Monthly Archives: May 2012

Rumer Had It

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What did Rumer Godden have?  Energy, clearly and a sense of discipline that must have come naturally…

I’ve just finished a memoir penned by Godden entitled, A House with Four Rooms.  Before this book, I had read Two Under the Indian Sun written with her sister Jon about their childhood in India.

She was a writer from a far different era than the one in which we live now.  I loved immersing myself in her use of language (very old-fashioned) and her turn of phrase.  Difficult to grasp at first, I soon found myself following the rhythm.  There is a definite cadence to the way she lays down a sentence.

She was an astonishingly prolific writer.  She wrote 22 works of fiction, 9 works of non-fiction, 5 poetry collections, and 20 books for children.  Godden did not seclude herself in a high tower and write while minions brought her tea (although she always seemed to have help).  She wrote novels while running a dance school and raising two children in India, while dealing with a doomed marriage, while surviving attempted poisonings by her staff in Kashmir, as a single mother back in England before marrying her second husband.

When did the woman sleep?  This was in the days before word processors and portable laptops.  She preferred writing by hand, in notebooks with self-described tiny handwriting.  She even shunned typewriters when they were offered to her.

Her gift for descriptive imagery is amazing.  Her descriptions of India, the verdant English countryside, and the plethora of houses she lived in are delicious.  She had the keenest of eyes for detail.  She even makes Pekingese dogs sound nice.

I remember when I was a little girl, my mother got me two Rumer Godden books, Little Plum and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (both were about Japanese dolls who came to live in England, I think).  On my mother’s towering bookshelves were at least two Godden books, This House of Brede and The Battle for the Villa Fiorita (I reached for the latter once but was told “that’s not a book for children.”)

I would love to read more of her work – and the first book of memoir – she was a fascinating author.

Crankypants

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It’s been one of those days.weeks.  One of those weeks where I’m off-balance, off-kilter, off my friggin’ rocker. Some would say every week is like that with me and they might be right but this week feels worse than most.  Solar flares?  Dodgy planet alignment?  PMS? (re-named Perpetual Menstrual Syndrome)

A sampling as to why I might be nicknamed Madame Crankypants lately:

  • I can’t hear.  Seriously, my hearing is kaput, done.  I think.  I can’t be sure because my entire family mumbles and/or is plugged in headphones all the freaking time.  We could have been invaded by a family of howler monkeys yesterday my kids were so oblivious.  As it was, I stood in the kitchen talking to them without realizing for about 5 minutes.  WHAT?
  • I can’t see.  I tried to paint my toenails this morning.  I got more nail polish on the cat than I did on my toes.  In my defense, I have very small toes.
  • I had to go to Wal-Mart yesterday.
  • I lost my car in the Wal-Mart parking lot.  I nearly had to call my husband (not sure what good that would have done but he might have been able to make me laugh about it).  I had to pretend for 10 minutes that I was just casually strolling the pavement with my bag of melting frozen goods.  Tra la la…up and down aisles of cars…just out for a stroll, where the HELL is that car.
  • The Novel.  ‘Nuff said, y’all have heard enough whining about that for now
  • I can’t drive.  I used to be extremely competent behind the wheel.   Not so anymore.  I’m tentative, hesitant, distracted.  Awful.  I scraped the front bumper on the retaining wall of my own driveway.  With husband in car & neighbours watching.  AWFUL.
  • New stories are percolating in my brain.  They pop their little heads up at random times, distracting me – like when I’m trying to paint my toes.  Nothing strung together, just random bits.  They buzz like flies around my head.
  • The thought of a summe road trip down South.  SMACK! That’s the sound of the realization that I CANNOT, SHALL NOT go back to the land of my early 30’s in the shape I’m in now hitting me upside my head.  Working out makes me pretty; the thought of working out makes me cranky.

That’s just a sampling.  I could go on.  I’m just “off.”  Time to sign off and have a quick power nap.

 

Forever Flies

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My daughter got braces yesterday.  In celebration, her face broke out.  As she stood before the mirror this morning not feeling the love or feeling lovely, I thought back to my own awkward years which occurred way before Proactive acne treatments and hair products designed to make limp hair fluffy.

Seriously, my awkward phase went from the time I was eight years old to about age twenty-five.  It seemed like forever.  I look at my beautiful girl and handsome boy and shake my head.  What do they have to feel awkward about?

And then I remembered…

Although zits and braces and puppy fat all physically occur, a young person’s perception is severely screwed (ha, Freudian slip!  I meant to type “skewed!).  For example, when my daughter looks in the mirror, her mind’s eye sees a zit the size of Mt. Everest on her face.  Her new braces look (to her) like she’s tried to cram the Brooklyn Bridge into her mouth.  Of course, this isn’t true.  Something about the hormones and the developing frontal lobe causes severe vision problems.

This skewed screwed-up perception only lasts a few years but my assurances fall on deaf ears.  “I’m going to look this way FOREVER!” is a very common cry.  My wisdom is useless.  They have to figure out for themselves that “forever” flies; before they know it they will be looking at photos of themselves and saying, “so THAT’s what I looked like without wrinkles – Jeez, I was hot!”

I read a rather timely post from Martha Beck this morning.  Martha, life coach, author, and columnist for Oprah magazine, was a Type A+++++++++ personality as a kid.  To paraphrase her, if she didn’t like something about her body she’d punish it into submission by severe dieting and even more severe workouts.  Her body gave out when she was still in her twenties.  She literally had to figure something out or become an invalid (or worse, a corpse).

She found, lo and behold, that her body and mind responded better to kindness than cruelty.  It seems so…obvious but it so, so isn’t.  Most of us are outright cruel every day – to ourselves.

Her blog post today advised that we should treat ourselves, our bodies, with more kindness hence yielding better results and better health. Worshipping false gods and goddesses who have had all manner of implants, injections, and air-brushing sets us up to fail, damaging our bodies and psyches. We end up staring at ourselves, hating what we see when what we’re comparing ourselves to isn’t even real.  Calling ourselves stupid, ugly, fat is just as bad as saying it to someone else.

Her suggestion:  Be kind.  If you catch yourself saying something derogatory about yourself, counter it with praise.  Give more attention to the things you like about yourself.  With time, you’ll be liking your whole self a whole lot more.  And your whole self will like you back.  Hey!  A new friend!  Awesome.

I tried this morning:  Me:  “Jeez, I’m such bitch.  Kind Me: (a moment’s thought) “Yes, but you’re a bitch who makes great apple pie.”  Me: “I’ll make a pie.  And eat the whole thing myself.”  Kind Me:  “Honey, you need more practice.”

Truth be told, I’m the cruelest of the cruel – to myself.  Perhaps my frontal lobe never finished its growth spurt or perhaps I have become so practiced at self-cruelty that it has become second nature.  Martha swears that I can undo the damage, even now.  A healthy dose of self-kindness every day (along with 8 glasses of water and five servings of fruits and veggies) can do wonders for reversing all kinds of damage.

Practicing kindness in any form to yourself and others isn’t such a bad way to spend forever, really.  Everyone benefits.  Hopefully my kids can get on track and be kinder to themselves, find things to genuinely like about themselves (there is SO much!) and live happy, healthy lives.

Bonus:  Apple pie tonight!

Detours, U-Turns,Wrong Turns

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 Subtitle:  I Can’t Read the Map Without My Specs and I Don’t Know How to Program  the   SAT-NAV

2nd Subtitle:  I Think I Need a Co-Pilot

However it might appear from the titles, this is not a motoring post.  Believe it or not, it is a post about writing.  Let me s’plain:

Late last week, in a panic (typical) because I had procrastinated on completing an entrance application for a writing program and didn’t know which story to submit (also typical), I emailed the first 15 pages of The Novel to a very wise and trustworthy writing sister.  Although her schedule is packed, she very kindly read it at 5 a.m. the morning after I sent it to her.

The news wasn’t all bad.

Now, when I say I trust this woman, I say that wholeheartedly.  If The Novel was shit, she would’ve (gently) told me so and she didn’t, so I’m heartened about that.  However, she did go over the first 15 with a fine-tooth comb (amazing for the hour she was reading but she is a professor).

I’ve met her exactly twice.  She and I took an online writing class together and we’ve been online sisters ever since.  We live in opposite ends of the city; our lives do not intersect.  However, just from reading her writing and seeing how thoughtfully she critiqued other’s work, I knew she had a good eye, a good ear, and she was honest without being brutal.  Her critiques have always been unfailingly helpful.

My poor tired eyes have reviewed these same 15 pages so often that they (the eyes) have become essentially useless.  That is why I missed, overlooked, and ignored so many obvious flaws.  Which is why it is absolutely, positively, unequivocably essential that writers borrow, hire or kidnap additional pairs of peepers to review their work.

So, back to the detours, U-turns, and wrong turns…I’ve never written anything near the scope of The Novel before.  This story has been careening around in my brain for nearly a decade.  There have been plenty of false starts.  Of those false starts, I’ve been able to salvage maybe a paragraph or two over the years.

Somehow, I’ve always been able to build the story back up around those two paragraphs. So with great gusto, I built it up to about 270 pages before sending the first 15 off to my “editor.”  Time to get the pruning shears back out.

Or is it?

Right off the bat she had problems with the main character, Emma.  Well, shit.  If we’ve got problems with her, how much hope is there for anything else?  (This is me in “self-pity, moaning” mode)

Stand back, writer, and look at the comments and the story objectively.  Nobody said this was easy.  So, the main character needs more…everything.  Or, do the first 15 pages just need more tweaking?  It’s hard to say after only 15 pages and that’s why my online sister is going to be given a few more sets of 15.  Right now, her toes are barely in the water.  She needs to get in up to her knees (ok, maybe mid-calf) before she starts yelling for help.

Nonetheless, while she’s paddling around in my story, I’m going to do a little learnin’, perhaps on character development. In my heart of hearts, I think Emma is a good character.  She has potential so all is not lost. In a quick online search, I found a blog by Holly Lisle that looks really interesting.  I will investigate what she (and others)have to say thoroughly. Everyone has been here before, not just me.

Editors look for a few basic things, I’m thinking.  Well developed characters might very well be one of them.  I need my characters to stand out, be memorable, have heart, make the reader care.  Even if you hate a character, you still care.  The Wicked Stepmother was a vain, selfish bitch but we cared enough to want her to bite into the poisoned apple, not Snow White.

Have you ever driven, hell for leather, down a road only to have this nagging feeling you might be going in totally the wrong direction?  Hmmm…I get this too, sometimes.  But I’m a worrier.  Even if the SAT-NAV, the map, and my husband tell me I’m going the right way, doubt still holds me in its clutches. It’s not that I ride the brake but sometimes I do put the pedal down with my eyes closed…drives my passengers slightly crazy.

I am also getting more adept at U-turns.  And, it’s never too late to ask for directions.

Eating Glass

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I just finished Susan Juby’s memoir, Nice Recovery, about her years as a teenage alcoholic.  Her story is raw, painful, totally believable and often funny.  Teenage angst, taken to the nth degree. While reading,  I found myself bleeding, inside and out.  If I’m honest, some of it is hitting pretty close to home.

Let me s’plain…

I come from a long line of alcoholics.  Some were happy Irish drunks who entertained anyone who would listen with a song or a limerick, others were morose cry-in-the-beer types, and yet others were drinkers for a cause – that cause being their own self-destruction.  Some were talented multi-taskers, balancing mental illness with the alcoholism.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t really like to talk about these folks.  The fact that they exist on my family tree is exhausting, embarrassing, infuriating, and disturbing.  Having said that, I believe that hiding them in a closet with the other skeletons would be even more damaging.  When I do talk about my majorly messed up relatives, I tend to be glib and sarcastic.  You know: humour to hide the pain kind of stuff.   In the yarns I spin (1/2 Irish, may I remind) I can make these people and their exploits      h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s.

In therapy, I am often urged to stop with the humour, already.  I can’t.  Please don’t make me, I plead.  Nobody likes morose, morbid old ladies who weep at the very mention of dear Uncle Seamus.  It’s my survival mode, my defense mechanism.  I’d much rather laugh than cry,wouldn’t you?

When reading Juby’s memoir (or The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wall), I have a hard time keeping the books in my hands.  Such books tend to fly across the room or become buried under Women’s Health magazine or fifteen pounds of Stieg Larsson books that lie beside my bed.  Sometimes I’d rather read about menopause symptoms.

I wonder how authors who write about awful, painful, scarring events in their past do it without bleeding to death.  How do they ever find the strength to stare down their demons – especially when those demons could be parents or siblings – or worse, themselves? Isn’t pursuing a writing career hard enough without exorcism and self-immolation?

I wonder these things because, lurking in both my mind and on my hard drive are some demons of my own.  They’ve been getting restless.  I’ve been exercising (and perhaps, exorcising) them a bit lately – writing more about those relatives on my family tree who were so boozy or crazy that they had to be lashed to the trunk of the tree…I start and then…I run away.  I hide in another project or I stop writing for a time altogether.

Family members take note:  I am working on something painful and difficult if I a) think I can garden b) paint a room or two, c) take up running.

It seems to me that writing about painful stuff is not just like walking on broken glass but more like rolling in it.  And, swallowing it.  And, then pooping it out.  It hurts from start to finish.

One of my (published) short stories was based on a relative; I cried while writing it (sometimes sobbing so hard I had to walk away from the computer for fear of inflicting water damage).  Recently I wrote about the mental illness in my family in a nonfiction essay (I cried then too because of the subject matter and because no one wants to publish the damned thing).

Although the pain is sometimes acute, I tiptoe forward.  Why?  Oh, how many times I’ve asked myself that…not because I have a perverse love of airing my family’s dirty laundry but because I think these are stories worth telling.  Something deep within me believes that shedding light on the pain and the isolation we endured might actually help other people – at the very least it will illustrate that we’re all fucked up and none of us is alone.

It might also cut down on the therapy bills. I said might.  While  eating glass is not recommended, the shards can be turned into something beautiful…hopeful, even.

The Devil Lives in Chocolate Chips

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Have you ever had a craving for something that just wouldn’t leave you alone?  This insidious, destructive craving follows you around the house, the yard, and worst of all – the grocery store – whispering in your ear like a devil on your shoulder, posting little pictures of itself everywhere.

My devil, today anyway (tomorrow it could be something different – like, vodka) is chocolate chips.  Chocolate chip cookies, to be precise.  For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about them.  And the problem is that we have them.  In the cupboard.  Just to my left.  I damn near had them for breakfast.

The weather is warm, nay, hot now.  I can no longer disguise winter’s pudge under layers of clothing.  The gig is up, so to speak, with my body.  Suffice it to say, the LAST thing I need in this world is chocolate chips in any form whatsoever.

I have armed myself all day, girded myself against this devil in the chocolate chips. I got up at 6:30 a.m. and went for a run fast walk.  Truth be told I went for this pseudo-run not because I wanted to escape the chocolate chips but because I was so mad at one of my kids I felt it safer to be running walking quickly away from the house as opposed to staying in it but never mind that.  It was a rare and beautiful interlude of healthy living (except for what I was wearing but never mind that either).

Around 10 a.m., as I sat typing away furiously on a short story that might turn into something bigger (some day), I could feel the chewy, delicious presence of those cookies in the cupboard next to me.  It sucks sometimes having nowhere else to write but my kitchen table; every time I get up to stretch my legs, one of my legs runs into a refrigerator or a pantry door.  However, I’ve deemed it highly unproductive to write upstairs lying in bed on the basis that falling asleep is no better for my career than eating chocolate chip cookies is for my waistline.

I finished the short story/something bigger and decided to reward myself for a) finishing a project, albeit a small one, and b) not throttling the above-mentioned irritating child this morning, and c) going for my little run fast walk.  I deserved some summer clothing and maybe some exercise clothes that didn’t make me look like Maxine the cranky greeting card lady.

Before someone who might be reading this gets upset, let it be said that I was going to attempt to buy something ONLY if it was a HARD-CORE bargain.  I was hungry when I left the house (which I thought might work to my wallet’s advantage).  I knew I couldn’t buy a pair of shorts AND eat out so I had to buy and lunch at home.  It made for a quick shopping expedition.

Came home, ate a sensible lunch followed by an apple and a big glass of water in hopes of drowning that irritating little devil that still said I should indulge in chocolate chip cookies.  He is still there, taunting me.  If someone should come home tonight and eat chocolate chip cookies in front of me, that someone might just be sleeping in the back yard.

Tumble Dryer

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It is well into the wee hours; the cat races after imaginary (I hope) prey throughout the house.  Sleep eludes.  I hear my husband snoring and one of the kids has a cough. I’ve tried tossing and turning; I’ve tried reading – historical fiction, usually a sure bet.  All in vain.  My eyes burn with fatigue but my brain won’t shut down.

Usually, when this happens, I can compose blog posts or entire chapters (ok, entire scenes) of The Novel while I wait for sleep to arrive but tonight, I thought I’d try something different. Tonight I will just write down all of the weird shit that is thwumping around in my  tumble dryer of a brain.  Here goes.

  • Fleas, as in does Alyss have them?
  • a woman’s name.  A character perhaps of a future story.  Her name is Tolly.  Her father is Tom; her mother Molly.  This girl’s parents think themselves very clever
  • life insurance, as in could it ever be enough to see me through in the event of the unthinkable?
  • what will ever become of me and this dream I chase through the shadows called writing?
  • parenting, as in do I suck at it or am I normal?
  • Fleas, as in do I have them?  Why am I so freaking itchy?
  • The Memory Palace – name of a book I saw in the bookstore tonight
  • maybe the double shot latte at 7 pm wasn’t such a good idea
  • why and how do languages evolve, as in: please – in English is so different from “bitter” in German.  Weird.
  • Fernando Torres’ hair cannot get more blond without him looking a little too much like Lady Gaga’s older brother and that would make me sad and slightly scared.

I’m still itchy.  I’m still awake.  The above are the thoughts that torment me.  There will be more.  I was really hoping for a good night’s sleep but then that is my hope every night.  Yet, every night thoughts creep into my room like children used to creep in asking for a glass of water or to tell me they had a bad dream. “Mommy, I’m itchy.”  Yeah, kid.  Me too.

I have things to do tomorrow.  I have chapters to write.  I was hoping to write a lucid blog post.  Now, the day will be spent careening from caffeine jolt to caffeine jolt with a quick, stolen nap somewhere in between.  I will stumble through the day feeling as though I’ve been hit by a truck.

I wonder, as I am apt to do when itchy and exhausted, if this self-inflicted sleep mess is my way of sabotaging myself – like going on a diet and then buying a box of Oreos…”for the kids.”(more dubious parenting).  Now my brain types “therapy.”  “Anti-anxiety meds.”

I will never get to sleep if I don’t close my eyes.  Great, now I’m hungry. Damn those Oreos.