Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
When I sit to write my blog, I am like the slot machine that comes up with one lemon, one X and one banana peel. It takes a few pulls to get gold. As I sat late this Sunday evening to write the elusive *something* I wanted to write, I saw the clipped-out graphic with those words from the aptly named Wordsworth. So, to follow my own instructions, here is what is breathing in my heart.
I want to write beautiful, wrenching things that leave clawmarks as I drag them into light.
I want to describe the color of my daughter Simone’s eyes, how they are the greenest, sea-green, peridot jewels, and how sweet or sad they sometimes look. When I see her I remember her a toddler holding my leg with one hand and her bottle with the other, laying her head against me until she was too tired to stand, and then fitting into the crook of my arm while we napped.
I want to describe the things that scare me, or used to scare me, that don’t scare me as much as exhaust me, bore me, weigh on me anymore. How they ceased to frighten and turned to lead. How they still drag on me, without fear, but yet with consequences.
When I sit at my desk the hourglass trickles away the grains of time and will I ever get to say it all, spill the words that clog my throat? Will I die before they make it to the page? Will the daily drag, like sodden clothes weighing me down in a flood, keep me from that end?
I want to have left it better than when I came in. Better stories, cleaner air and water, rebuilt lives, warmed hearths. I want there to be lions and elephants and whales for my great-grandchildren and for theirs, too.
I have words in my head, in my chest, still forming, bumping around like polliwogs without legs and arms, without what they need to stand alone. I’m busy, too busy, and time slips past, and the year is almost over, and I have to do these things, and then the words have dried up, used up all the air and died. I was gonna write about that, but I missed it. It’s over. It was a one-time thing, but — I get anxious, sometimes, and the words are there but the hands won’t perform. Or the words want to come but the anxious makes the body tired, so the words stay in.
I want to write about the stories of my ancestors who struggled, who suffered, who caused suffering — but I need to see it, process it first. So the filing and sorting is going on in my head and I’ll get it right, eventually, if there’s time. If I can just get it down.
I want to think that I’m winning at this, that I’m succeeding in a pool where everyone is splashing at the same time, and it’s hard to see who’s got the ball. Is it my turn? Can I catch it? Can I throw it? Can I even see it coming? Is the water too deep? Am I just going to slip in and get wet, and then get out and dry off and call it a day?
I want to write about bigger, deeper, more — and I’m afraid the instrument is too blunt. I’ll smash it instead of shape it. It won’t work, and no one will want to read it anyway. I want to do it just for me, except I don’t, really, because it’s the tree in the forest without an audience, making noise for whom?
I want a way to harness all this energy, to light up my own world, and maybe yours, if I could just —
I spend a lot of my time howling the cosmic yawp into the blue beyond. It looks, to mortal eyes, like I’m making lunch and beating a deadline and running errands and remembering to put out the trash cans. But I assure you, a goodly portion of every day is given over to caterwauling (mostly in my inside voice but not always) on the WHY of everyday living. The WHY of how did we get here? The WHY of how can X be happening?
I’m old enough to know better. I am hitting that midpoint in life. I have successfully raised 4.9 kids (just 1 year left on #5). We have a retirement plan (sort of). We own our cars (not new ones, God, no!). We’ve traveled around the world a bit (more when single than together) and we’re not on our first marriage (to each other, yes. In total, no.).
So you can bet that I don’t believe in fairy tales, magick, the Virgin birth. I do, however, believe in Something. It’s just too random that my husband and I met when we were both at the nadir of our love lives. I find Something in the spectacle of my own resurrection after that hairy divorce when I was a shadow of my ex, a skeleton of who I was and had yet to become, up to now, when I feel fully fledged and mighty as Aphrodite on steroids.
I have worked as a journalist for some 30 years now, writing poetry and short stories and a novel or two between times, trying to write the one story that was true. Reaching for Hemingway’s One True Thing. I have almost had it once or twice. Missed it by *that* much.
I was talking with my very elderly Aunt Doris about four years ago, telling her about my new story idea. I want to do a sort of “Diary of Anne Frank,” but a fictionalized version. Tell that teen girl’s story in a different way. Be in her shoes. Tell it sideways. Something like that. I told my aunt this on the phone, knowing I would see her the next day, and she encouraged me, as she always did, with alacrity. “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” she said. The next day I drove 70 miles to her house to see her, but she was gone. Still breathing, but the essence of her had slipped down, underwater, to where I couldn’t reach her anymore, and though I talked and talked to her, she wasn’t really there. We never spoke again.
So we held her memorial and sprinkled her ashes and cleaned her house, and my mother handed me a heavy old box of letters and journals. I took them home for later, feeling heavy myself, and wondering at the why, the how, the WTF of it all. We cleaned her house, and I brought home her desk, her martini glasses, her car. I slipped a ring onto my finger that had once adorned hers. I had her glasses remade with my prescription and one day opened that box. The diaries were there.
A few months later, I began typing up the diaries. I posted them on Twitter and Facebook, talked about it on the radio, made friends and followed trails back some 90 years. I’ve been working on this project for four years now; The Doris Diaries, her words, the diaries of a teen girl. Telling her story in a different way. I’ve slid into her shoes, a little sideways.
I’m not sure of the why. I only know that there’s truth here. I don’t know the right questions to ask, but the answers are somehow here anyway. It’s Something. Something I can’t explain.
This is what a week’s worth of groceries for one person looks like, if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps. She’s not on food stamps, but has attempted the one-week Food Stamp Challenge. My longtime readers know I did the June Food Stamp Challenge* in June of 2010 — 30 days of the food stamp budget for my family of 5. That ended up being about $450 for the month, and we made it — barely. The budget averaged to about $25 per person, and half that for our son who was with us only half the time that summer. (Read more here about my JFSC, all 30 days.)
We were hungry throughout, more so by the end, and came up against a number of hardships we didn’t know would trip us up. Questions like, what if one of the family doesn’t play by the rules? What if you burn the dinner? What if you’re invited to an outing with food and you have to bring something? What if you want to have a party? What if someone veers dramatically off the budget by cooking a gourmet meal? What if your pet suddenly needs special food? How do you deal with the sneers of people waiting on you or behind you in line? I am pretty sure Gwyneth doesn’t ever grapple with questions like that. Other celebs and personalities taking the challenge, including Barbara Lee, my congresswoman, and Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, have done better.
Props to anyone who tries the challenge. Living on a low food budget isn’t easy, and I do commend Gwyneth for trying it. But her choices? Not quite. I suspect she shopped at Whole Foods or whatever chichi grocery store is near her, instead of haunting the sale papers looking for BOGOs at Safeway. Bet she never set foot in the Dollar Store, either. But here — I’ll make seven points about what works and what doesn’t in her grocery bag.
The first thing that jumps out for me? Seven limes. How about seven oranges? Seven bananas? Something you can actually eat. Now, my Mexican friends have said that limes and cilantro are important in their recipes, also in Vietnamese and other cuisines. I don’t question that. But in my tight budget, food stamps or food bank, when we scrimped along, limes or lemons and fresh herbs were luxury items. If someone gave me fresh lemons off a tree (free), yippee! Otherwise, I rarely if ever bought those.
More luxury items on the list? Garlic and green onions. My friend Sang Kim says in Korean cooking, green onions are essential. The only time I’d get green onions was when my bulb onion started to sprout. And avocados? Please. Hard to get them for under $2, or 4 in a bag for $5, without the option of buying them separately. I don’t have $5 in my mythical $29 budget to spare on just one piece of delicious fruit. Avocados are good and good for you, but that’s one meal, maybe. Or a small part of two meals. Seven days means three squares = 21 meals. That’s a lot of meals. A lot.
Good items on the list? That bag of beans. I might have gone for white or navy beans, or garbanzos — which are good hot (in curry or soup) or cold (in a salad). If you can get dry beans on sale, for $1 a pound, that’s the best bang for your buck on the FS challenge. Generally I see them for about $2 a pound now. The rice is also a good buy; brown rice is better for you than white rice, although it takes longer to cook. It also works as a hot cereal in the morning, especially if you have some sugar packets or have even splurged on cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice (it’s very cheap in November, $1 a shaker. Buy one then and enjoy all year long).
Another great item? Corn tortillas. Those are whole grain and will do in place of bread in many instances. Quesadillas for any meal; cut, salted and baked for homemade chips if you have a hankering (mash some of those beans up for homemade dip); chilaquiles when they start to get stale for a filling meatless dish. When I was a starving single mother back in the dented-can warehouse days, I lived in the Mission District of San Francisco in a mouse-filled apartment. I used to go to the Mexican open markets and get tortillas, apples, a few tomatoes, eggs, milk and dry beans. My food budget was $10 a week. And we got along, my baby and I.
Eggs are fantastic: a complete protein, easy to cook, boil to take along, mix into other dishes. But the FS recipient isn’t buying free-range, organic-vegan-fed happy eggs. Nope. These are the $1.79 white factory farmed eggs. Because it’s hard to give a crap about the chickens when you are hungry. Caring and being able to afford “happy” meat and eggs and milk are definitely a luxury, a privilege that not everyone can afford.
A lot of people slagged on Gwyneth for buying one tomato, one pepper, one ear of corn, one sweet potato, but I’m cool with that (remember she was buying for one person, not a family). In summer, when corn is in season and cheap? 20 cents for one ear. No problem there. In winter, when it’s shipped from Chile? $1 an ear or more. Hot peppers are generally so cheap that a few can add a big pop to your meal and not break the bank; however, for me, those go up with the garlic and cilantro and avocado. Didn’t buy them. The tomatoes are delicious, but instead of the on-the-vine organics I buy now, I would buy Roma tomatoes or whatever was cheapest by the pound. Eaten fresh or tossed into soup or eggs, tomatoes are good; even better when in season and cheap. The greens are good, too, though I find that kale has stringy stems, and Swiss chard or bok choy can turn into two vegetables if you use the stems in one meal (stir fry or replacing celery) and the greens in another. Frozen peas? Another frugal pick.
What’s missing for me is a whole chicken or a bag/package of chicken, especially leg quarters or even wings. Some kind of chicken with bones makes two meals. First, the meat, and second, the bones to make broth for soup. A whole chicken, on sale, could be $5-$7, but that could make as many as 4-5 meals for one person. My friend Max Wong even fed two on one chicken for seven days. A chub of frozen ground turkey or chicken is another cheap find that can turn into meatballs, burgers, etc. Less than $5, too. I would have added a bag of bruised bananas, if I could find them, and a bag of carrots (or loose, depending on the price per pound) for snacks and extra vitamins. A chunk of cheddar or jack cheese would be nice, too, if there’s money for it. And a box of tea bags…Iced or hot, tea got me through many broke-ass times.
Poor Gwyneth (irony intended) may never really get it, since she was raised with money and has never had a hungry day in her life. When you have to make every penny scream for mercy, then you can see why she got spanked by the internet. Living a little bit hungry is good for your soul once in a while. But making it easier for families to eat good food would be a far better way to feed our souls.
*Note: My month-long series on the June Food Stamp Challenge won the award for Best Multimedia piece in 2011 from the SF/East Bay Press Club.
Work from home! Write from the beach! Be your own boss! I’ve been seeing these ads lately on Facebook and around the internet because I guess the Google gods have figured out that I’m a writer (it’s nice to be recognized). And look how relaxed and happy those people in the ads are!
I wish it were true that I have days to frolic on the beach, but that rarely happens. And I live in sunny California on a city that is an actual island. I can walk on the beach any day I want. But do I have the time? (Do I make the time? Different issue…)
I’m afraid that the reality of freelancing is a bit different. I am a full-time writer. I have a journalism degree (for the news-chasing) and a master’s in English (for the editing); I also have a spectrum of experience from teaching in the classroom to editing for the glossy magazines to grinding out the calendar every week, over to the literary side of writing (writing poetry in a swing). I know deadlines intimately. I love-hate them and live by them.
The newspaper industry has changed dramatically since I got into it – from blue pencils and typewriters to computers and social media. I started journalism school with a T-square and an X-Acto knife in my ditty bag. The digital revolution changed how various tasks were done, and it changed the nature of business itself. Skyrocketing health care costs and human resources rules have made most of the smoking, drinking, man’s world of the newsroom obsolete. In fact, I know so many people who have been laid off by newspapers, only to take them back on as freelancers, that by now, the number of full-time reporters is very small.
So freelancing it is. I freely admit that I would be scraping by now if not for my husband’s salary (although I would be single and not raising a teenager now, without him!). So his work allows me not to worry as much about rent, food and health insurance. But I do have a nut I need to crack every month – what I am expected to bring into the family, and freelancing is part of that. So is part-time proofreading, occasional teaching, book editing gigs, and the random oddball gig like making a peacock costume for a bet someone lost. I also thrift and resell items online and pursue rebates for extra cash. And I’m the coupon queen.
Freelancing itself – getting an idea, writing it and polishing it, sending it out, waiting for an editor to respond, then accept it (or not, in which case, start over), then waiting for the thing to print/post, and then…waiting forever to get paid. That’s more realistic. We don’t get paid til the thing sees print or airtime. And then we have to jump through many hoops to get paid. A story I wrote in May 2014 just made it to print in the March 2015 issue. I won’t see the money for that til next month at least. So $300 I made last year takes a year to show up in my hands. You can see that one has to have a lot of gigs going to make it as a freelancer.
I notice the “Write from home!” ads don’t talk about that. They don’t talk about rates going down, quality going down, editors with little experience looking for clickbait instead of actual reportage. So much is left out of the conversation.
There are other kinds of stories, true – travel, or extended research, or corporate – I don’t do those. Either I don’t have the resources (Sorry, honey, I’m going to Fiji. See you next month!) or I can’t bear the soul-sucking it takes to smile and write content for corporate web sites (everything said with a lip-tight smile and a cheerful, chatty demeanor). They pay reasonably well – if you don’t mind travel, or soul-sucking. It’s a toss-up, isn’t it?
In my opinion, “Write from home” comes down to two things — can you write well enough to be accepted, and can you pitch to the right markets? And then market like a mofo. And then chase down the money. Since January 1, I’ve written for several high-visibility sites. I’ve invoiced them twice. Big guys with an accounts payable department. Do they pay quickly? Nope. I’m two months in arrears with a certain magazine publishing company — haven’t been paid for January stuff yet. I know it’s hand to mouth for them, too. And I’m sorry for that, but, hey, I need to get paid, too.
This isn’t meant to be a “poor me, freelancing is hard” post – just a reality check from those “Write from home!” goofballs. Take off the rose-colored sunglasses and put away the sunscreen. You’ll be busy chasing stories and payments far more than you’re working on your tan, if my experience holds true. Spinning plates? Yes. Get busy.
Sorry I missed yesterday — family comes before work (otherwise, what’s the point of work?) Friday I spent most of my day at home, working on various projects, and did not come across much plastic just drifting across my path. I was sewing, and reached for a new spool of thread. That’s when I saw that it was sheathed in plastic, I guess to keep it clean or from unspooling. Funny, the more expensive brands of thread don’t use plastic; just the cheap thread, those that I grabbed 5 for $1. And guess what? Made in China.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that it’s difficult or impossible to find made-in-America thread anymore. Most of our textiles have been shipped from elsewhere. It’s possible to find clothing that’s made in America (American Apparel is one such brand), but the sources or the products to make that clothing seems to come from elsewhere. “Elsewhere” usually means China. China is, unfortunately, not exactly synonymous with high quality or concern for the planet. (Hey, with lead in their baby formula, candy and toys, doesn’t seem like China is all that concerned about her own people.) The “made in China” issue is a huge one that affects everyone in the USA — you can’t get a light bulb or a battery or a kajillion other things anymore unless it’s been shipped from afar. To read more on this, visit some of the blogs of folks who are trying to live without “made in China” — they are living with a lot less than I am without plastic. (I’d post a link here, but there are too many — do a little surfing and see what you find.)
So: plastic. The three plastics that crossed my path yesterday were: the spool of thread, the plastic film on a pack of cigarettes (not mine; I’ve never smoked), and the ubiquitous plastic milk jug. It’s not my smoking habit and I don’t buy them, but I notice that almost all packs have the plastic film (not sure about American Spirits or the roll-your-own kind). This is one of the ambient plastics that I see all the time in gutters, blowing around at parks and beaches. The little plastic rip cord, the rest of the wrap — it doesn’t go away when you finish your cigarette. It’s here for a thousand years. Please find a place to recycle it.
Then the milk jug. This was where I paused to consider my commitment to purging plastic. We’re running out of milk. I didn’t want to make a special trip out to get milk today, Saturday. I was at Walgreen’s. I went to the refrigerator aisle and there was all this milk, Berkeley Farms, local to our area. All in jugs. Not a single carton to be had. And I almost bought it. The pain-in-the-ass quotient was that high. How important is this? my little naughty voice said. (The problem with the little naughty voice is that it often sounds so reasonable. You have to really listen to hear the wickedness.) What’s the big deal? The jug is recyclable. You won’t have to drive in the evil car, spewing terrible fumes and carbon monoxide, wheedled the voice.
Well, I didn’t do it. I walked away. I was annoyed, and rightly so, because why should we have to make such ethical choices? Why aren’t plastic-free options more readily available? Why should we have to choose between feeding our families at the expense of the planet, or doing without? It’s a small suicide some days, when you have to choose to wait or do without because the best or better option isn’t there.
Is plastic such a big deal? It is, actually. It’s tied up in the production of cheap food and goods, which is tied to farm subsidies for the big growers and tax breaks for large corporations like Chevron and Dow and Monsanto and Procter & Gamble, corporations that don’t pay taxes and don’t give a flying hoot about our health, much less Planet Earth. They push their products on us, preying on our insecurities (do I smell? am I fat? am I old?) and our primal weaknesses (mmm, fat and sugar! easy calories! me sleep now, no make fire!). They cost us millions and billions in health dollars, as we deal with the effects of fat bodies, high blood sugar, cancer and heart disease. National economics and politics are at play: Who’s lining whose pocket, who has the dough, where can we get more and still not be held accountable?
Do you really think we’re at war in Iraq and elsewhere because of democracy? How about petroleum –the nipple for our driving fetish, our addiction to electricity, and the source of plastics? If I’ve hit a nerve, good. Think about the ripple-effect of your plastics consumption: one plastic bottle, one plastic sandwich bag, one ambient rip cord or shrink wrap. Particularly think about it when you’re filling up you gas tank and whining about the cost.
Here’s a link to an article about how some manufacturers are actually reducing their plastic packaging, especially the ubiquitous and hateful “clamshell” packaging — why? Because the cost of oil to make the plastic is so high that it’s cutting into their profits. We who share the planet are the lucky beneficiaries of such a move, but don’t be fooled. It’s not just cuz they’re nice people. And that’s why I didn’t take the plastic milk jug and am going to ride my bike to buy a wax carton of milk today.