Tag Archives: writing

The Be Nice Project: A challenge for 2014

Most of the action has been moved over to my new website, but I want to invite you to join me on this new project: to be nice in 2014 …

That's me in Mexico in 2005. Yup, I was three stories up slapping plaster on a building. Miraculously, no one got hurt ... and from what I've heard, the building is still standing ...

That’s me in Mexico in 2005. Yup, I was three stories up slapping plaster on a building. Miraculously, no one got hurt … and from what I’ve heard, the building is still standing …

I’m trying to be nice. Honest. But it’s not easy.

For years now, I’ve been working on a book idea about loving your neighbors. The idea came to me after I went on a mission trip to Mexico in 2004. At the time, I hated flying, didn’t speak Spanish, knew zero sign language and was completely inept with both ball peen hammer and ball point pen. And yet I got on a plane and flew to Mexico to do construction at a school for deaf children.

It’s not as if I hadn’t volunteered before. I’d done a local mission project for several years, sponsored children through a Christian organization, and supported many charities. But getting out of my comfort zone and allowed me to get a better understanding of my place in the world.

It was a life changing experience, and it gave me the idea to write a book about how to love your neighbors. I figured if I could do it, anybody could. Although I still hate flying, don’t know sign language, can’t speak Spanish and can injure myself with writing utensils and screwdrivers with equal severity, I learned how to be giving and how to love my neighbor.

I tried to write. Tried for almost 10 years. But every time I got in front of the computer I went blank. I kept notes, clipped stories from the newspaper, did research, even had an agent interested in the project. All I had to do was send him the first three chapters. But no matter how hard I tried to write, it just never came together.

Then I realized why: I’m not very nice. Continue reading

Breaking news: I’ve signed a contract with Wordcrafts Publishing!

As every writer knows, the public doesn’t consider you a “real writer” until you publish a book. It doesn’t matter if  you’ve published articles or won awards, and when you say “No” they quickly change the subject.

Well,

 dear friends,  you can pity me no longer, because today I signed a contract with Wordcraft Publishing to publish a compilation of my columns and essays.

Ta da! Real writer!

Making the deal even sweeter, a couple of Bandit’s pieces will also be included. Really, he’s probably going to be the bigger celebrity out of all of this. But I can live with that.

The plan is to have the book out in time for the Christmas season, so I need to buckle down and get to work. I need to first select as many of my favorite columns as I can find, and then pen a few new pieces.

Stay tuned for more news!

My first post at Paradise Uganda blog

I forgot to tell you that I posted my first post at the Paradise, Uganda blog. I actually posted it before my little musing the other day but it ironically touched on the same theme: being on the outside, looking in, and wondering why you’re there.

For the record, what I originally thought I was volunteering to write is nothing like where my blog posts are going – and with the blessing of my dear friends. Rather than help with the fundraising “rah rah”, I’m writing more about faith and life and … well, stuff that’s where I’m most comfortable. Yay!

Here’s the beginning of the post; there’s a link at the end that’ll take you to the Paradise, Uganda blog where you’ll also see a little video of Jesse in Africa:

 ***************

When my friend Jesse Sprinkle asked me if I wanted to be involved in a project he was working on, I didn’t ask what it was or what he needed from me. There are moments in your life when someone asks and you say yes and you know it’s exactly as it should be.

I’m not a musician. I’m not a missionary. I’m not a fundraiser or a world traveler. I’m not hip or cool or trendy.

I’m just a writer. For years I’ve written feature articles in magazines and websites on everything from entertainment to dog food. I love telling stories. So when Jesse asked me to join the team for Paradise, Uganda, I signed on for the one task I knew how to do: blog.

It’s never easy jumping into a project that’s already been moving along at mach speed. It’s difficult to find your place, to keep up, to feel part of the crowd. The things I’d originally planned to blog about … well, they just don’t seem like where I’m supposed to be. The ideas I had … someone else has them, too. The things I thought I brought to the table … not so helpful right now.

It would be easy to just back out, just say, “Gee, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here, I think I made a mistake” and go home and hide under a rock because I don’t fit in.

And yet I know I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know how or why I know, I just do. (Click here to finish reading on the Paradise, Uganda blog)

On the job hunt

Maybe I should apply to be the Zamboni driver at the ice arena? Can’t you just picture me and Bandit riding around the rink?

I’ve spent much of this evening looking for a job, scouring pages and pages of help wanted ads on various employment websites. I need a job, and I think I need to bring in income from non-writing related sources for a while. Let’s give that puppy a rest. I need to just write for myself for a while.

I don’t know what everyone is complaining about, job wise; there are lots of jobs on these sites. Just none I want to do.

Receptionist with knowledge of Microsoft Office? Nope. Retails sales? Too screwy of a schedule. Product merchandising? What’s a plan0gram. Admin assistant, inside sales, outside sales? Boring, too many coworkers, too many numbers.

I’m not looking for a career. I just need to bring in income to help pay for the truck darling husband brought home last year, and to fund my list of “things I want to do before it’s too late” – most of which involved fixing the dogmobile so Bandit and I can hit the road for our cross country trip. But poor Pete the Jeep is in need of some serious overhaul before we head out for that kind of adventure.

The truth is that I’ve spent so much time alone over the last decade that it’s not going to be easy to find a job where I can utilize my skills while working within my parameters. I mean, who’s going to pay for all of this personality and still give me time off for a nap every afternoon?

I applied for a great part time job as a product specialist for an awesome dog food company. Basically, I’d set up a table at a pet store on Saturdays and talk to people about their pets, their nutritional needs, and ways to have happier, healthier relationships with their pets.

Yeesh, I do that whenever I go to the pet store. Someone might as well pay me for it.

My friend Pauline thinks I’d make a lot of money as a bartender. I told her that I don’t know how to mix drinks. She said she didn’t think that mattered.

The only other job I might be interested in is driving a Zamboni at the ice arena. Except they need someone who is “mechanically knowledgable”. I don’t know if fixing the tailpipe on my Jeep with duct tape and a coat hanger qualifies.

Thoughts on “The Alchemist”

“The boy felt jealous of the freedom of the wind, and saw that he could have the same freedom. There was nothing to hold him back except himself.” – The Alchemist

My new friend Pauline and I went out recently (she’s a writer, too; you can check out her blog here) and we got to talking about the book, “The Alchemist.” I’d started to read it a few years ago but couldn’t get into it. But after a tipsy conversation Pauline and I had at an Irish pub before she went home to Colorado, wherein she told me what effect the book had had on her life, I decided to pull it off the shelf and give it another shot.

I know now why I couldn’t read it before. I wasn’t ready for the message.

The book, which I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, is an allegory about a shepherd boy named Santiago who goes in search of his treasure. On the journey, he learns lessons about life, personal calling, and love.

In this new (scary, undefined) season of my life, it’s applicable because it not only holds a mirror to show me where I’ve been and what’s been holding me back, but also shows me that there is more beyond the reflection, and that I am the only one keeping me from stepping through the looking glass .

It got me thinking about what someone referred to as this security blanket of fear and insecurity that I seem to have wrapped myself in; this friend noted that it might make me feel safe but also holds me back, adding, “We are running out of time in this great thing called life…if you don’t throw that security blanket away now then it will be never and that would be really sad…”

This friend is right. And it’s a little scary that, despite what has felt like progress these last months, someone still saw it. Because I’m not secure at all and I don’t want to be held back anymore.

But wanting to move and knowing where to go are not necessarily the same thing. Do I have dreams? If someone came to me today and said I could have one of my dreams come true, I don’t know that I’d even know what to ask for. I don’t have a dream job. I don’t have a passion. Do I?

God knows I tried to explore some of that last year. Dog training? Job at the animal hospital? Starting (and stopping) various writing projects? Not only did none of it make me happy, most of it made me feel miserable, because I failed at it all. Not because I’m bad at the things I tried, but because none of them are my dream and none of them made me feel fulfilled.

I was at my happiest 8 or 9 years ago, when I was doing publicity for a local band, mentoring a few musicians (including John, my son I never had), volunteering for local causes, and even going on that trip to Mexico. (Yes, friends, for those of you who don’t know this story, I – who hated to fly, couldn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know sign language and once almost killed myself with a folding chair - flew to Mexico to do construction at a school for deaf children. Twice.)

I was giving and giving and giving, and it was the act of giving that renewed me. It was a wonderful season in my life.

So what happened?  The season changed – the band moved to LA; John died; my work in Christian music became empty; the volunteer projects changed; the well started to run dry and rather than stand back and refill, I kept giving.

I tried to find another band to work with, I volunteered for other projects, I started a writing group with a friend, but in truth I was exhausted. Eventually I was starting to feel annoyed in the company of other people. But rather than taking time to reflect on why that was or the dangers of not addressing it, I simply redirected my (exhausted) energies. 

Somehow, I had convinced myself that helping other people was not enough; that I had to turn it into something with my fingerprints on it. A book, an article, a … whatever, as long as it was something that would prove to the world that I had been here and made a difference.

I tried desperately to bring in income through my writing, but when it was financially successful it exhausted me creatively, and when it was creatively fulfilling I felt like I was writing in a vacuum.

Other areas of my life were also struggling, and while I recognized it I had no ability to change it. Fortunately, when most of your life is fulfilling and positive, you’re able to manage the parts that aren’t much more easily. But when you let failure and defeat creep in, you begin to see the dark shadows that have been lingering in the corners, and rather than shed light on them you invite them to take up residence.

In the introduction to “The Alchemist”, Coelho writes:

“I have known a lot of people who, when their personal calling was within their grasp, went on to commit a series of stupid mistakes and never reached their goal – when it was only a step away.”

Yup, that was me. I had forgotten my calling. I had forgotten that the ability to make people laugh is a gift, or that being able to introduce Person A to Person B so that they can make their dreams come true is, in itself, priceless. I was blind to the fact that I lived in every dream I made come true for someone else.

I have this quote written down in my notebook; I don’t know who Sonny Melendez is or where I saw a video, but here’s what he said:

“Our job is to first find our gift … then when you use that gift to give back, without asking or needing anything in return, that’s when you’ve really arrived. That’s what makes you who you are rather than what your title is.”

Perhaps, like me, you’re trying to find out who you are. Perhaps, like me, you convinced yourself for too long that a dark cave was the safest place to be. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve recently decided that, consequences be damned, you will not just exist but live, and that while you’re still not sure which direction to move, you’re willing to just move in order to simply feel the sun on your face and the wind at your back.

If so, consider this: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.” It really may be that simple.

This is a new season. My drought is over, washed away by laughter and love and renewing of the spirit. And I believe, as Coelho writes, that the Universe is conspiring in my favor.

Learning to say “yes” again (except when I have to say “no”)

I needed a photo to run with this post, and Bailey taking a dip in the Fountain of Eternal Life at the cemetery seemed as good a choice as any.

It’s been a crazy week, what with my outing to McGraws last Thursday and my last minute decision to attend my 30 year high school reunion. That’s more social interaction than I’ve had in the last six months.

But I’ve been mulling something over in my mind and I think maybe it’s fermented enough to mull over out loud.

Regular readers of my blog (or my column) already know I freely blab about my creative fears, hopes, successes and failures. I sometimes feel like a creative train wreck.

But I had a long chat last week with an old friend, Pastor Samme; we know each other from my days in Christian music. I had finally reached a place where, before I imploded, I needed desperately to talk to someone who knows and understands me (as opposed to, oh let’s hypothetically say, a relationship counselor of some sort who knows jack about me but still needs to offer advice because I’m paying her). And while I don’t attend his church (or any right now), I just knew in my heart Pastor Samme would understand what’s going on in my head and be able to offer some insight.

I was right. He gave me two plus hours of talking and crying and pondering. Continue reading

My family tree: famine, poverty and religious persecution

Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland. (Photo courtesy AlanMc, WikiCommons)

As I’ve been researching my family tree, I keep coming back to one question: why did my ancestors leave Ireland?

Confession: I know very little about the country where so much of my heritage was born. For that matter, I know very little about American history, other than the major events. And I’m pretty fuzzy on a lot of them, too.

I’ve heard of the Irish potato famine but know nothing about what it was, the havoc it caused, and the poverty and hunger that drove the Irish to America.

I know nothing about the religious differences that have divided Ireland for generations; “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was just a U2 song, right? And how can Catholics and Protestants be at war in this modern, tolerant world, anyway?

Like I said, I’m clueless. And yet, the little I have learned about my family makes all of those issues in history alive for the first time.

It seems that my first Irish ancestors arrived in America in about 1847, with my great, great, great, great grandmother Mary Branagan. A few years later, in 1850, my great, great, great, great grandfather John Maloney immigrated; he and Mary Branagan would marry in 1852 in Cummington, MA and have, among other children, a son named Charles.

My great, great, great grandparents Michael and Catherine Touhey Larkin came to the U.S. in 1857; they had an infant daughter Mary with them. Michael and Catherine went on to have seven more children, five of whom lived. One of them was Annie.

On November 21, 1883, Annie Larkin married Charles Maloney, thus uniting one branch of my Irish family tree.

I have no records showing the exact dates of immigration for anyone on this side of the Irish family tree, where in Ireland they’re from, when exactly they came, or in what occupations anyone was employed while in Ireland. I know when John Maloney arrived in Massachusetts, he worked as a farm hand while the rest of the family, as they grew, worked in the woolen mills.

In fact, my entire family is filled with family who worked in the woolen mills. When Charles was 12, he was employed in the woolen mills; so far that’s the youngest I’ve seen but with 10 years in between each census, it’s not unlikely that some of my ancestors who are in their early 20s were employed as spinners and sewers as children or teens.

I’ve asked myself more than a few times what life in Ireland must have been like. Because in America, things weren’t all the cozy, at least looking back from the comfort of my modern home. No running water. No sanitation. A nation on the verge of Civil War. Jobs in mills were long and difficult.

And yet wave after wave of immigrants came, believing that what they would find here would be better than what they left behind. And it sounds like, in the case of Irish immigrants during this time, they were right.

In the book “Immigrants in America: The Irish Americans”, author Karen Price Hossell explains that the plight of Irish Catholics in the middle of the 19th century was worsened by British penal laws of the 17th century depriving them of the abilty to own land.  By the early 1800s, she writes, “Catholics owned about 7 percent of the land in Ireland, even though they made up mor ethan 80 percent of the population.” While the penal laws were repealed in 1829, by then the damage was done. The Catholics were too poor to buy land even if they could.

And then, there was the potato blight.

In 1845, a potato blight that had first affected England and parts of Europe  spread to Ireland. That year, about 30 to 40 percent of the potato crop in Ireland was destroyed, but the following year nearly all of the potato crops in the country were ruined.

I don’t think we realize how well-fed we are in America.

It’s difficult to imagine today that an entire country could starve because of the failure of one crop. In modern America, we’re used to going to the grocery store and enjoying a selection of fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits that are not always even in season.

But for the Irish on the 1800s, meat was a rarity and the grain and other crops grown on the estates of landlords, as well as the livestock, was exported to England. As my mother likes to say, the cobbler’s children went barefoot.

So without the potato, the people of Ireland starved. They ate grass, seaweed, the rare cabbage. An inconsistent diet; if they weren’t starving they were sick from what they could find to eat. The Irish who worked the land as tenants found themselves in increasingly dire circumstances when they were evicted by landowners who were not obligated to provide them shelter.

In short, it was a desperate, desperate time.

It’s difficult to sit here in 21st century America and imagine that the failure of crops of potatoes could send an entire country into a devastating famine. And yet, it happened.

To put this into a little perspective, Quakers in Ireland offered some relieve by opening soup kitchens; by July 1847 there were about 2,000 soup kitchens serving hot meals to three million people every day.

The Poor Law Extension Act of 1847, an extension of the 1838 act establishing workhouses for the poor,  offered shelter – all the suffering had to do was turn over their land and agree to live in appaling, overcrowed, unsanitary, disease-ridden conditions. By 1851, three hundred thousand people lived in workhouses, and there was a waiting list of many more.

Monetary donations came from the US, India and other countries and while the blight was less severe in 1847, the crop of potatoes was sparse. The famine continued in this fashion until 1850, when the blight ended as quickly and mysteriously as it began.

Hossell writes that the English has little sympathy for the increasingly dire situation, owing to the fact that the English were predominantly Protestant and the suffering Irish were Catholics. (Ah, now the conflict in Ireland is starting to make sense.) In fact, the British response to the Irish famine is charged issue, referred to as “genocide by starvation”.

It was during the years of this devastation that my family began to arrive on U.S. shores. They weren’t alone. In 1840 about 1 million of the 17 million people living in America were of Irish descent; by 1854, that number more than doubled.

For the first time I am beginning to understand what drove them here, poverty I can’t imagine and perhaps a religious persecution that suddenly clears up the conflict in Ireland.

Like I said, I don’t know exactly where in Ireland they came from, or exactly why. But given the conditions in Ireland at the time, it makes sense that the potato famine was a catalyst, at least for the earliest of immigrants. Working in a woolen mill, living in a house, not facing famine, I suppose those things were a better life despite the fact that it doesn’t seem that way looking backward.

And it explains the deep Catholic roots of my family in Massachusetts. Not like today’s evangelical Christians spreading a doctrine, but in a lifestyle way. My family is Catholic. That’s just who they were. (It also explains why it was such a big deal that, as a teenager, I make my first communion. Despite the fact that both of my parents grew up Catholic, I grew up in a loosely faithful evangelical family and as such didn’t engage in those religious rites. But how that all came about is another story for another day.)

That’s just who we are, I guess. Devoted family, deeply faithful to their beliefs, willing to work for a better life for their children.

In other words, American.

RELATED POSTS:

Tracing my family tree one leaf at a time

My great-grandparents, James Francis and Mary Ellen Maloney Sheerin.

All of this cemetery walking I’ve been doing has piqued my curiousity about my own family tree.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in tracing my roots. I’ve had some relatives who have done a lot of work and they’ve shared some information – although no one really wanted to share the bulk of the information. Just bits and pieces here and there.

And tracing your ancestry is like a mystery with a thousand plot twists and a million roads that will all lead to a legitimate clue. You’re only hinderance is time and patience.

So last week, I pulled out the old notebooks and folders and headed to the Rochester local history department, and then Brighton Memorial Library, because they have a free library edition of Ancestry.com.

I’ve been working on one mystery in particular: why my great, great grandmother is known as both Mary Ann McDevitt and also Mary Ann McDade.

Here’s the mystery: on the birth records and marriage records of the children of my great, great-grandparents John P Sheerin and Mary Ann McDevitt, her last name has been listed as McDevitt, McDavett, McDavid and McDade, McDeid, McDaid.

The first time I came upon the McDade variation, I passed the record up, because it was a birth record for a son, John, born in Willksbarre, PA. Wrong last name of the mother, and the other children I’d already found were all born in Berkshire County.

Then I found a photo that my mom’s cousin Suzanne had given to me before she died: a photo of two women she identified as “Mary Ann McDevitt (McDade)” and her sister, “Nellie McDevitt (McDade).”

Huh. Continue reading

Caution: influence may appear much bigger in rear view mirror

I was cleaning my office on Sunday – I’ll wait while you pick yourself up off the floor – and for reasons I can’t explain pulled out the old CD player and a box of my favorite CDs and started blasting music.

I mean, blasting music. Windows open, breeze blowing in, music pouring out.

I haven’t done that in a long, long long time, since before I crawled under my emotional rock and curled up into a ball with the dogs and dust bunnies.

But on Sunday? It was rock and roll and sing out loud and dance with whichever dog was closest to me.

I’m no musician, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the art of making music. Which, of course, is why I always felt like a fraud when I was covering music. I just know what makes me happy,  makes my blood tingle and my spirit soar. And doggone it, I love a song I can sing along with. Loudly and off-key.

What I loved about covering music was the people. I’d go to music events and pick the unknown bands to interview, especially the ones who had the time to hang out and talk, who weren’t dishing out pat, rehearsed answers about how they wanted to share Christ with their music when in reality, they just loved making music and being on stage. Which of course was often not only the more honest answer, but the one that may actually have served God the most.

So this music I was blasting away on Sunday made me think of old friends. A lot of CDs were from artists I know or I’d interviewed and remained friends with, or music that was playing while I was with friends having fun times and making memories.

But I didn’t just listen. In between listening to music and doing the cha-cha with Bandit, I actually contacted with those friends. Sent a little Facebook “I’m thinking about you today” hello.

It was awesome.

I had a discussion, for example, with an artist pal who caught me up on the band and added that he hoped big things would happen soon. I told him, “Hopefully big things will happen soon – but remember that just doing what you’re supposed to be doing might actually be the ‘big thing’. You just might not get to see how big it is until it’s in the rearview mirror.” He said that was actually encouraging.

The truth is, that was something I needed to be reminded of, too. Trying to lift the boulder I’ve been living under has been exhausting, and when I look at the work that needs to be done to clean house – literally and figuratively – I can get overwhelmed.

Which is why I am so grateful that, while at a writing conference a few years ago, someone encouraged us to create a writing mission statement to help guide us when things got overwhelming. Here’s mine:

“Connect. Inspire. Change the world.”

Nothing drastic. No plans for world peace (I can’t even manage dog peace in my own house). No specific goals to save the world or feed the hungry – although those are all tasks that happen within that little mission statement (although not nearly as much as they used to happen, which may be one of the contributing factors in my years under the rock. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

I’m reminded of that quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which I often share but will share again because it’s so darned inspiring for me (bold emphasis mine):

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

There’s nothing in there about meeting page view goals, making money, or being a literary rock star. I’m good at a few things: connecting people and encouraging people, and hopefully in the process facilitating others to fulfill their missions in life and thereby be a link in the chain that will change the world. 

So here I am, halfway through the week, feeling so flipping fantastic, so happy to have reached out to people and found them still there, to be reminded that nothing more is expected of me than to do exactly what I’m supposed to do today.

Which, if I’m reading the signs right,  means some serious puppy snuggling.

5 reasons why I should win the “Eukanuba Paws In Motion to BarkWorld” prize

Me, Bandit, editor friend Carol Bryant and Dexter.

In the interest of full disclosure, this post will make a shameless pitch for why I need to win an all expense paid trip to BarkWorld 2012. What can I say? I’m desperate. Continue reading