Cousin Irene

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to make your internal critics go away by writing about them, and told you that my critic was named Ed.  But Ed is only one of them – like most of us, I have several internal critics, nearly all of them nasty.  Here is a piece I wrote years ago about Cousin Irene, the voice inside my head who is in charge of procrastination, laziness, and all the addictive distractions there are.

Cousin Irene lurches into the room, trailing leavings from her purse – a dried-up lipstick, a wallet with a broken zipper, a scarf that has gum wadded in it, and of course those old used Kleenexes. She doesn’t pick anything up, because that is my job. She plops down on the most comfortable chair in the room. Her bulk overflows the cushion and her dress rides up on her thighs; she is wearing nylon socks that only reach halfway up her meaty calves. She tells me it’s too hot to write today, and besides there is nothing interesting to write about, and even if there was something interesting, I would not be able to find it. She demands a glass of wine, even though it’s only two in the afternoon. She asks what’s in the refrigerator, and then says I should make her a plate of something, whatever is there. She turns on the TV; it is Judge Judy, which suits her fine, she likes to sneer at all those stupid people. She spills her wine on the front of her dress but doesn’t bother to wipe it off.

Writing the above was pretty effective at keeping Cousin Irene fairly quiet – any time I felt the urge to give in, I just re-read my description of her. But a few years after I wrote it, Cousin Irene starting shaking her bootie at me again. So this time I didn’t just write about her – I made her into visual art, picturing her in both a drawing and a sculpture. Then I put the sculpture in a birdcage (without the bird) and have kept her there since. I plan to keep her there forever, although sometimes she moans and cajoles and lies in attempts to make me release her. She’s also been known to burp and fart when she knows I’m listening.

Cousin Irene does not give in easily.

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Best Birthday Prez Ever

A couple of weeks ago it was my birthday. My present from my eldest granddaughter was a card she made herself. She knows about my various artistic practices such as writing a daily haiku and doing a daily drawing. (See my blog post from May 29th, titled Practice)

So for my birthday card she wrote two haiku of her own and two daily draws. Both haiku and one of the draws are about me! (The other draw reflects her dislike of getting up in the morning.)

Here they are. I hope you will agree with me that my granddaughter is talented, interesting, and totally loveable.

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The Origin of Flowers

Red rosesYesterday was Valentine’s Day, symbolized by roses and other flowers. Who doesn’t love flowers? (Grouchy people, that’s who.) But where do flowers come from?

They come from garbage, decomposition, and death, that’s where. In short, they come from compost, which is the name of this blog.

Every morning I write my morning pages, which are made of both garbage and roses. I write whatever comes out of my pen, and out of the discarded boring self-centered rubbish sometimes blooms words and thoughts of enormous beauty. I have been proving this to myself for twenty years and yet I am still excited and amazed when it happens again.

Thank you, compost, for giving me roses on Valentine’s Day.

Compost: Open Letter to a Dog

Dad&Akeem - Cropped

Instead of ghostwriting for my dog Alex Terrgi today, I am sharing something my father wrote back in 2002, when his beloved dog Akeem (named after pro basketball player Akeem Olajuwon) died. My father was 85 then, and Akeem was the latest in a long line of historic dogs (historic in our family, anyway – I can recount the life stories of dogs who died long before I was born.) I got my love of dogs from my father. Perhaps you will enjoy this letter. It says a lot about Akeem the dog, but even more about my father. And of love.

July 11, 2002

Dear Akeem,

It has been one week since you failed to greet the morning with me in your usually enthusiastic manner. When I came out of my bedroom and saw you lying in your bed unmoving, I thought the worst and then I touched your cold body and knew my long-time friend and associate was dead. There is a Native American saying: “When you left, my heart fell to the ground.” It will take a long time for me to lift my heart back up.

You know I don’t believe in a heaven for a human or a dog, but my brother says all things are possible. “You can’t be an atheist,” he said. “You can be an agnostic or a non-believer.” Whoever is right, I will write this letter to you with the realization that if there is a dog heaven, you surely are there. The odds are less than the crows and coyotes joining together and seizing control of the world or the Republican Party.

Many thousands of years ago, a human hunter or caveman bonded with a wolf and realized that if they worked together they could find more food for both the human and wolf families. Then their experiences together probably brought respect and love. I believe the caveman loved his wolf-dog as much as I loved you.

Dogs give unselfish devotion and attention to those they bond with, and man, even with his greater amount of life activities cannot give back nearly as much time or devotion. You accepted whatever time I could give you, and were constantly at my side sharing experiences.

Akeem, what I am about to write to you would not be understood by people who don’t have dogs and know the companionship a dog can give. They might think this old man is a bit dotty and is losing it. Anyhow when I found you lying in your bed, I said, “It is time. You are a very old dog for a Doberman and you will no longer feel the troubling pain of arthritic hips.” A lump formed in my throat but I said, “I have seen a lot of deaths during my lifetime, and besides tough old men don’t cry.” So I went out and got the paper from the box, as you and I have done a thousand times, fixed my breakfast, started to read the paper, took two bites of cantaloupe, and then began to blubber like a baby with bad milk in its bottle. When I got myself under control, I called my son, told him of your death and then lost it again. I realized that you were better off and I was only feeling sorry for myself in losing a very close friend.

During this past week, hundreds of activities around the home have reminded me of our relationship. Mornings were our special time. We both enjoyed the early mornings and while I went out to get the paper, you would run full speed out to the back garden and then full speed to the front yard. If no lions, tigers, or squirrels were found, you would come in for your breakfast. After I fixed and ate my breakfast, I would give you a piece of toast piled high with raspberry jam. Some mornings I would hide small pieces of food around the kitchen and see if you could find them. You enjoyed that.

You did have a sense of humor. Sometimes you would try to keep me from getting out of the swimming pool, by standing on the top step growling and showing your teeth. I would then grab you, rough you up a bit, and then you’d go away happy. Sometimes when I grabbed the edge of the pool, you’d reach down and grab my hand. This would startle me and I’d react; then you’d back away with a satisfied smirk on your face. I know you were laughing because all those skin wrinkles around your jaws got very deep.

You seldom talked to me but you often had long conversations with my wife. You made strong noises but used great enthusiasm in your discussions. You understood a lot of what we said to you, but we were never smart enough to understand your replies.

Akeem, you were not always law-abiding. Sometimes you’d open the bread drawer, seize a loaf of bread, and go off into the woods for a picnic. You never took along butter, raspberry jam, or bologna. I guess you could picnic on bread alone. You seemed to estimate how much troubled you’d get into if you stole a cookie from a child or an apple from the coffee table. Sometimes you thought the food was worth the punishment.

You were my supervisor while we worked in the garden. You didn’t do much work yourself, but you did enjoy the results of my labor. During raspberry and strawberry seasons, I’d pick handfuls and feed them to you. At times I even allowed you to pick your own apple from the tree. You loved carrots the best, and I was always amazed how you’d surgically cut the green tops from the edible parts.

Akeem, my dog, my friend, I don’t fully understand a man’s love for his dog, or a dog’s love for a man. I know I enjoyed our relationship tremendously and life for me will not be as good now that you are gone. I do know that you should end up in heaven. Heaven would be a hell of a place if dogs like you were not allowed.

Love,
ADP

Note from me, ADP’s daughter: My father died in 2011 at the age of 94. If there is a heaven, I suspect he and Akeem are now together enjoying raspberry jam and playing swimming pool jokes on each other.

Compost: Senior Word Power

DiplomaRemember when you were a Freshman in High School and looked up to those elevated beings, the Seniors? The Seniors were the ones who were the epitome of cool, the ones who knew where It was At, the ones who enjoyed the perks of powerful positions in the student body, the ones who could drive. You couldn’t wait to become one of them.

But that was then and this is now. Nowadays when I hear the word “senior” it drips condescension. For those 55 and over, every day the mailbox brings advertisements for long-term care insurance, membership in AARP, over-55 retirement communities, cremation or burial services – plan ahead! – all on glossy paper with beautiful ocean scenes or people with gray hair and no wrinkles smiling as they golf on greens so bright they hurt your aging eyes. And of course all of them with the word “senior” sprinkled liberally through the text. Who are they kidding? In High School the next step after Senior is either College or Adult Work. But for these other Seniors the next step is Death.

Or is it? We’re not in High School any more, but we are still students in Life School. So if people 65 & over are “seniors” then let’s call people 50 to 64 “juniors” and those 35 to 50 “sophomores” and those 20 to 34 “freshmen, and those under 20 kindergartners. What if the next step after Senior was “Graduate,” not “Dead”? When you graduate you’ve passed the most important tests and learned the most important lessons and now you are ready to join the universal throng of real “grownups” who know what it’s actually all about. (Or at least have a better guess.)

Ah words. They mean a lot. They affect how you think. How you behave. How you believe.

Compost: One Person

Apple TreeImbolc is an old European festival traditionally celebrated February 2nd. In Catholic tradition this date is known as Candlemas, and is sacred to Saint Brigid. In popular culture it has come down to us as Groundhog’s Day. This holiday marks the first stirring of the seeds, deep within the womb of earth. Nature is beginning to wake up. The days are visibly longer. There is a sense of freshness in the air, and a feeling of possibility. Imbolc is the traditional time to set new intentions and begin new projects for the coming year.

My intention for this year is to “Make a difference to someone every day.” This does not mean I have to cure someone of an obscure disease, or give a million dollars to my favorite charity, or write a best-selling book so beautifully written it makes people weep.

About a month ago I read this wonderful blog post about how we all can make a positive difference in others’ lives – in small ways. The title is “52 Baby Steps To Living a More Compassionate Life” by Judy Dunn. Here’s the link.

We often think “but I’m just one person” when faced with the numerous and enormous problems of the world. Words have power, so take the “just” out of that sentence. “I am One Person” is much better. It doesn’t matter how small your actions or words are. They still matter. It doesn’t matter who you are, or even how old you are. Here are two true stories that illustrate this.

Last Christmas my 9-year-old granddaughter received two $25 gift cards as presents. A few days after Christmas she and her father went shopping so she could spend her gift cards. She had it all planned out what she would buy. On the way to the store they were stopped at a red light and by the side of the road was a homeless man with a cardboard sign. She spoke up and asked her dad if he would pull over so she could give the man one of her gift cards. Her father, who knew how much she was looking forward to spending her money, was amazed – and proud. The homeless man was also amazed – and grateful. When complimented on her generosity, my granddaughter shrugged. “He needed it more than me,” she said.

Here’s a companion story, told to me by a friend. My friend and her 90-year-old mother were taking a drive and stopped at a diner for lunch. Her mother, whose name is Vera (a beautiful name which means “truth”) was always happy to get out and see what was going on in the world. She is a person who has always found life fascinating, which is probably one of the reasons for her longevity. At the diner Vera saw a young man sitting at a nearby table. He was scruffy with not-quite-clean clothes, a tired face, and a guitar leaning against his legs as he hunched over a cup of coffee. “We should buy that young man some food,” Vera said to her daughter. “He looks hungry.” Her daughter agreed, but said she wasn’t sure how to go about doing so.

Vera showed her how. She simply got up, walked over to the young man’s table (using her walker) and said, “You remind me so much of my son. He plays the guitar and when he was young he used to take it with him when he traveled. I’d like to buy you lunch because seeing you brought this memory back.”

See how she did that? Her offer held no condescension, no pity, just gratitude and fellow-feeling. What a wonderful woman Vera is. I’m grateful to her, just for being her.

The young man accepted her offer, of course. One cannot turn down a 90-year-old woman. “Can I play you a song?” he asked. He too wanted to make a difference.

Everyone can make a difference – the young and the old, from nine to ninety. These are the kinds of differences I want to make this year.

Compost: Be a Hurdler

hurdlesI wrote an e-book I called Ghost Stories for Real Ghosts, which is a compilation of blog posts and online articles I’ve written for my own blog (www.FromtheCompost.com ), the Blood Red Pencil (http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com), Biznik (www.biznik.com), Writers’ Village (www.writers-village.org), A Storied Career (www.astoriedcareer.com), the National Association of Memoir Writers (www.namw.org), and others. The 42 chapters cover writing in general as well as ghostwriting in particular, and describe and explain the joy and pains, challenges and opportunities, of being a writer and a ghostwriter – which are not the same thing. This compilation e-book, like my e-books Getting the Work and Doing the Work, is only available to participants in the Learn to Ghost program. (www.LearnToGhost.com).

However, here is one of those chapters, which I called “Hurdles” as a freebie. It’s about the hurdles I had to leap over when I started my ghostwriting and freelance writing business. Entrepreneurship is hard. But it is also exhilarating.

Hurdles

Although it had been my dream since childhood, I did not become a full-time writer until I was middle-aged. It was a scary decision, and many co-workers, acquaintances, family, and friends thought I was completely bonkers to give up a well-paying job for a nebulous dream. Even after I proved that I could indeed support myself by writing, they thought I was nuts to continue with it. “I’d never do that,” said my former co-workers. “Are you sure you can keep jumping over all the hurdles, especially at your age?” said one of my helpful aunties. “Aren’t you worried about the future? What will happen when you get old?” asked one of my closest friends.

Ah, those hurdles. They are there, you know. But I found that the hardest hurdles to jump over were all in my own head. Worrying about whether I’d spend all my savings and end up on welfare, worrying about pleasing my clients, worrying that no one would hire me, worrying that I’d embarrass myself and my family by failing, worrying worrying worrying.

I’m not sure you can ever banish worry entirely. It seems to be part of who we are as humans. But I have learned to replace much of my worry with trust. On good days, and even on average days, I trust that the universe wants me to succeed. I trust that if I do my part, the universe will do its part.

But I confess that on bad days I might revert to worrying. There have been days when I’m sure the proverbial bag-lady is hanging out in my closet, waiting for me to fail so she can lend me her shopping cart. I start to think longingly about handy things like salaries, medical benefits, 401Ks, sick days, and vacations days—you know, all those “guarantees” that I used to have.

And then I remember that the word guarantee represents a total illusion. No amount of worry will guarantee success. Worry does not work. One of my favorite quotations about worry is by Peter McWilliams: “Worry is interest paid on a debt you may not owe.”

I also remember those people in my life who have supported me in this crazy dream. Especially my two grown daughters, who have been kind enough to tell me they have been inspired by my mid-life leap, and when they get to middle age, they will know how to do it right. It is comments like these, from people I love and respect, that remind me that we are all teachers for one another. We’re not here for ourselves.

Compost: Lists

listsHere’s something I wrote a few years ago, about what to do when your mind goes blank. Don’t tell me yours never does, because if you do I won’t believe you. Here is one way I deal with that awful blank page or screen, when suddenly your mind is as blank as the screen.

What to do? Be like a Boy Scout – be prepared. If you know this will happen to you (it happens to every writer), one thing that might help is to have a prepared list of things you are interested in. Make this list when your mind is NOT blank, but teeming with too many subjects that interest you. What is actually on the list doesn’t matter, as long as you have an interest, and preferably a passion, for the subject. Don’t elaborate, just write them down. Then save this list!

Here’s a list I made a couple of years ago. Some of the subjects I’ve already written about, others I no longer have an interest in. But others are still fertile ground waiting for me to plow through them.

Bee-keeping. Paganism. Candle-making. Hippies of the 1960s. Growing large zucchini and making zucchini boats. Spider webs. Starting a new business. The role of grandmothers. Aromatherapy. Community softball. Bungee cord jumping and those insane enough to try it. Television sitcoms and what they show about us. Siamese cats. The psychological effects of constipation. What you can learn from Alzheimer’s victims. Square dancing for round folks. True love and what it doesn’t conquer. The long shadows of lies. How Google is eliminating wonder. The sex lives of worms.

What is on your list?

Compost: Whatever’s In My Head

Disorganized

When I was organizing my 2500+ haiku into themes, there were many haiku that I liked very much but which did not lend themselves to categorization. They ranged from haiku about food (one of the most fun subjects to write about) to money (a category that inhabits my mind way too often) to housework, bad guys, squeaky noises, or to whatever else popped into my head on the day they were written. Those are the haiku that I lumped into A Haiku Book of Days For the Happily Disorganized and Others of Jumbled Mind.

Sometimes my jumbled mind even had a deep thought or two. For instance, here’s the one for today:

December 29
learn to forgive and
love without understanding
it’s the only way

You can purchase this book on Amazon here.

Compost: LTG Q&A

Question Marks And Man Showing Uncertain Or UnsureA feature of my online course “Learn to Ghost” is that after students complete the course, I’m available for consultations in which we can discuss subjects like any questions they may still have on the “business side” of ghostwriting. Or we can discuss ghostwriting assignments they may be quoting on, or those they have already obtained. I may offer suggestions for interview techniques or questions they might try, or suggestions on structure and organization that may fit their topic. Or I can just offer some extra encouragement.

Here’s a question I recently received: For a phone consultation with a prospective client, what goals do you set for the call?

Here’s my answer:

My personal goals are to find out: 1) what is the primary message they wish to convey; 2) why s/he thinks this message should be “out there”; and 3) who do they want to read the book?

I tend to identify most strongly with visionary/big dreamers/utopian thinkers who are passionate about something and want to share that passion, or people who want to “heal the world” or “save the whales” or “teach people how to survive a disaster” or some other big project, grandiose as it may sound. It’s been my experience that even hard-headed business types often have a passionate dream or goal that fuels them, and I want to know what that dream is. These are the kinds of people who can hook me – I want to help them get their story told and out to people who want/need to hear it. Most people’s passions/dreams are to do good.

I also have more practical goals, such as 1) can I provide the client with what he wants/needs – can I meet his desired lead time, and can I meet his budget goals; and 2) I want to inform him/her on how the process of ghostwriting works, so s/he knows what to expect, and what not to expect; and 3) I want to find out what materials s/he already has for me to work with – anything already written, or talks they may have given, or marketing materials they have, or their blog or website, or videos, etc etc. It makes a big difference both in quoting a price and in the time the ghost will spend in researching and ghostwriting if you have materials to study or if you have to pull all the information from your client via interviews alone.

If you’re a writer who thinks you might like the world of ghosts, check out Learn to Ghost.