Since I’ve been home for a few weeks following my writing retreat, I haven’t been writing much. And I’m thinking that my decreased production has more to do with a lack of wonderment in my life rather the excuses I would normally provide: family illnesses, the trenches of a fulltime job, and yes, even the gray NE Ohio weather.  In other words, I’m just too busy, too distracted to write because there is too much other stuff going on in my life.  But the truth is I wonder if my writing life has been dampened because my “wonder” life has been flat.

Have a gentle curiosity, my writing mentor said to me earlier this month, encouraging a daily dose of wonder, spooning it into my life and, consequently, into my writing.  Away from home, this was easy-peasy.   The natural world surrounding my little cabin provided more wonder than I could handle at times.  But at home, it’s been downright difficult.

Why is cultivating wonder so crucial to my writing?  It’s a hard question to answer with words, other than to say experiencing wonder expands my curiosity, my inquisitiveness about all things, and sparks my creativity, thus strengthening/driving my writing.  Then there are the deeper soul and spirit benefits of wonder that I feel indirectly nurture my writing as well–a sense of calmness, playfulness, wholeheartedness, and real joy. The bottom line? I’m a happier, more joy-filled person with moments of wonder in my life.  Surely, acknowledging wonder must lead to a release of endorphins.

So what’s a wonder-less woman to do?

Cultivate wonderment in new and intentional ways, emphasis on intentional.  Perhaps it’s akin to looking out a different window,  Instead of having the wonder wash over me as it did on the retreat, I’m now having to work at it, to dig beyond the daily stress, even to set it aside, and in order to root for that shiny pebble.

One such example of wonder I’ve unearthed recently was this. My father-in-law underwent major abdominal surgery for cancer a week or so ago.  Much, much stress.  After we met with the surgeon, all I could think of was how marvelous the human body is, that it can take the insult and disruption, the plunging of man’s hands and instruments into its cavities, and then miraculously manage to heal itself (albeit, with sutures and good drugs) back together again.  He’s now home and healing well.

An even simpler wonder example happened while driving to work (late again!) when I noticed the sunlight reflecting off frosted dead ditch grasses. The ditch never looked so good with each blade dazzling. I slowed down.

Wonder requires the time and intention to slow down, to notice.  But the pay off for me is that finding wonder often leads to finding gratitude, and that’s how I want to spend my life–grateful for time away, for time home, for a time to work, for time to spend with family and friends, and for time to be alone.  For every season there is a time and a purpose under heaven, or so the writer of Ecclesiastes says.  But this would mean that there are times to write, and times not to write.  And that both are OK. The field needs to lay fallow before it can yield its riches.

So, I’m curious. How does wonder work in your life?  Do you feel it inspires your writing creativity?  I’ve love to hear your stories.

Thanks for wondering and wandering in the wilderness with me,


Start where you are.JPG2

Courtyard, University Hospital, Cleveland

Courtyard, University Hospital, Cleveland

The Beatings Must Stop

This evening my writing coach, Ruth Schwartz and I were discussing ways to keep my writing momentum going after my recent wonderfully productive writing retreat (see the post below).  I’ve been home ten days, and the manuscript has idled.   Naturally, our conversation wound its way to discussing the typical self-inflicted consequences I would haul out of the closet if I didn’t successfully write alternate Saturday and Sunday afternoons, my next writing goal.  My response?  I confessed my usual tendency of beating myself up when not writing when I’m supposed to be writing, or when I don’t write enough, or when I write badly, and so on.  Typically, the beatings are followed by massive waves of paralyzing guilt which lead to further losses in writing production.

Here’s where Ruth compared my beatings to the popular saying:


But being Ruth, she quickly followed up with an analogy that brought a whole new light to my self-flagellations, saying something like, “You wouldn’t beat your child up about not writing, or if you did, you’d look for ways to reform your behavior, right?” Right.  Absolutely right.  Ask my adult children.  I never beat them. Which was Ruth’s point: So why would treat yourself with any less love and respect than you would your own child? Besides, isn’t this book you’re writing also ‘akin’ to falling into the offspring category? 

Right, again.

So, rule #1 for this next phase of my writing: The Beatings Will Stop. (I can’t tell you how good it feels to actually type those words and send them into cyberspace!)

Rule#2….stay tuned for the next blog post.  (Hint: It has something to do with Wonder.)

In the meantime, check out why I decided to call this blog The Wilderness Table.  As always, thanks for sharing in this journey!

When Retreating is a Good Thing

A cabin for a week in the middle of the woods, Loretto, Kentucky. One room of your own; two if you count the bathroom. Seven windows. A week of weather where the mercury rode a roller coaster: 60s Tuesday, 20s Friday. Wind, rain, snow, and, ah yes, sun and blue skies, too.
It’s the sixth time I’ve retreated to these grounds that I’ve come to think of as holy, sacred. Even the natural light here is different, indescribable as the sun rises in the morning and as it sets in late afternoon. Trees, cabins, lakes, squirrels, birds, deer all glow as if they are illumined from within. At night, it is black without any ambient lighting of any kind.
But I hadn’t come here only to stare out the picture window of my cabin, though I spent many hours doing so. I had work to do. Pages to write. I had made the reservation at the advice of my writing coach, Ruth Schwartz, who had encouraged me to be intentional and creative in carving out a block of time within a place free from distractions of work and home, one that would preferably be away from home.
And as soon as she mentioned this to me during our chat last month, I knew where I had to go: Cedars of Peace, Loretto, KY.
Here’s a quick snapshot of what I discovered last week, because discovering is actually more important than accomplishing:
~ I had been coming back to Cedars again and again for ten years staying in various cabins.
~ I remembered that it was on my first stay here, back in 2003, that I had first confided to another living being that I had been sexually abused as a child. It took me 33 years to break this silence.
~Over the past ten years, I reflected on how my sense of who I am had changed, all for the better since that first visit.
~ I wondered in wonder over being alive and being able to think these things, all the while gazing out my window onto the woods.
~I wondered why Susan, the caretaker of Cedars, had placed me in the cabin called WONDER, and not in JOY, SIMPLICITY, NAMASTE, or HOPE.
~And a moment later, I felt the soul of my writing center shift as I connected all these dots—the abuse, the revelation, the last ten years of therapy/angst/pain, the good things in my life—I felt it shift from one of pain to one of wonder.
~No wonder, that in such a creative and spirit-filled place, I wrote my heart out—115 pages, over 27,000 words. Wonderful.
I don’t have a complete book, not by a long shot. Rather, I have what Marion Roach Smith calls in her book The Memoir Project a “vomit draft.” Or if you prefer a less graphic but equally visual illustration, I have a mound of clay, something I can craft, mold, carve into the next draft that will move me along just a bit further towards my goal of writing this book.
And so I am planning my next retreat. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to be home with my generous husband Scott and my two yippy-yappy dogs. And with all of my vacation days gone until July, a full week retreat will not be an option until summer. But I can do a weekend, where I can continue to peck away at it paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter.
How about you? Have you gone away, sequestering yourself from family, dogs, work in order to write? I’d love to hear about it.

Sign on my cabin, Wonder

Work space, Wonder
Work space, Wonder


Essay on the Airwaves this Weekend!

Sometimes small essays—those ‘once-and-done’ projects—take on a life of their own. This is the clearly the case with a very short essay I wrote years ago after listening to a public radio program called This I Believe. Two years after submitting “Staying Close,” to the TIB website on a whim, the essay was published in This I Believe: On Love. Fast-forward to today, and the essay will be read (by yours truly) on both public and satellite radio the first weekend in February on The Bob Edwards Show. Dates and times listed below. The folks at This I Believe have just been incredible to work with, from the editing of the essay to its publication and now to its audio sharing, or to what I’m calling my “three minutes of fame.”

So if you have a moment, check out my essay, “Staying Close,” in one of four easy ways:

  •  Sirius/XM satellite radio: February 1st, “The Bob Edwards Show” as follows: XM 121/Sirius 204, at 8AM, 9AM, 10AM, 2PM and 8PM Eastern.
  • Sunday, February 3, on public radio “Bob Edwards Weekend” on your local NPR station. Hint: The This I Believe segment is near the end of the first hour.
  • Visit www.thisibelieve.org/essay/3816 to read the essay and/or listen to me read it.
  • Buy the book! It makes a great gift for anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and birthdays. Or treat yourself.

I also highly recommend This I Believe curriculum for teaching life-long learners how to write their own essays on a belief. My students who took this one hour workshop were surprised, delighted, and encouraged by what they and their classmates mined from their lives.

So, what do you believe?

This I Believe on love

The Next Big Thing

Recently, I was tagged in a blog-chain by my dear friend and fabulous writer Marilyn Bousquin.  Honestly, if Marilyn hadn’t been the one asking me to participate, I wouldn’t have.  And more’s the pity because I would have missed a great opportunity to really hone the idea for my book.  This has been a fascinating series of questions to ponder, one that not only made me think I was being interviewed by the New York Times, but also, and more seriously, led to not only the development of this blog site, (thank you Sarah Wells for the nudge!) but forced me to verbalize on the page my writing intent and focus.

Deep breath; here goes:

What is the title of your book?  I’ve changed the title more often than I’ve changed my socks.  I think I’m waiting for the perfect phrase to jump out at me, and, like the cliché about pornography, I will know it when I see it. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?   In a nutshell, my memoir is about a woman (me) who through her obsession with a painting by Caravaggio of a young castrato discovers healing of her own history of childhood sexual abuse.

Of course, it’s much more complicated and layered than that.

What genre does your book fall under?  Memoir, Trauma memoir. Lyrical memoir. Ekphrastic memoir.

Where did the idea come from for the book?  Actually, the idea emerged from my MFA thesis, The Undrowning, which chronicled (with uber-navel gazing, I might add) my history of childhood sexual abuse, the denial of it, followed by decades of silence, therapy, and the beginning of healing.  Included was a brief narrative about my obsession with a painting done by Caravaggio in the late 16th century of a castrato—a man who had been castrated as a boy in order to perfect a desired singing voice.  Interestingly enough, castrati of the 16th century had actually been the thesis topic for another master’s several years before the MFA came along.  The two topics came side by side in the MFA manuscript, and I began to really wonder how that happened.  Did I want to castrate my abuser?  The ‘aha’ moment came when I realized that I didn’t want to inflict pain one someone who had harmed me, but rather that both the castrato and I shared something in common over the centuries—we had both been sexually abused as children.  That’s the starting point of our connection that actually runs a lot deeper and ultimately leads to healing.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?  In some ways, I’m just now really starting to write the first draft, though I’ve been working on both manuscripts for over four years.  It seems as though the previous two theses were the rough drafts, allowing me to get down on paper what I needed to at those times, which included a lot of healing/therapy/drugs on my part.  With that out of the way, I now feel ready to tackle the entangling of two distinct, yet connected, story lines—the castrato’s and mine—his from a historical perspective, and mine from a personal one. 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?   The incredible Sonya Huber, my MFA thesis mentor.  After gallantly trudging through my manuscript and defense, she encouraged me (bless her heart!) to tell the story completely, to insist on including the castrato.  But I think I’m also writing it to encourage other victims of childhood sexual abuse—male and female—to search for their own story, their own truth, their own healing which can come to us through a variety of surprising means—including through paintings from the Renaissance.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  Not sure yet.  Of course, I’d be thrilled if a small press would be interested.  On the other hand, I’d also consider making the book available online with interactive links (like in Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point) so the art and photos could be viewed a click away, and the voice of a contemporary countertenor (the voice we currently have closest to the now-extinct castrato) could be heard.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?   If only looking at the ekphrastic component, I would compare it to Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters, or Patricia Hampl’s The Blue Arabesque, both beautiful works that delve far beneath the painted canvas, both works based on a writer’s obsession with paintings.  But if one would only consider the structure and style of my book, I’d have to compare it to Deborah Tall’s Family of Strangers, or Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping—short, short lyrical chapters based on memories, historical fact, art history, my imagination, or any combination of the above—juxtaposed to move the story forward, always forward. 

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?  I would love to be played by Meryl Streep.  But I’m not sure who might play the castrato because I think he should be played by a young Spanish actor, yet to be determined, whose singing voice would be dubbed in by Philippe Jaroussky, the phenomenal French countertenor.  Of course, if Jaroussky were interested…..wow.  That would be so incredibly cool.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  If you think that childhood sexual abuse within religious organizations is a phenomenon of only the 50 years, think again. The practice goes back centuries.

And now I tag:

Karen Donley-Hayes: Writer, essayist, horse lover.

Sonya Huber:  Writer, mentor, lovers of words.

Ruth Schwartz: Poet, shaman, writing coach, amazing cook.

Jen Kindbom: Poet, teacher, designer of cool purses.

If you’ve made it this far in this longer than normal blog post, let me know what your Next Big Thing might be. Your response doesn’t have to include all of the above questions, unless you want to.

Thanks for writing with me,


About The Wilderness Table

Some writers–well, maybe I’m the only one–feel the need for some ounce of accountability in their busy lives to stay focused on the writing project at hand.  The Wilderness Table is but one of the many means I’m going to stick with to achieve the end–a book-length memoir.  Here, I’ll post writerly things I find helpful, like tips and fabulous writing from other writers.  You know, like those moments when you read an essay you must share with someone.  Or, when you discover a craft tip that just makes your day.  But I also plan to post my own epiphanies, darkest moments, and progress on my memoir over the next year, or two, or fifteen. However long it takes.




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