Sunday, October 21, 2012

Another Stumble, Another Step

I love to write.
In case that wasn't obvious.

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend a writer's conference called WriteAngles at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. It was my second time at the conference and I was not disappointed. It is such a high for me to be surrounded by so many writers and readers. I love the energy. I love the opportunity to learn. I love the fact that I get to step outside of the isolation that I sometimes experience as a writer and instead be able to engage with those who share my passion. 

I had a lot of physical challenges facing me going into the conference this year which is partly why I have not been blogging as frequently. My Sjogren's symptoms kicked into high gear a few weeks ago and this resulted in a significant increase in doctor's appointments and major changes in medications; not to mention feeling like hell due to pain, fatigue, and issues with my eyes. It has probably been one of the worst flare ups I have experienced in my illness since its onset four years ago.

This wasn't just an opportunity to attend a writer's conference though. I also had a ten minute, one on one meeting scheduled with a literary agent at this event yesterday. It was an opportunity I had known about back in December of last year when I started writing my book Tales From The Dry Side: The Personal Stories Behind The Autoimmune Illness Sjogren's Syndrome. I made sure that I signed up for the conference the day registration opened up in order to ensure one of those coveted agent meeting slots. I spent weeks learning how to write a good query letter. I researched how to do a book proposal in case one was required for my particular book. While sitting in doctor's waiting rooms over the past few weeks, I would be emailing back and forth with other story contributors for the book in order to get the manuscript complete.

Now I had never been to one of these meeting before, but the impression I got from the person coordinating the meetings and from doing a bit of research online, it seemed like the purpose was to review your query letter, discuss your book and have the opportunity to ask questions. I was not expecting to walk out of that meeting with a literary agent. Not because I don't have confidence in this book. I do. But because I knew that it was my first time at the rodeo so to speak. This was more of an opportunity to introduce my work and if I was really lucky, maybe spark the agent's interest. I was expecting to get some valuable feedback about my book and learn something to help me figure out the next step in getting this very important book to the next level.

By the grace of God, my symptoms started to settle down forty-eight hours before the conference. The day before the conference I was by no means back to the physical state I was in a month ago, but I was definitely able to get myself to Mount Holyoke College, which is twenty minutes from my home. I thought I could manage going eight hours without pain medication and then hopefully be able to focus, function, and act intelligently for eight full hours; without a nap or rest period. I would probably require at least several days to recover from the experience. My medical needs had increased over the past two weeks and I meticulously planned my medications, eye drops, inhalers, and water needs (due to extreme dryness from Sjogren's) around the conference schedule. My writing bag was packed, accompanied by my medical supplements. I had researched my agent. I knew what I was going to say.

I was ready.
I was excited.
Game on.

Thirteen hours before I am to leave my house, it is seven o'clock in the evening and the phone rings. I see the caller ID and the name of the person coordinating the agent meetings flashes at me from the phone, daring for me to answer. I knew. I just knew. I get through the conversation, barely.

The agent I was supposed to meet with was sick and all of his meetings had been cancelled.

Some people would stop reading here and say OK, so what? It was just a ten minute meeting. Send the query letter to another agent. Or maybe he will read the letters at another time and then get in touch with you when he is feeling better. But in those moments following the motion of hanging up the phone, all I could feel was profound disappointment. All I could think of were the hours I had spent in bed, while so sick, writing this book. The obstacles I had overcome to even be able to get to this point with the book. The disappointment I felt over not having the experience of meeting with an agent.

And within minutes, the negative thoughts were gone.

He was sick.
I know about sick.
I know about not having control. This was out of my control. What was in my control was how I was going to handle it.

I changed my mindset. This agent, on this day, was obviously not the path for me or this book right now. I decided to keep faith and move forward. I was still able to go to the conference. I was still going to be able to meet and enjoy the company of other authors and learn more about my craft. I was going to have the opportunity to immerse myself in the literary world that I have come to love so much.

And so that is what I did. I met new people. I learned new things.The speakers were tremendous. I was especially touched by the keynote speakers Maria Luisa Arroyo and Ann Hood. Both of their stories touched me in a way that few ever have. Both made me cry. In both of them, I saw what it was like to have the soul of a writer and how a writer can effectively use their life experiences to make a dramatic impact on the lives of others.

I am sitting in the second morning panel session called Going Beyond the Personal in the Personal Memoir. It is 11:53. I know this because a woman comes into the conference room with a clipboard. She announces that she is looking for the following three people who will, due to a variety of reasons, unexpectedly have an agent's meeting after all on that day. They are to go upstairs at noon. I sit there and remind myself that there had to be at least ten plus people who had their original meetings cancelled. It will not be me.

She speaks.
I am name number three.

The chain of events that followed after that felt frantic to me. I am not the most spontaneous person in the world. I did not know which agent I was meeting with and she had not had the opportunity to even read my query letter until I sat down in front of her. I remember telling myself to breathe and relax so I could make the most of the experience.

It was a much bigger experience than I imagined. She thought the query was really good and that a publisher would pick up the book. What? My book? We discussed what the next steps would be. Then she is telling me to submit the query letter to her at the agency with a book proposal. Excuse me? I am the one who came here with a cancelled agent's meeting and now you are requesting a book proposal?

THIS was how it was supposed to unfold.

I don't know what is going to happen. I may submit the proposal and it will be rejected. I may submit it and it will be accepted. What I do know with absolute certainty is that no matter what, my book and I will travel our path together until we have reached our destination; wherever that may be.

Photo Courtesy of Google Images

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Peace Be With You

"Peace is not something you wish for, it is something you make, something you are, something you do, and something you give away. ” ~ Robert Fulghum

On the first Sunday of the month, which is Communion Sunday, we pass the peace in my church. This is a common practice in many Christian churches although the way it takes places can differ from church to church and denomination to denomination. When I was growing up in the Catholic church, this was a process in which we would turn to the people to the sides of us, behind us and in front of us and say "peace be with you" and shake their hand. If the person was family, maybe we would hug or kiss them as well.

In my current Protestant church, the passing of the peace is a more gregarious affair. Depending on how familiar we are with the person, we either shake their hand or hug them. There is a lot more hugging, or rather embracing, than hand shaking compared to most other churches; at least ones that I have attended. We either say "peace", "peace be with you", "hi, how are you", or whatever else feels appropriate. People rarely stay in their pews and they wander all over the place. It is truly an exchange of peace and good will in a Christian community of people. It is one of my favorite times of the month at my church.

Today I was passing the peace to a family my fiance and I have been spending some time with lately outside of Sunday service. The family consists of a grandmother and her four grandchildren. As I let go of the oldest child's hand after wishing him peace, he said to me, "Chris, what does peace mean?"

Leave it to a ten year old to throw me off balance.
Such a simple, yet profound question.

Of course, this entire passing of the peace at church takes all of about five to ten minutes so I didn't have time, at that moment, to sit down and discuss it with him but I simply said that peace meant calmness. It was really all I could think of as a response at that moment. I am not sure if he understood exactly what my response meant in the midst of of the flurry of peace passing activity, but that is a conversation that we can have more in depth at another time.

It got me to thinking though. Don't we all know what peace is or the meaning of the word peace? I mean seriously, isn't it obvious? If you look in any commonly used dictionary, you will see several different definitions for the word peace. You know what I think though? I think that most of the time, peace means something different for each of us. I think the paths we take to get to that state of peace is also different for each of us.

To that ten year old child, peace may mean having the comfort and security of a grandmother who tucks him in at night and loves him unconditionally. Peace for him may mean knowing who the adults are in his life that he can count on. Maybe it means to him knowing that as he grows older, he has a church community that is a home to him no matter what obstacles life hurls at him.

For me, peace means many things and takes on several different forms. It is a state of mind, of spirit, and of soul. Peace is when my spirit is full or when my mind is calm. The best is when both happen at the same time. A difficult thing for me, or anyone for that matter, to achieve these days. Peace is also when my body, soul and spirit are at peace with whatever havoc may be going on physically with my body at any given moment. A very difficult task to accomplish indeed.

Many people say that peace is being in harmony with other people. To me, that is not always the case because I have come to find that I have no control over other people, how they think about me, and especially what they do. So my peace, or harmony, comes from realizing this and also in realizing that the only person I have any control over is myself. Therefore when I think and act in a way that is true to myself, I am at peace.

I am at peace when I am able to pull myself out of the stress and anxiety of the misfortunes that life may throw at me and am instead able to appreciate what are considered the small things in life such as the feeling of my dog's breathing as she sleeps quietly with her head on my chest. Or maybe the serenity of being in my house on a fall afternoon when the sun streams through the large glass windows and the loudest sound I hear is the birds playing outside on the deck.

I find peace with myself when I am able to not be preoccupied with the "what ifs" and the" I can't" thoughts that often invade my brain. When I am able to put the negative thoughts away and instead replace them with positive thoughts and the thought that the only limitations I have are those that I put upon myself.

Peace with myself is when I accept myself as I am right now, right at this moment.

Just as importantly, peace is something that we can give to someone else. It can be simple and cost us nothing. When we extend ourselves and our love to another human being in an act of giving or generosity, we give peace. It may be in the form of a meal or a phone call. A listening ear or our time. In some way, when we ease someone else's burden, we give another person some peace of mind.

Giving peace to another person may come in the form of not judging them and accepting them for who they are in their moment. No questions. No criticisms. Just love. So that they may feel free to feel less stress and anxiety; to be at peace with where they are in their life journey.

So maybe my answer to my ten year old friend was accurate after all.

Peace IS calmness.

Of mind.
Of body.
Of soul.
Of spirit.

Where do you find YOUR peace?

Photo: Courtesy of Chuck Myers (