A whole year has passed since I first begin my blog. It's amazing how much one little person has to say, huh? I must admit, I thought April would be a good blog month. But things get massively in the way. I even missed posting a Happy Birthday, Jon entry, though I did start it. He doesn't mind (didn't notice, in fact) that I couldn't get around to that. Considering he's probably the second most mentioned individual on this site (first being me), I guess he knows I think he's pretty special.
At any rate, I was going to write something special for the 1 year anniversary of The Girl Behind the Red Door. But that didn't happen. I had the CBEST on Saturday, lots of assigned writing for my fiction and poetry classes, and Jon leaves for New York in the morning. So, I decided to post one of the "sudden fiction" stories I had to write for tomorrow. I was assigned three. One in first person/present tense (I go for a walk.), one in second person/past tense (You went for a walk.), and one in third person/future tense (He will go for a walk.).
I let Jon pick his favorite. To give some explanation, "sudden fiction" is exactly that. I had one page (typed and double-spaced) to give plot, background, developed characters, build up, climax, conclusion or summation. Naturally the rules are bent a bit for the sake of the length restriction.
Mist swims around me, pasting the shirt to my skin. I sit as I've sat for days, alert, my back to a patch of bamboo. I wait. The sun blinks above the peaks to the east, on its way up, and pours the light over me.
I shiver, but immediately I straighten my back and place my hands, palms up, on my knees, in my contemplative posture. I ask questions to which I know the answers, silent, and soon my focus is back on track. Here, among the dormant volcanoes of Uganda, I am alone. To my left there is a plunging valley, lush but treeless, and I see a group of yellow-backed Duikers feeding. I watch them, studying their delicate movements.
Then my friends are here, beautiful black beasts pacing through the heavy forests upwind. They come here every morning, a breakfast ritual, and lounge in a placid circle stripping the bamboo and wild celery between their teeth.
Haruni signals the family, and they move into the sheltered meadow, finding the patches of flattened grass they left yesterday. Haruni is the silverback; he is the oldest, the father of most of the offspring. He knows I am here, but in recent weeks has decided I am no threat to him. I am more than grateful. He shares his family with me.
I watch, humble when they peer back at me with mild disinterest. Today is special, though. A young female, Nasha, is studying me. I meet her gaze and try to channel my gentleness through the air. It is possible she is doing the same, because I feel warm even in the damp morning mist.
Haruni's head swings up and his indomitable dark eyes pierce the forest edge. What does he sense? He is up, shoulders squared. And he is facing me, which sends a wicked chill screaming down my spine. A puff of white breath hangs in an ominous cloud before him. I prepare to scream. But Nasha looks unafraid, and she is still holding me in her gaze.
He charges at me, but there is no time to cry out, and in a heartbeat he is beyond me, ripping through the vegetation, bellowing. And the leopard I had not seen is streaming through the field below, from which the Duikers have fled.
I wish, I wish, I wish I had the time to write something that I haven't been assigned. But apparently this quarter is all about the writing. I play volleyball and I write. I write, and then I play some volleyball. Okay, so it doesn't sound hard. And I shouldn't make such a big deal out of it. Due tomorrow are 10 (yes... 10) paragraph-long stories. Seriously, I was told to smush all my creativity into a single paragraph at a time. The good news: I completed 10 stories, 10 paragraphs. Now I'm tapped out. Couldn't dream up another plot if I tried. But, if anyone's interested... here's what I came up with.
I took a stab at remaining motionless, but she saw me from across the room, and came quickly at me. Perhaps she wanted to comment on my new haircut, or the uncharacteristically long hemline of my jean skirt. But I didn't think so. Her nostrils flared. I had no idea the living room was so big. It took her ages to navigate the couch, the coffee table that had been moved for a game of Twister, the Twister participants. Her eyes screamed, How dare you come to my party? How dare you drink my Smirnoff and watch my drunk friends play Twister? The trouble was, I had no answer. I couldn't remember what had possessed me to put on my party clothes, to 'forget' to wear a bra, and then to show up at my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend's party. I could run. There was still time. I sent a quick, slightly frantic glance over my shoulder toward the screen door in the kitchen. A moth was banging its head on the screen, trying to join the party. When I turned back, she was standing up close to me, sneering. I could smell her tangerine shampoo and the third rum and coke she'd washed down to get the guts to challenge me like this. She smelled good. The line she'd cut in the sea of people widened so everyone could get a good look. I tensed. A flood of light swung into the house through the windows and the roar of a car engine stopped all of us. Dead. She shot me a panicked look, dug her nails into my left arm, then vanished, along with every ounce of fight she had saved up for me, into the sea of frenzied kids, all tumbling towards the exit. I drained my drink, straightened my skirt, and headed for the kitchen, making sure to let the moth in on my way out.
Jacob carved his brother's name into the mottled brown surface of the tree, scarring the bark with his pocket knife. Carter. Tenderly he traced the word with his finger, removing any remaining sawdust. There, he thought, there is your mark on the world. Jacob stood up, unbending at the knees and waist, groaning quietly along the way. Leaving his brother's name on a tree was a small gesture, but it was the only practical thing to do now, with six weeks left of dust, potholes and heartache on the trail. From where he stood, near the biggest, broadest oak tree, Jacob surveyed the wagon train, his eyes skipping from one wagon to the next until they landed on his own, the one he had shared with his brother. Loneliness tore at him from the inside. Who would help him build his new home? Who would share his soup and bread, remind him to say his prayers? Jacob knew the answer to all of those questions. All of Jacob's dreams were laid to rest in that same shallow grave. He turned around again to the foot of the tree where he had dug the grave for Carter. Beside the raw mound of mud was another grave, gaping open. With blistered hands, Jacob leaned his shovel against the tree, gently resting it between the two names. Jacob and Carter. He stepped into the grave and lay down, staring up at the tree. The great branches waved above him, whispering and consoling.
Papa was kicking the dust off his shoes, slapping the dust off his thighs when I left the house. He didn't see me go, but he hasn't noticed me much since the gold gleam came into his eye. I don't know much about such things. But I know he wants to be rich. And that, when he strikes it rich, he wants to buy me pretty things, and make sure I don't have to scrub floors or skin rabbits anymore. I could still hear him dancin' in that cloud of dust as I went over the hill. July is so hot. A soul can't get a breath of air without swallowing a fly or worse. And Thursday is my bathing day. At the bottom of our little canyon runs the prettiest river; I go there as often as I possibly can. The sticky heat pushed me in, up to my knees. When I saw the gold, I gasped. There it was, sparking around my toes. Why hadn't I seen it before? More and more of it caught my eye, blinding me, deeper and deeper I waded. I don't know if it was the current or God smiting me for my greed, but I got sucked in. Now I'm splashing and flailing, but I can't get a word out. From somewhere, though, I could swear I hear Papa callin' my name. Clementine!
I've never been stood-up before, I think as I take a tentative sip of my ice water. Should I be drinking this water? If the guy never shows up, and I don't order anything else, will the kitchen staff be mad that they still have to clean the lipstick off this glass, even though they didn't get paid for it? Am I wearing too much lipstick? I consider the glass and the sticky, pink half-kiss I've left on the rim. I fiddle with the salad fork and breathe in the direction of the candle on the table to make it flicker. I'm being childish, I decide. I can eat alone. I have my pride. But the waiter doesn't come over, because he knows I'm waiting for someone. I made some cutesy, half-flirtatious remark about my date being late when I followed the waiter to my table. Why do I have this unmitigated need to talk to strangers, to tell them tidbits about my personal life? Five more minutes, I decide, then I'm out of here. The five minutes tick past, then six. I gather myself up, a miserable bundle of purse, evening wrap and crushed hopes. I pass tables of sympathetic people, oblivious children, one smirking waitress with a giant mole on her nose. The valet asks for my tag. On behalf of all of us here at Four Lakes Winery, he recites without looking me in the eye, we hope you had a wonderful dinner, and that we'll see you again soon. I close my eyes and sigh. This, I realize, is not the Lakefront Winery. I want to run back inside and yell, I wasn't stood-up! I was just stupid! But I don't, because this isn't Hollywood. I step into my car and drive across town, hoping my date is more patient than me.
I was listening to my neighbors fighting when I first began to believe I could fly. Beyond the picture window in my parents' bedroom was a tree that looked purple at night. On lonely evenings, I'd tuck myself up onto the window seat, hugging my knees like they were my friends, and observe the evening. With the evening came the song of frogs, the yelling of neighbors and the purple tree.
Between the leaves, I could hear the fighting. Only a thin, white wall and the volume of our stereo separated their town home from ours. But once my mother wrapped herself in her headphones, riding high on the nostalgia and Patsy Cline, the wall alone couldn't hold back our neighbors' anger and resentment.
Without headphones of my own, I was left to hear it all. Accusations, threats, stiff silence between rounds. My own parents never fought, they barely spoke; and so the Fighting Floyds (as Mother called them under her breath, even though their last name wasn't Floyd) were my only insight into the realm of the acknowledged unhappy marriage.
Secretly I admired their passion. They would start early, sometimes right after dinner. During the summer, it would last until almost midnight, as they hurled and spat insults at one another through the sticky heat. Neither ever got the better of the other. Both valiantly tried for the last word.
But one night it was different. I craned my neck to catch a feeble glimpse of the raw inside of the Floyd's home, a triangular gap between the high backyard fence and the sliding back doors. I could see a green rug on a wood floor. I could see Mrs. Floyd's cherry red toenails and the gray tire of her wheelchair. What would it be like, I wondered, to be unable to walk? Better yet, to be able to fly?
Mr. Floyd called his wife a pathetic cripple.
Through the bruise-purple leaves I saw a sliver of silver moon. If I could fly, I decided, I would zoom straight to the moon and curl up there. From the moon I could probably see every inch of the Floyd's house. I could peek into any room. Maybe I could teach Mrs. Floyd how to fly, too; then everyone else, unable to do anything but walk, would be crippled when compared with us. The thought made me smile.
She was yelling. Her full voice, a luxurious alto, swelled up with indignant fervor and floated towards me, shaking the leaves on the tree and making me tremble, too. I'd never heard Mrs. Floyd so angry. She was calling him terrible names, using words I'd never heard, but I was sure they were bad. She ordered him out.
The sliding door flashed open. From within, he turned her wheel chair and pushed her out onto the patio, ignoring the fifteen times Mrs. Floyd snarled, 'Don't you dare!' The door shut. The lock snapped closed.
A stunned Mrs. Floyd was rigid in her chair, every muscle in her arms and face coiled and ready to strike, like a snake in corner. She could not see me, but I was soaking in this new humiliation, this new fighting strategy from above. Watching like God.
'There is no God!' she yelled, as if she heard my thoughts. I shrank back. But, from somewhere in the now darkened house, I heard Mr. Floyd respond by slamming something hard.
My blood was racing at my temples. I felt as if in a plane on a runway, in those final jerky moments at top speed before the big metal bird swoops into the air. Mrs. Floyd's fury rustled the leaves of my tree, and began to lift me, too. I felt my arms rising and pushing at the scratchy screen, pushing hard, against my control. She was sobbing loudly, and I wanted to see better. I wanted to see what the tree and the moon could see.
The screen fell out with a crash, and Mrs. Floyd's head jerked up in my direction. I sat very still, blending in with the shadowy tree. Deciding it was nothing, she cried again. And again, something was pulling me up onto my knees, reaching for the dark tree limb.
From deep in her chest, Mrs. Floyd summoned those hateful words, and hurled them at her house, at her husband. 'THERE IS NO GOD!' And she meant each word. She spoke truth. And then I knew it, too. If a woman, cut down and helpless in a wheelchair, could be thrown from her home by her own husband, locked out in the middle of the night, then no God existed. I had been lied to.
Maybe that wasn't the only lie.
Maybe I could fly up to the moon and take Mrs. Floyd with me.
I stood unwavering on the window seat, arms raised to the moon, thinking about how much it would mean to Mrs. Floyd to be able to fly, to be able to fly just out of her husband's reach and win the never-ending fight.
The purple leaves were flat and slick, but the twigs and branches scraped every part of my body. One arm hooked around the large branch nearest the window, and in an instant I knew many things. I could not fly. I was falling fast. There was one chance to grab the limb and save my life. It would take an act of God.
I received a check-plus on my first fiction writing assigment (the equivolent of an A). He liked the pure voice, the original introduction of the characters, the catchy phrases I invented, the fact that I made up a word and wasn't afraid to toss it into the soup of my writing. The word, by the way, was "beginingless". Awesome.
But I can't feel great about this story. I cheated, you see. This is a fiction writing class, and I was writing about something very, very true. How can I help but having a pure voice when telling about something I actually feel, actually live with? The challenge of fiction is maintaining the pure voice through a lie you're loving to tell.
I want to do that, badly. First, though, I must shed this ridiculous non-fiction voice I've developed for myself (and I'm afraid the blogging is partially to blame).
As part of a generation between Gen X and Gen Y, and as an individual who feels her entire existance is unfortunately less than extraordinary, and as a person who still finds so much to say, and as a young woman with ambition to be a writer, it's hard to believe that on occasion I lose my sense of self.
Personal definition is important, always. And most people chose to define themselves in the relative sense, utilizing a series of comparisons to describe what they are and what they most definately are not. I do that, too.
For example, I can neatly package myself into the following social compartments:
Marital Status: Married
Profession: Student/Insurance Broker
Religion/Faith: Christian - Non-denominational
Misc: Non-smoker, animal-lover, meat-eater, Jeep-driver, Audrey Hepburn fan, Friends-watcher
That's enough. It's boring. True, but ultimately not the stuff of history. And all of it relies strictly on a series of comparisons: me v. everyone else on the planet.
It hits me.
As an author my job is to blend in with the wallpaper while my character throws her tea party. No one should be able to feel me in my work; if they do, my job as a writer of fiction has not been well done. Beyond that, I only know about forty people on earth who are in touch with me enough to hear me in my writing. The rest of the world would have no idea that the forty-year-old Iranian hair stylist at the local salon, mother of three teenage girls (one of whom is pregant!), struggling with her smoking addiction and her on-going grudge with God... who I invented, has any hint of Audrey Jean Camp in her!
Will I ever be able to write about anyone who does not look, sound, act, express themselved exactly the way I do?
A good fiction writer does that. Every day. Today I tried something during a writing exercise in class. The prompt was "A visit to the doctor". Figuring there would be, amongst my twenty gifted classmates, a smattering of the typical cancer stories, childbirth scenarios, etc., I acknowleged that this was my chance to find a different voice. We only had ten minutes, but I wound up with the story of a girl with a headache. Her real problem, though, was anorexia. One soccer practice and one slightly unorthodox visit to the doctor later, I had myself a quirky story with a sweet undertone and a moral waiting at the end. Okay, the moral was a little lame: always eat. But I was proud of the rest.
The first two pages of our first to-be-workshopped story are due on Monday. I have five days to write something amazing. No pressure. At least I've figured out that I must, first, lose my own voice before letting a new character speak. Good luck, me.
a last hazy stretch of dark road,
The last mile.
All around me are dark things,
a circle of black-clad men
and the scent of gunpowder.
They see me through the fog,
and to them I am a gray outline,
a pencil sketch.
From afar, they are smudges of lead
or graphite on paper.
But closer, and I do draw closer
in spite of myself,
I can see the gray swirls of their breath,
I worry they can see mine too.
Because my breathing is faster, now,
like my pulse.
Then I am there,
amongst the dark men and the mud puddles,
the thunderous whispers
and trails of pipe smoke.
I am accepted with silence.
Together we are the hands of a clock.
We must turn.
Another mile clears in the mist,
and we hoist our guns in unison.
Together we file,
in purposeful lines,
a death-silent march.
Tonight, I think, is the last night.
I can already taste the blood.
I can already see the vultures
circling and reveling in death below.
One more mile to the battleground
Together, though, it does not feel as cold,
it is not as hard to walk.
Our last mile.
Patriotism is an urge that I attempt to nurture within myself every day. It is what drives my emotions when I join in singing the national anthem during a baseball game, or when I hold a door open at work for a lady who has her hands full, or when someone cuts me off on the freeway and I don't honk my horn and make unnecessary hand gestures to communicate my frusteration. I do not believe that patriotism must be defined by flag-waving or marching bands. The men and women who don uniforms to fight for our country and the divine rights she claims to guaranty for us all... they are the truly patriotic ones.
And yet, there are other, more quiet folks who wear their love for the United States on their sleeves. Aid workers and organ donors, the guy who tours high school campuses to register newly-18-year-old voters, open-minded college professors, self-defense teachers, anonymous hotline volunteers, parents, little league coaches and entrepreneurs.
A lot has been said about the immigration debate here in the United States. No matter what happens, millions of people will be affected, perhaps negatively. But I have hope.
Even when issues like this one flare up on the grand scale, and even when they spark smaller controversies nation-wide, what patriotism really ought to boil down to is a humble gratitude and a truly Christian blend of compassion and forgiveness. That was the original message behind patriotism.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!!
Our country would not be, simply would not exist, had it not been for immigration. We are all the descendents of immigrants. Even in my family. On my dad's side we can trace our roots back ten or twelve generations in the U.S. But that thirteenth generation, the first Pancoast to set foot on American soil, was a British citizen. Just like every other immigrant, he came here looking for something. Maybe money, maybe power, maybe the simple freedoms our constitution provided, maybe the beauty of our natural wonders, maybe free enterprise.
Whatever the case, those who immigrate come looking for something better. We tout ours as the greatest country in the world! We are the strongest, the richest, the proudest. We have so much. How on earth can we be surprised when so many people want to come here? Or, if we aren't surprised by the desire, we're floored by the number who ignore our flimsy immigration laws and policies and cross our poorly defended borders illegally.
I have an appreciation for the journey some of these people undertake in order to grasp the flapping coattails of the American dream. Hundreds of miles with almost nothing to sustain them on the journey. Parents drag their oblivious children across the border or onto shore in the dead of night because, they think, as all parents think, there is a chance for our children to have something better!
That being said, even America has her limit. We must restrict ourselves lest we become waterlogged. Unless we look out for ourselves, how can we possibly aid anyone else? So we man our borders or build a wall. We send illegal immigrants back where they came from. But must we turn this into the sickeningly derisive battle it seems to be becoming?
Let us be loyal to our country, certainly. But first, let us be loyal to mankind. Let us, as Americans who can absolutely afford to be, compassionate. Considerate. Stern and law abiding for our own sake, but kind because every person who braves death to sneak into the United States is still a person. He has a soul. She has a family. It is not for us to be mean hearted about the need to deny them entry. Rather, it is for us to set an example of strength and decency.
Today I am feeling patriotic, as I do every day. More than that, though, I feel lucky. I live in a land where I am free to post this blog for the world to see, brandishing a personal viewpoint like a sword or a flag. I have no desire to leave the United States in search of more freedoms, more chances. But I was fortunate enough to be born here.
At some point, though, one of my ancestors looked around his or her foreign town. And then he or she said aloud, "I've heard of a land of milk and honey. In this land are many chances. For the sake of myself, for the sake of all those I love, I will sacrifice much, perhaps everything, to find and settle in that land."
Before we point fingers or draw lines in the sand, we must first remember our beginning. Our beginning. Our power lies within our muddled bloodlines, our murky heritage. And it was not only the brightest minds or the rich or the powerful who journeyed here. It was the weak, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse. We asked them to come. We came. We thrived. Now it is up to us sustain a country that is strong enough to continue that compassionate and time-honored tradition.