What can I do? And will it matter? When it comes to the big problems, it seems all we can do as individuals is to donate money. I just joined a group online that is fighting for something I believe in, and I’ve started more than one group in my time. However, except for the Creative Writing Club students asked for my help in establishing, no group I’ve started has lasted.
I feel like a failure when I recall the demise of at least five of my groups: two Libertarian Societies (one high school, one college), “Among Friends” (a correspondence group of mutual support for women), a Townhall Meetup, and ALEEC or the Adult Learning and Extended Education Council I got established as dean at my university.
I’ve started another group, though! On July 6, we’ll have the fourth meeting of the Fort Valley Writers Meetup @ St. Luke’s. Our reason for being is to make ourselves write and write more often. I enjoy being able to share some of my skills as a creative writing instructor, but the group is informal, not a class. And this Meetup is my way of contributing through my church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, to the community.
The best group I’ve ever belonged to was the Poetry Group in Macon, started by my good friend, Adrienne Bond, who no longer is with us. The other members have moved on in their careers--like Jud Mitcham and Bob Kelly, moved out of town--like Mike Cass, or passed away--like Seaborn Jones. I learned from all of them—things like writing concisely, writing sturdy lines with enough beats to the line, using precise images and word choice, and striving for subtle humor. If Adrienne had not made the move to start the Poetry Group, our lives would not have been as rich.
I hope our new Meetup group lasts a long time. I’m not going to let myself feel like a failure if it doesn’t though. We realize, in 2016, that change is constant. If your heart tells you to start a group, the risk is insignificant, and there will be rewards.
I edit and proofread all kinds of writing: novels, non-fiction, fiction, dissertations and everything in between. So usage is something I think a lot about, I admit it.
For example, I have an issue with the misuse of “fewer” (to be used when you can count things, like doughnuts) and “less” (for things you measure, like flour or rain). It is true that you can use fewer cups of flour or less flour. And you can put fewer dollar bills on the table or have less money than you had last month.
I’m happy to announce, on the other hand, that it hasn’t mattered for years—decades, in fact—whether our sentences end with prepositions. It’s far more effective to say, “That’s the pool the little boy was sitting in,” than to say, “That is the pool in which the little boy was sitting.”
Which brings us to “which” and “that”—and also when to use fragments. In 1980, I had one sentence fragment in my 300-page Ph.D. dissertation. I was using it for effect, but they told me to take it out. (Although I didn’t.) A sentence fragment to create a change of pace or add a colloquial feel usually is OK. A sentence fragment caused by the inability to recognize or hear the logic of subjects, verbs, and dependent vs. independent clauses is not OK. It is not OK to write, “The Democrats exhausted after a long campaign.”
Back to the use of “which” and “that,” I confess that I did not have a clear understanding of the relevant context for many years. One must be able to identify restrictive uses vs. non-restrictive uses. Then I finally got it. A comma usually comes before “which” because it introduces a non-restrictive idea, kind of an after-thought: “The man raised his voice at her, which was entirely uncalled for.” A comma usually doesn’t come before “that” because the idea it precedes is restrictive—necessary to the completion of the idea: “Morton’s dog is the one that bit her.” However, sometimes it just feels right, especially in creative writing, to use “which,” with no comma before it, instead of “that.” We need to cut down on our use of “that” anyway, so sometimes switching to “which” is a solution.
In the paragraph above, I used the words “usually is OK.” Many or most people would write or say “is usually OK.” However, I assimilated a rule once that proscribes the placement of an adverb between a verb and a complement or between a helping verb and a participle (“he had run the course easily” is better than “he had easily run the course”). Because I have internalized that rule, I rewrite a sentence if I realize I have interrupted a verb phrase with a modifier.
But you know what? In 2016, in most contexts, it doesn’t really matter.
I’ve noticed before that after I’ve been confined to indoor work, a turn on our county’s walking path reminds me of being on a real vacation. When I get back on that path, I wish I had been walking it more often.
I searched the flower I’ve been enjoying on my walks in Peach County lately to find out what it’s called. Answer: it’s the Hairy Cat’s Ear or False Dandelion. Mowers all over town have been mobilized to cut it down.
As I gazed out on a field of Hairy Cat’s Ears this morning, I recalled walks with my friend recently on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and on Whidby Island. We saw two waterfalls, a rain forest with "Big Maples,” yew trees, spruce and firs, not to mention lichen and all sorts of mosses on tree trunks and on the ground. We love to travel and enjoy awe-inspiring scenery.
Yet the experience also is new every time on these walks I have taken, round and round, on the same walking track at the edge of town for twenty years. I saw a red fox chase a gray cat out of the wild hedges once, and an armadillo go determinedly across the grass in the center of the track after sensing or seeing me. I’ve seen each year’s arrival of robins along with those who stay all year, plus the resident thrushes, brown thrashers, bluebirds, woodpeckers, blue jays, mocking birds, cardinals, crows, and other black birds.
Honeysuckles appear and vines are cut down and grow back again. New trees are added to the arboretum around the track each year, and they prosper.
Today at South Peach Park, I beheld the vast field of False Dandelions. As I rounded the bend of the walking track, I discovered something new. They are sunflowers! When my back was to the sun, they faced me with their cheerful yellow blooms. As I came around the curve, I realized the whole field of flowers now was looking away—at the sun. Passing by those that had just been in the shade, I saw that they were not open or were just beginning to open.
The lesson is clear. Scenic vistas, large or small, are there for us if we get out there and look.
When I was a college instructor and advisor at Fort Valley State University, I used to worry about a few students because they looked so unhappy and dwelled on their perceived defects (“I’m too fat,” “I’m too shy”), on unfair things happening to them (“Professor X doesn’t like me,” “My classes require too many papers”) or on both.
It came to me at one point that most of these unhappy students differed from others who seemed happier in that the deeply unhappy students were constantly thinking about themselves. Once I’d had this epiphany, I tried to encourage them to get involved in groups and projects. I can only hope that my advice helped some, at least.
Once these women and men get out of college, some of them mature and find fulfillment in their work, and others continue the self-fulfilling prophecy of being unhappy with their existence and dwelling on that. We have technology today that connects people, but online match-making efforts, social media, and especially online games sometimes lead to greater isolation.
I was talking with a friend recently about the subject of managing our own thoughts. At the time, she had every reason to be unhappy due to more than one recent death in her family. What she told me offers another solution for people who are caught in a vicious circle of negative thinking—about themselves, about their lives, about society, or about our country.
My friend was listening to the audio of Pema Chödrön’s “Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.” (Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun and teaches meditation. I have not tried meditation, but my principled, conservative father recommended it to me a few years before he died, so I’ve felt for a long time that maybe I should.)
The truth my friend learned from this teacher, which she shared with me, is that it is natural and healthy to feel—anything: disgust, sadness, self-doubt. You might think, “I feel alone,” “I don’t know what I should do with my time—or my life” or “I am afraid of what will happen or of what someone will do.” Where we go wrong is in repeating these thoughts to ourselves night and day after the authentic impulse or feeling has passed. In so doing, we are making ourselves unhappy. Chödrön says to tell yourself, "Stay," instead of continuing with the bad thoughts.
We could be spending this time and mental energy building something big or small for ourselves or someone else, getting exercise to make our bodies and minds feel better, reading a book we’ve wanted to read, or just going out to a store and buying something useful. (I confess this last one is one of my favorites.)
Dwelling on what’s sad or what you think is wrong with you is a poor use of your life, and it creates a distance between yourself and others.
In business and education, we are told to call our problems “challenges” and to look for solutions. On the personal level, this actually may be something we can do!
Observations on the subjects of friends, family, country, cultures and nature.