding out his last name (so I’d know what name my friends should give the cops in case I turned up missing), and talking on the phone, I said agreed. It had been years since I’d had anything remotely resembling a date, but I offered it up to God and His will, figuring He’d cover me.

And in one way, it was a successful date. No, he didn’t sweep me off my feet and propose we jet to Scotland for a lavish wedding in a castle, and there wasn’t even a love connection, but I was confident and myself. In fact, I was so confident, I think I made this man nervous. He was having a hard time coming up with things to ask me about. And although the conversation was ok when it got going, there wasn’t a love connection. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

The imagination weaves other storylines, too. In lieu of an actual date, the mind creates idiotic scenarios that could rival some of the best of Hollywood’s “meet cute” plot lines. It’s usually completely unrealistic, ridiculously detailed and takes place in a locale that the other person would either a) never show up in, or b) a place you tend to frequent, making option A all the more likely. Something like this:

“‘I meant to call you,’ he would say, as I swooned glamorously over his arm, defying gravity in the best of all possible ways. ‘But I was [hit by a cab; gored by a wild bull; in hospital with cholera]. Come to dinner with me and I’ll make it up to you.’”
From “The Deception of the Emerald Ring” by Lauren Willig

Imagine if the brain power we women wasted coming up with these scenarios was used for good, or even constructive prayer time, rather than silliness? What couldn’t we do?

“Truthfully, this is the fabric of all my fantasies: love shown not by a kiss or a wild look or a careful hand but by a willingness for research. I don’t dream of someone who understands me immediately, who seems to have known me my whole life, who says I know, me too. I want someone keen to learn my own strange organization, amazed at what’s revealed; someone who asks, and then what, and then what?
From “The Giant’s House” by Elizabeth McCracken

I have a desire to be wooed. Most women do. I’ve tried pursuing before, which is what the world tells us we should do, but that didn’t work. It didn’t feel altogether natural, either. And sure, there’s a definite allure to the whole love at first sight thing. But being friends first takes time. It takes patience, which a lot of us pray for, but don’t have. We can’t wait on our own. We need God’s help.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The undiscovered country

I found myself in tears this morning, standing in front of the newsroom TV watching the shuttle Atlantis vault into the firmament. And judging by some friend's Facebook posts, I wasn't the only one. Growing up in Central Florida, the shuttle program was part of our lives.

I didn't actually grow up on the Space Coast itself (the whole geographical area taking it's name from NASA's presence), but for a while my family lived in Orlando, which is awfully close--close enough for the sonic booms announcing a shuttle's return to earth to really rattle windows. :) We took school field trips to the Cape, wondering at the size of the rockets on display, often standing in their shade against the Florida heat and savoring the strange texture of the dehydrated ice cream we bought in the gift shop.

I was 7 when the Challenger exploded, and I remember that day. We'd been listening to the launch countdown on a radio in the classroom at Good Shepherd and, when it got close, our teacher, Mrs. Carillo, ushered us out to the front parking lot with the rest of the school, where we gathered whenever a shuttle went up. It was chilly, but bright. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and we all watched as Challenger grew smaller, contrail spreading behind her. When the explosion happened and the solid rocket boosters kept climbing in divergent paths, we knew something had happened; I knew something was wrong. I was old enough to recognize, and I'd seen enough of them to know, that normal shuttle launches didn't look like that. Teachers quickly began herding us back into classrooms, and, once we were there, Mrs. Carillo quickly turned off the radio we'd left on and started us on some assignment. I'm sure we asked questions, and I'm equally sure she reassured us. But I remember her face. She was stunned.

Even after we moved from Orlando to Lakeland, about an hour further west, you could still see the shuttles go up if it was a clear day or night. I couldn't say how many times I'd run into my driveway and look east over the treeline just to see a shuttle fly, offering a prayer for their safe return.

In the wake of Challenger, President Reagan, addressing the nation said "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave." And maybe that's why I cry, even all these years later, especially seeing another shuttle (the last!) make it up safely. The fact that something so large and ungainly can rocket into the heavens, that men and women hazard their lives to ride it and orbit our planet is still a wonder, one I don't think will ever cease.

Jules Verne once asked, "What are the final frontiers in this quest for travel? Will humankind only be satisfied when journeys into space become readily available and affordable?” Star Trek, of course, answered that in it's opening monologue, declaring "Space: the final frontier..." (yes, I watched Star Trek). And good old Jules wasn't far from wrong, really, since there are already some who have taken flights into space simply for the pleasure of it. Of course, those people have the ridiculous amounts of money to pay their way. For the rest of us, recreational space travel is still cost-prohibitive. So I'm sure that's why there have been so many movies, books and TV shows about space exploration, why, despite the dangers and the losses, so many still effort. We dream of space, probably since so few of us have actually been there, and there are a myriad of mysteries it still holds. But perhaps one day...

In the mean time, may Atlantis and her crew come back to Earth safely.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The writer once I was

I used to write all the time. I have folders upon backpacks filled with scribblings. Poems, random musings, journals, fun quotes I found and saved in the hopes of topping chapters with one day, the unfinished Elizabethan love story (72 pages worth!) I started when I was 13. :) I wrote my first story when I was five, and as the years went on, I was almost ridiculously prolific. I was a sucker for lengthy, sometimes almost Dickensian descriptions, historical accuracy and multi-syllabic words. And letters, oh the letters I used to write to my cousins, the occasional overseas pen pal, my best friend from kindergarten (we wrote each other letters beginning in third grade and didn't talk on the phone until high school. We kept on writing in to college, and didn't see each other physically until I was in her wedding in 1999). I've kept most of the letters I've received, and wonder often about the fate of mine.

In the last several years I've started short stories (and actually finished a couple), two novels (one made it to 30-some odd pages, the other about far) and only a handful of letters (most, in fact, were only cards). Last year a good friend from high school and I decided we would write letters to each other (she now lives in Texas). We wrote each other exactly one letter a piece and then I, well, I kept meaning to write, and then months went by and I haven't written her a letter since.

And I was a dedicated, one might say obsessively Victorian-like journal keeper. They're all mismatched, my journals, some large, some small, one a book of bound graphing paper, filled to the margins. Some of my entries are about serious things like family events or school. Mostly they're silly musings about boys who I spent entirely too much time worrying about and obsessing over. In recent years, there have been more writings about faith and my walk with and toward God. But the last time I did any serious journaling was in Rome and immediately after I returned. A year and a half ago.

And of course the ironic thing is that I write every day. I'm lucky in that I make my living writing. It's what I got that creative writing degree to be able to do. But I feel like many of my stories for the paper are mundane and lacking in creativity, boxed in by inch counts, dumbed down and shortened for people who don't have long enough attention spans to read to the end.

Maybe that's my fault. But sometimes I wonder if my creativity has vanished or simply gone on an extended hiatus. I have ideas occasionally, but I'm lucky if I get beyond writing them down. They come at the most inopportune times, while I'm in the shower or getting ready to go somewhere. The majority of the time, the last thing I want to do when I get home from writing at work all day is sit and write some more. Writing used to be a joy for me, a necessary outlet almost as integral as breathing. Now, mostly, it feels like a chore. I at least tried to keep my hand in at one point. Three or four years ago I used to play a game with my editor: I would try and use big words in stories and see how many she'd let me keep, or how many actually made it into the paper the next day. Once I managed to squeeze in triumvirate, and was most proud of using prestidigitation several years ago. Now we have this new rule that no story can exceed 20 inches (roughly 500 words), and I wonder how much further we can be curbed and still be able to tell a decent story.

My editor now jokes with me occasionally that I'm really sitting at my desk writing my 15th novel (the number keeps growing) and that I'll complete it by lunchtime. If only. It was never my dream to write the Great American Novel, not really, but to have one well-written one that I'm proud of published? Now that I dream of.

And I know this post smacks somewhat of bitterness and regret, but I don't want that, ultimately. God gave me a gift in my writing ability, and I don't want to waste it. Sitting here typing, I realized I can do something about that. While I think Lent would be the ideal time to rededicate myself to writing creatively or introspectively every day, I need to get back in the habit, and I shouldn't have to wait until next spring. I should be able to discipline myself to do that, writing a little (not on the computer, but by hand), whether it's journaling or something creative, be it ever so meager an effort, for the next 40 days. I'll start today...well, as it's after 1 in the morning, later today, although this post should count, right?

I pray for the intercession of St. Francis de Sales and St. Maximillian Kolbe, patrons of writers and journalists, for their help in sticking to my resolution. Counting it out, 40 days from today is August 14th. I can do that.

I just realized August 14th is St. Maximillian Kolbe's feast day. I sit here amazed.