Whose Story Is It?

I woke this morning with the perfect plot for my next book, though I’m not sure I can write it because it’s not my story. In the writing, it will become my story, of course, taking the characters in directions they wouldn’t go in real life, but the people involved in this would-be plot are the starting point, and one person already told me he didn’t want me to put him in book. Or maybe he said he didn’t want to be the villain. Or the victim. One of those. Then he sort of backtracked and said it didn’t matter, so I don’t know where I stand.

Even without his permission, I could still write the book and see what happens. If none of the characters are recognizable in the end, then it wouldn’t matter whose story I started out with in the beginning.

Figuring out who the story is about is one of the first steps to putting a book together. And in this new book, as in Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, the story would be mine and the main character me. Or not. Let’s just say a character named “Pat” with a penchant for hats, who might or might not be me, would be the narrator.

This fictional Pat would buy a house in a town where many people had lived their entire lives (some returning as older adults to the very house where they’d grown up). During renovations of the house and property, many small mysteries would arise. The house itself would be a character, the way it wraps itself around Pat and makes her feel at home, and conversely, the way a visitor was made to feel unwelcome by a ghost only the visitor could see. And the fellow who didn’t want to be in the book would be there in spirit if not in a fully-developed character because he’s the one who, in fixing the place, finds many of the puzzles.

It’s possible there would be enough with just the house and possible ghost to write a cozy mystery, leaving the harder-hitting story I thought of this morning for a later book, but I don’t have all the pieces to the ghost story yet.

And then there’s the additional matter of not having the push to write — getting the house and garage fixed, daily blogging, and attempting to get back into an exercise routine — takes up most of my available “push.” For now, I’ll let both stories stew in my brain pan and see if they coalesce into one cohesive whole or if they remain two different stories with many of the same characters.

The only books I’ve written since Jeff died were all grief infused, even the fiction. Some people thought the grief in Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare misplaced because it overshadowed some of the lightheartedness, but that’s what the narrator “Pat” was feeling at the time. Besides, I do find it ludicrous that so many mysteries and thrillers are steeped in countless deaths, and no one gives even a passing thought to the emotional toll.

It would be worth writing another book just to see where that “Pat” is now, and if her new-found peace shows up in the story.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

 

UNFINISHED

Amanda Ray thought she’d grow old with her pastor husband David, but death had other plans. During David’s long illness and his withdrawal from her, Amanda found solace in the virtual arms of Sam Priestly, a college professor she met at an online support group for cancer patient caregivers. Amanda thought that when their spouses were gone, she and Sam would find comfort in each other’s arms for real, but though David succumbed to the cancer that riddled his body, Sam’s wife, Vivian, survives. Vivian had been in the process of divorcing Sam when she fell ill, and after the diagnosis, Sam agreed to stay with her until the end. Since Sam plans to continue honoring his vow, Amanda feels doubly bereft, as if she is mourning two men.

Rocked by grief she could never have imagined, confused by her love for Sam and his desire for her to move near him, at odds with her only daughter, Amanda struggles to find a new focus for her suddenly unfinished life. As if that weren’t enough to contend with, while clearing out the parsonage for the next residents, Amanda discovers a gun among her devout husband’s belongings. Later, while following his wishes to burn his effects, she finds a photo of an unknown girl that resembles their daughter.

Having dedicated her life to David and his vocation, this evidence that her husband kept secrets from her devastates Amanda. If she doesn’t know who he was, how can she know who she is? Accompanied by grief and endless tears, Amanda sets out to discover answers to the many mysteries of her life: the truth of her husband, the enigmatic powers of love and loss, and the necessity of living in the face of death.

Although the feelings of grief Amanda experiences are based on my emotional journey during my first two months of profound grief, the story itself is fiction. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to deal with not only the loss of one’s mate, but the loss of the idea one had of one’s mate. Well . . . yes, I guess I can imagine how it would feel, because I wrote the novel! I hope you will read UNFINISHED. It’s an important book because too few fiction writers portray the truth of new grief, and that lack leaves the newly bereft feeling isolated and as if they are the only ones dealing with grief’s craziness.

You can you can purchase both a print version and Kindle version of UNFINISHED (published by Stairway Press) on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/1941071651/

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Being Centered

After Jeff died, I feared I would stagnate, so I tried to get into the habit of saying “yes” to invitations and to following people’s suggestions about things to do. This led me to many interesting activities, including a short road trip along Route 66, learning to shoot various guns, and many meals with friends. (Going against people’s suggestions also netted me interesting activities, such as my cross-country road trip. Many people warned me of the dangers and said I couldn’t go alone, but I could and I did.)

More recently, ever since I heeded the suggestion to buy a house in southeastern Colorado, I’ve again been saying a lot of yesses. These yesses, too, have let me to interesting activities, including a train ride through the Royal Gorge, artistic endeavors such as painting gourds and making wreaths, and many, many meals with friends.

During the ten days after Christmas, there were no activities, so I spent the time by myself. It felt good. Centered. As if I were pulling my life back into my life.

It felt especially good to be able to structure my days. A bit of writing in the morning, walking around noon when the sun had taken the chill off the winter air, making raw vegetable salads and other healthy things in the afternoon. And reading in the evening.

I am so often torn — being disciplined or treating myself; being alone or visiting with friends; being structured or acting spontaneously. Being centered helps to mend the tear, to find a balance between what I want to do and . . . well, what I want to do. I want to do all of it, because obviously, if I didn’t want to be disciplined, I wouldn’t even try. If I didn’t want to treat myself, I wouldn’t give in. If I didn’t want to be alone, I would add to my activities, if I didn’t want to be with people, I’d say “no” more often.

Daily blogging began the process of centering me. It’s both a discipline and a treat, a way of being alone and visiting, a way of being structured and spontaneous. Writing has always been important to me, and it’s good to have an excuse to indulge myself (though truly, one needs no excuse to write).

A center needs to be held loosely — if you hold on too tightly, the pressure can blow it apart. If you hold on too loosely, it turns in “a widening gyre” and the center cannot hold. Still, without doing any harm, I can certainly be more careful what I say yes to. I’ve backed away from one of the clubs I joined, will back away from some shared meals, and am backing into a healthier regime.

Oddly, I no longer fear I will stagnate. Perhaps what I called stagnation was simply being centered.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Think

Whenever someone in offline life tells me they read my blog, I find myself scrabbling around in my mind frantically trying to remember if I’d said something that could hurt them. If I think I might have, I review the blog and sigh in relief if whatever I’d said that seemed so vile turned out in retrospect to be rather mild. Only once did I hurriedly edit the piece to tone down a comment, though whatever I’d said had been the truth, just not necessarily kind.

I suppose I should think about such things before I write, or at least before I hit “publish,” and I generally do, but my posts reflect whatever happened to me or whatever I’d been thinking, and I get caught up in telling my story. Often my posts are emotionally driven. Even more often, the posts are moral-driven — not moral as in virtuous, but moral as in finding lessons in the little things, such as removing a potential hazard when I notice it rather than after it does its damage as I wrote in The Trip of a Lifetime.

An acronym for “think” is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind. Supposedly, before we say something, we need to T.H.I.N.K. To ask: is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind? If we stopped to remember all that, we probably would forget what we were saying in the first place, and for sure it would add an uncomfortable lull to the conversation (assuming that people would wait patiently for us to speak).

And the same goes for blogging. If I paused to reflect on every sentence I write, I would forget the next thing I planned to say since for me, blogging is strictly stream of consciousness: what I think ends up in the article. If I dam the stream, obviously nothing would come out.

But that whole THINK thing is only part of the issue of being connected online to people I know offline. Since most people who read my blog are people I don’t know, people I have never met in real life, or people I seldom see, I feel comfortable (or at least more comfortable) turning myself inside out than I do for people I see almost every day. No one wants to wear their heart on their sleeve (I had to stop here and look up that saying. It’s from Shakespeare. Othello.)

No one wants to feel exposed.

And yet . . .

Why not?

Those who would be most likely to peck at my poor exposed heart are those who wouldn’t be reading what I wrote anyway. Besides, if everyone wrote a blog from the heart every day, life would be so much easier since we would know what the people around us are really thinking.

The great benefit of my writing without always second guessing myself or doing too much thinking is that every once in a great while I end up writing something inspiring. And being able to inspire someone is worth any discomfort that might come from being so exposed.

I hope it’s also worth any hurt feelings I might inadvertently engender.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Powdered Coffee Creamer? Eek!

I always thought the danger in powdered coffee creamer was in the ingredients, such as partially hydrogenated oil, cottonseed oil, high fructose corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, dipotassium phosphate, and other unpronounceables, but in a novel I am reading, the cop asked the character if she was armed, and she said “I have coffee creamer.” The cop just stared at her, and the character said, “Look it up.”

I don’t know if the cop Googled “powdered non-dairy coffee creamer self-defense,” but I sure did. And guess what? This kind of creamer can be used as a weapon. In fact, it’s banned in many prisons for that very reason. If someone doesn’t have the supplies to make a flame thrower to direct the flaming coffee creamer, such as PVC pipe, end caps, pressure gauges, air hoses, couplers and a whole bunch of other things cheaply and readily available at the hardware store, all you have to do is throw a handful of the powder in the air and light it. Oh, my!

Powdered non-dairy coffee creamer is used by hikers and campers to start a fire. They use less than a teaspoon, let one spark hit it, and it will stay lit longer than a match. Of course, you have to be careful. If you accidentally lit the whole container, you’d end up with a fireball. (Here’s a video from mythbusters showing the firepower of a whole lot of creamer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRw4ZRqmxOc&feature=related.

I doubt such a weapon would be much of a deterrent since not that many people would know to be afraid of coffee creamers (though now I am!). “Stop or I’ll creamer you,” doesn’t have the same impact as “Stop or I’ll shoot.” Besides, by the time you threw the coffee creamer at the assailant and thumbed a lighter, you could be dead, either from a bullet or from an ill-fated wind sending the creamer bomb back to you. Still, it’s an interesting idea to store away for some future book.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Horseracing Scandal

I’ve been trying (still!) to figure out the mystery for the murder mystery dinner. Apparently, sometime back in the 1920s, there was some sort of racehorse scandal around here, which I thought would be a fun basis for the mystery, but so far no one has been able to find the details, so I need to make them up.

The trouble is, I know nothing about horseracing (except what I’ve read in Dick Francis’s books). I do know that women wear fancy hats for the Kentucky Derby, though I don’t know why. (My research shows that no one else really knows why or how the Kentucky Derby hat craze started, either, though it could be because a Derby is also a hat and they extrapolated from that, or it could be that southern belles and society ladies wore hats to the Derby, and when television showed the hatted women to the world, others wanted to join in.)

Despite the hat/horseracing connection, my mystery won’t have anything to do with hats except that both actors and guests are dressing up in 1920s attire for the dinner, and hats were one of the definitive cultural aspects of the era.

Rural horseracing would probably be different than at the big tracks, but I don’t know that it would matter except that the jockey’s might be easier to get to in the smaller venues, which would add to the mystery.

I think it would be fun to have so many different people try to fix the race in question that it will be the slowest race in history, with every jockey trying to lose, but I’m afraid such a scenario might get too complicated for a mystery dinner. But maybe not. We have about a dozen people lined up who want to have parts, and we will be assigning roles to anyone else who wants to play, though most of those roles will be along the lines of having them to talk about their big winnings or maybe their bigger losses at the track.

Although the dinner won’t take place until February, the story needs to be done sooner so that plans can be made. Which means, I’m down to just a week to figure it all out. I suppose if it’s too complicated, the other members of the art guild (the group that’s putting on the dinner) will help me sort it out, but they can’t sort it out if I don’t have anything to present.

It sounds like I just talked myself into going with the complicated scenario.

Luckily, I don’t have to write a novel, just the scenario, a few conversations, a few instructions, and then it will be done. So simple!

Except for the part about sitting down and actually writing it.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Appreciation

A local woman’s snowman collection is being featured at the historical museum. There are hundreds of the creatures, all kinds and sizes (though none made of real snow).

I don’t have anywhere near as many snowmen as she did, but I do have a very small collection of my own. Though I have no particular interest in snowfolk, things do tend to accumulate.

This is an ornament I did in a porcelain painting class. The subject matter was chosen by the teacher, probably because a snowman is a fairly easy subject for beginners:

This is a wooden wall decoration made for me by one of my new friends:

This is a gift card a friend sent to me couple of years ago, that I thought was clever.

And then there are these two five-inch-tall snowfolk who apparently think they are on an island adventure.

I wouldn’t even have those last two except for Jeff. Although they took me forever to make (each hand-sewn body consists of eight pieces, plus another eight for hands and feet), I wasn’t impressed, and intended to get rid of them, but Jeff wouldn’t let me. He liked most of what I made, and if I did throw something away, he always rescued it. These two snowfolk adorned his desk for many years, and at the end of his life, when he told me what he wanted me to do with his “effects,” he requested that I keep them. (In fact, most of the things he asked me to keep were things I had made.)

I realize I am not bound by any promises to the dead, but it’s such a little thing Jeff asked for, and though I still don’t particularly like these little guys, they remind me of him. He was such an appreciator, not just of my things, but of anything of artistic merit.

Jeff was the sort of person movie directors hope would watch their movies, would understand their vision and appreciate all the nuances that went into creating that vision. He’d study the backgrounds and settings, special lighting effects, the subtleties that most people (including me) would miss. It wasn’t just movies — he appreciated music, books, even comic strips. When we got Calvin and Hobbes books, I’d scan through them, reading the words, enjoying the jokes, and was done in a jiffy, but he studied every line of every panel, sometimes taking as long to read/appreciate one strip as it took me to read the whole book.

Most of the things I kept of his are packed away, but I dug out the two island hoppers for this latest installment of my Christmas show and tell.

Now I’m sitting here, staring at the computer screen, tears in my eyes, wishing for . . . I don’t know. Maybe one more of his appreciative smiles. But whatever it is I want, it’s something I can’t have.

What I do have are things. And kept promises.

And a greater appreciation for my small collection of snowmen.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Oops

Oops. I’d completely forgotten I was supposed to be writing a 1920s murder mystery for a dinner in February, and it needs to be done by the middle of January.

When I agreed to do write the mystery, I had plenty of time, but I frittered that time away on . . . well, on living. So now I’m trying to catch up.

I sort of have an idea of who will be the victim, who the killer is. I know where all this takes place: one night at a speakeasy. I know an Italian dinner will be served. I know there will be a representation of at least some of the iconic elements of that 100-year-old decade besides the speakeasy: jazz, gangsters, flappers. Other than that, I haven’t a clue how to go about concocting such a mystery. Obviously, the first part of the dinner is about laying the background for the characters and why someone wanted to do the dastardly deed. Then, even more obviously, there needs to be a dead body. And finally, at the end, there needs to be a way for everyone to figure out who did it.

I’m not sure how to lay the clues. Or what the clues should be. I could write this as a mystery story, and then extrapolate the guessing game from that, but considering how long it takes me to write fiction, it might not be done until next year, especially since they want it to be funny, and funny takes longer.

Still, that’s not a bad idea, writing the mystery as a story. Once I have the whole story, I could possibly work backward. More importantly, it would give me bits of dialogue to hand out to guests, because it’s hard to tell people what they need to be saying if I don’t know.

All done in less than a month? With Christmas coming? Yikes!

Maybe I can start tomorrow. But no, I am helping with a fundraiser at the museum. Maybe Monday? But Monday I am going to the big city (or what passes for a big city in these parts) with a friend who has a doctor appointment. Maybe Tuesday? But Tuesday, I am going to a meeting to help brainstorm ideas for AARPs Livable Communities program.

It’s beginning to look as if the mystery will have to write itself.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

 

Writing is a Super Power

Last night, I gave a brief speech to the seventh graders essay winners, though as it turned out, there were way more family members than there were school kids, so as I talked, I had to adjust what I was saying to address everyone. The following is as close as I can recall to what I actually said:

When I was asked to talk to you about the importance of writing, I immediately sat down and began writing. I listed all the ways writing was important, then I asked my writer friends what they thought was important.

I condensed all of that down into a few points I thought might be of interest. I’d geared this talk to the essayists, but what I have to say applies to everyone. I was going to try to memorize what I wanted to say, but then I realized [I waved my page of notes] what I have here is an example of writing and why it’s important. Writing helps us condense our thoughts and helping us remember. But writing is more than that. 

I’m sure all of you have read stories or seen movies about wizards and magic, super heroes and super powers and have wished you could have a super power too. Well, you do have a super power. Writing might not be as dramatic as poofing someone or something to change them, and it’s much slower, but what we write can change people, events, the world, and ourselves.

Writing is magic. At its core, writing is the ability to transform thoughts, ideas, and emotions into to written word. It takes what is in your mind and allows other people to experience a part of you.

When we talk of writing, we often mean writing stories, writing to entertain people.

To a large extent, what makes us human, what connects us to one another, is our ability to tell a story. A joke is a story. What you tell your friends or your parents about your day is a story. Something you post about yourself online is a story. An advertisement is a story — it tells a story of what your life will be like if you buy that product.

Your essays told a story.

Writing isn’t only about telling stories. It’s about us. About life. About communicating with one another and even with ourselves.

Some of you are going through changes in your lives. You might be experiencing more than you can explain using an emoticon. You can be happy and sad, angry and confused, all at the same time. Sometimes you won’t know how you feel. But writing what you are feeling can help you understand what you are going through, and that will help you to deal with it.

On a broader level, writing is an essential life skill. It is the primary basis upon which you and your work will be judged—in school, in a job, and in the community. If you write well, you can communicate well. If you can communicate well, you can succeed.

Writing is at the center of everything we modern humans do. Language is part of our DNA. It is part of our birthright as human beings. Whenever you write, whatever you write — a story, a diary entry, a post on the internet, an essay, you are engaging in a form of wizardry using letters and words.

And that’s your super power.

Thank you.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Small World

I noticed in the local weather forecast, that one day the winds would come from the north, the next day from the south, the next from the west, and it got me curious about what all those winds mean. After an hour or so, I’m still not sure. Too much of the information seemed roundabout and obfuscating, such as “the north wind blows from the north.” Despite this, I have gleaned enough to guess that the north wind brings cold, the south wind brings dampness, and the west wind brings dryness. These guesses might not be correct, but I got tired of researching a rather meaningless topic — after all, the wind will blow when and where it wants, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. As long as it’s not huffing and puffing enough to blow my house down or my roof off, it doesn’t really matter.

During the course of this hunt, I stumbled across something that amused me:

Sanandaj, Iran (7,028 miles away); Shāhreẕā, Iran (7,343 miles); and Alik Ghund, Pakistan (7,671 miles) are the far-away foreign places with temperatures most similar to the town where I am living.

In the annals of vital information, that has to be far down the list of importance, much further down even than wind direction.

Does knowing this get me anything besides amusement? To a degree, yes. It ties the world together in a way I hadn’t expected. Those towns I had never heard of, those townspeople I could never in my life have even imagined, are experiencing same weather today that I am.

Apparently, it is a small world after all.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.