"I want to work on climate change," says Paridhi Rustogi.
It's December 8, the first official day of Telenor Youth Forum 2016. At a hightop table in the Scandic hotel lobby, TYF delegates from India, Norway and Bangladesh lean in to talk about what's to come. Later in the day, they'll be broken into teams and assigned one of seventeen possible global goals. They've had no control over either of those steps. So, which global goal do they each want to work on? Most hedge. They're open minded. A challenge is a challenge, and the experience will be good no matter what. But Paridhi--an environmental engineer and a delegate from India--shakes her head.
"Climate change is what matters most to me." She is definitive.
Two other delegates gently challenge her choice--or, indeed, any choice at all-- especially in an opportune environment like TYF. Better to get something you're not as familiar with; you'll learn more that way.
"Hey, I thought this was a safe space," says Paridhi with a laugh.
Her fellow delegate from India, Sharad Vivek Sagar, answers, "A safe space isn't a comfort zone."
He's right. But I still give a little inner cheer later that day when the Climate Change team calls Paridhi's name. Hurrah for young people with resolve.
I blogged the whole four day event--the fun and games, Oslo by firelight and by rain, the Nobel Peace Prize reception and exhibit preview, the meetings with dignitaries, the hard hard work, and the final pitch competition--for the Telenor Youth Forum Blog. But a few things didn't fit there. A few moments I want to bottle up. Keep. Share.
For the last two months, I have been swimming in the Oslo startup scene. It's an exciting place to be. Norway is poised to make the most of its status as one of the fastest growing hubs for innovation in Europe. There's wealth, education, competency and infrastructure aplenty here. Since 2011, a vibrant network of coworking spaces, incubators, accelerators and angel investors has developed in this fertile environment. And here's the book on all of it: Startup Guide Oslo.
I was honored when Startup Everywhere approached me about writing the sixth in their growing library of entrepreneurial handbooks. Startup Guide Oslo offers a comprehensive overview of the city for its current and would-be entrepreneurs. Everyone in the guide was selected via a nomination and voting process. In August and September, I raced all over the city interviewing the major players.
I had the chance to visit ten very different coworking spaces in town: 657 Oslo, Avd. Frysja, Bitraf, Fellesverkstedet, Gründergarasjen, The Factory, MESH, Oslo International Hub, Sentralen and SoCentral. You'll find insights (including practical stats like square meters, number of desks/offices, pricing) and beautiful interior photos in the book.
No single thought is more important than any other, at least at the outset.
The trees remain bare all over the city. From my chair on the third floor of the main library I can see across the city to the hills on the opposite side of the fjord, and it is all still black and gray and white. An overcast sky, mottled whites and grays, snagged by the lazy gray turns of seagulls. Spring is on the verge. Spring is tightly wound. Spring is kinetic. There is a paper cut on my thumb. The man beside me at the desk has neon green plugs stuffed deep into his ear canals to block out even the slight rufflings of pages, the scratch of pens, the gentle tapping of keyboards, the sniffing back of running noses, the gurgle of upturned water bottles, the muffled footsteps, the swish of closing doors, the whir of a distant printer, the whispered questions at the reference desk, the unzipping of backpacks. All white and gray noises--delightful sounds--of library life. The man with earplugs finds even these distracting. I don't envy him. And perhaps I am him, too. These sounds now populate this paragraph because I couldn't or wouldn't shut them out and focus on something else. But this is as it should be, perhaps, if I stick with my original thesis. In the moment, unguarded, open, no single thought is more important than any other.
My semester is drawing to a close. There are a few weeks left, but most of it will be dedicated to research and paper writing. Finals come in mid-May, but there's much to do before then. I find it easier now to sit someplace and focus on my assigned readings and writings. I find it easier to tap into that sacred vein where I keep my words and release them onto the page.
In the beginning--January--it was not like this.
Honestly, I felt a bit dead. When I tried to read, the stuff--plot, philosophy--couldn't find purchase in my mind. It was like throwing undercooked spaghetti at the kitchen wall and watching it bounce stupidly and disappointingly to the floor. It was like trying to eat something delicious with a no taste buds. Ash in my mouth. Not for the first time since my daughter was born, I began to wonder whether I would ever be the same again. Whether it would always be this new, numb way. Dread came in a flood and sat there, a stagnant pool. When I moved, everything felt heavy. Heart, hands, head. But I kept trying. And there were, occasionally, shudders and sparks that reminded me of my old self.
It was Whitman that got the gears moving again. A bilge pump. "The young mother and the old mother comprehend me."
It was Hemingway that said, "Don't worry. You have always written before."
Offered in memory of Mimi Chiang
In the fall, I had the honor of receiving an invitation to write an artist's profile for Brygg Magasin's debut all-English issue. Brygg is a big, beautiful magazine covering Scandinavian culture, with an emphasis on coffee. (Brygg is Norwegian for brew.) I opted to interview Kenneth Karlstad, a young, award-winning Norwegian filmmaker. We met at a cafė downtown and talked for a couple of hours, and I drank my first coffee. Ever. Because I wanted to stay true to Brygg's mission... and because I'm a 32-year-old mom of an infant, so, though she is a "good sleeper," I still desperately need caffeine.
Kenneth was a great interview subject. Easy to talk to. Candid. Funny. And we were both pleased with how the piece came out.
In September, the Oslo Writers' League (OWL) launched its third annual anthology, These Twisted Roots. Our whole crew gathered in one of the beautiful halls at Deichmanns Biblioteket, the main library in town, and lots and lots of people showed up to support us! (Turns out offering beer and wine for sale in a gorgeous library really brings in the crowds.) Authors read. A choir sang (Dagsangerne på Sagene). We auctioned off the work of our resident illustrator, Evelinn Enoksen. And all proceeds from the sale of the book and the auction--roughly 17,000 kroner on the night--were donated to Redd Barna, Save the Children - Norway, and its work aiding Syrian refugees.
What a night! It's taken me six whole months to get over the excitement. Okay, okay. It's taken me six months to get my act together and post a blog about it. I'm writing this now with one eye on my busy, busy, busy nine-month-old daughter. She's everywhere, and she takes my brain with her for the ride.
Anyway, I'm proud and happy to say that "Invisibility," which is possibly the best short story I've every written, is one of the fine works available in These Twisted Roots. You can buy your copy today via Amazon, soft cover or Kindle, or via The Book Depository, which offers free international shipping.
A couple of photos from the night:
TOP: Deichmanns Biblioteket on the big night; MIDDLE: Me with my partners in crime and hilarity, the inimitable Zoë Harris and the incomparable Chelsea Ranger; BOTTOM: All the OWL authors and poets who could be present to celebrate. Such a great group!
If you're a writer in Oslo, you're welcome to join us. The Oslo Writers' League meets monthly in the basement of Deichmanns Biblioteket; but you can also join our Facebook group and lurk for a while until you're ready to take the next big step. We're already prepping for our 2016 anthology. Hope to see you there!
It takes guts to say, I am an artist.
I read to my daughter: I am an artist and I paint a blue horse and... a red crocodile and... a yellow cow and... a pink rabbit...
Jonathan juggles to distract her while I clip her nails. How did they get so long so fast? Her fine motor skills are developing quickly. I have the pinch marks on my throat to prove it.
Then I sit in class and sip my coffee. The coffee is new. It makes me shiver with energy, at least for a while.
We are reading Joyce. Easy Joyce. Dubliners. When the teacher asks if anyone has read Ulysses, no hands go up. I volunteer, "I've tried and failed to read Ulysses," which gets a laugh and murmurs of agreement from the class.
I think of Ireland. We visited two years ago and traveled from Dublin to Killarney by train. I wrote and enjoyed both the flicker of emerald fields through the windows and my own reflection in the glass. It was a simpler, vainer time. There was a stop called Mallow. I ate butterscotch ice cream. We tramped the Dunloe Gap.
Back to Joyce. "Araby." I wonder what a rusted bicycle pump is doing in the Garden of Eden.
There are people who are compelled to write what they see, what they know, what they think, even if it isn't popular. Even if it is ridiculed. Even if it earns no money. Glimmers are all they need.
I listen to a podcast. The host says she has decided not to use the word "should" anymore. There is no need to obligate herself to the whims of life. When she does that, she saps her energy and emotional health, leaving only a depleted version of herself for her husband, daughter, friends. The people who ought to receive the best of what she can offer.
Ticket controllers move through the tram car. This happens frequently now. A change since we moved to Oslo five years ago. The boy across from me shrugs and gestures to his dead iPhone. He can't pull up his ticket. He waits for the control officer to give him a receipt for his fine. Instead, the officer reaches into his pocket and presents a portable iPhone charger, a small purple cylinder, and the boy is able to show his ticket. I can feel his relief.
A bitter wind fights the static electricity for control over my unwashed hair. The next bus is eight minutes away. I stomp my feet to warm them.
When I'm acting in my role as mother, I am keenly aware that I'm not reading enough, that I'm falling behind on my schoolwork, that my writing life is disintegrating in my absence. When I'm acting in my role as student, I am painfully aware that I am not holding my daughter in my arms, teaching her, protecting her, enjoying her. When I'm writing, which is almost never, I know I'm neglecting my home, as well as the work I would get paid to do. I am divided against myself.
I felt my mind shudder. Like a disused door pulled unexpectedly over warped floorboards and open for the first time in many dusty years. Like a cold engine under the rusted hood of a car long parked in the drive. Like the thick, taut, chestnut skin over the hock of a horse bitten by the first nasty fly of summer. Like the empty shake of the faucet head after the pipes thaw and water surges forth again.
It happened in my 19th Century American Literature class at the University of Oslo.
Some might think 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday is a bit early for Walt Whitman's famous ego-trip (or transcendental treatise) "Song of Myself". Not I. It's one of my favourite poems. Fourteen hundred-odd lines. Alliteration and assonance and anaphora abound. Catalogues of people and jobs and points of origin. Hot, sweating, teeming, odorous imagery. Free verse. God and god and you and I and democracy and sex and the procreant nature of our species and a lens on the world that zooms in and out and violently, reverently in again.
Being back in the program after a year of maternity leave has not all been easy. Leaving the Cheeks with her dad three days a week took some adjustment. And though I managed to step into the classroom setting in the same old way--taking a seat near the front, speaking soon and loudly and often--I felt rusty, to use a seriously predictable cliché. I still feel that way in Week 3.
But as we delved into Whitman's "Song", zeroing in on one of my favourite sections, the dust seemed to shake itself out of the crevices of my brain.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
My teacher chose me to read these lines aloud. Lines I love dearly and have thought about a thousand times since I first read them as an undergrad more than a decade ago. Lines I'd forgotten, along with all other literary references and artistic trivia, due to my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter.
Ammetåke, the Norwegians call it. Breastfeeding fog.
Reading again of grass and the many things it could be--for Whitman, for you, for me--I felt my mind shudder. Like the sulphurous snagging of the head of a match dragged fast across the rough panel of a matchbox. The rasp of it was delicious even in its unsparking first effort. I could smell the potential.
I offered my close reading of the text and enjoyed the viewpoints of my classmates. When the two-hour lecture ended, I sighed with pleasure and exertion and packed my bag in a hurry so as to return home for a couple of hours and see my husband and daughter. That's how fast my mind can regress into those lower gears. It's a relief. A retreat.
But suddenly a girl who sits near me in class was standing before me. Her eyes were wide and bright, her smile the same, as she asked, "Do you teach?"
I struggled to pull myself back into student mode. My mind shuddered. Like a stick shift pushing against a sluggish clutch.
"I have taught," I answered carefully. "But only writing."
She nodded. I recognised in her all the things I was in the years before I became a mother: enchanted by literature, smitten by learning, eager and interested and dying to be the one who has the answers if only to keep these conversations going with any kindred spirit wiling to join the fun. And then I heard myself say:
"Actually, that's why I'm here. I want to teach literature someday, and this degree will allow me to do that."
Would you believe, friend, that my time in the rabbit hole of early motherhood had made me forget that? I'm in school for a reason. There is a goal. A return to an original dream. To teach. To connect Whitman and his everyman, all-consuming love, pondering of the divine skin-to-skin with people who have never read him before.
That goal feels far away. Impossible, to be honest, particularly with my mind in this shuddering state.
"You would be a wonderful teacher," she said.
This time, beyond the shudder, there came a spark.
Last night, I led what may have been my last Oslo Writers' League (OWL) meeting for a few months. At the tail end of an unseasonably snowy day, ten of us managed to make it to Cafe Fedora (our generous hosts) to discuss the third OWL anthology. At this point, everyone contributing to the anthology has swapped their pieces for critique. So, to start us off, I ran through a few tips on revision... that dreaded, necessary next step.
Take a couple of days between accepting feedback and attempting to apply what you learned to your manuscript. As noted in an article titled Write First, Edit Later, "Let your writing sit for a while. It may make more sense if you sleep on it. Or, it may make less sense after you have slept on it. At least you'll know which."
Now that someone else has given your piece a read, it's a good time to ask the big question: Does the story achieve its goals/the goals of the author? This is a question the author alone can answer. Remember that, once the story is out there in published form, you can't stand over the shoulder of every reader interjecting page flips with, "What I meant to say..." or "See, that makes sense because..." Once released, your story is open to each individual's interpretation.
Revision is the author's chance to take feedback from initial draft readers and use it to make certain that the story works on the appropriate levels. It is interesting? Is it memorable? Is it surprising? Is it easy to follow? Is it consistent in pacing and/or voice? Even if you didn't ask your reader these questions beforehand, go back and ask after the fact.
The opening line
Stephen King makes the case for the importance of the opening line: "We've talked so much about the reader, but you can't forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who's actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it's not just the reader's way in, it's the writer's way in also, and you've got to find a doorway that fits us both."
Now, I'd say that the writer's way in is only important in the first draft. It's the thing that gets your pen onto the paper, which is sometimes half the battle. Finding an opening that is unique, beautiful, gripping, informative, all-of-the-above for the reader is something that can best be done in revision. Use the fresh pair of eyes offered by your critique partner to help you identify the ideal opening. Often, you've already written it, but it may be buried deeper in the piece.
Where previously there was none, a flower blooms, a fruit suspends itself from the branch of a tree, and this is what we see: round, starburst thing. Velvet petals and smooth, rosy skin. Shape and matter, weight when we lift it between our own curious palms. Where did it come from?
That might well have been Joseph's question as Mary swelled in front of him, soft and glowing with a future for which she'd never asked, and in which, Joseph held no physical stake.
We now know all about fertilization: pollen grips stigma, sperm penetrates egg. Though it happens in the red-shadowed darkness, conception is not magic, either in flora or fauna. Unlikely to the point of miraculousness in its overwhelming repetition the world over, certainly, but not magic.
Yet, in those early days of prophets and shepherds, the spontaneous fire of life in the womb of his betrothed must have stymied Joseph.
And what of Mary? A child herself in both age and stature, limited by social constructs and by her religion to a small geography and an abbreviated list of choices, most of life's mysteries likely seemed magical to Mary.
Were the conception of her child not, in fact, immaculate, it is equally doubtful either that she consented to a lying down in the dark with a man not her betrothed, or that she understood the consequences of such actions.
Whatever the case, a blastocyst implanted itself in the ripened lining of Mary's uterus early in the spring of a year that would be zero. Was it the product of egg-meeting-sperm? Or egg-alone plus a tadpole-sized dose of the Holy Spirit? And does this matter?
As I launch into the writing of my third and final term paper of the Høst 2014 semester, it occurs to me that I never did share my reading lists with you, my readers, many of whom like lists of books almost as you enjoy the actual reading of the books themselves. I'm like that, too. Reviewing a soundly curated book list is like taking an imagination break and walking the stacks of a library of the mind. So, I thought I'd post a couple of the lists here for your pleasure/edification. (Course descriptions have been cribbed from the UiO website.)
Women Writing: Feminist Fiction in English (ENG 4363)
This is a course in English-language feminist fiction from the nineteenth and/or twentieth century. Students will study a selection of novels and/or short stories that focus on women's lives and reflect on what it means to be a woman and a feminist from various sexual, racial, class, and national perspectives. The course will consider the development and thematics of feminist fiction and its contribution to the development of new narrative techniques.
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)
- Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
- Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
- Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
- Sarah Hall, Daughters of the North (2007)
- Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox (2011)
- Joyce Carol Oates, 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' (1966) (available online)
This was my favorite reading list of the semester, and not because I'm a raging feminist, either. I simple responded well to the variety of voices. Every book was unique and uniquely suited to the aspect of Women's Writing we discussed that week. Mr. Fox was, far and away, the strangest, but being the most contemporary, that didn't surprise me. A Room of One's Own was the book I couldn't believe I hadn't encountered prior to this course (having graduated with my B.A. in English from UC Davis in 2006 and my M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Lesley University in 2012). And Wide Sargasso Sea is the book I'm not recommending to people who tell me their favorite classic was Jane Eyre.
Time & Money in the American Novel (ENG 4416)
Time and money are two of the main forces that shape human ends. Our conception of time has a profound impact on how we understand ourselves, and on how we draw the boundary between the possible and the unreasonable. In a similar fashion, our collective understanding of money exerts a sharp influence on how we order our personal and communal lives. This course will examine these two forces through the lens of literature. It will use the reading and analysis of a select group of American novels as a way of interrogating the links between time, money, and literature.
In this course, we will examine the ways in which novels work to naturalize or challenge social conceptions of time and money. More importantly, we will consider all the ways in which the reading of novels helps us reflect on the nature of time and money, and we will think about the way these reflections are connected to issues of race, sexuality, subjectivity, and community.
- Frank Norris, The Octopus
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The Quest of the Silver Fleece
- James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
- Nella Larsen, Passing
- James T. Farrell, Judgment Day
- Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis
- Richard Powers, Gain
Honestly, I think this course needs to be renamed. Time, Money & Race in the American Novel would have been spot on. These were challenging texts, all. The Octopus was exceedingly long, but beautiful, and it was a perfect fit for the class. The Quest of the Silver Fleece is the book that will stick with me longest, I think, and I enjoyed writing my final paper on it. Here I'll admit that I did not read Judgment Day. I was in California for the class discussion and had already selected a different text as my qualifying essay topic, so I gave myself a break. And between the surreal Cosmopolis and the enigmatic Gain, I'd have to say that this was the most eclectic class reading list I've ever encountered.
Suffice it to say that there's a lot of garbage out there on the interwebs. It's tough to sift through the majority of it to find the relevant, articulate, credible stuff. Social Media is sometimes the worst way to do it. Then again, social media guarantees that I--deep in my liberal bubble lined with back issues of The New Yorker--won't miss out on at least a few bits of priceless crap. Like this one: THE SEXODUS, PART 1: THE MEN GIVING UP ON WOMEN AND CHECKING OUT OF SOCIETY. Please don't click on it. You don't need to read it. Chances are it will offend you, as it offended me, and as it would offend anyone who believes that the ultimate goals of humanity should be love, respect, intelligence, and dignity for all.
For those who aren't aware of it, there's a movement that has begun to swell. It's a group, mostly men, who believe that the American way of life has been bastardized by the Feminists, and that the rights of men have been severely trampled by the advancement of women over the last century. These men rally. They march. They rant.
It looks, in fact, a lot like the very beginnings of the Feminist movement must have looked so long ago. Whiny and irrelevant. And we all know what happened there, so maybe we'd better keep an eye on these guys.
Or not. Because there actually is no deep Feminist plot to keep men down and put women in all the high places.
Which is one of the major differences between the Feminist movement and the, shall we say, Masculinist movement. When Feminists call for "women's rights," they're talking about rights which previously have been granted to men, but not women in equal measure. When Masculinists call for "men's rights," they're talking about rights which used to be theirs exclusively, and have been allegedly usurped by women. So, these are rights that the men want back.
What rights are the Masculinists talking about? For starters: American education has, allegedly, been so twisted by the Feminist "establishment," with the focus placed entirely and obsessively on the needs of girls, that boys have stopped being accommodated at all. This has, according to the Masculinists, led to a decline in male literacy, male high school completion, and male college attendance/degree acquisition. Teaching has been Feminized, and the poor little boys are suffering.
I'll grant you that the decline of male educational achievement is no myth, but the only way you can blame that decline on Feminists is if you simultaneously admit that women have never been the weaker sex... simply the dormant one. If you believe what these Masculinists are preaching, the only logical conclusion is that, the second women stood up to fight on fairer ground, men sat down. Which is ridiculous.
Unfortunately, Masculinist propaganda like this Sexodus piece manages to reach its intended audience: men who aren't part of that movement, but who due to personal circumstances and/or upbringing, believe they are entitled to more than they have actually earned, and are looking for someone to blame. These guys grew up watching Disney's Cinderella, too. But where the girls were being negatively saturated with the image of a helpless, stoic, beautiful girl who is rescued from her plight by a nameless prince... the boys were being negatively saturated by the image of a nameless prince whose only task was to ride up on the horse with a glass slipper to have the beautiful, silent girl throw herself into his arms. Now, we're reaping the consequences.
I love the marriage Jonathan and I have built. And there may be people out there who are surprised to learn that our relationship includes almost zero power struggle. We split the tasks required of us based on personal prerogative and aptitude. It could be that our conservative Christian upbringing has positioned us to maintain some kind of modern relationship hybrid in the liberal setting to which we've moved ourselves--including the best parts of love, sex, monogamy, fidelity, partnership, respect, and equality. Or not. Maybe it's all luck. But I'm writing this piece while barefoot, pregnant, and in the midst of sending my husband off to the office with a kiss... and I'm still a Feminist. And so is he.
Holidays are here again. Jonathan and I just spent four days in Malmö, Sweden celebrating an expat Thanksgiving with friends. We hopped the DFDS overnight ferry home yesterday and enjoyed a buffet dinner full of Scandinavian holiday classics (ribbe, meatballs, potatoes, gravy, etc.). Pulling into Oslo this morning, we found Christmas in full swing. The Karl Johans gate julemarked is up and running; white lights are tangled in the trees; the large Christmas tree is up in the square in front of the university; and as we climbed the stairs to our apartment, we noticed that a tree full of lights had appeared in our building's backyard, too.
Thankfully, I'd managed to be enough on the ball before we left last week to pull together our advent calendar. Since we married, I've made an advent calendar for Jonathan every year. Past models have included Christmas jokes, Christmas memories, quotes from Christmas movies. There are usually presents, too, of course, but I flatter myself that Jonathan looks forward to my wordplay more than he does to the goofy gifts I wrangle together.
This year, daily slips of paper suspended from a red velvet ribbon will be opened to reveal my own written version of The Nativity Story. The opening lines:
Where previously there was none, a flower blooms, a fruit suspends itself from the branch of a tree, and this is what we see: round, starburst thing. Velvet petals and smooth, rosy skin. Shape and matter, weight when we lift it between our own curious palms. Where did it come from?
Happy December, everyone!
October is my favorite month, and this year, it's going to be an especially good one.
I'm finally in the swing of things as a new masters student in the English Literature program at the University of Oslo. Getting used to the class schedule took a few weeks. The assigned readings are a little overwhelming sometimes, but I'm interested in almost all of them. The school has a lovely campus, and the leaves in the trees and on the crawling vines have begun to change. The gold, red, and orange fluttering in the chilly autumn breeze makes me think of bouquets of sharpened pencils. It's a good season for learning.
My writing life remains active. I just taught my first creative writing workshop here in Oslo alongside my friend and fellow author, Zoë Harris. Eight students signed up to take our Writing A to Z: Creative Writing Basics class. They were diverse in their interests and backgrounds, and all of them displayed a core curiosity and creative spirit. We had fun sharing our insights about writing with the group--running writing exercises and teaching--and I hope we get a chance to do it again soon.
Tonight, several writer friends of mine will gather in my living room to put our pens to paper together. We've been meeting for three years now. Thanks to them, my life is even more full of words.
It's been a very long day. Sometimes, on days like this, I forget who I am for a second. I forget that I've made promises and commitments, grand predictions about my own future. I forget that I've eaten and what I like to eat and what makes me gag and how certain other foods affect me. If approached at this moment by a butler with a cupful of tapioca resting on a shiny silver tray, I'd probably take it and eat it all. Slurp it all down--damn the texture--and let the spoon clink in the empty glass and wipe my mouth on the back of my arm. I forget that I am mannered.
It's been a long day. All I want to do is sprawl on the couch and weep and laugh and play Scrabble and gossip on the phone with friends and rub my cat's fur the wrong way, then the right way again. I want to wear lint-covered sweats and throw my dangling earrings at the wall. I want my legs to be shaven smooth without my having to walk into the bathroom, strip down, soap up, and do the actual shaving. Then I want to slather myself with all kinds of moisturizing products. Lotion that smells like honey and vanilla. Lip balm that smells like strawberries. Until I am supple. Because at the end of a long day like this one, I feel a million years old, and I forget that I sometimes still possess a youthful exuberance, fearlessness and foolishness.
It's been a truly long day. Who am I again? My kitchen is hidden beneath piles of pans and dishes, crumpled napkins, empty cartons of milk and soda bottles. Dust bunnies swirl into invisible eddies between the bookcases every time I open a door. And we've had to move the hanging laundry inside again because the weather has taken a turn for the cold. I forget that I'm a writer, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister. I forget I'm anything but a shell for a throbbing brain and hands which feel useless in the face of constant, reincarnating mess. I forget that I have a heart. I forget that I have assigned reading which would fill the better part of the next week if I were to go at it non-stop starting now. And that a paper draft is due on Monday. And another is due shortly thereafter. Neither of which are anything currently but a heap of unintelligible notes, anchored by intricate doodles.
It's been a long, long day. I forget that I show up for things on time (most of the time), and often early. That if I have an important appointment coming up at a new place, I'll walk to it days in advance just to make sure I won't get lost when the real day arrives. I forget that I've eaten at McDonald's three times in the last week--always a McChicken and fries. Who is this person? Dark circles under her eyes and dry cuticles and a nose that never fails to rev its engine and run hard at 2 a.m.
It's been a long day.
But somehow my classes got attended. My teachers got the answers they were looking for from me. I invested in new friendships, worked hard, got a new podcast in the can. Somehow. How? I couldn't tell you. I am aching to be five years old again. I am wishing on stars and refusing to pull the bag of scarves and beanies out of storage. I am making burritos for dinner instead of doing the responsible adult thing and preparing something with vegetables. Beans, I forget, don't count. I have forgotten more than I've learned today, I'm sure of it. But time continues to pass, and tomorrow promises not to be quite so full or so long.
Here's hoping that, at the end of the day, I'm back to remembering me.
I'm proud to announce Writing A to Z: Creative Writing Basics, a one-day workshop in Oslo this September.
I'll be teaching alongside my friend and fellow writer, Zoë Harris, founder of the Oslo Writers League. For the purposes of this fun, introductory workshop, we'll focus on both the craft and the practicalities of starting out as a creative writer.
Participants will take part in exercises designed to stimulate creativity, and will also gain insight into the publishing industry. We will talk about ways to structure a productive, healthy writing life, as well as discuss different avenues in which to direct your writing energy. You'll have the chance to ask questions about your own work and may choose to share your writing in an introductory peer-critique session at the end of the day.
Date: Sunday, 28th September, 2014
Time: 9:30am - 4:00pm
Place: Sagene Samfunnshus, Kristiansandsgate 2, Oslo (Trinserud room)
Early-bird Price: 650 NOK (Book before August 31st)
Full Price: 750 NOK
Lunch, coffee, tea and fruit snacks are all included in the price.
Registration: Places are limited, so to secure your attendance, please email us to express your interest. You will then be sent an email with payment instructions.
For more information about the workshop--as well as bios for both Zoë and me--visit the Book Polishers website. We hope to see you there!
At a supermarket bakery in Bardufoss, Norway, Jonathan and I shared a baguette and waited for the pizza joint across the street to open at noon. The eating area at the Coop had quite a few tables inside. Older men chuckled and chatted in one corner, at a table which, I imagined, they've staked out for decades. I selected a table near the windows where we could people-watch.
A middle-aged man with shaggy blonde hair and glasses crossed the street toward the Coop. He wore a garish, oversized, Pac-Man sweater.
"Look," I said. "Inky, Pinky, Stinky, and Bob."
"Close," said Jonathan. "Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde."
On the black, metal lip of the window before us, a moth the size of my thumbnail flapped in vain against the glass. His antennae tested the air, full of fresh bakery smells--yeast, butter, cardamom--and the damp closeness of strangers escaping a light rain.
As we ate and triple-checked the bus schedule, the moth struggled and fell. Struggled and fell. Over and over again he was defeated by the window. A hanging basket of pink flowers suspended from an exterior hook beside the market's sliding double doors seemed to be his objective.
Jonathan offered me the last bite.
The moth slumped over--like a sailboat taking on too much water--and lay on its side. Still, the antennae twitched, if half-heartedly.
I gifted myself two hours of reading time today, over lunch. At hand was Twice Eggs, a new essay from Alex Johnson, one of my mentors at Lesley University, and a writer I deeply admire. Approaching her new work, I looked forward to hearing Alex's voice again--that effortless intelligence and poetry, manifested in a shrewd eye for detail, and a light-handed delivery.
Twice Eggs is the story of Alex's return to southern Italy after years away to visit the family of Giorgio, an old flame. As much as Giorgio and his current desires to leave his homeland figure into the narrative, the heart of the piece lies in Alex's relationship with Anna, the woman who, had things worked out differently at that long ago crossroads, would have been Alex's mother-in-law.
Perhaps it is fitting that I began reading over lunch: one hand clicking through the pages on my Kindle, the other collecting spilled sesame seeds with my fingertips and bringing them to my tongue. Food is everything in Twice Eggs. It fuels the narrative from the opening glimpse of Anna's garden, "planted with nightshades--eggplant, tomatoes, firecracker red peperoncini hot peppers whose oil is drizzled over warm waxy potatoes." And everything we see and learn of Anna revolves around her garden and her kitchen. Alex's return to this kitchen triggers every kind of sensory memory, both for her and for the reader.
We all have those moments, coming into contact with the scent or taste of a place and time so distinct in our past that our minds drop everything else and leave the present behind entirely--the olfactory gland being the secret to time travel. Then, often, once we have found that rain-on-the-blacktop middle school quad or that milk-sour corner of Grandma's kitchen in the back of our minds, we wish either that things could have turned out differently or, sometimes, that they could have remained exactly the same. Regret and nostalgia spring from the same soil.
Alex's return to Viggiano, a village "deep in the Mezzogiorno, the instep of Italy named for the blinding mid-day sun," recalls her earlier visits to the same place, on the arm of young Giorgio. A time of almosts. Of younger motivations. Of instant gratification and ecstasy and a reproving potential-mother-in-law. Alex makes her reader feel the danger and beauty of Viggiano. It is a hot, dry place. The hillsides are barren, remote, hard, deceptive. It is not ground I expect much from, but when locals scour the same hillsides, they come up with honey. It is in this sun-baked village that she might have made another choice, turned a down a different road.
Crossroads are the main concern of the narrative, and Twice Eggs does what solid, powerful essays are supposed to do: present something in common with the reader in an uncommon realm, then slice open the moments and places and interactions for observation, and set them out to dry in the sun under crystals of salt. Such common ground in this case includes the beauty of being chosen and accepted by another family, the impact of myriad superstitions on everyday life, and, even in the contented present, finding your gaze trailing backward toward the what-ifs of doors long closed.
Read it. Revel in the way Alex deftly drops out of chronology for quixotic asides about history, geology, religion, and drama. Wander the streets of this village in southern Italy, where Alex was warned not to travel alone since the waves of Tunisian refugees began to wash up on the coast. Realize the weight of life and slowness of time in a region which has experienced Fascism, leprosy, and the wiping out of Pompeii. And then want to go there, with every fiber of your being, with every taste bud of your tongue. Always, somewhere in the room, you'll find a platter of "tissue-thin salami flecked with fennel or shot with Senise pepper."
Alex Johnson is the author of The Hidden Writer, which won the PEN/Jerard Award for nonfiction. She is also the author of Leaving a Trace. Her personal essays have been included in several anthologies, including I Always Meant to Tell You and To Mend the World. Her essays, reviews and travel pieces have appeared in numerous national publications, among them: The New York Times, O, (the Oprah Magazine), The Nation, Ms. Magazine, AGNI. Her work has been featured frequently on National Public Radio, including on "Talk of the Nation" and the "Diane Rehm Show." She has taught memoir and creative nonfiction at Harvard, Wellesley, and in Lesley University's MFA Program. Twice Eggs is adapted from The Saint's Laundry, a memoir in progress.
Ploughshares Solos is a digital-only series of stories, essays, and novellas published by Ploughshares Literary Magazine in Boston. Previously, I hadn't heard of Ploughshares Solos, but it will heretofore be something I seek out, perhaps with a bit of an insatiable reader's desperation. Three cheers for excellent writing in the short form!
Fate is nothing; fate is everything. I find it hard to believe in chaos, even when that's what whirls and crashes all around me. Probably because I'm a writer. My serendipity sensor is on overdrive. Not only do I notice the details of life--the scent of the roses, the placement of their thorns--but before my eyes, they arrange themselves in patterns. Like crop circles. Like fairy rings.
My trip to Ireland last week was a literary one. It was my reward for winning the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award here in Oslo, last March. Three nights in Dublin, courtesy of Tourism Ireland. I was giddy with excitement on the plane, armed with a checklist of bookish things to do in the homeland of Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Stoker, O'Brien and Enright. Again, what we accomplished (saw, learned, basked in, drank, explored) is far too weighty for one post. Here, I want simply to relate something fun that happened our first evening in the city.
This spring, I was invited by Editor Michael Sandelson to write a series of pieces for The Foreigner, a website for Norwegian news in English. I accepted at once! After all, writing about life in Norway is already what I do for fun. Why not spread my reach a little?
So far I've authored three pieces for The Foreigner:
Alone on the 17th of May (May 2014)
Norway's Constitution Day arrived suddenly my first year, as international holidays do to those who aren't used to celebrating them. That was three years ago. Looking back now, I realize there'd been plenty of signs in the weeks leading up to it. Planter boxes suddenly overflowing with freshly planted tulips, their yellow heads the size of coffee mugs; and, of course, an onslaught of teenagers in cherry-red pants. But I'll get back to that. Continue Reading...
Digging-in (May 2014)
Each spring, the tenants in our Oslo apartment building come together for an afternoon of voluntary, community work. This is a dugnad, a Norwegian tradition in which a bunch of people join forces to spruce up their shared, public spaces. Like a barn-raising, but on a smaller, less sweaty, less Amish scale. We'd been living in Norway only a month when our first dugnad notice showed up in our mailbox. At first we didn't know what to think of the typed, unsigned page requesting our presence on a Thursday afternoon in late April. Google Translate helped. Unfortunately, allusion to a small fine, owed if we chose to skip out on the dugnad, tainted the notification. We marked the date on our calendar and began to dread it. Continue Reading...
The Ski-in (April 2014)
Native Norwegians make cross-country skiing look like a glide-stepping walk in the park. As expats in Norway have heard a thousand times, this is because Norwegian babies are born with skis on. An atrocious thought, sure, but if you visit any cross-country trail in the Oslomarka on a sunny day, you'll see how plausible it is. Children as young as three zoom right by you: without poles; without fear. Only kids who are too young to walk get away with being too young to ski. I hopped on the cross-country skiing bandwagon with both feet, our first winter in Norway, and promptly slipped and fell into the snow. Continue Reading...
The Foreigner is a subscription-based website, but you can access a few articles each month without paying the fee, so please stop by and read these and let me know what you think. Hopefully you'll find something there that makes you want to stick around and/or check back more regularly.
On Tuesday night, the Oslo Writers' League launched its second annual anthology at Oslo's Litteraturhuset. I'm proud to announce that the event--which included a panel discussion, readings, and an art auction--raised almost 10,000 NOK for Utdanningshjelpen; this will provide more than three full years of education to scholarship recipients. All in all, a fun, successful evening!
Tammy Dobson Photography came away with some excellent photos...
Crammed as many OWLs on stage as possible. We're a colorful bunch!
You can pick up a copy of All the Ways Home on Amazon in the U.S., or the U.K., as well as The Book Depository. All profits go to Utdanningshjelpen. Don't forget to leave a comment and let me know how much you enjoyed the book!
I'm very proud to announce that the Oslo Writers' League (formerly the Oslo International Writers' Group) will publish its second anthology this month. All the Ways Home is a multi-genre collection of pieces by members of our group. Short stories, essays, and poetry on two themes especially pertinent to expat life: Crossroads and Identity. Once again, all profits from sales of the book in print or digital form go to Utdanningshjelpen, a Norwegian volunteer organization that assists students in developing countries complete their secondary education through scholarship programs.
My nonfiction piece, Sinober, is included in the anthology, but that's not the only reason I'm excited about this book. The tenacious Zoë Harris, Editorial Director of Grimbold Books--the publisher--asked me to act as Poetry Editor for the collection. That was a treat! Also, my best friend, Cindy Lackey, was commissioned to do the cover art for the book. It was a rare pleasure to witness the inner workings of an artist's mind, and I love the way her concept turned out.
Finally, most exciting of all, we're doing another launch event! (Details on Facebook) And you're invited!
What: Book Launch, All the Ways Home
When: 20th of May, 2014 at 18:15
Where: Litteraturhuset in Oslo
Tickets: 90 NOK*/each -- Order Here
*All profits from the event also go to Utdanningshjelpen.
Join the Oslo Writers' League (OWL) for a panel discussion about the group, the book, and what it's like to be an English language writer in Oslo. (I will be on this panel!) The discussion will be moderated by writing coach Greta Solomon.
Other OWL members will perform readings from the book, and artist/illustrator Evelinn Enoksen will put up her original sketches from the 2013 anthology for auction on the night, all to raise funds for Utdanningshjelpen.
Attendance is limited, so book early to secure your seat!
One of the perks of writing being a solitary pursuit is the complete lack of accountability which accompanies it. If you're fortunate enough to have another source of income, that is. Which I do. Writing doesn't make me much money, and it likely never will. So, to help support my family, I'm a Web & Social Media Consultant for a handful of clients, and supplement with freelance writing and editing. I do all of my work from home. My office is cluttered with books, magazines (The New Yorker and vintage issues of LIFE), and papers full of red-ink edits. It is dusty, but organized. It's just me. Nobody is looking over my shoulder asking how I do what I do.
My friend Zoë Harris, author of The Eidolon Cycle--a series of four dark fiction novels, the last of which is currently in process--tagged me to participate in the My Writing Process Blog Tour. And as her post was customarily honest, open, pithy, and encouraging, I'm happy to join the fun.
1) What am I working on?
Different things different days. Revisions of nonfiction pieces to submit to literary magazines. New short stories, including some flash fiction. But the big ongoing project is my novel.
Before WWII began, the American military held several bases in the South Pacific. Army and Navy nurses--women who desired lives more exotic than the ones they knew in Depression Era middle America--were stationed on those island bases. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Air Force decimated the American Navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, then immediately turned and focused its wrath on the Philippines. My story follows the lives of the first American women in combat. These women have inspired my imagination for years; to be able to name them myself, to breathe new life into the dust of their legacy--courage, ingenuity, perseverance, patriotism--is an honor.
As yet untitled, I flew through the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2013, but it's been difficult to come back to it since then. I've got 100,000 words, and no final chapter(s).
Last weekend, the road rose up to meet me! My flash fiction story "Roots" received the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award, and my win was announced at the Irrgrønn Festival of Contemporary Irish Literature.
Even on an ordinary day, there's nothing I like better than hanging around Oslo's Litteraturhuset. In past years, I've watched many wonderful authors read and speak there. From Ali Smith to Anna Funder to Jennifer Egan to John Irving. But I can confirm that it's even cooler to be the person standing on stage reading to the crowd.
Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I love it when life looks, smells, tastes, sounds, or feels like fiction. When I stumble upon something (or someone) so perfectly proportioned, so quizzical and memorable, that it couldn't be coincidence. Or fate. Or chance. Or anything true. No. When the hair rises on the back of my neck due to the poetry of a place, a name, or even a set of meteorological elements, it's because, had I found the same stuff between the pages of a book, I would be in awe of the craft of it. The intention of a creator. At random, these perfections in an imperfect world make me look up and say thank you.
I'm not making any sense, huh? Here's an example:
Yesterday, I was doing some research. My serendipitous journey began with an essay titled The Lives of Girls and Women: The Writing of Alice Munro. This essay, originally published by The Center for Fiction had been reprinted by the VIDA blog. It caught my eye because Alice Munro won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, and while I have read and enjoyed one of her short story collections (Runaway), I'm curious to read more from and about this literary heavyweight.
The essay entertained and educated, as good essays are supposed to do. It also forced me to recalibrate my own thinking in a matter of just a few sentences:
"[Munro] is making a political point, one that's radical because it's so enormous and so unsettling. The point is that the lives of girls and women, even of those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as the lives of boys and men, those who take drugs, ride across the border, drift down the river or hunt whales."
This recalibration is what prompted me to look up the essay's author, Roxana Robinson. She's a successful novelist, and her most recent book, Sparta, is about a young American veteran returning from war in the Middle East. She is also the author of a Georgia O'Keefe biography. All this made me want to contact Ms. Robinson to request an interview with her for The Postmasters Podcast. Unfortunately, she didn't have any personal contact information listed on her website. What she did have was a small regiment of people set up between herself and me. A publicist, an agent, and someone who coordinates speaking events. I decided the publicist was most relevant to my goal, and that's when the magic happened.
My brother, Curtis, has a new blog, which I just discovered this week. Those of you who know Curtis won't be surprised that he has a lot to say about certain things, mostly regarding topics philosophical and/or political. I love that he's begun writing these things down and putting them out there for quasi-public consumption. He and I differ on a lot of things, but that's what discourse is all about. Intelligent debate. Not these vitriolic spit-fests leading up to political primaries, or the partisan finger-pointing and name-calling which inevitably arise once the elections are over. I'm talking about thoughtful, reasoned discussion.
Today, I commented on Curtis's blog for the first time. It's really a response to several of his posts thus far, but I enjoyed writing it out, so I thought I would share it here for fun. (Also to encourage anyone who likes to read Libertarian treatises on modern society to visit pCoast Compelled.)
In Curtis's most recent post--Thanksgiving. To who?--he makes the case for personal responsibility and congratulation. An excerpt:
My comment is as follows:
Wow. Well, first, thank you for spilling your optimism about the average individual human all over the interwebs.
As I read through these initial posts, I found an interesting pattern. You're writing to a certain subset of people, and that subset holds close to a rubric set by your own life experience and personality. On Thanksgiving morning, you'll be patting yourself on the back for choosing a job which pays you enough money to be able to buy a new home. And you'll be praising yourself in the mirror for taking care of your own health. And you'll be looking at your brainy, beautiful wife and thinking, "It's a good thing I've actively made myself funny and handsome and successful enough that she wants to be with me." All across America, there may well be similar people giving themselves similar affirmations, but the grave weakness of this fallacy is in its incompleteness.
Allow me to apply what I'm talking about to my own life first. There are plenty of good things in my life which are here in spite of me or my choices. For example:
It will never cease to amaze me that I have the choice not to have children. Until the 1960s, married women either had kids until their bodies gave out, or they stonewalled their own husbands to reduce the odds of conception. Worldwide, women had only one dependable option to limit their family size: abstinence. A close second was abortion, which was illegal and, therefore, not widely available or safe when it could be obtained. The invention of the birth control pill and the legislative victories which made it legal are two things I can take ZERO credit for, but which affect me every day of my privileged life.
I am also thankful for the existence of extraordinary people who do good things for the world and spend their lives selflessly in service to their fellow man. Malala Yousafzai is one. Nelson Mandela is another. I am thankful for public defenders, inner-city teachers, first responders. I am thankful for my friend Jeremy, who pulled an unconscious woman from her burning vehicle and dragged her to safety. And for victims' rights advocates. And for people who pay for the coffee of the person behind them in line at Starbucks. And for whoever gave the homeless man on my street a new blanket and shoes last week. These people are empowered and making their own choices, and what they do has no direct effect on me whatsoever, but I am grateful to them. Humbled by them. Hopeful that there will always be people like that, because--on my worst days--I might need one of them, and--on my best days--I might be one of them.
Time flies when you're writing thousands of words every day. It's all because of National Novel Writing Month, a masochistic writing commitment which I've attempted and failed to complete twice before. But this year, I told myself, would be different. This year I would be joining several wonderful friends in the NaNoWriMo attempt, and would benefit from their encouragement and solidarity. Also, I would be publicly stating my intent to do NaNoWriMo as part of my work for The Postmasters Podcast, and our audience would hold me accountable. On top of all this, my writing life is better prepared now for such a mission. In years past, I'd tried NaNoWriMo while working on my master's thesis or trying to jumpstart other new projects simultaneously. Huge mistake. This year I've got my head on straight, my priorities aligned, and time in the day to write write write write write. And then write some more. It would be different this time.
I was right. Since November 1, I've averaged almost 2,500 words a day. That's nearly 1,000 words more than the required daily average for a successful NaNoWriMo (1,667). It's working. I haven't missed a day. My novel is developing. Shooting up into the air like some kind of jungle plant, thriving under the pressure and the heat and all that unselfconscious first-drafting.
I wake in the morning, shuffle into the office, close the door, sit in the chair and turn on my computer. Scrivener (the software I'm using the first time this year) is already open to my project. There's a fresh text document ready for me (titled the night before with the day's date and a few key words to remind myself where my characters are and where they need to go next). I begin. Tap-tap-tap-clatter-clatter-backspace-backspace-backspace-tap-clatter-tap. New leaves and branches and blooms on the jungle plant, out of my control, from someplace sincere within my writerly heart. When I write, my personality splinters, and I hear the voices of writers from Hemingway to Kingsolver to O'Brien hollering at me, whispering to me. Do it like this. Not like that. Go further. Write faster!
Forty-six thousand words so far. And a lot of it is terrible!
For instance, I've wasted time on sentences like this:
Closer they came, but slowly, and Dottie found herself staring at them, trying to guess what was passing between them. The mood was tense.
That's a whole lot of ugly, bad grammar in one place. And boring to boot!
I've also been typing so fast, I've managed to garble perfectly good sentences with duplicate words, like so:
Triage. The moment when when mere moments made a difference, and if you wasted them with the wrong boy you might lose the right one.
Don't worry. I've tried to keep the word count padding to a minimum, though, I have allowed the crutch of cliché to creep in when I need to keep up my momentum:
Her mind was running wild and she knew she couldn't afford that now.
If I weren't obliterating the minimum each day, I'd be unable to afford such lame sentences, too. But it's all okay, because occasionally I've managed truth and beauty and, hopefully, some of the gravity I pray will be integral to this story.
Planes she couldn't see droned above her in the night sky, shadowy as fish in a river, but she caught herself looking up anyway as the buzzing drew closer, so close she wondered if she could reach up and feel her fingers pass hotly over the slick belly of an enemy aircraft.
I have faith the gravity will be present if I'm honest and follow my instincts and try very hard not to try very hard.
One evening this summer, I led my writers' group through several back-to-back short exercises. This was easily the favorite of the night:
Create a story that is 26 sentences long. Each sentence must begin with the next letter in the alphabet. For example, the first sentence should begin with A, the second with B, the third with C, and so forth.
Here's what I came up with:
"And stay out," Pa yelled at the tail-end of the escaping dog. "Bloodhounds aren't good for anything. Call Peterman and tell him to get these mongrels off our property. Dammit. Enough is enough."
"Fella's just doing us a favor." Gripping the open door screen, Ma shook her head, her white hair fluttering in the aimless breeze like dandelion fluff.
"He comes around here one more time and I'll shoot him."
"I'd like to see you try," said Ma and reached for her husband's soft shoulders. "Just come back inside, Xavier."
Keeping the screen open with her hip, she guided him into the house. Liver spots shadowed his shaking hands. Many years had passed since either of his deep brown eyes had seen a thing.
"Never will understand why that man sends his dog over here."
"Oh, Pa," she said. "Peterman means well."
"Quit pushing me," he said, swatting at her hands.
"Really, he's trying to do right by us. Service dogs cost money is all. Tramp don't cost a thing," she said and walked toward the bathroom, but then stopped and looked back.
Underlit by the glow of the television set, where the football game had suddenly changed to static, Pa appeared alien to her all of a sudden. Very odd to have a blind, ornery stranger in her living room after sixty-four years. Wind picked up at the corners of the house, as she expected. Xavier hunkered down in his chair as the tornado siren sounded.
"You know, I think this time we're heaven-bound, Ellen," said Pa over the high, fearsome whine, and his voice tugged her heart once again, bringing her back to his side; she knelt on the floor and held his hand.
Zeb Peterman pulled Tramp into his root cellar next door, let the doors bang shut above them both, and whispered, "Well boy, at least we tried."
Someone must be last. That's the rule. And in my kingdom, this works out fine, because the last shall be first. Yet, this little leaf, now brown and curled around the edges, dampens even my spirits today. Perhaps it is the way it clings so hopefully to the branch. Well, last week, still surrounded on all sides by his family, his clinging might have been hopeful. Not so much now. Unflanked and exposed. His determination, then, brings me down a fraction of an inch. He won't give in to the turning of seasons--a process which has undergone more revolutions than anyone can count. Except me, of course.
Revolution: The act of rising up in defiance.
Each spring is something of a revolution, and even this last leaf has had his spring. That's the rule, too. I don't demand that the trees give up their leaves, all of them, at the close of the year. It's merely the way I built the machine. And the circumstances of spring--all noisy green, pushing up through the snow to hail the sun--seem like a victory. A resurrection. A thrilling surprise, at least for the new buds, the newly unscrolling leaves, green and emphatic. We live in spite of the death that came before!
But resurrections in my universe are also part of the plan. People were surprised by mine, you know. but make no mistake. What appeared a revolution embodied in a revived heart behind a stone was really ordained long ago. Back before there were springs at all, which is to say, back before there were winters.
And so, even this last leaf must fall.
I am afraid to name her.
What if I call it wrong?
If my moniker choice resists
story, history, or song?
Details of breeding and face,
habits, regrets, disgrace...
These I'll slap on her like travel stickers on a suitcase,
but a name?
So much weight.
So I wait.
One false christening could render her
uninteresting and ugly.
even Scarlet O'Hara was first Penelope.
No matter how far I travel from it, my heart belongs to Yosemite. My husband and I grew up there, fell in love there. That's why I'm so proud and excited to announce that my short essay "We Climb Anyway" will be published this winter as part of a new anthology from The Yosemite Conservancy:
Inspiring Generations: 150 Years, 150 Stories from Yosemite
"On June 30, 1864, amidst the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act to protect Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. This act that set aside the first public parkland for future generations was a legacy for our nation and an inspiration to the world.
"To honor the 150th anniversary of this milestone, a call went out inviting the public to celebrate in prose and poetry the national park they love. The 150 pieces in this book were selected from hundreds of submissions from people who have visited, lived in, or worked in Yosemite National Park. These collected reflections feature, among other things, treks up Half Dome, escapades at The Ahwahnee, revels at the long-gone firefall,and, yes, encounters with those bears; and range from the hilarious to the historical, the enlightening to the uplifting. Inspiring Generations will encourage many journeys to the park filled with family, friends, and the stuff memories are made of."
This commemorative book will be published by the Yosemite Conservancy and will be sold as a fundraising item benefiting the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant.
"One of my passions is hearing from park visitors how Yosemite has impacted their lives in a positive way. This book is a great way to record those experiences and recount how cherished and important the park is to past and present visitors," said Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park Superintendent.
Every piece in the anthology is less than 1,000 words. Micro-essays and flash fiction. Knowing even that much of my writing will appear in a book for sale in Yosemite National Park is a dream come true.
Inspiring Generations will be available for purchase in YNP bookshops and visitor centers this December. At the Mariposa Storytelling Festival in March 2014, the book will receive an official launch. And you can buy the paperback on Amazon in May 2014 (preorder it now).
I encourage everyone to Like the Yosemite Conservancy on Facebook; it's an easy way to keep up-to-date on anniversary events and park news. And please buy a copy of this anthology to support the efforts of the Yosemite Conservancy.
My bedside library slouches around the base of the small silver lamp on my nightstand. The New Yorker is to blame. Four issues, each only partially read. One still shrink-wrapped. They are too large. Their covers too slippery. In the pile, they move whole inches at the slightest jostle. Sandstone. The wrong foundation for this mound of literature. But I cannot tuck them away on the shelf yet. James Wood's review of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in the current issue refuses to be neglected that way. I also flag the best pieces, ones that resonate personally or strike me as prime material for teaching someday. Keeping the Faith: Egypt's preachers after the crackdown by Peter Hessler (Oct. 7) requires such a flag. Then I'll put the magazines away. I promise.
Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time and a slim, white volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot rest lightly atop the rest. I finished In Our Time weeks ago now, but I can't put it back on the shelf yet. The brutality of its passages about wartime, the bloody pilgrimages and hoary revelations about man's character, stick like burs to my brain. No, I need it in arm's reach for a while. Before he was Papa, Hemingway was a young man with a machete-pen and a raw, stark way of looking at the world. Everyone has a beginning. Every author has a first book. So, it sits there, reminding me when I roll to the left and open my eyes first thing in the morning that I've got a first book waiting within me.
Eliot's poetry, too, has been finished (if one can ever truly finish reading a poem). I picked it up at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris on my last trip. Last week, it was my bath time book. Light as the bubbles in the tub, I drank the whole thing in a single soak. Prufrock, yes, but other meditations on life, aging, family, society, poverty, and play also. It is here among the rest of the nightstand mess because, warm and blushing from the bath, I wandered straight to bed and fell fast asleep without remembering much that came between. My poetry shelf in the office is too disorganized to welcome Eliot anyway. So, he'll stay.
Want to talk writing? Join me in my latest project...
I will be co-hosting this monthly podcast with my good friend and fellow writer, Lacy Mayberry. We met at Lesley University and graduated together with our MFAs in Creative Writing exactly one year ago. Our short Prologue introducing ourselves and the program is already up. Episode 01, The Road to Lesley, will "air" July 1, 2013. Along with being able to listen to each full episode on our website, you can find us and subscribe for free downloads on iTunes!
Together, and in our energetic, enthusiastic style, Lacy and I will:
- Share our experience as writers who opted to complete a master's program in our field
- Discuss the practicalities of an active, productive writing life, both before and after obtaining a master's degree
- Offer our perspective on the low residency experience
- Research the offerings of classic, full-residency university writing programs
- Utilize our growing literary network by interviewing colleagues, mentors, role models, and legends, then share those conversations with a wider audience
- Collect and share information about literary journals, writing retreats and conferences
- Encourage one another, as well as other aspiring writers
- Help maintain a positive outlook on an industry which, due to publishing company mergers and the self-publication trend, can sometimes seem daunting and cutthroat
- Laugh a lot (as we usually do!)
We hope you'll subscribe to the blog for updates. Visit writingpostmasters.com to subscribe via email. You can also Like the Postmasters Facebook page and Follow Postmasters on Twitter. Along with helpful information, encouragement, and interviews with writers at every level of personal success, we'll be doing fun giveaways and other activities which will keep our audience both informed and entertained!
If you're at all interested in the ins and outs of the true writing life, we hope our podcast will be a good resource for you. Check out The Postmasters Podcast today!
I'm just old enough to remember the enthusiastic robot's voice AOL employed to announce, You've got mail!
The computer always took so long to power up. At thirteen, I could hardly contain myself. Hand on the mouse, waiting. I could see the little gray mailbox before anything else: an icon which a world on the cusp of the Internet Age understood as a receptacle for letters and packages. It was something familiar and tangible to cling to as we tried to wrap our heads around the advent of electronic mail. No need to comprehend the sequence of ones and zeroes. Just mail on a screen. The how didn't matter.
And just as we'd always loved seeing the mailman in his blue shorts and eagle-patched shirtsleeves stop at our house to leave real letters, we were suddenly excited to see the little red flag on the digital mailbox tick up. To see the door pop upon to reveal a stack of little white e-letters inside.
You've got mail. Oh, those words were a thrill.
Now, email is rote. A burden, an addiction. It has worn down our pioneer patience to a nub of ADHD. My email tab is open all day, everyday. (It's open now. Checked it. Nothing new.)
But the beautiful irony of two decades of instant gratification is that, for me, it's only enhanced how much I enjoy receiving real mail. Snail mail. The stamped kind. From all over the world.
That's why I signed up for the Postcrossing project. Send postcards to strangers; receive postcards from strangers. I've sent and received about 57 over the last three years. I recommend it to everyone! Learn about culture and geography and the exquisite similarities of human nature. Collect stamps. Get inspired to travel to new destinations. All and easily with Postcrossing.
You never know when one will arrive, either. A treat. A treasure.
But yesterday, I got something better.
Next weekend, Lesley University will open its doors to another 10-day residency for students in its Low Residency MFA Program.
Fifth semester students will be presenting seminars and public readings at the end of the week before they graduate, and before all that happens, they'll stride across the campus and camp out under the trees like gods and goddesses in their own universe. Fourth semester students will be moving quickly from place to place, equally eager and anxious about this being their last set of workshops. Third semester students will be outwardly confident, walking slowly because they've given themselves enough time for everything, rooted securely in the knowledge that they have a full year left to enjoy all this magic. Second semester students will be resolute, relieved to know where classrooms are, excited to work with a mentor they actually got to choose this time around, thrilled to see their writing friends again.
And first semester students?
Mouths open. Eyes spinning in opposite directions. Carrying far too many books. Confounded by the simultaneous urge to laugh and to cry.
Prepping for a low residency masters program in advance might seem overwhelming, but arriving on campus to experience one is more so. First semester students will be wandering the lovely, compact Lesley campus, almost perpetually lost. They'll be early for the wrong classes. Late for the wrong meals. Their pens will run out of ink mid-seminar. They'll find themselves sitting on stairs in violation of the fire code during readings at Marran Theater because the place is unexpectedly packed! Before their first set of workshops, they'll be fighting nervous nausea. After their first set of workshops, somebody will cry. (It was me. That's how I know.)
That's the important thing for all first-timers to remember. Every single Lesley student, even the ones glowing with effortless ease, have been in your place.
You can't actually prepare for the heavenly, chaotic boot camp that is the first residency. But few people are willing to accept that. So, in case you're gearing up to spend your first 10 days at Lesley (or Goddard, or Bennington, or Palm Desert, or any of the other numerous and prestigious Low Residency Creative Writing MFA programs), allow me to give you what little insight I can.
The following is my response to a wonderful email I received yesterday from a student about to start at Lesley. I hope it helps!
Photo: Jonathan and I had our best California buds in town with us this week, so they got to attend the launch party on Friday. A huge treat for me! See more photos from the party at the end of this post.
North of the Sun, South of the Moon: New Voices from Norway is the first anthology published by the Oslo International Writers' Group, and now you can own it in paperback! The following is the introduction to the book, which I was honored to co-author with OIWG's founder, Zoë Harris:
At sixty-six degrees north, there is an invisible line drawn around the globe. The line passes through only eight countries: Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the United States (Alaska), Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. This is the Arctic Circle, a perforation between the Land of the Midnight Sun and everything below it, places where the sun will always set, at least for a breath. Such is the mysticism of the Far North. Polar bears lumber across the icescapes of Svalbard under endless daylight from April to August. More populated areas above the Arctic Circle also enjoy these "white nights", where a girl with a book can read the fine print from dusk to dawn without ever flipping a light switch.
It is an exotic concept. But, as always, there's a dark side.
The Land of the Midnight Sun cannot escape the inevitable Noon Moon. Twenty-four hours of daylight in the summertime; twenty-four hours of darkness in the wintertime. To cope, residents of Norway put up black-out curtains just to fall asleep in July. In January, light box therapy helps some fend of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). We know two seasons: summer and winter; celebration and survival. These are things to which only people who have lived in-country year-round can attest, an invisible line which binds us together.
When the Oslo International Writers' Group (OIWG) formed in early 2012, the initial aim was camaraderie: to create a network of writers who could share and critique work, discuss writing as only writers can, and support one another in what can often be a rather lonely pursuit. Soon it became evident that the talent and ambition of this set of writers warranted a project, some kind of collective effort to showcase our work to the outside world.
Kindle me! The digital edition of North of the Sun, South of the Moon: New Voices from Norway is available for download.
Now, I assure you that you'd be hard pressed to find someone who better appreciates small, independent booksellers than me. I can spend hours perusing, reading, paging, running my hands along the shelves of colorful bindings. There's nothing better than finding a bookshop with a diverse and thoughtfully indexed inventory, a knowledgeable staff, a section dedicated to local authors... all things which are only available and enjoyable face to face. I try to support such small businesses whenever possible.
But I can't deny that it's a profound pleasure to have a book which is, in part, authored by me now available on Amazon!
Holland House and The Oslo International Writers' Group are proud to present the group's first anthology, North of the Sun, South of the Moon: New Voices from Norway.
My nonfiction essay, Orientation, will appear alongside the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry of seven of my talented fellow OIWG members:
The e-book will be available 17 May 2013, coinciding with Norway's Constitution Day festivities, and the paperback edition will be available in June. Best of all, book sale profits will go to Utdanningshjelpen, a Norwegian volunteer organisation which offers educational scholarships to children and young people in Kenya, Ghana, Mosambique, Ethiopia and Palestine.
Publication is an exciting time for every writer! The launch party for North of the Sun, South of the Moon is going to be a fabulous event, hosted by everyone's favorite American restaurant in Oslo, Café Fedora.
Date: 7th June 2013 at 7:00pm
Place: Café Fedora, Frognerveien 22, Oslo
Price: 200 NOK per person
Food and drinks are included in the ticket price, and you will also hear the authors give readings, have the opportunity to buy the book and/or donate directly to Utdanningshjelpen, as well as be in the running to win a signed copy of the book.
Tickets are limited, so if you're in town and want to support these fine, local writers, please buy yours today! Café Fedora's owners, Anthony and Nicole Juvera, in a typical bout of warmth and generosity, have made it possible for all tickets sold for the launch event to support the charity, too. In case I haven't made it clear before, you want to know these two people. They make Norway a better place.
The Oslo International Writers' Group is open to writers of all stripes in the Oslo area. We meet once a month. Find us on Facebook if you're interested in joining. We welcome your voice and point of view!
I've been accused of cowardice.
Yesterday, I reached out and told someone that I didn't agree with him. Not a shocker. We don't agree on much. But I also told him, via a Private Message (PM), that he ought to be more careful of the kinds of things he posts on Facebook.
This particular young man has a habit of libeling our President, of posting items about the gun control debate that can only be described as antagonistic, and of bullying people who don't agree with him. I've seen him attack the character and convictions of individuals and groups. These social media choices mirror his real life actions: he lives unapologetically. Which is to say, he steamrolls through his conversations with deaf ears and blind eyes... self-righteous to the point of recklessness... and it pisses off a lot of people.
In this case, he shared a Reuters article about the defeat of gun control legislation in the senate with just one comment: "WOOHOO!!!!!" Unfortunately, the thumbnail that accompanied this article was a portrait of distraught parents in the wake of the Newtown school massacre. I doubt he selected this photo intentionally, but it was still insensitive. At best. In fact, after the correspondence that ensued in the wake of that post, I wouldn't put it past the guy to choose precisely that photo. You'll see what I mean in a minute.
#1 Spring weather. Which hasn't really shown up yet, though yesterday was gorgeous.
#2 Angel food cake. I made one from scratch this year for Jonathan's birthday. It's light, sweet, sticky, and delectable. Also, only 130 calories per slice, and I choose to believe that doesn't vary by the size of the wedge I cut. Can't believe there's still some left!
#3 Working out. No, really, these days, a good run on the treadmill or a half hour of pilates sounds better to me than sitting in a chair and writing. And I can't even fault myself for it because, hey, writing won't make me live longer or have a stronger heart or trimmer thighs, but exercising will.
#4 Human suffering.
#5 New Girl.
#6 Laundry. Because we don't have a (working) dryer, doing a load of laundry takes more time and effort than ever before. Which means I get through it slower. Which means there's always a pile to do. And if I put it off 'til tomorrow, that pile will fall over and crush me.
#7 Grocery shopping. Again, it's an ordeal because we don't have a car or an elevator. I have to plan carefully what we actually need (no impulse buying!), bring the appropriate number of bags to carry it back in, and then take forever hauling it all up four flights of stairs.
#8 Friends. I will always, always, always put a lunch or coffee date with a friend above my writing goals for the day. This is both because I want the friend to feel loved and supported, and because working from home makes me feel isolated sometimes, and there are days when I crave human contact.
#9 Husband. He's just so cute, and if there's a chance to hold hands with him, I'll take it. Even if it means I can't write (because I need hands to do that!).
#10 My cat. As evidenced by the photo above, my 17-pound animal likes to put himself between me and the keyboard, then reach for my face with his paws while he purrs like a sports car. He puts the Diz in Diztraction!
Last year, Canadian Travel Website Cheapflights commissioned me to write an Insider's Guide to Oslo for them. I've found my calling. Researching restaurants (eating out) and researching bars (drinking beer) and researching museums was a good gig.
Along the way, I wrote a little more than necessary for their purposes. Imagine that. So, I thought I'd put my full descriptions here on my blog for all my readers. To begin... What are some cool places to eat in Olso?
Before Willa Cather died in 1947, she specifically requested that none of her personal correspondence ever be published or even quoted from. Executors of her estate have adhered to that personal request ever since. Until now. Roughly 500 of Cather's estimated 3,000 letters will be published shortly, and are set to answer long-time questions about Cather's life, including her sexuality and her literary relationships. I'm fascinated, but conflicted.
Reading the personal correspondence of writers I admire is always a treat. It's a raw look at their personalities and belief systems. It's a chance to see something closer to a first draft. Without editors or publishers or even an audience to worry about, how does Hemingway think? How does O'Connor express her emotions? To say nothing of revelations about characters and stories limited to the public by the words The End. Fans want to know whether somewhere, deep in the gray matter, their favorites live on.
But what of privacy?
This blog and the girl behind it are part of an exhibitionist culture which has only grown over the last decade, fueled by Facebook and Twitter.
Today, people take photos of their breakfasts and post them for the world to see. Eggs and bacon frying in a pan look like eggs and bacon frying in a pan. But one hit with the Instagram stick, and you've got yourself something closer to art. Breakfasts and lunches and dinners and midnight snacks clog the arteries of the internet.
Then there are my personal favorites: Status updates and photos of failed attempts at potty training.
I unfollowed my favorite professional athlete the other day because her younger son didn't make it to his potty on time, and all 126,000 followers got to see the result. We're talking number two. When I peruse my news feed, I don't want to hear about (or see!) other people's adventures with excrement. Either from their animals or their little children. Unlike.
But then again...
Sulfur taints the air at first breath. A thousand decaying things. The ground is dry and yellow, cracked and caked with mineral deposits, covered with the solid, round clusters of animal scat. It is a hellscape. Mud pots belch and splash off the edges of the boardwalk. Gray-brown mud hot enough to boil. The sun blazes down on the bare crowns of our heads. I envy by brothers their white-blond buzz-cuts. My dark hair saturates with sun, hot as fire. My palm recoils at the slightest touch. Believe it or not, I belong here. Where the sky seems inflated; where the buffalo roam. Fumaroles wheeze steam from the angry bowels of the earth. I imagine the superheated rocks far beneath the crust, glowing like coals. This is where Hades might break through, the world's weakest point, if he wanted to make an appearance. If there was something he wanted to steal. Though I'm no Persephone, I stick the boardwalk. It snakes across this dry plain, splitting off to run a circle around a hot spring, then returning again. At Morning Glory we stop to marvel at the rings of color--ochre to tangerine to scarlet to emerald to turquoise--funneling toward the broad, tranquil center. Clouds of steam rise and waft across the boardwalk. My brothers gag on the stench, lurch down the path coughing and laughing. The smell is as foul and full of rotten eggs as the pool itself is heavenly and full of myth and dreams. I breathe deeply and walk on. I have adapted. I am the right kind of demon for this place. A turquoise bracelet sparks blue and silver at my wrist. We arrive with the crowd at the epicenter of energy. At the top of the hour, the geyser unleashes itself at the sky. A fury. A reminder that beauty is dangerous, yet best unbound. It is the beholders who must take care and stay back, wary of burning, scalding, searing. Death. This is a story older than any of us, the way Old Faithful keeps time. My brothers are on their skinny knees, reaching out to try and touch a yellow-bellied marmot. The creature dives beneath the boardwalk. I draw myself taller, proud of the heat radiating from my black hair, and join the story.
"It is a woman's job to write about the wild."
When I take notes at writing lectures and seminars, I have a system. There are concepts I list, gleaned from the speakers' talking points. There are snippets of dialogue, summaries of observations. If they recommend books, I drop an asterisk. If they recommend authors, I superscript the line with an A. If they say something vital to the rest of my life, as an author and a woman and a human, I make sure to write it down exactly as they spoke it, clutched between quotation marks. Underlined, if it's something I never want to forget.
This weekend, I found myself underlining lots of true quotes, and the best ones came from Pam Houston.
I have been able to admire her from afar, though. I read her books as they come out, eagerly, expectantly. When she's featured in a new interview or posts an essay somewhere, I track it down and eat it up. I follow her on both Facebook and Twitter. We've even corresponded via social media a couple of times! But at this year's AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Boston last week, I got a chance to shake her hand!
Believe it or not, I'm not the only expat in Norway who likes to blog about how cool and challenging this relocated life is. In fact, Norway has a very healthy, active population of expat bloggers. Before Jonathan and I decided to move overseas, I followed a handful of them religiously, not knowing then that I would one day join their ranks, providing daily, personal insight about life halfway around the world.
Only part my blog is dedicated to Norway and all its quirks. But there are several excellent all-Norway-all-the-time expat blogs that you should check out, too!
Looking for something spooky this Halloween season? Windowshopping after dark in Oslo might just suffice.
Near the corner of Uranienborgveien and Parkveien, across the street from Nomaden, the travel bookstore, is a storefront marked Kunst Handel, Norwegian for art dealer. In the daytime, it would be easy to walk past without taking so much as a sidelong glance at the windows there. You might see the bright corners of gilded-gold picture frames or sculptures high on pedestals. In a blink you're past it. But if you stop to look again, if after night falls the lights inside catch your eye and hold it, you'll find yourself swept into a strange world. Try, if you dare, to imagine the feverish brain which conceived of this bizarre collection.
King Gander was shot dead cleanly through the eye by a hunter at the lake who had no idea the geese were organized enough to have a king. The jewels in his crown dazzled the hunter through her scope. What a prize, thought she. What a trophy! The gunshot startled the flock and sent them scooting, panic-stricken across the top of the lake and then up into the sky. Behind them floated the body of their leader. The hunter's retreiver, Princess, splashed into the water, paddled out a few meters, and hauled the plump goose by the neck to the shore. The hunter knelt on the rocks and realized King Gander's crown was gone; it had probably tumbled from his head when the bullet tore through his eye and sunk into the dark lake water. No matter, thought the hunter, giving Princess's ears a scratch. When I stuff him, I will have his eye replaced, and I will replace his crown, as well.
Readers! I've got good news... In August I was hired as an Editorial Assistant by Adventum, a literary magazine specializing in creative nonfiction, with an emphasis on wilderness and outdoor adventures, as well as nature-inspired Haiku. It's the perfect fit for me, and I'm proud to be part of the publication.
Along with reading submissions for the upcoming issue of Adventum, I also co-author The Adventum Blog. I urge you to swing by and subscribe today! By following The Adventum Blog, you'll receive book reviews, publication announcements for our many talented authors, contest information, and some creative work, too.
Whenever I post something new on The Adventum Blog, I'll include a link here, as well. Just in case you want to read more of me!
Spotlight: West with the Night (26 Sept 2012)
In 1942, Beryl Markham had more than a few harrowing tales to tell. She published her memoir West with the Night to share them with the world. Raised in Africa, a continent still shrouded in a kind of dreadful mystery to the rest of the world, Markham had trained race horses and survived a lion attack, but most intriguing of all was her time as a pilot. Continue reading...
The writer's notebook. Tucked away in pocket, backpack, or purse, it's a longstanding tradition. And while technology may press to replace the ubiquitous writer's notebook with something far more-er-digital, I can't give in yet. I have too much nostalgia for the medium used by my predecessors and heroes: Hemingway, Muir, Jan Morris and Beryl Markham. These folks traveled, absorbed the landscapes around them, and wrote. Right there in the wild. And I strive to do the same. Continue reading...
In 10 minutes, define your personal value. What makes you valuable?
The most valuable thing I do each day is write. Something. Anything. My words are my currency. Though I suppose standard rules of economics don't apply--I have an endless supply of words, and it is rare for anyone to demand them. So, my value is artful, wrapped up in what is creative. Historically, this is not something which is valued in the sense of money. Not unless I'm really good, or am misunderstood in my own time, or am to inherit a global chain of luxury hotels and have a sex tape floating around on the internet. The value of a writer's product in terms of money is usually low. There are simply too many of us, and too few unique thoughts shared between the group. So, what else might I claim to be my value, and how may it be measured? I am also a wife--the keeper of my husband's heart, confidence, and ego. And I make my home. There must be some value to associate with the vacuum cleaner, the dish soap, and the laundry hanging on the line. Or maybe that's all relative to taste, habit, and circumstance. After all, for a woman in a third world country, her ability to balance a pitcher of clean drinking water on her head over the dusty miles between well and hearth is the difference between life and death. That's value. Measured not in dollars, but in dysentery. Or a lack thereof. If I don't vacuum, nobody dies. If I don't write, nobody even notices. Except me.
There is a meme that has made the obligatory number of rounds on the interwebs and is now lodged, probably forever, in my life. This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult on the wonderful and hilarious blog Hyperbole and A Half. It is the story of one woman’s personal history of productivity, the ups and downs. And, as with so many great and simple stories, this one is illustrated with zany stick figures.
The thesis to all this, of course, is that the definition of an Adult is a person whose capacity for responsibility is rarely, if ever, overwhelmed by the petty rigors of daily life. You know the ones. Chores. Errands. Getting one’s child (or husband, in my case) to eat his vegetables. Working at a job that earns one money. Hitting the gym. As well, an Adult is someone who manages to fend off the temptations of sloth and gluttony, even in this world of Double Stuft Oreos and Project Runway.
The punchline is that an Adult manages to do all these things in a day, as well as to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS! Exquisite hyperbole. And the bonus punchline is that wannabe-Adults can't maintain this level of responsible productivity for longer than a couple of days. Then we breakdown, forsake all other goals, and succumb to the lazy-brained pull of the Internet. Forever. It's a cycle; one I've been churning through for years and years.
And, like any other average twenty-nine-year-old woman, I’d love to break the cycle and cross off Adulthood on my list of achievements.
So far, I haven’t. Not that my list remains impossibly long. I’ve crossed off other important milestones like Master’s Degree, Living Abroad, and Reach Eighth Year of Marriage. Not to mention the lesser goals, like Master Pumpkin Bread Recipe, Watch Every Episode of Friends 19 Times, and Defeat Gag Reflex When Scooping Kitty Litter. You see? Progress.
Recently, my friend Anna asked me to review an anthology which included an essay of hers. It is important to note that I take book reviewing seriously, especially when I'm allowed more than 140 characters in which to share my opinion. Remember that I am part of this book's target audience as a current expat, but I remain in all other ways as unbiased as possible. I hope those of you who are also current expats or are planning to move to another country soon will find my review especially useful. Make no mistake, this is a textbook-style tome and not a quick read, but it is an important book for those who appreciate the globally nomadic lifestyle.
Below is a copy of what appears in the Amazon customer reviews section for the essay collection titled Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids.
To steal an artful phrase by Anna Maria Moore, one author in this remarkable essay collection, the volume itself is "a collection of... passports...filled with stamps blurred by hands thumbing through them in customs offices" around the globe.
Here, the editors have successfully combined personal essays and scholarly articles from Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) and other Global Nomads to form a guidebook of sorts. This guidebook teaches and explains life lived in a globally-mobile sense: multiple cultures, multiple languages, frequent departures and separations. To live this way presents a complex set of challenges, and one byproduct is often a sense of alienation. The collection helps answer the questions: Where is home when your country isn't your country? Who are your people when no one around you has lived as you have lived?
It also helps explain the tax and toll struggling with this question can take on the psyche. For example, in my favorite scholarly essay in the collection, Memory, Language, and Identity: The Search for Self, Liliana Meneses explains that memories imprint based on the language associated with them; communicating in a language other than his mother tongue, a multilingual person might be unable to recall or recount early life events. The admirable adaptability of Third Culture Kids as adults is a direct result of this challenging upbringing. As Moore explains it, after four decades and five continents, she has become "a wild strawberry plant."
I write in the margins and on the blank pages of books authored by other writers. It's a habit. When I happen upon those scribblings later, it's always a treat. The following is an essay I penned on a trip to Northern Italy in 2009. All summer long I'd been following the Green Revolution in Iran. I'd seen the blood pool in the street beneath the body of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was gunned down during a protest in June. Her death scarred me. I wanted to know about the lives of other young women in Iran. To that end, I picked up Dr. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to read on our vacation...
- Holy god. I wrote this? I'm a genius.- Bored. No one else wants to know this much about my life. Non-fiction is a scam.- I won't ever write anything this beautiful again.- Overwrought? Really, Alex? Oh wait. She's right.- How much would a plane ticket to New York cost? Jodi needs an effing hug.- I shouldn't be allowed near pens. Period.- How many more hours do I have to do this? My heart has paper cuts all over it.- I can't see the forest through all these trees. (And now I'm being cliche.)- What does it say about me that I have to play an Eminem song on repeat for two hours in order to revise a piece about mourning?- I'm going to make everyone call me Master Camp. Boom.- If I don't finish this today, I'll be revising on my bithday. And I'm no masochist.- Hemingway wouldn't even read this shit.- Pam Houston might. And she's the one who's still alive, so I should think more about that.- Would M.J. let me join her shell-shucking business on that Mexican beach?- I should really start working on my grad seminar.- I should really renew my visa so I don't get kicked out of Norway.- Nothing feels better than seeing the word 'Brilliant' in the margins of my work. From Alex. From the MFA posse. Hell, from me.
The first-person memoir seeks to accomplish many things. If it is successful, the narrator acts as a guide on safari, a conduit of culture, an ambassador to a new society, and a foreign correspondent. Her story is both captivating and relatable, a feat accomplished by pushing herself one step further than pure story-telling. The author acknowledges that she is driving the getaway car. She purposely breaks through the boundary of the page and brings the reader along for the ride through the occasional, precise, and sometimes surprising use of the second-person point of view.
In college I studied Shooting an Elephant (1936), an essay included in this collection, which recounts George Orwell's time as a young British police officer in Burma. The essay has haunted me in the years since.
It was the brutality that stuck with me, the killing scene, one which goes on for several pages as Officer Orwell fires "shot after shot into [the elephant's] heart and down his throat" while the beast refuses to die. But more than that, it was the brutality of his reflections about the time, the place, the Empire occupying the place, the native people, the class system, and the self who suffered the execution of the elephant "solely to avoid looking a fool" (Orwell, 156). That honesty cut me to the bone.
In his famous essay about life at a boarding school in England as a youngster, Such, Such Were the Joys... (1949), Orwell opens with the horrors inflicted on the little boys who wet their beds. Today we acknowledge that this is an innocent phase in every child's life. We also know that most boys struggle with the training longer than most girls, but this story is only the first of many. Orwell goes on to relate the punishments and canings, the bullying, the accusations of latent homosexuality, the prejudices of his headmaster and instructors, his own laziness. Nothing is off-limits.
By being willing to touch on every subject, willing to treat nothing with undue deference or discretion, Orwell accomplishes as unbiased a study of childhood as possible. Children, he believes, live in "a sort of alien under-water world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves" (Orwell, 44). This chief clue is what drives Orwell's writing about his past, and he transcribes his memories as well as possible. Accuracy, though, can be relative.
"In general, one's memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it... But it can also happen that one's memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others." (Orwell, 5)
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If I'm not careful, I'll catch myself writing. I will be swept by the spotlights of my conscious mind, and the hazards of the terrain will be magnified. Second-guessed words, phrases twisted rather than turned. Clichés will loom before me, like serpents in my garden, begging to be used and promising it won't cost me the integrity of my piece. Oh, if only last night hadn't been both dark and stormy.
But this is where I surrender. Five sentences. It's all I can manage these days.
If I'm not careful, I'll catch myself writing. If I allow my grasp on my pen to falter, or if I stop to correct my initial misspelling of the word falter, or, after that, the word misspelling, I will slow to a crawl, knee deep in the quicksand of my consciousness. Another word I loath to spell in ink, another landmine. And is land mine supposed to be one word or two?
Questions like that will get me caught for sure. And I can't afford to lose time or ground now. I'm getting out of this lockup today. Better to lighten my load, drop pesky weights like attention to grammar or spell check, and keep to the hopeful trail I've only this moment uncovered.
It's a sliver of space between angry trees and bushes sprouting man-eating flowers, the kind with melon-pink blooms as big as VW Bugs. The flowers smell like rotted meat, perhaps the decomposing remains of other would-be writers who slowed long enough to reconsider using such a violent metaphor, or else turned back to improve it, thinking the phrases "rotted meat" and "decomposing remains" didn't go far enough. As much as I want to scribble "gangrenous" in the margin just a few lines back, I know it will cost me my life, and today it's not worth it. Today I keep running, and the tongues of the big, vicious blooms loll on the jungle floor and lap at the flicker of my running ankles.
A single word hurtles through the branches, perforating the enormous green leaves, and slams into my temple. Flicker. And I'm down on my knees again, blood pounding in my veins. I feel heavy. Flicker. Of all the words I overuse in my writing (and there are many) the one that pops up most often is Flicker. Flicker and Flutter. Overused words, evidence of my dwindling vocabulary. I could have thought up a better word, I think as my palms slip in the mud and my hair swings into my face. But I doubt myself even now, for I've stopped, you see, and I'm going over that moment again and again, trying to find that better word so I can move on, but it isn't coming to me, and I'm sitting dumbfounded on the trail just waiting for the hounds to find my lily white throat.
What would a real writer do? Succumb to the inflicted self-torment of listing her own shortcomings? Become distracted by the snort and snuffle of a fellow café patron blowing his nose? Close her book and reach for the cinnamon roll?
The cover of the current edition of Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is split down the middle by a vaguely tribal design, the title to the right and a black and white baby picture of the author on the left. Young Bobo Fuller's mouth is wide open in a squall and her shoulders are squared for battle. If this photo were described by the author, though, she might say that the child's shoulders are battle-squared and her mouth is screaming-wide.
Fuller is masterful when it comes to compounding her descriptions, harnessing her adjectives to one another with hyphens. Her word choices are simple, words that are familiar to one whose childhood hinged on a wild, sometimes barbaric plain, and rose from a landscape peppered with gunfire and dotted with packs of dogs. She describes her childhood in these terms. The patted-down red earth. The boiled-meat smell of dog food. The neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps. The oven-breath heat. These hyphenated descriptions set the tone for the memoir.
She writes in the first-person present-tense, but the tone is not omniscient and looking-back, the way one might think an adult memoirist would write about such tormented circumstances. Rather, she calls upon the way a child would describe what she sees. This is especially true when she recalls her mother:
Mum sitting "yoga cross-legged" as her beloved dogs sit "prick-eared" and watching. And after death of baby Adrian, once the family moves back to "working-class, damp-to-the-bone Derbyshire," it is Mum "sleeves-rolled-up running after two small children" (37). And upon the family's return to Africa, Mum is "don't-interrupt-me-I'm busy all day" (42). These are word portraits, culled by a child watching her conundrum of a mother as she ages, pulls through the death of a second child, and devolves from "being a fun drunk to a crazy, sad drunk" (93).
My monthly submissions to Lesley University's MFA program each include two craft annotations. When we "freshmen" were first presented with this requirement at our initial residency in June, the idea of writing a craft annotation about any book was enough to frighten many of us, but I was intrigued. After all, while I've continued to read and read and read since my graduation from UC Davis in 2006, I've missed the opportunity to analyze my readings in writing.
(That probably sounds a little crazy to some of you. Let me explain.)
When the movie Pride & Prejudice was released in 2005, people raved. I raved. As a child, I was addicted to the 1940 version. Sir Lawrence Olivier was the only Darcy I could imagine, and I would daydream about him. Soft cheeks and immaculate sideburns, the way his tongue softened the Zs in the word "Lizzy." I would sometimes alter my voice to accomodate Greer Garson's breathy British accent. This confused my teachers in elementary school, but on the whole they were understanding. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Busselen, never batted an eye, failing even to chide me for a three-week phase in which I signed my name at the top of all my assignments as Elizabeth Bennett.
(Where am I going with this? Stick with me.)
Anyway, the new version of P&P came out and, even as someone who loathes remakes of my favorite classics (Cheaper by the Dozen with Steve Martin as a slapstick father? Sacrilege!), I found the metamorphosis of the period piece disarming. Especially when I realized that I left the theater no longer daydreaming about the genteel 1940s Mr. Darcy, but viscerally craving the brooding 2005 Mr. Darcy.
In two hours all he'd done was scowl and look down his perfect nose, he'd danced once with Elizabeth, saved the entire bevy of Bennetts from destitution, and then... oh yes, he'd walked across a field.
Outside the theater, I could close my eyes and command him to walk across that field again and again. Mist and morning ebbed around him as his legs stalked between the rolling clumps of reeds and blue-green grasses. Toward me.
He had bewitched me, body and soul.
(Seriously, I'm getting there.)
I called him to mind over and over. Jaw. Voice. Eyelashes. Everything. And it pleased me.
That ability to replay a moment and feel the twinge of pleasure again, to shock my heart into skipping a beat, is one of my favorite parts of being alive. I hope everyone does this, not only with movies, but with life. Stop for a second and remember your first kiss. Matthew's lips tasted like rootbeer on the February evening. Remember sinking the game-winning, at-the-buzzer shot. Three--two--one--Pancoast with the three! Remember the best compliment you ever received. And remember how you glowed in the echo of those glorious, memorable moments.
I do this with books, too. After I've read a book like--oh--The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver or The Book Lover by Ali Smith or Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, my greatest desire is to relive the experience of that heavenly read. But that's harder. No flawless lips. No broad shoulders trailing a cape-like coat that flickers around mud-caked boots. Only words. The turn of a phrase. Rhythm. Vocabulary. Wordsmithing. Unless I repeat the best of these aloud, or write them down to share with someone else, I don't get that same pleasurable shiver.
So for me, the craft annotations at Lesley U have filled that void. I now have an avenue in which to share my favorite parts of a reading.
The true goal behind the craft annotation is to prove that I've not only read the books in question, but I've also gleaned something key about the craft of writing from the talented authors. That key is something I must be able to shoulder and take back to my own cave to further my evolution as a writer.
For my first set of craft annotations, I wrote about Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, two colorful memoirs. The following is the craft annotation I submitted for Ondaatje's work. (And to tie this in with past entries, in Hermaphrodite Flake - Part II I wrote that "I was alone with the nearly-noontime sun and the memoirs of a Sinhalese poet." Michael Ondaatje was up on the rock with me.)
If you aren't fascinated by history, especially military history, this isn't the book for you. But I'm enjoying it. And when I stop being irritated by the way the authors give citations for their written, colloquialized dialogue (no, I'm not kidding), I'll enjoy it all the more.
All that I'm asking of this book is Inspiration. It's working! And that's what excites me most of all.
As penance for failing to post anything for more than two months, I thought I'd go ahead and post a very brief bit of fiction I wrote today as a direct result of my time spent with this book. Please tell me what you think of it.
In his last moments, curled in the corner of a blank, concrete room on a blood-stained litter, his left leg cracked and swollen to bursting just below the knee, a deep, terrifying wound in his belly that exposed his glistening organs to the air, as his breaths became more shallow and rattled in the depths of his chest, and the copper tang of blood coated his teeth and tongue, in those moments, the soldier wanted love.
He wanted a warm hand to hold, soft hair falling against his cheek, someone to clutch and cling to. He wanted an American girl, freckled nose and big, blue eyes, a girl who knew the exquisite, wholesome flavor of the perfect ice cream sundae, someone who had caught lightning bugs on July nights and pondered the glow between her cupped palms. He wanted a heartbeat that was stronger than his own, imagining that the perpetually pounding sound of it deep beneath her canvas coveralls and soft skin would keep him alive, or at least that its continuity would soothe him with the promise of eternity.
He wanted to apologize to her for everything he'd ever done which was less than the best he had to offer, and he wanted her to stop him and tell him he'd lived well, that his death was a great sacrifice, and that he would not be forgotten, least of all by her.
And then, as his pulse slowed and the light in his eyes waned and he began to imagine that he was a child, climbing trees, hand over hand, hauling his lank, young body up between branches, higher and higher, pushing face first through the leaves, and watching the sunset over the warmest, most familiar Iowa field of earnest, golden-green corn, hearing his mother call his name from a front porch he'd never see again, then the soldier only wanted one thing: a lie.
You're going to be okay, Rose said.
She knew she could not pull the soldier up from his current position without causing him great agony, and so she bent lower, allowing her limp, damp curls to swing forward and mingle with his own mat of bloody blond hair. She embraced him gently at first, mindful of the holes and slashes in his clothes and skin, his terribly mangled left leg, but as the moist, low sounds of his breath against her earlobe dissipated, she grasped him tighter, forcefully. Her own tears began to fall, and she pulled his chest to hers, pressing to him hard, and praying for his heartbeat.
He was gone.
She pulled back to look at his face. His eyes were closed, and she imagined, beneath the dirt and blood spatter, that his cheeks and forehead were serene. She took his hand in hers and held it to her chest. In that moment, she was his mother, his sister, his girl, his lover, his wife, his daughter, every woman he had ever known and would mourn him when he didn't return.
This excerpt is not necessarily exemplary of the overall tone of my work. The tale I'm crafting is one of courage and desperation, the human spirit, and an honest look at a moment (a major loss) in America's military history which is misunderstood, mistaught, tucked away and forgotten in favor of our victories.
It is not an ode to the heroism and perceived spotlessness of our WWII soldiers and nurses, necessarily, because I believe that Tim O'Brien (author of The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods) is correct when he says that a true war story cannot have a moral. But it is a reminder of what some people, thrown onto the wrong cluster of jungle islands by chance, faced and fought between December 1941 and May 1942. It is a hope that remembering the full picture and unabridged history of our country will better us as a people, and that we'll learn our lesson and refuse to suffocate the testimonies of survivors for the sake of positive PR and propaganda.
If my excerpt doesn't make sense, it's because I've either done my job too well, having woven all the bits together so that they require the living fiber of one another in order to be understood, or I've failed. It's possibly cheesy, possibly fluffy. I hope not. Your honesty is appreciated.
Lately, trying to inspire my own writing has been like carefully cooking spaghetti. The water never boils and, after a while, when I do pull a limpid noodle from the froth and pitch it against the nearest wall, it tumbles down to the floorboards to hang with the dust bunnies. Nothing will stick.
A friend recently asked whether I'd posted anything to the Red Door in December.
No, I replied. No, I'm going through a drought.
A drought? he asked, and sipped his wine thoughtfully. Or have you just been really, really busy?
And so, he extended to me an excuse. It was forgiving, charitable, all the things I expect from the friends and family who follow my blogging. But I could not will myself to accept the avenue of escape. It's a bad habit of mine; once convicted, I believe I must remain convicted, and I will slam the cage door shut of my own accord.
After all, this isn't my first lapse by any means. I lag behind all the time. But in the past, when faced with nothing but the ugly, vapid glare of a blank Word Document on my laptop screen, I've written about that glare, that block, that demon, as though I could vanquish him by simply giving him a name.
Reading back, I admire those times. I admire the me who flailed and fought against her own laziness or fatigue or lack of originality by inventing some strange metaphor. It was always a stretch, of course. Beasts, machetes, rivers curling through jungles. But in those instances, I came through and, amazingly, I had a story to tell.
The sponge streaked over my kitchen counter removing all loose residue, but failed to budge a droplet of what looked like concrete which had adhered itself to the tiles. I flipped the sponge to its rougher side and took a few more passes over the splotch. No effect. It remained like an ancient ruin. I could tell it planned to outlast the ages, come rain or snow or sleet or me.
But I'm no quitter. So, I found a scraping tool and braced myself, taking a wide stance and flexing my triceps. The thing gave me naught but a stony glare. I scraped and scraped and scraped, but it was useless. I was attacking an ocean with a teaspoon.
This ridiculous battle should have been funny, but suddenly I found myself in tears.
I was frustrated, but what's worse, I was defeated. Not by the spot on my counter, but by a calendar, commitments and deadlines. Everywhere I turn there seems to be something which I've promised, someone I've committed to meet, a homework assignment due, a departure time for a trip. It's endless and it's all my fault.
You see, I like my life full. Living is fun and beautiful and full of emotion. I wake up every day happy to see the dawn, my husband, and a set of tasks which I'm entirely capable of doing. However, on some days, the worst days, it is daunting.
Losing my grip in my empty kitchen was not the plan last night. I should have been sitting at a long table in a library classroom at the local community college conjugating verbs and answering questions about a little boy named Marcel... all in French, of course. But I'd discovered earlier in the day that I'd racked up too many absences via travels and long work days, etc., to maintain a good grade.
Faced with the prospect of a shabby report card versus a lightening of my overall load for the rest of the year, I swallowed the horrible lump in my throat and opted to drop my French class.
Today at lunch I sat in the sun, my bare toes exposed to the sky, and I breathed in the fresh, fragile scent of cut grass and aging flowers and leaves staving off the seasonal call to loose their holds and tumble to the earth. Near the oleanders, where bunches of fuchsia flowers now bob between the browning, curled ends of their own, dying leaves, I caught a waft of almond, of mud, of something almost too ripe. But all of it mixed and floated away on the next breeze. It tantalized me.
Autumn is my favorite season, something I say aloud and blog about every year. It reminds me of elementary school, upside down plastic chairs on desks, the jingling circus noises of recess, and the straight gray-blue lines dividing blank notebook paper into swim lanes for letters.
The thought of those lines and the thrill of empty paper begging to be filled with graphite scrawl, triggers another memory, a favorite memory: learning the art of cursive under the brusque tutelage of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Busselen.
Mrs. Busselen's script on the chalkboard was perfect, graceful and purposeful, marrying each of the letters in a word to its neighbor with a quick, deft dip of chalk.
I coveted her capital Q. It was the most graceful number 2; it was the grand, arching contours of a trumpeter swan.
Before you accuse me of mixing my metaphors, I must tell you that I hold Metaphor sacred. In my personal religion of poetry, Metaphor is the god. It is all things. It joins all things. There is nothing outside the bounds of Metaphor, nothing that cannot be likened to something else, and nothing which, in the act of likening, is not rendered more familiar and more true in the process.
While I had always liked poetry (even winning a poetry recital in first grade), it wasn't until the spring ripened age of eleven that I found myself at the poetic precipice.
Up to that point, I had learned so much, so many foundational things. For me, learning was its own delight. I read my lessons in earnest, proud of my comprehension but always aching to be allowed to know more. Each fact given to me was pocketed, secreted away like a treasure. After a while, my stock hold of treasures had grown to something fairly fantastic, but I was still acting miserly about the whole thing. I obtained the gold pieces, the morals of stories and the sums of math problems, placed them on their rightful shelves in the cavern of my mind, and then visited them.
With the best of intentions, I began my contest entry last week. But, as is always the case, everything else more important kept me skirting the edges of creativity until, at last, the deadline loomed. Tonight, at 11:30, 29 minutes before the cut off, I crawled into bed and opened my laptop, determined to finish the damn thing or die.
I did finish it. And, with less than sixty seconds to change my mind, I filled out the form, copied and pasted the text, and hit SEND.
After sending, naturally, I saw several things which needed tweaking. Each more glaring than the last. Procession became setting. Peppermint became Pepsodent. The last line morphed thrice.
It was too late to make those changes for any judge to consider, but I still felt compelled to make the corrections. My piece needed pruning, and even though it was after midnight, I determined it was time to prune. After all, that's what a real writer would do, right? (Wouldn't she also make her writing a priority rather than neglecting it until the last second, gifting herself the possibility of edits and rewrites prior to the deadline? A novel idea to be sure, and one I'd rather deny entirely at the moment.)
Finally, it was done. It's far from perfect, far from poignant or insightful or memorable or anything else resembling good writing. But it's something very near to what I envisioned last week when I began this circuitous journey in the first place, and that's a mini-victory in and of itself. So, because this is better than what I just attached my name to and tossed out into the arena for judgment, I decided I should post it here. My 515-word short story entitled Corregidor.
Exactly four years ago, Jonathan and I were wrapping up our eighth month of marriage. We were newlyweds. Our kitchen appliances still had that just-unwrapped, straight-from-the-registry shine. Without enough furniture to fill our three-bedroom rental house, we could do occasional cartwheels in the hallways, sommersaults in the living room.
Once, we set up a badminton net downstairs and bopped the birdie back and forth. The cats sat sentinel on the kitchen counter, their twin tails twitching, their heads bobbing in time with each volley.
I was still attending school, making the mind-numbing commute to and from UC Davis twice a week. We owned only one car, the Audi, and had to shuttle one another to and from work... Jon at the lab, me at Banana Republic in Stoneridge Mall. In the evenings, we played board games, played video games, played with our cats. Every day brought something new, an insight about eternity and sharing four walls, a shower, and a car with only one other person.
Hours in the car, hours of folding sweaters and stacking them in perfect, fluffy towers on tables, hours of homework, hours of life... the time would snake by me, so fast I couldn't always keep up. We traveled and camped and attended church and spent time with our families. Somewhere in the midst of all of that, I was overwhelmed. Where were my pretty words? Where were my imaginings? I was numb, unable to create something poetic for my own sake, and it scared me. I was like an amputee staring at the void where my long lost limb ought to have been. Had I missed my chance to be the author I'd long dreamed I would be?
Exactly four years ago, Jonathan built a blog for me.
I began with a trip to the barn for a riding lesson. The moment I approached Vick, the strong-willed, strawberry gelding who was my mount for the night, I knew it would be a good night. Dusk hung over the tri-valley like an exhale of mist in the air before my face. Around me were the sounds of the stable... boots on dirt, leather slapping against leather, buckles clicking together, the scrape of the bit against the horses' teeth, stomping hooves, snorts, the buzz of the arena lights coming to life.
Towards the end of my lesson, I noticed that my husband had appeared at the rail. He watched me absorb the instructions and attempt to carry out directions from my place in the saddle. My fingers had been frozen at the outset of the lesson and, as soon as I had dismounted, returned to that state. Jonathan, romantic, wonderful, chivalrous man that he is, presented me with a Starbucks hot chocolate... just the thing to chase the nip of cold from my fingertips.
It's the technology they fear. The brightness of my LCD laptop screen, the forensic science, the elegant blood spatter, the alcohol, the senseless banter of an afternoon sitcom. Can you blame my thoughts for curling up in the fetal position on the damp, gray floor of my brain? The world is too much with us these days.
Edward Abbey escaped to the desert. He watched cloud formations for days, let himself melt into the sand and the slabs of red rock until he was one of the crows, the lizards, the cacti. When he sat down to write himself a letter (in preparation for writing his elegy to the Arches of Utah, Desert Solitaire), the simple hum of the generator was enough to disturb his thoughts. Silence was his most effective fuel.
Sit in the dark. Wait until the house is silent and then, with all the shades down and the door double-bolted, back into a corner and wait for your Imagination to rise from the shadows.
If I follow my own direction, I find Her there, blossoming from the murky air around us. I am not alone. She emerges like Venus, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, like Klatu from his ship, like Sonora from the pool with her diving horse.
Tonight she had a lot to say. I was reminded of a storyline, one of many I've neglected over the last year, but still a favorite. It has all the potential of a newborn, a thought which scares me almost as much as it thrills me. For wherever there is potential for success, there is potential for disaster. My storyline's pendulum won't hover on the side of perfection forever... at some point I'll sigh as I watch is hurdle on its predetermined arc back to the realm of shoddy drafts and mundane concepts and obvious morals to be learned.
But here, at least, with the help of my Imagination, who opted at random to aid me in my quest for productivity, the pendulum is hesitating near success. Perhaps the magnet of my mind has been clicked on and is holding it steady. Perhaps the planets have shifted, stars have aligned, God has smiled. Who knows?
Tonight, Della danced in the diner.
I opt to simply chomp into one plump, golden-brown curve of the pretzel and hope for the best outcome possible. Oh no! The pastry, weakened by my ill-conceived bite, fragments in my hands. It is a story no longer. Merely a snack to wash down with a Diet Coke. Nothing substantial. Just enough to screw up my caloric intake for the day.
This might not have happened had I done the mature, responsible thing and attempted a story outline. I rarely outline a plan before pouncing on potential fiction fodder, but sometimes it is best to prop up some bones on which to hang the skin. A haphazard skeleton could be better than none at all, right?
It mocks me: "Just write words. You remember words, right?"
It antagonizes me: "Someone else is out there right now, licking the envelope of their submittal to the publisher. And you're eating string cheese and watching House."
Laundry is piled in my living room, folded and sorted but still in stacks. Dishes are accumulating in the sink and on the kitchen counters. I've lost count of the used razors in my shower.
Oh, the shame.
It might be okay to slack off like this if I was actually producing something. And for a while there at the very nascent part of the year, I was producing. There was a story. I'd struck oil, and the fountain was unimaginable. Finally I had some meat to deal with. Plot complexity and character profiles and inter-character politics and time lines. Finally.
But not tonight. What happened?
How can I tell you what the hard leather felt like in my hands? It was something I lived.
Sucking the cold air deep into myself, holding it inside until it was warm, watching the exhale hang before my face. And then the doors creaking open. That hollow sound of potential energy as we filed into the gym. Shoes squeaking on the hardwood.
I knew the ball. The deep brown-orange, pebbled leather. The thick veins. It pulsed in my hand upon arrival, and I pumped it between my palms, bringing it into my body, to my chest, elbows out. This place, this radius was mine, and I could keep it.
Shooting guard. Pancoast. Number 33. My game high was 29 points (against Cal High School, Halloween night, 1999). I'll never forget the stretch in my tricep, the extension, the spin off my pointer finger.
But beyond the satisfaction of the shots, the swishes, was the beauty of the sport itself.
Glistening girls charging and streaking up and down the court, circling and spinning around the key. Color. Melodious voices, sopranos and altos, calling plays and calling to each other. Harmony. Hands and fingers slapping and snapping together. Rhythm. Whistles and applause. Music.
The game was beautiful enough to warrant the harsh practices and the incessant running up and down the metal bleachers.
But if the idea is left alone long enough, denied by the naïve author's mind because it isn't sweet or pretty, it will rise from the brine as an ogre she never dreamed she could conceive. And at that point, it may be too late to find a constructive outlet for her creation.
As actor Daniel Day-Lewis (of Last of the Mohicans fame) once remarked on his process when preparing for a new movie role:
"In those quiet months before you approach the dreaded beast, you begin to enter into a world that isn't yours. People are always reading some sort of craziness into that, but it seems logical to me."
I wish there were always words available to me for the picking. Like an orchard of broad-limbed trees waiting in my backyard. I could ease out the screen door, relish the creak, watch my dogs run up and down the rows, stirring up dust. Perhaps in this world there are chickens. Perhaps in this world, I eat eggs. Who knows? And the words are tucked between thoughtful leaves, flushed and ready for me to pick.
Having the choice of thousands of words would be such a novelty. I pride myself on my vocabulary, but every day I find myself using the same subset of words over and over again. I'm never downright monosyllabic, or anything. But I forget the best words. Words like... specificity, inert, malcontent, repression, fortitude.
I am reminded that these words exist by good authors. Currently I am engrossed by Eat Pray Love, a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the first third of this book, the author is eating her way through Italy, learning Italian on a whim, making lifelong friends with interesting, intriguing people. She leaves me awestruck, sentence after sentence. I realize, somewhat dejectedly, that even after 5 years of college, three of them going through entirely legitimate paces at UC Davis, after obtaining my B.A. in English, my grasp on language and literature is scant. Ms. Gilbert's, on the other hand, is like steel.
I'm here with Jonathan, who has already chalked up 5300 points on a 5.12a. No pun intended. And if you're asking, "What pun?" I know you've never been to a climbing gym in your life, and so I'll explain.
Everywhere I look, the air is filled with floating chalk particles, the remnants of dusty-handed ascents up the forty-foot concrete walls. Each wall covered with oddly-shaped, chunky holds. Each route is named and marked with bright tape flags.
Jonathan is out there somewhere in a sea of athletic, lanky bodies, spandex and rubber-toed flexible climbing shoes. I own a pair, and a few minutes ago I even had them on. Squeezing into the shoes is no easy task; I feel a bit like one of Cinderella's step-sisters... though the slipper is not glass, smells like sweat and ultimately fits me like a glove. For the foot. Anyway...
I can see him, sporting a green shirt and the black harness I gave him for Christmas years ago. This hobby began for him in early 2003. We had just begun dating. A friend at work offered to take Jon to a gym and teach him the basics. For while, almost a year, I accompanied him. I wasn't bad. But quite quickly it was evident that climbing was Jon's niche. His height, long, slender physique and strength-to-weight ratio gave him an advantage on most routes.
Sometimes I think God built him for exactly this intent.
Sometimes writing feels like physical therapy. There are days when I wake up and forget that I've ever written anything. Words fall out of my mouth in some sloppy order not of my own choosing. Definitions are lost in the dark recesses of my brain. All of the tricks of the trade I've long collected are stacked away in some closet, undoubtedly covered with dust. I mumble. I stutter. Inadequacy sets in like gangrene.
Such days are usually the result of my self-inflicted writing drought. When I get lazy and eat or watch Gilmore Girls or scrapbook or email people instead of working, that's when the cramping sets in. And stretching out writing muscles is a LOT harder than stretching out regular ones.
It takes brute force. I have to pick up my pen and shake it awake; but first I stare at the pen, the foreign object resting at an odd angle in my hand. It's laughable trying to find the correct pressure from the ball of the pen on the surface of the paper. Like learning to walk or ride a bike all over again. I'm clumsy. The word "the" peppers the page. Sentences are fragmented and elementary.
And the vocabulary sucks.
The Girl Behind the Red Door is currently under construction. Following the unfortunate and untimely loss of our server a few weeks ago, I found that the creative wind had been sucked from my sails. I suppose the fact that this event coincided with a very stressful time at work (including a move to our new location!) could have contributed to my mental fatigue, as well. At any rate, I've spent the last month trying to take advantage of any free moment by resting, spending time with my husband... to be completely honest, we ended up watching a lot of Lost. An excellent show, but not exactly a productive use of my time. Along the way, though, several things have happened which have pushed me to write again.
I entered the Poetry Competition at the Alameda County Fair. And won. Yay! My Haiku entitled "Lemonade" was awarded a Silver Medal and my long poem "Fleeting" won Honorable Mention.
At my mother-in-law's invitation, I attended a book reading at Towne Center Books in downtown Pleasanton. One of my favorite modern authors, Amanda Eyre Ward, has just published her third novel, Forgive Me. We had a lovely themed lunch and listened to Ms. Ward read one of her favorite passages. Naturally, I was inspired by her writing, but our conversation afterwards was even more encouraging. We were able to speak for a few minutes before I hurried back to work. In that short amount of time, she reminded me that writing isn't easy. That the writers who succeed are the sometimes the ones who write the longest, rather than the ones who write the best or the most. When she signed my copy of her new book, she wrote, "I'm looking forward to your novel."
I received a letter from my Aunt Mary. Real, honest-to-goodness letters are so rare. My aunt's commentary on an ordinary day in her own life, her reminiscence about her childhood and her observations about life in general made me happy. It was a simple response to a simple letter, but her sincerity pushed me to literally flip open my laptop and write for a while right then.
Anyway, as I work to find my voice again, my husband the code monkey is taking this opportunity to give my blog a face lift. Personally, I can't believe I've maintained this blog for more than two years! It definitely needs a polishing. Please keep your fingers crossed for me - I would like to get back into my writer's groove.
Beware the groooooove!
I've watched my father gear up for fishing trips many times in the last few years. And, while I never really sat down to observe, I noticed his efficiency and quickness as he handled the rod and the reel and the line. Not once did I consider how his length and level of experience with these tools might make his set-up time shorter than average.
Jon and I are off to the mountains on Friday night. We'll be staying at a friend's cabin North of Yosemite. And on Saturday morning we'll rise at the crack of dawn and drive to a pack station where we'll start a trail ride that winds up in the back country. Prime fishing locations await us at the end of the journey, so we need to be ready.
For our birthdays my folks gave us matching rod n' reel sets. Jon has been fly fishing exactly once, and he caught an enormous trout on his sixth cast that trip. He claims he knows how unlikely it is that such luck will pass his way twice. Look at me. I haven't caught a fish in years. But secretly he's hoping he'll do it again. And secretly, I hope so, too.
But gearing up for us took forever. Jon's reel was tangled. Mine was on upside down. And tying the tippet to the leader, even with the set of illustrated instructions in front of us, was torture. Pull the lines parallel to one another, twist and fold into a knot, pull tight. Tug.
After an hour (and if it took us that long in the air conditioned living room of my parents' well-lit home... Lord help us...), we went out to the backyard to brush up on our casting. Jon caught a tree and I deftly snagged the grass more times than I could count. In the violet twilight we couldn't see the little beige fly at the end of the transparent line. It hooked in the skin on my forearm and I yelped. But, as we all know, there's no crying in fly fishing.
So, I have new admiration for my Dad's skill as he twirls the flies tightly onto the end of his line. And I wish he'd been here today as we set up for such a trip. Let's hope he's with us in spirit out there in the wilderness. More importantly, let's hope I catch a fish!
(As long as wishing for things... let's make it bigger than Jon's, okay?)
Sunlight on brick is hottest at four in the afternoon. It bakes between the boxy shadows of the buildings on Main Street. Boys sip coke from slender-necked bottles. One of them shakes his fist, rattling the dice and tossing them down to clatter up against the wall. Two sixes. As there are no rules to this game yet, he'll come up with them later, he smiles and takes them up to roll again.
Women move slower in the heat, but they allow their hips a bit more swing. This is to catch the only breeze with their pastel skirts; catch it and let it flutter between their knees, cooling their muscular ankles. From beneath the brims of their day hats they talk the way only women can. Words like soft bubbles float between them, many at a time. To the words they nod. It could be gossip. It could be education. It could be nothing at all.
I wonder at these people, the ones who move by me without looking back. They would only see a little girl with her hair snarled into something like a braid. They might see my freckles or my chocolate brown eyes. But I doubt very much they would see me. I do not translate well into words the way they do.
One man hefts a crate of newspapers. He is the owner of the market, and those newspapers no longer possess the news. What happened this morning is long gone. In the heat of the afternoon, people do not care about anything but the baseball scores, and they'll catch those on the radio this evening. Or they can stand in the doorway of the barber shop and listen in as he gives free haircuts to the only three White Sox fans left in our town.
Mr. Charles and his wife live above the market in an apartment with only three windows. Behind the store in a planter box, Mrs. Charles keeps a very small Victory garden. When she took the train to Springfield to visit her mother for a week, I stopped by and watered the tomatoes after school. On my last day I tied a red, white and blue ribbon to the top of each plant. The plants have outgrown the ribbon now, and it's tattered, but Mrs. Charles won't untie them. She says that patriotism must be able to withstand wear.
If I take careful steps, the long kind, so I feel a pull just behind my knee but both feet are flat on the ground, it takes only thirty-two to reach the corner where my house is. The two blue stars hang in our kitchen window above Mom's white porcelain duck. One star is for my brother, Henry, and the other is for Uncle Thad. When we're sitting around the table at dinner now, since last December, Dad tells us to hold hands and then he says simple words to God. He never asks for a thing, but instead speaks what he hopes he knows. Henry is safe. Thad will be home soon. Those goddamned Nazis will lose this war.
Sometimes I don't keep my eyes closed all the way, and I see Mom wince a little when he swears. But I also see her mouthing her own prayer. She asks things, so I do, too.
Our table cloth is sky blue with little eyelet flowers. When dinner is over and everyone is gone, I help to clear the table. But I get the napkins last. The crumpled white napkins look like clouds on the blue tablecloth sky. It makes me think of Henry and his plane, the way the engine sounds like a thousand snaps being pushed closed and ripped back open all at once. His uniform looks like that sound, all snaps and razor sharp creases down his long pant legs. His picture is on the piano and his cap is cocked to one side. He is next to his plane, which looks like it is baring its teeth; and I think he looks so dashing.
But that is all I think of this war. If I think much more about it I'm afraid I'll become bitter. I could even start to stoop a little, like Mrs. Macklin does because she's always leaning in to hear the war news on the radio. Instead I skip rope and walk along the curbs like they're tightropes. On Tuesdays we go to the community center pool.
I love to swim, and Mom made me a red bathing suit that looks just like the one Betty Grable wears in her most recent movie, but I don't look at all like her. Too small in so many different ways. The boys at the pool don't look at me, but like I said before, they wouldn't see me anyway. Until last month the boys went to the pool to watch Hannah Stuart. She's the only one in our town who owns a bikini. But then she went off to be a nurse in the navy. Both of the Levi brothers enlisted that same week, but that was probably a coincidence.
Today, though, I am merely sitting on Main Street. A lady in a pink dress and a yellow hat is buying a water melon, but she seems to be having trouble picking exactly the right one. When I am older I hope I learn how to do those grown-up women things, like applying mascara or picking out melons or placing strips of cucumber by the door so the ants won't want to come in. I can't do any of that now.
What I can do is watch. I see things and know things so fast that the words just come from nowhere, from that secret spot in my brain where I never sleep. And I remember all of it. I remember the way the chalk clicked and broke in half in Ms. Silver's hand just before she dismissed our Sunday school class on that weekend before Christmas. Dad was waiting for all of us in front of the church, even though he never goes. He'd walked over and he was out of breath. He was holding Mom's hand and squeezing, and then they led us down the street like ducklings. I shuffled my feet along to make scratchy, soft-shoe music. I remember Dad sitting us down on the sofa and explaining the word infamy.
My peppermint ice cream has melted into a pink puddle in my glass. It is time to take the thirty-two steps home. But today it takes forty-seven because Able Bowers was washing his truck in the street and he tried to spray me, but even when I ran out of his reach I kept count. I try to be impeccably honest. I also try to avoid Able Bowers.
Dad is whistling 'Ain't We Got Fun' from the bathroom where he is washing his hands. When he hugs me I can smell the soap. The plate in the middle of the table is piled high with corn on the cob. It has a damp, sweet smell. I wish we could afford air conditioning. But when we take our seats and settle into the evening time, a coolness comes over us. Around our table we are safe. Dad is a rock. Mom is impenetrable. I hold hands with my little brothers, Jacob and Matt. They are so small and fair. I feel love for them pouring from my heart, all of a sudden, a reaction to the dark, fluffy tops of their heads bowed as Dad speaks. I am supposed to be praying.
Tonight I do not ask God for anything, I do not tell him what I hope is true. Tonight I say thanks. Here there simply is no war.
Much has happened since the last time I blogged. Even as I realized June was upon me in all its anticipated glory, June was gone. So here, on a Saturday morning in my slightly messy house, I am sitting on the floor... without any homework hanging over my head, without any guilt at all. It's a new feeling, a blessed feeling. I am used to days and weeks and months flipping and screaming by me as I strain to keep myself at an able and worthy pace with those around me.
But this last week did not fly by as usual. In fact, from the moment I graduated, from the second the friendly man in the many-colored coat handed me my fake diploma (actually a pamphlet on joining the Davis alumni association, and an alumni pin, hint hint), the clock slowed. Now the days saunter along with me, easily containing all I must do.
The "Must-Do List" has decreased by enough that I am considering reprioritizing some of what used to be stuck on my "Wish-I-Could-Do-But-Who-Has-That-Kind-Of-Time List".
For instance, cooking. In the interest of absolute honesty with my audience (which I am certain has depleted since I began posting an average of twice a month), I will admit that I have cooked a meal for my husband and me a grand total of TWICE since marriage. We are now 44 days from our second anniversary of husband and wife. Oh, it hurts. I have baked many more times than that, but cooking, preparing entrees and side dishes on a schedule and with a recipe... not my thing. And BOTH times, Jon helped a lot.
So, with my extra time, I thought I'd put my degree in English to good use and don an apron. I have a really cute blue one with my name on it. Cooking with style. It could be my new thing.
Or maybe I'll take up a hobby. Jon still climbs (not a lot recently, but the poor boy has been out of town and/or sick for three weeks), and it relaxes him and motivates him. I'm sure I could climb, too, if I tried. I mean, I used to go twice a week with him. But I would like something of my own. Recently we've been playing tennis. Er'we call it tennis. After all, we both own rackets, we have the tennis balls (pink ones!), we live near tennis courts... but our knowledge of the rules of play is minimal and we can't rally more than three or four times. Someday maybe. But again, that requires both of us. I have considered horseback lessons, a dream of mine when I was a kid. Hmmmmm... I do live in Livermore.
Because I have this free time, I do occasionally fall into a daydream about school. Impossible, you say? Well, I do miss it. The paper writing, the creativity, the deadlines, the pressure, the grades that told me exactly how I was performing so I could make changes to be better or bask in my own genius. Maybe I do miss the grades most of all.
Nobody gives you grades in life. You're alive and you're breathing, and that's what everyone walking around you can say, too. So you're on equal ground. Until you start measuring yourself against people by way of house score, marital status score, children score, salary score, vacation score, and stuff score. The measuring is alternately fun (because you kinda made it to the point you did without thinking about getting there exactly) and depressing (because the people who did think about it got to someplace slightly better, and you can't change the past).
At school it was As and Bs. A C in one of my Shakespeare classes and a D in Health and Humanity. But in English, in reading and writing and thinking, it was mostly As. And that reinforced my self-esteem, made me write more, pushed me to become the best. I miss it.
At some point I will post the two short stories I finished out my final quarter with. The short stories that earned excellent grades and spawned the burning ember that is encouraging me to consider graduate school. Not for a while though. And maybe, if you're lucky (and that means you, Dad, my Number One Poetry Fan!), my poems will be available, too. But not today. Today I set one goal for myself, to blog. For the love of GOD, to blog. To start July with my best foot forward, to get my groove back.
My biggest fans came to watch me walk the final mile (or 300 feet) and transform into Audrey Jean Camp, B.A.
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.
Yesterday I received the following email:
Dear 100F-1 applicants,
Thank you so much for submitting your applications for the spring quarter 100F-1 class. I enjoyed reading all of your stories, and wish that I could offer all of you a place in my class. Unfortunately, there were 53 applicants for 15 spaces, and the quality of writing was extremely competitive across the board. At this time I am unable to offer you a place in the class. Please know that you are all strong writers and it was not an easy task to make this selection. It was extremely difficult.
Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to read your work, and I wish you the best of luck in your writing futures.
And now I have to ask myself... where did I fall on the range of the 38 students who were denied entrance into the class. Let's assume, because she didn't say anything to the contrary, that I was number 16. Maybe I was a mere hair's width from making it in.
In fact, she wanted me in her class desperately, but the poor woman had no choice. Ever since she ran over her neighbor's cat, and the teenage boy down the street saw the whole thing... I mean, he was blackmailing her! That's right! He came to her office hours late one evening, dressed in a trench coat and fedora. When he pushed the door open quietly and eased inside, he smirked when she asked, "Can I help you?"
"For your sake," he replied, "I do hope so."
From there he went on to relate what he saw, to display the digital video recording of her silver hybrid obliterating Fluffy, the sweet Persian cat who was blind in one eye. This, he explained, is damning evidence.
Ms. Angel, an upstanding citizen who had not even a parking ticket to her name, an active member in PETA, a major contributor to the fight against breast cancer, an organ donor, would not be swayed. She had no idea she'd hit a cat that day! It had been raining and the pavement was wet; when the sun came through the clouds, she was temporarily blinded. And, she added, she actually been contemplating the grace and goodness of God when the light had shone down upon her. Ms. Angel informed her visitor that he'd better leave. She would pay a visit to the cat's owner the following afternoon to apologize and offer to pay for the cat.
The boy rose from his chair, seemingly defeated, but just before he exited, he turned to look Ms. Angel dead in the eye. "Just be careful when you stop by the Mortgensens' house tomorrow," he said. "Fluffy was little Toby's favorite pet. And his uncle is a high powered Los Angeles attorney."
And just like that, the boy was gone.
Ms. Angel had a difficult choice ahead of her. Toby Mortgensen was a nine-year-old boy who had been awarded a medal by the mayor of Davis when he started a lemonade booth, to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and eventually netted more than $5,000 worth of aid! He was a delicate little boy with a big heart, and he had the most heartbreakingly blue eyes in the world. How could anyone, especially Ms. Angel, who loved children, stand to hurt him more?
When she walked out of her office door, a piece of paper that had been wedged in the door frame fluttered to the ground, coming to rest in the pale trickle of streetlamp light through the door of Voorhies Hall. In block letters it read:
ONCE YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND, MEET ME AT MISHKA'S ON SECOND.
Beneath the letters was a crude sketch of a hairy cat with X's for eyes. Ms. Angel cringed, crumpling the paper in her right hand. But what choice did she really have?
She pushed through the door at Mishka's, oblivious to the normally tempting aroma of coffee and ginger cookies. At the very back of the room sat the grim reaper, the boy with the knowledge to make Ms. Angel the most hated woman in Davis. Their eyes met, coldly, and neither of them smiled. This was business.
Within five minutes they had struck a deal. The boy would hand over the only copy of the digital video, and in return Ms. Angel would buy and anonymously donate a new Persian kitten to Toby, and she would give her blackmailer's older sister, Gert, automatic entrance into her Spring 100F class. It was a hard bargain for Ms. Angel, for whom the rewarding of excellent, budding fiction writers was sacrosanct.
That was in January. As March drew to a close, Ms. Angel worried. She hadn't heard from her blackmailer since that day at Mishka's. Could it be he had forgotten? No application had been received from Gert. There was a chance that God had taken pity on Ms. Angel, that he'd allowed the gift of the kitten to be penance enough. She scoured the entries, 52 promising authors ready for their dreams to be realized in her classroom.
Before her daydream of discovering the next Earnest Hemmingway could materialize further, the door to her office burst open and a warm but strangely threatening breeze rushed across her desk. She didn't need to raise her eyes to know that her ticket was up.
"There," he said, dropping a thick manuscript onto her desk with a clunk. "As soon as I see Gert is in your class, this will all be over."
He swirled his trench coattails dramatically as he left. Ms. Angel looked at the fifteen names she'd already selected, the lucky fifteen. And then she turned her eyes heavily to the ream of paper submitted by her visitor. Ever the cockeyed optimist, Ms. Angel turned the first page to give it a read. Not three sentences in, she gave a short, exasperated cry. It was already as slow and convoluted as paste on a cold day.
A promise, however, was a promise. She shut her eyes tight, squeezed against the horrific decision she was about to make. One tear, alone but nevertheless symbolic of her inner pain, slid down her cheek to her chin, falling to the floor with a tiny splash. And then she crossed out a name on her list.
She opened her eyes to find that
Audrey J. Camp had been eliminated. For this student, this aspiring author, Spring was not going to be the perfect season. But, Ms. Angel justified to herself, she didn't know Audrey Camp from anybody. Perhaps this young woman was not hinging her hopes and dreams of a writing career on entry into this class.
Yes, Ms. Angel decided. Surely, to Audrey Camp, this would not matter at all.
When I opened the email, I was surprised. Honestly, my self-confidence when it comes to my writing has taken a noticeable turn for the better over just the last year, and I owe a lot of that to my blog. So I expected to get in. Now, I admit I didn't know exactly how competitive entry really was. I thought the class would have at least thirty students in it. As I was saying, I opened the email and then I cried. Jon comforted me.
He said, "Audrey, you were trying to get into a writing program at a UC school. If you really wanted to get in, you would have written a story about lesbian love affairs and how much Bush sucks!"
While I'm sure he's right, and that someone is now on track to publication because she was more willing to be subversive, the fact that I only have butterfly stories to offer remains to be depressing. Surely I must have something deeper than that in me.
Tomorrow I am off to Disneyland with my true love. We're not really escaping, since the vacation has been planned for a while. But I won't say that I am not grateful for the time away. The last thing I want to think about is the fact that I didn't make it into the one class I've had to try-out for. The most magical place on earth will probably make the temporary forgetting a tad easier.
But then, instead of writing myself off (pardon the pun), I intend to take a step back, gain some perspective, and write some more. Never will I find myself in a position where I have nothing to say. That's the great thing about being an English major with a big imagination. And I'll redefine what I consider to be good writing. Believing I could mold a story about childhood into something worthy of a college creative writing class wasn't realistic, but I wouldn't say it was a pipe dream either. I may be rejected a thousand times before someone stops to consider me twice, and maybe to give me a break. Won't this all be worth it then? I certainly hope so.
Until that time, though, I will console myself with the hope that I was close this time, and that next time I will be even closer.
Anxiety is a tricky business. So much is affected by the smallest choice. And large choices loom ominously around life's every bend. For someone like me, that anxiety rears it's ugliest head every time a paper is due at school. Tuesday, for example, is the deadline for the second paper in my memoir class. On the first paper, as some of you have heard, I earned an A+. I bubbled over, calling everyone, shouting from the housetops. "I'm a good writer! I am justified!"
A week later I had another paper due in a different class... and I had to start from square one all over again. The nail biting and the quivering, the self-doubt, all back. Why doesn't my euphoria after a good paper grade last longer than the term ending when the next paper is due? It really isn't fair.
Today I discovered that in this hellishly chronic writer's limbo, I am not alone. One of my new favorite authors reassured me.
V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, a small Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela, in 1932. He was a descendent of Indian immigrants who had come to Trinidad as indentured servants and had stayed after their term of service was complete. As a boy, Naipaul knew, vaguely, that he wanted to be a writer. Admittedly these early ambitions resulted from an acute love of fountain pens and clean, lined paper. He had nothing to write about, or so he thought.
Naturally he was very bright, excelling in his early years at school and eventually earning a scholarship to Oxford. But even then, he learned everything by rote memorization. And, because English was his second language, he did not comprehend much of what he read. Imagine! He had read the classics, written essays and given speeches, but the man understood little below the surface, the intricacies that can only be understood with an excellent comprehension of the language itself.
But still Naipaul could not write. Daily he faced the blankness that destroys the ambitions of would-be authors. Not even the prestigious writing department at Oxford could stimulate his talents.
Today, he is the author of more than twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction. And he single-handedly molded the face of historical fiction pertaining to colonialism. As one who grew up without a cultural history, he began by telling the short stories of the people "at ground level". With each well-accepted story, the momentum built for the next. And soon his material, highly original and very much needed by people like him, developed into longer stories, novels.
In 2001, V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for literature.
I had never heard of Naipaul until his work was assigned in my memoir class at Davis. The most compelling, and the most encouraging, was his Nobel Lecture, "Two Worlds." He shares the heart and the pattern behind his writing, a pattern that he claims he did not even know until he looked back on his own writings decades later.
But best of all, Naipaul honestly shares himself:
"I am near the end of my work now. I am glad to have done what I have done, glad creatively to have pushed myself as far as I could go. Because of the intuitive way in which I have written, and also because of the baffling nature of my material, every book has come as a blessing. Every book has amazed me; up to the moment of writing I never knew it was there. But the greatest miracle for me was getting started. I feel- and the anxiety is still vivid to me- that I might easily have failed before I began."
I am heartened. When a Nobel Prize-winning author admits anxiety... understands the blankness... I can't help but be heartened. Now, I'm not predicting a Nobel Prize in my future. Instead, I will take a last quick lesson from Naipaul. He says that he owes his success, not exclusively to talent, but to "luck, and much labor."
I'm going to attempt entry into the upper division creative writing class at Davis next quarter... and what I have posted today will probably be one of my submissions. The title of my short story is "Yellow", and since I can't preface my story to the panel who will be judging my work for the class at Davis, I won't preface it too much here.
A while ago I was inspired to record a memory. Unfortunately, the memory was dimmed because of the nearly two decades that have passed since it happened. And what happened probably wouldn't qualify as an event if judged by anyone else. But I allowed my imagination some range, and I gave myself the time to really delve into the recesses of my creative brain. What I came back with was a story that I wanted to tell. A glance at innocence when it is vulnerable and defensive, like a sea anenome. "Yellow" is one of my only short stories that I consider to be complete, and still I touch it up each time I read it. What I'd really love is some feedback.
Amanda smelled like paste and oatmeal, and she wore her thick hair in one brown braid that hung down her neck and back to her waist. She was the girl in the corner, the one who no one wanted to sit next to. And because things didn't always quite make sense in her head, and because people laughed at her when she was wrong, she rarely answered questions in class.
But her teacher, Mrs. O'Dell , asked Amanda the questions anyway. The Tuesday before school had begun that fall, an administrator had entered Mrs. O'Dell's fourth grade classroom. He told her that she would have Amanda in her class. He called it 'mainstreaming'. Don't coddle her. Don't favor her. Don't go out of your way to protect her.
After the administrator left, Mrs. O'Dell sat on the floor near her desk, stapler in hand, and she cried a little, because everyone in the school knew Amanda.
At lunch she ate alone at the end of a long, white table in the cafeteria. Every day her father, a large, quiet man with a dark, heavy beard, would pack a sandwich and juice in her My Little Pony lunchbox. No other kid in the fourth grade still carried a lunch box, but both Amanda and her father were oblivious to such things. And this became one more reason for her classmates to pick on her.
Occasionally one of the older boys in the cafeteria would try to bounce a grape or a reject-flavored jellybean off her head, drawing laughter from everyone who saw. More than once she left the lunchroom crying. On sunny days Amanda would take her lunch out to the corner of the elementary school field, near the fence. When she was alone there wasn't anything to explain.
Wednesday dawned bright and beautiful; it was an outside-lunch day. Amanda chewed her bologna sandwich quietly, staring at nothing. Then there was a swarm of little girls running past her, their t-shirts flapping, skinny legs pumping, hair streaming. Amanda flinched, almost dropping her sandwich. But the girls were off to her right, jumping like bright flowers in an almost-circle. Above them fluttered a big yellow butterfly.
Amanda smiled because the moment was pretty.
'What are you looking at?!' yelled one of the girls. The rest of them laughed when Amanda jerked her eyes away, down to the ground.
Back inside the classroom, one of the girls presented Mrs. O'Dell with a gift: the butterfly. It twittered prettily in her hands. Mrs. O'Dell smiled, delighted, and fawned over the gift and the giver while the rest of the class eagerly awaited a chance to see the butterfly, too.
A lesson could be taught here, about metamorphosis or evolution or beauty, and so, as any good teacher would, Mrs. O'Dell began moving slowly between the tables, holding her hands out with the insect on display.
Chaos was breaking out, kids climbed onto their desks, bolted from their chairs. Mrs. O'Dell was much too busy trying to keep the butterfly from escaping to reign them all in. Amanda remained in her corner, but her wide-set brown eyes were big with hope. She sat up straight in her chair, arching her neck, straining to see past the crowds of other children. She was obedient always, mostly because it was the easiest way to keep from talking. But then suddenly she was knocked forward, hitting her forehead on the table.
'I want to see!' yelled the boy who had elbowed Amanda in the back. He surged into the pool of bodies, grunting his way to the front.
Tears sprang into Amanda's eyes, but no one noticed her in their quest for the butterfly. Her long fingers, covered in orange marker, gingerly touched the bruise forming on her forehead. Tapping. Tapping. Wrinkles of confusion crossed her face, and then she was crying harder.
From the center of the kid-whirlpool, Mrs. O'Dell heard the distressed cry. She snapped her head up, cupping the butterfly lightly and protectively between her hands. Amanda was sobbing. Nudging her way through the bedlam, hushing the eager, careless swarm around her, Mrs. O'Dell suddenly appeared in front of Amanda. The rest of the children became quiet, watching to see what would happen to the 'crybaby'.
'What happened, Amanda?' Mrs. O'Dell asked.
The girl flinched at the sound of her teacher's voice. The tears stopped, but she kept her hand up near her face, repetitively and gently touching the wound. She had begun rocking slightly, back and forth, biting her lower lip. Her big, dark eyes darted from her teacher's face to her placidly cupped hands. The fear in those eyes hurt Mrs. O'Dell's heart.
Inside something fluttered.
'Would you like to see the butterfly, Amanda?' Mrs. O'Dell wanted Amanda to feel included, to be included. And when the child nodded, softly, still cradling her hurt, Mrs. O'Dell held out her hands, smiling. Her large turquoise ring gleamed in the fluorescent classroom light. She opened her palms to reveal the perfectly silent, brilliant gold creature.
The butterfly unfolded to receive the fresh air across its broad, bright wings.
Amanda instinctively reached towards the animal, and Mrs. O'Dell just as instinctively pulled it away. But when she saw the hurt look spring back into the child's eyes, Mrs. O'Dell changed her mind.
'Amanda, would you like to hold the butterfly?'
The moment the question was asked, breathing stopped in total. Amanda's classmates gasped in envy, waiting to see how she would respond. And Amanda was hesitant, too. So many times before kindness had been offered to her by people she trusted, and then it had been snatched cruelly away. But never had this happened with Mrs. O'Dell. So, Amanda nodded.
Mrs. O'Dell stood behind Amanda, embracing her, with her own hands still gently cupped. Amanda was completely focused on the prize she was about to hold. She put out her hands, markered fingers, chewed nails and all. As Mrs. O'Dell unveiled the butterfly, it walked gracefully across her palm and into Amanda's hand.
The tiny feet brushed against her skin like eyelashes. A tiny curled tongue slipped out and then back into the butterfly's mouth. Amanda giggled.
'Hello,' she whispered. 'Hello, Yellow.'
For an instant there was perfection. Amanda glowed with pride as she handled the butterfly, and the rest of the children watched in awe. She knew this creature. She understood this silent beauty.
'Do you see, class, how long the butterfly has stayed in her open hand? Amanda,' said Mrs. O'Dell softly, 'It likes you.' The rest of the class nodded along. It must be true.
The little girl's mouth opened in sincere disbelief. Nobody liked her except, now, this beautiful animal, blinking its wings at her playfully.
Someone lunged from the placid sea of young faces, breaking the silence.
'I want a turn!' she demanded.
Before anyone could even think, the butterfly tensed, sensing a change in the air.
'Oh,' cried Mrs. O'Dell. 'Don't let her go!'
Amanda clasped her hands together, and squeezed. She didn't want the butterfly to fly away. But then they were all screaming at her, tugging at her arms.
'Oh my, God!'
That was Mrs. O'Dell. She pried Amanda's hands apart. But the butterfly stayed in the left hand, pressed flat, one wing torn. The silence in the room had turned ominous. Amanda screamed.
'Yellow! Wake up, Yellow!'
All around her children were crying. Amanda sobbed uncontrollably, keeping her murderous hand extended, locked at the elbow. Mrs. O'Dell was shocked, but moved as a woman with a duty to uphold had to move. She pulled the butterfly off of Amanda's sweaty palm, trying to shut out the fresh wave of tears that came when three little black legs stayed stuck to the child's damp, pale skin.
Mrs. O'Dell ordered the children back to their seats, cupping her hands around the body as she moved to her desk.
Fourth graders need closure. Mrs. O'Dell fished around in a drawer for a box of paper clips, dumped out the contents, and placed the dead insect inside. They filed out to the planter box single file. The janitor volunteered a small shovel, and the funeral began.
The class held hands around the grave and sang 'You Are My Sunshine'. Most of the children hummed along because they didn't know the words. But no one would hold Amanda's hand. She stood, mute, dazed, with her arms hanging heavily and mournfully at her sides, ostracized, a ten-year-old criminal.
Later that day, after all the children had gone home, Mrs. O'Dell found a yellow flower on the butterfly's unmarked grave. She pursed her lips, knowing that somewhere there was a little girl feeling more remorse over the death of that insect than anyone could possibly imagine. And the confused, horrified, helpless look on Amanda's face after she had ended the life of the butterfly would haunt Mrs. O'Dell forever.
What had happened that day would never be understood by anyone, least of all the poor silent creature who had done the killing.
- Audrey Camp, 2005
Artwork: Southern Dogface Butterfly by Amie Elizabeth
If I begin this blog entry with an apology, you'll probably forgive me. I don't know if I would. To be honest, I already wrote several paragraphs detailing an emotionally traumatic situation I went through today. I kidded myself, made fun of Martinez (the city, I don't know anyone named Martinez), and whined. Then I erased the whole thing.
"Control-A" and it all went away.
February began a week ago, but for me this month is simply a 28-day headache. Between school and work and wifedom and me, I've been running myself ragged. I don't feel healthy. I'm on the brink of tears half the time. Imagine how much fun this must be for Jon.
I'm sick of anxiety about school. I'm sick of the pressures of work. I'm sick of worrying about potentially letting people down. I'm sick of the lack of free time. Sick of writing for class until my eyes are blurry with tired tears... and then missing my shower time for the second day in a row. (Please don't be grossed out. It doesn't happen that often.)
But mostly I'm sick of my own mood that results from all of this. There is a funny, vibrant, creative girl somewhere within me. It's amazing that I've been able to bury her beneath all this heavy guilt and worry in just a week's time. Unfortunately my many vices and bad habits have sprung up in the wake of this rough patch (which ain't over 'til June), and it may take a chisel to get The Girl Behind the Red Door back into the sunshine.
Maybe if I admit my flaws to the world (or to the seven people who read my blog and occasionally get a big kick out of me), I'll be more apt to actually try to make the situation better.
Some things you probably didn't know about me:
I put off papers until three days before they are due, think about them, put off writing until the second to last day, think some more, and then churn them out in the eleventh hour. Every time, this is what I do. And I complain about feeling stressed.
I obsess about my weight (139 lbs. on a good day - oh, good God, the honesty), get frusterated when my favorite jeans don't fit, sigh repeatedly and then say things like, "I would give anything to lose six pounds... except exercise."
Oh, and then I dine at such healthy places like Taco Bell, Carl's Jr., McDonald's, In-N-Out three days a week, minimum!
When night falls I often look at my computer, remember my blog and then, overwhelmed by the number of days I've missed, decide I don't have the energy to make the effort to type up a couple quirky lines.
Today, when I didn't have cash for the bridge toll (Jon took the Audi and I didn't have the FasTrak thingy), and I had to pull off in Martinez and hunt down an ATM, and then the Northbound 680 ramp was closed, and the whole detour took twenty minutes!... I cried.
"Cooking dinner" happens a couple of times a week at best, and more often than not it's Jon who does the microwaving of the pizza, the toasting of the toast or the boiling of the water for the macaroni.
I'm always absolutely certain that everyone else on earth eats healthier, exercises more, enjoys longer amounts of leisure time, has the energy to be funnier, sleeps more and better, gets massages every other week, reads all the right books and sees all the right movies, is the perfect wife. And that makes me resentful and reclusive.
Not a happy picture.
Thankfully I attribute the degree of darkness in my thoughts to the presence of February. In mid-Winter, who can fully anticipate the Spring? I'm exhausted, and I need to shower. After I take Tylenol PM and thank my perfect husband for the back rub, perhaps the 8th day of my 28-day headache won't be so terrible.
Thank God this is not a leap year.
To lighten the mood, here is the conclusion from the essay I turned in today, comparing Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and Eva Hoffman's Lost In Translation on the basis of the authors' opinions about adaptability in relation to survival:
Leaving home, severing the veins and nerves of all one knew for certain and perhaps expected to know forever, can be traumatizing. Hoffman's journey from home ended with a steep drop into a world she could not understand, and she refused to stand behind the language barrier one second longer than she had to. She did not want to lose herself, her Polish heritage, her vim and her expectations. Levi's migration left him in the throws of death, literally behind barbed wire and beyond the hopeful reaches of the morality of 'free men.' The authors' steps to adaptability follow a similar course, though separately what they endure could not have been more different. Still, within themselves, Levi and Hoffman discover an individual strength that can only come from ultimate self-reliance and a drive to overcome the foreign obstacles put before them. It begins by being willing to change, and ends with the building of a self-contained nest of protection. And when 'one has made oneself a nest, the trauma of the transplantation is over' (Levi, 56).
And WHOOSH! Santa flashed by, like a shooting star, and with him was carried all the food and the music and the wrapping paper that I associate with my second favorite holiday. (Sometime I'll rank the holidays for you...) Here I am, early in the morning on the Tuesday after Christmas and it's so easy for my mind to play through the many delightful events of the last two weeks. But it sure ain't easy to work up the energy to put them down in print. I hate all the recapping. This blog is supposed to be fairly up-to-date most of the time. December is practically a lost cause. I'm overwhelmed, even though I am technically on vacation. Not good.
Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird and Plan B (my current 'pleasure read' which I am hoping to finish off before my 'vacation' is over and I go back to all my 'mandatory' reading), continuously advises fellow writers to look the overwhelming factors in the eye, sit down in the nearest possible place and just write... even though what is written will inevitably be a 'sh---y first draft'. At least it's a start.
Ugh. Here I go.
Fall Quarter 2005 is officially over. And it ended with a smile. Well, a thoroughly confused smile, the kind you pull out when you're not sure why the stranger is waving at you. I received a very, very backhanded compliment and, it was in the process of attempting to weed out all of the implied harshness in order to find the brave little flower still sprouting in the jungle that I used my worried smile.
You see, in the last three or four weeks I've turned in several essays. I wrote pages and pages on everything from Jane Eyre to The Winter's Tale to The Pomegranate. That's where all my words went. The flat tire syndrome clung to me through finals week and then through our trip to Disneyland and then even through Christmas! One of those essays was returned to me on the last day of my finals: Saturday the 17th. Finals??? On a Saturday??? You're wasting your exasperation... and it didn't help me a bit.
Anyway, my least favorite class of the quarter was my Shakespeare Late Works course. But I truly believed I had nailed the major paper. And when I went in on that Saturday at the crack of dawn, I believed I was basically prepared for the final. Even as I felt less-than-elated about the first couple of sections about the test, I went at the in-class essay portion with gusto! New and interesting ideas came to me out of nowhere! As I labored, other students finished their tests and walked to the front, retrieved their graded essays from organized stacks of papers on the front table, wished the professor a happy holiday and left with a sigh. I prepared to do the same.
As I placed my final in the precarious pile of blue books and reached for the stack of papers where I was sure I'd find my name, I heard my professor whisper, 'Actually, Audrey, I need to have a word with you.' He went on to reach into his bag and pull out my essay, where he had apparently quarantined it. I followed him mutely out into the hallway, wondering all the while what on earth I had done! He did not hand me my paper right away. Rather, he flipped through it as he said, 'Truly, your paper was a bit of a puzzle to me.' Great. A puzzle. I had not, just to clarify, meant to create a puzzle. What I had done was present a thesis on the main character of The Winter's Tale. Where a professor at Miami University had commented that Paulina, the most masculine female character Shakespeare ever wrote, was a 'cross-dressed heroine', I simply turned that idea around and called King Leontes the most feminine male character ever written, in fact a 'cross-dressed hero'. Apparently this ticked my teacher right off.
'You see, Audrey,' he was grasping for words, aimlessly shuffling my pages. I could see notes in the margins, words circled... I could see his interest in my work. 'Your writing is very good. In most places it was very stylish, post-graduate level writing.'
Oh. My. God.
He was praising me?? What happened to the puzzle? My eyes were rolling around in my head. Wait for it.
'But I was confused about your thesis. You called Leontes a cross dresser. But, Miss Camp,' he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose and flipping to the back page of my essay. It was covered, no, flooded with his notes. Tiny scripty penciled noted from top to bottom, left to right. 'clearly, not once did Leontes put on women's clothing!' He reached his crescendo and trilled the 'cl' in clothing for good measure. It was my turn to be confused.
'I know that,' I responded. 'You'll see in my first paragraph that I referenced what Ms. Dolan of Miami U said about Paulina. My paper was a parallel analysis of the Paulina and Leontes as...'
He cut me off. 'I know what you were trying to do, Audrey. In fact, I love the title of your paper: Bending Gender in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. You make an insightful argument, in places very persuasive.'
Again, practically out of my mind with confusion. I clung like a drowning person to the bits and pieces of positive criticism floating in the torrent of upset Professor-speak. Really, all this guy could hinge on was the fact that no literal cross-dressing took place in the play, and that he was appalled that I would have the audacity to make such a claim and then not have evidence to back it up. Nothing I could say about figures of speech or metaphors would sway him.
He gave me a B.
Then he wished me a happy holiday and walked back into the classroom. I could only focus on the B. Later, sitting shell-shocked in my car, I read over his notes. So much was positive! How on earth could he give me a B? Because Leontes wasn't strolling through court fanning himself and wearing a dress?! I'd like to see him tell Professor Dolan that she was this far off base! But he wouldn't do that. She's a colleague. I'm just a punk kid, a fifth year, someone who despised the whole class. Great.
Disneyland. It saved me from the horrible Shakespeare Final Morning Fiasco. Jon and I arrived at the airport, tired. But excited to be off to a place where we never worry. Then we found that our flight was not actually destined for Orange County... instead Burbank. As excited as that made me that we would be visiting Bob Hope Airport, it still landed us miles from our actually destination, on the wrong side of Los Angeles! Suffice it to say, we weren't thrilled. But Jon, ever the optimist, rented us a car and let me sleep as we braved the mudflow that is LA traffic.
Just hearing the music from the park made us smile. Signs everywhere said the park was full. Great. Capacity days aren't exactly rare in the Happiest Place on Earth... but they come most often around the holidays. On such days, lines are impossibly long for both rides and food, streets are too crowded to meander, quiet places are extinct. If you're planning to visit Disneyland for the first time in a long time, and you're hoping to recall why it was such a pull when you were a kid, don't go on a capacity day. The trip will kill the experience. Dead. Go on a Tuesday in October or February, steering clear of all national holidays. Disneyland's magic is absolutely there, it just needs a little elbow room in which to amaze.
However, this was, I believe, Trip 11 for us. (Or, as Jon likes to express it: Trip XI.) We know some little tricks to still squeeze maximum magic from a day when the park is bursting at its seams with thousands of screaming, whining, panting children and their exhausted, whining, panting parents. I'd tell you about our tips, but you already think we're geeky for our love of something so childish. So, I won't push it.
Instead, I'll say that this trip mellowed us completely. I forgot about Shakespeare and about Professor Crazy. High points of the trip included:
* Being included in a sneak preview of the new Monster's Inc. ride opening in Disney's California Adventure Park.
* Watching Aladdin performed onstage at the Hyperion Theater. Aladdin waved at me!
* Taking the Holiday Time Tour in Disneyland and, while learning interesting tidbits about the park and the way it is decorated to celebrate Christmas in the different lands, also getting premier seating on the Haunted Mansion and Small World.
* Having front row seats in a special section for the annual Christmas Parade (which included mugs of wonderful hot chocolate, rice crispy treats the size of my cat, and the joy of knowing that Disneyland still celebrates 'Christmas!')
* Having front row seats to see Fantasmic! Jon and I both love the light show on the water. We've seen it a zillion times. But it's best enjoyed with chocolate covered strawberries, comfortable chairs and hot tea. Also, we were seated next to a family with giggling baby girl who leaned over to me at one point and said, 'Don't worry. Mickey is winning.' I love it.
* Shopping for ornaments, like we do every year. And finding ones that captured the memories of the trip.
* Meeting the Youd family several times along the way. Having lunch with them at the Storybook Cafe.
* Seeing Jen beat Dave (and the rest of us) on AstroBlasters!
* Subsequently seeing Jen give Dave a hard time about that victory for the rest of the evening.
* Dancing in the middle of Main Street in the 'snow'.
So much more than that happened, but I simply don't have the time right now. Let's hope this pushes me back into the habit of writing closer to daily. Please pardon any and all 'sh---y first drafts'. In the meantime... I hope everyone is relaxing as we approach the birth of a new year. I know we are.
(((Trumpets and Cheering))) This is my one hundredth blog entry. Thank you, thank you. You're too kind. When I began this journal in May of this year, I don't think I really believed it would last longer than a month or so. I have a notoriously short attention span. But the writing has become almost habitual, and always soothing. I never feel worse after I blog. Sometimes it takes the hand of God to push me in front of the computer... because I'm a busy lady. In the end, however, the accomplishment can be truly seen. Thousands of words have been written, thoughts recorded, lessons shared. It's more than an outlet for my soul. This is my soul, virtually. It is me.
Let's go back. To the first month of writing. It was almost daily. What on earth did I have to say?
I have more going around in my imagination, fueled by the daily grind and the soul-penetrating events of my past, my history, than even I know what to do with. Hopefully this will become my outlet. Some of this steam needs to go! (4/22/05)
Before it began I had no idea what was going to be bent, nor did I understand how fantastic it would be to be able to bend whatever it was like David Beckham is boasted to be able to bend it. (4/23/05)
After all, once I'm terribly famous, my scrapbooks will be perfect for the museum that will be erected in my honor. Easy and compact versions of my story, told exclusively by me. And, if not, no one will ever wonder what I did in high school and college, how I met and fell in love with and married Jon, who my friends were, what I found to be most important... (4/23/05)
Dad bought the red paint with Mom's blessing. By noon the next day our front door, clearly visible from the street, was a vibrant tomato red. It shouted our originality into the neighborhood. (4/24/05)
Now I must learn to handle Camp in all its monosyllabic glory. Is there a way to make a capital C pretty? (4/25/05)
Tonight I was reminded that I am not omniscient. Sometimes I forget. And then I begin rattling off erroneous advice like a madwoman (thinking all the while that I am not only brilliant but entirely correct). (4/26/05)
I won't deny that I spent time with the Sweet Valley Twins, Boxcar Children... I worshipped Nancy Drew. (4/27/05)
Being married is beautiful (99% of the time anyway). A while ago I wrote this poem after one of the first times I woke up next to Jon. And it's still true. I hope it always will be (99% of the time anyway). (4/28/05)
I do love camping. (Now that I'm a Camp, technically everything I do is "Camping", eh?) (4/29/05)
Again, I did interesting stuff, but the suede jacket was the highlight. (4/30/05)
Tarta di formaggio... (cheesecake sounds good in any language!) (5/1/05)
Tonight I will surely dream of perfect creases, smoothed fabrics, piles of evenly stacked SWEATERS! (5/1/05)
Then May dawns and she brings the sun out with her. We should shed our clothes (not all, but a respectable amount) and dance in the streets! We should frolick in meadows of brand new flowers, and we should all fall head over heels into love. (5/2/05)
And, while my toe isn't calling out to me like a little toe-shaped fig newton right now... there are other things I'd like to do that I simply can't. (5/3/05)
I think what spurred me on most (beyond the obvious birth of my skill) were the comments I heard through the headphones: "Tell you wife to stop picking on me!" (5/3/05)
Crypto is a BIG kitty. And, she has the prettiest green eyes. Did I mention how big Crypto is? Yes? Sorry. Anyway, she's very soft and... fat! Oops, slipped out again. Don't you love this picture? She isn't terribly playful, but occasionally she'll flip... er... roll... no, both sound too active. Occasionally she'll flop down and ease onto her back. (5/4/05)
"Jackson wouldn't want to go topless in France." (5/4/05)
So, on a very hot September weekend we took our show on the road, adopted two cute spider monkies (Chloe and Jack Sparrow the Monkey... no, not letting Jon name our children). And yes, we did wear them around our necks, joined at their velcroed feet. And yes, we got plenty of "Awwwww, how adorable"s and "Aren't they sweet togethers" and "Man, get a room"s, too. (5/5/05)
After dinner I suffered a devastating loss at Hearts to both Youds (something which will not happen again as I have resolved to kick my "delightful competitiveness" into a higher, scarier gear). (5/7/05)
There was one year, and this is the only time I'll ever admit it, that I attempted to be a cheerleader because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my esteemed cheerleader of a mother. I failed, both regretfully and thankfully. Valiant effort. I kept forgetting to snap and stomp! (5/8/05)
Anyway, before the nose crisis was the one-eye-is-bigger-than-the-other fiasco. (5/10/05)
I'd slathered myself with sunscreen, SPF 30, so I emerged from the excursion unscathed. Jon earned himself a very flattering shade of pink... er... light red. I suppose I shouldn't tease him about that, but at least this will eventually turn into a tan for him! I NEVER tan. No fair! (5/12/05)
No cavities once again. Don't give me all the credit, though ('cuz I don't floss!). I'm simply California-grown, nourished with water that contains fluoride. (5/16/05)
(I was bundled up like the poster child for Gortex). Because of the recent flooding in the park, the waterfalls had swelled to unimaginable point... gushing and pouring... the Mist Trail became the Torrential Rain Trail (for those of you who have already heard some of my jokes- I'm sorry. I am unoriginal.). (5/21/05)
That was an interesting journey. Some of that stuff was funnier when taken out of context! I wish I had the time or energy to be more original than this, but it actually did me good to go back and see what I started with. Thankfully I haven't strayed far from my original purpose with this blog, and any change I have observed seems an awful lot like progress to me. The writing may not be better, necessarily, but it accomplishes something. It eases the strain of my mind brimming and swelling with the ideas of a thousand people. Let's hope I can continue and look back again after another 100.
PS. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are having a baby. What on God's green earth is the world coming to?
Anne Lamott is a wonderful author. Her book "Bird By Bird" has been a blessing and a relief to read more than once. And she inspires me. Which is her point in that book. She's out to make us who claim to be writers... write!
I made all sorts of excuses the last time. I couldn't be too inspired because I was in the midst of my broker's class (which, as any reader of mine can attest to, isn't great for getting the creative juices a-flowing). Now, however, my summer is ending. I'm coming away with many new experiences and qualifications as a person, an adult, a wife, a friend and a daughter. As a writer it's time to get my butt in gear.
One strategy Lamott suggests for those of us who are prone to "dry spells" is the idea of Inches. Sit down and write just an inch. Or three inches if you're feeling slightly less than completely empty. Surprisingly, an inch or two can become a page in no time. It's a jump start. I've tried it before, and it always works for me. Not that I'm penning novels here. But my time isn't wasted when the product of an hour is a memory made tangible and set down for posterity, or a plot begun, or a character born. Tonight's harvest wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but I thought I'd cheat a little and place it here.
These inches lack purpose, commitmet, resolution... every key element of good writing. But I focused on the language, and it felt great! Like a workout for the brain. Let's hope I remember this when I feel plum tuckered mid-quarter.
When I first sit down my memories come too fast to me, choking my brain with images and sounds: a loud girl's voice, a black bruise on my hand from punching a tetherball like a maniac at recess, the pool water sloshing up over the edge after a perfect cannonball, someone touching me when I wasn't ready for it, the horrible tug in my mouth when the dentist had to extract the countless, stubborn baby teeth that clogged my smile, the smell of pipe tobacco floating to me as I passed an old man taking his daily constitutional, the flapping and buzzing of a baseball card fastened to a bike frame with a clothespin...
Childhood? Mine? Perhaps. Or are they all braided in with the stories I've heard and the books I've read, the movies I've seen, my imaginings? I can't tell sometimes.
It's the possibility of fiction that allows me to consider this past. I don't fear it. Not like those unfortunate people who were starved of affection or lied to or beaten or humiliated or rendered impossibly ill. What shall I do with all my material?
On the edge of my bed sits my mother. She smiles at me and listens to my wild stories about school and my friends. Her long, warm fingers play absently with the laced edge of my violet comforter, worn with age and infinite washings. I watch her fingers move like a happy, nimble spider, catching the white threads and pulling, twisting, smoothing, stretching.
There is no scent or sound other than her breathing, always deeper and more calm than my own. When she rocked me to sleep I would try and match her breaths, the slow intake and pause. But I could never quite achieve that match. I'd give up.
And then she'd sing to me. I loved the songs she chose, favorites from her own childhood, sung by her own mother, a grandmother I'd never had the chance to meet. Deep maternal tones ran beneath the silly, meaningless words. My child heart was soothed into sleep.
Years later, when I was away at college and jerked from sleep by a nightmare, I sometimes wished I could call and hear my mother's lullaby again.
Water snagged my clothes and sucked me down to the sandy bottom of the lake. I was caught in the undertow I'd been warned about by my uncle, just before I swam too deep. In the murky darkness I couldn't see the terrors I were sure were all around me; I could not breathe; I could not find up.
But if my life flashed before my eyes, I didn't see it. Seven years would probably just be a blip rather than a flash anyway. And as my lungs burned for air, wooziness overtook me and I released myself. It was after the struggle stopped that I floated to the surface, a mile down shore from my family having a picnic on the beach.
When I dragged myself onto the dry dune to catch my breath, I had to think. Did I almost drown? Was that what 'almost drowning' was like? Or would this be another exaggeration on my part? Discreetly I attempted to empty my magenta bathing suit of the sand that it had collected during my escapade. How embarrassing.
I decided that I was simply a lousy swimmer. No need to hear my parents explain again how outrageous my imagination could be sometimes.
A Sad Shell
There was a lovely, normal woman who lived across the street from my family when I was growing up. Her hair was especially curly and honey blonde, and her smile was a bit pearly. I thought she was beautiful.
And she was raising two beautiful children. Even if her son was a tad arrogant and her daughter a little spoiled. She doted on her husband, always smiling at him. It was always the same smile, it seemed. Practiced, measured so that she'd have the energy to do it all day long.
We watched her homeschool the kids, be the perfect 'team mom' at little league games, style her daughter's hair every morning like a little doll, cook oodles of goodies for the neighborhood bake sale, do aerobics at the community center... the list went on.
She was religious, too, a devout Mormon. But any and all discipline was deferred to her husband, the man of the house. After a while she seemed to me a shell of person, a sad shell of a person.
It still shocked everyone when the family woke up one day to find her gone completely. No word. Just gone. And there was nothing lovely or normal about it.
Rumors abounded, of course. If they were true she was living in Seattle with a photographer who went by only his first name; she was his model, his muse. Or she'd gone back to school and was studying dentistry. Or there'd been a secret intervention and she was currently in a very high security rehabilitation facility on the west coast, where her roommate had once starred on Beverly Hills 90210.
Whatever the case, her family didn't appear to miss her too much, though her son barely made it through high school and her daughter developed a call-for-a-good-time reputation.
I remember watching the woman's husband after she'd gone. He'd been distant before, more assured. In her absence he reached out to anyone and everyone. I was proud to see that he was answered.
My dream began on a hilltop and ended in a gritty alley behind a grocery store where my family shopped weekly for many years. It was never me in the dream, though, just a girl's body detached from my urgent thoughts.
She walked down the steep side of the hill, stomping to break the momentum, but her feet would begin to wheel too fast and she was swept downward out of control. I never noticed the view from the hilltop, just that she was above something and I was too busy trying to get my thoughts through to her and protect her.
Exhausted she would wander at the bottom of the hill through a phony looking town. Bright storefronts and empty windows, like a set for a play that someone had wheeled onstage just moments before the curtain shot up. No curtain, though, just a straight, narrow road to nothing.
She stopped abruptly and turned left into an alley I hadn't seen before. In the alley she died. I felt the death, but not the pain. There was no watching or seeing or hearing. It felt like a tightness was unbound in my chest, but I don't believe I was her soul, because I didn't float away. It was just the body and me, which was no different except that something was missing. Life probably.
I studied the way she lay crooked on the ground, like a broken bird fallen from her nest. Long, red scratches had appeared on her wrists, but I could never decide how they had been inflicted on this girl who was not me.
She could not have been me. Mostly I think this because I felt no sadness when she died. Until I tried to leave the body, I wasn't afraid either.
But then I was stuck. I only tried to leave once, I could see the brightness of the street at the end of the alley, but it was no use. In fact, the certainty with which I knew that leaving the body was impossible kept me from fighting. That's when the fear set it. The alley was darker, the street further away, and the body distorted into everything horrible.
My insubstantial being yearned to wake up.
His breathing is soft, like the skin at the nape of his neck, covered with a curl of dark, soft hair. I count his rhythm and think about eternity and what he might want for breakfast when he does wake up, which is always after I do. Never, in this early morning moment of study, do I move unless absolutely necessary. His waking is inevitable, but when he sleeps he is a little boy angel, fearless and undaunted by the world, hopeful, trusting, unblemished. For that second his history is suspended and I see nothing but the beauty of a good man who is mine. I love him. Then I notice that his eyes aren't entirely closed. I can see them, blue and sleepy beneath his lashes, but definitely seeing. I blush. I've been caught. But, in fact, he is studying me, too. Quickly he shuts them again, as if I might not have seen him peeking at me, and allows me to continue my contemplation uninterrupted. Why not? This game continues until it becomes absurd, the sincerity of my study is lost when I begin making funny faces at him when he peeks again. His eyes open and, unbelievably, I love him more.
It was in my alone time as a child that my imagination took to the sky. Sitting cross legged beneath my parents' dining room table, I fancied myself in a mossy, green meadow sheltered by a willow tree. This tree spread her benevolent arms in many of my daydreams. At night I was lulled to sleep by the whispering of her leaves.
It was my mind that sent a thousand ships sailing across the seven seas. It was my mind that pulled up their golden sails and draped the wooden maiden at the bow with regal purple fabric. My mind invented the pirates, teeth bared and feathered hats tilted, that rallied to conquer those ships.
The pirates usually won (a fact I felt really guilty about), and I manipulated the scenario so that no one died and all the loot was divided equally among the pirates and their happy families.
Never was there a damsel in distress complicating the plot, disrupting the fight scenes and wandering nervously, even superfluously, around the edges. No, absolutely not. Any female character in my dreams knew how to handle herself. She could swashbuckle, scuba dive, parachute, use a gun (or a bow and arrow if necessary), dog sled, mountain climb, ride horses, speak several languages, fly a plane, kickbox, and drive a motorcycle.
And she was lovely, naturally and inexplicably gorgeous. To avoid being shallow I justified my heroine's beauty by attributing it to her inner qualities. Her kindness, intellect, sense of humor and generosity of spirit were what spurred on the sparkle in her big green eyes, her curly black hair.
I catapulted my female characters to the forefront. Pirate women sometimes sailed their own ships; a town in the wild West was often kept in line by a woman sheriff. Robin Hood had a little sister with comparable bravery, gall and attitude.
When I say I was alone as a child, I'm misleading you. Really I was surrounded all the time, by little boys. My younger brothers and their friends, my guy friends, my dad. They were everywhere. So often what I was actually inventing was the foreign, coveted idea of loneliness.
Snap! They would disappear. And I would be left in a silvery valley at twilight with wood nymphs, unicorns, sprites and orchids. In that lovely lonely land I never had to wear shoes or do math or watch my brothers. Rather I'd settle gracefully down in front of a library the size of a mountain, reading in the luxurious silence.
Even little girls, though, long for adventures in lieu of solitude sometimes. My own heart sent me spinning into one of my favorite past eras. I had my pick! The California Gold Rush, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the Great Depression, Plymouth Rock, World War II, the Roaring '20s. My choice was usually fairly arbitrary, often based on the most recent movie I'd watched.
So I'd pick the era, give my characters names, contrive a heroine, a villain, a goal and a hero. Maybe I should call him a co-hero, because with me at the helm there was never a guy 'who got the girl.' Instead there was usually a girl 'who got the guy.'
When configuring a man to be gotten, though, the mold from which he came was a complicated one: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Robin Hood... the list goes on. After I'd imagined my Superman, I gave him a problem. It had to be a big one, exciting enough to revolve the story around, but it was nothing a good woman couldn't fix.
Playing my games alone made me powerful, though including the little boys in the neighborhood, inflicting my parameters on them gave me the same element of control. Sure we could play 'Cops and Robbers', but I was always the Chief of Police. Sure we could play 'Cowboys and Indians', but I was always the Chieftess of the Indian tribe. Sometimes I'd hear the peasants grumbling, but I never feared a real mutiny. In my imagination the boys loved to swim.
After all, I was the oldest and the most creative (not that I allowed anyone the chance to try and best me at the latter). At the drop of a hat magical names of far off locales danced off my tongue. I'd dub each boy with a new, more exciting name before the games began. Ryan became Gerard and Jim became Apollo. With the new name and the detailed history I endowed upon each of them, the boys grew into the man whose persona they had been gifted. By maintaining my position as Queen, in charge of gifting those names, I kept the ranks happy and always had a place to play.
Unfortunately my fun was never really maximized. I couldn't be Nancy Drew because I was the one who created the mystery. Hot clues were placed by me. I always knew the end. The same was true of any mystery. That's why I devoured books. Mysteries unraveled in front of me, and I sat very still so as not to disturb Nancy's process.
I crammed my mind with as many plots and characters as possible, and I felt the feelings of the protagonists in a deep, scarring, almost unnatural way. I was ashamed with Hester Prynne, and I was heartsick with Juliet. My heart broke with Travis' when we shot Old Yeller. When Jim hid in the apple barrel and overheard Long John Silver's treachery, I was huddled among the apples with him, just as horrified.
My dad often said I was hypersensitive. He chuckled when I cried over the little stuff, even in books. Reading the sequel to Gone With the Wind when I was fourteen was a bad idea. I sobbed my way through it, half because I longed for Rhett and Scarlet to work things out, and half because I had recently hit puberty.
That was the beginning of my southern belle phase. Though the ultimate tomboy at school and on the playground and on the basketball court, I changed once I got home. My metamorphosis was all in my mind, but I emerged a delicate, charismatic lady with a penchant for waltzes, parasols and fine china. I believed that buttermilk would rid me of my freckles. I hummed imagined slave songs, pensive and low, agonizingly simple, haunting. And I twirled in my pretend hoop skirts. I was Scarlet
As usual I was drawn to the feisty, bull-headed main character, and was almost disdainful of her sweet, naive counterpart, Melanie. Not until many years later would I learn to appreciate Melly's kindness and humility. I never thought that Scarlet was justified in most of her choices, the ones that rocked the worlds of everyone around her. I wondered why, after everything, Rhett hung around as long as he did. Wicked was alluring. Not a new concept in fiction. But I wasn't wicked, not even a little bit.
I adopted orphans and cared for stray dogs (a giant Newfoundland named Saskatchewan was my favorite, recurring in my play). The wrongfully imprisoned patiently waited for me to set them free. Lofty dreams for a skinny, freckled girl in seventh or eighth grade. But that's what dreams are for. Slaves were given their independence and illiterate women in third world countries were taught to read. Those were my imaginings.
Unfortunately, today I don't have anything especially good to write about. I woke up at the regular time. I did some laundry. I worked 8 hours. I watched some TV. What will inspire this entry?
Inspiration is a tricky business. So intangible. Some argue it doesn't really exist, that performance is strictly mind over matter. I don't agree. There are millions of things that have inspired me in the past:
Ponies, the wall paper in the bathroom of my old house (my parents wall papered the entire room, including the ceiling!), my American Girl doll Samantha, the moon, Bob Hope jokes, all kinds of music (oldies, goodies, entire sountracks from The Big Chill, Under the Tuscan Sun and Dirty Dancing), the sound of a basketball dribbling on concrete, pictures, my old Honda civic (dubbed the YaYa-mobile), applause, a microphone, the success of my friends and family...
As mentioned before, I am the proud author of many many many many many beginnings of novels, short stories, poems. All of them began with inspiration. One story I wrote when I was in seventh grade. In a veritable fit of drama I titled it Walking Through the Fire. Based on the Oregon Trail in the early 1800s, my story included adventure, danger, death, trials, kidnappings, love, lust, revenge, the triumph of courage and morality... all of the things I knew nothing of. My inspiration? The names of the characters are all names of people I knew at the time. Every friend, teacher, enemy, relative... oh, I included them all. The cast of characters in my life inspired that story. Well, that and the long list of classic westerns and dramas I'd come to love and memorize. Oh, and the title comes from a favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter song.
Then came a series of pre-teen horror stories. Lame does not even begin to describe them now. So contrived! So cookie-cutter. With names like The Smile, The Fear, and I'm Afraid to Scream... how could I not go wrong? Quick, an excuse! I was in the midst of my R.L. Stine obsession. I read every book that man churned out. Thus, my imagination became a breeding ground for dark, horrifying plots, anger, the failure of human nature, violence! It's also fairly easy to observe that this was also an outlet for all the things I didn't see or do in my life then. What I had was a happy family, lots of friends, my standing as a major goody-two-shoes... you do the math.
Stories of spiritual awakenings, the acknowledgment of a higher power, 180-degree life turn-arounds came next. All after my own acceptance of Christ. Everything became centered on a testimony. Not mine. My story seemed more than lacking when it came to what I'd "been through" and/or "survived" before Jesus came into my life and saved me. There was simply no need for me to fall on my knees and bellow to the clouds, "I'm a failure! Take me home, sweet Jesus!" But that's what I wanted for my protagonists. They were many and varied, boys and girls, all about my age, all races and levels of intelligence. They, however, dealt with abortion, rape, suicide, drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships and poverty. All things I hadn't even really seen. Are we sensing a pattern? Perhaps my lifelong inspiration has really been all that I have yet to do.
As I developed further, began planning for my future, making new friends and discovering the delight of boys as romantic partners, I endeavored on a series of love stories. Mostly love that went terribly terribly wrong, and still ended up so very right! That is, after all, what most young girls dream of. Our ideal is taming the bad boy. Our hope is to suffer a bit but to see love still standing once the smoke has cleared. Again, I didn't know what a broken heart felt like yet. I had never felt the pain of lost love.
Journalism took over a couple of my high school years. Those stories were easy to complete. Features were my game. I knew just what combination of words would jerk tears from my readers, or how to make them laugh. Instinct served me well.
Then came the poetry. Onslaught barely describes what came once I had the time for poetry. Hundreds of poems, all kinds. Love, friendship, death, parents, life, future, disaster... I summed all of them up in a few broken lines. Between having my first few boyfriends, gradating from high school, experiencing Columbine and 9/11, seeing my friends go off to college, coaching volleyball, losing friends to accidents and suicides... there was more than enough inspiration. And I think that was also the time in my life when I accepted the fact that negative inspiration was not something to consider bad, sinful or wrong. Poetry was as much therapy as it was entertainment.
Tale as old as time... that's right, Jonathan. My next and most permanent inspiration. I remember seeing him for the first time in person (I'd once before pointed to his picture in the church directory and called him cute). He was wearing a red sweatshirt and his blond hair was a little long, floppy. I had this urge to throw my arms around him! But I only knew his name. Thus my idea of love poetry and prose changed forever. He will always be the catalyst for my thoughts on love, commitment and desire. My Jonathan.
Since then I think my main inspiration has simply been memories. All my life I've wanted to grow up, do big things, finish the task at hand, get on with everything! Go faster! Now, looking back I see my life and I'm shocked. I have a good memory and a wild imagination. Yet already parts of my childhood, parts of all my past, have become blurred. Blurry scares me. I should remember it all! So I resolved to begin writing down everything I could remember. That way it's saved, and when I end up forgetting... I can read it and remember again.
What memories have inspired my stories? Oddly enough, my first major memory that is clear enough to be fodder for a story is the recollection of my first lie. I was three or four years old and my mom had bought me a pair of purple shoes that fastened with Velcro. I remember my mom sticking the Velcro strips together just before my dad walked in the door. I ran up to Daddy, arms up (needy little girl), and as he scooped me up I said, "Look!" And I wiggled my feet at him. He asked, "Did you put those on by yourself?" I looked him dead in the eye and said, "Yes!" I was swiftly and firmly corrected by my mother, and I never forgot that moment. It seems like nothing, but also like everything. A beginning.
So many more memories lie lodged in the nooks and crannies of my mind, just waiting to be discovered again. Some I've already found and filed away for the next inevitable session of writer's block! If all else fails I do know something that gets the words flowing every single time. October. Much of my best material has been written in that, my favorite month. The crunch of leaves, the smell of a campfire, certain candies, that deep blue twilight and the warm pavement beneath my bare feet... all of that and more bespeaks October. She is my red-haired muse. Already I feel a wave of adrenaline. Or is it inspiration?
Tonight I began with the idea that I had nothing to write about. But apparently the idea of inspiration is in itself enough to open my floodgates. And it's been a lovely trip. Now it's off to bed and, with the help of this entry, I do believe I'll have sweet dreams.
The dawn of my virtual diary.
For many years I've claimed to be a writer. And, while I've never lacked ideas or inspirations, I do lack the discipline to write daily. My husband, the self-proclaimed "code monkey", has suggested that I blog as a way to solve the problem. We'll see.
So here I sit, in the home I now share with my husband and our two cats. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind swirls a land more complex and exotic, more adventurous and erotic, than anyone can possibly tell. That includes me. I have more going around in my imagination, fueled by the daily grind and the soul-penetrating events of my past, my history, than even I know what to do with. Hopefully this will become my outlet. Some of this steam needs to go!
As I am not one to release cosmic questions out into the void, nor am I one to pose public questions to my God (because the theatrics minimalize the sincerity, in my opinion), all ponderances will be strictly streams of consciousness. I like this idea.
In all honesty, I have blogged once before. The endeavor lasted all of a week. But in the end I emerged a little healthier, a little less tense. It's a good thing, too. The world, especially the smallish sphere of my good friends and family, was the better for it. This time around my goal is one solid month of routine writing sessions. And boy I hope that statement doesn't come back to bite me.
Now it's time for a long overdue dose of my favorite comedian of all time: Bob Hope. Great man, funny guy. Lucky Jon gets to experience "Road to Zanzibar" with me (the second of seven "road pictures" he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour...). And so I'll leave my first entry with this classic Hope-moment:
Bob Hope: What's a zombie?
Reply: They are the living dead. They walk around blindly with dead eyes, not knowing what they're doing and not caring.
Bob Hope: You mean like democrats?
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We'll be here all week!