Meet Quest Maker Susan Woods
Quest Makers are women in their 40s and beyond who've declared
"now it's my time," and then set off on their own journeys to realize their dreams. Every month a Quest Maker is featured in the FREE e-newsletter, Your Next Quest Chronicles. Click here to enjoy archived issues.
Quest Maker Susan Woods
On the cusp of moving
in a new direction
A Christmas gift from her youngest sister—a book full of poems written by their mother when she lived on the Texas Gulf Coast—set Susan Woods on a spontaneous quest to connect once more with this remarkable woman. She found herself reflecting on their relationship, responding to her mother's poems by writing short prose pieces. In the process of exploring "that bond that fell between the lines and beneath the surface of their every day interactions," she realized she had written a love letter to her mother in book form, Guacamole Conversations: Mother Daughter Reflections Across Time and Place. In her early 60's now, Susan is on the cusp of moving in a new direction as she explores where Guacamole Conversations may lead her next.
Would you describe publishing Guacamole Conversations as a quest?
It didn’t start out as a purposeful quest. It was spontaneous and came as a surprise to me. My mother had passed away in 2000. In the early years of her retirement, she lived on Mustang Island, on the Texas Gulf Coast, where each morning she took long walks along the beach. She captured her walks in a series of really lovely poems—descriptions of the water’s edge—the birds and the sea and the tide—but also reflections on life, her mood, her thoughts that morning.
The sea comes in gently, so gently this morning,
Its song a mere whisper of yesterday's self
The water forms aprons of eyelet pique
That lap and lap over the sandbar's shelf
Then slip back to ocean, embroidering the beach
With bubbles of suds that glisten and quiver
And finally burst. . .
And sink into sand in the sun of the day.
At Christmas a couple of years after she had died, my sister Sally gave each of us a blank book in which she pasted copies of all Mother's poems in her original handwriting. In that blank book, I also found a note to me that I had never seen. It read:
To Susan, Do you like my poems? Why don’t you write to me? I write them partly to share with you and partly to share with the sea.
Well, what was I to do? Guacamole Conversations: Mother Daughter Conversations Across Time and Space is my belated response.
How did Guacamole Conversations unfold?
The writing occurred during a time when I was beginning to think about the transition from a full time career to retirement. As retirement becomes more of a reality, I hope to have time to pursue interests that had been put on the back burner when I was in the midst of my career. Being able to be creative and to write and share things is part of what I look forward to doing in the last part of my life. I'm in my early 60s so I'm right on the cusp of having to think about what comes next.
It took me about six months to create enough of a body of conversations to fill the little volume and tell a full story. A person can read Guacamole Conversations in one sitting. For each of my Mother’s poems, I added short prose or short pieces about my own reflections on our relationship. The paragraphs needed to be well structured and interesting. They needed to have a twist and be creatively satisfying. I like to write but I don't do a lot of writing on the side. I don't keep a journal. Most of my writing is professional. This was a different kind of writing. It was fun and I enjoyed it.
Part of what I was writing were memories of occasions and experiences with her, reflections of everyday encounters, the sort of things I remembered as I was missing her. There is nothing overly dramatic between us, no big crisis, no big betrayals, just ways in which my life reflects my mother or some interaction with her.
Susan and Helen, 1981
Each of my writings connects to something that I think my mother was trying to express in her poems. Together each pair forms a conversation: two women, two voices. When I was finished, I realized I had written a love letter to my mother. What began as something very personal, once complete, seemed to have taken on a life of its own. I honestly don't know where it came from. Half of me thinks my mother helped me write this. She was my muse.
The conversations are disconnected; we are not talking at the same time or in the same place. My mother's voice is from the late 1980's and early 1990's and mine comes about five years after she died. I believe we understood each other pretty well even though it wasn't always communicated explicitly. I leave it to the reader to decide, but that’s what I hope our conversations bring out—the unspoken understandings, recognition and appreciation.
A solitary walker I
(Gotcha, that time.)
In the mornings when I first wake up, before posture becomes conscious, I see my mother in the mirror walking with me. I look and move so much like her it's both comforting and alarming. I walk on the back of my heels and hold my elbows slightly up and away from the body. I bend at the waist to pick up objects off the floor—never the knees. I have the same age spot in the middle of my right cheek. It's getting bigger. I can smile the same way she did when she was impatient, but wanting to show encouragement, a gesture unconvincing and transparent. And when I'm tired and have been on my feet all day, I have my mother's ankles. My mother wore support hose for the last dozen years of her life—heavy, thick elastic stockings that required a concerted effort to pull on. After her death, we found a pair in her bottom bureau drawer neatly folded and sealed in a plastic sandwich bag with a note which read: Slight run in left foot—and instructions—Save for Susan.
All of us have private conversations and reflections we share with ourselves as we make sense of the world. Sometimes these are more explicit, sometimes they are more intuitive. I believe readers connect with Guacamole Conversations because the experiences I write about are not unique, just often unmentioned.
Why did you call the book Guacamole Conversations?
After my father died, my mother returned to her native Connecticut. She used to capture all she missed about Texas in the way she pronounced “guacamole.” Her voice would become soft and lyrical as if this substance carried significance far greater than mashed avocado. "Guacamole conversations" are like that too. Sometimes what is happening underneath our conversations carries significance far greater than the spoken words.
I’ve come to call these experiences “guacamole moments,” in reference to the bonds that fall between the lines that lie beneath the surface of everyday interactions. I hope the book inspires readers to leave my mother and me behind, to move on to appreciate their own connections with those they love.
What was your mother like?
|In Cleveland for her residency
(Dr. Woods is in top row at far right.)
Helen Woods was a pretty remarkable woman. She was a doctor in the 1940's, having graduated from Yale Medical School, one of only four women in her class. She was a pediatrician back in the days when few women were doctors and doctors made house calls.
Dr. Helen Woods
Dr. Richard Woods
She married a doctor, yet she was never the doctor's wife. Growing up, I learned when a telephone caller requested Dr. Woods to ask which one—Dr. Richard or Dr. Helen? She raised four successful kids. Back in the 40s, 50s and 60s before those kinds of relationships were as common, my parents had a real partnership as we think of that today. Professionally, they were peers because they were both physicians.
How did your family react to the book?
I think my two sisters and brother liked it. We all knew Mother had written these poems. She would share most of them with us, though some we didn’t see until after her death. We used to read them out loud. We would get her to read them to us. Her poems were a big deal in our family. In one poem she wrote about a great blue heron. One Christmas, my sister Sherry took a photograph of a heron, then superimposed the poem onto it as her gift. When I put the poems together with my memories of our mother, I think they appreciated that. They don't all agree with my memories. They say I make up things! This is primarily a personal thing and their memories will be different but they appreciate that I have put mine together. Of course, they know a hell of a lot more about me now!
The Woods Family, mid-1950's
What led you to self-publish?
I know my mother would have been so pleased to have her poems published. She was shy about them and expressed uncertainty about whether they were good enough to be published. Of course, I think her poems are beautiful.
I attended some writing workshops and also took some local courses on getting your work published. I did send the manuscript around to a couple of publishers. I was told that the rejection letters I received were fairly encouraging. The most difficult thing was that the book doesn't fit into any of the standard genres. It's a combination of poetry and prose, a kind of a memoir structured in two voices. It really didn't fit any category.
It took me about 18 months; I didn't work at it with concerted energy. There was a lot involved in setting up the manuscript using Lulu.com. I had to create the document files, figure out the graphic layout to be sure that everything was formatted properly, do all the proofing, determine the layout, number the pages and still capture the spirit I wanted to convey through this piece. It was an interesting and engaging process. It now has an ISBN number so it can be sold in places like Amazon and Barnes and Nobles. (NOTE: An International Standard Book Number uniquely identifies your title. It is required if you want to sell your book in bookstores and place it in libraries.) I just have to make one more little change and then it is all done.
Can you describe how you dealt with any obstacles on your adventure?
My biggest obstacle was finding time to get my head into thinking about my connections to my mother. When I sat down to write this, I had to clear my head of everyday work, family and household-related complications so I could really think about my mother and be reflective of my life and take value from the everyday encounters that we shared.
"I am my mother's daughther, but different."
My mother had died; I was missing her. In my experience, whenever I’ve lost someone I love, there is a transition that seems to happen from a sense of loss to a sense of joy that this person was in my life. It's figuring out how to carry this person—who was so important—forward in life. There is an awareness that this process rests on you because they're not here anymore; they're gone. Each of us has to do that for ourselves.
How did you make time for your dream?
I found time because it came to me, in the evenings, on weekends. Once I got going, I was captured. In my work, I would often find myself making these three hour drives from one location to another. I would fill that time in the car talking to myself, remembering little details, small events, everyday encounters that became the substance of my reflections. When I got home, I would write it down.
This is what I think you have to do. I think this whole notion of having a quest is partly deciding on something you want to do and then managing your schedule so you have time to pursue it. It’s part of being self determined and directed, not being totally at the whim of outside circumstances or controlled by other factors or people. I suspect this is pretty common to women who decide that they have a quest they want to pursue.
What changes has this brought to your life?
The book has given me a sense of accomplishment. It's a tangible thing I have created and produced.
I feel that my mother would have been really pleased to see her poems in Guacamole Conversations. I know she wrote and kept them privately but she would have loved to have them published. I feel as if I have done something to give back to her. And I have to say, it was so much fun when we had the two professional readings to be the person who wrote the script that the actors read. It was a totally different experience for me.
I am not in a position to quit working yet and my work is pretty absorbing. What this has done for me is to help set a direction that I'd like to go in when I am in a position to be semi-retired. Most of the research says baby boomers end up doing something else. With Guacamole Conversations, I’m exploring what I might be doing in the last years of my life that is different from what I did in the middle years. The door may have opened. My quest is just beginning. I am on the cusp of moving in a new direction.
I do have some other things I would like to write. I have an idea for a novel or play that I started when I was in my late 20s' and then set aside when I got swept in the whole career portion of my life. In my retirement I would like to go back to that and see if I could make something out of it.
Can you describe how the book moved from the page
to the stage?
Click here to listen to a Buffalo, N.Y. NPR radio interview with Susan
and hear snippets from the
May 2010 theater performance based on the book.
I should say that I had good fortune. In dealing with workplace education and training, my business partner and I have worked with Darlene Pickering Hummert and Theatre for Change in Buffalo, N.Y., to include interactive dramatization as part of our training. When Darlene read my manuscript she said: "Let's do a professional reading!"
Darlene has produced and directed two performance readings with professional actors. In May 2010, Guacamole Conversations was read by Jeanne Cairns and Christina Rause, with Jennifer Coleman playing the violin. They brought the words to life. The audience related so well to the conversations—they laughed and cried and at times were totally silent. I had the chance to sit in the back of the theater while the audience reacted.
That was such a thrill, an experience I never would have imagined I’d have.And it worked! After the performance, people shared with me so many personal stories of their own. The performance readings encouraged me to publish.
What is the one essential quality that you'd tell women to pack for their own journey?
The need to be reflective and confident and not take themselves or those around them for granted. That takes a certain amount of self-awareness and awareness of others. One of the strongest things women can do is appreciate what they bring to others and others to them, to value one another.
What has helped you stay on your quest’s path?
No matter how old you get, you are never able to give up responsibility for making sense out of your life. For me to be happy and satisfied, I need to be engaged in something that I feel is productive. Part of this experience has been searching for what that's going to be. I know it won't be what I have done in my career; it will be different. I am looking forward to that. This whole experience has given me a sample of what that might be. Whether or not I will be able to build it into something more substantive, I don't know.
What's been the secret to reaching your goals?
Helen in the early 1950's
I think I had a sense of purpose. Part of my purpose was that I really think my mother was a remarkable woman. She had her own unique character, which was not necessarily sweet. She was incredibly intelligent and in her later years, she would share stories about things she had done or accomplished. I didn’t want these to be lost.
One story she shared with me, which I reference in the book, happened right after she finished medical school. When she was in her early 20s, she was assigned to be the doctor at an orphanage in New Haven, Conn. This would have been the early 1940’s. There was a polio epidemic in the city. At the time, no one understood what caused polio, how it was transmitted, how to prevent it. There was no vaccine. Here was my mother in charge of this entire orphanage. She told me that not a single child got sick. That is an amazing accomplishment. I doubt that any of the children at that orphanage at that time remembered my mother, yet she was tremendously instrumental in saving their lives. I wanted to capture that.
Part of my sense of purpose was creating a document that said: "Here is this woman whose life was extraordinary in so many ways." I wouldn't have known about her being in charge of an orphanage during a polio epidemic if she hadn't told me the story while she was reflecting on her life. I just didn’t want things like this to get lost and this was one way not to lose them. That sense of purpose really drove me to complete it.
I know my mother's experience is not unique. Maybe she was a physician and maybe she protected these children, but I suspect that all of the people we are close to have done things that have had remarkable effects, that were totally significant, but which may go unrecognized. That is part of what Guacamole Conversations is all about—making those connections and encouraging people to think about what those they love have accomplished and to be appreciative of that kind of thing.
What's the best advice for your quest that you've ever received?
Just to keep going. The best advice I got happened when I would write one or two of these paragraphs and then would show them to people. They would say: "That's really good. You have to keep going. Are there more?"
I also have very close friends who are connected with the theater and through them I had the privilege of being introduced to local playwright and poet in the community where I live. Both were gracious enough to read the rough draft of this manuscript and give me feedback. They helped me with the editing and figuring out how to position the different conversations so the reader progressively learned about who these two women and about their connections.
We met for lunch to discuss the piece. It was totally delightful. What our conversation did was give me confidence that this little piece I had written, which began as a private piece between me and my mother, might have some broader value. I am greatly appreciative for their encouragement as I was moving forward with this.
Is there a particular quote, a movie, a book or a person that has sustained you?
I have very close relationships with my family, my friends and my partner, Bonnie Camarra. All of them sustain me.
Do you have a new quest around the corner?
The journey is just beginning so it's hard for me to answer that. I don't know where this is going to go. Part of the journey was recognizing that I had something to contribute that was creative in nature rather than academic and professional. It’s just a short piece, but I hope it brings value.
The next step, of course, is to begin selling the book and I don't know where that will take me. Maybe this notion of “guacamole moments” will catch on as a fun way for people to realize who they are and also who they are to others; it's a way to step back and recognize the people we are close to. That's empowering.
Now that the book is published, I also hope to set up a website and have a blog space where people can share their own stories of those kinds of connections.
I might say my quest is exploring semi-retirement and where Guacamole Conversations takes me. Creative writing is totally new and different for me. If I can follow up this with something else that actually takes shape and becomes substantive, it will be a new direction for me that was not developed in my youth or in the career phase of my life.
Practical reality often influences what we do at different points in time and what we sacrifice. If we are fortunate, moving forward into the latter years of life is the time when we might see how to develop those aspects of ourselves that had been put aside. Maybe they will pan out, maybe they won't. It's part of continuing the exploration of who we are as people and of what interests us and how we develop ourselves and our creative expressions.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Guacamole Conversations began as a personal quest to connect once more with my mother, who I was missing. And yet, it became something more, taking on a purpose of its own. One of the very special times for mothers and daughters can be stepping out of our roles and thinking about each other as women. This is where we learn from her things that help us find out uniquely who we are.
Mother and daughter at the beach, together in time and place
I think there is a period in our relationships with our mothers when we become more like friends than like mother daughter. In my case, this happened when we were both older women; me, middle-aged and she, in the last years of her life. We'd talk about when she met my father, about her thoughts and the different choices she had made at different times. I gained insight into her as a woman that I would not have had if it were just in mother-daughter roles.
I grew up in the 1950's-1960's. So much has changed since then. It's important that we not forget all of the constraints imposed on women during that time.
It's not the same for women today. I want to appreciate what my mother was able to accomplish in the context of that period. I don't want that to get lost.
The other way Guacamole Conversations is a quest is that over the years I have been around so many women who have complained about their mothers and misunderstood the kinds of connections they have. I recognize that relationships are not across the board perfect; there can be tension. I would be happy if the “guacamole moments” in the book encouraged others to be more appreciative of the unspoken connections between the lines they share in their own relationships with their mothers and others they care about. Susan closes the book with questions she hopes will carry readers own conversations forward.