Focus on One Thing

Focus on One Thing

I made some pretty bold moves this weekend, and I’m a lot better off this Sunday night than I was just 48 hours ago. It’s because of some advice that I received last week, on something totally unrelated to what I just discovered.

A little backstory here is necessary. Since the 2016 presidential election, I, like millions of others, have been pretty gripped with the polarizing politics here in the United States. It doesn’t matter what side you are on; it’s been emotionally draining for everyone. Relationships of all kinds have been strained, and I’ve acknowledged several times here and on social media how I have been overwhelmed by it all. It has affected my writing, my art, my love for music, my everything. I’ve been passionate about fighting for what I believe is right, and as a result, so much around me has suffered.

Fast forward to last week, when I turned in my article to my Catholic Review editor. After he had a chance to read it, we had a phone conference about the story. His bottom line: Focus on one thing, and then write about that one thing.

Let me repeat that:

Focus on one thing.

In the context of writing, it is a fairly rigid rule to keep it simple and be direct. It’s good advice that I’ve heard, and shared, over the years. My editor was spot on.

So fast forward five days, and here I am, still struggling with fluctuating polls, vitriolic tweets, hypocritical rants from all sides, and paralyzing gridlock in my newsfeed. I texted a friend of mine that I had lost my love for reading, for listening to music, for going on photo shoots. It was as if I had picked up a handful of crayons and had scribbled relentlessly through my thoughts, scrambling any coherent idea or passion that was possible.

No passion. No focus.

Then, for whatever reason, my editor’s words popped into my head: Focus on one thing.

It would be easy for me to apply this advice by ridding my life of the distractions that are keeping me from my art. Delete the politics, and the focus returns. That would certainly work, at least in the short term.

But when I meditated on my editor’s advice, I realized something a little deeper.

If I focus my energy on my own gifts, and how I can make a change in this world through deliberate acts, then I will no longer be paralyzed by the things I cannot control.

I immediately thought of my mentors, including my patron saint Francis de Sales, and Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. While each of them might have been political, all of them were driven by their gifts of benevolence, peace, and charity. They looked for the common ground and not the things that divide us.

In other words, it’s not enough to delete the politics from our lives. I’m actually suggesting just the opposite. We need to, first and foremost, focus on the one thing that we are best at when it comes to making our communities healthy. Once we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

For me, these acts are done for – and through – God. And if I can offer contributions to my community that improve its overall health and wellness, then we are shielded from the things that are tearing others apart. In fact, it diminishes that contentious hold on us and begins to return us to a higher ground of respect toward all.

So as we navigate our energies through these turbulent times, focus on that one thing that you do well for others, and don’t worry so much about the things you can’t control. I believe that if more of us contribute kindness to others in our own communities, we will begin to feel a shift in our country’s larger energy for the values we believe are essential, not only for today but for our children’s future.

Our actions today are developing their focus for tomorrow; let’s make sure they focus on one thing: benevolence toward all.

 

Our Authentic Show Must Go On

Our Authentic Show Must Go On

This weekend, I was enthralled by a blog post shared by Mark Willen (“Sexual Assault: When Real Life and Fiction Collide”), who was pondering how his published works hold up in the #MeToo era. As a result of Mark’s post, which was weighing heavily on my mind today, I decided to ask a few writers/teachers about what they thought influences authors to share certain works with their intended audiences.

Now, that’s a lot packed into that last sentence, so let me unpack it.

What influences authors.

As English teachers, we often analyze an author’s writing by what the topic of the essay/story is about, and what was happening during that time in history or, more specifically, what was happening in that author’s personal life, either directly or indirectly. Our focus is finding that cause-and-effect relationship, that One Big Thing that led her to craft that piece. We love doing that. It’s what we live for.

To share certain works.

As well, we know that writers often choose which pieces they take to publication. This is what they offer the masses; this is what they have selected as their representative piece.

With their intended audiences.

Not only does the author select the intended piece, he selects the intended audience. Sometimes, that’s a decision based on money and quantity. What can I write that will reach the most number of people, and fill my pockets with the most amount of money? Or, conversely, he might choose a very selective audience to share a more cultivated piece, aimed at entertaining or conversing with a smaller group.

So what?

What all these things have in common is that we are making gross assumptions that the cause-and-effect relationship even exists. As we know in this era of all things, it is nearly the opposite. Some of us are in great distress, and our creativity is stifled in ways we could never fathom. We put our pens to paper and the parchment remains unblemished.

Where do we begin? How do we tell the truth? How do we write about something that is so polarizing?

So we choose to write about other things, and in other genres. Published or not, none of it is representative of where many of us are. There is no authenticity in a large body of what is being published. Truth lies in that unwritten, Barbaric YAWP that plagues us, weighs us down, suppresses our voice in ways that historians might overlook entirely.

In other words, the literature written centuries ago, which we have been analyzing so comfortably based on the stories crafted in history books, may be as much of a lie in absencia of the truth that could never be written.

Maybe a little like what we’re going through now.

I just got rejected from yet another publication (Let the great streak from 2017 continue!). It was a horror short story that I thought was pretty good. It wasn’t, according to the judges (again this year), and I’ve allowed myself a 12-hour pity party that ended, oh, a few minutes ago.

But I find this okay. I’m not a horror writer anymore. I thought that I should be able to spin a good tale no matter the genre, but that’s probably not true. I’ve got so much bunched up in me of what I am not writing about, that it makes full sense to me that anything I try to pass off as authentic is anything but.

So I’m turning this figurative page somehow, and I will return to authenticity. I will spill words here that are raw, genuine, politically incorrect, and my truth. I will lose followers and, perhaps, close friends and family members. It sounds so harsh to say this, but I can no longer let that stop me.

I don’t want to be cautious, gentle, patient, worldly, or even compromising. The time has come to share that authenticity with all of you.

I have no idea where this will take me, but at least I’ve opened the door for it to happen and to find out. We have to demonstrate courage in our writing and our art in the present; we must let our work be an authentic reflection of who we are, where we are, how we are reacting to it, and why all of this matters.

Thanks for listening (er– reading). I’ll be back soon, sharing words that need to be said, and by me.

Fossil Five Released to Beta Readers in One Week

Fossil Five Released to Beta Readers in One Week

It’s 4:56 a.m., and I have just dropped off my daughter at work. I pour a fresh cup of coffee, sit down in front of my laptop, and open my working revision of my latest novel, Fossil Five.

Seven days to go, I think. Seven days until I release my story to 15 readers around the world to read and review. It will be the first time I have allowed anybody to read the manuscript, and the moment of truth is suddenly inevitable.

Is it any good? Does it connect with a diverse group of readers? Or was it all a waste of time? An illusion of grandeur that I really had something important to say, when in fact I said nothing at all?

The questions flow through my mind constantly. I know it’s fear talking, this little, bothersome voice in the back of my mind doing its best to plant seeds of doubt, and that knowledge alone diminishes its grip on me. Still, I cannot silence it entirely, and the whispers of negativity continue as I work through the early morning hours, writing segues and deleting derailments as I tighten up this story that has consumed me for nearly 5 years.

By July 23, I will know. The feedback will trickle in between July 1st and the 23rd, and then I’ll analyze each review to see where the strengths and weaknesses line up. Sending it out to 15 independent readers and receiving 15 independent responses will tell me most everything I need to know. The question will no longer be, “Is this good enough?” Fifteen unique readers will confirm this question.

Or they will respond with a declarative, “No.”

Yes, the wait will be interminable.

But this is all my doing (or undoing). I write because I love to spin a good story, to share an idea, to entertain my readers and maybe make a little difference along the way for the better.

And we’ll find out on July 23 if, indeed, I have come close to doing that in Fossil Five.

For now, I keep working through my revisions. My list of needs is down to 8, and most of them are quick fixes. Then, it all comes down to the final read-through, making sure dates, settings, and characters are all consistent, and are all contributing in a fluid, entertaining way to a realistic beginning, middle, and end to the story.

I’ve waited a long time for this, and my readers have been ever-faithful. I just hope I don’t disappoint them with Fossil Five. I hope they enjoy the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

More Than A Cup Of Coffee

More Than A Cup Of Coffee

About 15 years ago, in the pre-dawn darkness, I stood outside the brand new Starbucks in Dulaney Plaza and waited patiently for them to open their doors for the first time. I enjoyed being a part of the coffee store’s grand opening, and for years I frequented it often, learning the names of the new baristas and managers, getting to know our neighbors a little better over a cup of coffee, and being a part of the ambiance that defined the origins of that cafe.

Years later, we moved to Loch Raven Village, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time at the Dulaney Plaza location. I became lazy and used the drive-thrus in the Towson University and Timonium Fairgrounds locations. I lost touch with that community feeling that I had established at Dulaney Plaza. I forgot how important that was to share words with friends over freshly brewed coffee.

IMG_4038Well, today, our neighborhood Bel-Loc Starbucks opened just down the street from where we live. The outside of the building is unlike any other Starbucks that I have seen. It is retro, and it has retained some of the flavor of the old Bel-Loc Diner that it replaced, an iconic restaurant that had defined the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road for decades.

The decision to place an internationally franchised coffee house on the same corner as a local landmark was met with some resistance. And even today, after its doors have opened, there is still push back from some residents who are completely against a chain cafe that serves “overpriced” coffee.

But Starbucks has to be acknowledged for creating a low-key cafe that really adds an aesthetic enhancement to our little “village.”

IMG_4039Once I entered the small store, I felt as if I were in Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire at the Quidditch World Cup, when Harry steps inside the Weasley’s tent. It’s as if the store had magically expanded inside, offering a variety of tables and bars to work, commune, or just relax.

Immediately, I felt at home in our new, local cafe.

Even before I ordered my Grande Pike Place coffee, I noticed a friend in the southwest corner of the store, seated with his work spread out as if he had been here for weeks. As we placed our order and waited for our drinks to be made, we spent a few minutes chatting with Pat, and I felt the old habits returning ofIMG_4043 making and meeting good friends at the Dulaney Plaza location many years ago.

The interior is spacious, clean, and filled with natural light from two walls of windows facing south and west. Some of the chairs, in fact, were originals from the Bel-Loc Diner.

Both inside and out, there is a mingling of the old and the new, a respect for tradition with a touch of the 21st century coffeehouse encouraging a community to come together.

Maybe their coffee is a couple quarters more than its pre-fab competitor in orange a few blocks west, but I will gladly make the sacrifice for the opportunity to forge new friendships and share words with my neighbors, especially in a coffee house that has gone to great lengths to respect the legacy of Bel-Loc Diner, where our parents spent similar mornings communing with neighbors over a cup of coffee.

I look forward to spending my mornings at our neighborhood Starbucks, writing, reading, and conversing with my new and old friends. After all, it’s what we make of it. For generations, family members and neighbors did the very same at the Diner; let’s do our part to savor the spirit of the old as it merges with the new. IMG_4042

Officer Caprio Community Memorials Continue A Month After Her Death

Officer Caprio Community Memorials Continue A Month After Her Death

by Rus VanWestervelt
Exclusive for Baltimore News And Events
June 21, 2018

A month ago, Laura Joy Rode and Erinn Patrick, third-grade teachers at Seven Oaks Elementary and residents of Parkville, sat in their classrooms with their students until 9 p.m. as police wrapped up their initial investigation of the death of one of their own, Officer Amy Caprio.

In those dark hours, however, their students were thinking less about the fear of a lockdown and more about what they could do for the police officers in their precinct who were mourning the loss of their partner.

“The very next day,” wrote Rode in a Facebook post, “my third grade students asked if they could have some time to write thank you cards to the police officers who kept them safe. . . .Not one complaint of being tired or worried. . . just wanting to thank the brave men and women who serve.”

The desire to give back, to support the Parkville and surrounding precincts, has only strengthened since May 21 when Officer Caprio was killed in the line of duty.

Rob Williams, a resident of Rodgers Forge and Citizens on Patrol leader and volunteer for the last ten years, decided to create a memorial display in his front yard on Regester Avenue, honoring all ten Baltimore County officers who have died in the line of duty.

“I was deeply moved, said Williams. “I wanted to do something to remember her and her ultimate sacrifice.”

Williams contacted a company called Flagology that had the specific hero flag template he was looking for. He gathered the photos of the other officers and completed the display on June 10.

“The memorial will continually be in place,” said Williams. “Several neighbors have already commented to me about how moving the memorial is to them.”

Such memorials are on display in other neighborhood communities, including Carney and Loch Raven Village.

Other residents around the area have used their creativity to raise money for various funds.

Maria Greenwood has formed a group that makes police survival kits, which are delivered to police stations all over the state of Maryland. According to Lisa Westervelt, one of the members of the group, Greenwood has been awarded for her community-building efforts and recognizing officers for their hard work.

“When Parkville experienced its tragedy, Maria ran around getting donations needed for the kids and delivered a ton of them to the station in support of the officers who had lost their sister in blue,” said Westervelt.

According to Greenwood, they delivered 200 police survival kits after the death of Officer Caprio.

“Praying that it brings much joy to all the officers at Parkville Precinct!” wrote Greenwood in a Facebook post. “Your community loves and supports you!”

Kim Lyons, founder and owner of An Etch Above, created Memorial Cups in Officer Caprio’s honor. For each cup sold with the memorial design, Lyons is donating $10 to the FOP 4 Memorial Fund.

“As a graduate of Parkville High School, former resident in Parkville and Perry Hall, and business owner in Parkville, Maryland, I have felt a deep sadness over the recent loss of Officer Amy Caprio from the Parkville precinct,” wrote Lyons on her website. “After much discussion with local law enforcement and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, I have decided to offer these Memorial Cups in her honor.”

According to Lyon’s website, they have raised over $750 in Caprio’s memory.

Others from around the state have created fundraisers built around their hobbies and organizations. One such effort to raise money was done by the Chesapeake Jeep Club, among others, who hosted a ride to honor Caprio.

The ride, which took place May 26, was organized by Prince George’s County K9 Officer Mike Cicale.

In the description of the event, Cicale wrote, “Join us as [we] pay our respects to Officer Caprio, her friends, family, and members of the Baltimore County Police Department . . .[for] a memorial ride to honor her life and sacrifice.”

Although Ellicott City resident and Jeep owner, Sunny Yoo, could not participate in the event, he is mindful of the work that Cicale and others do to honor fallen heroes.

“[Cicale] sets up most rides to honor the fallen officers throughout Maryland,” said Yoo. “I think it’s nice to see Jeep clubs participating in these events. It just shows how much respect they have for people who serve and enforce the law.”

Yoo witnessed the tribute of K9 vehicles lined up along 695 and was touched by the what he saw. “It was very emotional to see people come together to honor her,” said Yoo. “I felt chills and had to turn my music off and have a moment of silence. ”

The tributes and memorials will continue throughout the summer. Both Towson and Cockeysville organizers of their respective Citizens On Patrol (COP) programs will be honoring Officer Caprio on August 7, which is National Night Out and recognizes those who serve their communities to keep them safer.

“We are honoring her at this year’s National Night Out for the Cockeysville precinct,” shared resident Tracey Daniels. “I think more people will come support the police at this event because of her.”

According to Pat France, Vice President of the Towson-Area Citizens on Patrol (TACOP), they will hold a moment of silence for Officer Caprio at their event on Washington Ave. at 6:20 p.m.

Even with school being out, Seven Oaks Elementary teacher Laura Joy Rode is still touched by the actions of her third-grade students.

“It has been truly inspiring to see the kids react with love, concern, and empathy,” said Rode, reflecting back on her children’s desire to act. “These young children wanted to take action, to do something, to show the police officers and first responders not only that they are needed and appreciated, but that they are sad for their loss. We all can learn from these big hearts!”

Discovering Creative Ketosis

Discovering Creative Ketosis

I’m on this new diet (I hate the connotations that are associated with that word; every one of us is on some kind of diet, right?). Anyway, it’s the Keto Diet, and I can’t have more than 27 (ideally 20) net carbs a day.

Perspective: I was downing probably 300 net carbs a day. So this is a big change for me.

The purpose of the diet, in simple terms, is to switch your body from burning carbs to burning fat. This is what is known as entering a state of ketosis, where your body becomes this incredible fat-burning machine. It’s magical, and it’s beginning to work for me.

But the transition has been tough. As my body goes through this adjustment into ketosis, it is very possible that it is resisting the change of burning carbs to burning fat. That might very well explain why I have been so fatigued these last few days. My body is searching for carbs to burn, and it hasn’t completely learned just yet that burning fat instead is a completely acceptable concept.

I’m feeling it kick in today, though, and it’s pretty magical, like I said.

A few weeks before I started the Keto Diet, I also decided to deactivate my Facebook and step away from most of the social media scene. I did this for myriad reasons, but mostly because I didn’t like the energy it was taking away from my writing. I had a bad year last year, and I’m trying to reclaim my creative game.

At first, leaving Facebook was instantly liberating, but lately, I’ve been struggling with getting the creative juices flowing. Then  this morning, it struck me: I think the resistance I was feeling in my diet can be true as well about my transition from a social media life to a writer’s life (I’m not really saying that we need to choose one or the other, but in my situation, I’ve made such a choice).

There is resistance. My creative soul is looking for social media to feed its appetite, and it is just now learning that it can be far more healthy and productive by working on meaningful pieces like my novel, Fossil Five; my blog; and other original writings and creative works.

Here’s the point: The writer (or artist, or creative) strives to stay in a complete state of creative ketosis, where the mind, body, and soul are working optimally to produce the greatest works possible. This is the very essence of Samadhi, the state of superconsciousness, for the writer: Aware of all things, in all ways, to make the most of his or her creative journey toward polished products, whatever they may be.

I have said for some time that the energy we spend on social media takes away energy that could be better spent in healthy ways. Indeed, social media is nothing more than a high-carb fast food, filling us with nothing and leaving us feel, paradoxically, empty and bloated all day long.

So, as I continue to lose weight in this dietary state of ketosis, and as I continue to forego the energy-sucking platforms of social media and stay in creative ketosis, I am eliminating the “un-creative” carbs from my life in every way, allowing my body to burn optimal creative fuel for its energy: a heightened sense of awareness and mindfulness of all around me. It’s space that fosters healthy growth for my novel and other creative endeavors. The energy is pure, accessible, clean.

It takes time. Everything does. I’m glad I’m sticking with both.

So, let’s talk

So, let’s talk

Earlier today, I had a little sit-down with myself to figure a few things out. You see, my inner critic has been working overtime in the past month or two, absolutely convincing me that the following were completely, and without question, true:

  • My words were no longer meaningful, and they no longer mattered with the masses;
  • Blogs were dead, stupid, antiquated, washed up, and no longer read (hey! just like me);
  • Your audience is sick of you;
  • You are pathetic to think otherwise; and
  • Hell, you are pathetic.

These thoughts stopped me from writing anything. I did not even write in my daybook. It was a ridiculous, self-piteous period of wallowing in negativity and doubt.

So, as I said, I had that little sit-down convo with me-truly, and I’m not going to lie, I let the expletives fly, as Seinfeld’s Kramer says.

It felt good. It really did. I needed to hear myself fight back against all that fake news that I have been self-spewing. I made the commitment to blog tonight, but with a purpose:

To not teach, preach, or inspire.

Gasp!

So, not only did I throw myself back into the fire, I threw away the crutches and dove in head first without a safety net.

Which brings me to what I’ll be doing here at The Baltimore Writer for the foreseeable future. Many years ago, I started writing “Rus Uncut” entries, and they were well received because they were so raw. I’ve tried a few times to get back to that, but I kept falling back into the teach-and-preach model.

Pathetic, right?

So here we are tonight, willing (desperately) to give it another shot.

What does that mean? Probably some really boring blogs, some out-there thinking, and maybe some pretty pictures to keep you coming back to see something shiny.

It means all of this, maybe none of it, maybe some Franken-mix of a bunch of different things. And I’ve opened comments for you to join in with the uncut-ness of the whole thing.

But what I can promise you is that it will be raw, uncut, and authentic. All Rus.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I need to do this for me, though, so there. You are welcome to follow along, share your thoughts, or unsubscribe entirely and vote to have The Baltimore Writer completely scrubbed from the interwebs.

We’ll see how this goes. Thanks for whatever choice you make (except for the web scrubbing. That would suck for sure).

Yours, sans teaching and preaching,

Rus