The Company You Keep


“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder


Gratitude is the cornerstone of a spiritual practice. And the oxytocin high of connection is my drug of choice (not that I’m condoning drug usage). But so it is that I find myself in awe of supportive friends. Surrounded am I by extraordinarily talented women. I feel blessed.

Seriously if you don’t have any in your life, go now and get some. (Yes, that too- for the dirty minded folk among us.) Who me? I resemble that remark.

Where was I? Right…the support of women in my life.

My problem (one of many) is I have a tough time writing longer pieces of fiction. I seem to be stuck in the 100 word count zone. Not to undervalue the skill necessary of communicating an idea with a beginning, middle and end in 100 words. It takes skill. But I’d like to know I’m capable of writing more. I have two pieces in particular I’d like deliver and raise into full fleshed works.

I managed to eek out a “rough” draft (thank you my beautiful Dilettante for tough loving me). Everyone needs friends not afraid to tell the truth, to be willing to give your work their critical eye. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this. I only wish I could give advice half as good as I get.

I also wish I’d followed Stephen King’s rule of thumb. 2nd draft=1st draft-10%, culled the riff raff before taking up the valuable time of others. Even I can see on read through much need be cut. But I’m grateful for the time they generously offer.

My co-worker (FYI- her Welleslian English Lit degree is one reason many of my poems are so tight) implored me to ask the big questions; broaden my view of the story. She said “you need to decide if you are a reliable narrator”. “Of course” I said without hesitation. “Hmmmmm”, I waned.

She pointed out my writing was too linear. My current stories protagonist is a precocious 12 year-old with an omniscient voice narrating over top. CW said “You’re writing is very JD Salinger”. Hello? As if! Other than echoing his personal life as a recluse I have a ways to go to achieve what NY Times writer Charles McGrath describes.

“Stories remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it) and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony. Mr. Updike said he admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.”

But one can dream. And I think it’s incredible having friends’ way smarter than I am. Ones that hear what I was aiming to convey- a “sympathetic understanding of adolescence, the fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world.” Ones that know I yearn to write an irreverent journey of soul and the struggle to find self. Ones who know me well enough (out in the real world) to question the prominent role I gave the fictional parents when in real life mine are “bit players”.

“Can you make the reader come to your conclusions in retrospect without spoon feeding it to them?” Whoa! I wonder. Can I?

As Stephen King says “the object of fiction is…..make the reader welcome…make him forget, whenever possible, that he is reading a story at all.” He goes on to say “you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” Can I tap into another’s autobiography in my writing? Project a deeper intimacy into my words, create ease.

Lastly she pointed out her favorite bits (in yellow highlighter) involving questions of faith, feeling alien and trying to know oneself. Could I draw this thread throughout the piece? Flesh them out. Play on the devil versus God inside us. The bigger questions, “Can you know anyone if you don’t know yourself?” kind of riff.    *mind blown*

 Can I?   I plan to try.    “There is no try grassphopper, only do” I hear a friend whisper.

This is the grace of having a support group of woman to push you along. Challenge you to reach for your edges and hopefully far beyond.  Albert Schweitzer wrote “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. “I have this circle. I am filled with the women that hold me up and rekindle my passion for life.

Death Becomes Her


For me Death has been reality for a longtime. Long before I read the Bridge to Terebithia or watched Stand by Me. I met death for the first time in the 2nd grade.

My grandfather had passed away the year before. I recall watching my father sitting on the edge of the bed sobbing uncontrollably. This strong behemoth protector of mine was so small, so fragile, and so weak. I felt frightened.

My Dad’s mom had passed, long before I was born. So I guess at this point I only understood death in the abstract. I had no context for it since I never got to meet her. Never touched her face beyond the smoothness of an old photo or the words of the poem my grandfather wrote about her.

As I watched my Dad cry I wanted to hold his hand, to sit in his lap. I was usually much more independent, never wanting to be held. But somehow I knew he needed it. I watched my mother console him. This is my first memory of the impact of death on a loved one.

My parent’s decided my Grandfather’s funeral was too much for one so young. We were kept home. There was no goodbye.

So it was in my second grade school year. My teacher, Mrs. Young died. She’d just begun to teach us cursive. To this day I associate the skill with her. I loved everything about her. Her smile, her perfume, the way she knew what we were doing even with her back turned towards the class. In the middle of the year she was gone. Poof. Just like that.  I can’t say of what. All I know was suddenly there was a sub filing in. No one taught us cursive anymore. I missed her terribly.

This time my parents decided to allow me to attend her funeral. Perhaps they hoped to aid my understanding. Maybe it was at my insistence. Whatever the reason, they relented. Everyone seemed to be wearing a big hat that day. I think it’s odd. That’s one of my strongest memories, a sea of big black hats and tears in the giant oaken church. There she lay displayed up front. So still, so silent. Nothing of the woman I loved. I peered upon her face and knew she was not in there. I just knew. This was the first time I saw death.

Over the years there were many more. Because let’s be honest in time we come to know death better. It’s to be expected really as we age.  The rest of my grandparents passed away, some classmates and close friends too. My freshman year in college I saw a man get hit and killed by a car. I’ve seen people jump to their death from the bridge by my office. I am oddly familiar with the grim reaper. More so then I’d like to be.

But none more so then the day he sought to introduce himself to me personally. I was taking my dog to the vet, driving the back way into Boulder. The road winds along through the foothills. There is a stretch where it carves into the hillside, a ridge rising up on one side and a cliff falling off the other. Kenai was just a pup. I reached down towards him. To check his running nose I think. I don’t really remember. It was only a split second. But it was just enough time for my right tire to slip off the road into the ditch. I quickly corrected. I over corrected. And my rear wheels spun around. I began careening, sliding on the driver’s side wheels, half on tilt, into oncoming traffic. The cliffs edge lingered just beyond and was coming on fast. Time froze.

I could clearly see the couple in the oncoming vehicle. The looks on their faces said everything. I was going to die. They knew it. I knew it. Oddly I felt peaceful. I heard no noise, nothing. Time was suspended in silence. It was as if I was watching a slow motion movie scene play out before me. I don’t remember my life flashing before my eyes, no past recollections. I simply accepted what was to come, complete calm washed over me. I can’t say I’d any choice really.

Somehow, an only God knows how, I managed to stop the car just as my back wheels hit the cliffs edge. And the headlong car managed to avoid a collision dodging around me. I doubt any of us know how we got so lucky. Thankfully there were no other cars on the road. I got a reprieve that day.

I guided my car back onto the asphalt and made it another 15 yards or so before pulling off to the side. All my calm evaporated and reality setting in, I began to cry. I don’t know how long I stayed there but I knew how close I’d come to death.

I wish I could tell you this made me understand the fragility of life; that I began making smarter choices. But it would be a lie. I was young and though I’d danced with the cloak I still thought I was invincible, the hubris of youth.

It has taken cancer and my time struggling in the hospital to really understand the fragility of things. Only now have I begun to truly understand. And I’ve yet to decide what to do with my newfound wisdom. And even with my cancer diagnosis I still don’t know when I’ll take my last breath. But I can tell you it’s changed how I live.

Just the other day I was at happy hour with friends. I was discussing a book character who with one touch she knows how you’ll die. My friend said she would like to know the moment of her death. “Why?” I asked. “If you knew, what would it change for you?” “What would you do differently?” “What if it was tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now, or 20, what would you alter?

“Because aren’t we all dying every day” I said. That’s’ the truth I forgot before cancer. “So why hold back? Because really let’s be honest. None of us ever knows when it will come. “

So as Tim McGraw so aptly sings, go sky diving, rocky mountain climbing, bull riding. And love deeper, speak sweeter and give forgiveness you’ve been denying. Live like you are dying.