Thoughts About Life Before Death

            This morning an author was sharing her work on the radio. She’d thought a lot about death and dying, but especially about the steps between independence and reliance on others.

            She said that the idea of moving on to an afterlife didn’t scare her: it was what came before.

            Her words hit home.

            I am a person of faith. I believe in a heaven in which God is waiting for me. He will welcome me with open arms, bring me into His fold where I will live with all kinds of angels. It will be a place of intense colors, smells, and sites. It will be warm day and night and while walking the paths I will encounter family, friends and others that have been waiting for my arrival.

            Heavenly, right?

            The author being interviewed had treated her body well over the years. She’d watched what she ate, consumed very little alcohol, and early on incorporated exercise into her daily routine. She’d run marathons and belonged to a gym for many years.

            She hoped, believed, that treating her body well gave her the opportunity to live long without being a burden to loved ones.

            Her comments made me think about my past. I did not exercise regularly until well into my forties. I learned the game of soccer by watching my own kids play. My daughter’s coach was so horrible that the parents “fired” her, then made me coach. I knew nothing about the game, but I loved research. I read book after book on rules, conditioning and game play.

            I did not sit on the sidelines and shout: I ran, dribbled, passed and thought up new and different “games” to keep my players interested.

            I signed up for coaching classes and learned to be a referee. Once I was licensed, I “reffed” an average of four games a weekend while still coaching a girls’ team and rushing to see my sons play as often as possible.

            To understand more, I joined two adult teams: one co-ed, the other women only. I practiced with both and played one game a weekend on each team.

            As time passed, I felt my overall conditioning improve. I had never been a runner and still wasn’t, but I never stopped moving whether on or off the field.

            My kids swam in a competitive summer league. I took them to morning practices and stayed for their lessons. Watching them taught me how to swim. From barely being able to swim freestyle, I learned backstroke and breaststroke. From not being to complete a lap without stopping, I became a lap swimmer.

            At one point we sold our membership to the pool. For years I had no place to swim while at the same time injuries had kept me off the soccer field. The lack of exercise, combined with a series of surgeries, prevented me from taking up new forms of exercise, and so the weight piled on.

            Well into my fifties I heard of a community indoor pool near my place of work. I could get up early, drive the thirty minutes to get there, get a little exercise, shower and arrive at work on time. At first I only walked, back and forth, back and forth, while in the other lanes swimmers swam in “circles”. I so wanted to join them, but it had been years since I’d done anything like lap swimming.

            Bored with walking, one morning I slipped under the lane lines and joined the moving crowd. I was not the fastest, but not the slowest either. My asthma kicked up, meaning that I’d have to pause after every two laps to rest. I’d go on, each week pushing myself to do more and more.

            Then something happened and the pool had to close for repairs. I had no place to go.

            During this same time I had joined a neighborhood gym. I dropped in almost every afternoon and most weekends. I fell in love with the elliptical and stationary bike. Many of the machines didn’t work for me, but I used those that did. Wanting more, I hired a physical trainer. Big mistake. I don’t believe he’d ever worked with an old lady with double knee replacements. No matter how many times I told him I couldn’t jump or run upstairs, he didn’t believe me. He browbeat me into doing things I didn’t think I could do. He brought me to tears. But I kept paying him for three months before I finally walked away.

            About three years ago a new gym was built not far from my home. It had an indoor three-lane pool and tons of machines. After touring a nearby affiliate of the same company, I signed up. Why? The clientele looked like me: old, out-of-shape women and men. None of the burly, sweaty jocks of my old gym. This looked like a place where I’d fit in.

            When the gym opened I began working with a new trainer. He was gentle and kind. He understood senior citizens and listened to me when I said I couldn’t do something. He gave me exercises and routines that I could do on my own.

            My confidence grew. I lost a little weight, just enough to get brave enough to swim. It felt great to be back in the water, but I was moving much more weight than before. I was slow, slow, slow. But persistent. Each few days I added two more laps. In time I was able to swim a full mile!

            I still go to the gym, still swim, still use the machines.

            About two years ago I ran into a friend from my soccer days. We began hiking two days a week. It was hard at first. Some hills nearly killed me. I’d have to give up and turn around, embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up with my friend.

            Now we are equal partners, routinely hiking 8-10 miles tow to three days a week.

            What all this is about is that right now, I am in the best shape of my life. Like the author mentioned earlier, I take care of my body. I eat healthy, exercise regularly and keep my mind sharp.

            I hope, I believe, that all this will pay off as I add on more years. In three months I will turn seventy-two, but I don’t feel that old.

            At that age my mom looked and acted old. She was the epitome of the wizened old lady. Her face was pitted with wrinkles and her back and legs were weak. She couldn’t walk through her flat neighborhood or meander through a store without frequent stops. Her mind was failing, a precursor to the dementia that eventually took her life.

            I’ve read, just as the author has, that mental and physical exercise keeps us vibrant longer. I hope that she’s right. I want to be alert and independent as long as possible. I don’t want to be a burden to my family. I want to die with grace and dignity intact.

            There are things I don’t know the answer to. For example, will my years of inactivity impact how long I can function independently? I’ve heard that smokers lose years of life, but can gain some time back by quitting.

            Does this work for exercise? Because I’ve been working out seven days a week for years now make up for thirty years of no exercise?

            I certainly hope so.

            While I am not afraid of death, I am doing everything I can to stave off the effects of mental and physical decline. I pray, attend church, read, write, meet with various groups of friends, follow a weight-loss path, watch television, go out for meals and attend movies and plays. I talk to my adult children and my grandchildren. I do things. All kinds of things. And love my life, live my life, to the fullest.

            Perhaps this will make the difference. I certainly hope so.

A Younger Me

I was a fat baby. Earliest photos show fat lines around my wrists, knees, elbows, well, just about everywhere.

As I grew older, I did not lose that fat. Instead it grew with me. It’s not that I didn’t exercise. I was an active kid. I played kickball, softball, baseball, whiffle ball, croquet and more. I built snow forts in the winter. I hiked through the woods behind our house. I climbed trees and searched for maple leaves.

Even so, I remained fat.

When I was about ten years old my parents enrolled me in skating lessons at the local rink. This was not due to a request of mine, but rather something they decided I should do.

If they had asked, I would have declined.

I had roller skates at home. I did learn to skate and did so in the garage fairly regularly. I was capable of skating around and around in circles, encompassing the confines of the garage, but I could not do any fancy moves and had no inclination to learn any.

In fact, I was terrified of falling, so never went too fast.

Imagine my terror the first time I put on skates at the roller rink and walked out onto the floor. I was trembling and clearly shaken. I begged, cried, pleaded, to no avail.

So I grabbed the wall and moved. Slowly. Almost like walking. Eventually I worked up to rolling at a very slow speed, still holding tightly to the wall.

After completing the first circle, I got brave and let go. I still was not gliding, but rather stepping, but at least I was moving.

Then the instructor called us to the center of the rink. She demonstrated how to skate by putting one foot in front of the other and sent us off. I tried. I really did, but I was too scared to commit to lifting one foot in the air.

The other kids got it. I thought they were all professionals pretending to be ordinary kids. Most of them zipped around the rink. Most did this crossover maneuver when they hit the turns.

I walked.

Our next task was to learn the hokey pokey. Simple, right? Not if you’re afraid to lift a foot or turn your backside around. Which describes me perfectly.

While the others shook this and that, I stood still. The instructor tried to convince me to do it, but I refused. She cajoled. She demonstrated. She stood next to me and held my hand.

I stood still.

When the song was done, she sent us off to circle the rink again. While I was creeping along, the instructor spoke to my mom. I found out late that the instructor thought I could benefit from private lessons, but there was no money for that. My mom promised to bring me during free skate times so I could practice.

And she kept that promise despite my pleas to give up the idea.

I did not improve. I stayed terrified.

Week after week my mom forced me out onto the rink and watched while I did as little as possible.

Sometime during a lesson someone told my mom that I needed an outfit for an upcoming performance. It was to be a two-piece blue skirt and halter top. My belly would be sticking pout for all too see and the skirt was so short, that if it didn’t have built-in panties, my own would show.

I didn’t want the outfit. I didn’t want to be in the performance, but that didn’t stop my mom.

She took me to the fabric store and bought the pattern and the fabric. She sewed an outfit that would have pleased someone else, but when I put it on, all I felt was horror.

The day came. My mom drove my siblings and I to the rink so my family could see me out on the floor.

As soon as we arrived, she sent me into the restroom to change. I did. But I didn’t come out when I was finished. Instead I stood in front of the mirror, appalled at the fat that was so clearly obvious.

My mom came looking for me. She grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the room, into the spectator area of the rink.

The other kids were dressed and ready to go. Not a one of them looked like me. All had thin arms, thin legs, thin bellies. All looked awesome in their blue outfits. All stared at me as if a hippopotamus was in their midst.

I felt ill. I truly believed that I was going to throw up. I left my mom and walked into the bathroom where I locked myself in a stall.

When I heard the hokey pokey music, I cried. I knew I would get in trouble for wasting precious dollars. I knew that my father would be told. I knew that both parents would lecture and scold. I knew that I would be punished.

But I could not unlock that door. Could not return to the rink.

When it was all over, my mom brought me my clothes. When she said nothing, I knew I was in trouble.

She said nothing all the way home.

She did tell my father. He did punish me. I went to my room and cried.

Later on, I hid my skates in a dark corner of the garage and never used them again.

The sad part is that I never asked for lessons. Had never hinted that I wanted to learn to skate better. I was satisfied going in slow circles around the garage floor.

I felt like a failure. This feeling clung to me for so many years that I never wanted to try something new again.

 

Conference Take-aways

February 16-19 I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. It was a sold out event, with hundreds of “wannabe” authors as well as established publishers, authors, agents, editors and author coaches.

There were many interesting sessions, in fact, too many for one person to attend.

I took notes, so as to remember the bits and pieces of advice given. Following are those things that seemed most important.

  1. Creative nonfiction is now called narrative fiction. Memoir falls into this category. The nice thing about the title change is that it allows for the recalled essence of dialogue that most likely took place.
  2. Book Club fiction are those pieces that inspire discussion and tends to appeal to women readers. Think JoJo Moyes. Commercial fiction are titles that appeal to a wide range of reader. Think Gone Girl.
  3. In terms of what agents want to see and don’t want to see, here are a few tips:
    1. No prologues or epilogues for debut authors. They feel this is “a lazy way to jump start tension”
    2. No first lines of dialogue.
    3. Skip flashbacks altogether unless there is something about the memory that adds to the emotional history of a character.
  4. Be careful about including diverse characters unless you are well informed about the particular group. For example, when including an African-American character, verify with a trusted source to make sure that you are not typecasting or stereotyping. Avoid writing in dialect unless you are very familiar with that dialect, and it is important to the essence of the story.
  5. Within each scene, look at how the flow of time is reported. How much time has elapsed? But avoid terms such as “three days later”.
  6. Within scene, also be aware of change. In each segment, there must be a starting place and then an ending place, and change must have occurred. There is external change, in which a character moves from one place to another. Internal change is the most powerful, as this lets the reader see how it impacts the character.
  7. When editing, it nothing is happening in a scene, no forward movement, no choice-making or risk-taking, then delete.
  8. Characters should behave in a logical way, unless strange behavior is part of the character’s M.O. People come to story to see logical human behavior, verified with an underpinning of evidence. Must believe that the character is a living human being. People do stupid things all the time. Readers question what in their lives forced them to act that way.
  9. Be watchful for the “dreaded middle”, which is the part of a scene where things get too slow. When this happens in your work, cut the scene or condense it into another. Ask yourself if the scene needs dialogue or action. Make it fast and punchy to keep readers engaged. Introduce a new obstacle that must be surmounted.
  10. Make sure there are no passive characters. Empower them by putting them in situations that force them to take action.
  11. Avoid dreams, waking up and overheard conversations.
  12. Your villain, whether it be a person or a force, needs to arrive early.
  13. Create a history for each character before you write the first scene. Know who your character is, what he/she wants, what motivate him/her, and when confronted with a problem, does the character feel trapped or betrayed.
  14. When writing an emotional scene, try to channel that emotion before beginning. Feel the anger or the hurt. Remember what falling in love feels like.

I hope these tips help!