Thursday, October 19, 2017

Putting Myself in the Hot Seat

So I signed up to be a member of a writer's group online. One where I can read others' works and offer feedback. I can also put myself in the hot seat by uploading my work for feedback.

I've become totally consumed by reading others' poems and offering critiques. Seriously, I could spend my entire day just sitting here reading not only the poems but also the critiques others are offering. Even though the critiques are not in response to anything I've submitted, I still find them extremely helpful when looking at my own writing.

With this site, I have had to gain karma points before I can submit anything for a critique (since I'm tight with a nickel as Angel Baby is fond of saying, and went with the free version of this site). The karma points come from reading and critiquing poems submitted by other members. They also come from the writers of those poems responding to the feedback in a positive way. I earned enough karma points today to submit one of my more recent poems. This poem was mostly an exercise in going out of my comfort zone and writing whatever popped into my head, not forcing an idea or theme. To be honest, I have no idea what the poem is even about. What I do know is this: it is the poem I've had the most fun with.

I posted it for critique earlier today, and so far, three people have responded. One person just said he thought it was wonderful. I'm glad he liked it and it was nice to get a positive response. The second person was more thorough and pointed to some specific places in the poem that could be worked on. The third response was the most helpful. The person who responded showed several words that aren't necessary, marked a sentence that has too much going on, and discussed the theme she sees at work. When I went in and made the changes she suggested, I could see the poem pull together a bit.

What I find most interesting is it took this person reading my poem and her thoughts about the theme working for me to see it. I guess I kind of knew it was there, but after reading what she wrote, I can see it much more clearly.

Another interesting takeaway: I feel energized to write and share. For years it's mostly been me responding to others' works. It's exciting to have the opportunity to share my work and receive feedback to help me make my writing even stronger.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Beautiful Face of Andrea, Part II

Last week, I shared a write-up about Andrea Wilches, one of the cyclists on the Northern Tier ride, summer 2016. I had the pleasure of riding with Andrea again this summer, both of us completing the Pacific coast, and I was able to sit with Andrea to catch up, get some insight into how the rides have impacted her life.

The Beautiful Face of Andrea, Part II

“I think the ride last year almost changed me completely.” The ride Wilches refers to is being a cyclist for Bike the US for MS, an organization based in Blacksburg, VA. For Andrea Wilches, the change she experienced affected her view of having MS, of what it means to be strong, and about life in general.

Though Wilches was four years beyond the diagnosis of MS the summer of 2016, she was still grappling with how it fit into her life. Right up to the point when her application to be a cyclist with the organization was accepted, she’d not told many friends and co-workers she has MS. The acceptance forced her hand. If she was to raise the required $1 per mile, she had to reach out.

She wrote the email explaining her situation and her desire to do the ride, but she didn’t send it right away. Fear kept her from clicking the Send button for several days. When she finally found the strength to send the email, the near-immediate responses blew her away.

“So many people called me back immediately, asking if I was okay.” For Wilches, this was the first step of changing her narrative. Until that moment of sending out that email, Wilches was afraid of what people were going to say, of what people thought was going to happen to her, because what she imagined they would say were the very things she thought as well. But they only showed they cared and wanted to help. She goes on to say, “I felt relieved.”

That first step to changing her narrative of living with MS led to Wilches joining the rest of the Bike the US for MS cyclists when they reached Minneapolis, MN., and while the first step was difficult, the second step proved even more so.

While in Minneapolis, the group spent time at the Fairview MS Achievement Center located in St. Paul. There, they met individuals living with MS. There, Wilches was confronted with having to face more fears: what the MS could possibly do to her mobility, what the MS could possibly do to her vision, what the MS could possibly do to her language abilities.

“It hit me,” Wilches says of walking into the center, the hallway lined with individuals at various stages of debilitation, some using a walker for support, others confined to wheelchairs but able to propel the chair on their own, and still others who required constant assistance with every facet of daily life. She remembers thinking, “Wow, this is real. This is serious. Tomorrow it (the MS) could do this, that, or this.”

After having spent four years circling around the MS diagnosis, Wilches found herself thrown right into the middle of the ring. The fragility she’d been hiding from everyone surfaced that day at the Fairview MS Achievement Center and at various other points from the moment the group left out of Minneapolis to make their way to Seattle, WA. To keep herself going when she thought she couldn’t, Wilches remembered what one individual at the center, a woman confined to a wheelchair, said to her when Wilches confided in her that she, too, has MS. “She told me I needed to have a positive attitude.” That woman’s words became Wilches’ mantra for the rest of the trip.

Not long after that day in Minneapolis, Wilches found herself again amongst individuals living with MS. This time, instead of breaking down in tears, she stood in front of the group and said aloud, “I have MS.” She looks at this moment as the first time since the diagnosis that she truly began to own the fact that she has MS, and as the moment she began facing all the fears within. Other moments of meeting individuals with MS occurred during the ride. With each interaction Wilches found herself becoming stronger, feeling a sense of community with those who understand what she is going through.

By the time Wilches reached Seattle, she knew she was well on her way to creating the narrative she wants for her life. “Last year (at the end of the Northern Tier 2016 ride), I knew everything will be okay. I still believe that. If it’s not, it’s the mindset and I have two options: change the narrative or not.”  

After Seattle, Wilches set about changing her narrative. Since finishing the Northern Tier ride, she began practicing Buddhism, which she believes is key to helping her take care of her mental health. Wilches smiles as she says, “I look at the ride from last summer as my one-month meditation. I was able to focus on just this one thing of cycling the mileage for each day. Just one road for hours and hours, miles and miles. I took the time to take care of my thoughts and self.”

Another takeaway from the ride Wilches returns to often is feeling empowered. When she signed up to do this year’s Pacific Coast ride with Bike the US for MS, and people asked her, “Can you do it?”, Wilches confidently replied, “Of course I can.” While last summer was her “crash course” into the world of cycling long distance, this year, cycling “doesn’t feel new any longer after completing the Northern Tier.” Wilches admits she still has more to learn about cycling, and laughs over still being confused about “which is my big ring, which is my little ring?”, but she can confidently clip into her pedals and complete the mileage for each day.

This empowerment led Wilches to fulfill a childhood dream. “As a kid, I always wanted to be part of a band but doubted myself,” Wilches says. After returning home to New York City last summer, Wilches thought, I just biked 2000 miles. Why can’t I be part of a band? She checked around and found a spot singing and playing auxiliary percussion with a folk band. “I feel like a superhero,” Wilches laughs.

Wilches is quick to point out, however, there are days she doesn’t feel so much like a superhero, like the day her cycling partner had to offer some tough love to keep Wilches from spinning into misery. “It was one of those hot days. The route leader told us we only had about five miles to the turn-off. I thought okay, five miles is manageable. Then the route leader called and said it was actually more like eight miles. I went into a negative spin and started crying.” At that point, Wilches was ready to give up.

Her cycling partner had other ideas, though. “She looked at me and said, ‘Get on that fucking bike and pedal!’” And that’s exactly what Wilches did. She completed that day, thankful to have someone who wouldn’t allow her to sink into negativity by her side, and she completed each day after until arriving in San Diego, CA, for a total of 1852 miles along the Pacific coast.

Now, with two long-distance cycling trips to reflect back on, Wilches sees the positive changes in herself. Before the rides, anything about MS triggered a meltdown. To an extent, she felt like her life was over after receiving the diagnosis. These days, she feels more whole and takes things on a day to day basis. Wilches says of the rides, “I learned how to jump in and put myself out there every day. Why not? Even with the folk band, I still get stage fright, but what’s the worst that can happen? No one’s going to throw tomatoes at me.”

“I’m owning my passions,” Wilches says. “That is empowering.”

Wilches trying her hand at clamming during the Pacific coast ride, August 2017.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Beautiful Face of Andrea, Part I

Last year, during one of the final days of the Northern Tier ride, I sat down with Andrea Wilches, one of the cyclists with the Northern Tier group, and talked at length with her about how the ride impacted her life. Andrea joined the group when we reached Minneapolis, which is where we also enjoyed a rest day. During our stay there, we went to the Minneapolis MS Center to meet those who participated in the programs made possible in part because of the donation given by Bike the US for MS. My memories from that day I’ll always treasure; the people I met, both those with MS as well as those who care for them, the beautiful garden, and witnessing Andrea begin her journey to finding a way to accept that she, too, has MS.

Each day until the end of the ride last summer, I was constantly amazed by Andrea’s perseverance. She went into the ride with very little experience cycling long distance, and on the first day of cycling, not being completely comfortable with clipping into her pedals, she found herself with a nasty gash on her calf after getting tangled up. This mishap and others didn’t deter Andrea from continuing on the journey she signed up for.

More recently, in August, Andrea and I met out in Seattle, both of us having signed up for the Pacific coast ride. At the end of this ride, the night we camped at Carlsbad under a full moon, Andrea sat down with me again, humoring me with my questions about how her life has been impacted by the rides with Bike the US for MS.

This is the piece about Andrea from last summer, for those who may have missed it when it was posted in my Beautiful Faces of MS project. Within the next few days, check back to read the follow-up profile from this summer.


The Beautiful Face of Andrea, Summer 2016

“We see lesions, and we think you have MS.”

To then 28-year-old Andrea Wilches, this statement translated to, “I’m going to be in a wheelchair tomorrow.”

Now, three years later, Wilches, of New York City, knows differently. Now, after cycling the Northern Tier route from Minneapolis, MN to Seattle, WA, over 2000 miles, Wilches feels hope and see possibilities for her future.

An active individual, Wilches enjoys participating in running events. During a 10k three years ago, she experienced intense pins and needles down her legs to her toes. She also felt the pins and needles through her torso, as well as a sharp spark down her spine when she lowered her head. Wanting answers, she searched online for what might be causing her symptoms. What she found pointed to Multiple Sclerosis, so she made an appointment with a neurologist who ordered an MRI.

“The image (of the lesions on her brain and spine) is still hard to get out of my head,” Wilches confides as she sits on the floor of the trailer where the cyclists for Bike the US for MS store all of their belongings in what are referred to as “cubbies,” boxes big enough to hold a tent, a sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, and other must-have’s needed for the two-month long cycling trip across the United States. “My immediate thought was life was going to change within the month. Things were just going to start happening.”

Like many diagnosed with a disease, Wilches began reading about MS, which she admits was probably the worst thing to do. She also talked with her neurologist, who confirmed what Wilches was learning from her readings: MS affects vision, MS affects mobility, MS affects language, and other functions we don’t think about until confronted with their loss. For Wilches, a lower school Spanish teacher who also knows Portuguese, the thought of losing her language abilities hit hard. “I love language,” she says. “It scares me to think about losing something I love.”

For the past three years, since being diagnosed, Wilches admits the MS has consumed her life. If her eyes get blurry, it’s the MS. If she stumbles, it’s the MS. Even the MS used to identify the middle schools throughout the city turn her thoughts to having Multiple Sclerosis. Much of this she kept to herself, with only her family and a few close friends knowing she was even dealing with an autoimmune disease. She was scared to talk about the MS out loud because that makes it real.

Deep down, though, Wilches knew she needed to come to terms with and own her MS. “I see it as a general theme of changing your narrative,” she says. “I thought my life was going to be one way. Then there’s a ripple. What am I going to do now? I could do the crying thing, which I definitely did. And I was kind of like ‘why me’? But I changed my mindset.”

That change in mindset began the day Wilches signed up to ride with Bike the US for MS. As a teacher with her summers free, Wilches likes to involve herself in opportunities to travel, share her teaching abilities with other cultures. For this summer, she had applied for and had been accepted to travel to Ghana where she was to help with a reconstruction project. However, she wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about going. “You know, I was like I really don’t want to do it.” So she stepped back and thought about what she does like to do.

Riding her bike came to mind, which led her to wonder, “What if I just biked across the United States?” This prompted her to begin researching cycling cross-country, and what she found fascinated her. “I didn’t know there were already so many people doing it. Whole communities,” Wilches says. Eventually, her online searching took her to Bike the US for MS. As soon as she began reading about the organization, Wilches felt a connection and knew she’d found what she wanted to do during her summer. She also knew in signing up for the ride she was going to have to confront having MS. She applied and was accepted.

The fundraising part of being a cyclist for Bike the US for MS forced Wilches to talk about her MS. She wrote her fundraising email, asking for donations to support her ride, but she didn’t send it right away. A few days passed before she found the courage to hit the send button. The response and support from friends was overwhelming. “So many people called me almost immediately, asking if I was okay. It felt great.” Wilches also felt relieved being able to tell her story.

On this balmy July evening in Withrop, WA, after cycling 71 miles for the day, with only a handful of days remaining until she arrives in Seattle, WA, Wilches smiles brightly and says, “I don’t think I would be where I am without this trip.” From meeting others also living with MS, like Rita who assured Wilches that 95% of the time everything’s good, and Marie whose smile and attitude more than made up for her loss of mobility, and the woman at the Minneapolis MS Center who asked that we all be her legs because she would have loved to bike across the US, Wilches has learned she has been given the gift of time and space to process through her spectrum of thoughts.

“This trip is teaching me to focus on the present,” Wilches says. “If it (the MS) beats me at one point, I’ll deal with it then. Right now, it’s too much to think about the what if’s.”

What she’d rather think about is how incredible it has been riding her bike across the United States. From seeing the open fields that make up the Great Plains to the climbs that have taken her up mountain passes, from meeting her fellow cyclists who are focused on helping raise awareness of what MS is, as well as those newly diagnosed with MS, Wilches fairly beams about how amazing it all has been. “It’s so hard to describe what’s happening to me. I feel a strength. I’m getting used to hearing about MS, saying the words out loud.”

After a short pause, while looking around the campsite where her fellow Bike the US for MS cyclists are sitting and chatting, Wilches says, “Yeah, it’s amazing. Like connecting the dots. Here’s a group of strangers who don’t have that much in common, but we all sat down and opened up the Bike the US for MS website. This one thing connected us all.”

For several seconds Wilches sits silently. Then, in almost a whisper, she says, “It’s gonna be okay. Yeah.”

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Wandering Amongst Possibilities

I've read many books about writing. How to get started and write until a full-length novel can be spit out from the printer. How to mine memories to find ideas that could be turned into either a poem, a short story, or even a novel. How to get past writer's block. How to craft beautiful sentences. How to. How to. How to. In the end, most of the books come to the same conclusion: write a lot, read a lot, and write even more. 

Today, I found a bit of advice I'd never heard before, and I had to sit back to let the words digest. I then went to my desk, pulled out a neon-green index card and wrote the advice on it, propping the card next to my monitor so I can see it all the time.

Write Into, Not About

I'm so guilty of saying, "I'm writing about . . .." when someone asks me what my project or anything I may be working on at the moment is. Today, keeping in mind the idea of writing into rather than about the idea I have been chewing on the past few days, I allowed myself to drift, to let the idea lead me rather than me lead it. I wandered amongst the possibilities. 

In the end, what shaped itself is far removed from what I initially had in mind. It is lighter than what I've been creating. It hints at hope, and it is this more than anything I want the reader to take away.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Dorky Me

I am such a dork at times. I just sent three poems to a literary magazine, and almost as soon as I hit the submit button of the program I use, I realized I'd not put my last name as part of the closing. I just put my first. I guess I could plead my case, saying I only now go by my first name. Or I could tell the truth--I was mulling over the idea of typing my maiden name, and in the process of considering this, I went ahead and attached the file I wanted to submit. Once the file was attached, the very natural next step is to click on Submit. So that's exactly what I did. Hopefully, the editors won't hold my lack of a last name against me.

I've been thinking a lot about returning to my maiden name. In a way, doing so will take me all the way back to the day I went to the DMV and the Social Security office to change my name after marrying my husband. I was angry that day. I didn't want to change my name. I resented having to go to these agencies and having to show documents that proved I'd married. I resented my husband for pressing me to change my name. Later, I would resent having to change my passport to reflect my married name.

Now, with what's happening and my moving forward with separating from my husband, I've been considering going back to my maiden name. Another thought that occurred to me is to go with my mom's maiden name. Definitely some thinking to do.

Another dork moment: I've been posting here regularly, well, semi-regularly since earlier this year. With each post, I wondered why no one was leaving a comment. I can see people are reading. I sometimes get an email here or there from a reader. Just no comments. I finally figured it out yesterday. I have the comment moderation selected. I had several comments from back in the spring awaiting moderation. Yep, dork moment for sure! Now that I know, I'll be sure to check the comments awaiting moderation each day. To those of you who commented and never saw your comments posted, they're now up.

On another note, the bird from the feeder that I thought might be a Black-headed Grosbeak is in fact a juvenile male Red-breasted Grosbeak. So the people from a FB birding page tell me. As I was working today, I looked up to see this beauty in the neighbor's yard:

I thought it looks like a Peregrine falcon, but again, the people at the FB birding page tell me it's actually a Cooper's hawk. Either way, it is gorgeous.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Friendship Makes the Rejection Sting Go Away

Yet another rejection. At least this one only took just over two months to show up in my inbox. I have two other pieces out, one that's been hanging for over five months, the other almost at the year point now. To be honest, I'd forgotten about the one that's been out for a year, so I sent an inquiry email today, asking about its status. I'm figuring since I've not heard anything, the answer will be a no. When Funny Delightful Son came in and asked what I'd been doing all morning, I answered, "Crying in my coffee over being rejected again." He thought my comment funny. I was being serious. Well, just a little bit, anyway.

But I just marked the submission off the list I've been keeping, made note of the pieces that are open to being sent somewhere else, and researched more possible publications. I read some more poetry, hoping to soak up what it is about them that got them published, but more often than not I found myself sitting back in my chair, not having the faintest clue as to what the editors saw in the poems. Three of them I had no idea what was even being talked about. I felt incredibly stupid. 

Maybe my poetry is just too shallow. Maybe it's not cryptic enough. I really don't know. I've had people whose judgment I trust read my work, and they tell me I have some solid pieces going. These are people who read, who write, who have Ph.D.'s and MFA's. I am totally lost as to what to do.

In the midst of me crying in my coffee, a friend texted me. In the course of the conversation, she said she is looking forward to reading my work when it's published. I did the LOL thing, saying at the rate I'm going the publishing thing isn't going to happen. Her reply was: It will happen. That little bit of encouragement made me smile. I know I have friends cheering for me, and the moment I smiled at her adamant "It will happen," all the sting of the rejection went away.

I set to work revising a newer poem, started in on another which is just pieces and parts that I basically just dumped onto the page, and sketched a few ideas in my sketchbook. At one point I looked up from my work and noticed a bird at the feeder, a bird I've never seen before. I tried to get a picture of it, but what I managed to capture isn't all that great. While I'm not certain, the only picture I've found that comes close to looking like this bird is that of a female Black-headed Grosbeak. It might be a juvenile male. Hopefully it'll return and I can get a better picture of it. The interesting thing about it being a Black-headed Grosbeak, if that's what it is, is according to the info I found, they usually are much farther west. 


Wednesday, September 27, 2017


My desk is right under two large windows, affording me a view of our neighbor's large backyard. There are several pine trees on the property line, so I put up a shepherd's hook and hung the bird feeder between two of the trees. Now, as I sit and work at my desk, I can watch the Cardinals at the feeder and the squirrels chasing each other in the neighbor's yard. Today, a mama Cardinal busied herself by helping two of her young manage the feeder. She'd fly in, and the two young ones would try to follow. They didn't quite get the gist of how to perch on the feeder, so she would take seeds to them as they waited in the honeysuckle bush. The squirrels are like kids playing tag. I watched one just the other day lay on its back and play with a stick, much like a cat would do. This while a hawk swooped in to try and grab up the squirrel. The squirrel pretty much just batted at the hawk and went on with what it was doing. The hawk landed in the grass about ten feet away and watched. It finally decided it wasn't going to be able to get a meal out of this prey and flew off.

This week I've been busy revising some pieces to get them ready for sending off. I even returned to my short story collection to tinker with it. I found a contest to send it to, specifically for a collection of short stories, so I figured why not? I have absolutely nothing to lose. So far, I've added nearly 1000 words to the first three stories of the collection, and I changed the order of the last two stories. I still have nine stories to tinker with before the deadline Saturday. I ran out of coffee this morning, so I definitely need to get to the store for more to help me keep going. Even though I only drink decaf, I like having something to drink on my desk all the time. Maybe I should take a page out of Hemingway's book and go with something a little stiffer. I wonder what words would come out of me with some help from Jack Daniels or Jose Quervo.

One thing I've been thinking about a lot this week is I've apparently offended a family member. I don't know what I did or said, but I haven't talked to this person since last Christmas. I've sent a couple of emails to the family group, and nada from this person. I had a hunch a few months ago something was up, but I'm pretty certain now this person is upset with me. I thought about sending an email just to this person, but then I thought no, I'm not going to. If this person has a beef with me, this person needs to tell me so. When or if this happens, I'll go from there. For now, I'm going to focus on my writing and moving forward with my life. If there's one thing I've come to embrace is time is the most precious thing/element/aspect/part (I don't even know what the best word is for the role time plays in our lives) of life. It's the one thing that we can never get back, so to spend time wondering about a family member who may be upset with me but won't say so is time wasted. I have better things to do with that time.

Like read a poem that brings me to tears, read a book that I'm so totally engrossed in I don't hear Funny Delightful Son walk up behind me, teach Ado how to open the refrigerator, sketch some ideas for my own poems, take a walk and enjoy the coming of fall, listen to the crickets through the open windows, ride my bike to the store for groceries, watch a funny movie, fix dinner with my kids then eat that dinner while talking and laughing, sit on my bed with Lovely Beautiful Daughter and talk about anything and everything, and, and, and. So much to that is worthy of my time. Worry that a family member is upset with me for whatever reason is not worthy of my time.

Now, I think I'll go get that drink I alluded to.