In the Hills of Tennessee

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When my son was 16, I took him to a summer camp in Tennessee. But first, we spent July 4th in Tellico Plains which a vacation website describes as a “vintage mountain town in East Tennessee, at the gateway to the Cherohala Skyway and the Cherokee National Forest.” As I recall, it was indeed vintage and I was glad I had stocked a cooler full of supplies before entering this part of the country. I was also grateful for a sturdy four-wheel drive SUV for, after having dropped my son at camp, I had a terrifying moment of having to weather a flooded road to get to my cabin, tucked deep into the woods. It was an early single mom experience. When I was young, I embraced wildness and adventure and feats of derring-do. Let’s just say life has schooled me in the ways of caution. I love this little gem of a song by Jimmie Rogers. Be well on this Sunday.—Margaret

To the U.N. Committee on Alternative Fuel Sources

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Woman by oudjat45, flickr

Check out my flash fiction piece published today in Shambolic Review, originally published in S/tick. While you are there, check out the work of Marty Shambles, a master of sardonic fiction. I hope you are having a good Friday—Margaret

Patrick’s Day

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St Patrick’s Day – The Old Crown – High Street Deritend, Digbeth – Irish flags, Elliot Brown, flickr

Tonight, I watched the movie Patrick’s Day. It dramatizes a Nurse-Ratched style relationship between a mother and her mentally ill son. Blessedly, it is the son’s love for another woman, a romantic relationship, that begins to shake his mother’s domineering hand.

It is a wrenching movie at times, though again, a bit dramatic. Electroconvulsive therapy is portrayed as a horrendous instrument and in the movie, is used as a tool of control, whereas in IRL, it helps people at the end of the line who often have no other options. I’ve heard it’s more patient-friendly (At one time, yours truly was presented this depression-busting option as a way through a medication-free pregnancy, but I felt fortunate I did not require it, regardless of reassurances.)

Though the finer points of mental illness and treatment may have been stretched a bit, I thought it a great movie about mental illness, and a great movie in general. Movies have only touched the tip of a very big iceberg when it comes to exploring mental illness as a fictional subject. Sometimes the movies that are made follow a kind of morbid trope. For example, we have seen a Nurse Ratched before, though the Nurse-Ratched-type mother in Patrick’s Day inspired some pathos. (The mother of Patrick’s Day also reminded me of Frances Farmer’s mother in Frances.) It’s a big bravo for the movie that the plot continued to spin out, using character change and development to level up as it were. Ergo, it is a step beyond the grimness of Cuckoo, Frances, Girl Interrupted, etc.

I’m interested in finding out other people’s opinions of the portrayal of illness and caregivers in this and other movies. I hope for continued dialogue, and of course, more movies.

Buenas noches, mis amigos.

Margarita

Rare Beasts

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Have you seen the movie Rare Beasts? It’s fun and quirky. Roger Ebert says “I can’t make heads or tales out of this bleak black comedy about a single mom dating a borderline incel coworker who craves the status of marriage but seems to hate women and wants none of the work involved in actually making a relationship.” Oh, Roger. Take a breath. And like, laugh? The movie is hilarious. Its greatness is its lack of predictability. Here, have a rose. RIP. We miss you—Margaret

Get Off Your Knees — It’s the Archaic Revival

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To read the full piece, go to the “view original post” link below. If you’re on WordPress, follow the blog! Some great gems there.

Erik Rittenberry

Art: Justin Estcourt


The long night of human history
is drawing at last to
its conclusion.

— Terence McKenna


Look at how politicized
we’ve all become
these days.

Look at the barbed wire
and the needless shit
that surrounds our
unpoetic lives.

Look at the vast idiocy
we see in the cities and
on our screens.

Look at us —
inattentive drudges,
heavy on information yet
starved of intuition and
insight, paralyzed by
irrational fear.

Hardly anyone thinks or feels
outside the group or the party
or the race or the nation
they belong to.

Critical thinking is irreparable
and our readymade opinions
are quite expected
along with the synthetic
desires we hold.

Even the most intelligent minds
among us lean towards conformity —
particularly when their careers
and reputations depend on it.

Institutional compliance
trumps truth-seeking.

Social media algorithms
nurture our biases and
predispositions, managing
our will and amplifying

View original post 642 more words

Flight north

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Vintage cast iron Dutch oven by Bruce, flickr

Janneth rolled back her screeching patio door to the mild night, to a pleasant weather belying the human realities of plague, of economic and political collapse. On her hip, she held baby Isla who played with her bright yellow necklace. The bauble had been an impulse purchase during her now extinct state of existence. The little red-headed wonder put a beaded strand into her mouth and Janneth’s heart skipped a bit, grateful for this tiny source of joy.

Guntar had awakened them with repairs to his vehicle, a noise that in an earlier time would have annoyed her to the point of submitting a written complaint to the apartment management. And now, she wondered if he knew she was the cause of them shooing him away to the outer edges of the lot for his nighttime maintenance, somewhere remote (Yet now, with management seemingly shuddered, he was apparently taking liberties.)

She wondered if he was someone to be relied upon, someone to graciously receive a request for assistance. She had never noticed a spouse or girlfriend. Maybe he had been the kind of son to be helpful to his mother or father even later in his life. While she listened to his work, she cooked a bread round on her camp stove which she kept on her porch, her new makeshift kitchen. She would heat the bean soup as well. She hadn’t been camping since she purchased the stove several years ago ahead of an anticipated category 3 hurricane. She and her family had lived through Hurricane Charley but had been weeks without power. She had a fear of a return to that helpless sense. And now, Isla depended on her. Her father would be proud, that she was surviving. She only ever wished she had as much faith.

Isla’s father had left to find his parents, to help them, and he had not returned. In the distance in the direction of the theme parks where Janneth had worked as a creative director, a dark cloud of smoke plumed out over the trees, obscuring the stars. Something in the pit of her stomach warned her it was time to leave. Weeks before, there had been talk on the internet of people fleeing further north, into Canada. It would not be safe here much longer for those who did not have a bunker and an endless supply of resources and weapons.

She held Isla on one hip and with her other arm, lifted the pot of soup and the warm bread. Guntar was bending intently over some project when she approached. She tried to make her presence obvious so he wouldn’t be startled. To her, his truck looked like it could go anywhere. Most days, he had parked it in the lot where it sat unabashedly caked with mud. Now, it couldn’t look more appropriate.

She hoped to appeal to some sense of a protector instinct. When she asked him what his plans were, having laid the fragrant food offering beside his bent knee, he seemed willing enough to share that he was leaving, traveling farther north and over the border.

I think that is very wise, she said.

Next day, she was glad she had added the last of the whiskey flavored coffee to the bean soup for he softly knocked on her door.

Do you need a ride? he said.

And she tried to hide her brimming eyes as she turned to let him in.

White Sauce

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hibachi by Alex Dodd, flickr

Today, on my way home from my booster shot on the other side of town, I drove by a sushi restaurant where I used to pick up food for a man I dated. I would get food for his family on my way over to his house. It was their favorite place, and the order was always the same: hibachi chicken or steak with lots of noodles. They used to like the “white sauce” on their marinated meats and noodles. They used it until everything was drowning in it.

The man was nice enough, but he had issues, like the kind where humor escaped him, but he tried out comedic material he had observed from television: comedy trope-type bits. It never went well. And all I felt was pain. Inside. Like, what am I doing? My therapist used to tell me in my midlife dating, I seemed to pick men I could feel superior to. What exactly was she saying? I think I knew, but I don’t really want to know: I was a bitch.

He was fairly successful as in having a job only someone with a master’s could have. So who was I? And he drove a big red Chrysler. And he supported and raised two daughters. And he took me to New York. Still, all those cups of white sauce. All those poor jokes. (Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.)

It was the beginning of the end when he started snubbing me, failing to invite me to his office Christmas party. It was also the beginning of the end when I saw him observing his daughter once. I couldn’t quite make out the nature of the gaze. I had my limitations too. I found it unsettling, but I was also prone to an overactive imagination. So I have been told.

He took me with his daughters to help the oldest pick out a dress for her prom. She admitted to me in the dressing room that her father had never provided her with the means to buy a bra. At the department store, I had her father buy her one. And I had her father buy her a beautiful dress, maybe more “adult” than he had planned to, but it was totally appropriate given her age. The next day, I gave her a purse and dress sandals from my closet. For Christmas, I gave her younger sister a flattening iron, hair products, and lessons from my hairdresser. If this was going downhill, I was going all out.

A fatal blow came when he told me his daughter had pretended to be a “gangster” and had laid the Chrysler passenger seatback to almost fully reclined. Something odd. What female had been sitting/lying there? What had happened in the driveway in the car? The rushed, unsolicited explanation was suspect.

I don’t remember how it ended exactly. But I burned my bridge when it was over, making use of some of my suspicions and questions in a thinly disguised fiction which I posted it in an obscure place online. Still, we were social media followers of each other and so he shot me an angry email. I replied that no one would know who I was talking about if anyone even read it in the first place. I had not used names. And none of my friends had even met him, not to mention family. But for sure I had been a bitch. I told him that for him, I would do something I never do for someone else: take down a story. I was still being a bitch. Apparently, it never ends.

It pained me to drive over to that end of town tonight, a place of such reminders. But I needed a booster shot to stay ahead of a mutating virus. So much of my licentious, post-divorce-angry-bad-decision-life lies to the north of me where white sauce is slathered on dishes for obese Americans.

For a while, I had thought I liked being with his family. With everyone I dated, I tried hard to figure out the picture with me in it. How would I feel? What role would I play? Would I be happy? In the long run, I could never form a picture. Maybe I was just play-acting. I was lost.

He probably knew I patronized him. He was smart enough to know that.

I hope those girls are ok.

Last night I had a dream of a man who caught me observing wedding preparations I wasn’t invited to. Somehow, the washing of long strands of hair to be woven into a horse’s mane was a ritual that was involved. If everyone in the preparation party participated, the mane would have been washed a thousand times, some sort of symbolic number. We were seated in a kind of a rotunda, a place of worship. The man was about to “turn me in” for being an interloper but said to me I seemed to be so curious, I might as well have been a part of the ritual. He invited me to go with him and his two boys to lunch. Although I was supposed to meet my sister, I said yes. I figured that somehow, it would all play out.

When I woke, I felt rested. But I don’t know what it is supposed to mean. I am still in a dark wood in the middle of my life.

The perils of risk

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Reflection of Figures on Small Bridge, Arne Halvorsen, flickr

I have been bragging about how I have been submitting to journals the last couple of weeks. But then again, I’m experiencing how hard it is to submit to journals for any length of time and pursue it conscientiously. I used to send stories out scattershot, more or less, not because I wanted to waste anyone’s time, but because I really didn’t know how to discern which stories would match with which markets. Or, I just didn’t want to feel too much. I could always blame rejection on my ignorance and so I wouldn’t have to feel as bad.

I know more now. And the possibilities don’t look as plentiful; and my voice, range, and writing interests have narrowed. I am glad I know myself more as a writer, that I have “found” my voice and the scope of my style and genre, but this sometimes makes me feel more limited in terms of direction and choices.

I have also been trying to figure out how I might package and promote a collection of dark microfiction, how I might find a possible publisher. Hopefully, there’s a market that would be interested in my particular, and peculiar, collection. At a time when I had more money and the world wasn’t what it is now, I would fly to attend conferences to discover markets and publishers.

Over the years, I have changed in my writing and thoughts about writing, as well as what I value as a person. When I was a newer writer, the world was almost overwhelming because I was stymied by seemingly endless choices and I wasn’t as sure what direction would feel most natural. After I have made a number of choices and made my way down a path, the way has started to seem more predestined. I’m not sure all my choices have left me with the best possibilities. And it’s not cool in America to talk about limitations, but these could also be coming into play.

But, I’m going to be ok for now with living my life and doing the best I can with what I have and staying off of social media when those little feelings of inadequacy come haunting.

The Humans

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The Humans is a dark, atmospheric movie, a tale of unease, about three generations who gather together in a pre-war Manhattan apartment for a holiday meal. Though it is billed as a horror-comedy, it doesn’t quite match this description. There is lightness at times, but only in relation to the more interior and pain-filled moments portrayed by increasingly claustrophobic scenes. I didn’t know what this movie was at first but became spellbound with each new shot—almost like a dark modern art piece—and each new turn in the story. Part of what captivated me is the way sound is used—the muted effect of conversations and the occasional silence as well as the disturbing noises of a very old building. It is all a slow burn. I feel the idea of it—the realities it portrays—is very “now” though it is timeless as well—the darkness, the starkness of a contingent existence, a yearning for hope, light, and connection. Amy Schumer does a magnificent job in this dramatic role. The cast is stellar. I highly recommend it.

Streaming on Amazon Prime

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes

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I love writing seasonal fiction. But even more than this, I love reading seasonal fiction. This novella is set in the snowy and haunted landscape of Europe’s Black Forest during the time between Christmas and Epiphany. A man returns to his childhood home to figure out what has become of his estranged brother, rumored to have fallen into a depression after the death of his wife. It is a beautiful immersion into the natural world and an exploration of mystery, storytelling, and tradition.

More about Hoppin’ John

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This is a wonderful presentation of the Southern tradition of Hoppin’ John at New Year’s—its history and the dish’s components. And when you eat leftovers the following day, it’s called Skippin’ Jenny and stands for extra good luck because it shows you are thrifty and don’t want to waste what you have. Whatever your food traditions, may your new year find new opportunities for exploration and community. —Margaret

Happy 2022!

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Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Happy New Year! I’ve decided to start the first weekend of the year by submitting fiction to literary journals. Since mid-December, I’ve submitted eight stories to eight journals. May we all turn a productive new leaf past the pandemic mayhem! Be well. —Margaret

New Year’s Eve

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What are you up to? I’m enjoying a Guinness and cooking up some Hoppin’ John, that southern New Year’s tradition. I hope mine turns out. I’m not used to soaking black-eyed peas. The few times I’ve made it, I’ve used canned. Also, I bought a ham hock, which is new for me. I need all this for good luck! If I bomb, I will be desperately tracking the dish or a can of peas down tomorrow, lols. Be well. And Happy New Year. —Margaret

Update: It’s made, and it’s a success! Yay!

hoppin’ John by Jen R, flickr

The Beautiful Game (900 words) — Slumdog Soldier

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My father, who is now a retired minister, frequently incorporated this story into his sermons. It is beautifully told by this blogger. I know my father would love this post. You can read more about my father here. He wrote a wonderful book about the Biblical figure of Joseph, tying in his own history and the history of our family. He and my mother, a former English teacher, gave me a love of language. I wouldn’t be writing my stories and publishing pieces on my blog were it not for their influence on my life. I encourage you to read the story of my father and his work and follow this amazing blog post. I wish you a holiday of peace and joy, wherever you are. —Margaret

The guns had fallen silent, but soon they would be pounding again, shaking the earth, shaking the rats out of their holes, making the dead tremble out in No Man’s Land. Christmas Day, yet nothing to show for it – no snow, no laughter, no celebration. Nothing to celebrate. Rags of torn clothing hung on […]

The Beautiful Game (900 words) — Slumdog Soldier

my own submission workshop

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Santa’s Workshop by Pierce Place, flickr

Since December 13, I’ve submitted six of my stories to six literary journals, and I’m so excited. The origin of one of the stories dates back to about fifteen years ago, though it has evolved over time. Other stories are more recent. I used to submit stories to several journals on the first pass, but these days I try to be more targeted and really try to figure out which journals would be best suited for my work. I have become braver about submitting work. And although rejection stings a little, self-acceptance and a can-do attitude cover a multitude of woe-is-me’s.

Maybe I’ll settle down for my long winter’s nap, but this is good work for now.

White dragon

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A woman kept a dragon in her closet. In the summer, it was a deep charcoal and in winter, it turned white as snow, like a polar bear. The dragon curled up at the foot of the woman’s bed at night and kept her feet warm with its breath and during the day in winter it roasted chestnuts with its fire so that the woman could make pies and cookies for the children. If a child came by during the day and she and the dragon had just roasted a chestnut, the woman would crack the nut open with her mouth and hand the pulp to the child. She would put a finger up to her mouth and say “shhhh.” Children who told people the woman had a dragon wouldn’t get a chestnut or a ride on the dragon at Christmas and the woman would always know if the children told. The children were a little afraid of the woman, but they were fascinated by the dragon and would do anything to stay in her good graces. One Christmas, Luka fell of the dragon’s back when it came time for his holiday ride, and that’s when they knew Luka had told, that he had been bad, and that he would have to wait another year for a ride. Lucy rode this Christmas on the dragon with Ms. Nettie, the old woman. They rode over Lucy’s old neighborhood where her father still lived, but with his new family. Ms. Nettie knew what this was about without the child speaking a word. When they got home, Ms. Nettie pressed a gold coin into the child’s palm and told her to keep it forever. Lucy hugged the old woman who smelled of burnt things. That night, Ms. Nettie put a blessing on the coin and the dragon lit a candle for her.

happy writer, happy life

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Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

Sometimes I feel caught between my best interests as a writer and my needs as a person, especially during this shifting scene of our pandemic and the resultant isolation and lack of community. For example, I find it helps me to share what I have written on my blog. It helps me feel less isolated. Sometimes I may even be fortunate enough to get a comment or two. As a writer, I really need this to keep going. It helps me to produce and move forward. After getting some encouragement, I will often, but not always, take a piece down and try to publish it in a journal.

Not all journals will accept a work that has previously been “published” on a blog, however brief its appearance. I understand and respect that. As a former journal editor, I used to have that same policy. However, I have loosened my views about this. That being said, I recently missed out on the chance to have a story appear in a journal because it briefly appeared on my blog. When it came to signing on the bottom line, I checked with the editor regarding their policy, and sure enough, the piece was ineligible for publication with this particular journal.

Writers have to sometimes do what they need to do to keep the synapses firing. At times, this is the larger concern. Pay for publication is rarely beyond token for short fiction, for example, and in the tradeoff for the psychological gains of an audience, however tenuous that support, I often err on the side of doing what feels best in the moment. I pray for venues that might like what I’ve written and not mind its archived history on some obscure patch of the interweb, a history that will be close to obsolete in a few months’ time after I have deleted my blogpost.

It is a tradeoff, but I do understand editors’ perspectives on this.

Still, the larger value for me at present is happiness.

Home for Christmas

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This is the extent of my Christmas decor this year. On the table beside my chair is a Henry James collection, including one of my favorite stories: “The Turn of the Screw” The Victorians used to share ghost stories around the fire on Christmas. That is the frame for the story within the story in James’s masterpiece. I think that people yearn for meaning over the holidays, especially in these years of our global pandemic, and that is why stories we find in movies and books; houses of worship; and gatherings with friends and family bring such comfort. Be well and reach for a story. —Margaret

Minari

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Photo by Kent Pilcher on Unsplash

Tonight I watched an excellent film called Minari. It is about a Korean American family who moves out to Arkansas to farm and start a new life. I spent part of my childhood in Arkansas. There were farmers in my father’s congregation who endured some of the hardships depicted in the film. This was a unique take. I loved it.

Christmas stockings

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Gay Parisienne Barbie Roberts, Jim Cardosi, flickr

One year, a woman decided to splurge on some expensive silk thigh-highs for the office Christmas party. They looked great with a dress she had bought in New York, one she thought would be classic enough to outlast the whims of fashion. Sure enough, she was a hottie and caught some attention, but she snagged them on a corner of a filing cabinet and had to throw the stockings away when she got home.

The next year at Christmas, the same woman thought it would be nice to splurge on a pair of expensive thigh highs for the party that would be held at the office. The lace bands gripped well and she found a garter belt in her drawer that looked great. Her boss noticed how hot she looked and rubbed his hand along her leg when she was sitting on a desk, drinking. She slipped and snagged the stockings on a drawer. The next morning, she threw the stockings away as well as some things she found in her apartment – a couple of cigars, a kerchief.

The next year, the same woman wanted to do add something to her Christmas party dress that would make her feel sexy. Overworked and overscheduled, she’d been feeling more rat than woman. She took a bath before the party, drank champagne, and put on these great silk thigh highs. Why hadn’t she thought of these before? When she got to the party, she was so drummed up she hit on a young male intern. When she went into the office the next day, still in her thigh highs, there was a note on her desk from her boss, telling her what she’d done was most inappropriate. “This is a warning,” the note said. When she looked down, she saw a huge runner in her stockings, starting at the knee.

The next year, the same woman saw these thigh highs on sale. In a kind of mad frenzy, she gathered up as many as she could carry and took them to the register. The saleswoman gave her a little smile, just a slight upturning of the lips. “This is a great price,” said the woman, ringing up the stockings. She agreed and tried to ignore what the saleswoman might be insinuating. She could wear whatever stockings she wanted for whatever reason. That night, for the party, the woman decided to stuff extra stockings into her purse. Sometimes these silk stockings tend to snag, or at least she’d heard, and she was intent on being more polished about her look these days though she wasn’t about to stoop to nylon, at least not for the office Christmas party. She also remained sober. She had filed the warning the previous year among her pay stubs and came across it from time to time. She went home with all of her stockings intact and put them away neatly in her drawer the next day.

This woman became so particular about silk stockings, especially the kind that come up to the thigh, that she put it in her will that she be buried wearing this particular kind of hosiery. When she had passed, her daughter brought to the mortician the stockings her mother had requested for her coffin attire. The mortician was a friend of this woman’s daughter and was surprised the woman had worn thigh highs while alive and wanted to don them while dead. She was a crusty old broad. Plus, the stockings themselves were incredibly expensive as was obvious from the feel of them, their quality, the packaging. The mortician slipped off the stockings she was wearing and slipped on the woman’s stockings and garter. The lace gripped her thighs and her legs felt great. She put her own stockings on the corpse and wheeled it into cold storage. She called her boyfriend and they snagged the dead woman’s stockings all over the place.

Friday’s Freddie Freeloader

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I’m considering crossing town tomorrow night for a little jazz education at an Asian fusion restaurant/lounge. A musician will be teaching some insights to some wannabe jazz cat groupies lol. I’ll play it by ear. In the meantime, there is Freddie. And Miles.

To keep the Freddie mood going, try out the Freddie Freeloader list on youtube. Primo.

Day 30: Write a story where the impossible is now possible “Man Dog”

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Chris vT, flickr

When I took command of my dog in the presence of men is when I knew I had turned a corner, when I rejected the men who didn’t understand dogs, worship dogs like I did, men who tried to be the alpha to my dog which was easy to do with my small submissive fluffy she-dog. Some men were weird, would treat her like she was their very own bitch. My little darling died of heart failure and after a period of grief, I began to take my vitamins and sharpen my nails. I got me a man dog. Muscled haunches, shoulders, and jaws, bite up to 743 pound-force per square inch, power on a choke collar, loyal to the death, command ready. I loved this dog as much as any other but in a different way. He required I command respect. He required I show who’s boss. Further, he would brook no suitor’s disrespect toward me, not even a hint. That low, rumbling thunder growl was my built-in red flag. The moment Joe shambled into my life, held his hand upside down for Brutus to sniff and approach unthreatened was the moment my life clicked into place.

Day 28: Photo prompt “Detritus”

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(I adapted this from an earlier post – September 2017. I composed it a year or two earlier at a flash fiction workshop at The Milk Bar in Orlando. The Milk Bar prompt was something like “tell a story from the point of view of an object.”)

We are what is left when everything from the accident is carried away – the driver, the smashed car, the branches from the bush that crumpled thin metal. We are the detritus, the pieces, the bits – the piece of reflector, the broken glass of the windshield, the broken cross dangling from the rearview.

The bush the car crashed into was as crushed as the car’s frame. The conclusion of the police was that the young man was drunk.

But we know it was a deer. He swerved to avoid a deer. But he died. The deer lived.

The mother who came to collect pieces of us the day after had it right, and this is what she told the police, that her son had swerved to avoid an animal. The police said his intoxication level had been a more solid forensic indicator. But the boy loved animals, she said to them, and later, she told it to the ground, she told it to the bits of debris.

We are a reflection of stars and lost dreams and yet should we be able to tell the story of that lonely boy riding through the night in the city of lakes at Christmas, we would tell the truth only a mother’s heart knows: The purity of her son’s heart, that, drunk though he was, he was responsive to the natural world even in a city like ours where people careen around lakes without their licenses because of last year’s DUI, believing they can save the world despite themselves. The law does not allow for the best of what someone could possibly be but more often what is the worst.

Post-holiday blues with Willie Nelson

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When I have to say goodbye to family these days, I get a little emotional. This takes various forms. After family departed from my little place on Thanksgiving Day, I did some binge-watching of series on Hulu and Amazon. I have now moved on to movies and music. To help salve the wound, I am going back to my birth state, Texas, the early ’80s, kicked off with the stripped-down noir masterpiece Blood Simple starring Frances McDormand. I had seen it before several years ago but was not attending to its quiet power. Especially now, so many movies rely on non-diegetic sound and special effects to move and inform the viewer. This one lets the viewer fill in all the blanks, much like excellent minimalistic fiction. I think this film captures the essence of the state. And nothing else says a type of sound and aesthetic from the region and time period like Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.”

Day 25: Why I am grateful

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Dining room mirror by James Petts, flickr

On Thanksgiving, I sit in my room after my guests have gone, a room darkened by the dying day. From my bed, I can see my grandmother’s Audubon Society print of blue hummingbirds. It is cream-colored and blends with my walls except for the mat and gold beaded frame. If you were here, I could show you the shadow created by the white lights in a wreath on my secretary desk, a wreath placed around a tall cream vase. I like the way the shadows create a frame around the frame of my grandmother’s Audubon society print.

When I open my bedroom door and step into the family room, I am grateful I can still smell the huge feast my son and I made in the adjoining kitchen and hear echoes of the laughter of my company over prosecco and my sister’s dessert. I am grateful for the items I have managed to bring with me to furnish this place, items that create meaning, items everyone can enjoy such as furniture to sit upon and tables for plates and wine, items that are pleasing to the eyes and spirit.

But for now, in the silence and the dark illuminated by tiny lights, I am grateful to write about things as tiny as shadows, for the gift of tiny things, for the things we need to live and fight, for small instances of beauty, for signs of life—joy, and even pain.

Day 24: Earliest Memory “Barbie”

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Barbie__08 by Marina Côrte-Real, flickr

Barbie—lady boobies, blond hair, pointy toes. I held her by the waist in the room with the spindle bed, the room in the dark church manse in Texas, the home my new mother and father had prepared for us. Barbies were our first gift. That early memory began my years-long obsession of hoarding my dollar-a-week allowance in order to purchase my tiny blond god raiment. Her richer patrons—my parents—provided a bicycle, a convertible, Ken, a working shower, a pool, a dream townhome. When I dressed as a Kilgore Rangerette with my younger sister, complete with white boots and a broad brim hat, it was Barbie I hoped would approve. Barbie. Barbie. Barbie. My preacher father did not grasp the extent of my idolatry, but he was not the kind of father to deprive his children of their obsessions.

Day 23: A naked man walks into a bank “Brother”

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photoshop experiment, Aziza K., flickr

On Thanksgiving, a picture of a young man’s face popped up on the news. My breath caught. It was the same young man who had stood out in the freezing cold last year on an Orlando Christmas Eve, trying to flag down a ride. The buses had stopped running for the holiday. When I see his face on the news, I remember how much he resembled my late brother, in height, stance, and mannerisms. My brother had died Christmas Eve twenty-five years before on a late-night, careening around one of the lakes where many had died. It had nearly killed my mother.

That night we were driving home, I begged my husband to give him a ride. We had our baby in the car as well as my elderly mother-in-law. It was a huge risk, but I couldn’t take leaving this guy outside in these conditions.

The young man was on the news for walking into a bank, naked. When I saw his face, I thought: Some mother’s heart is breaking.

My husband took me aside as I served our guests. What is wrong? he said. I could tell he didn’t see what I saw, didn’t remember this young man who had appeared on the news we always watched while we drank our morning coffee. I hadn’t said anything. He had barely tolerated the risk I took with our family and I didn’t want to dredge it up again.

The young man’s face, that fragile face, penetrating blue eyes, so much like my brother.

For years, my mother had been unable to enjoy holidays. She now convalesces in a memory care home.

I made it through Thanksgiving meal but let my guests help themselves to dessert and the way to the door.

I rocked my child to sleep, savoring his warm cheek on my chest.

I closed the door to my bedroom and wrote a story for my brother.

Day 20: A story where there is the smell of smoke. “Tiny Thanksgiving”

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Cypress Tree by Roan Fourie, flickr

Every year, the Tiny family celebrated Thanksgiving in their cypress tree home along Shingle Creek, headwaters to the Everglades. There was Pa and Ma Tiny; Granny and Pappy Tiny; sisters Shushu, Mimi, and Darla; brothers Dale, Kyle, and Earle; babies Junior, Sarah, and Taylor. The guys played tiny palm bark banjos and doled out the blueberry mash they had fermented while the ladies cooked a mess of mushrooms in their tiny stone stove, the tiny stream of smoke wending its way to the rafters of the aged hollowed-out cypress. Every year, it was a feast around the cypress bark table kicked off by Pappy’s long prayer thanking the god they knew existed by the mere fact of their survival—how else to explain it? Pappy was usually a bit tipsy even at this point, having savored too many acorn cups of the mash and Granny would often have to lay him down in their Spanish moss bed, saving him a plate for later. The Tiny family didn’t take much for granted. Stories and love filled their home.

Margaret on Medium

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Face in the Sky by Shane Taremi, flickr

Hi. Do you read stories on Medium? Do you write and post them? I just got started.

Here is a piece of writing you may recognize from my blog in case you want to check it out and maybe even follow me. I published another piece several months ago.

I love learning new things and would love it if you followed me there.

I hope you’re having a good Friday night! —Margaret

Day 19: Write a life story in three separate scenes involving hair. 

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I have learned a few things by being someone with hair. Hair can help you win and it can cause you to lose—affections, jobs, confidence. It can help you lie and it can betray you. By its presence or absence, color or cut, it can reveal others’ true feelings and motives towards you. My hair is not part of my body, it’s a chameleon, an animal that shows by its changing nature what life is.

When I was young, my mother loved to fix my tow-headed hair, pulling the sides up into a yarn bow—red, yellow, white, blue—depending on the season, depending on my outfit. Although I was adopted my hair when I was young was the same color as my parents’ hair and matched their hopes, though when I grew up and it darkened, I had to dye it to stay in line with what they wanted for me. It was what good young women did. It was what my mother did and I would fall along her path. I had beautiful, light hair and married well.

The year after my divorce, I had to get a buzz cut from my favorite hairdresser. Chemo was causing hair to fall on my shoulders in places like the grocery. Although I had always been very vain about my hair, and it was still shoulder length and blond, it was thinning and falling out because of treatment. I began to think about those poor people in the grocery. What if my hair fell on their food? I sat with my sister in my hairdresser’s living room and we held hands as my head made its debut as an egg.

After treatment, I eventually shed wigs, not being able to take the itchiness in the Florida heat. I read my creative work in a museum downtown with some friends. I dressed up for the reading, but so much of what I had considered “me” had been shed and now, it was penciled in eyebrows and short dark hair, just as short as a pixie if not shorter. “What happened to your hair?” The organizer said, aghast, not realizing that the long blond hair I wore to the last reading was a wig. And that’s when I knew: You have to learn to love yourself no matter what you look like. Some people prefer people pressed from molds.

I thank my chameleon hair. She has always been wiser than I have been. I know so much more because I have had hair, no hair, worn other people’s hair. I could never have done it without her though I must say, I have experienced some pain in her lessons. No pain, no gain as they say.

Day 18: Why my nose is bleeding “high anti-social functioning”

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Mask by Richard Harvey, flickr

What with the sight of one of the receptionists stumbling into my general physician’s office looking tumbled down drunk, her ignoring me at the desk, the other receptionist seeming sweet, apologizing for her colleague, but speaking too softly so I can’t hear, and then asking questions I had long since answered on an intake, and then not hearing my concerns about the lab not having my correct address and I, thinking maybe she can’t hear me because of my mask or the counter-to-ceiling glass partition or because she didn’t like the look of me with my red hello kitty t and my pink puffy headband with my now shorter hair and the leather backpack I sometimes wear on both shoulders and my height being very tall and my frame being reminiscent of my biological grandfather of six foot five descended from full blooded Cherokee, I repeat myself several times and then she turns to her colleague and I know she hasn’t understood a word I have said or she hasn’t listened, and so I semi-lose it in a way that it is not frequent for me, though not quite in a youtube-video-lose-it way, but so that I see her flinch slightly, though the check-out receptionist kinda digs me and maybe that woman drives her nuts too, and what with all of that, and Florida having finally implemented infrastructure measures, and high-speed rail being built but a few miles from my apartment, and at night the ground thundering slightly, and hearing it the first first night I was terrified but then remembered the petition that was being signed, though by that time it was too late, petitions hardly ever mattering anyway, and my busy neighbor overhead this morning whose child is often screaming and running around as early as 6:00 a.m., though this morning she was doing a craft project using a tiny harmer to drive in something placed on the floor, and what with all that I stand in the doctor’s reception, over-warm, my face sweating under my mask and the taste of iron on my tongue—blood.

Day 17: Write a story where something is canceled “Aunt Maureen’s Thanksgiving”

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Underwater Thanksgiving at Rainbow Springs, FL, Florida Memory, flickr

I will miss Thanksgiving at Aunt Mareen’s this year. In a strange turn of events, Covid has wiped out or incapacitated many of the city’s fat Santas and Aunt Mareen has signed up for holiday appearances as Mrs. Claus. She is skinny as a string bean and not super Claus-like we mused as we thought of how to keep her spirit alive at our table. We decided we needed to borrow her plastic pilgrims and Indians for our tablescape to set alongside her favorite solid cranberry jelly with can rings. She sent us selfies of her on the Santa throne at Disney Springs. There was enough room for children to sit beside her on the massive red chair. As a former underwater Weeki Wachee entertainer, she looked right in her element. We were jealous of her little believers. We said they must be spoiled little monsters.

The Perfect Ladies Literary Society

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Experimenting by Jean L, flickr

Ladies, do not show your dark unpleasantness, your unhappy, sardonic droll creative pieces. Pursue art in keeping in your faith that beauty is in what is pleasant and proportionate, not in what is felt or experienced. Don’t you know that in prizes given by organizations such as The Perfect Ladies Literary Society we have criteria in keeping with being perfect literary ladies? Unwieldy desires expressed in unbalanced, unwelcome forms surely will not find favor and will lock you into obscurity and loneliness. Do not indulge in darkness—such as anger and bitterness—and in what is occasionally referred to as “truth.” Don’t even entertain this in your creative studies so that these nasty habits cannot take hold. Let us be charming and beautiful. Cause no discomfort. Instead, let lightness of heart and hand win the day. You will be happy. So will we.

Day 16: Photo prompt “Ms. Myska’s Sweet Love Grams”

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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Every year for Thanksgiving, Ms. Myska loved to give of herself in a way that was wholly singular. However, being a low-key mouse type of person, she sought no fanfare. And because this year, she was without her beloved Queen Annie, her Coton de Toulears, the holiday was threatening to be dreadfully lonely. Ergo, she became prodigious in gifting—gluing little chocolate kisses to her dribbles and drabbles of written thought, and leaving her “sweet love grams” in random places.

Here is the story she decided to duplicate in her own hand this year, leaving copies in coffee shops and bars; neighborhood book exchange boxes and libraries; churches and synagogues; gyms and homeless shelters: “Do not let bitterness build up within you. Let it flow out in your tears, flowing out of you and down and around, becoming lakes and ponds, rivers meeting with the sea and supporting creatures, evaporating and feeding life, becoming rain that quenches fire and thirst, renewing, refreshing, sustaining, gentling.”

Day 14: My first year as a member of the “Michael Smith Club”… (played loose with the membership time)

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Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

I had only been in town a year when I was sent an invitation to the Michael Smith Club. I had no idea what it was, but when Julie found out, she was crushed. Each year, she thought she and her husband would become members but they never received an invite. If anyone deserved membership to anything, it was Julie. She was hilarious, well-read, generous. I was a bit of an introverted milquetoast by comparison, though I suspected it had to do with my husband’s lucrative career. I blew off the invitation, didn’t say anything to my husband. Bitches.

Day 13: Pull a tarot card and use the imagery to write

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Cassadega Spiritualist Camp, Cassadaga, FL by Anthony Rue, flickr

I was riding to Daytona with Mac on his Harley that day we stopped by Cassadaga. We had been dating a couple of months and in that time, his mother had died. In fact, I had met Mac at the hospice center where he and a couple of friends sat beside her bed. She had already passed when I arrived. Looking back, I realized it was quite strange that I thought it might be a sign of support to show up there. It was just too personal a family situation for me, a relative stranger.

And yet, Mac had wanted me to help him plan with the funeral home, choose his mother’s clothing for the casket. I made a lot of strange decisions in those days, fresh out of divorce, fresh out of cancer treatment. I had been too used to over-involvement as a full-time mother and wife. I had been too anxious to please, too desirous of affection.

Our reader at Cassadaga did a three-card reading for me, based on the three figures in the lovers’ card in which the man on the right rules the conscious mind, the woman on the left represents the subconscious, and the angel standing over the two represents who we think we are, who we think God is. The tarot reader asked me what I wanted to know from the cards.

“Is this like talking to God?” I say, knowing my conservative minister father would be devastated by this situation.

“You can think of it like this,” she said.

I say: “I want to know who I am at this moment.”

The Three of Pentacles, Lord of Material Works, was revealed to be upright and at the angel position of the lovers’ card, meaning I am focused on career. The Page of Pentacles was also upright and in the male position of the lovers’ card meaning I am entering a new phase of life, but in the female or subconscious position, The Star was reversed, showing fear.

On the back of Mac’s bike on the way to the beach, I knew I wouldn’t stay with him long. We were both injured children lacking in some adult capacities to love well. But for the moment, I enjoyed the hum of the engine, the heat of the sun. The water would feel good on my feet. Mac had a good smile.

Day 12: Write a story on the theme of resuscitation

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Matthias Lueger, flickr

Pop a .5 mg tablet from the klonopin blisterpack. Let it dissolve on your tongue along with the memory of your panic in the convenience store while your three-year-old son sits in the car – air-conditioned and locked, but still – Baby Ruth or Reese’s? – your mystery disorder having cropped up comorbidly with your move from a three-bedroom two-story Florida cracker house into a temporary two-bedroom apartment, your husband working through the holiday, your father-in-law having drawn a precise map of where every collapsed piece of furniture will be placed, your mother-in-law needing help finding things and on the brink of a migraine, your toddler needing everything, and issues in your marriage eclipsed by events collapsing, falling, descending.

And yet…you are still years from the moment your doctor stops prescribing because of new regulations – only a day-or-two- medication he says, and you have been on a maximum dosage for thirteen years. You are still years before your therapist suggests that as a mother, you are unfit.

Day 11: Give yourself an award and write an acceptance speech “Escapist Artist”

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manikin 2 by Rachel Zurier, flickr

Hello, and good evening. I want to thank you for this Lifetime Achievement Award in Escapism. Had it not been for you and others recognizing in me a strong desire to check out, I would not be standing before you tonight. Looking back, I realize I have probably been lost in a total of over one hundred thousand worlds whether it be dreams, ancient histories, wishful thoughts, overthinking, fantasies, streaming shows, social media, and youtube cat videos. And sure, sometimes I have managed to put my escapist visions on paper in thinly shrouded fictions. In fact, if you will look under your seat tonight, you will find how I have used your life, my perceptions of your life, and my feelings about you in a story. As fellow escapists, we never say whether we like how one of us portrays another of our kind, we just play by the rules and agree it won’t devolve into bloodsport. If you accept my version of you or at least find it interesting, let’s work on a small biopic or I’m good for hire as a ghostwriter. If you’re mad as hell, I’m not here for that sweeties! Cheers!

Day 10: Write a story using 10 sentences of 10 words each “When I was Ten”

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When I was ten, I wore YoYo sandals, Gloria Vanderbilts. Jayne Anne Westerfield taught me the disco line dance. “Are you clicking your teeth to the beat?” she said. I stopped clicking, tried to be cool like Jayne Anne. You were nobody in Arkansas if you couldn’t “Fever” dance. Chad had taught me “Cat Scratch Fever” on my guitar. Karen’s big sister used to drag Cherry Street, something “cool.” But Karen wasn’t cool anymore; her mom was a klepto. No one was as cool and dismissive as Jayne Anne. When I moved to Florida, I realized Arkansas was nowhere.

Day 9: Your character–a bodybuilder–goes on a blind date. During the course of your story, a warning is ignored. “The Sculpted Life”

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I didn’t completely follow the instructions, but I put my story in the general vicinity of a bodybuilder going on a disappointing blind date. Admittedly, I did a little research on the sport of bodybuilding. I loved a documentary narrated by Mickey Rourke called Generation Iron. My main character is based very loosely on one of its wholly singular subjects.

Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

Ever since he saw a picture of the warrior and Ethiopian king Memnon in a book at the public library, he knew his destiny: To be a god. But the path was not straight. There were foster families and even prison. In faith, he grew and sculpted his body, grew his long warrior braids, performed poses in subways, fought his demons and doubts, became an artist, both in his body and in his love songs.

He was desirous of a queen to see him to a Las Vegas Mount Olympus for the title: Mr. Olympia. A trainer friend asked some lady friends for a reference, some ideas. Finally, someone was found. She was gorgeous, his impromptu female matchmaker said, offering a picture. Yes, he concurred, a beauty, as he noted a fall of blond hair, a sleek body, a sweet smile.

The night of the meet, she put him at ease with her smile and infectious laughter. She seemed to like him. He felt himself relax. When their dinner arrived, they took their first bite. And that’s when his insides dissolved, but not in a good way. She chewed her food like the evil half-serpent Echidna who devoured her victims after dragging them down to hell!

To this day, he shivers to think of it. He struggles to put it out of his mind before competition, before the front double bicep, front lat spread, side chest, back double bicep. Perfect love cannot be found in life but in art, he says to himself drawing deep from within to flex. It it is found in muscle upon muscle, note upon note, braid upon braid ad infinitum.

Day 8: Write a story based on your favorite taste or smell, all the better if it has to do with fall: “Memory-essence”

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Photo by Andrei Slobtsov on Unsplash

I need to smell my mother’s perfume. She is losing her memories but I keep them for her and we tell stories, inspired by Shalimar. I love the smell of classic Listerine on my father’s breath, original flavor. I love the tall smell of my son—the outdoors, his running by Tampa Bay, his cutting up, his brilliant smile. I revel in the smell of my sister’s laughter, always so light and beautiful, like her favorite prosecco. I savor a long history with my niece and nephew, the making-cookies-smell when they would stay over. I remember the chocolate orange memory of making them milkshakes and they, along with my son, drank them on our porch, my dog hovering near, our Bouvier des Flanders—he, a black hulk of a goofy dog with his water-logged smell (R.I.P.) I miss the smell of my brother, his blue-eyed smell, his cigarette and beach smell, his surfboard wax smell, the warm cinnamon smell of his love for animals. I love the smell of roses I buy for myself and the honeysuckle smell of the bougainvillea I’ve transplanted around my Florida yard, these hardy plants that miraculously and profusely bloom. My life smells like the days when the devil beats his wife—sunshine mixed with rain. Nothing is better than the smell of rain, even in a hurricane, even when everything is about to blow. You feel yourself the most alive then, even when you could die, be known no more, disappear. When the sun shines during rain, there is the smell is of wet pavement and earth and your face is soaked but you are no longer burning on a hot day.

Day 7: Write a story that takes place entirely on the bus or train when you’re commuting to work “Night Moves”

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Bus Ride by Mark Zilberman, flickr

I had lost my alimony, the pandemic being what it is, the source of my income having passed. I sold everything, including my car, furniture, and almost all possessions. I managed to find night work as a turndown attendant for Hilton. I managed to put a roof over my head, but just. I now qualified for low-income housing.

On my first bus ride into work, I sat near the back, hoping to avoid passengers peopling rows on their return journeys home, their night jobs at Disney and surrounding theme parks.

But then, wouldn’t you know who climbed aboard: a repairman for my former apartment. It was the kind of apartment you had to be wealthy to afford. Tony had become overly friendly during those last few months of my residence. Water had flooded into my hallway and soaked the carpet. He spent as much time flirting as trying to solve an increasingly dire issue. He asked me if I wanted to get a massage with him and went so far as to touch my back.

I pulled up my jacket hood and rang the bell to get off. I had managed to avoid him. One more month to find another job. One more month until eviction.

Day 6: Picture Prompt

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Traffic Jam by Albert Sun, flickr

I will never forget that stretch of road outside of Starke, Florida, as we headed up to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was singing my favorite Alison Krauss song playing on the CD player and our child was in the back. Apropos of nothing, you banged your hand on the wheel, “The sound of your voice, that strained, breathy quality just makes me want to go out of my brain.” And then the silence, the burning shame, the hours of the drive spent thinking how hideous my voice had been all this time when all along I hadn’t really considered it.

FlashNano, Day 2: “A Man with 3 Cats”

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[I am writing this sitting outside a car dealership where I am having an expensive engine diagnostic which could lead to an expensive repair. There are sirens going off, lots of exhaust. This major road is considered a kind of East coast vice alley. And I have never written a story on my phone before. I am determined to have Flashnano adventures. Happy Flashnano day 2 fellow scribes.]

Frankie stroked his pussy, the ginger, while Greta fixed her eyeliner before the gold antique mirror in his retro-styled apartment. She always stopped by before dates to make sure she didn’t look crazy. Or desperate.

He was always cool as a stone sphinx. “You be the judge, not the other way around, honey.” He said, extending his drink out to her, a skinny ‘Rita, and she tripped over the calicos. How did cats always know she hated them? They loved her more for it and wanted to be as physically close as possible.

She slurped down the boozy lime coolness.

“Come back here after,” Frankie said. Actually, that was usually the best part of her night.

When the evening was over and her date had walked her to her car, he wouldn’t allow her to open the door and get inside. Something in his eyes had alarmed her, something dark.

‘Goodbye, Frankie,’ she said quietly.

Nancy Stohlman

Day 2: Write about a man who owns at least three cats

(Thanks to Jean Feingold for today’s guest prompt!)

All 2021 prompts here:

Not already on the FlashNano list? Join us here:

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Creative Community

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Bekk II, Nick Vidal-Hall, flickr

One thing I enjoy about flash fiction writing is that it often involves community.

A few years ago, I joined an online platform for poets and writers. We frequently posted new short pieces and received encouragement and feedback. It was my first time interacting with other writers who, like me, were writing small, concentrated work.

I have also been involved in a flash fiction competition that was held in a public space. Let’s just say, I didn’t win and the handling of the competition was humiliating. In general, writing can be competitive for certain people and in certain settings. That just isn’t me.

But having a short piece to read at a creative event is a great way to participate in sharing with others. Participants often read for five minutes and flash writing fits into this (I use a shorter 250-word piece for a five-minute reading and a one thousand word piece if I have 20-30 minutes.). A meaningful night organized by a friend had some of us reading our stories in an outdoor museum setting. At the end of the night, I got to read a piece with a band playing in the background.

This month, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight 250 word flash fiction competition. Although “competition” is part of the title, the meaningful part for me has been interacting with others—reading their work, giving feedback, receiving feedback.

Next month, I will be involved with Nancy Stohlman’s Flashnano. Some are meeting on social media to share their short pieces and interact. I often meet new people and this has taken on a whole new meaning for me during this season of pandemic.

While public spaces are shuttered to creative gatherings, it has been a relief to find solace among fellow writers online.

FlashNano 2021: Less than one week to go!

Here is something I am following this year and will be participating in as inspired. Perhaps you’d like to join me! Nancy Stohlman is one talented writer who inspires many other writers in the craft. Enjoy your Tuesday—Margaret

Nancy Stohlman

Are you excited yet???

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT!

Since we got SO MANY amazing guest prompt submissions, I’ve decided we are going to celebrate our 10 Year anniversary with a month ofALL GUEST PROMPTS(credited of course) from you, the people who actually make FlashNano what it is. It’s going to be extra amazing!

Not already on the FlashNano list? Join us here:

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Inktober: Trash

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Trashcan by Julien Cole, flickr

Now dogless, unemployed, and frail during the pandemic, Greta found something oddly comforting in the mechanized kitchen trashcan in that it registered her presence. On Halloween, the lid clamped down on her hand and pulled her inside. There was no dog to sound the alarm.

Inktober: Prickly

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10′ Morgan Blacksnake (ca. 2001) – Handle Area, Aldo ZL, flickr

Life as a domme demanded she be prickly. With few other resources, this idea for making money had somehow evolved but humiliating took commitment. When a man begged her to freak him out using his credit card, she was sold.

The Waiting Room

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Closeup view of an old retro clock on white wall. Dejan Krsmanovic. flickr

I want to recommend the documentary The Waiting Room, a cinéma vérité  documentary about an emergency room in a public hospital in Oakland, California. Stories of people living on the financial edge and the dedicated care workers doing their best to provide help are often devastating and heartbreaking. But there are many moments of light and hope, especially embodied by a nurse who does health checks in admissions. She reminds me of a phlebotomist I used to see when I had to go into the hospital for treatment. She always knew where to find a vein, what to say to put me at ease, and how to inject the moment with humor. In The Waiting Room, the ER serves a patient population without insurance, those in danger of slipping through the system. There are stories and scenarios that caused me to tear up. So much of our entertainment can be derivative and deadening. Though this documentary concerns itself with life and death, it is truly alive in the most human sense.

Inktober: Candy

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When her cancer returned, she held an impromptu dance in the cancer center lobby. She blasted Foxy Brown’s “Candy,” giving a special dance tribute to the administrator who tried to charge $1500 before her first treatment. Other patients, bald and hobbled from treatment, shuffled their feet and laughed.

Inktober: Farce

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dollyhaul, flickr

A mental health screening for an appointment required I say how many days of the week I experience each of the following:

I feel down.

I can’t concentrate.

My family is disappointed in me.

I think of suicide.

No one cared, so I said “none.” I was believed (or ignored).

Inktober: Muddy

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Composite made from a bust of a statue and a stained-glass texture that was doubled and transformed. “Lost (in one’s thoughts)” by Wayne S. Grazio, flickr

She had vowed she would do it, end her life today. But she had planned Timmy’s birthday party. She stood in the midst of a party store aisle, her face sweating under her mask. Maybe after her son’s birthday? Tears blurred the colors of the garish decorations. She couldn’t decide.

Dopesick

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Cindy Shebley, flickr

I am watching Dopesick on Hulu, a drama exploring the rise of the opioid crisis. I highly recommend it. It has me remembering the old days of trying to wean myself off Klonopin and the initial cold turkey approach fallout. When I decided to do a search of its relative addictiveness compared to opioids, I found it right up there with the top 9. At one time, I had a blog under a pseudonym where I wrote about my experience. I wish you well on this Thursday, ten days until the eve of All Hallows.

Inktober: Thunder

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Palatka, Florida 1983). From my film archives, digitized. Wayne S. Grazio, flickr

The trees have planned their revolt against a country using them to string up men by the neck until they are dead, the burning cross somewhere nearby or else deep in the heart. It doesn’t take a hurricane to uproot the trees and send them thundering down. It takes injustice.

Inktober: Drained

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Image from page 108 of “Classification of wetlands and deepwater habitats of the United States” (1979), flickr

There was a time before the draining of Florida swampland when giant cypress towered over one hundred feet tall. In the late 19th century, cypress were felled for shingles. Daily I drive over a bridge spanning the headwaters of the Everglades: Shingle Creek. I hear cypress cousins bemoaning lost histories.

NYC Midnight

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Nursery School, National Library of Medicine, flickr

I submitted my 250-word fiction to NYC Midnight, roughly 12 hours ahead of the deadline. I have been assigned to a group of writers who have been given the same parameters of genre, action, and word. Submissions are anonymous. This is all most mysterious. But fun.

 #MicrofictionChallenge250 #writers #flashfiction #writingcompetition #nycmidnight

NYC Midnight

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In four hours, I will receive a prompt that will begin my 24-hour journey in a 250-word writing contest. I am providing the link because there’s still time to register if you are interested. I’ve heard good things and participants get to meet other participants and receive feedback. There are three rounds (ding-ding). Enjoy your Friday.

https://www.nycmidnight.com/

Inktober 2021

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This is an image I have posted a couple of times this October, a list I found of some awesome Inktober prompts on DeviantArt by Lineke-Lijn. I post this once more mid-October in case it inspired some spooky writing, or other types of writing, leading into Halloween.

What I am finding this year is I am inspired to write not simply dark and Halloween-related posts—though I do write dark at times— but also lighter or just neutral posts related to interests, memories, and things happening in my life. I am around to prompt 21, but I have not always taken these in order and I have added in a few of my own, writing something super short I wanted to cover and providing my own title. I think it’s ok to repeat prompts in trying new pieces, exploring different aspects of a theme. Furthermore, I enjoy writing some nonfiction as well as fiction, using whatever research I can pour into tiny writing.

I want to say something that applies to creating in general, but here, for the sake of the tiny piece, relates especially to tiny writing. Take it easy in writing tiny, especially in creating goals like this. Some pieces will feel inspired, and some, well, just what was possible for the energy of that particular day. What is good in tiny writing is being able to look back and lift out the strong moments and add them to a growing body. And maybe there will be moments to recast other not so strong pieces. Forgiveness is huge. Forgive yourself, laugh, say “I tried. I knew what I wanted to say but, well, I can’t tell this reflects my desire.”

Writing something new every day, or several new somethings, requires specific energy, awareness, openness. Sometimes for me, it requires a certain mood. Trying to make a complete 50-word gem can at times be difficult. There is definitely a great deal to be left out. I would say “mystery” plays a large part in all writing but especially so in 50-word writing. If there is something intriguing about creating mysteries, you may enjoy trying your hand, or continuing to do so.

If you have read this post before, what follows will be familiar….

These are prompts for visual artists but I think this particular list is also stellar for writers and here’s why: the nouns are specific and concrete; the verbs are action verbs; the verbal adjectives are equally expressive and action-oriented; the nominal adjectives are precise, concrete. One-word prompts that are abstractions and nonspecific are non-starters.

The kind of prompts listed above translate into powerful sketches and drawings. And I think these give writers that mental picture we need to begin translating an interior vision into the written word. You may think you’re not a screenwriter, but if you want to write powerful fiction, you will think in scenes and images.

If you are interested in an exploration, even if you’re an experienced writer, start jotting down small pieces in a notebook or document. It is highly likely first drafts will go over the fifty-word count that is set in flash fiction writing for Inktober. Over time, as pieces are refined to meet the word count, a wonderful miniature will emerge, conveying the heart of something distinct. The word prompt may be included as a word in the piece or it can simply serve as the inspiration.

Even if you don’t want to write fiction or publish, exercises like this sharpens verbal ability; broadens thinking; enhances problem-solving; and develops voice and self-knowledge. Yours —Margaret

Tips for Writers: Always Tell the Truth, Even When You’re Lying

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Another reblog, some invaluable thoughts about telling the truth in writing.

Mitch Teemley

'Vintage Words' by Thom Milkovic (unsplash.com)
Photo by Thom Milkovic

Most of us are familiar with the Blind Men and the Elephant story. Its point is twofold:

  • No one has a complete picture, even if they were “there in person,” but…
  • Everyone knows what they think happened, and what it meant to them

This is true in both fiction and non-fiction.

True, journalists, as non-fiction writers, are supposed to render facts as objectively as they can. But honest, objective fact-finders know that even after interviewing eyewitnesses (“blind men”) their summary will inevitably fall short of “complete.” Hence, “rioting occurred” is more accurate than “the protest turned into a riot” (did everyone riot? Were there no objectors?). And “many wept” is more accurate than “there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience” (did no one roll their eyes and visit the loo?). There’s no such thing as a complete picture, and so, in essence, there’s no such…

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Inktober: Change

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Inspired by the BBC select documentary The Pregnant Man, Amazon Prime Video

Seahorse by Randall van Gurchom-Colijn, flickr

Respect the woman who became a man who became a woman to carry his wife’s baby and who became a man again. He has lived a thousand dreams of metamorphosis, possibilities curled up inside, waiting for change.

Inktober: Scorched

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last drink by martin.much, flickr

During the Depression, four men took life insurance policies out on drunkard Mike “The Durable.” They poisoned him, froze him, gave him a broken glass sandwich, hit him with a car. Finally, they killed him with carbon monoxide. They were scorched in the electric chair but Mike became a legend.

“News of the World”

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SMU Libraries Digital Collection, Fourth Mission (San Antonio), flickr

Have you seen the movie News of the World? It stars Tom Hanks who plays a Civil War veteran turned itinerant storytelling newsman. He agrees to return an orphan who was taken in by the Kiowa. They travel across Texas and face many dangers.

I loved it. And it would be a good family film. There is violence, but not a crazy amount. The young actress Helena Zengel plays the child and she’s amazing.

It may be that I’m originally a Texan and have considered moving back to Texas, but likely it is the stellar performance of Mr. Hanks and Ms. Zengel and the high production value of the film that makes me really glad I watched this.

Stream on HBO Max with membership.

Inktober: Bottle

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solitary coat rack by Greg Hirson, flickr

Bottle broken my promise to you left the divorce papers on the hall tree your mother’s wedding gift to us to whom was also given a baby a name you used to call me whose life consumed with mid-day drinks, as well as midnight when I see our end.

Inktober: Swollen

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Mouldy tarts by mediamolecule, flickr

Swollen white molded strawberries like victims of Pompeii; forgotten raw brisket for marinating, bloodying the sink; neglected half-dry clothes mildewing the wash—the ghost of your mother tisks from the corner. You bristle. She used to say you thought highly of yourself. Now you know you are no one, nothing.

Influential Women: Sammuramat to Semiramis – From History to Myth

If you love myths, legends, history, folklore, I recommend the blog “Under the Influence.” The latest post is about a queen. It’s fantastic.

“The evolution of Queen Semiramis from Queen Sammuramat provided an example for other female rulers to follow. Her legendary and mythical status was achieved possibly because it was unusual in patriarchal societies for females to be allowed to shine or display their intelligence and talents. According to these traditions, she proved herself to be as good or better than males in her governing abilities, civil building works, and military prowess. This was unusual and may be part of the reason why she was elevated to such status. Her mystique and appeal lasted for centuries after her death and was the inspiration for many works in art and literature…
Over the ages her achievements became embellished and exaggerated and new stories emerged about her. In many ways the little that was known about her added to her mystique and after her death the myths and legends grew. In later times was held as a model for good female rulers who exhibited similar characteristic…such as Margret I of Denmark, and Catherine the Great of Russia who were called Semiramis of the North…”

Under the influence!

Queen Semiramis was a mythical queen who appears in many myths, legends, works of art and literature through the ages. She was was believed to have evolved from a real, historical QueenSammuramat who ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire for a brief period. Here we look briefly what is known of the historical Queen Sammuramat and her transformation to the mythical, semi-divine, Queen Semiramis.

QUEEN SAMMURAMAT

Sammuramat ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century after her husband, King Shamshi-Adad V, died until her young son Adad-nirari III came of age in 806 BC. It is not clear whether she ruled as regent or in some other capacity but it was only believed to have lasted for five years. According to the myths Semiramis ruled for 42 years as queen regnant but it is necessary to separate the historical from the…

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Sleepy bees

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Sleeping bees in a pumpkin flower by Hope Abrams, flickr

I figured out my blogging “bug” that I posted about yesterday. Turns out there was an issue with my not changing the settings. Since I have started engaging in Inktober, more posts appear on my initial page because of how short these posts have been. And so, I needed to increase the count for the number of posts that appear in the feed. So, mea culpa. The bees have the right idea here: Let’s go back to sleep. It is nice to know even lovely bees have a siesta. Enjoy your Saturday.

WordPress what gives

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Kenny P., flickr

I happened to scroll down my posts and noticed quite a few posts are showing up again further down in the posting order. All of these posts should only appear in order at the top of the page as this is how they are designated in my settings. I have so little buzz today, WP. You wouldn’t try to harsh it? If I see a repeat of this darling bug further down in my posts, I may have to wonder if my blog is haunted by ghosts of posts past.

Inktober: Whale

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roundabout by duncan c, flickr

I have two terrible memories of elementary school. One was of poor Leah, large as a whale, falling off the roundabout and all of us flying past, kicking her while she cried. The other was a nightmare around this time of a tiny bird dying because we stoned it.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead”

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Tonight I enjoyed an action/thriller starring Angelina Jolie: Those Who Wish Me Dead (HBO Max). It’s been a stressful week or so, and so this was a great escape. Plus, I learned of a musician whose song plays during the closing credits. I like this song and he has an interesting story. There is violence and cursing during the movie, but older kids may like watching this with their parents. A screening is always recommended, of course. I thought it well done. —Margaret

Inktober 2021

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I found this list of awesome Inktober prompts on DeviantArt by Lineke-Lijn. I posted this initially a couple of weeks ago and wanted to post it again as a reminder and an invitation in case anyone wants to do some October writing.

These are prompts for visual artists but I think this particular list is also stellar for writers and here’s why: the nouns are specific and concrete; the verbs are action verbs; the verbal adjectives are equally expressive and action-oriented; the nominal adjectives are precise, concrete. One-word prompts that are abstractions and nonspecific are non-starters.

The kind of prompts listed above translate into powerful sketches and drawings. And I think these give writers that mental picture we need to begin translating an interior vision into the written word. You may think you’re not a screenwriter, but if you want to write powerful fiction, you will think in scenes and images.

If you are interested in an exploration, even if you’re an experienced writer, start jotting down small pieces in a notebook or document. It is highly likely first drafts will go over the fifty-word count that is set in flash fiction writing for Inktober. Over time, as pieces are refined to meet the word count, a wonderful miniature will emerge, conveying the heart of something distinct. The word prompt may be included as a word in the piece or it can simply serve as the inspiration.

Even if you don’t want to write fiction or publish, exercises like this sharpens verbal ability; broadens thinking; enhances problem-solving; and develops voice and self-knowledge. Yours —Margaret

Genius

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typo…Jim Orsini, flickr

If you love literature and you love to watch movies, I would recommend the movie Genius with Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nichole Kidman, and Laura Linney. Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, a book editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons who edited the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Law plays Thomas Wolfe, the famous writer of Look Homeward, Angel which was also edited by Perkins.

If you watch this movie, be prepared to feel something. Well, I guess I should only speak for myself. I’ve watched it before but I find in revisiting movies during the pandemic, certain movies almost feel new to me. I don’t remember getting as emotional. Our world has changed so much.

Your friend on this Saturday evening. —Margaret

Why are writers so weird?

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Image from page 238 of “Bizarre,” (1914), Lebanon Valley College, flickr

Often the time of the first impulse to write something is the best time to take it down. For me, impulses don’t age well. It is like knowing you love someone but delaying a response to their own love declaration for you—whether your response is a few seconds late or minutes overdue or you are tardy a few days or longer, heaven forbid.

An idea touches down on my noggin and it’s as if it is saying: “Here I am, waiting to bless you.” But then sometimes I think I must say: “I’ve told myself I absolutely must be serious about such and such (insert adult task) and if you would be so obliging as to interrupt me at a more convenient time.” A few hours or days later, I’m ready to rock and roll with my lovely and I’ve lost a sense of the tone, the pitch, the rhythm. It had a real tangible feel and now it’s just a bit of yellowed nostalgia like aged, delicate paper. I can’t connect words to an old feeling. I can’t recapture the mouth feel (Yeah, that’s a food metaphor).

Why is it hard to write and be a normal person? Because it is. I think early clues of my own “abnormality” would be others’ teasing me for often spacing out or being slow to join classmates in learning activities. Surely that was an early form of the waking dreams I was subject to and later pursued as an adult, attempting to capture them in writing. And yet, to write what I hope to write and that is, the things that are most important to my heart, the stories and words that feel most urgent, means I can’t allow myself to get “too old”—allow myself to get stodgy, curmudgeonly, closed. I have to walk around open constantly and willing to take down words on command. I guess the only hindrance would be lack of writing instruments or going under sedation for a procedure. Or of course, driving.

A couple of days ago, I thought of my response to the Inktober prompt “star” (see my earlier posting of Inktober prompts). I had a sense of the sound, the feel of how I wanted to approach it though I said to myself, you know, I want to learn more about meteor showers and where to watch them. This little research made me even more excited about the prompt. But instead of marrying my feeling and early sense of sound together with my research, I left my love alone to pursue some chores.

What I have now is alright, but it wasn’t what I intended. But this often happens. We live in the world. The world won’t stop for us to write and then carry on once we decide to engage in the world again. Then again, our beloved conception of an idea won’t always be present for us in the same way it was initially, though she is often present for a competent dance or two. This has been my experience. It is both thrilling and frustrating, just like love.

Playing Musical Vases – Sobek’s Tears — The Alchemist’s Studio

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A note from yours truly: One thing I love about WordPress is witnessing beautiful art and writing by people I follow. The memory of this work and the story that accompanies it has stayed with me this past couple of weeks and I thought I would share it. I hope you will check out this blog.—Margaret

Gotta song that you think goes with one of our vases? We invite you to add yours in the comments!

Playing Musical Vases – Sobek’s Tears — The Alchemist’s Studio

lil’ ole me

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How are you this Friday night? I keep hearing this song. I heard Peggy Lee’s cover in the soundtrack for the movie The Savages with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. Peggy Lee’s cover is beautiful, heartfelt, and pristine. And The Savages is a great movie. I’m in the middle of Reds (all three hours of it) starring Diane Keaton, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and others. Keaton sings this beautifully.

But I like this homespun cover. I’ve always thought it would be great to learn the ukulele. I looked at them when I was last in a guitar shop, which was ages ago, certainly pre-pandemic. I have long since neglected my guitar, so why not take up with another instrument. This is just the kind of song I would like to learn.

This singer gives it lots of heart and character. It seems just the right style for the lyrics. The sheet music was published in 1894. The composer was W.H. Petri and the lyricist was Philip Wingate. A cursory search on Google reveals that this was commonly sung by grandmothers in the early 1900s.

Blessings and Peace —Margaret

Inktober: Breakable

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matthias lueger, flickr

There was a sadness in Aunt Mary after they gave her the medications. Last fall, I had never seen her happier. She was to fly to Jamaica to marry her fiancé. Turns out, that was all a delusion.

“Why did they do that?” I asked Mama.

“I don’t know, baby.”

Conrad Aiken’s “House of Dust,” part V

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Winter is hear by Morten Siebuhr, flickr

The House of Dust: A symphony by Conrad Aiken

V.

The snow floats down upon us, mingled with rain . . .
     It eddies around pale lilac lamps, and falls
     Down golden-windowed walls.
     We were all born of flesh, in a flare of pain,
     We do not remember the red roots whence we rose,
     But we know that we rose and walked, that after a while
     We shall lie down again.

     The snow floats down upon us, we turn, we turn,
     Through gorges filled with light we sound and flow . . .
     One is struck down and hurt, we crowd about him,
     We bear him away, gaze after his listless body;
     But whether he lives or dies we do not know.

     One of us sings in the street, and we listen to him;
     The words ring over us like vague bells of sorrow.
     He sings of a house he lived in long ago.
     It is strange; this house of dust was the house I lived in;
     The house you lived in, the house that all of us know.
     And coiling slowly about him, and laughing at him,
     And throwing him pennies, we bear away
     A mournful echo of other times and places,
     And follow a dream . . . a dream that will not stay.

     Down long broad flights of lamplit stairs we flow;
     Noisy, in scattered waves, crowding and shouting;
     In broken slow cascades.
     The gardens extend before us . . .  We spread out swiftly;
     Trees are above us, and darkness.  The canyon fades . . .

     And we recall, with a gleaming stab of sadness,
     Vaguely and incoherently, some dream
     Of a world we came from, a world of sun-blue hills . . .
     A black wood whispers around us, green eyes gleam;
     Someone cries in the forest, and someone kills.

     We flow to the east, to the white-lined shivering sea;
     We reach to the west, where the whirling sun went down;
     We close our eyes to music in bright cafes.
     We diverge from clamorous streets to streets that are silent.
     We loaf where the wind-spilled fountain plays.

     And, growing tired, we turn aside at last,
     Remember our secret selves, seek out our towers,
     Lay weary hands on the banisters, and climb;
     Climbing, each, to his little four-square dream
     Of love or lust or beauty or death or crime.

Surreal Friends

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Leonora Carrington & Leonor Fini, bswise, flickr

I am visiting once more Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, a novel narrated by the fictional 92-year-old Marian Leatherby who, early in the novel oft quotes her friend Carmella: “One can never trust people under seventy and over seventy.” There are early opinions of antimacassars, a description of collecting and spinning cat hair for a sweater, and an expression of love for her crone beard which she finds rather “gallant” though she notes the “more conventional” would find it “repulsive.” And of course, there is the the hearing trumpet, a gift from her friend Carmella. It is encrusted with silver and mother-of-pearl and shaped like a buffalo’s horn. The instrument will empower her hearing to bionic proportions, apparently.

Find me a narrative or a comedian that will make me laugh, even in tough times, and I will be forever hooked. Leonora Carrington was a British-born surrealist artist and writer who lived in Mexico City most of her adult life, beginning in the 1940s. I used to have an art book (Surreal Friends) with her work included, along with two other surrealist artists in exile in Mexico in the 40s—Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. I was needing cash and had to sell a couple of art books, and alas, this tome was able to fetch me more than any other. But it was a beautiful book.

Even more precious to me is Carrington’s beloved novel from the publisher Exact Change The Hearing Trumpet which, if memory serves, was recommended me by my first writing teacher and friend over twenty years ago. The narrator turns the world upside down, shakes down its pockets, and admires the paper clip and the dime and the bunched up lint that falls out. It is subversive in that it refuses standard issue readerly expectations and novelistic conventions; it subverts capitalistic, materialistic values; it questions normative views so often adopted even in art and literature, but especially in a consumer society.

It delights: You think you know what this character is about and then, in the next sentence, you have no idea. She defies your expectation, and in fact, any preconceived expectation at all. Despite what judgements our world and our literature would commonly impose on such “characters,” Carrington constantly offers up a world that is more exciting, more imaginative, more full of possibility and less limited, less limiting.

I hope to successfully revise and find a home for a story of a woman who has a rich inner life as well as an active and rich imaginative life though she is trapped by the ravages of age. She can’t even speak, but she travels in memory, interacts with a ghost friend, imaginatively reinterprets a relative as a fairy tale character. I was perhaps remembering some of Carrington when I wrote the story, though I was also remembering a story by Lars Gustafsson, and likely stories by my first writing teacher as well as writers such as Janet Frame.

No matter what is happening in real time, we can live and create in an alternate reality, perhaps one that causes us to examine ourselves, what we value, who we value. A subversive vision can be mild and couched in humor but it upends the world.

Inktober: Frog

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Chocolate Frog by Jehane, flickr

Terramae makes peanut butter chocolate frogs for trick or treaters, but her boyfriend, a chef, uses them for a mole. She yells at him and he says “I wish you would just smoke one big doobie.” She makes a huge batch of frog edibles for his staff. Everyone gets fired.

The little Prince

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Cherub, A clay cherub by Garret Nuzzo-Jones, flickr

There is a light in the world for a little Prince and we, the children who have died at the hands of our caretakers, see it at night from where we reside. We are the Realm of the Comforters. We are a ragged crew, deformed, still, from our injuries but beauty in the afterlife is not the beauty that is prized in life. We wear our raggedness like battle scars. It grants us a certain power: The power to empathize, the impetus to act, the motivation to bring justice to children on earth.

Baby Prince was drowned by his very own father. A distraught mother and an angel detective helped solve the crime and and put the father away, but of course, this was not enough to save the child. The dear one came into our world choking and screaming, for children who have been killed at the hands of those who are tasked to love them are in a certain kind of confused state. Our Book of Souls states it is natural for a child to love a caretaker beyond all reason for love is the first rule. And yet, confusion and anger exist in that love and serve to render the child inconsolable.

We found the child in his crib sitting up, wailing, though he had already died. In our Book, we are allowed to comfort the newly deceased but only to bring them rest until they are discovered. It was likely no one heard him die for he had been held under water. After this heinous act, his father had placed him in his crib so that he could “discover” him and cash in on an insurance policy.

We suspended ourselves from the ceiling in the nursery, reaching down in unison to the child in the crib to form a small basket nest, a cradle for rocking, a place over his bed. We sung of babies finding sleep in trees in leaves with birds chirping, a place to safely rock and dream. Gradually, he was comforted, and slept, and we slipped him onto his blanket. The next few nights, a beam of light followed him from his room to the hospital and to his little grave, and at night we visited the grave until he joined us in our Realm, to be mothered and comforted, to play among us, to be our little Prince.

Double

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Earthbound Souls by matthias lueger, flickr

A fit and successful man, Ryan loves his mom, but feels sorry for her too, in the way that only newly minted adults will sometimes feel sorry their older relatives, particularly those closest to them, well ok, admittedly, in the way newly minted adults will sometimes feel sorry for their mothers. It has occurred to him that had his parents stayed together, the burden of thinking so much about his mother could have been displaced, since it would have been largely the responsibility of his father. Now he felt the weight. He had rebelled against taking this on in high school, but gradually assumed the mantel as the years progressed.

When he visits his mother, Ryan has a protocol for keeping track of her. Inevitably, her preparation of an elaborate meal helps him create ruses to slip off into her room: He wants to check his weight because he doesn’t keep a scale at home; he wants to look at her pictures because he likes looking at them; he needs to borrow her Bible to look something up. Had Ryan lived in town, his mother would have been suspicious that he went into her room at all, but she was always so happy to see him, she didn’t ask questions.

He knows where she keeps her blood sugar monitor; he checks recent readings and the ninety day history. He syncs the scale he bought her to his phone and tracks her weight; nothing new there which is both good and bad. He checks the notebook beside her bed where she keeps a written record of finances and doctors’ appointments. She is still in trouble financially and physically though her smile and easy manner seems to bely that. This was just her way. He checks her Bible. The tiny piece of paper he inserted at the edge of a page in the New Testament is still in place which means she hadn’t unzipped the cover and read her Bible and likely hadn’t attended church and Bible study. There is a whiskey bottle bedside— not great—though it is still mostly full. The dust level on her dresser is reaching visible though oft used surfaces like her bedside secretary desk is variably dust free.

Sometimes, he had been surprised by notebooks found in her secretary such as a girlhood diary she kept of her travels with her family in Egypt and Israel. The notebook contained hieroglyphics and their translations and notes about Christmas in Israel, but also complaints about his aunt and grandmother, that they huddled together and gossiped on the trip and left her out. His late uncle and grandfather formed the male unit. She complained she didn’t fit into her own family. This had surprised him, though she would never have admitted any of this to his face. She may not have remembered writing this down. Who knows that she didn’t remember this experience or remember sticking this journal into her secretary desk.

One time he had seen his mother, a younger version of his mother, tidying up the bookshelves in the spare bedroom where he slept. He had sensed her presence, and when he opened his eyes, it was confirmed, but he was afraid. He knew she was not the mother that was alive now. His current mother had thinning hair and moved more deliberately, as if she were thinking before deciding to invest in a certain commitment to act. He was afraid for as he observed this newer version of her—which was younger and more carefree–he also heard his older mother in the kitchen, making his dinner. At dinner, he said nothing about this phantom but he had the unsettling sense he didn’t know his mother, that he didn’t know anything about how she lived or what she thought or how she had experienced life, though she still seemed to know a great deal about him, even what he chose to leave unspoken.

It was always a relief to leave his mother’s home and enter into the chaos of his father’s life, one with fewer memories of the past, a new family with a new mother and brother, where life with his father’s former wife was rarely, if ever, spoken of. And then it was even more of a relief to go home to his own town where there was less history and more possibility, where anything could happen, where the horizon expanded out in all directions.

And he was thankful he had yet to see his mother’s younger double here at his new apartment. He prayed for a stay of execution.

Inktober: Trapeze

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In the early days of the circus, the 19th century, there was puritanical disapproval because “entertainments” were considered a sinful waste of time and the outfits that performers wore revealed too much. But the animal menagerie that was set up alongside the performance tent was a shrewd move to recruit an audience among the faithful. That is the setting of this mini-story which reveals a child’s dreams. Dreams, I think, are the lure and effect of the circus. (I realize I’m not writing of Halloween or writing spooky yet with the circus theme. I’ve become intrigued by the research.)

circus by tmmmb, flickr

Henry Buckland, a religious man of New England, took his family to see the animal menagerie. But Little Henrietta broke away to glimpse a forbidden scene under the big top: the trapeze. She vowed to be a trapeze artist one day and wear a gorgeous, glittery outfit.

Clever Gretel

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german-dirndl-dress-heidis-closet-18 by Alessandra Nölting, flickr

I’ll have to admit, I have a thing for the #LeaveItChallenge on YouTube. Folks leave delectable items well within reach of their dogs and tell them “leave it” then leave the room. (There is a similar challenge for children called #candychallenge.) The camera tracks just how these tortured subjects react to the temptation.

I have recently purchased a book of the earliest versions of the Brothers Grimm folk and fairy tales. Later versions of these tales were sweetened for younger audiences. The earliest forms are more brutal, just like our R-rated movies and and more salacious forms of entertainment. But then there are some funny tales as well, such as Clever Gretel. I won’t ruin it for you, but let’s just say Clever Gretel is a #LeaveItChallenge laugh-riot.

Inktober: Broken

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This story is based on the case of a family annihilation in Mendocino County, California on March 26, 2018. See Broken Harts, Prime Video.

Diana: Broken Wing by Matt Callow, flickr

After two mommies drove a vanload of adopted children off a cliff, we the children of the Realm gathered the newly dead children in our arms. There is nothing like the cries of children who have died at the hands of their caretakers. Often, they have been abused for years.

Inktober: Drooling II

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School, Grade Classroom by IMLS Digital Collections, flickr

My first grade teacher broke yardsticks over our desks when we colored “wrong.” At her funeral, I wondered if she drooled after her stroke. Since it was open casket, I was terrified she knew my naughty thoughts and was gonna get me.

Inktober: Drooling

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The Breath of God by Dee Ashley, flickr

She had been drooling on her pillow but wasn’t worried until she saw her face: It was twitching. Her brother took her to the ER but the nurse brushed them off: She was too young to have a stroke. Her brother yelled for the doctor and saved her life.

Blaze

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Guitar by Quinn Dombroski, flickr

There’s an excellent film on the life of Blaze Foley available for streaming on Amazon with an AMC subscription. I think it may be available through the end of September.

I only learned of Blaze Foley when I started listening to John Prine (for example, Prine’s cover song of Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”). Foley is a stage name the musician took up because of his admiration for the legendary country musician Red Foley. He also had a close relationship with Townes Van Zandt.

Sibyl Rosen, his wife, wrote about their life together in Living in the Woods in a Tree House. The film covers their life as detailed in the book, their life trying to start Foley’s music career, and the years following their separation.

Ethan Hawke directed and produced the film and just about everyone sings in this movie and does so beautifully – the actors who play Blaze and Van Zandt as well as the actress playing Sybil Rosen. Although he doesn’t sing in this movie, Kris Kristofferson plays a major part as Foley’s father.

After the movie, I watched an interview with Ethan Hawke and Ben Dickey—who played Foley—on KEXP (youtube). There is singing and guitar playing and insights about the movie and the choices made regarding why and how to film.

Inktober: Chicken

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Floating Feather by Paul Kitchener, flickr

After miscarrying, I started sleeping in the nursery under the Chagall print—a chicken pulling a carriage for a couple and their baby. While I was asleep one night, Marty left a note: “I love you but I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry.”

Inktober: Spell

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Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Having endured white torture overseas, the journalist returned home. White rooms, chalk floors, soundlessness—the sensory deprivation of his confinement had cast the spell of Lethe. He did not recognize family and yet he panicked at the prospect of being left alone.

Inktober: Roasted

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siluet by JuanRax, flickr

Young men of the Ivy League fraternity hosted a “pig roast,” a competition to score high in bedding women. Tie breakers were won using the scale: The man who slept with the heaviest young lady reigned supreme. There was institutional punishment but heartfelt contrition of members was nowhere in evidence.

Inktober: Tranquil

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Shattered by Valerie Everett, flickr

Tranquil, Jesus-loving hippies, seduced by the revolutionary music of a new religious movement, found themselves engaging in “flirty fishing” for the cause of God. “The Law of Love” superseded “The Law of Moses” said their guru. Years later, former cult members mourn lost innocence. Some don’t survive the shattering.

Inktober: Poisonous II (Florida Man)

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Coca Cola Vintage by Antonio Marín Segovia, flickr

Florida man, sociopathic genius, Mensa member, chemist, having silenced his neighbors’ barking dogs for good, laces the boisterous family’s soda bottles with thallium. Like the dogs, the mother loses her hair. Her liter are poisoned. The mother dies, but the Florida man is dismayed to find prison especially noisy.

Inktober: Poisonous

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Paper (I am Not) by Brad Greenlee, flickr

As she ascended the stairs to her bedroom, her mother’s poisonous words followed her: “Just go on up there and write to your God!” And the poison dripped out of her eyes as she bent over the once-private journal, dampening the paper and blurring the lines.

Inktober

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I found this list of awesome Inktober prompts on DeviantArt by Lineke-Lijn.

These are obviously prompts for visual artists but I think this particular list is also stellar for writers and here’s why: the nouns are specific and concrete; the verbs are action verbs; the verbal adjectives are equally expressive and action-oriented; the nominal adjectives are precise, concrete. One-word prompts that are abstractions and nonspecific are non-starters.

The kind of prompts listed above translate into powerful sketches and drawings. And I think these give writers that mental picture we need to begin translating an interior vision into the written word. You may think you’re not a screenwriter, but if you want to write powerful fiction, you will think in scenes and images.

If you are interested in an exploration, even if you’re an experienced writer, start jotting down small pieces in a notebook or document. It is highly likely first drafts will go over the fifty-word count that is set in flash fiction writing for Inktober. Over time, as pieces are refined to meet the word count, a wonderful miniature will emerge, conveying the heart of something distinct. The word prompt may be included as a word in the piece or it can simply serve as the inspiration.

Even if you don’t want to write fiction or publish, exercises like this sharpens verbal ability; broadens thinking; enhances problem-solving; and develops voice and self-knowledge. Yours —Margaret

LulaRich: A Cautionary Tale

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Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

Have you seen the four-part documentary series LuLaRich on Amazon Prime Video? It’s interesting. At first, I wasn’t going to watch it because in general, patterned leggings, a key product of LuLaRoe, aren’t my thing. Lols. (Well, I do confess, I purchased flowered bike shorts from another clothing store recently!) In terms of real time events, when things were starting to go down with this multilevel marketing company, I was in the throes of crises involving divorce and ill health and wasn’t tuned into the world. Furthermore, I realized, having watched the initial few moments of the first episode of this series, I would not have been the demographic target. There was an upper middle class, married woman vibe. That no longer fit who I was.

Though the story in this documentary may seem an illustration of aspirational-white-girls-getting-their-comeuppance, the dynamics of this toxic culture could apply to other situations as well. I don’t want to spoil the series should you decide to watch it. And I’m not a big business person so I have my limitations regarding the subject. What I do want to say and what this drove home for me is that we are all vulnerable to things when we feel wanting in some way—whether it be a lack of funds; a lack of purpose; a lack of self-esteem; etc.

Regarding things we do because we are vulnerable, I joined a support group that had started meeting on Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic. They meet frequently—every week—and I’m not big into sharing too much of myself with strangers in frequent meetings. Every now and then, ok, I can be this vulnerable, but well, there is a time to share and a time to keep to oneself. In comparing the first time I met with them with a time that is more recent, I have noticed how much emphasis is now given for members to rely on the group. In fact, sometimes the leader made exclusive claims: True support can be found only in the group. Not all statements were as bold, but I sensed a marked difference. I could have been misinterpreting what I was hearing, but I think it equally possible this is a major red flag.

We are all vulnerable, especially right now. I think it is worth listening to the small voice inside, or training ourselves to do this. We may sometimes override this voice, the very embodiment of our intuition, because we are desperate for whatever is being promised by someone else. But how do we know we won’t get trapped by something that could harm us? Everyone is vulnerable to this kind of a trap. It only takes a certain kind of person saying a certain kind of thing during a certain time of need to influence us to take the bait. This certain kind of person can seem to be utterly benevolent, or just radically awesome. We have to test the waters. Sometimes they are grounded and acting ethically. But, in general, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Nothing new there. But for me, the puzzle is how to reach out in vulnerability while also maintaining a kind of critical stance.

This blogpost is longer than I intended it to be. However, to summarize, I really do like LuLaRich and hope you will watch it! And it did make me think that we are now more vulnerable than ever. And though not everyone who misleads people is aiming for their destruction, the process of leading can do a psychological number on the person in charge unless they’re well grounded and make active use of accountability structures.

No matter where you land politically or by any other measure, there is a small voice inside. Listen. It may tell you it’s time to go rogue.

Ola Belle Reed

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Here’s another bluegrass favorite that’s come to have so much resonance. I hope to learn more about Ola Belle Reed. This was co-written with Dave Reed, her son. It’s in a go-to playlist on Spotify. Good thoughts to you this Saturday. I’ll put another beauty below. — Margaret

Quietus

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Purple on Green by Aslam Karachiwala, flickr

When you feel alone in your illness, let your strength demonstrate your dignity, let the sun crown you sister and brother, let the moon guide you as your mother and father. And if it is your turn to lie down, let the gentle earth receive you in her arms.

Salty Dog Rag

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This reminds me of summers in North Carolina. We would go to a square dance where this song was popular. This was a dance, but not a square dance. It was a couples’ dance. I never learned it and guy partners who knew it were very few. A couple our age always danced to this, flying all over the barn. They were amazing. I am quite fond of this old Red Foley song. Every now and then, I just have to hear it. There is no substitute. Happy hump day.

Inktober: Haunted

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B/W Turntable, luis exposito, flickr

Whenever she heard certain songs, thoughts of a former boyfriend reached inside and twisted her insides. It had taken time to see his lack of interest, but they had both loved rock and roll. Did she really want to exorcise his ghost? She wasn’t sure.

Inktober: Escape

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I begin today this year’s fall-fifty-word-challenge. Some of these small pieces may be kitschy; some may be tongue-in-cheek; and some may not have as much to do with Halloween as with the darker aspects of life in general. I confess I wrote this one sans prompt. I intend to post some prompts for those interested in participating.—Margaret

Unkempt Angel, Wayne S. Grazio (Abandoned Mauseleum, Manila Chinese Cemetery, Manila, Philippines) flickr

Sitting on the toilet lid, she slumps against the bathroom wall, her eyes fixed on the shower curtain, the spoon fallen to the floor, blood trickling down her arm.

They found her blue-lipped. Her sister said it was China Girl, come to take her from the pain.

taking my respite with May Sarton

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This week, I finished a course at the University of Chicago: Essentials of Grammar for Professionals. I trust I am finished. I am waiting for the score on the final assignment. But my work has essentially concluded.

I’m not going anywhere for the holiday weekend. I lack the funds. And I’m tired. I do plan to take life at a slower pace for the next couple of days, even though I am at home. I feel grateful to have this time and this space.

In the spirit of taking it easy, I opened an old book I keep on my desk along with a few others, books that are meditations, devotionals, words of encouragement. The book I chose this morning was May Sarton’s Journal of Solitude.

I include here a few pictures of the extra bedroom, converted into an office. The final picture is a picture of the opening paragraph of Journal of Solitude.

Be well. May respite find you.

“Horse Girl”

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Greg Westfall, “ghost,” flickr

In this week leading into Labor Day weekend, our nation and my state is literally wracked with illness and death; Louisiana has been ripped apart by a hurricane; there is fear and uncertainty in Afghanistan and mourning for lives lost. Furthermore, there are school districts who will be financially punished for trying to keep children safe from a deadly virus and there are many people facing eviction notices. Last year, the inception of the pandemic was only preamble.

This morning, it was in an addled frame of mind that I opened my closet door to see a small open bin on the floor, something from my previous move I have been gradually sorting through. There on the top, I noticed a collection of pictures which were scattered face down. On the backs of the pictures, there were names and dates written in cursive in an unknown hand. I turned them over to see some glimpse of an almost forgotten history, a record someone else kept for interested parties. I don’t remember who took the pictures of me because I was a baby, but there I was supposedly and playing with a playmate I would never see again. There were also pictures of my biological mother as a child and and also as a young woman. There was a picture of my biological grandmother, a few of my grandfather, two of my half-brother. I hadn’t expected to see these pictures this morning. Oddly, I felt nothing. But years ago, when I first saw them, I felt a great deal. It was at that moment of being presented with them that I learned things that were hard to know. For years, I kept the pictures tucked away in a bookshelf in a manilla envelop, away from view as if they held an electric charge. But moving and disruption has a way of discombobulating everything, and there we are, our private things lying about like a tossed salad.

Watching the film Horse Girl this afternoon, I was drawn into a deep grief, perhaps primed by the pictures of my biological mother in various stages of her life. And there was something so disturbingly recognizable about the film’s main character and her story, something so recognizable in her foibles and derailing mind, her struggle with a mental illness passed down by her grandmother and mother. The major existential question she asks is: How much of their illness is also mine?

I have also been in a grieving process since the onset of the pandemic for I have begun to lose my adopted mother to dementia. It brings home more starkly than ever that sense that when everything is stripped away, we stand naked and alone.

I will not get into more detail about the film and I won’t go into my own history here, though I have done so elsewhere, having spent years keeping it to myself. But for now, I’ll just leave it at this: I could relate to so much material that was in this film. I was riveted. It broke my heart. It is worth your time if you care to explore.

My Fieldwork in Southern Italy — Foundation Operation X for languages, cultures and perspectives

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Prefatory note by yours truly: I wanted to share this fascinating post. Several years ago, at the Florida Film Festival, I saw the film I Dream in Another Language. a dramatic and beautiful film exploring the stakes of the death of an indigenous language in Mexico. Though the film explores sometimes mystical concepts, it also explores an intriguing line of thought: When a language dies, whole realms of experience and culture die with it. If you are interested in this concept, I invite you to watch the film and read the reviews to start your exploration. And I hope you will follow the link to this website to read about this linguist’s inspiration and work in Southern Italy.

Written by Dyami Millarson This picture was taken during my last visit to Southern Italy, I played football outside like some of the locals. Whilst I was there, I had taken the opportunity to continue my Molesian fieldwork. Profoundly inspired as a teenager by David Crystal’s Language Death, David K. Harrison’s When Languages Die, Daniel […]

My Fieldwork in Southern Italy — Foundation Operation X for languages, cultures and perspectives

Inktoberfest 2021

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Man in chair with dog in his lap, Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida, flickr

It is almost September! Which means it is almost October! Which means it’s close to Halloween!

I was revising some posts this morning, and particularly the fifty-word fiction pieces I wrote for last year’s Inktober. A few years ago, I started following someone for this little literary spooky spree, writing a delicious bite-size story each day of October. But for a couple of years, I have blazed my own trick-or-treat trail, creating my own prompts. And last year, I wrote several posts laying out my thoughts about writing fun size.

I plan a return to Inktober excitement this year. And I may start as early as September. October being what it may be for me this year, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to craft gloomy confections. If you want to join me, I hope to post prompts soon, some of which may be repeats, but which I enjoyed, ergo: Favorite prompts, round two!

Prime the pump with scary thoughts while I put a cauldron over the fire.

writers in the ring

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Recently, I watched an episode of the CNN series This is Life with Lisa Ling – “Women who Fight” (season 3, episode 2, October 2, 2016). In the episode, Ling covers women fighting in the MMA. One of the fighters said the motivation is not beating someone up, but being able to perform under stress, battling an opponent who is often equally as determined and strong.

When I have an idea for a story, I want to see it through to the end, to cut through the doubt and fear, ignoring voices from the past which may have discouraged me or criticized me, including my own. These roadblocks are the “opponent.” I think many writers who venture out in some way creatively, even if the stakes are relatively low, are testing their strength, their will to overcome such obstacles. You can always be a writer in your mind, and certainly that is where ideas begin, but the battle doesn’t begin until the words start to flow.

Recently, I haven’t dealt with too much internal resistance. I try to avoid situations that set me up for failure and block, such as prompts, contests, or markets that do not match my sensibility and interests. And deadlines that are too tight tend to produce creative products that aren’t much use. Somewhere is a happy medium between overload and stagnation. And so, I attempt to post some original content here. My challenge to myself is exposing original ideas out in the open. To me, it is a risk, but if I stop doing it I fear I will not move forward.

Most of my ideas are self generated, but the raw material comes from my reading and experiences. The raw materials are like the scraps a quilter keeps in a special place for that moment he or she sets out to lay out a pattern. Sometimes when I have a theme or topic in mind, a month is often just about enough time to gather raw materials for a completely original story, often the kind of story set in unfamiliar territory and even an unfamiliar time. A month is often about enough time to begin making mental connections, gathering intel from the environment, recalling memories, waiting for news stories and bits and pieces from the culture and written resources, rummaging around in my imagination and dreams. However, sometimes I may complete a story seemingly within an instant, an hour or two, but I wonder if somehow I have tripped over an especially strong obsession lodged below conscious thought.

A month is long enough to make a piece that is seven hundred to one thousand words long. But often a day is long enough to produce a tiny layered quilt, a covering large enough for a doll bed, a piece of fifty words. I often need a prompt, often self generated. I spend the day or a couple of days before, rummaging for content, using the prompt as a kind of divining rod. A two hundred and fifty word piece may only take a day to create if I have given myself some lead time with a prompt or idea. I have these categories of story lengths in mind because word limits are real when it comes time to submit to markets. I have to stay fluid in a practice and writing within limits is a kind of disciplined practice only mastered with continual production. Writing production — both rough drafts and final versions — is the MMA equivalent of time at the gym. But it pays to focus on the mot juste that comes from practicing, from learning how to land a punch at the right time. And if an editor says they want a certain length, that is exactly what they want.

I’m sorry about throwing around a plethora of metaphors: MMA fighting, quilting, dollhouses, and even an old fashioned way of finding water. Maybe I have cheated a bit with my metaphors today. At some point, perhaps, the other fighter in me who is gaining strength — my inner editor — will come out to clean up the mess. Both of these fighters are in training and if I am doing my job, both will be equally matched.

Ticket to “Beartown,” Swedish Drama Series

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See a Movie Tonight! Ride CTA lines!
Chicago Transit Authority, “See A Movie Tonight! Ride CTA Lines!” flickr

Weekends are work days for me, though I try to do some “weekend things” when possible, such as a home movie night on Saturday, complete with popcorn and a Diet Coke. I know, sounds wild, right? Ah, pandemic life. Maybe you sense some recognition when I say I am still a bit shocked the pandemic hasn’t ended yet, but has instead intensified, particularly in my home state of Florida. I unapologetically watch movies or tv series when I need an immediate wind-down from the world.

I say all of this to say: Yesterday I enjoyed watching a Swedish drama series called Beartown. It concerns a family who return to their small hometown in Northern Sweden having faced a family tragedy some time before. The father is a retired professional hockey player who has been hired to coach the local hockey team. The mother is a lawyer. The daughter is in high school and the younger son is in grade school.

Trouble is foreshadowed in a dramatic opening scene in which someone is chasing someone else through heavy drifts of snow. The one giving chase carries a shotgun. They run through a forest and down an embankment. At some point, there is a shot, but we do not know what happens and identities are obscured. The story is backtracking to what events, what pressures, what dynamics led up to this particular moment.

I like this series. It’s not sensationalistic though it can be stark. For the most part, my suspension of disbelief gets a rest. I appreciate its fairly balanced realism though some character faults are starkly drawn.

The series explores the impact of pressure in peer groups — especially youth sports culture — and in an insular community focused on this culture. And it masterfully portrays the ripple effect of violence. It concerns issues of integrity, courage, friendship, parenting, grief, group behavior, and shrinking opportunities and resources in a waning industrial town.

I think it is one to share as part of a family with older children, especially teenagers, but also possibly middle graders. It would appeal to students involved in both sports and the arts and students who may feel marginalized as well as those who are popular but who nonetheless feel insecure and under pressure.

Spoiler alert: It does portray a rape but the scene isn’t gratuitous and the subject isn’t used to portray a helpless victim or to demonize an offender. However, it shows the destructive power of sexual violence as well as cultural influences that feed this violence.

While the movie is Swedish and there are English subtitles, the gist of it is easy to follow and text is not rapid-fire. The filming is beautiful and the setting would possibly stimulate interest in another culture among young viewers. It is a very fine drama.

I can picture using this as part of an in-home “curriculum,” complete with thought-provoking questions to prompt discussion, though of course it is best to screen this before sharing it with a younger audience..

For both young viewers and those who are more “mature,” there is something for all. Oh, and don’t forget the popcorn!

ms. hardin reads of the fall of empire

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Ms. Hardin sat upon her wingback chair by her electric fireplace and took up a book loosely based on the fall of the Roman empire. It had become a lovely book to her, so removed from her life, a place to escape her troubles, her inadequacies. When she was a girl, her mother had her read a biography of Alexander the Great. Of course, this had seemed strange to her at the time, but she had generally tried to do what her mother asked of her. It was ancient history, so what? she had thought. And now she mused, perhaps it opened up that little mental space to imagine other realms in other times. Her current reading project was a speculative fiction about an intergalactic world.

Before beginning, she looked up to notice a black hulking void in her view of her apartment parking lot and surrounding grounds (She was ground level, so she stayed current on happenings). Then she heard the scraping of shovels against sharp objects. She was wearing her her pajamas and so peeked discreetly through the horizontal shades. Men were unloading large beige rocks into the area surrounding the doggie poo trash can. It wouldn’t be long, she thought, before rocks would be sliding out from their place and onto the sidewalk and no one would pick them up, and people might trip, tires might puncture, their rent may go up to fund the expense of rock. What was wrong with lowly mulch? And the bigger problem was that maintenance didn’t always empty these doggie poo cans as often as they should and sometimes the dark green bags would ooze out over the side like Dali’s melted clocks. The project didn’t take long and the men packed up the black dump truck to fix up other doggie poo trash can areas.

So much of our world is made up of these kinds of things, thought Ms. Hardin, it is a wonder we can imagine anything beyond what ties us to present circumstances. She read a few pages of her book until her back and shoulder began to hurt, a familiar occurrence these days. She would order the hemp oil. Deep in the tissues of her shoulder was the skin damaged and disordered by radiation. Recently, with too much sitting in a single position, a pain would shoot down her right arm, more of a dull pain, whereas last summer during the onset of the pandemic, it had been so severe she could hardly move. A chiropractor had made it better in the short term but by trying to force stubborn and frozen flesh, had created difficulties.

She looked forward to her next installment of Empire. She looked fondly at her reading corner while she sat on her couch. I’ll be back later tonight, she promised.

Elizabeta

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Mrs. Sanderson remembered when she first started thinking about corners, particularly the corners in a room. It was when she first felt the love of Lawrence. It was explained to me like this, and now I will relay the story to you….

Mrs. Sanderson yearned for the corner in her room to contain a chair. It was the room she shared with Mr. Sanderson, a hard-working man with an angular nose and a downward pointed mouth like an upside down u except on days he came back home from poker games with his friends or times out at the bar after work, and then it was a soft, stretched out squiggle.

It was on those nights that he fell asleep almost immediately that she wished to snuggle in a chair in the corner, and facing his back, which was large enough to serve as a kind of partial room divider, drop out of life with a good, absorbing book. She couldn’t read in a chair facing his face. So much vulnerability in that sleeping face. Then she would feel guilty for doing something private, something she enjoyed.

On her way home from the grocery one day, she spotted an upholstered chair in the alley of the wealthier part of her neighborhood. It wasn’t just any chair, it was the chair, she thought. And a sandy-haired young man was about to load it in his pickup when she stopped him and begged him not to take it. Could she sit on it, please, and make sure it was not meant for her instead? He laughed at her and relented, apparently indulging her, even to the point of overriding his own desire to acquire this thing, a cast off.

And so right there in the alley she sat upon the worn, auburn velvet. The curves of the back and arms were outlined by a well-loved dark wooden frame. It had the look of a country French piece, something her mother would have loved. It was hard to believe anyone could have let it go.

Are you sure you would be willing to part with it? she inquired of the young man as she ran a hand around the smooth wood of the arm, not really opening herself up to hearing an answer contrary to what she sought, but trying to soften the forcefulness of her covetousness.

I think you should have it, said the young man, smiling at her. You look at home sitting there.

And the way he said it made her blush, but she smiled. Would you like to help me? I just have a little car. I don’t think it would fit.

Lead the way, he said, and hoisted the chair into the truck bed. He secured it with rope.

She started her tiny box on wheels. She watched him. So cute. And strong. But she was forty! She laughed and shook her head, adjusting her sunglasses up on her nose, something she always did before putting the car in gear.

At home, the young man took the chair up to her bedroom. Where to? he said, looking around her bedroom though it was obvious there could only be one place it would fit. He set it down lovingly, gently in the corner.

Mrs. Sanderson brought her hands together in front of her face, like saying praying a small prayer of thanksgiving. She smiled and flushed. She hadn’t brought home anything new for herself for years.

I think you should make sure this is the right spot, the young man said, and held out a hand to indicate an invitation to sit.

She sat. It felt marvelous!

Now pretend you are my husband, she said, and lie upon the bed. What was she thinking? she demanded of herself. I want you to lie facing the opposite wall with your back to me and pretend to be asleep.

He did as instructed.

Can you see me? she said, pretending to read.

Of course not! I’m sleeping! he said.

And she laughed. He had played along marvelously. What a cute, cute boy. Then she felt ashamed.

Well, thank you for humoring an old lady, she said. You have really made my day. And she reached into her purse for her wallet. I should pay you.

Please, he said, standing and holding out a hand. Don’t. This was fun, Mrs.?

Sanderson. But call me Betty. Or even Elizabeta. That rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? But it is a secret identity. And she laughed.

He had blue eyes that crinkled at the edges. His nose was not a sharp angle like her husband’s but a gentle slope.

I’m sure you have a lovely lady to go home to, she said.

I don’t.

Well, my family will be home soon. This statement deflated her suddenly. It wasn’t true, but she didn’t want to venture too far out on this branch.

My name is Lawrence, he said, taking her hand and holding it with another on top as if he were holding a frail bird. When I put your chair in the corner, I remembered a famous architect. Have your heard of Gaudi?

She shook her head.

In putting your chair in a corner, it made me think: Why do we have corners? I mean, this area could just as easily be a curve, not a sharp construction. Gaudi built great things with many, many curves. Had he built this room, perhaps your corner would actually be a curving wall and you could sit in your chair like you were sitting in an embrace.

And he smiled.

She felt her face warm and redden. She withdrew her hand, but smiled at him. What an interesting man he was, and rare.

Maybe you will go to Spain someday and see his buildings in person, he said.

Oh boy this is a deluded idealist. But she smiled. She also began to think he knew this would never happen.

Lawrence, I thank you for helping me. Simpler is better for the send off, it sent a powerful message. Hopefully.

Elizabeta, it was my pleasure, he said with a playful bow. I’ll see myself out.

The air was charged after he left. The colors seemed brighter, more distinct.

When her husband came home later that night she put her arms about him and kissed his wavery, drunken mouth.

I love you, she said.

What’s this all about? he said, not disagreeably, but somewhat amused and puzzled.

I just wanted to let you know. I’ve made a pot roast if you’re still hungry. It’s warming in the oven. I’ll be upstairs.

She sat in her chair in their bedroom. She heard him banging around in the kitchen. He often ate out when he was out at night and so she had stopped providing a meal. Maybe he was eating her food tonight out of pleased gratitude. Or maybe, simple politeness.

At last the television blasted away. And there it is, she thought, smiling. Sports highlights, news.

She picked up a novel about a young man visiting a sanitorium in Germany. It was said to be one of the greatest of European modern novels, but one that required a constant soaking of concentration and admittedly, she didn’t always have the focus required.

But in her chair in her corner, all sound dropped away. No other sights were visible but the world the author opened to her. She didn’t hear her husband come into the room and drop into the bed. She didn’t hear him ask about her new position in the room or the new furniture. If he had asked her about these things, she didn’t remember responding. And if he had asked her, he wouldn’t later remember asking because of his drunkenness.

The next day, she found a grocery bag on her front stoop. In it was a huge picture book full of the outlandish architecture of a Spanish man: Gaudi.

She was, she thought then, the mysterious Elizabeta of secret worlds, keeper of the marvelous and strange.

July 4th

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For a few minutes on this 4th of July, I miss the smell of gunpowder drifting through the woods. I miss the time that I, as a single, newly divorced mom, set off fireworks for my son in the foothills of Tennessee. My son, without men around who could have afforded better and who would have known how to handle explosives, only watched the ground in disappointment. But I myself knew I set them off, I myself knew I tried, I myself knew I had balanced the enormous cost of food for a week in the Tennessee wilderness with a few minutes’ worth of popping noises. To me, the sound was glorious though the show was lackluster. It was the sound I created. I was making my way. And my son is fine now, well recovered, a man attending fireworks shows with views from mountaintops, not down among the underbrush, frustrated over dying fuses and the bait and switch nature of products sold under a large tent roadside.

At my central Florida home a few years ago, the first home I owned, a home where my son lived with me every other weekend and holiday throughout his high school years, the smoke from the 4th of July fireworks drifted through the woods, and I was not the cause of the explosions, but I was just as pleased. I owned a home. It was in fact a place I could barely afford and the kind of place I will never be able to afford again. But that was enough for the 4th, that and enjoying the noise and the gunpowder smell from my very own balcony with a view out over the dense woods.

On a 4th of July years before the divorce, I sat on a beach with family and in-laws all of whom shared ownership in an an ocean front townhome. I watched the children – my son, my niece, my nephew – and talked to my sister. I thought these summers would go on forever. I thought we would all return to this place. And I thought I would always be able to sit on the bed of the master bedroom on the top floor of the townhome in the afternoons and look out over the Atlantic, the horizon unbroken, the water an incredible blue and green with white strips of waves. But fortunes change, properties are sold, families fracture and reconfigure, and naive beliefs are rendered obsolete.

In my fifties, I think I am learning stoicism. Tonight, I don’t even search for the fireworks I hear outside of my apartment, I don’t even bother to make plans with relative strangers to eat in parks, sharing food we don’t even know if we should be sharing because of deadly viruses.

I don’t know if this alteration inside of me, this stoic kind of stance, is due to my surface knowledge of a philosophical practice or if it is due to emotional burnout, like the eroding effects of water wearing and wearing down sharp edges. I can’t decide if the change is good or bad. I can’t decide if I am actually detached or if I’m in denial. I am beyond old feeling, stress over the old triggering realities: cancer scares, debt, job prospects, school failure, ageism, technology snafus, catastrophic weather, crumbling buildings, pandemics, democracy breakdown, church homelessness, loneliness. As I write this I hear the popping and booming of the fireworks not far from Disney and I think, someone around me has hope, someone out there is looking at exploding stars and smiling. Their children look on with wonder.

Having watched an instructional YouTube video about stoicism which uses Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club to illustrate what it means to be free, I am getting the idea that Tyler Durden, the founder of the club, might kill me if he could on this 4th. But why is it young, healthy Hollywood stars are used to illustrate mad genius? Give me a seventy year old – rough and wizened – and I suspect we’d get another view. But if you have to kill me young Mr. Durden, go ahead.

Music for July

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On this mellow, rainy July 1st afternoon, I am listening to a playlist I created a while ago. I have recently changed it to keep things fresh. I have been listening while reading a novel. But this would also be nice to put on while preparing dinner, studying for school, working from home, or watching a summer storm come and go. I hope you are faring well and no matter your 4th of July plans: Peace. — Margaret

Classical Saturday

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With everything opening up and with new travels, I am feeling both grateful and overwhelmed. I was sick with a bad cold for about a week and a half after flying to see family. And when I got home, I became acutely aware of a neglected social life in my hometown. But normalcy will not happen overnight.

I do feel such a relief to sit in a bookstore and not worry about a mask, to leisurely enjoy the work people have created.

Tonight, I feel a little relief, on the whole, regarding the general state of things, and am spending my classical Saturday on a repeat of a lovely piece of music. Be well. — Meg

Little Cinder

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There was nothing more than Daddy Pappy had wanted to do than to make sure Little Cinder could see Tinker Bell fly down from Cinderella’s castle.

Little Cinder was Daddy Pappy’s only grandkid, his son having died in Afghanistan a few years before. Little Cinder spent most days and nights with him and Mama Grand while Cinder’s Mama worked at the diner and at the hotel as a housekeeper. It would have meant so much to his son to be present for this Disney moment with Little Cinder, but in his absence, Daddy Pappy did his darnedest.

They had saved all year for the Disney tickets but then the pandemic struck and they had to wait. At last, in July of the following year, the hottest and most popular time at the theme park, Daddy Pappy stationed his wheelchair in front of the roses before the castle. Even so, Little Cinder couldn’t see. He abandoned his wheelchair and pulled himself deep into the garden between the bushes, telling Cinder to follow, ignoring Mama Grand who was scolding him from the chain link fence.

Little Cinder could stand on a little rise in front of a tree and that way no one could obscure her view. There was even a light breeze blowing the roses this way and that, and Mama Grand, having finished with her disapproving looks, smiled at them and shook her head. Daddy Pappy knew she was worried about them breaking park rules but she would know because she knew him that he didn’t give a damn. At that moment, a huge blast of trumpets rose from hidden speakers, the park lights went dim, and an an announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, please welcome a special guest here to meet you on this most magical night!” And music blossomed out – “When You Wish Upon a Star!” Spotlights shone on the high turrets of Cinderella’s castle, where a beautiful, sparkling sprite with wings rode a zipline over the crowd.

At the spectacle, people gasped in surprise and clapped. Little Cinder jumped up and down and cheered. Then suddenly, in a rush of feeling, she flung her arms around Daddy Pappy’s neck.

It would be years later that Daddy Pappy, on one of his last days, remembered that very moment. He never said this to anybody lest anyone feel competitive with Little Cinder, but this moment when Cinder hugged him in a sudden rush of joy was truly the best moment of his life.

Rare Songbird

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This afternoon, I have watched the Janis Joplin documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue. Again. Maybe it’s my third or fourth time. I’m losing count. A male acquaintance in town, a writer, and someone who reviews music, once listed on his blog favorite singers and bands, but created a separate category for Joplin. “I hate her voice,” he said.

But I take exception. She is, at times, challenging, and as the documentary points out, she had to work to control her voice so that she wouldn’t lapse into shouting, an occasional tendency. But few could rock a stage like she did, few could sing with as much feeling and expression and power. And few do now.

Once you see this documentary, you’ll want to go back: What was up with that huge train of feathers billowing out from her head? Why was she so maligned in her younger life? And what about that intense pain, when she is speaking sometimes about something personal and shattering? She can barely face her inquisitor, and certainly never the camera. And yet, she also found freedom and happiness, particularly when she was on stage. I have yet to watch the recording of her performance of “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 without crying. It is what is meant by a tour de force.

And yet she struggled to straddle different worlds: the world of conservative values, which included the expectations of her family in Texas, and her more freewheeling lifestyle in San Francisco and on the road. However, she never appears bitter or harsh. She keeps attempting to reach out and stay open to everyone, even those who seem to be in some measure disappointed. To me, she seems only vulnerable, in both good ways and harmful ways. And yet, it seems it was that vulnerability that helped her create so marvelously, that touched so many. And it seems it was this same vulnerability that left her so open to pain. In some of her story, I can’t help but to over-identify with her. Maybe that was also part of her appeal, and maybe especially for women. She tore apart the neat categories people created for women and yet she always seemed to be herself, as difficult as that made her life at times.

The first Monterey Pop Festival took place the year before I was born. And if I had listened to these types of songs when I was younger, I would not have been drawn to them. For me, at least, it has taken a long time to really understand the connection between soul and art: What is it that gives art its resonance, its connection between artist and audience/reader/observer? In thinking about different types of art, from film to books, visual art, theater, and music, I think it’s soul. In many art forms, there are products that are competently made, products that divert and entertain. But the art that touches the soul is a rarity. In such a transaction, the artist is a shaman, a priest or priestess. Their gift is a gift from God, maybe only bestowed through the press of great suffering. But when we experience someone’s practice of their gift, there is a sense of recognition and relief. We are known. We take a breath. We feel alive once more. And we are strengthened to go on.

Martha’s Place

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On the Atlanta Highway in Montgomery, Alabama there is a restaurant called Martha’s Place.

Beside the parking lot is a huge sparkling double fountain set apart by a brick terrace, trees, and park benches where you can rest. Along the front are one-story-high curtains flanking the generously portioned windows. Immediately, you think to yourself: I am underdressed. And disappointment and panic set in. This would not be a first. But no, there are bodies of all sorts, young and old, making their way to the entrance. They are clothed variously and quite a few in the average casual dress of the street. You feel relief and grab your pandemic mask, your jacket.

Inside, at the hostess station, a woman charges you $11. There is no menu, no waitresses, but a large buffet. You think to yourself: Such a foreign sight in the midst of a pandemic. But of course, there are safety measures, and required gloves as well as masks. And you remember the now foreign process of communal meals, large gatherings, church dinners, weddings, funerals, potlucks. You are both depressed and happy because here it is, something like what you have hoped for all along.

You came here for good old Southern food. Not road food disguised as Southern food, but something a mama or grandmamma might make, an aunt or a favorite neighbor. And there it is: fried chicken and catfish, roast chicken, gravy, fried okra, greens, mashed potatoes. You order your iced tea unsweet, which a waitress does bring you, but you notice, thankfully, it needs nothing added to it, no fake sugars, just a squeeze of lemon. It is the best tea you have ever tasted. And as you sink into soul goodness, you begin to listen to what could be your relatives, all around, you, ‘Bama accents, people telling stories at their tables, a man who could have been your grandaddy telling his stuttering Bible salesman joke, and your Uncle Willie cackling, your grandmamma snickering.

It honestly feels like a teeny bit of heaven, a slice of memory, a piece of your life. I had to go and hit the road, and only had a quarter of an hour to invest in it, but I took my tea. It satisfied for hours later – the food, the memories, the tea.

You won’t feel unwelcome if you find yourself at Martha’s Place on Atlanta Highway in Montgomery, Alabama. Go. Tell them a weary and grateful traveler sent you along.

Breakthrough Queen

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The night my son graduated college I lay in my hotel room and dreamt I failed at my own assisted suicide. As I write this, I am happy to say, the dream had no real basis in my life and everything has been a success for my son. All efforts on my part to mold and help him have created a life of sorts for him, though of course it has been through his own applied effort that he has seen success: his graduation with honors, his happiness, his friends, his securing of a promising job, his blossoming relationship with another. It was all I have wanted for him. Then why in my dream did I die, or want to?

In the dream, I survived my own suicide attempt, an assisted operation by a company offering death to those who had reached a dead end. It was all most clean and clinical. Reasonable, really. Nothing messy or obscene. They shaved your head and you lay down in your medical gown and you ingested a dram guaranteed to bring an end. In a probably not so original turn, I changed my mind after swilling my portion. But I emerged, having labored through the effects.

On the long drive home from my son’s graduation, I encountered a cat at the hotel where I was staying. She was black and white. I don’t know why I assumed the cat was female. She was slight, so maybe that was it. I surmised she lived at the hotel where I was staying in Tallahassee where I stopped both on the way up to Alabama and on the way down to Orlando. The cat was scruffy and hung around the garbage cans. She was scrappy, a survivor. I was going to write a little story about her, about a prostitute who lived in that hotel and fed her, or about a child who stayed in that hotel and loved her. Maybe the child was kept there against her will and the cat represented her own little soul. Or maybe the child was the daughter of a preacher or hoodoo priest. She worked on her school lessons at the desk in her room and she soaked dreamily in the tub enclosed by the striped curtain while her daddy went out and healed people, sprinkling them with holy water, feeding them wine for sacrificial blood. Or simply grape juice for said blood. Maybe he cleansed people and their homes with Florida water, readying them for a spiritual encounter.

The hotel in Tallahassee seemed to attract human kinds of ghosts as well as cats, people who drifted around the property, including a man who gruffly approached me that night when I was on my way home. The man presumably hoped to get a light. I emitted a small shout of surprise when he started speaking. Passing semis on narrow highways all day can make you nervous. My son’s college town, campus, surrounding neighborhoods were shiny, beautiful, well kept. People walk with purpose, laugh a lot, smile. Likely in that place, people had their own lighters, if they smoked. Likely in that place, lighters were made of gold. When I left my Tallahassee hotel to hit the road for Orlando, the man was still in his car in the parking lot, a small beat up white number, a sporty vehicle popular in the eighties. Presumably, this was his overnight space.

On the road home, I wondered about the dream. I did survive cancer, so maybe this was it, the dream’s raison d’être. In a way, the treatment is voluntarily almost killing yourself in order to survive. I was not sure if that’s what the suicide dream was. I had also committed myself to surviving until my son’s graduation and Lord willing, without relapse. Mission accomplished. So maybe it was that ending point that triggered it.

Something else occurred to me regarding set purposes and deadlines – literal deadlines – and how such a dream as mine might have arisen in my subconscious. My preacher father recalled a story for all of us, all having dinner the night after my son’s big graduation day in Alabama. It was a story about his journey to the Dead Sea. He along with my mother regularly conducted a group to the Holy Land and on one occasion, at the shore of the Dead Sea, a group member told his wife: This has been the realization of my life. [Dad’s storytelling words were better, but this is the gist.] And then, on the spot, the man died! Such an incredible story had all of us reeling. It was a tale among many fabulous tales of the lives my parents have led and with which my father, when gently prompted, will regale us.

And also, what’s more, regarding my puzzling through the dream’s origins, there is this: I am bipolar. Suicidal ideation is an erstwhile friend, though never a realization, kept mostly at bay by effective meds and treatment. Surviving cancer treatment and bipolar together was no small feat. And I had, years before, learned my biological mother killed herself. When I passed the age at which she killed herself, I considered myself a victor. (As if you cannot tell, and can probably guess if you read my blog occasionally, a bipolar person can sometimes have an odd way of structuring her own reality.)

Furthermore, my own adopted parents – I consider them my only parents – having taken care of me since I was a baby, did so with considerable care and sacrifice. I do not feel myself identified with this foreign history. I am not the dream because it is my dark underbelly and fear, and that darkness is not me on the whole, though the dream suggests it is some part of me. I am a kind of cat, a black and white cat like my feline friend at the hotel.

At certain points, we are born into something we hadn’t anticipated and past histories fall away and we are left, blinking, having survived all self-destructive drams. We have rashly made promises to ourselves and set goals, not realizing that even lofty visions and hopes can be limiting. We become more more opaque as decades pass. We move on, hardly noticing one another, but we thankfully pick up the leftovers until we decide what to do, before we can clean up and start again.

My New Podcast: Audio, little green door

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I made a recording of my last blogpost. And I have started a podcast on Spotify. I hope to have a Youtube channel as well. With both venues, I am primarily interested in storytelling.

I have really missed gathering for public readings during the pandemic. Recording stories has been a longtime desire, even before the world changed so dramatically. WordPress made it so easy for me to take this step when they directed me to the Anchor platform.

This is a beginner’s efforts, but I hope you will enjoy. — Meg

little green door

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Here is a fairly unrevised response to a writing prompt from a writing group meeting a couple of weeks ago. I wrote this in my favorite little 4×7 spiral notebook I use to write fiction and track expenses and doctors’ appointments. I did not write this on a keyboard, neither did anyone else. And when we shared our results out loud, we couldn’t always tell what we’d written! But I do think there is something to be gained from putting thoughts on paper. Ok, the prompt was as follows or I remember it as follows: Someone is lost or in danger and someone else shows the way to a hiding place. [We had five minutes to write.]

She felt alone, abandoned, recently expelled from her husband’s home. Her sisters and mother were far away in the hills. She sought shelter in the forest. The trees looked the same – uncompromising sentries, impenetrable gaze. Something tapped her on the shoulder. There was the sound of dry leaves like crackling skin. “I have room for you,” said a tree, “in a quiet place inside.” And the tree made her small, and she walked into a space between the arches of its roots and she opened a little green wooden door labeled #7. A kettle was on over a tiny stove and a fire of moss crackled on a tiny stone hearth. She lay upon a cushion of leaves and listened to the creaking of the tree trunk, its sighs the low moaning an old spiritual. She felt herself drift down, down into a dark pool and she dreamt of poppies and warm springs.

My first attempt at audio! Well, I have recorded a story for a journal, but this is my first attempt for the blog. You can also follow my podcast on Spotify. I am a beginner, so please have mercy. But I do hope you enjoy.

ash girl

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The day Mama forced me to pick up the burned pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day Pony and Apple Pie started hanging out near Daddy’s old rusted car. Pony and Apple Pie were imaginary friends even though I was almost too old to have imaginary friends. I didn’t have too many real life friends by the time Mama forced me to keep her terrible secrets. The day I picked up pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day I almost lost my mind.

“Don’t you tell no one about Uncle Charlie,” said Mama, “not your sisters, not your friends, not that no-count boyfriend.”

I could have told her there was no one I could talk to anymore.

Mama had shot Uncle Charlie because he threatened to tell the Sheriff she had killed Daddy. She had shot Uncle Charlie when we sisters hitched a ride to town for ice cream. When I came home, I saw her on the floor, hair tied up, wearing dishwashing gloves, and dipping a sponge into a bucket of bleach. Something was wrong. And eventually, when she needed my help, she told me what it was.

Uncle Charlie was the best man Mama had ever been with, well, that is, except Daddy of course. Uncle Charlie was Daddy’s brother, and there I was one day, picking up pieces of him, mostly bone and teeth, and scattering these pieces in the woods and all over to help hide Mama’s crime. All I saw for days after were black spots. All I smelled and tasted was burned flesh.

Once, before Uncle Charlie disappeared, my younger sister, Mercy, stood up to Mama and told her she would tell the sheriff on her, would tell the sheriff her Mama had killed Daddy. Mama had one of her boyfriends drive the two of them out to a field. The boyfriend pulled a shotgun on Mercy. He would have killed her, except Mercy snuggled close to Mama real quick so he couldn’t shoot without hurting both of them. Mama held her and stroked her hair and said, “Don’t hurt my baby!”

Mercy said that for a minute, she believed Mama wanted to protect her. When she told me this, that’s when I knew I wouldn’t dare tell her about Uncle Charlie. I didn’t think she could handle it. I was worried she would tell Mama off, then Mercy might get shot and burned, just like Uncle Charlie.

Apple Pie and Pony kept me accountable to Uncle Charlie’s ashes. They kept showing up, in my dreams, in the yard.

“Oooo girl, like you at a barbeque!” said Pony, and he and Apple Pie high fived. They danced around the yard, the yard full of rusty car parts, an old mattress.

“I ain’t never been to a bar-bee-que like dat,” said Apple Pie. “Where da sauce?”

Pony fell out, then made it look like he was a clown and kicked his feet out so he sprung up again. “Sheriff gonna lock you up little ash girl!” And as he said this, he came near and put his face close to mine. There was smoke rising up from his smiling mouth.

“I like Applewood smoked bacon,” said Apple Pie, who was the larger of the two, much larger, and maybe the slower, mentally. He looked down at his hands. He was picking at the skin the way my diabetic grandaddy used to do.

“You know how how dogs gets fleas, chile,” said Pony. “You gots to get yo’ sistas and flee on up outta here. One of you chilrun may already be in danger, you don’t know. May even be you!”

I knew Pony was right and I loved Apple Pie because he was just himself, didn’t even matter if he didn’t have much to say. Any man me and my sisters had ever loved, Mama had eventually cheated on or destroyed. She wasn’t always like that, but looking back, I think being poor made her mean. Too many times, we had no water. Too many times, we went hungry. She started dressing sexy to attract men. She was already pretty, but when she dressed sexy, men couldn’t resist. And then they wanted to marry her.

With all this stuff happening, I could feel myself getting black inside, as if I had sucked up the fire from Uncle Charlie and it was burning from the inside out.

One night, when Mama was out, we sisters held hands and escaped. We made our way across fields and ditches, avoiding roads, until a man and his wife found us crossing their property. None of us would say what we were doing. We stayed at their house until the sheriff came out to meet us.

The night I told the sheriff about Mama killing Daddy and Uncle Charlie was the night Pony and Apple Pie left me sleep in peace. There was no interrupting my dreams to talk of ashes. That night I dreamt of Daddy making strawberry ice cream for us with the old timey machine. He looked at me and smiled. I jolted upright in bed. He was alive! But no, it was morning, and I could see I wasn’t in Daddy’s house anymore. Still, I knew he was an angel. I knew he would always be my Daddy.

  • Crime very loosely based on a case of a missing teen whose mother is suspected of killing her husband and then killing her teen daughter in order to prevent her from whistle-blowing. Details have been altered.

Film review: Agony

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Suzy Hazelwood, flickr

Sometimes a film resonates. The 2020 psychological/gothic horror Agony, directed by Michele Civetta and starring Asia Argento is a film that explores family legacy, an entrenched community, prescient wisdom, madness. Isadora, a New York City artist, receives word her mother has recently passed away on her Tuscan estate. This news is especially unsettling to Isadora because her father had told her thirty years before, when she was a child, that her mother was dead. Furthermore, Isadora is told she will inherit her mother’s sizable estate if she will accept the transfer of her mother’s title of Marquesa. Against the guidance of her father, she travels to Tuscany, child and husband in tow, to search for answers.

We learn the father believes he was protecting his daughter by not telling Isadora the truth about her mother’s death. He believes her mother to have been an unstable, and even dangerous. However, as things unfold, it is unclear what has actually occurred in the mind and life of Isadora’s mother, Carlotta, the former Marquesa. Facts begin to blur, Isadora’s own dreams and premonitions begin to mediate reality, the town’s superstitions and tendency to fatalism limit alternate versions of history, and Isadora begins to fall into madness. This is so well done. There are moments in which it would have been nice to have some kind of interpretative narration regarding the meaning of some of Isadora’s private moments of madness, but overall, the story skillfully conveys the idea that Isadora, by returning to Tuscany, has fallen into a confounding maze.

To me, the film conveys the idea that while we may try to find the “truth” about the past, about those we’re related to, people who may share with us a history and disposition, a clear picture may not always emerge, or if it does, we become too deeply entrenched to create a new life and move on. I appreciate the way the film explores this idea in such a rich and colorful way. And in a way that only good horror can do, it operates on a level of conservativism: We think we will go far. We believe we may get somewhere. But we may just be in for a rude awakening.

what to watch? I care a lot.[!]

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In the black comedy I Care A Lot, Rosamund Pike plays a ruthless con-artist who exploits a legal loophole to run a long con on the elderly. Such a force requires an opposing force to make a proper conflict and one is found in Peter Dinklage, playing a Russian mob boss whose elderly mother (Diane Wiest) is a mark of the con.

Pike is most convincing to me in this role. She is a brilliant actor though another recent role, her portrayal of Madame Curie, left me unconvinced and unsettled. Will you think less of me if I say I loved and preferred her portraying evil here? There is a precision to her execution that is wholly satisfying, and it seems to me, a great fit.

There is a nice balance in the film, details that bring an almost convincing humanity to this huckster, but realities are never far from the story’s cosmic – and comic – balance. And definitely no one can accuse this grifting character of slacking!

Diane Wiest and Peter Dinklage are perfect. I love Dinklage as a mob boss! Encore!

Netflix

travelglam

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When we were young and in love, we dressed up when we traveled, even when we traveled for vacation, even though we were born into a liberal, unfettered age. To the airport, we wore suits, dresses, pressed button downs, designer sweaters, polished shoes, manicured hair, new luggage. It was a kind of formality, an austere dignity, a removed way of occupying space with others without speaking to anyone, not even to each other. When we were young and in love, we bought the New York Times and read it cover to cover, quietly shifting through the paper sheets, exchanging favorite sections, reading while we drank rich coffee. We browsed bookstores, bought hardbacks and diaries to take with us on trips.

The way we conducted ourselves when we traveled in our younger years, it was as if we lived something unspoken between us, a practiced script from our parents’ time, our grandparents’ time. When we were children, we were old. And when we were young, we were older still. And yet when we were young and in love, we were too young to realize we could not stem hardships with such artificialities and habits.

When we went on honeymoon, we each bought novels chosen specially for the trip. We read our novels on an old mattress in a friend’s London flat, the sunlight pouring through a dusty window, the owner’s dishes lying dirty in the sink.

When we took trains from Sicily to Paris, we maintained our dressed up dignified formality, maintained our sense that life would always be like this. We believed we would never pick fights, wound never squabble, would raise a family in serenity and stability. We would have our own cool brand of quiet acceptance and separate spaces, clothing ourselves formally, clothing our children thusly.

It was a kind of impenetrable adulthood we created when we were young and in love. This is what it was like when we were young but too young to really know we were playing at something, too young to imagine we may not have been in love. We didn’t know life. We wore blinkers. We willed ourselves not to repeat a kind of pain, a kind of chaos. What we relished when we were young and in love was an illusion.

finding zen in chaos

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What are your Kathy-Griffin-pie-my-making moments? Moments where you can close out the world and engage in something self-nurturing and calming? Patty Griffin’s song “Making Pies” strikes me as more and more brilliant the further the world has drilled down into mayhem. In the United States, this mayhem includes the pandemic threat, threats to justice and democracy, gun violence, to name a few. And every time I have heard Patty Griffin’s song – whether several years ago or today – I get teary. Her song speaks to the world. And great songs are timeless. What this song says is that during our uncertain and fear-filled times, it is good to get in touch with a way of being that focuses the concentration and calms the nerve, bringing us back to ourselves.

And no, not everyone makes pies! I couldn’t make a pie to save me, though I had a friend carefully explain the method and recipe years ago when I was staying at her house in Haddonfield, New Jersey.

But maybe it’s good to always have such a thing: Something you do that makes you not mind if you get your hair messed up, if you get a little flour on your face. Sure, maybe you started out worrying about such things, but at some point, you just said “it doesn’t matter,” then got down to business. Maybe just surviving right now may seem pie-making enough although a forgetfulness is what I seek, apart from survival, a kind of self-forgetfulness that is not chemically induced and is a kind of “making.”

At present, a pie-making moment is being in school to learn editing – and doing it no matter how difficult it is for me. But also, on the side, and just as important for my mental and emotional health: doing creative writing exercises, posting polished older fiction and memoir pieces, sharing what is new and vulnerable, reaching out to writing friends old and new, keeping dreams alive and not being afraid of failure. Maybe you like to garden, build something, play with your pet, make beer, sew, crochet, bake, cook, grill, catch fish, play a musical instrument, create videos or visual art, read a book, write in a diary, volunteer. Maybe there is something calling out to you, some new career or avocation which involve those small, self-forgetful, pie-making steps.

Sometimes in my posts, I share the results of creative writing exercises. Sometimes I use my blog as my test kitchen in order to keep challenging myself every day if I can. Maybe something longer will come from these pieces or maybe I will be able to see old stories a new way. Or maybe I will just be more invigorated and encouraged as a person.

These are the things I do because I must do them. Besides, these pies are so delicious, even though some are trial pies. They are delicious because I made them.

Matchy Matchy in Hollywood

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Here is an oldie from a previous blog.

In an attempt to gain real world experience after three years of studying Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Joyce, Shakespeare, you apply for a summer advertising internship in Hollywood on the shaky notion that at least it’s communications, it’s all communications – right? – the artful use of language to woo an audience. When you arrive you are all east-coast and corn-fed. You aren’t fat, but solid, pretty, but not stunning. Besides, you wear clothes and earrings that match, a purse that goes with.

They have no idea what to do with you so they sit you in front of a huge TV and show you how to use a large knob to stop the pictures. Somewhere, in one of the edit bays, they are allowing a woman your age  to write a script, someone, who has never read a book cover to cover, but who is loud and flirty and skinny.

And yet there you sit with Guilala, a giant Japanese Gila monster, who crushes cars with feet that wobble. He smashes elevated trains and spews his wrath while tiny people flee. You are supposed to write down the numbers on the frames to use for film distribution commercials. You are supposed to take notes. They will be doing a Japanese monster campaign sometime in the future. You write down every frame. You have no idea what you are doing. No one cares. No one is watching or holding you accountable. No one is teaching you anything.

You love Hollywood and hate it. You cross seven lanes of L.A. traffic in between your exit in Burbank and Sunset. (This is the only thing, actually, that impresses your parents, that you can navigate this.) You love your night drives down the Pacific Coast Highway. You take day trips to Laguna. The surfers tell you to go home. You walk through rock formations. You spend your day half-self-consiously enjoying the warm sun.

One night, a policeman picks you up for prostitution. You had just gotten out of a movie at the Mann Chinese Theatre. You are shocked but then you remember the cutoffs you are wearing. They are not too short you think. Any woman out after midnight on Sunset is a suspect, he says. He drives you to your car. Luckily, you are not in trouble.

You have never known people to act so self-important as they do here. And yet, you find yourself getting in on the act. It creates a mini-scene that you jump out of your car with the film that is overdue, that you pop out onto the sidewalk to make an urgent delivery. Someone could see you. Someone could say, “That girl’s important. Who is she?” Some tourists could notice you. That’s what you want, most of all, is to be seen as some kind of insider.

At the end of the summer, back in Florida, you break up with your boyfriend of three years, the one your parents wanted you to marry even though he was a Catholic. He hadn’t wanted you to go to Hollywood at all. Neither had they. But you can’t talk of Hollywood without crying. It has broken something in you and how can you explain, in a way that they will understood, exactly what it is.

exercises in vulnerability and a movie

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Once Upon a Time by Rachel.Adams, flickr

Sometimes you put yourself out there into cyberspace as a little writing fish in a pond of much bigger writing fish with a spark of something inspired by an exercise. I do this because I need to come up with something created that isn’t simply reflective of what I am constantly surrounded by during a global pandemic.

This is why writing prompts can be so useful. I often pair a prompt with something I am already thinking about writing, such as an idea for a story or vignette, but which I fear could be quite humdrum. A picture prompt helps me give it a tiny twist. I don’t have the picture that inspired the prompt-based writing I did today, a picture prompt a writer posted on social media, but below is a similar picture.

Sometimes I forget but remember when I finally sit down to write to a prompt: Writing is ongoing, even when one is not writing. Prompts just help draw out something that is going on beneath the surface. The writing I have shared below may not be all that great, but I’ve gotten it out there and feel better and will probably be less grouchy.

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

The one thing they don’t tell you when you are young and small is that when you are old, you will be expected to be loud and outgoing. Brash. I mean, sometimes you try it, right? But you know, deep in your heart, you belong in the forest, in the root of a tree, where you once glimpsed the sun between the leaves and closed your eyes to the dappled light, to the wind shuffling the leaves, a sweeping shush of scattered papers, all these papers covering you. They are the skin of the world and your existence, your body, lies underneath – safe, in hidden calm. In the heat of the day, you curl into a dark place. You ignore the productivity pushers, their outrage and demands. You find a slip of a chair in a dark room, a slip the shape of a soft slipper that is upturned at the heel and you rest open it, fall asleep and dream an earthen dream of moss, of leaves molded and dry, a soft bed of flowers, a table round which happy friends toast libations in acorn cups and fall out in merriment.

In choosing the picture on unsplash, I learned that this is a tree in the Himalayan forest, a little fact that makes this even more interesting to me.

I will share the results of another exercise on another day. It is something I cooked up when I met with writing friends on zoom. This post is getting lengthy.

And now for my movie thoughts: If you like movies that shake you, that take you out of yourself, that are creeping with almost no jump scares, watch “The Open House” on Netflix. I am still so shaken by it and I watched it on Sunday. It is not for the family and maybe not for someone who just isn’t into this kind of thing, or not into it right now.

You won’t forget about it. It is dark. It haunts.

The Polarization of the United States

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“You’re in Hillbilly Country Now, Boy” by Steve Baker, flickr

I’m enjoying the documentary Hillbilly on Hulu. If I were to pick an alternate title for the film, it would be something like The Polarization of the United States. If anyone wants to understand what happened recently in our politics, this film would be a strong starting place. If anyone who considers themselves progressive and/or Democrat but doesn’t understand how many Southern Democrats won’t vote for a politician who marginalizes them and lacks respect for their economies, even if that politician is Democrat, this film would be a strong starting place in understanding this phenomenon.

I’m not savvy enough to gauge whether any progress has been made in binding the rift that nearly brought our democracy to ruins, but one simple thing I do think is true: Respect would be a start in beginning our healing. The easy thing is to rant on social media or hold at arms’ length those who disagree with us. The harder, but more effective thing, is engaging in self-reflection, reaching out to others to listen and learn, owning shortcomings and foibles. The easy thing is to fall in line with any kind of tyranny, whether it be on the right or left in order to fit in with family, friends, religious organizations, community. The harder thing is to work out a position somewhere in between, a position that takes into account different viewpoints, a position that promotes peace and compromise.

I am being overly simplistic. And I think there are quite a few factors not posed in the film that have contributed to the polarization in our political climate. And the documentary is about much more than politics. What I can relate to is not always owning my deep South history and background, of not understanding others, of judging rather than listening. Hillbilly is a welcome, meditative, eye-opener.

Silas House, an author, professor, a contributor to the film, and someone I feel privileged to have heard speak at a southern writers conference, wrote the following poem for the documentary, Hillbilly:

Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem.
A knot of complication.
But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it,
and feeling everything in between.
You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way
they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.

One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads
One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches
Must attend weddings and high school graduations.
One must study the history of the place and come to understand it
Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people
and the callouses on their hands and understand the
Gestational and generational complexities
Of poverty and pride and culture

Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so
your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.

simple gesture

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Irene Vera Young, Australian dancer, 193-?, State Library of New South Wales, flickr

It was clear: The gratitude had completely drained from the situation. Ms. Hardin stood square shouldered to the burly repairman filling her apartment doorway: “Miss, you can’t put items out here! You mus’ move all dis’ stoff!” said the Latin man, indicating donations she had left in the breezeway for her neighbors, the kinds of items that only last year would have met with sly, secret takers within the hour, especially on a Saturday. She had left out welting pads, unopened dog food, a dog bed, a child’s plastic tea set, a stuffed pink kitty. No one had questioned her before when she left food outside, framed art, an unwanted office chair, plastic Christmas dishes, a Christmas stocking, cans of pumpkin.

Her pet had died a few months ago. And the hope of the online job she thought she might take teaching children in China had shriveled up with the news that the country’s government would not employ uncertified teachers. So she was giving away pet supplies and props she would have used to teach Chinese children English remotely. Plus, she had bought too much food with news of a global pandemic. The things she left in the breezeway had been representatives of old lives shed, old hopes abandoned and withering, foolish, extravagant purchases, signs of her weakness and anxiety, and it was always a relief when someone took them away.

One of her neighbors, Jose, had always made her feel important in who she was as a person. He smiled and said hello whenever he saw her. His dog and her dog had seemed to like each other. She and Jose had often talked about their dogs, their families. Jose was Latin too, just like the apartment repairman, and in fact, most of the residents of the old Orlando apartment complex were Latin, though some came from other areas of the world as well. Miss Hardin was very Caucasian. She tried dyeing her hair a dark brown, but it inevitably lightened. She couldn’t remember much of her high school Spanish. She had been to Mexico once on a church mission trip with other high schoolers when she was younger. She was a marvel then, and was able to hold entire conversations in a foreign tongue. And the Mexican people of the small town in the Yukatan Peninsula had seemed happy the young Americans were there. And that was the first time she truly felt of use to someone.

Jose had shown his wife the two framed pictures and a fancy side table with gold leaf Ms. Hardin had left outside her apartment that first month of her residence. “These will look great in our place!” he had enthused. “Don’t you think?” he said, consulting his wife. She merely nodded. She didn’t talk as much, seemed rather quiet. And later Ms. Hardin noticed they had moved the items up to their apartment because when she went out on an errand, they were gone. The warm feeling of their gratitude gave her a sense of buoyancy, energy.

This began the pattern of Ms. Hardin’s life among her new neighbors, interrupted and crushed only by a couple of thefts of delivered packages from her doorstep. The thefts left her flabbergasted and angry: She had been so nice to everyone! So generous and friendly! She felt a deep sense of betrayal, and even fear. She avoided everyone for a while and wasn’t as talkative or outgoing. She posted an angry note to the apartment community as a whole, asking for the return of her items. She called the apartment office to ask them if they had cameras on the buildings for security, or if they minded her installing her own. The apartment manager talked her down, sharing stories of her own negative experiences, experiences wholly foreign to Ms. Hardin, who had always lived among neighbors who took care of each other.

Over time, the sense of betrayal eased. One morning during the pandemic, Jose had spoken with her outside her apartment and had thanked her profusely for the cans of chicken soup she had left outside her apartment the night before. She was glad he and his wife had made use of them and that feeling of pride swelled in her again, that feeling she had made someone happy, that sense that she herself contributed and made people feel grateful. She knew in her heart Jose and his wife were not the thieves. Since the reassignment of another couple to a different apartment building, the thefts had stopped.

And yet, here, on this day, one year into the ravenous worldwide pandemic, the ingratitude had shown again in the repairman’s brusque manner. Jose and his wife and their dog had recently moved away. And apparently, there were no more takers. Normally, she would have left the items out all Saturday and they would have been gone by Saturday night at the latest. The repairman hadn’t bothered to know her name and was only harsh in his tone, not minding her fair complexion, the pearls at her neck, her family’s history in town, the fact that she was once a debutante, a Daughter of the American Revolution, a member of the homecoming court. She was a fussy, plump middle aged white lady who wore capris jeans and clogs, whose face looked sour when she wasn’t smiling, whose tiny readers sitting propped on her nose fogged up from her face mask. That was all he saw. And someone who made trouble. And someone who didn’t obey rules. And an example of someone who made his life more onerous. And a person who didn’t belong on this side of town, who didn’t fit in, but who for some reason was trying to. And in her secret heart, she knew many of the residents were not people she would choose to be with had circumstances not created the necessity.

As she pushed past him to grab her donations from the breezeway, she mumbled to him that she was only trying to help. And then she hurriedly shifted the items to her little banged up car for a charity run later.

There was no gratitude. And who was she if not magnanimous? Who was she if not looked up to and appreciated? After returning from the heat of her car, she closed herself up in her apartment and snapped shut the horizontal blinds. It was 4 p.m. She poured coke and whiskey into a highball and turned on the Christmas tree lights. It was April but she didn’t care. She missed Jose and wanted to cry. He was just a friend, and not really that, just someone who knew how to speak to people. And no doubt, people wanted to know him and know how to help him. He had been popular. And now the apartment community was quiet and dull.

Her son was away starting his new life. Her son, a senior at a small liberal arts college, well spoken, accomplished, a staunch Christian. Ms. Hardin was a divorced woman, and she sometimes grieved mistakes she had made, including ones the god Lord himself would have been aggrieved to witness, but the boy wasn’t one of them. And now with her sweet little dog gone, there just didn’t seem to be as much going.

The numbness started to overtake her, that warm, familiar feeling when she drank at this hour and for this purpose: the purpose of shutting down, shutting off. Who was she? She didn’t know. There were tiny achievements, however, and as the sky changed light with the dusk, she made note: A woman on her porch who had always stared at her when she walked by to the post office boxes, stared at her without returning her wave, had finally waved back at her the other day. It wasn’t much. But maybe, she thought, maybe people who see you a lot, who get used to you, and see you are not their worst fear, their worst nightmare, not the stereotype of every negative thing they’ve imagined or experienced, may eventually come to some sort of acceptance, recognition. Ms. Hardin was almost certain the woman knew no English. But they had shared a gesture. That was all. It didn’t inspire the self-satisfied and important feeling she had experienced when Jose had been overtly grateful to her. But the woman’s tiny wave had given her something to hold onto.

She put down her whiskey and joined in what she had done for many years for her family and what women all over her apartment complex were doing at this moment: The preparation of dinner with the heating up oil and garlic in a pan, the adding of spices, the opening up packages and cans. Tonight would be black beans, with jarred red peppers, olives, raw onions, the kind of dish her Cuban neighbors had made her family when her son was young, when she was still married and her family lived in a new home in a new neighborhood carved out from a defunct military base. Her neighbors were beautiful, wealthy neighbors who had escaped Castro, and who were solicitous, grateful. Ms. Hardin had been young, and her neighbors had invited them to family events.

No one would believe all the people she had been. Some days, she hardly believed it herself. And they were all – all these people she had been – were all together with her in this apartment, shuttered away from the mayhem and disaster of the world. Likely everyone, in their own little boxes, were also concatenations of selves – immigrants and refugees, racists and thieves, lapsed Christians and fearful hypocrites, disabled soldiers and irascible elderly, lonely travelers and lost children. These were easy, romanticized categories, she knew, but in thinking somewhat philosophically like this, Ms. Hardin liked to think herself an amateur mystic with a penchant for the tiny, broken things, the flotsam and jetsam, the simple and forgotten, herself one among many of the tiny people who somehow mattered despite invisibility. It was silly, she knew, but it was all she could think about for now.

And at least there was this: She wasn’t alone.

notes of a beginning copyeditor

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Image from page 50 of “Kittens and cats; a book of tales” (1911)

shortcoming

noun

short·​com·​ing | \ ˈshȯrt-ˌkə-miŋ  , ˌshȯrt-ˈkə- \

Definition of shortcoming

an imperfection or lack that detracts from the whole alsothe quality or state of being flawed or lacking

There are times I become uncomfortably aware of a shortcoming, and I do indeed have more than one of these! The above definition of “shortcoming” is taken from the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I looked it up this morning in my hardcopy reference as part of an exercise which tests my copyediting ability and diligence in working with compound words. As part of working on a certificate in editing, I am learning that relying on authoritative texts, rather than simply memory or instinct, separates a quality copyeditor from one hobbled by shortcomings. I have to dismantle a kind of glib, glossing over and really see each letter and word afresh in order to truly help remedy a text.

Being in school and learning new things can be a very humbling experience, even humiliating if one has an extra layer of pride. I failed my first copyediting test last week. I didn’t give myself time and I missed at least half of the typos I should have caught and marked with my newly minted Frixion red pen. If “shortcoming” had been on my quiz last week, I wouldn’t have bothered to look it up. I would have been safe in not doing so because that is the correct spelling and no hyphen is required. Still, I know I have to develop new muscles to begin to be a better copyeditor. I have to slow down and look more things up. I have to give myself more time. I have to consult the dictionary and the style manual. And as the quarter moves along, I will be consulting other references as well.

Are you ever scared to try new things because you are worried about your own shortcomings? And yet how can we grow if we can’t face our shortcomings? Editing copy and creative writing don’t always feel like the same thing to me, but they seem to be two sides of the same coin. I think I have been a bit lopsided when it comes to the world of words and I hope to add to the whole in terms of my abilities and skills. But it can be scary. What if I can’t ever strengthen this underdeveloped side of me so that I can be useful to others? All I can do is wake up every day, learn from past mistakes, and do better. I invoke Yoda who exhorts Luke Skywalker to full commitment in Empire Strikes Back: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Something She

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Photo by Catalin Pop on Unsplash

Tonight, I took a break from life to watch a movie starring Elisabeth Moss who plays a 90s punk rock singer. (Her Smell) She is the leader of a band who has made it big. However, her narcissism has all but destroyed her band, her relationships, her life. After watching the film, I compared my reaction to some other critics who admit to extreme discomfort for the first hour, more or less. Interesting. I was fascinated throughout.

The movie actually has a Shakespearean quality, not a nails dragging on chalkboard quality. I think the discomfort is because it’s a woman playing the narcissistic, paranoid, and unlikable king, drunk with power, heading for destruction. No, she is not a “good mother.” She is not a good person. That is a little beside the point though it is indeed a point.

But I never felt the plot or content of the text or staging and character actions were wrong or cause for discomfort. The character is unhinged, not the movie. Nor was the beginning still or stagnant. It was appropriately dark. It set the tone, the mood. And the drama was age-old. It had bones. It had a dark, dark patina. Moss took us into the darkness and I felt her commitment.

I won’t give away what happens. It is not completely of the tragedian persuasion, but it holds onto its darkness until almost the bitter end. Powerful and effective. Impressive. Not one for the children or those who are in the mood for lightness, but if you stay open to what comes, and hold on throughout, you may find quite a range is worked through. The language and rhythm of spoken exchanges and unhinged monologue is dizzyingly intoxicating. And the score undergirding the spoken words and actions of the characters contributes wildly to the mood: There are vague sounds such as amplifier feedback and crowd noises even as they are sometimes non-diegetic sounds and sometimes only tangentially related to the present action. The score bringing home the underpinning pressures, the ground situation; they are the waters through which these character must swim if they are ever to find air. They are the dark and stormy night.

Bunny

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easter island? by T, flickr

On a hot Florida spring day, the ragged Easter bunny ripped through the outdoor Christmas lights lining the little row of bushes between apartment buildings. He was delivering expired chocolate candy manufactured in the days when there was regular commerce. The wrapped chocolate eggs in his basket were chalky and the bunny was worn, the once white fur gray, the once pert ears stabbing the air before his face. Mrs. Burkinsales had skimped on the ribbon for her cheap door wreath rather than buy the more expensive wired ribbon. The lifeless burlap bow hung in the heat. He crushed some chocolate in his paw and tossed a handful into Billy’s basked which lay under the spectacle of the wreath. He was burning up and wanted to take off his head but then he wouldn’t get paid. He spun around to the next door and took Angelina out with the trail of broken lights streaming from his furry body. She screamed, her legs bleeding. People in the breezeway were opening their doors. He stole around the corner, facing away from view, toward the fountain, but far enough from the apartment office. A smoke would be good. And a nip. He took off his head. The whiskey went down nice and fiery. He wanted to yell “Fuck!” but he returned his flask to his bunny pocket, put on his head, and punched a cheap plastic pumpkin forgotten and cracking on a window ledge. He snuck around the outside perimeter and went to the office to collect his pay. He was greeted by police who charged him for assault. In a delusional, heat-stroked moment he thought he was being charged for punching the plastic pumpkin, then realized it was for the plastic shards in the child’s leg. No one would bring his wife a check and he wouldn’t be able to buy candy for the child. Once he was put in holding, he punched out another unfortunate soul. Finally, someone punched him back. Nothing felt better than that blood.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”

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Rose by JLDMphoto, flickr

This afternoon after doing errands, I thought I might watch television to see what was happening in my very own hometown, a convention just down the street: A televised speech of the most corrosive political influence in our nation’s history.

Instead, I made the choice to turn off the television. Rather than indulge my grief over so much unmitigated darkness, I streamed the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu. And yes, this also caused me to grieve. I grieved for the crushing of a beautiful, talented, brave spirit by forces still in existence, forces recently emboldened.

It has tumbled down upon me today – not just from watching this movie – but all weekend as I’ve been hearing about who has been speaking at this conference, who is and who is not attending, who is and who is not being represented – that things have not changed. If they were changing, they have somehow snapped back like a released rubber band.

In the spirit of Billie Holliday, we who want to forge a new path must keep singing our songs, songs of truth. We must sing our hard songs, the songs that threaten because people don’t want to listen. Billie Holiday’s Grammy-Award-winning song that was recognized by Time Magazine as “Best Song of the Century” was “Strange Fruit,” a powerful calling out of the lynching of black Americans in our country. There is not to this day national hate crime legislation against lynching and there has been a case of lynching as recently as 2020 (citation of then-Sen. Kamala Harris, Senate floor). That this dark conference today consisting of white nationalists is taking place in the south bowled me over as I watched this movie today.

I have lost a couple of relatives because they don’t want to hear these kinds of songs and understand how the outcry in them speaks to the kinds of dark politics literally taking the stage at present. I mourn this loss. I love these people. They made me who I am but many are trapped. I hear the attempts to embrace certain policies promoted by this party, a party who foments racism, sometimes seeming to do so while “politely” looking away. I hope to get the call one day that my loved ones are singing the song too.

Who is meeting in my town represents dark elements, some of the darkest in our nation. There is just no getting around it. I feel the day would have been best met with black skies, hurricane weather, the ground shuddering with the force.

But in Florida, a hot, sunshiny day can be just as ominous.

I am told that to be a professional (writer, editor, writing coach), I should not get political on social media. But as someone who is involved with the arts and people creating the arts, I’m just not sure I can separate all these selves. Billie Holliday is a stunning example of the undivided self. Look at her experiences and the truth and pain welling up in her art. She was a genius. And that was her power.

Birthday thoughts

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Kitten’s Birthday, edited Library of Congress image, Stuart Rankin, flickr

For my birthday, my sister sent me a text of a picture of a quote by Henri Nouwen. It basically states birthdays are about celebrating the joy of one’s existence. Unlike so many other celebrations in our lives, what makes the day special is that the day is an existential recognition. It was such a wonderful quote it inspired me to peruse my bookshelves to see which of my Nouwen books survived my recent move and downsizing effort. From a distance, I saw a friendly cover, a deep red paperback cover for Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I thought: Isn’t spotting a cherished book a little like seeing a friend or beloved relative from afar? You know their walk, their stance, the things they tend to wear. You see and know them immediately.

With my book beside me, the cover art the classic Rembrandt “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I am beginning to recall a scene in Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: When the father sees his son from a distance, he runs out to embrace him, to welcome him home. Aren’t we all yearning to be welcomed home? Whether in a relationship, or in some personal, spiritual sense, is this not our hope, our journey? Happy birthday to me, and well wishing to you, for we should all know no matter who we are, there is hope for healing, for belonging.

Writing flash fiction with Kathy Fish

This afternoon, I have had a few minutes to pour over the latest exercise in Kathy Fish’s newsletter. It offers so much gold. I am glad I have decided to post this because it is a discussion of the creation of the beginning of a flash piece. I actually used the guidelines to go back and evaluate a nonfiction flash piece I submitted to a journal yesterday. I did spot ways I could improve my piece, something I often do in the process of receiving rejections and turning revised material into future submissions.

I would say also when someone says “exercise” a connotation of school comes to mind although in a way, this is a “school” without grades! Thankfully! Often, creating does take a little bit of time. I need to think through what I want to write. Sometimes in moving through my day, something will occur to me.

I hope you will consider perusing the newsletter. If you have considered writing fiction, it is a good chance to work on some fundamentals. Even if you go on to write longer forms, or if you are currently engaged in any kind of writing, you will have  gained some helpful writing muscles. A good argument for this is made in the newsletter.

Best wishes — Meg

Within A Forest Dark

South Australian History, Thebarton School 1926, public domain, flickr

Kathy Fish is an accomplished writer in the flash fiction form. In her newsletter, she generously shares thoughts about writing flash fiction and provides prompts to help get you going. Her posts draw from her craft book The Art of Flash Fiction. I strongly encourage you to sign up for her newsletter. I have! In this week’s installment, she gives a prompt for starting a flash fiction story. I hope to squeeze in some time to follow along! Best wishes – Meg

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Writing flash fiction with Kathy Fish

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South Australian History, Thebarton School 1926, public domain, flickr

Kathy Fish is an accomplished writer in the flash fiction form. In her newsletter, she generously shares thoughts about writing flash fiction and provides prompts to help get you going. Her posts draw from her craft book The Art of Flash Fiction. I strongly encourage you to sign up for her newsletter. I have! In this week’s installment, she gives a prompt for starting a flash fiction story. I hope to squeeze in some time to follow along! Best wishes – Meg

Magic Turtle, part 4

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turtle by Alexander Stoian

The magic turtle, the most powerful animal in the swamp, failed to use his power to save the other animals from the Burmese python. After the behemoth was freed, the magic turtle stood on a very high and guarded platform to lecture the ravenous apex predator.

Ms. Myska receives a Valentine

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The Saturday night before Valentine’s Day, there was a sharp rapping on Ms, Myska’s door. By the time she slipped on both of her face masks, her face shield. her gloves, the visitor had gone. On her doormat was a red foil gift bag with tufts of tissue paper jutting out. She looked in all directions, but there was no one in the hallway of her apartment building. She retrieved the package, stepped back inside, and applied the deadbolt.

She set the package on her hall tree bench. She gently removed the tissue paper to reveal a large box that smelled faintly of something rich and sweet – chocolate. She removed the box from the bag: “St. Basil Gift Box Assorted Specialty Chocolates.” There was a card. All it said was “Tony.”

She had met Tony Lasko, the ice cream man, months ago, when he drove his truck through the neighborhood. After he became sick from the coronavirus, she had not heard from him. And after more virulent strains had entered the population, she was even more reticent to go outside. She doubted she would have met him out anyway.

She took off her disposable gloves and sat on her sofa beside her window, the window where she had first seen the ice cream truck go by. She hugged the chocolates of her motherland to her chest.

Valentine Man

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Photo by Fadi Xd on Unsplash

Along the shore of his lake in the city of lakes, he fashions boats from waxed paper, affixes huge tissue heats to the corners, sets candles inside and lights them so that the miniature craft are drawn along on the dark water. Lovers pay fifty cents to see their boats glowing and drifting only to witness their incineration somewhere near the opposite bank, the cinder and ash ascending into the grey twilight, the smell of burnt paper, like kindling that flames and is quickly gone, filling the air, an acrid, comforting smell of home fires and warmth.

No one asks him any questions about the meaning of all of this or how or why he started, nor does he think of it too much. He thinks only of the delicate feel of the tissue, the lightness of the string, the slippery paper smoothed and sealed by wax, the fire on the water, the lovers’ faces as they stare at what they have paid for, prompted by who knows what, fascinated to see what becomes of their boat though they all must know what will be so why do they stay to watch? It is a mystery. Are they sad or satisfied somehow in the justification about their beliefs about tissue and hearts and fire, or had they hoped to see their boat, of all others, land safely on the other side?

Every night a woman who brings him a snack of rice and vegetables wrapped in a tortilla pays him fifty cents to place something small in her boat –  tiny babies from Mardi Gras cakes, bodkins she wore in her hair when she was a girl, pieces of wool from her sewing basket in which she keeps materials to make socks for soldiers, crosses she buys in packets of ten, pieces of kibble. She always has a prayer and dedication which she asks the man to recite though every night he protests he does not have his glasses and every night she gives him her late husband’s readers from the nightstand. As the boat floats out, he says her prayers for the soldiers, the young life, the married couple, the single women, the woman herself and her cat and her grandchildren.

One night, he found himself reading a prayer in which he was the subject. He had set a boat in the water containing a gold heart. He snatched the boat back, soaking his trousers. He retrieved the heart. This is my gig, he said gruffly, as if she had taken something from him. She asked for his blessing upon the heart. She asked him to kiss it. Instead, he chucked it out into the lake with all of his force where it plunked into the dark center and disappeared. They stood for a moment, the frogs screeching in judgment. It’s time to get a move on, he said. People are waiting. Indeed, a line had formed and that was the last night he saw her.

Every night he was hungry for the food she gave him and every night he had nothing to wonder about, what she would put into her boat, how she would ask him to pray, the feel of her late husband’s glasses upon his nose. How he missed that feel, strangely enough, and the strange prayers she had written, not like the coherent prayers he knew, but her erratic thoughts upon a subject, not a petition, but a statement as if she were telling someone how things were. He missed it.

And so he collected things for her, things he thought she would like, things he liked too, things forgotten and dusty in closets, things from childhood and a career and family from another life, and he put them in boats and watched the boats burn and sink with prayers on his lips uttered in a strange tongue, her way of speaking and thinking that had become his way of addressing God. He believed himself capable of finding that gold heart had only there been money for proper equipment and younger lungs. In its depths the dark lake held his gift and he did not mourn but for the first time understood why couples waited until they saw what they knew would come to pass, and that in the waiting they anticipated what was most beautiful, a beginning and an end, all at once.

early post modern, Alice Neel

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In watching a documentary about the English 20th century artist Francis Bacon, I couldn’t help but think of Alice Neel. Though Bacon’s figures were often disfigured, more approaching Picasso sometimes, the lines of some of his more figurative bodies reminds me of the wavering lines of Neel’s haunting portraits. In Neel, the figures often look at you directly or just off to the side but there is always a vulnerability. It is hard to describe the effect. I didn’t know much about Bacon until I’ve learned a tiny bit just now. Neel was someone whose work I had in a large art book. It made me feel like I knew her. I had to sell it to get by at a previous time in my life. This was something I imagined Neel would relate to, having been someone who scrambled a bit early on. I mourned the sale as well as the sale of a Cy Twombly book I had bought at the Tate Modern. Alice Neel is a formidable artist and an example of someone who practiced her art constantly, whether anyone made note of her or not, whether she had money or not. To me, it is an incredible story of resilience, struggle, and triumph.

Celtic prayer

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Celtic Cross by Bob Glennan, flickr (Clare, Ireland)

I appreciate the thoughtfulness and beauty of Jessica Brown’s writing and blog. She was an MFA colleague at Seattle Pacific University and thankfully, due to the efforts and talents of friends, our cohort has remained in contact. I wanted to share her thoughts about Celtic prayer with a link to her blog. In reading this, I am reminded of Kathleen Norris’ The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality). I feel inspired to revisit this and other works by Norris. Please add beauty, quiet, and spirituality to your day with the wonder of “small prayers for small tasks.”

certifiable

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Crumbling Building 1660 C by Jim Choate, flickr

Lyla wanted to be called manic depressive – by her therapist, by everyone. And not bipolar. So clinical. So politically correct and so, well, inaccurate. It felt dishonest. And Lyla lived in Florida. It was hot. She considered herself hot-headed and a tropical gal, perfect for the environment, well-suited. Mentally ill people flocked here for the warmth especially if they found themselves without a home. She often felt herself to be very close to this circumstance.

In response to Lyla’s demand that she be called manic depressive, her therapist put on her analytical face, a kind of receding expression Lyla had come to know well in person though in a zoom meeting, it lost some of its power. “I would like to understand why you want to be labeled manic depressive,” she said. “I am worried you are not being fair to yourself.”

This one used her “I” statements, thought Lyla. This was Lyla’s fifth therapist in ten years. She didn’t welcome the chaos and emotional upheaval of therapy shopping during a pandemic.

“I like it,” Lyla said, wanting to be impulsive and draw others into reacting impulsively. She didn’t feel like she should have to provide an explanation for what she wanted. She expected to get what she wanted, especially from someone she was paying.

Her last therapist told her, since she was divorced and in the throes of midlife, she could do whatever she wanted, come up with a new identity, dye her hair purple if she chose, dress how she pleased, pursue new hobbies, a whole new lifestyle. She missed that therapist, but during their last session, the therapist had hinted Lyla might be unfit for motherhood. Lyla had stormed out of the therapist’s office. That was back when treatments were in person, back before her son successfully went to college and began his own life. The drama of such confrontations and exits from therapy were gone, part of a former era in mental healthcare it seems. So much for in-person tantrums.

These attempts to meet on a computer screen reminded Lyla of her early days on lithium. There had been so little she seemed to experience directly. It was like she was swathed in cotton batting. That was before she switched meds, temporarily lost her hair, and started to puff out. But she was more herself again once she got used to it.

“I think crazy people who are acknowledged as such are seriously missing in our world. Everything is so politically correct. Everything is so bland. It’s boring.”

More gazing from cool blue eyes. Had she actually spaced while Lyla was talking? Blue eyes then wrote something down in her notebook. “Well, ok,” she said, looking back up into the tiny eye of the camera. “How are your meds?”

And that was about it. About ten minutes total. There was no lively debate, no storming, no confrontation. Lyla had been looking at her own face half the time on the screen, which was distracting. And the spaces of time between their exchanges were even longer with the technology.

Once they had set a date for the next appointment, Lyla signed off and slammed down her laptop. It was draining. And now, so quiet.

Lyla had developed a fascination for a west coast youtuber who was a makeup artist.* The youtuber applied fabulous and meticulous faces to herself. Each episode was different. While she transformed her whole face, from kinda cute to a magnificent beauty, she told true crime stories. Lyla could not get enough of these videos. They were mesmerizing, hypnotic. She sometimes fell asleep to the young woman’s gossipy but confident style as the stories stories scrolled from one to the other. She occasionally woke to the laptop almost overheating.

Had Lyla been better at makeup, this could be a fun hobby to try. And well, she just didn’t have the kind of bank it would take to get tools, paints and powders together. Another woman on youtube, a much older and not quite as cute but kindly looking, read lesser known fairy tales in a gentle voice. That was wonderful too. And she spun her own web.

Why couldn’t she transform herself into a youtube star? She didn’t know. What was she going to do? She had drowned a couple of plants from overwatering, had sent multiple texts and emails to friends and family, walked the neighborhood a couple of times when she felt inspired.

But without the friction of the presence and annoyances of others, there was no motivation to be quirky, there was no identity, only endless self, whatever that was on any given day. She knew of bipolars and unipolars as they are all called now, who had suicided or slid into substance abuse during the pandemic. Those days were over for her, pandemic or no. Besides, it was only fun when there was someone to perform for.

She looked into her closet as if for an answer. On a shelf, she spotted a paintbrush and a pot of green paint the color of a sweet pea. It was leftover from when she revamped a small table to go beside her old wicker lounge chair on the porch. Over the headboard in her bedroom, she painted a little minimalistic flower with a petal falling down like a tear.

She wasn’t really supposed to paint on her walls, but who was coming by to see? Repairmen for the complex only entered apartments in cases of extreme emergency. And it felt good, what she had done. Like, someone would eventually see and know she had done something wrong. There would be a reaction! She fell asleep that night, satisfied. That night, she dreamt of Chagall paintings, of slightly abstract and surreal images – flowers, people, animals, buildings, designs. When she awakened, she ordered paints and brushes, much cheaper than women’s makeup.

Over the course of the week, she started with the little area around the flower. She began to expand the space with a profusion of flowers she loved – bougainvillea, Don Juans, clematis. She realized she had forgotten something and painted over them with an azure blue. She then painted her room with the color of the sky. Then she filled in the sky with deep green vines, fuchsia blooms, white and purple flowers, red roses. In the dining room, she painted the walls blue and painted people and chickens and angels and the Eiffel tower and planets floating off into space. She painted her bathroom a burnt orange and painted huge white and green paisleys. She ordered a special acrylic paint and drew tiny figurines and sayings on the tile of the backsplash in the kitchen.

When she was finished, she painted her arm like the tattooed west coast youtube makeup artist. She painted vines and flowers, and she made a vine look like it was going up her neck. She painted flowers coming out of her hair along her forehead. She made a huge drink of punch and rum with lots of cherries and canned pineapple. She sat on her screened-in garden porch and sipped her drink until she felt numb. She watched the light change as the golden hour approached. She watched the children and dogs go by. She watched a squirrel scampering on a nearby tree, a green lizard suspended on her porch screen, a palm branch falling to the ground.

I am perfectly manic depressive, she thought, sipping the cool, sweet drink. Hells yeah, this was it. But ok, I’ll take my meds as per. But being crazy is the one thing I got, the one thing with an edge.

A jay squawked from high up in an oak, as if he agreed her and would call a crazy person out if that was the reality. Lyla lifted her drink in a toast to the little dingbat.

*Bailey Sarian

sunroom

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Sunroom: Sunlight streaming through vertical blinds by Steve Garner, flickr

At exactly 7:44 a.m. the sun rises above the line of covered garages across the lot from my garden apartment. Until today, I had not opened the vertical blinds in my living room at precisely this time. Before the rising of the sun, I was already awake and had learned the wind will blow 30 to 40 miles per hour today, that the temperature was 45 degrees. I sit on my sofa with the sun stabbing my eyes, spotting my vision but I do not close the blinds. I like it I have greeted the sun. And I like the way the 30 to 40 mile per hour wind is blowing the tall pines beyond the garage, dappling the sunlight, causing it to shift and dance.

I am sad a neighbor is moving out. With the rising of the sun, I see him working to move his belongings to his garage in preparation for other neighbors to help him move. He and his wife were a part of welcoming me to this new place. He and his dog were friends to me and my dog, my dog who has moved to greener pastures, relieved of suffering. My friend is a war vet. His dog is trained to help him. My friend says he will be getting another Labrador to keep his dog Major happy. He says I should get a Labrador too. They are great dogs. They are easy to train. Major does everything, even picking up his own leash in his mouth and walking himself when it’s time to walk. That was the first trick I saw Major do. The war vet and Major are a great team.

I like it that the instant the sun rises every morning, I hear the creaking of the floor above me, the sounds of a young family, a mother and father and little girl. Before the pandemic began crushing us like a vise, I used to be irritated with some of their sounds. Yes, I loved the sounds the child made, ok, but sometimes I became irritated. Now mostly I love the sound of the child running from one end of the apartment to the other. Now I love the sound of the child and her mother playing on their balcony overhead, and sometimes the father joining in, sometimes the mother and the father clapping together and singing songs, and always the baby laughing. I do love it mostly now, whereas before I was mostly selfish.

When the father goes on a bike ride with the child or when the mother goes on a bike ride with the child, they always say I love you to each other. Whoever is not going on the bike ride – the father or the mother – will stand on the balcony and say I love you to the one going on the bike ride with the child – the father or the mother. I sit in my office and listen to them say this to each other. This is usually later in the day, in the afternoon, when I am doing my schoolwork. It is funny that I am happy to hear this because maybe I used to be a little more selfish. Maybe I used to feel a little more envious about this kind of thing. But they are young. And the child needs to hear this, to feel it. I am only happy that they love each other. I am only happy the child sees this. I like to give the child things when I can. Sometimes it is only a cookie. Sometimes it is only the good thoughts of my better angel.

Still, I have habits of the past. I have worries. I have darkness. The worry and darkness feel like fresh incarnations of newly minted worry and dark thoughts but maybe they are just worries transmogrified from old worries. I worry about my son getting a job in this economic climate. I worry about getting cancer again. I worry about getting depressed and daily, I fight against it. I worry about my aging parents. I worry about my sister, my niece, my nephew. I worry about my ex and his new wife. I worry about our country. I worry about our president. I worry about our world.

I think what happened was that when my dog was alive, all of my worries went into thinking about her. Now that she has gone, I worry so much I feel like I might cry. Every day I want to cry. At least one time a day I think: I really want to cry right now. I don’t always have one specific thing in mind I want to cry about. In fact, sometimes I wrack my brain hoping to find one thing that will really just slay me and make me want to cry so I can get it over with. But: nothing. And everyone else is worried. There aren’t many people I could talk to who aren’t also burdened with worry. Why would I tell them about my worry? What good would that do? It’s like being locked into a meat freezer or a sauna. The lock is on the outside. There isn’t anything anyone can do. The temperature remains the same. And everyone is suffering in the same way.

But the sun has come up. I have been here to say hello. That is all I have left to say.

For the love of story

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Over the holidays, I posted about what I was reading, particularly as it pertains to a short story by Heinrich Böll, one of Germany’s greatest post World War II literary authors. Today, I am looking back on a short story collection I picked up in a wonderful used bookstore when I lived in a different part of town. The collection is called The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern, published in 1986 by Penguin. Halpern also edited The Art of the Story, published more recently (2000). My copy of The Art of the Story may have been lost in a recent move but I have plans to order one used.

A story which stood out to me on my initial perusing of The Art of the Tale several years ago was Truman Capote’s “Children on their Birthdays.” It has since spurred a small Capote spree: Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a story collection, though I know this is only a small portion of the whole. Previously, my main exposure to Capote had been Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote. However, that movie piqued my curiosity about Capote’s friendship with Harper Lee, “Nell” as she is known by friends. My grandparents knew her when they lived in Mobile. Capote was from Monroeville, right up the road. Harper Lee lived next door to Capote’s cousins who lived in the “Faulk house,” now designated by a historical marker. I’ve always wondered if my grandparents knew him too.

“Children on their Birthdays” is set in a simpler time. A highway from Mobile is unpaved and dusty during a dry summer, down which a stranger comes to town, a strange little ten year old “Miss Bobbit.” It is an era in which people sit on their porches, children loll about in the yard, everyone knows the fragrant smell of the neighbor’s sweet flowered hedge. About the only thing I have to compare this to are my younger days in South Carolina and especially, summers in North Carolina where my family used to go for a few months. Everyone knew everyone. And we sat on porches, watched people walk dogs, steal apples, smell fragrant mountain laurel. In Orlando, my mother-in-law would have known simpler times like this, when major roads were unpaved, an unthinkable situation now.

What Capote always seems to get so right is voice, especially that southern voice. (I imagine his speaking voice to be a drawl and am afraid I am forever influenced by Hoffman’s portrayal.) The “voice” of his fiction does not lag. It is intriguing. It often sounds like gossip, only possible in cultures in which congregating was the main event. There is poetry in his lines. And because of all of these elements, I never lose interest. I must see what happens next! To me, he is a classic, skilled storyteller through that extra layer of a fictional narrator. There is something very small town southern in that and though my circumstances are now different, it ties me so strongly to my childhood in which someone telling a story was the centerpiece of gatherings.

Reading The Art of the Tale is like visiting a kind of literary home. Good “friends” are here: Margaret Atwood, Samuel Beckett, Russell Banks, Raymond Carver, Carlos Fuentes, Italo Calvino, Isak Dinesen, Bernard Malamud, Alberto Moravia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Maxwell, Nadine Gordimer, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, William Trevor, Richard Wright, to name a few.

Sometimes I do feel like the old conditions from which many of my favorite storytellers emerged are changing and sometimes I wonder how that will affect story in the future. Many of us are not as in touch with the natural environment, taking shelter in community, planning lives around houses of worship as well as a nuclear family. That changes our voices and our sense of the world. Though at the very least, I pray we will at last be able to enjoy greater freedom when a worldwide health crisis subsides and then I suppose we can take stock. Who knows, maybe there will be a revival of appreciation for things we used to take for granted.

Who are your favorite writers? Do you have their stories on a shelf? In your heart? Do you know how to find them online or through your electronic devices? Do you feel, like me, like they are your old “friends?” To me, it is never too late to renew old friendships. And it is more than wise to expand the circle to enclose the new.

Blessings and good health – Meg

Bling Empire, Netflix

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Manikens by Byron Miller, flickr

I’m not young. I’m not skinny. I’m not rich. I’m not able to hang out with anyone outside of my pod of proven coronavirus-free people and when I do, we’re distancing. And the only person on “Bling Empire” I may have something in common with ethnically is the boyfriend of one of the rich ladies….I am 1/16th Cherokee. And in no way am I Asian, unless I am a descendent of Genghis Khan which, rumor has it, according to genetic tests, many of us are because he was, well, so prolific. But having cried a good 8 hours on Wednesday out of relief that we still have a democracy, I am spending this Saturday night watching a typical kind of “reality” show about an alternative world – alternative for reasons elucidated above. The subjects are “crazy rich Asians” in Los Angeles. I’m watching an episode and drinkin’ my low rent cab sav. Or at least I’ll see if I am able to handle an episode – or some portion of. But it is a change from heavy! And stressed! We all need a break. Enjoy yours – Meg

Inauguration Day

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There is nothing more satisfying than to fall asleep to a dying candle and awaken to a burnt wick. Something old has gone, something new has come.

There is nothing more satisfying than to wake to remember the words you were trying to say, words your broken heart prevented you from recalling. When you wake from your brokenness, you go straight to your notebook to take the words down in a rush.

There is nothing more satisfying than a parade. Everyone is laughing. Everyone is cheering. Everyone is dancing. Well, almost everyone. The ones whose fears cosset them in sadness, anger, and regret will warm slowly to the clowns who produce candy, flowers, and doves. Even the fear filled ones in jail cells, even the fear filled ones in hiding places – abroad and at home – will wake to an unexpected grace. And after the parade, all will spend years at a banquet, feeding their families and healing their bodies.

There is nothing more satisfying than a child speaking of her grandfather, the great liberator. She speaks to an echo of a dream, buried but not forgotten, to white and to black, to all shades of beauty between. She stands at the microphone and the crowd is hushed, the children are thrilled: One of their own brings hope from a forgotten country.

There is nothing more satisfying than to wake from a dream of your father. You have sliced your own hand with a kitchen knife and to hold it together and help it heal, he will take you to the hospital. He is the same father of your childhood who allowed you to brush his hair with a tiny brush. He and your mother made you a beautiful dollhouse many Christmases ago. You are divorced now and middle aged. Your houses have all been sold or broken. But in the dream, your aged father sees you through to the end.

Inauguration 2017

Magic Turtle, part 3

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turtle by Alexander Stoian, flickr

There is a magic turtle who is the most powerful animal in the swamp. Yet he is a silly turtle: He flips and flops. When he is on his back, he seems more empathetic and is ready to help other animals. But when he is on his belly: No dice.

Peace, peace, peace! Pau Casals

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Since I discovered this amazing video, it has impressed so much on my heart: Casals’ beautiful address to the United Nations during his reception of the UN peace medal, his gorgeous composition and delivery of notes, the images of flying birds, and a picture of Casals’ White House performance during the Kennedy era.

I remember watching this since the 2016 election and reflecting that we will likely not have a celebration of fine artists like we did with Obama, like we did with JFK, and like we did under other presidential administrations. This made me sense the darkness we were living through. It is amazing we have survived this void of culture.

And it is amazing our lawmakers survived a seditious attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6. I am saddened by the loss of life that was a result and I am sad some are now quarantining as a result of the unlawful invasion by those pursuing a violent insurrection.

On a more personal note, my memory of this song and watching the video again today has made me sad because I had to put my dog down this past weekend. She had an enlarged heart and was having complications. I like to think of her spirit as flying up there with all those beautiful birds. And I like to think our White House will one day resume its recognition of artists who lift the human spirit, those like Pau Casals.

Meg

Magic Turtle, part 2

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turtle by Alexandru Stoian, flickr

There is a magic turtle whose shell is pure gold. And yet he is a silly little turtle: He could use his power to move fast and save the animals from the Burmese python. But he is a turtle after all, and knows this is who he will always be.

My girl

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A Dog’s Life by Andrej Kasić, flickr

I discovered Squeaky Car Wash after dropping my dog off at the vet on a sunny, cool December day in my central Florida town. My dog has an enlarged heart and needed shots and a checkup. During the pandemic, pets are dropped off with an assistant at the curb and there is no face to face contact with vets, only a doctor’s follow up phone call.

As always, I wanted the cheapest carwash possible and found it was the five dollars as advertised on the road sign. So many financial pressures were mounting but a dusty car felt a bit demoralizing. A few weeks before Christmas, a rental moving truck had crushed the back end of my car. Though it was not my fault, my insurance company had decided not to waive the remainder for repairs. And I could not afford to make up the difference, especially now in a pandemic with my own health issues much less my pet’s. Luckily my car was operating, including the rear light. But cosmetically, it looked a bit less than the glory of yesteryear.

A bearded, middle aged man stood at a kiosk outside of the drive thru wash. He took my credit card and offered a membership in case I lived or worked in the area. I told him I was only there today because I took my dog to the vet. He expressed his concern, saying he hoped my dog was ok. I thought it was a little strange, not to take my response as a matter of course. Then I realized it was a pretext for talking about his dog who died only a week before, just before Christmas. He had discovered the death upon waking. The animal was already cold. Then he relayed his emotion about breaking the news to his daughters.

Honestly, it did shake me up. Behind my aged and stretched out Tiffany sunglasses I had once enjoyed in an era when I thought I had money, I felt my face steaming up around my eyes. I told him I was sorry. I told him at least he was the one to discover his deceased dog before his daughters did. He also made a definite attempt to convey he had a wife. When I am friendly to men, they always seem to slip that in early as if there is some ulterior motive behind our conversation, or could be. A few years ago, I had come to the conclusion I was demisexual so if this were a different conversation, not about dogs, I could have told him to relax, there was no chance.

I felt a little strange about the conversation, honestly, as I quickly closed the sunroof before the mechanized tracks guided my bright yellow Ford hatchback into the dark cover of an assault of water, soap, and blue scrubbing strips. I realized sometimes I am bothered by this kind of thing as unfeeling and selfish as it may sound. I felt like I couldn’t afford the burden of a another person’s bad experience with something so similar to what I was experiencing. It was like when I took my dog to a favorite groomer when I lived on the other side of town. Somehow we talked about my new breast cancer diagnosis then the groomer started to cry about her daughter dying from the selfsame illness. I drove home in shock and a fresh new compounded worry and grief. And now, an ever present pandemic magnifies all grief and worry.

My dog and I have made it through the Christmas holiday, though there are days she has some troubling symptoms. Still, I am not quite ready to have that quality of life meeting with my vet. My dog’s breed suffers separation anxiety and these days, she has done weird things when I leave her alone for any amount of time. She still charms the vet and her new groomer, though I myself am feeling wary about leaving her anywhere except with a doctor who could help her if something happens. My mood goes up and down with each new turn and some days it feels almost more than I can bear.

For Christmas, my son and I gave her a little stuffed lamb that looks almost exactly like her. The little lamb is stretched out as if she were sleeping on her belly. I try to remember to place them together when she naps on the couch and on the bed although at times I find her snuggled up next to it. I am glad we have done this last little thing for her as well as making sure she is in the best possible health she can be at this time.

It is hard sometimes to track the level of her awareness but I have never thought an animal should be in pain and there have been indications of that. I don’t know what will happen. I am not sure I can wake up to a deceased pet. But in the Episcopalian tradition, we have a service for the blessing of the animals, which means God cares for them. I know that no matter what happens, God will see my little girl home.

Unease in Muck City

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Every now and then I will receive a request for a funeral in the tradition of the old ways. In rural, agricultural Florida there is an older generation whose families have passed down stories and practices of funerary traditions in which the body is laid out in the dining room upon an unhinged door for viewing. What is not so well known is that various beliefs have arisen around this practice. What started out as a practice necessitated by the lack of resources for handling the deceased, has, in some family circles and regional subcultures, become a religious rite, even a godly demand.

I came to live and practice in Belle Glade or “Muck City” just south of Lake Okeechobee when I graduated from mortuary school. I had not planned on this profession but it had became necessary during a depression as a result of the pandemic. My adopted town was named “Muck City” because of the “muck” in which sugar cane grows. When the agriculture changed from farming vegetables to growing cane, many lost their livelihood and the area became depressed, crime ridden. But every city needs someone to handle their dead, dead from the pandemic, dead from murder, dead from complications of drugs and malnutrition.

The area considered the Florida Heartland is more like the deep south than other parts of Florida. And it is here where, among some pockets of Bible Belt believers, superstitions abound and religious beliefs intermingle with old time practices. It had become common among certain people to believe that a too early enclosure of the body in a solid box would not allow the spirit to grieve its own passing, would risk that the spirit would re-animate the body and would cause the corpse made alive again to live the horror of being buried alive. Therefore the old and seemingly defunct practice of laying a body out on a door for viewing was of great importance to such populations. In addition, the act of the dead lying on a door had become a sort of practiced fulfillment of the words of Jesus: “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved.” In addition, cremation was beyond the question. Again, Biblical verses were employed to explain the rationale: “Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever.” What happens when Christ comes again if there is no body, if it is burned?

I began to observe closely the faces of the deceased and try to discern their aspects to see if I could determine “rest” or “unrest,” to try to compare post death funerary rituals. In most cases, I was able to convince these fundamentalist families to allow their beloved dead to be laid out on a door in our refrigerated storage facility as opposed to the old school – and frankly, unsanitary way of letting it sit in their dining room or parlour – and so this gave me opportunity to make my observations. I had lost my wife in the pandemic a couple of years ago and so had no one else to answer to. We had no children. I lived in the craftsman home converted and dedicated to my business “Peaceful Rest.” Legally, it was not allowed for me to live where I plied my trade, but I secretly managed with a cot and a small electric stove, as well as a separate address, a post office box, where I retrieved my mail.

Two clients, a couple, had a fight over how they were to bury the husband’s mother. It was early in my practice and I was incredibly nervous over how to handle these kinds of situations. My job was to soothe the anxious, grieving spirits of the living, to be a reassuring presence, to provide some sort of authoritative mediation of differences. Apparently, the woman had become quite close to her husband’s mother and of course the husband was feeling his own loss deeply. The wife’s family had practiced the old ways of Appalachia and she insisted her mother-in-law had spoken about the beauty of these old beliefs and practices. The deceased was born and raised in Georgia and grew up in many of the old customs, still practiced by some.

The husband was a successful businessman, one of the city’s few, and saw such practices as primitive, arcane, and certainly only for those who are uneducated. He had in mind to cremate her and had been looking through options for urns while his wife tearfully implored him not to be rid of her body. I was able to find a middle way: A more traditional yet relatively modern casket viewing, ceremony, and burial. The wife still seemed unsettled by this, but was not quite as frantic, and the husband acquiesced to this seemingly more conciliatory way of interring his mother.

On the day of the viewing, several hours before, the body of the old woman having been prepared, dressed, and placed in the casket, the lid closed until the hour for visitors, I awoke to a dark silhouette against the window of my office where I slept. There was no noise, only a shifting figure of something dark lingering in the room in the earliest break of day. “Louisa?” I said, thinking somehow that it may be my deceased wife. But there was no response. I felt as if my heart might pierce my chest. I watched with a sense of foreboding but must have drifted to sleep at some point for when I woke, my office was flooded with light and there was no dark shadow. I had no sense of dread. I made my coffee and prepared for the day.

In the quiet time before the body was set out in the viewing room, I would go over everything and make sure of the makeup, the proper placement of the jewelry and hair, the collar, cuffs of the blouse.

But when I entered the refrigerated storage room, I saw that the lid of the casket of the deceased woman had been tossed aside and the corpse’s wig lay on the floor like a discarded mop head. Looking back, what should have occurred to me first is that there had been a robbery or some act of vandalism and desecration. What actually occurred to me was that an undead corpse, suffocating in a box, had made its escape, and was out in Muck City, seeking shelter, food, and family.

Creative life

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Windows to your mind by eltpics, flickr

When to write and when not to write has not always been clear. Over the years, something I’ve learned is this: Writing looks different at different times, both in terms of how I practice writing and in terms of the content of my stories.

I have learned that when I am completely stressed out and shut down, writing is just not on the table. Being able to stop and not write has sometimes helped me to recover when I am feeling adrift or at odds. It has helped me regain a sense of being human. There have been times during the pandemic when I have experienced this to be the case. I am just too stressed. I am doing well to think and survive, much less write, much less create.

But there are times when I think I just need to be OK with whatever I am moved to write, no matter how I feel. In these moments, my mood may not always be optimal. The “voice” I had imagined when I was thinking in my head about the story during a “pre-writing” phase may not necessarily gel when I finally put the words on the screen or page. But these are the times I feel it absolutely necessary to engage with writing. Sometimes I can’t even concentrate on other things, such as reading, until I have tried to put into some form thoughts and ideas swimming just below conscious thought. The entryway to these thoughts and ideas take the form of an image or memory or even a cadence or tone of a voice.

I have been criticized for my plethora of words on my blog, for just writing willy nilly. Another person has responded to an experimental story that I created for a workshop by saying it was something someone writes when they don’t know what they are doing. (Lol.) Another writer says I vomit on the page. Lovely.

People say things for all sorts of reasons. Really, the only thing that is important to me is: Am I am feeling myself move along? Is something coming out of me that may have been stuck before? It is probably not in its final form, but does it feel new to me? Does it have life? Sometimes the answer is no. And yet it is still by no means wasted effort. A mentor taught a group of us that early efforts are often scaffolding and absolutely essential in building later, more mature structures. But if there is life there in its nascent form, maybe at some point it will live on in a final form as a re-visioning.

Here is what Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own:  “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.” I take the liberty to include the opinions of both writers and nonwriters. I have learned I have to do what I feel is best when it comes to creating on the page.

I took a workshop led by a local writer who knew me well and who singled me out among the many participants and told me not write “anything weird,” to just do the writing exercise. I made sure I wrote the weirdest thing I could dream up that day though normally I would just have written anything that occurred to me, weird or otherwise.

What I like about a blog is that it gives me the chance to try new approaches with very little risk. If I write for me and me alone, there is no risk. The beneficial aspect is to receive some feedback if even in subtle ways – views, followers, sometimes a like, sometimes a comment.

One way I try to support friends or colleagues who are about to engage in a workshop or class or any other creative project is tell them to think about what they want out of it. If I am going into a workshop and am assigned an exercise, I will always relate it to something I am working on already, or something I already know I want to work on. This way, I come out with material. This way, I am fully engaged. This way, I am not spending too much time trying to land on an idea. And criticism is easier to take when you have your own motives. You know in the end you are the view that counts, though yes of course others may have valuable contributions. But make any creative endeavor yours.

Another aspect of blogging is the discipline of going back to the posts being read as evidenced in the statistics. I will go back to those pieces and I will almost always see ways I can improve them, whether in some developmental sense or something more basic. I try not to feel bad or embarrassed or overly apologetic. I think instead of a concept I have explored earlier in this blog about creating in community: “Create with Sand.” Everyone contributes – readers, other writers, mentors, books that have been read, media consumed. When we make corrections publicly, this is an acknowledgement of this and a way to stay grateful and connected.

Any work you do is never waste. Unfortunately some people believe that and it’s a shame. But all work you do is raw material and there is no need to explain or apologize. Just keep moving. Do your thing. Often something I’ve worked on in rough draft comes back to me in another piece. Or research I did for a now defunct story becomes a useful piece of another story.

So while there are times to rest, times to let the creative field go fallow, there are also times to keep moving. Only you can know when those times are. Just don’t let anyone else determine those times for you and don’t let anyone else’s criticisms keep you from pulling out of yourself what needs life and breath and air.

Harbinger

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Wind from the Sea” painting by Andrew Wyeth, National Gallery, image by Nichole Brown, flickr

Kalene tried not to see it as a harbinger of death that her dog sat closer and closer to the bedroom door earlier and earlier each day. It had become their habit to go to the bedroom right after her last meal, which, during Kalene’s bout with an undiagnosed pain, had also been earlier and earlier with each passing day. In the days before lockdowns and worldwide panic, before pain wore on her as the sun set lower in the sky, Kalene was a lover of the night. She and her dog were night watchers.

Now, she took pills to numb pain’s effects. The pills made her sleepy. And so she and her dog got into the habit of retiring at six or seven in the evening. When there were no other commitments, their hour of turning in became four o’clock in the afternoon. Over the holidays, it became two o’clock. On New Year’s Day, she had returned to her bedroom at noon, not long after lunch, though sometimes her decisions were ruled not just by pain, but also by feelings, a kind of overwhelm.

The dog, who had become used to her round soft bed before the electric fireplace in her bedroom, now preferred to sleep in Kalene’s bed. Always a way to enter the bed had been provided, a cushioned footstool, a way to aid in the ascent. And the two of them would pile in with feather pillows, soft sheets and blankets. The dog had positioned herself closer and closer to Kalene in bed. In the mornings and throughout the day, the dog sat outside the bedroom door staring at her as if to ask: “Is it time for bed?” Something about that made Kalene very sad, very worried.

The little dog had developed a gasping cough since pandemic lockdowns. She had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart and prescribed pills. The prognosis was not great. Pills would not cure this malady. But the dog, like all healthy dogs, had loved hard her whole life, had loved her little family. And now there was change. There was uncertainty.

In the years before the pandemic, the little dog would not have gone to bed without her owner. Wherever Kalene was, that was where she wanted to be. And yet, here she was going to bed without her. When Kalene left her bedroom door open in the mornings, the dog would pile in among the rumpled sheets and sleep.

It reminded Kalene of an egg tempera painting by an artist of an old dog sleeping on a wooden four poster bed. Kalene had an original lithograph of another of the artist’s work, of wind from the sea blowing aged curtains into a dimly lit room. She hoped to frame it and put it in her bedroom. The other reproduction was a poster. It was an image of a woman sitting in the grass leaning toward an ancient, peeling house. Kalene doesn’t have the painter’s work “Master Bedroom” portraying the dog sleeping on the humble sanctuary of a worn coverlet. She doesn’t think she could bring herself to hang it in her home and see it every day. But of course, she knew of it. And Kalene’s dog now preferring the quiet sanctuary of her bed reminds Kalene of the subdued scene of this old dog curled on the pillows as if curling up on a headstone.

Friends accused Kalene of magical thinking. She once voiced concern to them one night when they were out that she fell down the stairs the day after she complained about her parents. She felt the accident was a kind of cosmic punishment for her ingratitude. One of her friends, a therapist, told her that this was “magical thinking” and of course the two incidents were not related. She did not tell her friend that she had once thought of her cancer as a kind of punishment for her divorce. Though she trusted her friend’s opinion, she was not altogether certain of the invalid nature of her understanding of things.

She was born and bred on the reading of signs. Her Protestant family extrapolated deeply into daily life for the telltale signs of God’s will and also evidence of God’s displeasure. Things were said about consequences for thoughts or actions that felt heavy handed and simply not true but some aspect of this practice of an attribution of causes implanted itself into her worldview. It was her habit to make connections to some concept of the Supernatural. And she often had a grim viewpoint. Where people saw nostalgia in the popular works of the egg tempera painter for example, works that had even become well beloved kitsch, she saw darkness, even death.

It was not a good sign her little dog, not long ago a frisky little impish thing, now made her think of the painting of the yellow dog in a wooden bed in a dimly lit room. The poster of the woman in the grass, leaning toward a dilapidated farmhouse in the distance had been a framed print in her grandparent’s home in Louisiana, a framed reproduction above the mantle. As a girl, the artwork always puzzled her and made her a bit sad, but as a girl she didn’t question many things. Things just were. She felt certain the adults knew what it was about and why it seemed sad and that one day she would figure it out. What she couldn’t know was that images and their associations could haunt you the rest of your life, that certain art will come back to you in your memory as solidly as an encounter with a friend or family member, as solidly as the face of a loved one.

She felt it impossible not to put too many things together, to try to practice the concept when applicable: This statement is true and that statement is true, but the two are not necessarily related.

Though the painting of the yellow dog may not have been a representation of death or even fragility, she now felt the concepts related. Maybe it simply meant to say something else entirely. But the dog standing at her doorway, begging for access to her bed when the day had not begun, began her thinking in a certain way, however much her dog’s behavior was related to her medical diagnosis or the dog’s new association of the bed and bedroom with the peace and quiet needed to cope with a new physical ailment.

To Kalene, her dog standing at the bedroom door waiting for rest felt like something more final. And what is to talk a Protestant girl-become-woman out of her magical ideas, out of believing the interconnectedness of the natural and supernatural world, out of the signs and portents she believes point to a reality that cannot be known by science? Reading the signs has helped her survive, so she thinks. And in a time when survival is at a premium, there is no setting aside survival habits, however ill-formed and maladaptive.

She is filled with dread for what she may find one day in her bed, more than what may happen to her own physical and mental health should she become ill. She does not want to think of finding her pet in her room, cold, lifeless. She wonders if she will ever be able to sleep in the bed again if that should happen. She wishes she believed in the cleansing of sage and other spiritual beliefs and practices but again, her modern day Protestantism kept her from certain practices. She feels sometimes trapped in a web, as an insect, her destiny determined, the chosenness of being a target of the spider, as she watches the world around her, only being able to emote, only being able to know: This is happening to me.

Kitchen Mouse

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Image from page 35 of “The tailor of Gloucester” (1903), Internet Book Archive Images, flickr

There once was a woman who wanted unconditional love from her father, the King. Yet, somehow, she had been consigned to polishing his crown, shining his shoes, preparing his royal throne. No one knew how this came about, not even the woman herself for while she should have been asking herself this question, she was busy focusing on what he said, how he thought, what she could do to finally cause him to love her without conditions. When she was a little girl, he loved her blond curls. And maybe, thinking back on it now as she made the a feast for the royal family, he loved her silence.

As many teen princesses will do, they will both attempt to please their royal parents and to rebel. It was hard to work out where Father and Mother ended and where a teen began, so such princesses pull away to see what happens, to try to detect the division, to confirm it actually exists, and to find out if love exists when there is separation. This young lady learned early that love does not always exist when you pull away. But there had still been hope for her: She could marry royally, and so she did, though there were still demands to appear at court, to raise children in royal traditions, and never tarnish the name of King and Queen.

As time went on, and the fanfare of royal weddings and the celebrations of royal births were distant memories, the woman met a kitchen mouse who whispered to her secrets about other worlds, other realities, places where children were valued for simply being alive. This perspective opened a door in the mind of the aging, royal princess, a special room she could return to again and again, an imaginary world where children were messy and chaotic, parents didn’t always have answers, and families simply gathered and let conversation unfold. The princess was so engaged with this dream she became inattentive for large portions of the day. Her children were grown and so there was only her husband to care for, but she forgot to order food and press his clothes. She didn’t attend royal gatherings and she didn’t attend to her father.

The ineffectual princess stumbled upon an island during one of her royal visits to the colonies, a visit her father insisted she take to clear her mind and restore her sense of duty to the Kingdom. And yet, the island struck her as a perfect place to daydream. What’s more, she met people on the island who liked to daydream too. Their conversations were free and easy. They took long, meandering walks. They sat for hours, simply waiting for the sun to set. They did not wait for special occasions to celebrate. Every day was a celebration. They were like children together and she insisted they were not treat her as a princess.

Word came from her Father the King by royal messenger on a royal boat: Come back or be forever disowned. Expect Me to never approve of your life forthwith. Your Husband has already deserted you as reason dictates. You will receive no Royal Inheritance nor Title. I will always treat you as a peasant, a mere servant for your disobedience, your lack of loyalty to God’s Anointed.

It occurred to the princess that she was already a peasant behind closed doors. And she was in a worse situation than a peasant because everyone assumed she was being treated as a princess. She laughed so hard the messenger departed, confused and offended.

It didn’t take long for her grown children to visit. They were shocked by her casual attire and attitude. Her son lectured her and her daughter became watchfully silent. But the princess begged them to spend time with her, to not let their discomfort dictate an immediate departure. They relented, and over time, they began to relax with the ebb and flow of the tide, with the free form of island life. She watched something new arise in them, a comfort in speaking with her more naturally. This state of circumstances felt like the dream life the kitchen mouse had whispered to her years ago.

“Mom, I don’t want to be a prince,” said her son. “I don’t want to be next in line to the throne.”

And her daughter said: “I want to be an artist, I have many dreams.”

To my readers: I am a writer of dark stories but I will not insist all dreams are tarnished by darkness. I believe in whispering kitchen mice. And I believe in bright islands where there is love and acceptance, even joy. And as silly as it sounds for dark writers to say so, I believe in a better new year, even if I am proven wrong. I don’t know, exactly, what happened in this family of this little story of mine. And I don’t know what the grown children eventually became, and where they decided to live, and how they relayed these decisions to the Throne and the Kingdom’s subjects. I don’t know how long the princess lived after finding freedom and happiness. But I argue for the open ending. We don’t know, do we, what will happen in our world. We are suffering, yes, but there may be an island, a space between the pain in which we draw breath, long enough to dream of something: What could be.

Magic turtle

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turtle by Alexandru Stoian, flickr

There is a magic turtle whose shell is pure gold. He is the most powerful animal of all animals in the swamp. And yet he is a silly little turtle: Whenever he tries to help others, he changes his mind, snaps, and retreats into his shell, lest his magic disappear.