Sunday, September 27, 2015

L.A. and the Mysteries

We've been to L.A. a lot. But not this L.A.
For almost a month now, we've enjoyed a housesit in Rancho Palos Verdes, a suburb in the hills above the Pacific. The house is on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

Amazing sunsets every night.
Usually when we come to So Cal we stay with friends and hang out in their neighborhoods. But on a housesit last year in West Hollywood, and this one, we've been able to explore pockets of L.A. we barely knew existed. And our friends have been coming to us.

Dave and Debbi hiking down the nearby coastal trail.

Brent and Jude jamming.

The Canon family, with smiley Miles.

Biking Santa Monica with the Kostenuiks, who met us half-way.
 In addition to hanging out with Kozmo and Kalvin...

  ...we've done a lot of outdoor stuff.
R.A.T. Beach (Right After Torrance)
We enjoyed a day at R.A.T. beach. We loved hiking down the steep cliffs to Abalone Cove (an ecological reserve), where at low tide you can check out tide pools. Several times we hiked the ocean trails near Trump National Golf Course, where public access to the bluffs has been preserved. And we rode our bikes along the strand from Redondo Beach to El Segundo--a wonderful multi-use path that takes you along the ocean for miles. We fell in love with Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, two communities with seaside charm.
The Strand

Yesterday added an exclamation point to the sentence, "September was a great month!" My best friend since high school threw me an incredible book reading, a celebration of Call It Wonder. The turnout was fantastic, and the audience very engaged.

Shadowed by a picture of Nancy and me taken 35 years ago (with Norma).
 That was my first of other upcoming events, including:

* Reading at Columbia College, Sonora, CA on Friday, Oct. 16, 3:30 p.m.
* Reading at Sonora Joe's, Sonora, CA on Friday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m.
* Workshop at Tuolumne County Arts Alliance on Saturday, Oct. 17, 9-12 p.m.
* Reading at San Jose State on Thursday, Nov. 12, 7 p.m.

The title of the workshop is "How to Believe in Your Writing." I feel like, at age 52, I'm finally getting a handle on this--deeply knowing and appreciating that I am a creative creature who has every right to create what I want and get it out there how I want, no apologies or explanations. We all have this right.

Who knows where this crazy desire to make stuff comes from? It's one of the big mysteries. As we leave L.A. for our next adventure (three months all over Northern California), I have a familiar feeling of impermanence welling up inside, my pulse on another deeply mysterious truth: Life is change.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Getting Unhooked: A Conversation with Susan Shapiro

When I decided to become more mindful about my drinking, I wanted to look at a lifetime, mostly unthought, habit. Ditto with food and coffee and sometimes shopping and exercise.

I can see now (or admit now) that at times I'd get mad or anxious if I couldn't have my fix. Hiking only two miles? Not enough! Coffee delayed beyond 10 a.m.? Help! No wine or beer served at this restaurant? Really???

I want a peaceful mind, a mind that can sit, a mind that can go with the flow. A mind that doesn't expect something external to make me feel better.

Pema Chodron's Buddhist writings have helped me immensely on this path. As have two books that are decidedly not Buddhist: Jason Vale's Kick the Drink Easily and Fred Woolverton and Susan Shapiro's Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. Although both are geared toward the addict who needs to quit, I think they are also helpful for people like me who'd like to look at their habits and compulsions and still have a drink or a dessert now and then. This amalgamation of ideas is not about deprivation but about a peaceful, happy mind and body. It's about making friends with my feelings.

Unhooked was co-written by a therapist and his client, Susan Shapiro--who also wrote a funny memoir about quitting her addictions, Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved In Life Except Sex. For my "Books That Inspire" series, I spoke to her.

It was interesting to read your humorous memoir about addiction, followed by a book you co-wrote with your therapist, Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. Dr. Woolverton helped you quit smoking cigarettes and other compulsive behaviors, including daily pot smoking, obsessive gum chewing, and imbibing prodigious amounts of diet soda. How long has it been since you quit? And do you ever re-read these two books as a kind of refresher--or have you moved on?

Thanks Kate! I don't go back to read my old books often because I start to revise and rewrite. I've been clean, smoke-and-drug-and-gum free for thirteen-and-a-half years now. In that time I don't think it's a coincidence that I've published ten books. I actually wrote my first novel Speed Shrinking about my sugar addiction, which happened after Dr. Woolverton moved to a different state. I've stemmed that but it's still a struggle. Food is the worst addiction to conquer because you have to eat three times a day. It's become easier for me to quit something entirely than be moderate.
At the heart of Dr. Woolverton's approach is this: we must learn how to use "strength and creativity to solve our psychological problems" instead of turning to substances that actually stunt our emotional growth and "thwart our ability to discover new coping mechanisms." Now that you don't use substances to numb yourself, how do you deal with difficulties?
I depend on people instead of substances, like my husband, family, and close friends. I still do therapy sometimes when I feel a need. I'm a workaholic. I work out, though when I was kick boxing, I hurt my back. My physical therapist Kenan was a Bosnian war survivor so we actually did a book together called The Bosnia List. I said "You fix my back, I'll fix your pages." 
Now, I'm much more connected to my husband. I talk to my mom on the phone every day. I rely on the brilliant critics in my two writing groups twice a week. I don't think most addicts will ever be able to only rely on themselves. As Dr. Woolverton said, addicts depend on substances not people. So when you take away the substances, you need others to help. If you're that type, I think it's important to understand your personality and flaws and always have backup plans. A Jungian astrologer said my chart shows I would always be extremely dependent on people. I do best with collaboration. Also "you'll take others higher than you'll take yourself."
Dr. Woolverton says that being secretive is harmful to the addict. Was writing a substance abuse memoir a deliberate part of your path to sobriety?

No it wasn't deliberate. Though I always journaled and took a lot of notes in therapy since he said so many fascinating lines like, "Underlying every substance problem I'm ever seen is a deep depression that feels unbearable." And to stay healthy and happy "lead the least secretive life you can." I suggest to that my students that they write about their worst obsessions. So when the addiction therapy was taking over my life for a year and I was chronicling it anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to turn it into a book.  Doing research, there were tons of memoirs about quitting alcohol, heroin, cocaine and food. But I didn't find any funny first person books about quitting cigarettes, which was my main addiction. I smoked two packs a day for 27 years. So there was a hole I felt I could fill humorously.

You mention that quitting smoking and drinking made you more empathetic and intuitive. Almost 14 years later, is this still the case? 

Yes I'm more empathetic and intuitive. But I'm also still thin-skinned.  I don't travel as much as I used to. I'm no longer a people-pleaser. I'm not as complacent and nice. I'm rigid. I wrote an essay about quitting guilt that starts "I spent the last two years saying no." And in those two years I got everything I wanted. I've become much more selfish and more generous at the same time. As Dr. Woolverton said "Don't expect anything from an unhappy person, they have nothing to give. You'd get more from a happy stranger."

Well now that I'm happy and getting everything I want, I have much more energy to give. My husband and I are closer,  I'm more connected to  certain relatives and friends I love.  I have tons more students getting published in The New York Times and Washington Post (sometimes daily) and more getting big book deals. But if someone wants my help, it has to be on my schedule. I usually write 9 to 5 seven days a week. I don't answer the phone or email. If somebody comes by without an appointment, I don't get the door. I teach at 6 p.m. Then I'm ready to be very giving. I'm a night owl, so that's the best time to find me. 

Dr. Woolverton tells you to "aim for being closer to yourself." He stresses we must learn how to be unafraid of our feelings. I think that's great advice for anyone, even those who aren't addicts. What strategies do you use to be "closer to yourself"?

I personally love crossword puzzles, reading newspapers, journaling. Sometimes I do what Oprah suggests: a gratitude list, writing everything I feel grateful for. I love to swim, which I find soothing. And I do walking office hours with my students every night around Washington Square Park, which clears my head. I like listening to music. Once a week I get  a manicure, pedicure, back massage and foot massage while grading my school papers. It costs $100 and I  come out an hour later feeling cleaner, revitalized and productive. A friend jokes that's Sue's idea of relaxation. While I was going through withdrawal,  Dr. Woolverton told me to have my husband hold me one hour every night as we watched a movie or TV show on DVD, without speaking. That's still one of my favorites.

Dr. Woolverton says, "Using isn't pleasure-seeking, it's pain-avoiding. Do you still find yourself avoiding pain? What do you do when you catch yourself?

Unfortunately, eating at night is still an issue. I don't keep any junk food at home. But living in New York, I can pick up the phone and have anything delivered 24 hours a day. I'm sometimes conscious that I'm stressed out or frustrated, and I'm eating to fill that void, instead of staying with the discomfort--as Dr. Woolverton says, "letting it tell its own story." I have to fight myself. That's when I journal, or phone a friend. Or read. Or listen to certain music.

Your book ends with a humorously-wrought awareness that you are becoming addicted to low-cal ice cream. To me that suggests that after the book is over and your life continues, you might struggle with addictions to anything. Has this been the case?

Yes! I recently had to quit frozen yogurt. I don't think an addictive person stops being compulsive. We just get hooked on different--hopefully healthier--habits. I definitely feel addiction to book deals and literary events. When Dr. Woolverton heard how excited I was getting from good press he said, "That's your new heroin!"

What would you tell your younger self?

Stop smoking, toking, and drinking right now. It'll be a blockade to all your dreams. Get into therapy quickly. That's what I tell my students and younger protégées all the time.

Susan Shapiro lives in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular "instant gratification takes too long" classes at the New School, NYU, and in private workshops and seminars.
Visit her website to learn more.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Prescription for Joy

I've been in a bit of a slump lately. Had a weird virus thing, and on top of it had three, yes THREE, Freddy Krueger-ish periods in one month.

I am peri-menopausal, hear me roar.

I've also been feeling a bit blue about illness, death, and divorce happening in my loving circle.

Yesterday I did a specific meditation. I breathed in love on my inhalation, and breathed out stress on my exhalation. I asked how I could be of service, and how I could amp up my mojo.

What came to me is: Change is the truth of life. Nothing is going wrong. Be love.

Afterward, I went into this amazing backyard and swung on this swing:

Where we are housesitting (in Rancho Palos Verdes, California).
Then I hula hooped. Swinging and hooping, I was no longer a 52-year-old woman; I was a timeless child.

Later, on a walk, I saw a woman struggling to pull one of three refuse cans up her steep driveway. I thought about how my mom always said, "If you want to feel better, help someone out."

Then I thought, I might frighten her if I grab one of her garbage cans and haul it up to her house. She's going to think I'm a murderer or a Jehovah's Witness.

So I said, "Hi! Would you like some help? It'll be my Random Act of Kindness."

She laughed and said, "Sure!"

So I lugged her garbage can up, and she smiled and said, "Thanks." I bounded down the road feeling the best I had in a long time.

We are here on this housesit the month of September. I think my daily routine is going to be this:

* meditate
* swing
* hula hoop
* write
* perform a random act of kindness.

It's hard to think of a better prescription for joy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Writing Alzheimer's: Tanya Ward Goodman & B. Lynn Goodwin

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia have affected innumerable lives, including my own. My mom, a writer and a nurse, wrote about her dementia as her capacities diminished. And I wrote about my caregiving experiences in my journals, in innumerable emails to loved ones, on this blog--and ultimately in my memoir.

What is it about the intersection of illness, caregiving, and writing?
I recently read two books that address the creative fire's role in grieving, loving, and healing. I also spoke to both authors.

Tanya Ward Goodman writes in Leaving Tinkertown about the simultaneous decline into dementia of her father and grandmother. Astonishingly, the book isn't dreary. It's permeated with love and resilience.  As Tanya said, "Alzheimer’s disease is a huge tragedy, but my family emerged intact. We continue to love and create and connect and that is not a downer."

In the book, the portrait of her father made me wish I'd known him. Ross Ward was a "consistently creative person," said Tanya, a man whose "curiosity and enthusiasm about the world was contagious."

He was a unique thinker and a free spirit who built Tinkertown Museum, a roadside attraction outside Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In the book, Tanya explores the awful losses associated with dementia--but she also addresses how some of the changes can be surprisingly positive. Her father's "sense of wonder and excitement was in some ways deepened," and she describes the disease as "loosening" her grandmother. I found this to be true for my mom, too. As she lost her language, I was able to massage her and hold her in ways she might not have enjoyed before. We developed a new kind of closeness.

Tanya said that spending time with her dad and grandmother encouraged her "to slow down. At the beginning, this was incredibly hard" because of all that caregiving requires. "Eventually, though, I let myself go along with Dad and Gran as much as I could. They relaxed because we weren’t always correcting them or trying to force them to remember and we benefited from the intimacy."

Tanya Ward Goodman (photo by Doug Piburn)
She added that with her father, "it was fun to gather rocks or watch the dogs sleeping in the sun. We spent a lot of time going over his scrapbooks. He’d tell me the same story again and again, but it was comforting to us both. As his disease progressed, my operating mantra became, 'why not?' I indulged him. It wasn’t going to kill him to eat a pint of ice cream for dinner. It wasn’t going to break the bank to buy a roll of sparkle stickers. Sure, we didn’t need more art books, but they made him happy, so why not?"

I was especially struck by her take-away: "I try to continue to live this way. Life is short. Spend real time with the people you love. If you want to do something or go somewhere and you can figure out a way to make it happen, why not?"
Tanya didn't set out to write a book. At first she wrote essays to sort through her feelings. She also kept a sporadic journal and wrote long emails to her boyfriend. Later, she sorted through all of that and the book emerged. 

"I kept asking myself 'what is the story? What is my story?' To that end, my biggest advice to memoir writers, or any writers for that matter, is to keep writing. Write everything you can think to write and then pare it down. Getting lost is, for me, a way to find a true path."
Whether or not you are going to write a book, B. Lynn Goodwin--author of You Want Me to Do What?: Journaling for Caregivers--encourages caregivers to write because "writing relieves stress rather than creating it. It allows a caregiver, or anyone, to vent without hurting someone's feelings." Writing, said Lynn, can help us see that we are not alone. It allows us "to process, dig deeper, get to the truth, plan strategies, and find solutions." Lynn pointed out that caregivers are not the only ones who can benefit. Her book could easily be titled, Journaling for Everyone.

B. Lynn Goodwin
I like the book's evocative prompts, such as: "Today I hope...", "I can barely remember...", "I lust after...", "Chocolate always...", "My life changed when...", and "At the edge of my heart..."

"If you start with a prompt, you never have to face a blank page," said Lynn. You can "finish the sentence and let the writing take you wherever you want to go or need to go."

Writing helps us grapple all that it means to be human. And in the very act of writing, we feel the power of its generative force. It is life giving.

Tanya Ward Goodman writes for The Next Family and lives in Los Angeles. She is working on a novel about becoming a mother. Visit her website.

B. Lynn Goodman is the owner of Writer Advice. She conducts workshops and writes reviews for Story Circle Network. Her young adult novel, Talent, will be out November 1, and she is currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.