deborahjross: (Default)
Last week I had a meltdown. It did not take the form of tears, irritability, or burning pots of vegetables (as I am wont to do when I am upset and distracted). Instead, a horrible doomsday scenario popped into my mind and I could not talk myself out of it. Normally I’m not given to imagining worst-case no-hope futures. I try to keep in mind that no matter how distraught I am at any given moment, whatever is bothering me will not last forever. (This goes for good times, too. All life is impermanent.) This time, however, the dreadful sequence had taken hold and would not be dislodged.

So I did what I have been advised to do about other problems. I put my nightmare out there and asked folks what they thought. I often joke that we muddle along because we’re not all crazy on the same day. I figured that even though my brains had taken a sharp turn to crazyland, there were some saner people out there. Some agreed with me, others had their own dire forebodings, and still more had confidence that wiser heads would prevail.

After I’d calmed down, I had a serious moment of “What got into me?” I admit that I was a little embarrassed at losing it, especially in such a public way. I tried to make light of the situation by joking that aliens had eaten my brains (one of my stock explanations for moments of temporary insanity).

Then I remembered to be kind to myself. No harm had been done, after all, except to the illusion that I am always calm and rational. That’s a good illusion to shatter now and again for fear of being insufferable. Through painful experience, I’ve learned the importance of getting friendly with things that upset or frighten me. What if my lapse were doing me a favor and what might it teach me?

Once I got some distance from the moment of panic, I realized that I’d been expecting myself to progress in a straight, continuous manner. No backsliding or side tracks. No relapses. Recovery sometimes works like that, but more often it’s full of slips and detours, three steps sideways to every step forward. Just as when an alcoholic or addict “hits bottom” before they are ready to make substantial changes in their attitudes and lives, going “off the deep end” was a wake-up call for me. I saw then that I had been stressed by more than the political situation. We have two sick or injured pets, one of whom will likely not recover and will have to be euthanized. Several other challenging events have occurred that, taken singly, would be manageable, but all together on top of everything else pushed me off-center.

I’m grateful to the friends who offered sage (and not-so-sage) comments and thereby helped me to gain perspective on my own condition. I’m incredibly annoyed that the universe ganged up on me in so many ways all at once. I’m also appreciative of the experiences I’ve had (good, bad, insane) over the years that have shown me I am not invincible but that if I am willing to ask for help (and then take it), I am resilient and resourceful. I value everyone and everything in my life that helps me to keep my priorities straight.
deborahjross: (Default)


Some years ago, I struck up a conversation with a young writer at a convention. (I love getting to know other writers, so this is not unusual for me.) One thing led to another, led to lunch, led to getting together on a regular basis, led to frequently chatting online. I cheered her on as she had her first professional sale, and then another, and then a cover story on a prestigious magazine. One of the gifts of such a relationship is not the support I receive from it, but the honor and joy of watching someone else come into her own as an artist, to celebrate her achievements. It's the opposite of Schaudenfreude -- it's taking immense pleasure and pride in the success of someone you have come to care about.

I've written about these lunches here: The Lady (Actual and Honorary) Writers' Lunch

I find such friendships invaluable, and even more so when they shift from "pro/newbie" to one of true peers. Although we may not be in the same place in terms of professional publication, we each bring a wealth of life experiences to the conversation. Often, critical skills develop faster than writing craft, so even a novice writer can provide invaluable feedback.Trust arises from recognition of each other's strengths.

This happened recently, when I was wrestling with the opening of a new novel. I typed "Chapter 1" and then stared at the blank screen. Everything I could come up with for a beginning sentence was -- to put it mildly, just awful. I wouldn't want to read a book that began that way. But because my friend and I were IMing and she often shares thoughts about her creative process and struggles with various aspects of storytelling in a very different style than mine, I felt safe with her. She agreed that my idea wasn't very entrancing (she was very nice about it, for she understands that beginnings are vulnerable times and that this is indeed a process, not the final copy on the editor's desk). Her support lightened the burden of "I'm totally useless and now everyone is going to find out; I'll never write another decent sentence in my life and I have no idea how to begin a novel!" which we both knew to be not true, but the sort of self-doubt that regularly assails writers of all skill levels.

Eventually I calmed down enough to remember one of my tried and true techniques for coming up with titles. I write down every one I can think of, quite quickly so that I get through all the really stupid ones first. I give myself permission to be ridiculous -- and silly -- and quirky -- and by this time, I am usually generating stuff that has some potential. I did the same thing with opening lines, and before long I realized I'd become ensnared by one of my perennial challenges: wrong point of entry. By backing up (in this case) or leaping forward, I can find the place that clicks. 

I went to bed, having written a page or so, and woke up with: "Yes, and this other thing happens and then she gets thrown into jail (on page 2 or 3) and by the time she gets bailed out, her father has been brainwashed..." Okay, this has possibilities!

Thanks, dear friend, for cheering me on through the discouraging part!
deborahjross: (Default)
At last we've had some sun, after days of storm and gloomy overcast. Hospice sent a lovely volunteer to sit with my friend, so I took a break and spent the afternoon talking shop and getting my creative batteries "recharged" with a nearby fellow writer. I'm reminded how friends create a network as resilient as any spun by a spider. Friendships work because we're not all crazy -- or needy, or sick -- on the same day. Our love for one another is like water flowing through many channels, all one thing but divided, some sleepy winding rivers or placid waves on the beach, others torrential downpours or waterfalls, or glaciers. Or tsunamis.
deborahjross: (Shield #1)
This is my first experience being with someone who is dying slowly. I’ve lost loved ones suddenly, without any chance to say goodbye. I’ve visited and taken care of friends and family during a terminal illness, but not for this length of time or this close to the end. Hospice has provided not only printed information of what to expect, but a variety of support personnel who function as educators as well as helpers. I was reasonably well prepared for the physical changes in my dying friend, but the rhythms in her decline have come as a surprise.

I – and most of us, I suspect – live my life with a greater or lesser degree of ritual. My days are structured with the things I do regularly, without much in the way of decision making, whether it’s my morning wash-up routine, the things I do when I sit down to work, preparing dinner and sharing it with my family, and so forth. The week has its own schedule, even though I work at home. I admit to having expectations about how each day will unfold, what commitments I have and what blocks of “discretionary” time. Although it’s been said that expectations are premeditated resentments (when it comes to our agendas for how other people live their lives), we humans seem to do better when things are at least slightly predictable. It’s exhausting to live in a state of not knowing what might happen next.
Read more... )
And yet that’s an aspect of caring for the dying. The doctors have told us the likely progression of the disease (in this case, ovarian cancer that has metastasized to the lungs). Hospice has provided booklets on “When Death Is Near,” that explains the processes most dying patients go through – withdrawal, closure, loss of appetite and thirst, confusion, unconsciousness, and so forth, as well as various changes in the body and its functions. They were careful to note that not all patients have all the symptoms, or in this order. The piece that either wasn’t there or I didn’t comprehend was that this is an inherently volatile, unstable, and unpredictable process.

My friend is dying peacefully. We are able to keep our commitment to her, which is to alleviate and prevent air hunger, and to keep her as comfortable as we can. Much of the time, she drifts into and out of consciousness. I sit with her, as I am doing as I write this, and she looks like she’s taking a nap, propped up on pillow in her hospital bed in the living room. When I returned to this essay after one of the inevitable breaks, she had badgered her other caregivers into taking her in her wheelchair into her garden in the rain, after being largely bedridden for over a week. I would never have predicted that!

About two weeks ago, she was sitting up on her own, talking with great animation to two videographers for a project on the stories of cancer patients. I brought out her red tango shoes, the ones with heels the same height as the size of one of her lung tumors. She proceeded to arrange her oxygen feed and demonstrate a tango step with one of her interviewers. Two weeks before that, she had gone tango dancing with a portable oxygen tank, which she handed to her partner to carry, along with a quip about having to dance really close. None of us had expected such a precipitous decline.

The decline isn’t regular in pace, and that’s what is unexpected to me. Instead of a straight moderately-angled downward line, it plummets like a descent into an oceanic abyss, then levels off and even rises slightly, as it did this afternoon. I have no idea when those drops will occur or how much decline will take place each time. Some changes affect us caregivers more than the dying person. For example, we went through a number of consecutive days where we had to modify the medication dosage and scheduling in order to achieve the same degree of comfort and breathing. At other times, there’s nothing we can do except adapt to the changes in the patient’s condition.

What am I, as a writer as well as a friend, to make of this? Living day-to-day and sometimes hour-to-hour gives new meaning to slogans like “Live in the Now” or “One Day At A Time.” In real life, it’s exhausting and heartbreaking, even when I accept that my friend is not going to get better, that’s she’s going to “wind down” until at some moment over which neither she nor I have any control, she will die. This does not make good fiction, even good tragedy. Fiction works because it has shape, which is seen most clearly in plot but must be present also in character and other aspects of the story. Even if I were to write a piece in which nothing “happens,” other than a character gets progressively weaker and more debilitated, less autonomous, and finally dies, that in itself would not be an effective story. What happens during that decline is the important aspect of fiction, whether it’s the journey to closure – or the struggle and failure – of the dying person or the effects on the people around her, those things can have intention, tension, complication, and resolution.
As I write this, I think, If only real life could have that degree of emotional coherence, and not be, as Mark Twain said, “One damned thing after another.”

I wonder if the “shape” of fiction, that aspect that gives us such deep satisfaction, is also present in potential in real life, if only we could learn to pay attention to it. We get so attached to What does this mean? and How does it end? because these are the questions that fiction addresses (among other things). After all, in our ordinary lives, it means whatever meaning we ascribe to it, and it ends in our own death.

Maybe the answers aren’t The Secret Clue or Happily Ever After. Maybe they’re How am I alive this moment? What do I feel? How does Spirit move in my life? How do I open myself and respond to the Spirit I see in another human being?

How do we dance together, oxygen tanks and all?
deborahjross: (Shield #1)
Horse people form extraordinary, loyal, and sometimes contentious communities. The same is true for readers (and writers!) of science fiction and fantasy. (And for martial artists, and musicians, and . . .) When two or more of these interests coincide, the results can be magical.
The second volume of The Seven-Petaled Shield, titled Shannivar, touches many of the areas of passion in my life. A strong woman hero, a martial artist, a horsewoman, her wonderful horses, a love story (me being a romantic at heart), a quest . . . One of the people I’ve shared a love of horses and adventure with is my friend Bonnie, about whom I’ve written in the last few posts.

Bonnie and I became fast friends over folk dancing and wild adventures during our college student days in the 1960s. Later, when she fulfilled her dream of owning horses, she carried me back to my own high school years, when I rode my own horse over the golden hills. When I’d visit, we’d ride together, clean stalls together, talk endlessly about horse temperaments and training, and swap tall tales “in the saddle.”
Read more... )
Much to my delight, Bonnie  began studying tai chi chuan, which I had practiced for 4 or 5 years before being seduced by kung fu (30 years total). During those years, I’d delved into the women sf/f writers martial arts cabal. One of those adventures took place at a women’s martial arts camp, where I took a seminar in tai chi sword. I’d kept the sword even after I switched to kung fu, and earlier this year I brought it up for Bonnie to use in her sword form class.

It was therefore luminously clear to me that the Dedication to Shannivar belonged to Bonnie. Who else would understand the references to gaited horses (Bonnie rode Tennessee Walkers), the strategies of a long distance horse race, or the enchantment of a dance when all elements come together as a glorious whole? The only question was whether she would still be here to see its publication.

For the several years while I worked on revising the trilogy as a whole, all 3 books at once and scheduled for release 6 months apart, her health declined slowly and I was hopeful. And close-mouthed. Then everything changed with her hospitalization and greatly shortened prognosis. Shannivar was due to be released in December, and I feared she wouldn’t make it that long.

I sent off an email to Joshua Starr at DAW, my publisher, and explained my concerns. The book was well into production. I’d proofread the pages and seen both the preliminary cover sketches and the final painting. But the ARCs would not come along for a little while. Josh printed up and bound a copy with a mock up cover (the painting, but not the final design) and mailed it to me out here.

I presented it to my friend. Thank you from both of us to Josh, and Kate and Betsy and everyone at DAW.
Deborah and Bonnie

deborahjross: (Shield #1)
The brochure from hospice inform me that as a dying person’s body winds down, appetite becomes erratic and diminishes. The sense of taste changes so that formerly favorite foods are no longer appealing. The person eats less when they do eat. Finally, many dying people refuse all food. This can be complicated because throughout human cultures, offering food is a way of expressing love. The dying person may continue to eat in order to please a loved one, but in the end the demands of the body prevail.

Besides nourishing our bodies, sometimes past the point of health and into diet-related diseases, food is laden with symbolic meaning. We celebrate with festive meals; we soothe ourselves with favorite treats from our childhood; we give candy to our sweethearts. Even the term “sweetheart” refers to sweetness, a taste, as do “honey” and other endearments. Taste and smell are the most basic, “primitive” senses, so our expressions of care go zing! right into the oldest portions of the brain.

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building is creating different cuisines for each culture or social class, ethnic group or family. While it may be true that just about every cuisine has some version of pancake-rolled-around-filling, stew modeled on the canned stuff in American supermarkets shouts “generic fantasy!” Read more... )Just as every family seems to have their own special recipe for spaghetti sauce or meatloaf, you can devise variations on the same dish. Sometimes these variations might reflect notions about what is suitable food for people of different ages, different social status, or even genders (“manly meals” or “kiddy food” or salads-are-for-women). Even within these variations, not everyone has the same taste. Some may be innate (how cilantro tastes is genetically determined), or influenced by personal history (travel, associations with significant events or relationships) and health status.

Which brings me again to caring for a terminally ill friend, in particular providing meals for her. She jokes about taking a trip down the memory lane of the foods she’s enjoyed during her life. Her tastes have become nostalgic, erratic to the point of whimsical, but fleeting. Some of the things she’s asked for are cream of mushroom soup, watermelon, Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, buttermilk biscuits from scratch (which I do know how to make), hot dogs with sauerkraut, salami, and vanilla ice cream with lemon sorbet for breakfast. No pickles with the ice cream, at least not yet, although she jokes about the food cravings of pregnancy. Life is indeed uncertain, so she eats dessert first.

The food comes with memories, of course. “Do you remember the time we ate this when we were students and…” or “I made this recipe while horse camping on Mt. Hood…” or “my father used to cook this for a special occasion…” I think the same is true for everyone, but the awareness that time is limited, that the number of times you will eat this dish or reminisce over the adventures that once accompanied it are not limitless, adds a special poignancy. As my friend’s appetite wanes, she eats less in amount and frequency. There’s a shift from the fullness of having eaten to the sensory pleasure of eating to the anticipation, the idea of that particular food. If there is a sense of re-visiting the past – comfort and celebration, adventure and sharing – there is also a gradual farewell.
deborahjross: (Shield #1)
From the time we’re small children, it seems that someone is always urging us to hurry up, to not dawdle, to stop procrastinating, to keep “on target,” and to do things faster. We are supposed to race through our lives without paying attention to the wonders around us (except, of course, when we’re supposed to be observant and appreciative). Of course, what is wonderful to a child is all too often invisible to the harried parent or teacher who herself has deadlines and schedules to keep. Homework assignments are Important; watching snails is not.

When I began to write professionally, I found myself juggling motherhood, a day job career, and the inner-driven need to set down the stories in my head. Writing time was precious and all too scant, and I had much to learn about the craft. My initial style involved “pantsing” (writing “by the seat of your pants”) or, as I put it, “taking a flying leap off the edge of reality, ” and then revising, revising, revising. As a consequence of this and the limited, fractured time periods available to me, my stories progressed slowly. I remember meeting a certain published author at one of my first convention, who breezily talked about how he never revised, he sold his first draft novels, and he produced three or four of them every year. I cringed to think of my one or two short stories and maybe one novel draft in that same time period (keeping in mind that I needed three or four – or more! – revision drafts). Was this what professional writers did? I wondered. And how was I ever going to produce that much, that fast, and of that professional quality?
Read more... )
(As a slightly smirky footnote, I have no idea what happened to that writer. I haven’t seen the byline in decades, so maybe that strategy wasn’t so successful after all. Or the name might have been changed, as so often happens. Me, I have four traditionally-published novels and an ebook short fiction collection coming out this year.)

To my great good fortune, I also encountered writers who had learned to listen to their own creative rhythms and understood that getting the story right trumped getting it fast. These were not writers who use “I listen to my inner muse” as an excuse for not writing, or who polish endlessly and never submit their work. These were professional, published authors. Some of them sold many books and others only a few. Not all were genre writers, but all prized their craft. I met writers who considered a day successful if they got a single paragraph exactly the way they wanted it; others measured their daily productivity by hours spent or pages finished. They opened my eyes to many possibilities for measuring progress besides how fast I could turn out a manuscript.

As it turns out, I found that different stages of a story call for different speeds. I work best when I draft quickly from outline and then revise slowly. I give myself permission at all stages to take a break and think about a “stuck place” (whether that is a block in the sense of “I have no idea what comes next” or just a niggling feeling that something isn’t right). I go for a walk, I clean house, or I pick up the phone and chat with a friend about something utterly unrelated to writing. When I’m willing to do this, I end up in fewer dead ends, I need fewer subsequent drafts, and I’m more in touch with the internal fabric of the story.

All this has a great deal to do with observing and accepting my own creative rhythms, but also with patience. Patience loops the topic back to my opening, which is how we find our way back being fully present with what is unfolding at the present moment and at a pace too often at odds with the regimented, overcommitted, multi-tasking, hurried expectations around us (not to mention the financial pressures for a working writer to produce so many books a year). It’s all very well to recite slogans like, “Stop And Smell The Roses,” and quite another to shield ourselves from those expectations.

I’ve been blessed with several Teachers of Patience and I’m trying to take what I have learned from them and apply it to my work. One of my most significant teachers was an elderly Quaker woman, who welcomed me when my husband and I began attending the local Meeting. She and I had many wonderful conversations before she died a few years ago, some at Meeting or the monthly potlucks, others at our lunch dates. She walked very slowly due to various medical conditions, but I quickly realized how important it was to accord her the dignity of doing what she could, of being autonomous. She did need my help from time to time, with opening doors and such, and she taught me ways of offering or responding that maintained that relationship of respect. It became a spiritual exercise to adjust my own walking speed to hers, to hold the door for as long as she needed, to move with her as if in a slow-motion dance. Adagio, not Presto. So much of the joy of writing is discovering new experiences, new points of view, stories told by characters who are not like us and who live in worlds not like our own. Here was a precious chance to experience living at a different pace.

Now I am staying with my best friend during the final weeks of her life. She, too, is moving slowly, more slowly with each passing day as her body winds down. I watch her savoring every moment, paying attention to her strength, which varies from day to day but it never what it was when she was healthy. Slow means taking the time to be as fully alive and present as possible. Slow means reordering priorities (eating dessert first, as it were, choosing only the most precious things to spend waning energy on). Slow means savoring the meadow at sunset, perhaps with a cup of hot chocolate and a dear friend.
Take your time; there’s no need to hurry.
deborahjross: (dolomites)
Darcy at 16 weeks

On Book View Cafe blog, my husband has been blogging about our life and adventures with Darcy, which are now coming to a close. Darcy will be returning to his breeder, who will find him an owner capable of training him to his full potential. 

Despite all our care and knowledge about dogs, our age (both of us in our mid-60s) and other competing demands on our energy made it increasingly difficult to give Darcy the training and attention that an smart, intense, high-drive dog needs. This was especially true since at 4 months, Darcy is entering adolescence and testosterone is upping the intensity. Even so, we have given him a foundation of house manners, basic commands (sit/down/come/leave-it/loose-leash walking) and excellent socialization with other dogs. He plays happily with the neighbor's two Labradors, who are big enough to enjoy the kind of rough and tumble that so often characterizes German Shepherd Dogs. At his breeder's, he'll have a chance to play with his sister until he goes to a new home. He's a confident, outgoing dog.

What brings our "temporary parenthood" to a close is a larger, human drama. Today I will be leaving for another state to help care for my dear friend and her family in the final weeks or months of her life. I posted pictures of us a few days back. She's asked me to be present when she dies. I feel honored and humbled by the request. One of the hard realities is that Dave, my husband, cannot manage Darcy alone. So life changes act like dominoes, one cascading into another. Life gets shaken up, fractured into pieces we sometimes don't even recognize. The shapes and colors are foreign, and yet as they settle into their new configuration, they find a harmony there as well. We know, intuitively if not in so many words, that change has brought us everything we love, but that all those things are ours "on loan." We are stewards, not owners. Of land, of animals, of the hearts of those we love and who love us. When these things pass from us, we honor them with our grief.

Darcy goes to the prospect of a full and happy life, doing work he and his ancestors were bred for. I go to offer myself to help ease my friend's passage, to fill her days with the joys of a long friendship, to care for her family. Dave has farewells and awakenings of his own. Our journeys are not identical, nor should they be. He will hold the space for me to return, my anchor, just as I do for him.

Lesson for today: Don't wait to tell the people you love how you feel.

deborahjross: (blue hills)
I've been following [ profile] jaylake's cancer blog with a great deal of concern and sorrow. He is one of a number of friends, some very dear to me, who are facing terminal illness. I suppose it is inevitable as one ages that more of one's friends develop various serious medical conditions. When we are children, most of us have few if any experiences of the death of someone close to us. When we are elderly, most of us have had many and will have even more.

The person facing their own mortality goes through a spectrum of emotions -- from rage to grief to using intellectual thought to numb out. I can't know what that is like. I can only listen with as much compassion as I am capable of. I can also -- and I must if I am to listen in that manner -- be aware of my own rage, my own grief, my own compulsion to offer solutions.

I remember something my therapist told me when one of my children was going through a particularly difficult time and so, so badly wanted to make things better for her. Ask yourself: Am I telling her something she already knows? Is this something she can figure out for herself? Because if the answer is yes, then the purpose of the question is not to help her by supplying information or opinions not otherwise available to her. It is to ease my own burden of anxiety by adding to hers.

I must remember that when a dying friend trusts me with intense emotions, they are not asking for me to solve a problem. They are asking me to listen. To be with them. To ease the loneliness and fear to whatever extend my presence can. To be present with them in this very moment.

Sometimes about the most useful thing I can do is pass the Kleenex.

For both of us.
deborahjross: (Default)
From my dear friend, Bonnie Stockman, as she faces her third recurrence of ovarian cancer, posted with her permission:

I'm going into my third lap. One is such, ah, a virgin the first time. So hopeful and optimistic for a cure even with less than charming odds. The second time is a denouement of sorts, but a thin thread of hope hangs in there - I've talked to a couple of people that had a recurrence many years ago and are here to tell about it. The third time... haven't run into anyone that's a long term survivor after the third time. The stats for treatment effectiveness are similarly less than cheerful. At this point, one term I saw used was "salvage chemo". Buys one time - and hopefully salvages some decent quality of life.

I will miss hearing what happens in all the stories, but I am reminded that the stories are endless and the beginnings before my time. I wonder about both ends of them, but all I have is my part right here in the middle of beginning and ending. It was for others to know the beginnings and it is for others to know the endings, if indeed there ever are any endings. Like the saying on the hippie school bus: "Now is all we have".

Indeed, we have now. And if we have been generous with our hearts, we have each other. Sometimes, we have each other even if we haven't, because life itself is full of gifts. Every day.

Open your eyes. Tell someone you love them. Listen when they love you back.
mirrored from Deborah's blog


deborahjross: (Default)
Deborah J. Ross

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