All posts by Sheila

Giving Voice to My Book

WarriorMotherAudioIt’s finally happened! The audio version of my book Warrior Mother is available on Amazon and Audible. The links to find it are at the end of this post.But let me tell you the back-story on how this came about.

As a writer I’ve heard a lot about literary voice, especially from my writers’ group. In breaking me of habits I acquired writing as a professor in academia, and since I was writing a memoir, they would often say, “we want to hear you on the page.”

Voice is the style or personality of the author showing through the words and phrases. Since as a dancer my first language is movement, the transition to using only written words to tell my tales was not a swift or graceful one. It took longer than I expected to perfect my writing skills to do justice to the story I was attempting to tell. I did succeed to my own satisfaction eventually and Warrior Mother received book awards and positive reviews from readers and professionals alike. I come up with a way to Perform the Book that merged both verbal and non-verbal language with help from my improv troupe and others around the country. This became an especially satisfying way to share the book. http://sheilakcollins.com/services/performances/

But almost from the beginning I felt a strong urge to tell the Warrior Mother story in the audio book format. Here I could use my actual voice to communicate through tone, rhythm, and pace, the passion I felt for my subject. I received encouragement from people who know about such things that, since the story is my story and I have a decent voice, and some experience in theater, reading my own work would be recommended. Conversely if your book is a novel or mystery story that involves many characters with various accents, it’s best to hire a professional actor.

audio.recording.studiojpgAbout a year ago, I set out to narrate Warrior Mother. My closet became my sound studio. I connected with a talented sound specialist who had the know how, the equipment needed, and the patience to deal with my somewhat unruly dog Cody. In order to keep him from barking and messing up the sound track Cody had to sit beside the technician, all the while appearing fascinated by his every move.

I’ve received my first audio book review from a woman who knows a great deal about books since her profession is to help people write their books. Here is what Bonnie C. Budzowski wrote to me, Your book is truly beautiful, and the quality of the audio is excellent. Listening to your own voice telling your story enhanced my experience.”

The process of narrating my book has been most satisfying. I’m not sure I can articulate it yet, but it has changed me in a different way then writing the story changed me. And it definitely has changed my writing – increasing my attention to pacing and rhythm, and tone, and yes, literary voice.

https://www.audible.com/pd/Bios-Memoirs/Warrior-Mother-Audiobook/B074KPS1TQ?ref_=a_newreleas_c2_19_t

https://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Mother-Fierce-Unbearable-Rituals/dp/B074KPXQSN/ref=tmm_aud_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr

Vacations and Holidays

IMG_3739“What is the purpose of your visit?” the English customs officer asked as we approached his window 20 plus years ago on our first visit to Europe. “We’re on vacation,” we said.

“Oh, on holiday,” he corrected us. I’m not sure I know the difference between the two even now, but  these last couple of weeks I’ve definitely been away from my regular life. Traveling with my husband to several Scandinavian countries we’ve taken a cruise up the coast of Norway and into the fjords, and flown and driven to visit our grandson who is playing soccer this summer in Sweden. That reality was the inspiration for the whole trip.

It sounds easier than it is, to cease and desist working. My “To Do” lists are quite long and there are always multiple projects in various stages of development. When the clock and calendar indicate that I must let them go and pick them up when I return in two weeks, it’s definitely a challenge. I took some files with me, just in case there would be moments to mix some business with pleasure but it’s lucky I didn’t count on this happening. When I felt the energy to reconnect with my work life, the travel schedule or access to technology didn’t cooperate.

The travel brochures don’t mention it but with a six-hour time difference, jet lag is a real thing. We arrived in Copenhagen at 7 am their time, 2 am for us. We disembarked, and in our middle of the night stupor, found the train station, figured out how to buy tickets, where to get off, and which direction to walk to find our hotel. We had only one small mishap, leaving a borrowed tote bag in the overhead storage of the plane. We realized it just after going through customs but this mistake turned into one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We reported our difficulty to the information desk at the airport and they called the gate. The next thing we knew a young man from behind the information counter was on his bicycle traveling through the terminal on our behalf. He returned in lessthan 10 minutes with our reclaimed bag.

boy on bike

My visit to parts of Denmark, Norway and Sweden was greatly enhanced by intermittently dipping into a book recommended by a Pittsburgh friend who had just returned from the region. British author, Michael Booth’s “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” explored the notion that on multiple self report measures, people in these countries turn out to be the happiest in the world. As Booth paraphrased Lady Bracknell, “to win one happiness survey may be regarded as good fortune, to win virtually every one since 1973 is convincing grounds for a definitive anthropological thesis.”

Moving through small villages and medium and large towns I found evidence for much of what Booth was pointing out from his experiences living and interviewing people in each of the countries. In spite of punishing weather, extremely high taxes, and an uninspired diet of fish, sweet rolls, and beer, Scandinavians find happiness supporting one another socially and financially from cradle to grave, taking frequent time away from work, recreating on weekends with family members at summer cottages, respecting, protecting, and staying close to nature, and honoring and practicing ancient and modern art forms.

In visiting the historical amusement park, Tivoli in the center of Copenhagen, we found it outfitted with features for people of all ages. Besides the modern amusement rides for kids and teenagers, there were beautiful gardens, restaurants and an amusing, artfully costumed ballet performance of Cinderella that had me laughing out loud.

We visited the inland city of Orebro, the 115,000 person Swedish town where my grandson is living. Instead of finding a dull backwater town as I had expected, I was delighted by a vibrant city, awash in art instillations in every nook and cranny of the city as they celebrated their 6th annual OpenArt Festival. http://openart.se/2017/en/about-openart/

The primacy and beauty of design in modern architecture had me photographing container buildings, green roofs, and intricate tile surfaces – even the enormous waste composting plant on the waterfront in Copenhagen. Instead of being an eyesore on the riverbank, when completed it will be covered with green vines in the summer and an active ski slope in the winter.IMG_3719

As traveling often does, I found myself making comparisons to my home country. The nearly religious fervor for protecting the environment in the three Nordic countries we visited had me feeling embarrassed to say I live in the U.S. The large middle class, and the lack of extreme poverty in these counties reminded me of a former time in the U.S. when our country felt “great “ to more of our citizens. I’m betting that the state of happiness in these countries is affected by their emphasis on gender equality, consensus building, and looking out for the common good, all values that I personally hold dear. I’m not ready to move to Scandinavia, but I’d love it if we could imitate more of what they do.

 

Retirement or ReFIREment?

Manta_1_800x600Her full-bodied smile gave her secret away to anyone astute enough to notice. As the calendar and clock ticked away the last hours of the job that had consumed the last 17 years of her work life, her step seemed lighter, her eyes brighter. Things had happened so suddenly, there hadn’t been time to fret over the details. One phone call, “yes, we’d love to have you give more time to our organization.” A visit to HR to confirm she could take her benefits with her, and her new life in “retirement” began, at least in her mind’s eye.

As an elder, born slightly ahead of the baby boomer generation, I’ve faced the need to navigate more than one transition from a familiar work life of many years to…something else. Whether an employer no longer needed my services, or I left a position and moved to another city as a trailing spouse, or I resigned to help my daughter take care of her children as she went through treatment for breast cancer – after each incident it seemed a “second” or “third act,” in my career life or, a label I prefer – another refirement.

Retirement hasn’t been around that long, just since the middle of the last century when longer life expectancy met the increased benefits corporations and social security provided to a white male industrial work force physically worn out by the age of 65.

For most people, then and now, retirement has never been a practical reality. Low salaries and lack of benefits during their most productive work years disallowed the accumulation of the nest egg necessary to leave paid employment completely. Since the decline of the single job career life, and the recession that began in 2008, many middle class workers now can only think of a “semi- retirement” that leaves plenty of time for paid work for necessities like housing, food, and health care. Hopefully, this model can still includes more time for personal relaxation and enjoyment of family and friends.

Refirement, an even newer concept, involves thinking of a “second or third act” for the energy that has been consumed in one’s work life. According to James V. Gambone, a major proponent refirement means being guiding by one’s values and passions, to create a life-style of work, play and renewal. Refirement can include, in addition to paid work, reinvesting in a hobby, learning new skills, connecting purposefully to the younger generation, and contributing to projects for the common good.

In the mid 70s my engineer father accepted his company’s offer, after 40 some years, to retire a year earlier than he’d expected. When his company was merging with another, they offered more money to stay home than to come to work. Fortunately he’d had the good example of his uncle whose model of a long retirement might be an example of what we now call refirement.

Uncle Lloyd retired from Bell Labs at age 50 and lived a vibrant life until his death at 90. His retirement, which turned out to be longer than his working life, didn’t involve golf or boating, or traveling to distant exotic places. And no bridge or shuffleboard in a 50s+ retirement community either. He and Aunt Bertha spent summers in their New Jersey home and winters in a small farmhouse in Florida. His busy active 40-year retirement consisted of doing each day whatever his passionate interests inspired. Travel was to reconnect with and visit family. His creativity was exercised in his extensively outfitted basement workshop, his curiosity satisfied at neighborhood swap meets and his legacy insured by mentoring his nephews like my father.

IMG_3601Last night our improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed a Retirement/Refirement Ritual to help our friend Lynn with her career transition. We shared stories of her strengths and appreciations for her gifts, many achieved during her past career life. We helped her identify what she wanted to leave behind as people who had been through it told of what they haven’t missed from their previous careers. To represent what she didn’t want to bring along to her new life, the community helped her place her old business cards into a fire. We shared our hopes and dreams for her joyous new life by dancing and blowing bubbles on her behalf. Perhaps it was a good omen that the bubbles remained intact on the wet ground for a considerably long time. I heard rumors that her breakfast this morning was left over rum cake and blueberries. Sounds like the fun has already begun.

The Art of Grieving: When Parting Becomes Sweet Sorrow

Candle-burning-in-hands-in-the-darkEarly morning on the Summer Solstice, twenty years ago, my 31-year old son, Kenneth died of AIDS. This fact has insured that I would never forget the anniversary of his crossing and always be reminded of the gift of his life.

There was heartbreaking loss and blessed relief in those final hours. When the path to recovery and a longer life is no longer possible, death becomes the desired goal – the end to pain and suffering for our loved ones and for ourselves. And then begins the long journey of grief and bereavement as we continue on without them. I didn’t know then that my loss would eventually become a resource for my life, a spark of sweet sorrow where remembering would be a way to continue my love for Ken and to give his life meaning in the larger world.

  • Do you have stories of lessons learned from someone no longer with you?
  • Have you found special ways to honor a loved one now deceased?
  • What reminds you of your deceased loved one and how do you respond when that occurs?
  • Are you aware of ways you can extend your loved one’s legacy beyond their lifetime?

Ken’s 3½-year journey living with the disease had meant managing the fear and pain of a death-defying challenge and the social stigma and resulting isolation necessary at that time to live life as fully as possible. “Do not tell anyone,” he was told by the AIDS Outreach Center, “even your best friend, if you want to keep your job.”

Ken and Samantha300Experimenting with medication trials and ways to manage their side effects, Ken bravely continued to life the life he wanted for himself. He called on skills learned in his theater career to help him put aide the discomforts and difficulties and step into his life’s stage in the role of a healthy person. His doctor called his strategy “healthy denial.” It was not a denial of the fact of having a serious disease, but of its inevitable outcome. Ken repeated often to himself, “My main focus is to take really good care of myself so I’ll be here when the cure arrives.”

The cure is still not here. In spite of the great strides made for AIDS to become a chronic disease people can live with – people must know they have the disease and must have access to the newer medications. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV today, and 1 in 7 of them don’t know it. An estimated 37,600 Americans became newly infected in 2014.

Some years I celebrate Ken’s anniversary by finding ways to call attention to and educate young people about the facts of HIV/AIDS. One year, my improv troupe Wing & a Prayer Pittsburgh Players used the singing, dancing, storytelling improv art-based system of InterPlay to introduce teens to Ken’s story in the program Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS.

http://www.educatingteens.org/mission.html

I knew what Ken would say to them if he had the opportunity and using his voice I got their attention. I figure, preventing even one person a year from getting AIDS is a great way to remember Ken. It feels good to know that something I’ve done on behalf of Ken’s memory may have contributed to the fact that, in the U.S, there are fewer new cases. From 2005 to 2014, the estimated number of annual HIV infections in the U.S. declined 18%.

Taking To The Streets

Last Friday when I was visiting New York City to celebrate a cousin’s wedding I googled “Things to do this weekend.” Two large-scale street events with themes relevant to my life popped up. The 11th Annual Dance Parade was being held Saturday from 1 – 3 pm. Approximately 10,000 dancers would be dancing down Broadway from 21st Street to Tompkins Square Park in the Village. IMG_3365One hundred and sixty seven groups demonstrating Salsa, Hip-hop, Tap, Ballroom, African, Bolivian, Indian, Chinese, Jazz, and Flamingo – in short, every kind of dance imaginable, organized the event.

Sunday morning AIDS Walk New York was happening through the streets of Central Park – the largest event to protect public health and support people living with HIV/AIDS. Versions of both of these events are held in other cities across the country but the NY versions are likely the biggest and the best.

As a life-long dancer, few things are more rewarding for me than to dance, witness dance and celebrate dance. I welcome any occasion to dance, and I love being inspired and challenged by different types of dance. I know through my own experience and through my studies the gifts that dance brings to our physical health and well being, to our brains and memories, our emotions and our spirits. Though scientific research is currently documenting these benefits, they are not widely known and appreciated in western culture as yet. So a parade and festival are a great way to go. I loved dancing along the sidelines as I snapped pictures of the beautifully costumed people of various sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities, as they demonstrated their cultures and the dances that enliven and invigorate them.

IMG_3420The AIDS Walk opportunity was especially meaningful to me because I had just told one of my friends that the 20th anniversary of my son Ken’s death from AIDS is coming up next month. ”I’d love to find some special way to honor him,” I told her. So here it was, a chance to support a cause that mattered a great deal to Ken and our family. I found my way to the park and the sign-in table after a challenging ride on a under construction NY subway, to seize the opportunity to stand and walk with others who care about this important issue. I felt I had found my tribe; people who have lost friends and family members to the disease, who are living with or know people living with the disease, and whose fondest wish is to insure that no one else need suffer from it.

As I joined into the stream of hundreds of other tee-shirted walkers, clustered in occupational and church affiliated groups, I thought about the power of taking our concerns to the streets. How rewarding it is to enter a group body that is walking on behalf of what we care about and how we want our world to be. I was reminded of a ritual practice and chant I learned from some first nation people, “Every step a prayer.”

Given the strong connection I have to each of these themes, I was amazed that they were both being held the particular weekend of my short visit. When I told one of my husband’s relatives about this she smiled and mentioned a Yiddish word. It’s meaning – “it was meant to be.”

Thank You Sheryl

Sandberg2016-05-16t12-09-26-766z--1280x720.nbcnews-ux-1080-600Stalled at the Pittsburgh airport while the airline tried to locate a part for our plane last week, I had time to peruse the magazine racks. And there it was, on the cover of Time magazine, Sheryl Sandberg’s image and the message, “Let’s talk about grief.”

YES, I said enthusiastically to myself, inhibiting the desire to make a fist in the air and bring it down in a firm gesture of agreement, like the ringing of a chime. It’s about time we spoke out loud the name of the elephant that is in the middle of our social gathering places – our offices, churches, ladies luncheons, schools, and corporate conferences. Anywhere we gather, at least half of us are most likely in the middle of experiencing a major loss and yet a conspiracy of silence keeps us isolated from getting and giving the support we need.

I learned about this when I lost my 31 year old son to AIDS and later, my 42 year old daughter to breast cancer. Being a therapist I decided to write a book about our family’s experiences and the role that support from our community played in our handling these challenges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y12Wj06_nAI

My hope was that writing and talking about what we experienced would help me and reading our stories would help others deal with their losses. I developed a format to “Perform The Book,” getting help from my improv troupe, as we used the expressive arts to join the particulars of their stories to mine. This experience was most satisfying and rewarding for me, those who chose to participate, and audience members. But it was noteworthy how many people declined our invitations.

The taboo about hiding the pain of loss seems to stay firmly in place not only in relation to death and the loss of a loved one, but operates when a family member loses a job or goes to jail, gets a cancer diagnosis, or when we ourselves deal with pain or infirmity. In short – whenever we suspect that our current life situation might be considered a “downer” for someone else.

On the other side of the equation, when we know someone is going through grief we often fear saying something that might make their pain worse. Once when my son was seriously ill in the hospital my sister-in-law asked about him and I began to tear up as I talked about the situation. “Oh dear. Now I’ve made you cry,” she said. I had to explain that she didn’t make me cry. ” By asking about my son, and listening to my answer, she allowed me to have a few moments when I was not pretended that everything was “fine. She let me know that she cared and gave me the opportunity to share my concerns and sorrow with her.

Hopefully through Sheryl’s courage in writing her book, https://www.recode.net/2016/7/29/12320222/sheryl-sandberg-leans-into-next-book-option-b-about-grieving-and-healing about the sudden loss of her husband, and the well-funded promotion of her platform, more of us can be there for one another through the tough and tender times, becoming stronger from dealing with our adversities.

Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Pain Free

IMG_3098Sitting by the fire looking out over the snowy March landscape outside my window, I think of Emily Dickinson, a writer who perfected her craft as she dealt with health challenges throughout most all of her short life. My destiny has been the opposite. In uncompromising good health until a few weeks ago, I have avoided having to perform creative activities, or the simple tasks of daily living while being sick or in ill health.

A bout of the flu here, an allergic reaction there, mostly I’ve been blessed with opportunities to put my whole self into whatever projects and goals attracted my fancy. Like most people, I’ve been unrealistic at times, creating stress and strain by demanding more of myself than is possible for a single human being. Perhaps we identify our limits by pushing past them on occasion. Perhaps we stretch our capabilities by using the second wind that appears after the first one dissipates.

In my 30s I got good at pushing myself beyond my limits and then with the help of artistic practices, learning how to heal into a place of ease and balance. Later on, there was the juggling act of family roles and professional goals, self-care practices to stay healthy while supporting family members going through their own health challenges.

My initiation into the world of ill health began with sixteen days of excruciating headache pain. I became engrossed in symptom relief; hot showers and cold compresses, Advil, essential oils and naps while we hunted for medical professionals who could get to the bottom of it all and return me to the world of the well. Occasionally, there were short opportunities for normalcy, to teach a class or attend a dance concert, but life as I had known it seemed long ago and far away.

Finally, dramatically, I got to the right professionals, got the correct diagnosis and most importantly, the potential disaster of losing my eyesight was averted. Gratitude for that as I live into my new role as a patient in recovery.IMG_3099

My father always said, there’s a bit of poison in every medicine, and the miracle drugs western medicine has developed are no exception. The challenge now is managing both the short term and long-term side effects of the medication that is keeping me pain free.

My view of what’s realistic and doable under my present circumstances demands constant discernment. I must be cautious and careful, mindful of what energy is from the medicine and what energy is truly my own. Slowly, carefully, I’m returning to the physical practices that have kept me healthy in the past; a half a yoga class here, 45 minutes of Zumba there. Health challenges are always a reminder of our fragility but also of the gifts of a good night’s sleep, the love and support of friends, and gratitude for the opportunity to move pain free throughout our world, for however long that is possible.

 

It Matters HOW We Talk About The Issues

tweetybirdFeels worse to me than fingernails on a chalkboard, the way the current public discourse is being conducted. As a parent and family therapist I’ve long known the power of healthy communication and how central it is to the health of a family. Now I’m learning how healthy communication is central to the health of a nation as well.

In healthy families there are ground rules and people get called out when they don’t follow them. Speaking for oneself is critical, along with listening carefully to others to be sure you understand what they’re trying to say. It’s off limits to repeat something that someone else said in confidence (that’s gossip), and name-calling and telling a lie are definite fouls. They destroy the trust that all healthy relationships are based on. 

Since these errors and others have been running rampant in our country, we all seem to be learning the power of unhealthy communication, especially when it’s repeated via the megaphone of blogs and media outlets. This is why I was delighted to linger in my driveway the other day to hear Brooke Gladstone interview

cognitive linguist, George Layoff during the NPR show “On The Media.” He analyzed Trump’s use of language in his Tweets, labeling 5 types of miscommunication or what I would call “fouls” or “distortions.” http://will.illinois.edu/news/story/a-taxonomy-of-trump-tweets

  • Pre-emptive Framing – Putting the idea out there first so that people will more likely accept your take on a subject. His example – “the Democratic National Committee were embarrassed because they lost big.” Fact checking, the truth is – the election was the closest in modern times.
  • Diversion – Get people talking about something else rather than the issue. This happened the day the lawsuit involving Trump University was settled.
  • Trial Balloon – Put an idea out there and see how people react. This has been around a long time but usually someone on the team does it so it’s easier to walk back if the reaction to the idea is not a good one.
  • Deflection – Attack the messenger instead of responding to the message. “Meryl Streep is overrated.”
  • Bad news – Even in 140 characters it’s possible to have all four errors in the same tweet.

My three children introduced me to some of these “slight of mind games,” Mostly good kids, there were occasions when they attempted to manipulate the truth, and their parents, for their own gains. We of course would call them on it, and the maturation process helped them develop healthier ways of getting what they wanted.

Dr. Lakoff recommended that the media call out the errors and not just repeat them, thus aiding and abetting the misinformation Trump is hoping to spread. He advised members of the media to do what good parents do in families, tell the truth, report the errors in the tweets, and call out what kind of errors they are.

ImprovJam2My recommendation – Trust the structure of Improv’s “Yes And.”    Last Sunday afternoon, my improv troupe Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and guests artists played with the tough stuff inherent in these tough times. In the presence of respectful witnesses we used the tools and techniques of InterPlay to express our reactions and concerns though movement, voice, and story. The outcome – fun, and a strengthened resolve to move forward through community collaboration and connection.