Category Archives: Essays

Making Up with my Muse

I wrote an essay this week! My first free-flowing, inspired, creative writing moment since I received my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing – two years, nine months, and three days ago. You have no idea what a relief it is to know that my muse has not permanently left me after all.

I do not blame my MFA experience on this extended dry spell, (a spell that lasted longer than my time in the program). The graduate environment I experienced was encouraging, empowering, enlightening. I read, heard, and met amazing writers who were doing fantastic work. The lessons I learned and tools I was given are invaluable to me.

But muses are finicky, you know. My muse is more organic than academic, and in my graduate goal to become a better writer, I think she somehow got the impression that she was no longer good enough. I thought my MFA would make me a “real” writer. My muse, after all, isn’t “real,” but she is a true part of my writing process.

My muse and I have been writing together all my life. She’s whimsical. She likes to do her own thing, without expectations. She likes to figure it out herself without structure or strings. She doesn’t think about writing rules or prescriptions or possibilities of getting published. She doesn’t care what others think. She just needs a fine-point pen and a college-ruled page.

But even these will not persuade her when she’s pouting.

I tried to appease her. New pens, new notebooks, new books on the craft of writing. Writing prompts. Writer’s Group. I read Julia Cameron’s The Artists’ Way (again), and when that didn’t work, I read Cameron’s The Right to Write.

I tried to write without my muse. Real writers write as a discipline you know, inspired or not. The results were clunky, forced, and without flow. Chunks of purposeless rambling without direction. Clearly, though I now have my Master’s, I am nothing without my muse.

I did all I could to conjure her. I tried to bribe her, entice her, force her to appear and produce, to maintain the production level I imposed on her during graduate school. All to no avail. I could not find her nor force her, so I let her be.

In her absence, I colored adult coloring books. I redecorated the spare bedroom, began scrapbooking. I started reading for enjoyment again, re-organizing my house, playing word puzzles on my phone. I got promoted at work and adjusted my life to spend more weekends with my aging mother.

I waited, with dwindling faith that my muse would return.

And then, on my long drive home from my mother’s last weekend, I heard her. My muse was sitting quietly in the back of my mind, drafting an essay about what my visits to Mother’s have become.

A disciplined writer might have pulled over to scratch down the words. The thought occurred to me, from fear I might miss the chance to catch them. But instead, I listened to her. I listened to her routine of tasks she tackles on her regular visits to Mother’s. I listened to her strain for honor and gratitude beneath the burdens of the increasing caregiving responsibilities.

When the muse fell silent, she left an unfinished essay in my head. But I knew, as I pulled into our driveway, that she would be back for it.

Four days later, I caught my muse running through the introduction of the essay again, and I sat down with a fine-point pen and a college-ruled pad. Within a few minutes, together we filled a full page.

I believe my muse has finally forgiven me. Forgiven me for comparing her to others, telling her she had to improve, for whispering shoulds and coulds in her ear. She and I are working together again, and she even used some of the new tools from the MFA toolbox. For her they are new toys, not tools. (And of course, there’s always revision.)

I don’t believe though, that all is completely well between us yet. That new essay we started on visits to Mother’s still isn’t finished. When we sat down to finish it, we wrote this essay instead.

I’m hoping she and I can move forward from here.

.

Mountains Piled Upon Mountains

I am so proud to have my work included in Mountains Piled Upon Mountains:  Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene.

Image from the corresponding article at 100daysinappalachia.com.

Available from West Virginia University PressMountains Piled upon Mountains features nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia sharing their place-based fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Moving beyond the tradition of transcendental nature writing, much of the work collected here engages current issues facing the region and the planet (such as hydraulic fracturing, water contamination, mountaintop removal, and deforestation), and provides readers with insights on the human-nature relationship in an era of rapid environmental change.

This book includes a mix of new and recent creative work by established and emerging authors. The contributors write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, invite parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina, and often emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations. In the pages of Mountains Piled upon Mountains are celebration, mourning, confusion, loneliness, admiration, and other emotions and experiences rooted in place but transcending Appalachia’s boundaries.

The collection includes my essay, “Shaken Foundations.” An excerpt from this essay was included in the fall issue of “Mountain State Sierran,” the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Shaken Foundations” has also been used in college composition classes as an example of a fact-driven narrative.

You can read and hear more about Mountains Upon Mountains from WV Public Broadcasting, or from 100 Days in Appalachia.

You can purchase the book from Amazon here:

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility

I am so proud and pleased to have my work included in the recently released anthology: Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, from Cynren Press.

My essay, “Mental Pause,” discusses many of the issues that are included with the onset of menopause, and how this right of passage can affect a woman’s life.

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility brings together international poets and essayists, both award-winning and emergent, to answer these questions with raw, honest meditations that speak to women of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientations. It is an anthology of unforgettable stories both humorous and frightening, inspirational and sensual, employing traditional poetry and prose alongside exciting experimental forms. Feminine Rising celebrates women’s differences while embracing the source of their sameness–the unique experience of womanhood.

Edited by Andrea Fekete & Lara Lillibridge, with a foreword by Amy Hudock, PhD, this collection includes voices of women from all over the world.

You can read Lara’s introduction here, Andrea’s here, and listen to contributor Rashida Murphyread her poem from the anthology here.

Get your copy below:

We Are Nature: July 2017 in Two-Lane Livin’

(This appears in the July 2017 issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine.)

I love the way thunder rolls across the sky, how it rumbles in our bones at the first boom, then ripples, grumbling past the eastern hillside and on across the horizon. When I was young, we would watch for the flashes of lightening, like watching for fireworks, and count as we were taught to determine the distance to the strike. One, one thousand. Two, one thousand. But now, I am happy to listen to the rain and the thunder as the sky chastises the earth.

Today, a storm crossed overhead, with consistent rumbling for nearly half an hour. Instantly, the heat of the afternoon was erased. Rain fell steady, but not pounding, and ground drank it in. I spent as much time as I could on the back porch in the glider, as porches are made for storm-watching. You can experience the storm and be exposed to it, but remain dry and relatively safe.

After the storm passed, wisps of fog swirled up from the valley, moisture drawn up into the system, just to be dropped back down somewhere else. From the valley to the hilltop perhaps, to keep the cycle turning. Once the storm moved on, its grumble fading as it wandered across the atmosphere, the setting sun raised temperatures again, and new wisps rose and swirled. The orange light shone more than usual, heightened by the moist reflections of everything just washed clean.

There are no evenings to match a summer evening after an afternoon thunderstorm in the hills of Appalachia. I feel as though I am inside a terrarium, the moisture dripping down from a giant glass dome above. Sometimes, life here feels sealed inside a bubble, secluded from the rest of the world. Sometimes stifling hot and sweaty, sometimes baking, parched and dry, sometimes fresh and clean and sparkling.

As the skies cleared, and the water temperatures on the lake out back balanced, I watched the green duckweed expand again across the face of the water, no longer compressed by rippling waves, and a mother deer appeared on the bank of the island, and a fawn that had to be out for its very first walk it was so wobbly. With the rumbling over, bird song started again, and the chickens and the robins pecked in the saturated yard for earthworms and bugs. And in that moment, the fields around me and time itself seemed to expand, and the concerns of the world shrank to a pittance.

I felt relief. Relief from the heat of the day, relief from the stress of the week, relief in knowing there are still magical moments in this world–the way nature can make us feel small and immense at the same time, connected when we are or feel alone. Humans have forgotten that we ARE nature. We are hardwired to benefit from exposure to it. We get Vitamin D from the sun (statistically, the average American is Vitamin D deficient), and multiple studies show that 20 minutes in nature can lower blood pressure, relieve stress, depression and anxiety. We are not technical, mechanical creatures. We are (or were?) natural creatures. Writer Laurence G. Boldt says, “a society at odds with nature is a society at odds with itself.”

* * *

I recently attended the WV Writer’s Inc. annual conference at Cedar Lakes in Ripley, a weekend of seminars, readings, and networking. One seminar I took was how to remain focused on your life as a creative existence. Deep down, I hoped there might be a magical pen or technical device that would keep me in creative mode, impervious to the restrictive mentalities we all encounter in our culture and societies today. Perhaps a creativity pill I could pop every morning. Of course, these things don’t exist.

During the seminar though, I was reminded of many things I already know, but do not regularly practice. Stretch upon waking. Meditate. Be grateful for the little things. Be positive. Be open. Don’t get on the computer first thing in the morning. Limit exposure to social media and digital devices. Turn off the TV. Take a walk. Breathe. Immerse yourself in nature.

After the recent summer storm passed, I contemplated why that moment was reassuring, comforting. How that moment “outside” of society, disconnected from man but connected to nature, could soothe my spirit so. And again I was reminded of something Boldt says in his book, Zen and the Art of Making a Living. He said, “Society can be interested in a man or woman only as a political or economic entity; a culture is interested in more… Cultures care for their peoples as natural, spiritual beings and not simply as workers or consumers.” In other words, humans are not just political, economic beings. We were meant for more than work and consumption. We are nature, spiritual, but we live in a society that neither acknowledges, values, nor endorses us as such.

Boldt says, “Our whole effort is to gain and hold, acquire and defend.” The American approach to life and living is a mindset typically used for warfare. We are focused on getting–striving, consuming, keeping, maintaining–status, power, reputation, cars, houses, etc.–no matter the cost to our own well-being or the natural world around us. Americans live with a mentality to conquer and defend. No wonder we’re so stressed.

I believe this is why time in nature is so soothing to the soul. Nature is the ultimate level playing field. Nature doesn’t care about status, reputation, shoes, or the latest cell phone app. Social media, television series, all our little rat race games and power struggles are irrelevant. Our narcissism, prejudices, irrational judgments, daytime dramas, are insignificant. And if anything, that’s a relief.

Boldt says, “We cannot be fully awake, fully alive, fully human–and remain indifferent to the world in which we live.” The costs of denial and suppression are devastating to human happiness and creativity. Boldt notes, until our society changes its consideration humans as nothing more than workers and consumers, “it will continue to take uncommon courage, strength, and perseverance for individuals to realize meaning in their every day experiences.”

When we stop and take a time out with nature around us, Boldt says, “the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing… the contemplation of beauty eliminates selfish desire.” In turn, “Ugliness depresses and diminishes life–sapping the creative spirit of the individual and weakening the character of society.” Did you get that? Ugliness saps creativity and weakens our character. No wonder the beauty of the hills after a storm provided me with such relief. How lucky we are to live where the natural beauty around us can soothe our souls.

Are you grateful? Do you take time to just sit and experience the natural world around you? What things do you do to keep your creative juices flowing? Send me an email with your thoughts and suggestions at info@twolanelivin.com.

Lisa is an Assistant Librarian at Gilmer Public Library & recently received her MFA in Creative Writing. For details, visit Lhayesminney.net.

Lying Fallow: June 2017 in Two-Lane Livin’

(This is my 2017 installment of “Two Lane for Life” from the June issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine. You can view the entire issue as a digital flipbook via twolanelivin.com.)

As we grow near to Two-Lane Livin’s 10th birthday, I have been looking back through our early archives. And though I am old enough to reflect on nearly five decades of life, only the last ten years have been recorded in a monthly publication I can look back upon.

When we launched the magazine, I was so excited about gardening and canning, learning how to be healthier and more self-reliant. I was thrilled to welcome chickens and bees to our family, was stockpiling seeds and lamp oil and teaching myself to sew and crochet.

Somehow, I thought this “back to the land” mindset was going to simplify my life. I look back at all that now and laugh.

When it comes to farming and gardening, I have found that it is quite easy to over do it. I have learned, truly, moderation is key. But baby chicks can be purchased in bulk, in fact, when ordering, you must purchase at least a dozen.  One more tray of spring plants can produce another thirty or more pounds of tomatoes. One more row or seed packet of beans can double or triple the bushels of beans that need strung in the fall.

A ten year old oregano patch can spread to cover more than eight square feet. Mature perennials need divided. Fences eventually need mending, spades sharpened, hives and pens need maintained.

All the projects I was so excited about ten years ago, I now know, are work. Work, and time. And though I knew back then and was not afraid of the work, I sorely underestimated the amount of time truly required.

Gardens, bees, chickens, fields, these things do not wait. They do not wait until you have time, do not wait until you are ready. Weeds need pulled, beans need picked, hay needs cut. Bees swarm. Eggs, water, and feed need dealt with more than once a day.

There was a time when we had more than 30 chickens, and planted more than 100 tomato plants and six rows of beans.

For two people? Insanity is what that is.

These days, my sewing machine is packed away, as are my crochet needles, my pressure canner. And though June is upon us, we have not planted a garden this year. The pantry is still filled with jars from previous years, and we still get near a dozen eggs a day from our small flock of aging hens. We have four bee hives, but three of them are swarms we caught this spring.

We can certainly take a break from gardening this year, but it feels shameful to not have a garden. I feel shame, and I feel a loss. A loss of a chance to fill more jars, a loss of the mornings pulling weeds and smashing stink bugs. A loss not to wander out again in the evenings sweating in the late day sun and swatting at deer flies. In many ways, gardeners are slaves to their gardens–you weed and water when it’s needed, pick and harvest when it’s ready. But at the same time, a garden is nourishing, not just to the body, but to the soul.

In some ways, I feel like we’re taking the summer off. Like we’re cheating, or being lazy.

Of course, we still have asparagus, garlic, horseradish, mushrooms in the perennial beds, and thyme, oregano, lemon balm, sage, and chives in the herb garden.

Won’t we miss fresh produce? I don’t think so. I have learned that someone will inevitably grow too many cucumbers and squash, and will bring some to the library or the local mom and pop store. Heirloom tomatoes will find their way to the local farmer’s markets.

What will I do with the extra  summer days that for the last ten years have been spent tilling and canning? I hope I don’t waste it on facebook. I hope to work on other things, like moderation and maintenance. My approach to simple living ten years ago wasn’t simple at all. I was so excited about getting started, I didn’t really think about the upkeep. But you have to think about upkeep, or you won’t be able to keep up. Over the past ten years, we have fallen behind.

Where to store empty canning jars, or tomato stakes not in use? Do we really need all those plant trays? I’m going to sharpen my hoe before I ever use it again, and I’m going to spend more time in the back porch swing, watching the grass grow.

So this summer, our garden will be lying fallow, a term used to describe land tilled and plowed but left unseeded. Some farmers do this to raise the fertility in the soil. I wonder what lying fallow will do for us, the humans that tend the garden, what fertility might rise in our lives and souls–if any. Perhaps I will find a way to combine simple living and self-reliance. But it hasn’t happened so far.

Lisa is an Assistant Librarian at Gilmer Public Library & recently received her MFA in Creative Writing.  For details on her workshops and speaking availability, visit Lhayesminney.net.