About Bonnie McCune

Bonnie is a Denver-based author whose interest in writing led to her career in nonprofits doing public and community relations and marketing. She’s worked for libraries, directed a small arts organization and managed Denver's beautification program. Simultaneously, she’s been a free lance writer with publications in local, regional, and specialty publications for news and features. Her main interest now is fiction writing, and her pieces have won several awards.

Celebrate Poetry Month and Drive Away the Blues

Poet Mary Oliver

April 3, 2020

April is Poetry Month. What better time to dip into the wealth of thoughts told well? I know a number of people claim they don’t like poetry, but I think perhaps they simply haven’t sampled enough, for it comes in every shape and style. On the other hand, I claim I don’t like football. Maybe I simply haven’t watched enough.

In any case, I admit there are many poems I don’t care for, but I’ve learned to simply turn a page and try another. Raised in times when most poetry rhymed and had formal structures, I’m relieved so much of it now is free-flowing and organic. The change makes it easier for me to write. I’m just beginning to learn that even free verse, which lacks both rhyme and a regular rhythm (meter), does have commonly accepted standards to help evaluate if a poem is any good.

But mostly I just try to decide what I like and what I don’t. One quality that always gets to me might be called “heart” or “insight.” The ones I treasure are those describing the human condition and emotion, not in a beat-you-over-the-head way, but in a subtle, hey-notice-this manner. I believe that’s what any art does—leads you to look at and consider something you may not have thought about. One of my current favorites is “The Summer Day by Mary Oliver. She combines an eternal question (“Who made the world?”) with an intimate and tender observation of a common insect, then ends with a challenge to the reader. Another with similar impact, by Maya Angelou, is A Brave and Startling Truth.

A friend of mine connected me to a poem chain letter online. We each send one poem to the person at the top of the list, then send the query to 20 others. Some decline to be involved, but that’s fine. I’m reading an assortment of poems I’ve never run across before.

In addition to exposing me to ideas I may not have stumbled over, poetry also helps me with what I call “middle of the night crazies.” These are the times when insomnia tracks me down and crams stupid, useless fears in my head. Why don’t my children like me? Why is the water in the toilet running and running? Is the tender spot on my foot some terrible disease, and how long will it take to manifest itself? Did I offend a person on a poetry video conference so that she’ll never talk to me again? I reach for poetry at these times because it blasts my mind out of its destructive, downhill hurtle and into something resembling human.

Lots of poetry is available free online. Not every poem, I hasten to add, because poets need to eat as much as anyone else. This website, https://poets.org/, enables you to search a number of subjects and poets and hosts the Poem-a-Day feature. Another, PoemHunter.com, has tons of poems and poets. You can bookmark your favorites so you can get to them quickly. This site, however, is cluttered with pop-up ads that make it a challenge to read the text. Then there’s Poetry 180, a project to introduce high school students to the joys, hosted by Billy Collins, a former US Poet Laureate, from the Library of Congress. If you like the oldies but goodies, try Project Gutenberg, which has notables by people like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, and you can download ebooks of some collections.

In these slow, yet somehow tense, days of our modern plague, people seem to be allowing externals to affect them adversely and profoundly. Try checking out of the constant, hysterical barrage of “news,” and explore the world of poetry. Hey, even if you favor off-color limericks, they’re still entertaining and thought-provoking. You may find that you’re a poetry lover, too.  

GROCERY STORES AS SOCIAL CENTERS

Humans need social contact. They long for it, lust after it, seek it more than water. I’ve found my COVID connection—the local grocery store. King’s is opening at 7 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for people over 60, and at other times the store’s very active. It’s easy to chat with any passersby. We all act as if we’re participating in a semi-criminal activity.

In order to give structure to our daily visits, my husband and I track the status of restocking. When Denver’s shut-down was just on the horizon, it was my turn to grocery shop. On March 5, I was able to get everything on my list although toilet paper and paper towels were low. Four days later, paper products had disappeared, along with a hefty amount of fresh produce, cereal and crackers. Over the course of ten days, ebbs and flows occurred on lunch meat, hot dogs, canned goods, eggs. Long-gone and perhaps never reappearing—fresh o.j., fresh potatoes, pizzas.

We don’t really need to shop daily, but I’m concerned if we don’t at least look like we’re browsing, we’ll be ejected. With dictate after dictate coming down on size of group gatherings, from 1000 to 500 to 250 to 100 to 25 to 10, I envision police officers, who have been instructed not to write traffic tickets, switching to charges for congregating.

San Francisco’s Shelter in Place legislation makes exemptions for hardware stores, laundromats, banks, shipping services, professional services, such as legal or accounting services. While restaurants are prohibited from allowing people to eat on their property, the other categories don’t mention this. Therefore we’ll soon encounter the strange sight of people grabbing a sandwich at the grocery store, then strolling over to the local laundromat to eat.

I wondered whether I might be pulled over driving to a friend’s for lunch. Luckily, again citing San Francisco’s rules, people are allowed to “travel to care for elderly, minors, dependents, persons with disabilities, or other vulnerable persons.” Since the people I want to visit are mostly “elderly” by definition or my kids or grandkids, and everyone else of any age is edging toward mental vulnerability, again I think I can get away with visiting them.

Back to grocery stores. Recalling the popularity of oldies walking around shopping centers a number of years ago, my husband and I trudged through snow banks to walk the grocery store circuit three times, with strolls up and down various aisles to vary the routine. We spent about an hour and did, indeed, get some eggs and frozen waffles. However, I must report that my husband lacks true diligence because he spends more time reading labels than walking. I made several new acquaintances and thanked store employees for their hazardous duties.

COVID is making changes in my life. By and large they’ve been positive because they’ve energized me and flooded my writer’s brain with lots of ideas. Let’s see what else happens.

Time to Challenge a Major American Delusion

In this country, we believe anyone can achieve whatever he wants. This idea is drummed into kids at every step. Interviews with people deemed successful spotlight this point of view. Whether you’re an athlete, an actor, businessperson, or a rancher, we tell ourselves this over and over. Anyone can become president. You can be successful in any career you choose.

NOT TRUE! And maybe it’s time to stop spouting this. What happens instead is those 99.99% of us who don’t rank number 1 in our goal or field of interest get discouraged, depressed, even suicidal.

Why not? Because of the three qualities essential to achievement, we have no control over two of them. Those two are:

  1. In-born, genetically determined talent. This can be for singing, art, intelligence, creativity, the correct body type, beauty, whatever. I happen to be extremely short and always have been. No matter how much I might want to be a star basketball player, my less-than-five-feet height never will permit it.

  2. Chance, luck, fortune. A caveman could never be a millionaire because he lived in a time that lacked money and big business. Even if you’re born into the right age, country and family, you still might never chance upon a situation that enables you to succeed in the way you hope. You might miss the exact connection, the right friend, the ideal situation to lead you up your chosen ladder.

The last essential quality an individual does have some control over: hard work.

What do people define as “success.” Articles and surveys report that many younger (and older!) people believe success is money, possessions, social media attention, position, fame. Many of us share these goals and dreams,

Let’s get serious. Hard work plays a big role in success. But it’s not the sole determiner. Time magazine in 2019 had an essay on parenting that urged adults to tell kids the truth—hard work doesn’t always pay off. (July 1, 2019; by Rachel Simmons) Why should we bother? Won’t this reality discourage the young?

No, not if we recognize that there are other things in life that make us successful. Friends, family, satisfaction with our achievements, passion for some activity, even simple acceptance of and joy in life around us. We’d probably have many more happy people and far fewer discontented, even suicidal ones.

Beating my head against a wall: Why I continue to write

           

 

 

 

            We’re all familiar with romantic passion. The spine-tingling kiss. The intense desire. The longing to be with a special person. We’re fortunate if we find lasting and positive romantic passion. We’re even luckier if we find passion in our lives FOR our lives. I’ve finally come to realize my driving passion is writing.  

            Recently I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself, which happens to me when I don’t have pending deadlines or if I think about various problems. To pass the time instead of doing productive work, I turned to Facebook. Lo and behold there was a new entry by Nancy, my former boss. Rather than bemoaning the state of the world or herself, Nancy’s too busy traveling, running several businesses (travel, consulting), and volunteering. She doesn’t wait for someone or something to entertain her. She throws herself into every minute. I decided next time I was depressed, frustrated or hopeless, I’ll just visit Nancy’s Facebook page and sample her adventures. She has passion and it’s contagious. An excellent example for me.

            After decades pursuing my dream, I’m still not ready to throw in the towel. Somewhere inside any person who chases a dream, there’s a little voice saying, “Keep going; don’t give up yet.” That voice might be an angel’s or a demon’s, but it has a definite impact on life.

            I’ve come to believe this trait is also present in people who believe in a cause, philosophy, or mission. Politics, religion, art, music. Gardening, quilting, recycling. Call it a passion or an obsession, it can give your existence meaning, link you with others, and provide a structure many people find helpful. 

            My saga started at age ten, when I submitted a poem to the Saturday Evening Post (it was immediately rejected). I got experience on the job, doing public and community relations and marketing for non-profit organizations. I’ve been a freelance writer for news and features. Several years ago I decided to focus on fiction writing. Now I have published a number of books through small publishers. Another example of passionate person is young Greta Thunberg, the political activist on climate change, who’s inspired millions. Another is an eight-year-old friend of mine who’s passionate about Egyptology and Irish step-dancing.

            Having a passion allows me to rise above, go beyond where I am, in order to be conscious of my existence and place in the universe. Some call this transcendence. I’m able to raise and answer questions about myself and life. As author Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.”

            But surely a writer needs more than a passion in order to produce? What? There’s no magic process. Novelist W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

            As a writer, I’ve learned to navigate a shaky path between my desire to write, inherent laziness, and advice from everyone and anyone. The outside world always has opinions. I’ve learned to thicken my hide, take advice with a bit of salt, then apply as I feel best. For example, one inspirational line editor wanted me to make clear that the heroine wasn’t in a sexual relationship with a male friend.

            When you read my books, you can anticipate women’s fiction, ordinary people living their extraordinary lives. My characters aren’t flamboyant, rich, aggressive, shrieking foul language, or even simply annoying, to be interesting. That’s because everyday life challenges people to do and be their best, and their voyage to learning this is fascinating.

WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU’RE FORCED TO APPEAR HAPPY ALL THE TIME?

Seems to me the amount of laughter and shouting, high fives and hoots is greatly increasing. Sometimes it’s not a choice, it’s a command from those around you. And it may be making you miserable.

Take a Zumba teacher I ran into recently. Not only is she constantly yelling encouraging phrases like “great!”, “good going,” but also she demands the class shout back at her. Whoops, yeah-hey, uh-huh. If the students aren’t sufficiently loud enough for her, she’ll lean in toward us, hand behind ear to encourage an increase in volume. These noises are accompanied with high-fives as she scoots between the rows as well as stomach bumps. She’s not alone in her approach. In my spinning class, the instructor’s claps and shouts and music are so loud, I’m forced to wear ear plugs.

Most visible are the personalities on television. Each news hour is replete with jokes between newscasters, calls for “best day ever!” As repartee leaps from person to person, the level of hysteria rises higher until I expect a report on a new tragedy, war, or disaster will be interspersed between guffaws. And for casual interactions between miscellaneous folks in a store or on the street, it’s common to be concluded with “Make a great day!”

I object to this trend. If I’m in a bad mood, if a friend has died, a check bounced, a daughter doesn’t call, the meal burns, a huge bill sent, a politician’s spouted another lie, why do I have to pretend everything’s wonderful?

I realize that humans usually smile or laugh when pleased or trying to establish a pleasant social interaction. And I do so frequently. Not just in public either. Last night I got the giggles as I read the latest Ladies #1 Detective Agency novel. I simply don’t want to manipulated into false gaiety like a ventriloquist’s puppet.

To me, people insisting on happiness, joy, smiles, laughs all the time are like substance abusers constantly searching for a high. They’re bound to drop into a destructive dejection eventually. There’s value in feeling emotion, every type of emotion, to its height and depth, but restricting yourself to the so-called positive ones can’t be great for you.

I’ve found people who agree with me. Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann from Aalborg University says forcing ourselves to be happy all the time could leave us emotionally stunted. Some believe trying to be cheerful all the time can actually hurt us, stunt creativity, set an unrealistic and ever-impossible goal, hinder our ability to relate to those around us. We evolved to experience a range of emotions, says Time magazine. To avoid the negative ones limits us and, surprise!, ultimately our personal satisfaction.

So if you, like me, feel forced to laugh on the inside while crying on the inside, do yourself a favor and fuhgeddaboudit. You’ll do yourself more good by experiencing the full menu of emotions.