Life Prompts

It takes a lot of mental, physical, and emotional energy to write—anything. A sentence, a book, a poem, a letter. 


We writers mostly write alone. But we can’t do it alone. We need the world around us, to present itself. Then it’s up to us to…










I used to believe the best place to start was with the dripping moments—the giving birth highs and saying goodbye lows. It’s not. Those memories meld to the DNA, forever changing our make-up. Finding words worthy of those soul-poppers takes a lot of practice.


While I practiced, I led a writing workshop in the town where I live for many years. The class was for anyone and everyone who wanted to…Just Write.


What I learned? Writing is about seeing and being seen.


Most folks showed up with more than a little hesitation about being seen. Drawing attention to an everyday act or emotion was often viewed as boastful, akin to dipping your toe into a self-grandiosity pond where you might quickly drown or start believing that you were special. Or worse, find out that you weren’t. 


I could immediately relate because my generation was taught that there was a pecking order to who was seen. That you earned the right, through credentials or pedigree to be a this or a that. Being seen was an honor reserved for worthy types or outliers who’d achieved.


It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others then assign worth based on a set of data points we value. Problem is, when we sort ourselves and others this way, we negate what makes for good writing…the unexpected, the raw, the scraps that haven’t seen light yet.


For the first class, I started by talking about my background—a credo to my worthiness—proof that I should be standing in the front of the classroom. It was tedious and made me feel like a poser, so I stopped. By the second session, I formed a circle with the classroom chairs so there was no front of class and began with what I actually believed:


“What makes us all writers is that we write. For the next several weeks, commit to stringing words together to understand yourself and the world around you a little better. That’s it. The words don’t need to be grammatically perfect or profound, they just need to be written, by you.”


I usually started with a prompt that had been given to me, at a writing workshop, I’d attended. “Write about your dinner table growing up.”


Then, off we’d go, in search of truth or fiction or both.


Maid on Netflix, book by Stephanie Land

All of this came rushing back recently while watching the immensely moving Netflix series Maid, based on the book by Stephanie Land. After journeying with this character through an emotional story about abuse, massive disappointment and personal growth, there was a very simple scene toward the end where she shares her love of writing with a group of women.


The character, Alex, begins by saying, “No one can take writing away from you. Or tell you that your words are wrong. Because they’re not. Your words are f*in right cause they’re yours.” She then invites the woman to write with her. “I brought some writing prompts that I got from a real professor off the internet that is actually qualified to teach things.” 

It was a sideswipe of a plot point, but wow did it resonate with me. Alex struggling to embrace her value while encouraging other women with shared experiences permission to do the same. 


It’s a simple but powerful truth. We all crave permission.


Sometimes we give the permission to ourselves and sometimes we share it with others. Sometimes we do both at the same time. 


And hopefully over time we see that life prompts are everywhere, willing us to…


Take the blurry picture 

Dance the imperfect dance

Sing the song off-key

Kick the ball before we know how


Wrestle with words—until they’re unapologetically ours.

What I Was Thinking

“How did I do?” he asks, moments after the graduation ceremony ends. “I could see you clearly when I was up there, and you had this look on your face, but I couldn’t tell what you were thinking.”
Oh, um…
My kid is up there giving the senior speech and he looks more man than boy. When did that happen?  
The guy at the podium was born like fourteen seconds ago, in one of the snowiest winters on record, to two scared parents who’d just moved away from family to an entirely new town and state. Everything was strange but promising and…
Then there was you. Smiley and hungry. Colicky too, every night from 6-9 pm. Which is when your dad would walk you in circles reciting the silliest song that you surely don’t remember:
My name is John Robert and I’m in the house
I’m here to tell you I’m not a little mouse
I’m almost as big as that (syncopated pause) oak tree
So…you better start respecting me!
Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
After the baby, came the little man. The one who proudly pronounced, “Use your imagination!” as the answer to most questions. The one who built towering sculptures out of his toys instead of playing with them. 


That little man grew into a cautious but persistent tween who preferred an Irish cap to a baseball hat and was prone to telling wildly entertaining stories that we knew to be hyperbole, but we played along anyway. Cause those stories also came with seeds of wit and grace.

The same qualities that are now on full display as the guy at the podium commemorates a rite of passage while his classmates laugh and cheer.


“I was overwhelmed with pride. That was a big deal and you knocked it out of the park. A smile was too simple a reaction for my face,” I tell him. He laughs. 


It’s impossible for him to comprehend the mere surface of my love. How could he? 


I want to freeze time. This moment we’re in—and live it over and over and over again. While he is still mostly mine and not the world’s quite yet.


That’s what I was thinking.

I couldn't freeze time...
Move-in Day at Columbia University!

The Middle (In The Garden)

It’s a mystical, murky mess in the middle.

July into August, in the garden, is where hard work collides with luck, producing a snapshot of reality. Where the distance between “Is this really worth it?” and “Those are amazing!” is a short, predictable stroll. 

Quick crop update: the peppers are once again underperforming. The cauliflower started out with promise but now is a bug infested mess. The basil has taken over. There is so much that I’ve incorporated it into most meals. (Turns out basil is DELICIOUS in scrambled eggs.)

The over-achieving crop of the season? By far, the flowers. 

Last year toward the end of summer, I lamented to a friend that the herbs and tomatoes were the season’s lone stars. She suggested I do a combo next year. A mixture of flowers and vegetables. The idea intrigued me. 

I am a flower enthusiast. But the planning of flower beds—the quest for the optimal balance of annual and perennial pop—just doesn’t tug at me. Cut flowers, however, are always on my grocery list. 

Mid-winter a book arrived in my mailbox titled In Bloom by Clare Nolan. I scanned each picture and read some of the content, but I am not a research driven DYI’er. I’m more of a throw some seeds in the dirt and hope for the best kind of gal. Which is exactly what I did in late May.

It was impossible in the early days to discern the fledgling buds from the weeds. I did my best, then made a chicken wire fence around their perimeter and let them be. Now the wild back garden border complete with cosmos and sunflowers is a wonder to behold and best of all: carefree. 


I also planted zinnia plants (not quite the same gamble as seeds). Just a few on the edge of the garden bordering my neighbor, near the peppers. I thought maybe the zinnias would give the slackers a pep talk. No such luck, the peppers are barely peppering. But the zinnias are visual rocket ships to joyland. Endless fireworks all day. 


Other than the flowers, only a few cucumbers and wax beans have been harvested. Unless you count the dill, parsley, and basil that could fuel a small country. 


There is a section in In Bloom titled “Enjoying the Fruits of Your Labor.” That’s the stage that comes next. 


But for now, we are solidly in the middle. Where misshapen rows of green tomatoes meet jumbo dill and thriving weeds in a glorious, tangled display. All under the watchful eye of the shooting-star zinnias and cosmos. 


Further proof that Mother Nature doesn’t subscribe to human intention. She’s too busy surpassing our wildest expectations. 

Even If I'm Not Quite Ready

The beginning, in the garden, is all about possibility. 


And questions:


·      Should I go heavy on tomatoes since they always grow the best?

·      Or lean adventurous with new varieties of garlic and onions?

·      Is this the year to finally stop attempting peppers?

·      Is there any point in planting beans when I know they are bunny caviar?

·      What is the appropriate fence height? (Last year my garden was basically a wild-life buffet.)


It helps to ask questions. Questions (and the subsequent answers) come with an air of controlled understanding. But the truth is much of what happens in the garden defies reason and planning. You can time the seeds, plant the right combination, guard the fledgling newbie growths, and…Mother Nature has other ideas. Major hang-on-to-your-sunhat, take-cover kind of plans.


For instance, ten ninety-degree days in a row, which a month after planning (I’ve noticed) can be ideal. But at weeks one or two, is almost always fatal. You can water and water (and water too much) but if scorched earth is how the plants are greeted as they enter even fertile soil, full plant potential is rarely realized.


This year I planted just as a three-day rain torrent hit. I knew the rain was coming but gambled that moisture balanced by subsequent forecasted heat might play out as balance? I had no choice. After a spring of familial milestones, there was no emotional bandwidth or time to be found in early May for thoughtful planting. This year, the edge of unofficial summer, was the best that I could do.


When my superhero neighbor saw me feverishly planting, he asked if we might want to combine fencing efforts to keep the vermin out. I gladly obliged. The result? A big open concept garden that will no longer have an awkward weedy path between our plots. He also offered me his extra pepper plants. How could I say no? Peppers: this is your last chance. 


That’s life, in the garden. Each year is different, new. 


John The Backyard Farmer, circa 2016

You give it your best. You water and prune and tend to the plants as if they’re your children. The children who used to plan “opening day” in the garden and choose the crop with you. The children who would enthusiastically ask, “is this from the garden?” at late summer dinners. The same children who now rarely make it out to the backyard because they have time consuming gardens of their own now. Not actual gardens but real-life endeavors. (Work with me here it’s a metaphor.) 


The central purpose of a garden is of course to grow food, but time spent in the garden serves up other benefits too. Excitement for the season that lies ahead. Trust that Mother Nature is doing her thing. Appreciation for whatever fruits come from all that labor. Acceptance of the inevitable melancholy that will undoubtedly take root when it’s time to let go. (No…I’m not talking about the peppers. But the damn onions are already getting in my eyes!) 


It’s time even if I’m not quite ready. For summer, in the garden.


I’ve always preferred even years. I ever-so-slightly exhale when an odd one passes, and evenness is once again ushered in. Maybe it’s because I’ve had many happy milestones in even years? Or maybe it’s my gravitational pull toward symmetry.


But 2020 blew my previously held belief to smithereens. It’s going to be a while before the grudge lifts, and I crave a perfectly round number.


This time last year (as though I need to paint the picture) we were barely leaving our house except to engage in toilet paper scavenger hunts. It was a very unsettling, strange time and so when my husband announced that he was “taking a half day” on our anniversary, my reply was not one of a new bride.


“Why?” I asked. “We can’t do anything.”


May 6, 2020 was our 20th wedding anniversary. We were married in one of those even years that I’d previously loved so much.


With worry lurking on every doorknob, we hadn’t so much as ordered takeout since the world shut down. What exactly did he propose we do to celebrate two decades?


Luckily there are times when history outpaces youth. When decades of happy moments and monumental misses merge to form a perfectly clear view. (As regular readers of this blog know I have trouble feigning grace when days like say Mother’s Day  aren’t given their due. ) 


Perhaps the greatest gift of all time? He knew before I did what we were going to do.


We packed a picnic and made our way to a slice of green by the water in a town that we hadn’t visited since the kids were little. He and I laughed at how silly we must have looked, day-sipping in a park on a Wednesday in the middle of the apocalypse. But there we stayed, reminiscing until our bladders announced that it was time to go home.


The weather was overcast and the food scrappy, but the company was made of the stuff of 20 years. 


Fast forward (Who am I kidding? It was slow motion!) and it’s one year later. Vaccinations are complete and the slightest bit of hope is on the horizon. We’re not yet inside restaurant eaters, but we happily enjoy a patio evening out now and then. 


So here we are looking at the weather forecast, mulling where to make our anniversary plans. 

And my mind keeps wandering… to that little patch of grass overlooking the Connecticut River. A true bright spot in an otherwise not-so-even year. A memory that I'll re-live over and over, with any luck for the next 20 years. 


A Year in TV

When the pandemic started now over a year ago, I, like most people wasn’t sure how to feel about what was happening. 

Lucky. I settled on that emotion first. More time with my loved ones. Time to cook lingering meals and have real conversation now that all of the external bustle was temporarily gone. 

Lucky lasted a while. Then, right around the time lucky was morphing into disbelief, a friend made a dramatic plea on Facebook that Mad Men was leaving Netflix soon. 

Who cares? I thought. But, just to be safe, I hit the glorious dun, dun button on the remote control and sank into the 1960s misogyny, glamour, and smoke-filled rooms. It took me a few episodes but soon I was in, deep. I stopped watching the endless loop of horrific news and was happily lost in the self-deprecating cast of horribles and heroines. I’d never watched TV during the day before. But before long my daytime consumption started to rival Don Draper’s day-drinking. It felt wrong and simultaneously right, and in moments a huge waste of time but mostly great. I made it through the many seasons before Netflix snapped my Mad Men away. 

“Really, Holly, you have to try it again!” friend after friend told me. With Mad Men in the rearview mirror and the pandemic ramping up, I did try Schitts Creek, again. The second time around, I once again found the first episode self-indulgent and almost impossible to watch. Why does anyone care about these people? 

By episode three or four, I got that that was the whole point and began caring about each and every character. (Maybe a little too much?) I started to rope family members into watching with me as I cooked dinner or over coffee (oh, the shame) and soon we were having “who’s your favorite character?” contests while drawing straws for who would don the hazmat suit and go to the grocery store. 

When I reached the final season of Schitts Creek, my viewing drastically slowed. I didn’t want it to be over. But, alas it was. Almost as quickly as it began. 

It was also around this time, that my “TV life” was starting to take its toll on my marriage. Okay, that’s an overstatement but makes a good transition, right? 

The truth is for both Mad Men and Schitts Creek, my husband watched once in a while but he’d yet to get sucked in with the intensity that by this point had hit me like a tidal wave. I craved a partner in obsession, so I started asking around: “What are you guys watching? As a couple?” 

I received a wide array of answers in my unofficial TV poll, but ultimately settled on a series of British mysteries that would unknowingly mark a definitive shift in our TV viewing. 

I’ll call this next phase: The Howleys Leave America 

Since all actual trips had been unceremoniously cancelled (we’d been so hopeful back in spring!) our first stop was England via Broadchurch. It was the first series that Rob made me promise not to watch without him. The plot was hardly break-neck, but the characters were comfort embodied. We needed to know: what would happen next? 

Then, came The Stranger, followed by Doctor Foster (so weird) until finally it was time to leave England for Australia and Safe Harbor, then to Ireland and Behind Her Eyes

All was happy in TV land until fate intervened. As in normal life, pandemic watching can reap havoc on the most solid of TV watching relationships. 

Enter Derry Girls. 

What was it that made my 100% Irish (although he’ll tell you he’s half Canadian) partner look away? The wry wit, the sacrilegious undertones, the flagrant generalizations of how the Irish process life? I’ll never know, because I went on, without him. 

Watched all of three seasons (they’re short) alone first, then sucked the kids in not mentioning that I’d seen them before, and on a recent sister visit watched a good chunk of the episodes again with her. Because Derry Girls is that fecking awesome. 

So, there you have it. I am sure I missed a few indulgences. But let’s face it Monday is Thursday is what month is it, anyway? Such as life, TV goes. 
I don’t have a new series in the queue, which I guess is okay, because it’s spring and hope is shining bright. Time to go outside. To once again re-convene in small groups, masked and six feet away, of course. 

But…just in case outside isn’t as glorious as I remember… 

What are you watching?