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Receiving and Giving the Key to Unlocking the Door to Writing

February 13, 2019

When I was in the third grade, my teacher gave us a creative writing assignment. It was the month of December and we had to write a story about Christmas. That was the only prompt I can recall, 35 years after the fact. Although I do remember Mrs. Simmons, my older, red-haired teacher with a creaky voice, saying that if we wrote more than one page, we could earn extra credit in the form of a candy. Being the candy junkie I was (still am), that was all the motivation I needed to get writing.

I hand-wrote five pages of a story that described a girl who hated Christmas. I was most likely inspired by my own mixed emotions for the holiday that was never allowed to be mine since I grew up in a Jewish home. I wish I could remember more details of that story, but unfortunately the only thing I recall was that the character referred to the holiday only as Xmas.

A few days later, my classmates and I were gathered on the rug and Mrs. Simmons asked me to stand up and read my story aloud. As a self-described wallflower, I was sickened at the prospect of doing this. Even writing this recollection today, I’m getting that awful feeling in my stomach, as if I’m transported back to third grade to read aloud. But because I was a good girl who never questioned authority (or anything for that matter), I stood up and read my story. I remember purposefully mumbling the word “Xmas,” for fear I’d offend my fellow classmates with such a “derogatory” word.

After I finished, Mrs. Simmons told me to take a bunch of candy (yes!) and told me – in front of the class – that I was a good writer. She praised my story, calling it creative and recognized how much effort I put into writing it. I was 8-years-old and that was the first time someone acknowledged me as a writer. While I remember very little details about that story, I recall Mrs. Simmons’ comments and how they made me feel, to this day. I felt excitement, pride and, for the first time, had the sense that the words I put on paper were worthy of reading.

Mrs. Simmons gave me two important gifts. The first was a safe place for me to write and share that writing with others. While I may have been terribly uncomfortable to speak in front of my classmates, I felt secure enough to take the risk and read my words aloud. The second gift was a key. And that key unlocked the door to the world of writing and how it would eventually transform my life.

Ever since the third grade Christmas story experience, I started to think I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I always enjoyed writing and books were like the friends I never had. I spent countless hours in my room — reading, writing stories, listening to music, playing school, and creating a life for myself that I didn’t have outside my childhood bedroom. As I got older, I wanted to write articles for the magazines I was constantly reading. Surely “Seventeen,” “Sassy,” “Teen” and my favorite, “Dynamite,” would welcome me as a writer to their team. I imagined that perhaps I would write books one day.

My journey with words evolved over the years, eventually taking me to writing for the high school newspaper, majoring in journalism in college and writing for the college paper, starting a blog, and then later making a career for myself as a freelance writer.

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I recently taught a group of kids, ages 8 – 12, creative writing at the local public library in Terre Haute. The writing class, which was free to kids, is one of the only opportunities some young people have to be able to practice writing and see themselves as writers. This is especially true in rural communities and small towns, much like Terre Haute, where libraries are one of the few places to access the outside world.

Many of the kids have been writing fiction stories in their own time, and they wanted to use the class to write about their characters. For others, this was the first time they were given an opportunity to write creatively outside their structured elementary school classroom.

Within the first ten minutes of class, I realized I was in the midst of real writing talent. We started the class with a simple “I remember …” exercise. This is the same prompt I use with my adult writing classes. You write the words “I remember” and then keep writing to see where your brain takes you. I told the kids they could write from their own memories, write from their character’s perspective, or make something up completely fictional. The only “rule” is you have to keep the pencil moving.

I love this prompt because you can use it hundreds of times and you’ll always write something different. My favorite comments come from students who tell me they are shocked at what came out on the page, or that they didn’t think they had those ideas in their head. The looks of amazement and pride on the kids’ young faces were priceless!

For the next exercise, the kids chose a photo from dozens of images I brought with me to class. They were asked to find a photo that resonated with them on some level, and then for 10 minutes, write a short story about the photo. The students had the option of sharing what they wrote with the group. One young girl said she loved that she was unrestricted to write about anything, and that made the writing easier. Another student wrote a scene for her story using the photo prompt, and others wrote completely different stories that just tumbled out onto the paper. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

To say I was astonished by the creativity and talent among this group of kids would be an understatement. I loved seeing what came out of their minds and onto the paper. I loved hearing the amazement in their voices when they realized what they’d just written. I loved seeing the pride and joy on their faces when they realized they could accomplish something they didn’t think of themselves capable of doing. One student asked me to read a story she wrote and send her feedback. I can’t even describe how happy this made me. As much as these kids were inspired to write their own words, they equally inspired me.

Most of these kids are not much older than I was when I was given the key to unlock my writing potential. Teaching this writing class brought me back to the girl I was in third grade and how just one act of writing a story – and one teacher’s comments –changed the course of my life. Now as an adult, and in partnership with the community library, I was able to create a safe place to help nurture young writers. Just like Mrs. Simmons gave me that key 35 years ago, I was grateful to pass it along to these kids so they can unlock their own doors to a lifetime of words.

Finding Joy in the Little Things in the Bleak Midwinter

January 31, 2019

Saturday, February 2, is the midpoint of winter, which means we’re halfway to spring.

I don’t care much for January and February. And I’ve been struggling to find my zen this past month. Maybe it’s the inevitable let-down after the fall (my favorite season) or the uncertainty of the year ahead that can sometimes seem daunting. Either way, there’s just something about this time that always feels a little off, and slightly melancholy for me.

And before anyone says anything, my feelings have nothing to do with the Indiana winter! Even when I lived in San Diego, I didn’t like the early months of the year and I had these same feelings of blah. And no matter how bleak the midwinter can be, you still couldn’t pay me enough to move back to California.

For the last two years at this time, I wrote blog posts about what’s saving my life right now. It’s a post that many bloggers write on February 2. The concept comes from author Barbara Brown Taylor. In her memoir, Leaving Church, Taylor tells about a time she was invited to speak, and her host assigned her this topic: “Tell us what is saving your life right now.”

The idea behind this prompt is most of us know what’s bothering us and can articulate all those things pretty clearly. But, she says, few of us stop to note what’s giving us life. What are these things — whether little or big — that are helping us live our lives?

I used this as a prompt in the drop-in writing happy hour I hosted this week, and asked the attendees to write about what the bleak midwinter means to them and what is giving them happiness. I participated in the writing exercise as well, and here’s what I wrote:

In the bleak midwinter … when it can be terribly cold, or not very cold at all, and the trees are bare and the skies are grayer than not, I find myself in a strange place. A place where thoughts can seem as dark and heavy as the January air. … So in the bleak midwinter, I’m grateful for roads. Open roads that appear endless. Roads that allow me to put one foot in front of the other, pressing on the pavement below and breathing in the cold air. Roads that feel like the key to freedom. Freedom from sad thoughts, negativity, and dark days when the sky doesn’t want to let the sun shine through its thick clouds. Freedom to think beyond what the mind will allow. I’m grateful for roads that will soon look like spring, in just a few short months.

For the last two years, I’ve enjoyed the exercise of reflecting on the things that make me happy at this time. It’s been comforting to go back and read these posts, as well as my daily perpetual journal, so I don’t focus too much on thinking that it’s only my current month that’s leaving me feeling this way.

So at this midpoint of winter, I’m writing down the little things that are giving me life today:

  • Running and moving outside
  • Listening to and discovering music, old and new
  • Teaching writing classes to adults and kids, and watching the wonder in their faces when they write
  • Listening to Sophie sing when she doesn’t think I can hear her
  • Spending time with my sister and watching Sophie play with her cousins, all of whom now live in Indiana
  • Writing in my daily perpetual journal and seeing how I felt on the same day last year and the year before, and seeing how much has changed in that space of time
  • Laughing and spending time with friends
  • The smell of a burning candle in my living room at night
  • Watching the birds fly on the tree outside my office window
  • Meaningful conversations with deep friends, both new and old
  • Writing and getting words on paper
  • Sunday afternoons spent laying on the couch, reading and listening to vinyl on the record player
  • Reading good books
  • Beautiful sunrises and sunsets
  • Soft falling snow
  • The visualization of winter
  • Writing about inspiring people and having the privilege to tell their stories
  • A hard cider at the end of a long day
  • A song with beautiful lyrics
  • The fireplace burning
  • Full moon shining in a clear sky full of stars
  • Chinese food
  • Trying hard to focus on how much can happen in a given space and time, and realize that there’s still so much time and life to come
  • Sun shining on the cold winter days
  • Knowing that spring is only a few short months away

Tell me what’s saving your life right now. Or better yet, make your own list!

A Tribute to My Dad Through the Songs of Harry Chapin

January 9, 2019

I’d venture to guess that, unless you’re a fan of 1970s folk music, you’ve probably never heard much about or listened to Harry Chapin. This folk singer-songwriter was known for his long musical “stories.” He was not an artist that frequented the radio much because most of his songs were too long for the dial. But each song was a story, usually about a man and some sort of inner conflict.

My dad turned 73 last week. He is not moved by music the same way I am. He’s not the type to listen to songs in the car or put on an album at home. But even my dad will admit there are pieces of music and songs of which he can’t deny their power, Chapin’s stories being in that category. So while it may seem odd to write a tribute to my dad through music, the songs of Chapin are one of the best ways I can think to celebrate him. Mainly because he is the one who introduced me to Chapin’s songs and the memories of them belong with me riding in a car with my dad.

Nearly every summer of my later childhood, we took a family road trip from San Diego to Lake Tahoe. It was on these nearly 10-hour drives that I first heard Chapin’s music. About half way through the drive up California Highway 395 – close to the point where there is absolutely nothing to look at – dad would break out Chapin’s “Greatest Stories Live” cassette tape. It started with “Dreams Go By.” Then on to “W*O*L*D*,” “Taxi,” “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “A Better Place to Be,” and “Circle,” just to name a few.

I’m not sure why dad waited until the mid-point of the trip to listen to Chapin. Knowing my father and his strong sense of discipline, perhaps it was a “reward” for making it through half the route. Kind of like the way he’d allow himself one (and only one) Fig Newton cookie after dinner each night. Maybe he wanted to be sure he heard all the news and sports on the Mighty 690 before turning to music, something he saw as more entertainment than necessity. Either way, I knew at some point during that trip through California’s inland, Chapin and his Greatest Stories would make an appearance.

I once asked my dad why he liked Chapin’s music. He responded the tunes were not like typical songs. They were stories, he said. And as such, were more meaningful; full of lessons to be learned. This sentiment is very much my dad, as he always asked me – after every movie we watched together – what was the meaning of it; what did we learn and could apply to life. The lesson from him being that if something didn’t have greater meaning, there was no point in consuming it. For better or worse, this lesson has become a lens through which I view almost everything throughout my entire life.

It wasn’t until several years ago when I sought out Chapin’s music as an adult did I discover what may have been the true themes of many of those songs, and what probably really resonated with dad. There’s a deep contemplation of life choices, bordering on regret, that runs through so many of Chapin’s songs. It’s as if he doesn’t think there’s a right path in life; one can’t simply be happy with their choices. There’s always the road not taken.

This is not a theme you can understand when you’re a kid. When you’re young, you’re traveling down one road and you haven’t had your own opportunities to make conscious choices as to how your life will play out. But as an adult, your entire life is defined by your past decisions and the roads you took (and didn’t take). While I don’t think my dad views his life as full of regret, I’ve learned – being an adult myself – that as you get older, debating your life choices becomes inevitable (at least it has for me).

In “Dreams Go By,” Chapin sings about all the dreams he (or the protagonist) had as a young man. Yet as the years go by, and the dreams fade to make way for the more sensible things in life – a job, family, home. I find the music of this song fascinating. Listening to it, it sounds very upbeat. Yet the words and theme behind the music are quite sad.

And then there are the songs where the character does live his dream, but ends up unhappy in the long–run. In “W*O*L*D*,” he sings about the man who leaves his family to be a radio DJ. Yet the end of the song is filled with sorrow as he realizes he can no longer live this young man’s dream and wishes he could go back home to his estranged family.

This also comes up in “Mr. Tanner,” in which the dry-cleaner “from a town in the Midwest” takes a chance on his singing career and gets panned by critics and never sings again. This song breaks me upon every listen, as I always want to wrap my arms around Mr. Tanner and tell him not to give up what he loves the most. It’s deep stuff, and it’s deeper when I found the real-life Mr. Tanner in this article.

There’s also “Taxi,” which tells the story of the man who wanted to be a pilot, yet is now driving a taxi around San Francisco. And of course, Chapin’s most-recognized tune, “Cats in the Cradle,” the classic tale of the turbulent father-son relationship. Of course there are others, and these songs – as sorrowful as they are – are ripe with meaning. Is Chapin saying if you live your dream, you’ll end up with another form of regret? And if you don’t live the dream, you’ll regret that decision?

Yet not all of his songs are somber. My favorite song –“I Wanna Learn a Love Song” — is one of the more uplifting tunes and is the story of how Chapin met and fell in love with his wife, while giving her guitar lessons. And “She’s Only Seventeen” is about the hopes and dreams of a young women determined not to give up during the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s. “Let Time Go Lightly” is also an uplifting song.

Finally, there’s “Circle,” which was my dad’s favorite song. When “Circle” came on, dad lit up slightly and sang along. There may have been a few occasions where we played it a second time (very unlike my dad). In “Circle,” there’s hope:

All my life’s a circle;
Sunrise and sundown;
Moon rolls through the nighttime;
‘Til the daybreak comes around.

All my life’s a circle;
But I can’t tell you why;
Season’s spinning round again;
The years keep rollin’ by.

It seems like I’ve been here before;
I can’t remember when;
But I have this funny feeling;
That we’ll all be together again.

No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.

I found you a thousand times;
I guess you done the same;
But then we lose each other;
It’s like a children’s game;

As I find you here again;
A thought runs through my mind;
Our love is like a circle;
Let’s go ’round one more time.

– Harry Chapin, “Circle”

“Circle” is the tenth track on the album. Interestingly, the songs preceding “Circle” are on the somber side and those following are more uplifting. Is there a reason he sings it toward the end of his live performance? Perhaps it’s the same reason my dad waited until half-way through the road trip to play the album — you have to get through the tough parts of the journey in order to appreciate the happiness.

When I told my dad we were moving to Indiana, he responded by saying it’s good to make these changes while I was still young. I was 40-years-old at the time and felt far from young. I told him that perhaps I was too old to make such a drastic life change. He laughed it off, and said I had an entire lifetime ahead of me. As much as I hate to admit it, dad was right. Because little did I know then, that move was the end of one era, and the start of another.

In “Circle,” life is not a one-way, dead-end street full of regret. Life doesn’t end when you get older. There’s still potential in the years that “keep rollin’ by.” I think deep down, Chapin (and my dad) truly believed that. I’m thankful for my dad for introducing me to Chapin’s “Greatest Stories.” And I’m grateful for those songs, which will always be symbolic of my dad and the life lessons he taught me.

Looking Back at 2018: A Year of Awakening

December 31, 2018

Several years ago, I started a tradition in which my last blog post of the year was a reflection on the past 12 months, both in words and photos.

Many people start January by choosing a word as their guiding theme for the year ahead. I could never quite get into that idea. My tradition involves looking back at the past year — reflecting on what I’ve done, learned and experienced. And inevitably, the word that was the year’s theme comes from that.

Looking back at 2018, it hit me immediately what the right word is to sum up the year: awakening.

Last year at this time, I wrote that 2017 embodied transformation, and 2016 reflected change. Thinking about the last three years, the order of these words makes sense. I moved from San Diego to Indiana in 2016, which marked the biggest change of my life. After settling into my new home, 2017 become a year of transformation — of my mindset, world-view, work direction, and running and health habits. Those two years led the groundwork for 2018 and what I feel was my personal awakening.

What does awakening look like? To put it simply, I feel alive and awake for the first time in my life (or at least in a very long time). I believe there are many reasons for this. I feel physically awake with respect to my health. As many of you know, I started a running program in January that helped me make tremendous strides in my running ability and confidence. And I spent an entire year working with a friend/coach who helped me become physically strong.

But my awakening goes beyond the physical. I’m emotionally awake in a different way. I feel things differently. My eyes are open to other possibilities and I am less fearful of going down difficult paths. And now more than ever, I want to live my life to the fullest and be open to every new opportunity. Because now that I’ve had this awakening, I don’t want to close my eyes.

These year-end photo collages give me a chance to visually reflect on the past year. I love looking back on all the memories, seeing Sophie grow up and watching the natural environment and seasons change before my eyes. I really love that my physical space is a constant reminder that life passes by, that nothing is permanent, and there is always a possibility to make a change and wake up anew each day.

Thank you for reading Leah’s Thoughts and being part of my journey. Happy New Year, and here’s to 2019!

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Looking Back at Nine Years of Writing This Blog

December 20, 2018

Nine years ago this week — on December 21, 2009 — I published my first blog post and Leah’s Thoughts was born. I like to think of it as the day I began writing my own story.

At the time, I was 34-years-old and a fairly new mom with a 2-year-old daughter. I was working in a marketing/communications job at San Diego State University and the extent of my writing was drafting admission letters, student email notices, university catalog copy, and recruitment brochures. I was trained as a journalist, so everything I’d written up to that point were news stories and work copy. 

I had not written anything in my own voice since … well, never. I started to feel like I had a lot I wanted (needed) to say. And a blog seemed like a logical way to start writing out my thoughts. But I was scared to start such an endeavor.

“In many ways, I am a perfectionist. And I only like to begin projects I can finish, or at least I can maintain with a clear focus. I also tend to lean toward a black/white, either/or personality. I think this is why I hesitated to start this blog. I have pages of ideas. But what if I couldn’t write more than three sentences? What if I couldn’t post regularly? Do I have to choose between journaling about my life or writing generic essays? All these options overwhelmed me. Hence I could not bring myself to starting this blog.” (First blog post, 12-21-09)

Well, somewhere along the way I got over my fears, hit “publish” on my first post, and have been writing (off and on) in this space ever since.

In the last nine years, I’ve published 559 blog posts. So many stories, feelings, rants, thoughts, recipes, book reviews … I chronicled it all here on my blog.

I’ve written about my struggles and joys of motherhood (from daily lessons in failure to all our summer bucket lists). I wrote about moving my life from Southern California to Indiana, and my hesitations with making friends in a new home. I talked about the loss of my beloved dog and cat, leaving my secure full-time job to start my own freelance writing business, and more.

My opinions and perceptions have certainly changed over nine years. Looking back, I seemed so young and naive in my earlier years writing here. I’m not sure I’m brave enough now to share some of the stories I wrote about then. I actually cringe reading some of the older posts on this blog and debate whether to erase them. And I have many stories and feelings that I’m not yet brave enough to even write.

Writing my blog has always been — and will always be — about telling my story. I have never cared about pageviews and statistics. I care about the words and stories I tell, and that they are honest and real. Because otherwise, what’s the point at all?

I don’t write what society wants to read. I write for myself to have a chronicle of where life has taken me. And I’m still humbled and grateful to the people who read my words. I may not write as much as I used to, but as long as I have words to write and things to say, I’ll keep writing them here on my blog.

I know some of you have been reading here since the beginning. And to those of you, thank you! And to new readers and people who have joined me along the way, I am thankful you stop by from time to time.

Here’s to the past nine years … and to the future, whatever stories I may write.

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