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 then-legal lynching of black Americans in our country. There is not to this 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 in 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.
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 TheReturn of the ProdigalSon: 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Yesterday, the beginning of my blog piece was only a number: What time it was when I saw the sun rise. And thankfully from there, thoughts flowed. I learned yesterday that sometimes all it takes to ground a piece of writing is a number. In fact, numbers constantly ground us, literally and metaphorically. We would sometimes like to escape certain realities of life that define us and delimit our existence. We sometimes wish to be disembodied beings who don’t need grounding elements like numbers. But like the Velveteen Rabbit* worn down by the numbers – number of times loved, number of times played with, number of griefs – numbers make us real. But dear Velveteen played the numbers for that very chance to be real. He took the risk, the plunge, the acceptance of the price of pain, for the actual hope he may be “real” one day to a child who needed him.
Here are some examples of the ways numbers play into our thoughts and decisions: I wonder if I have enough money. I wonder how much I weigh. I wonder if my blood sugar is ok, or if not, exactly how bad it is. I wonder how I scored on that test. I wonder if I improved my social capital with that interaction. I wonder how many actual friends I have and if I am lacking, how I can increase that number. I wonder if I could really be this old. I’m thinking it must be a miracle I have lived to be this old. I wonder what the temperature is. I wonder how much precipitation is in the air, and whether a wind or fire or blizzard will destroy us. I wonder if the government is finally going to decide what money it can part with to save its citizens. I wonder how much time a person will spend in prison for the level of their offense. I wonder if there are hospital beds, enough shots, if I have a fever, if someone else does, how likely I will get the virus with two masks, a total of five filters. I wonder what to do when my loved one dies. Numbers, facts, probabilities, statistics. Hard realities.
Some of us would like to perform “pure” art devoid of numbers – devoid of our need to make money, but a lot of us simply can’t. The numbers are real. They remind us of who we are, they tether us to our humanity. If we are lucky enough to practice art without having to worry about money, great. But for many of us, the numbers aren’t in our favor in that way, and yet that makes us no less artistic people, it simply makes us experience more immediate bumps and bruises. Some might feel more creative because of the bumps and bruises, though some may not feel this way. Unfortunately, our physical needs and the needs of our families, “the numbers,” don’t care. Art will come to the watchful, even late into the night. Art will gift the mind and fingers with energy, with leftover energy and will to survive the day. Those who do not seem to need the numbers, I simply ask: Who does not face what confronted the Velveteen Rabbit: The tradeoff of love? No one can avoid it.
I am playing a sort of numbers game on you by stacking my argument. I hope I have come to it honestly, but only the Lord knows. I hope I have helped in some small way, even if you don’t agree. You have a right to your opinion.
Yesterday I found online interactions with longtime friends and a support group, many hours after some pensive thoughts animated my fingers to write what I wrote in the morning hours for the blog. I was so grateful for that chance to engage my humanity, to give and receive, as I engaged in various activities. I feel remarkably better. I have given myself health points and improved the numbers.
For Easter, I am considering a riff on this blog post. Last year and the year before, I hosted a micro fiction challenge “darkEaster.” The first year, I put prompts on twitter. Last year, I posted prompts on WordPress and wrote 50 word fiction pieces, roughly one micro fiction each day. I may get less dark this year. Haven’t we already had enough total darkness? Maybe the challenge will be 50 word micro fictions on becoming “real,” with a nod to the Velveteen Rabbit. It is yet another chance to consciously and artistically play the numbers, counting our words, and making every word count, in the hopes of better seeing, living, loving, a chance to become real: “#Velveteen50”
Blessings to all the Velveteen Rabbits out there. May you stay in good health: worn, yet alive. —- Meg
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.
It was not true there were no baby angels watching the towers fall in lower Manhattan. Their acute awareness of what had befallen them in life brought them to this moment as witnesses, as if their experiences had given them prescient knowledge, though they couldn’t have put it into words. Perhaps the years of comforting others who die tragically, senselessly, in fear and alone had sharpened their senses.
Many of their number had congregated at St Raymond Cemetery in the Bronx to hear the testimony of Baby Hope. It had gone on for hours, and as is the experience of many within the Realm of the Comforters, she was beginning to float with the lightness of telling how she died young. That horrible morning, she floated over her grave.
And then it hit, a massive airplane careened into one tower, a skyscraper, and then another airplane speed into the other tower, propelling flames through its center. The sound reverberated. And then the buildings folded to the earth, a horrid cloud of gasses and dust rose. The undead babies flew with blinding speed to the scene of the aftermath, to find out what they could do to help. There was wailing and fire and confusion.
The only thing they could do was whisper comfort to those lodged under the rubble, and hold the hands of those already risen from their bodies in spirit and walking on the streets of New York.
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.
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
There is nothing more satisfying than to fall asleep to a dying candle only to awake 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is hard to work out where Father and Mother end and where they begin, 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 the pressing of 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 to speak 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.
I just received the best New Year’s gift ever: I have been accepted into the University of Washington certificate in editing program! I had been waitlisted as of a few days ago but I just received word I will start classes on Monday. This is a very good program. I really feel so happy, relieved, and excited.
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.
I start my New Year’s Eve with one of my favorite band’s farewell tour. If you are as old as I am, you may appreciate this. To me, these guys sounded as great in later years as they did when they began, even better. On the eve of terrible blunders in our government, small comforts are real. The last time I listened to a recorded Eagles’ album, I decided to drive across town to my old childhood home just to do a drive-by reminisce. I don’t think I will do that today being that it’s New Year’s and I’m avoiding the roads. Crashed cars litter the road already. Instead, I will pretend I am at a live concert and try to pack up some nostalgia along with my Christmas decorations. Peace, Meg
p.s. This list is so good and equally apt….Love, love.
In an ill temper, the leader of the free world ordered the marble in his Florida mansion ripped out. Some had the idea of repurposing the stone for grave markers for the poor dead, the unvaccinated. Apparently, however, corpses would nightly topple the headstones, preferring instead humble wildflowers.
This special has received some criticism, but honestly, my first time watching it without the jading influence of the nitpickers, I loved it. Female comics pack up 2020 in the way it deserves: With a spiked heel or laced-up boot to the backside.
One thing I liked about it, besides the line-up and cathartic hilarity, is that it acknowledges the things we’ve had to say good bye to for the foreseeable future, things that are good, things that have to do with our social selves.
But mostly, these ladies make short work of the things better off dead, things that never should have been alive in the first place. And they do so with comedic brilliance.
Watch it with what remains of your liquor and/or whatever mixer can be found at the back of your refrigerator.
One of my favorite “Christmas adjacent” stories is by the late German author Heinrich Böll. (My son and I get a kick out of the descriptor “Christmas adjacent” in referring to movies which are set at the holidays but which are not solely focused on Christmas, such as our viewing preference “Die Hard.”) Heinrich Böll’s story “And there was the evening and then the morning…,” published in 1966 in his collection 18 Stories, has to do with love and forgiveness. The story is set at Christmas. The aspect of gift giving plays a role though a great deal of the story is nonetheless “Christmas adjacent.”
Heinrich Böll won the Nobel prize for literature in 1972 and is considered one of Germany’s finest post World War II writers. He was born into a pacifist Roman Catholic family and refused to join the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He fought in the war and afterwards married and had a family and worked various jobs. He took the plunge into full-time writing when he was thirty and went on to become an acclaimed novelist, short story writer, essayist, and writer of radio plays.
Despite the variety of themes and content in his work, there are certain recurring patterns: many of his novels and stories describe intimate and personal life struggling to sustain itself against the wider background of war, terrorism, political divisions, and profound economic and social transition. In a number of his books there are protagonists who are stubborn and eccentric individualists opposed to the mechanisms of the state or of public institutions.
I want to excerpt from the very short story “And there was the evening and then the morning…” I will leave the heart of the story out for the curious to pursue. Heinrich Böll’s 18 Stories is available, used, via online merchants and so maybe you would like to read the whole thing. I looked for it on Project Gutenberg, but no dice. So here, I will simply excerpt a small passage, so flawless in ironic tone and meticulous observation. It applies to the turning of the season and our final celebration of the year.
…[Brenig] walked slowly across the square…and looked in a store window where the window dressers were exchanging Santa Clauses and angels for other dummies: ladies in décolleté, their bare shoulders sprinkled with confetti, their wrists festooned with paper streamers. Their escorts, male dummies with graying temples, were being hurriedly placed on barstools, champagne corks scattered on the floor, one dummy was having its wings and curls taken off, and Brenig was surprised how quickly an angel could be turned into a bartender…
Another “old story” is told in the form of a novel by the late William Maxwell – prolific writer, fiction editor at The New Yorker, legendary mentor. It is called They Came Like Swallows. It is set at the time of The Spanish Flu and was published in 1937. Just like the work of Heinrich Böll, the work of William Maxwell continues to ring out so strongly in our times. It is simply gorgeous and gripping. (I apologize for this tasteless alliteration.) I studied it carefully in graduate school, analyzed it for my thesis, and prayed some aspect of it would rub off on me. I hope to unearth it among my books to read it yet again as we turn to a new year in which old stories have much to say.
Daddy drove us nine hundred miles to Florida the Christmas after Mama passed. It was just me, Daddy, and my little sister Lulu. Daddy said there wasn’t anything in Florida that wasn’t all around the world and that was Christmas love and reindeers and Santa. He didn’t want to see snow, he said, or get a tree or eat turkey. These things reminded him of Mama and he needed a break from feeling sad. He said she would have wanted us to go to Florida for Christmas. In fact, he said, she probably knew what we were up to right now and it made her happy.
When I wasn’t keeping my sister occupied with books and games of eye spy, I was watching the landscape change from naked trees and gray skies to thick grass and fat palms and I was watching for Mama to see if she was watching…
Washington Christmas Tree Farm, Washington State Department of Agriculture, flickr
It was the time of year in Orlando when evergreen trees were brought in from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington to be sold to loving families who would decorate their arms with lights and chains of beads, glass ornaments, homely and sentimental ornaments, ornaments collected from trips and black Friday sales and school and church craft shows, regifted gift ornaments, white elephant ornaments, grandmother’s ornaments, Christmas wedding shower ornaments, estate and garage sale ornaments, ornaments from the Winter Park Art Festival, the Orlando Museum of Art, Disney, the flea market.
Valentine Halle was a prominent socialite in town who, every year, could make several trees last for almost an eternity, until the end of February, ignoring all pleas of her husband and family to strip the trees bare and put them on the curb already. But according to Valentine, to…
They say the selkie is a shapeshifter, a seal who becomes woman. When I lost you in New York, it occurred to me you may be this creature, the unreality of your presence and beauty has that quality of something otherworldly. And it occurred to me you may have returned to the sea.
The first day of spring dozens of seals washed up along the Jersey shore and it was among this wreckage of creatures I searched for you. How else to account for your disappearance into Grand Central the day we watched the silent protestors lying down to mark the murder of an innocent woman gunned down by the police? We met under the Pisces constellation; do you remember? I held your hand. When I let go of you, you disappeared into the crush of people.
They say a man can capture a selkie and make her his wife if he captures the skin she lays aside while she sunbathes and frolics in the sea. He must hide it, or she will put it back on and swim away. You may be somewhere off the shore. We have been told not to go near the seals along the beach, as if I have ever had the right to approach you in your freedom. But still I miss you, Maire.
I lit a candle for you at St Patrick’s. I listened to the young choir, their voices piercing the clutter of scaffolding, caressing the Pieta partially obscured by a tarp. A rose lay at the feet of Christ and Mary, the mother of sacrificing and long suffering. I went back to Grand Central and looked for you among the people who may have seen you in the station. I described your long dark hair, your chocolate eyes, your long limbs. I spoke with the man who slept beneath Orion’s belt, to the woman playing a saw with a bow, to the copper man still as a statue. I wondered if they may enjoy some special frequency not accessible to the rest of us as they lay closer to ground tremors, stars, tears, accidents.
You used to say whenever we visited the city it didn’t matter we didn’t have a plan. We must at least always meet here, at the Station, by the café, the place of our first meeting where we each enjoyed a madeleine and cappuccino. We agreed upon this. Do you remember? Remember when we spoke to the Portuguese couple new to the United States, whose grandparents had migrated through Ellis Island a century ago? They were so proud to use their newfound mother tongue. And I learned something about you too, as we spoke to this couple. I learned of your Irish roots.
I cannot find you and I cannot find the skin you left along the shore. As I said, the police have told us not to approach the seals who will bite. Is it any coincidence I still have the marks from where you bit me? Was that a sign, warning, a portent? We are told the seals are hungry and have come closer to shore to wait for the tide to bring them herring.
Are you happier there, in the deep? Is that where you are? I would like to be gentler with you now in my attitude toward you. I would like to be able to say I am happy if you are happy. But here is what I think: You may as well be dead, you are so thoroughly missing and no one has been of assistance, not even the police in all their brutality and misguided energies.
I have not given up hope. I have found the remnants of a seal, long perished, not quite the skin as in the legend, so I did not embark upon that turn. But I will find the skin of your being and take it for my own and hide it in a place you will never go and you will have no choice but to love me if you are still among us and not lost to the abyss.
Today, I consulted the woman playing the saw. She sat near the entrance to the crosstown train releasing into the air a song like the music of the spheres, of the sirens. She said to expect you, but that you would not come in the way that is proscribed but through an alternate portal. I was to go lie on a grave in Brooklyn and she wrote a plot number down on a piece of trash. How did she die? I say. But the woman who plays the saw pretended not to hear and so did not answer.
I have no proof to myself now whether you were real or wholly imagined, we never exchanged rings or any little thing, only intimacies and whisperings, shiftings between sheets, our bodies in light and shadow. And yet how to explain this hank of hair I keep in my pocket?
I boarded the train to Brooklyn. Passengers boarded a train on a parallel track. We leave together, both trains, going at the same speed, passing through tunnels and stations, the pillars between us framing parallel cars like the frames of an old movie. Do you move parallel to me now? At the cemetery, where I am directed, there is no sign of you.
At day’s end, the day before I must leave the city, I go to the museum and find a giant statue of a woman, made of candles, burning. I stand for hours, watching her melting, thinking of you shedding your pelt. I want to put my hands into the melting wax, feel its softness and heat but the museum guard is watching. What if I told him what I was searching for, would it matter to him? Perhaps he had a love like mine. Perhaps he had only a dream, would it matter? Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
I should talk to this man, brusque and stern, share what I found of a selkie song. I copied it from a big book at the library and keep it in my pocket so now the paper is soft and worn, the writing faded. Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
I want to recommend the haunting movie “The Siren,” written and directed by Perry Blackshear. It is visually beautiful and also relatively quiet which I always find refreshing, especially in a horror movie. The protagonist is mute as a result of a near drowning as a child. He vacations at a lake alone. Another man searches the waters for the mythological creature he is convinced killed his lover. There is a nice twist at the end and it made me think, as I grieve loss this holiday season: There is darkness and chaos in each of us as well as love, goodness, and light.
How are you this holiday? I’ll have to admit, I am struggling. Things are not as bad for me and my family as they could be. Yet, I feel as if the hardship of the last decade or so has been magnified by an international health crisis and a wild political scene which will hopefully not become more malignant.
I had to say goodbye to my son today. He is going over to his father’s. Then in a few days he will be traveling to spend some time off with friends before starting his final semester. The empty nest syndrome has struck once again, this time quite hard. I do sort of feel like whatever problems and issues I’ve had have become magnified with the pandemic: my single status post-divorce, struggles with health issues, struggles with my dog’s health issues, memories which can be hard to revisit, regrets, financial challenges, the deaths of family members.
For about five days this holiday, I enjoyed a flurry of cooking and cleaning and wrapping. I enjoyed the mom thing, the one role I have performed for a great deal of my adult life, besides being a writer which has always been secondary, ancillary. It’s like I’ve been in a bit of a denial because in a big way for me, being a mom in almost all the ways I’ve known it is just about over. I still don’t feel I’ve dealt with it completely or maybe my anxieties regarding coronavirus concerns keep me from processing other aspects of my life.
How is it Christmas can sometimes take you down to the studs? This Christmas feels especially challenging. I know I am not alone. And I know college kids are having their own struggles to contend with, some of them really difficult. In trying to flee that nest – a healthy pursuit – opportunities that have felt solid are shifting as if built on sand.
Sometimes the words Jesus spoke come back to me in times like these: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I found myself alone on the streets this year on Christmas Eve, alone that is except for the company of my dog. I had cheated on my husband and upon the discovery of my indiscretion, he changed the locks to our home and shut down my access to funds. My family was also angry – my parents and siblings – deeply religious all and furious, believing me damned. They refused entry into their homes. I didn’t have money for a hotel or even a tank of gas to drive to the beach. I set up camp in a stand of trees behind a garage apartment I used to rent as an office. I knew how to hide, for homeless people used to hide there. When I was working in the apartment I would make brownies in the tiny efficiency kitchen, package them, and throw them down from balcony and into the woods, down on top of their blankets and luggage. I hoped they would find them and at least have enough calories to sustain them overnight. And now I was among their number.
I had enough gas to get to this spot and enough to make it back to the house on Christmas to beg for forgiveness and hopefully, re-secure a place with a roof and shelter, a fire in winter. I had brought a big plaid flannel blanket given me by my late Granny, a tarp to secure to trees for a roof, my sleeping bag, a pillow, a small doggie bed, a mix of nuts and chocolate, a jug of water, pain pills, several bottles of wine I bought on sale, cigarettes. I lived in a mild climate, though it could get cold in winter. There would likely be other homeless seeking shelter around me. I might have to buy peace or my life with extra provisions. I established camp in the undergrowth of an ancient twisted oak and its smaller brethren – scrub oak – as well as palms, pine trees, low hanging Spanish moss. Except for the rumble of cars over brick streets, it was quiet in this little patch of woods. I set up the tarp to be as unobtrusive as possible and sat underneath it on my sleeping bag, my dusty little dog curled up on her bed. An acorn fell on the tarp, startling me, but I felt I would be alright and knew it was wise to at least camp in a familiar area. That choice had a calming effect.
As dusk neared, I laid down on the sleeping bag and covered myself with Granny’s red plaid wool blanket. How devastated she would have been been to learn of my indiscretion, my sin. And how sad she would have been to learn of her granddaughter sleeping in the woods, disgraced, away from the warm shelter of her husband’s home. When we stayed with her at Christmas as children, she would gather us around her chair by the fire and open the dark picture pages that told a story of the twelfth night and Frau Perchta, a haggard old witch with a long pointed nose, sharp teeth, devouring eyes, a hunched form, claws for hands. Frau Perchta scoured the world to check on children: Were they spoiled little brats lazy with their chores? Or did they help mother and father? Were they polite and kind and good? Or were they the worst children in the world – mean, disobedient, shameful? There were pages where Frau Perchta enters the house to inspect the children’s rooms as well as the children themselves, to ask the parents questions. Then there was a horrible page, a page containing a picture of Frau Perchta gripping a child with one of her large claws and scooping out his insides with the other, the poor child’s face and limbs black with death, x’s for eyes while his good siblings watched with large saucer eyes, tearful and afraid. Then Perchta stuffs the bodies of the bad children with garbage – leftovers from Christmas feast, carcasses and bones of dead animals, ripped packaging from presents. She sets the bad, stuffed children up near the Christmas tree and they dully look at their surrounding with unseeing, button eyes. On the next page, good children – rosy cheeked and smiling – hug Perchta, and she embraces them in her thin, frail arms draped with rags. She gives them gifts and candy.
A baby pine tree was brushing the top of my tarp. Shadows danced and played overhead. The sorrow of my grief for what I had done, whom I had hurt, and a new feeling inside – a burning self-hatred – overtook me. I felt myself slipping into sleep despite my resolve to stay alert through the night, to protect my turf should the need arise.
I later awoke in the night to the sound of my dog barking frantically. There was something scratching insistently on the tarp, something sharper than pine needles, something alive and moving, a creature or person. A flickering candle revealed a silhouette: A woman with a hunched back, long dripping hair, sharp protruding face, ragged clothes. She set down a huge sack which rattled along the ground and then there was an overpowering smell of rotting carcasses, decaying flesh.
I bolted upright from my sleeping bag and felt around for my sweet dog. The poor little thing was outside of the tarp with the old woman. I managed to escape out the opposite end of my temporary shelter. I fled, the wind in my ears, car keys jingling, but my dog was captured. I cried and yelled out for her but she cried out sharply in pain and fear. I knew she had been caught, crushed to death, my proxy for my sin. I fled to the home of my husband, hopeful for shelter. I apologized profusely on the threshold, begging, pleading, crying but I was not granted entry. Instead I was given forty dollars and told not to return.
The night was dark and strange. There was chaos and shooting in the place I managed to afford. I barricaded the door with the bed and slept on the floor of the bathroom.
There is always a plan for those who stray: a dirty, seedy, dark underbelly life. So listen my children: Stay on the side of light. Do not neglect your duties. And God grant you and your children health, happiness, and peace this holiday season and all Christmases to come.
This was the year of my Christmas goblin. A girlfriend told me about hers the year before and I had distanced myself from her, believing her to be insane. But my goblin happened to me in the same way it happened to her and so now I am ashamed to say I must learn to cope with the memory of what happened without the sympathetic sisterhood of a fellow victim.
At night, five days before the Eve of Christmas, my goblin sat on my chest, my chest which had been ripped apart by cancer. I was asleep and I awoke in the dark to a growing pressure on my chest and stomach. It was like a crushing, suffocating medieval torture or punishment by the addition of stones. In the flicker of the candlelight of my room – for I always kept a long lasting flame alight through the winter – I beheld the demon’s tongue flicking in and out of his grinning face, his whipping forked shiny tail, his black eyes which were mirrors reflecting the flame of the candle and revealing an internal desolation. His naked baboon shaped bottom was greasy and slid on my chest and he had to keep righting himself on his perch though my chest was lumpy and bumpy as broken rocks in a quarry and would have held just about anything being that it was no longer the smooth cushioned breast of my youth.
He spoke of his love for me, his long admiration. The unnaturally low, atonal sound of his voice was like that emitted from a voice scrambler. As he spoke, his tail stroked my leg and stomach and my own stomach clenched, wary of what he may be preparing to do. His words were a kind of flat mocking of what I had hoped to hear from some future love, words of some future boyfriend or husband. He said I was a deep person, special and sensitive. He said I would make the perfect wife. He said he wanted to move in with me. He said we would be together forever. His hooved hands brushed back my hair, his warm fetid breath filled the air. He said he had only come just now, had only felt welcome to do so, because my dog had died and she was delicious. He had eaten her! My dog had been ill for a long time. And yet she had been alive when I went to bed. He had either killed her or he had not emerged until he knew she was dead, until he knew he could proceed undeterred! My heart broke and the goblin ground himself more firmly down on my chest as if he could apply greater pressure by his will. He smiled at my squirming, at my attempt to draw deeper breath, at my tears.
“You can save your own life by carrying me around your stupid little town. I get to ride on your back and you can’t say a word.”
And so, off we went. I could not even release his hold long enough to change into my clothes or bend over to pull on shoes. We went out into the night though my tropical climate was mild and the pandemic meant it was quiet. Still, the demon demanded roller coaster rides at the deserted theme parks, demanded I make for him churros and turkey legs at the concession stands, demanded entry into alligator parks and whale and dolphin tanks. He accomplished break ins and operation of equipment through his magic demon powers he said, mockingly, though most of the time I was too hunched over from his weight on my back to observe how he was operating. My feet began to bleed. More more! he screamed into my ear, whipping me with his tail which was sharp enough to tear flesh.
At the first light of dawn, I suddenly felt no load on my back, no cloud of rotting breath surrounding my head like a dank nimbus. In fact I was light enough to feel as if I was floating. The air smelled sweet. My dog barked at me when I returned home. She was alive! He had lied! Or she had been returned to life when I had fulfilled what he wanted from me.
I called my girlfriend who had spoken to me of her nightmare last Christmas. I wanted to tell her about my experience. Her husband, whom I had known since childhood, told me she had died alone and on the street some months ago, addicted to coke, mumbling about demons.
Tonight I watched “Kingdom of Silence,” a documentary about Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Instanbul in 2018. It contextualized his life against an analysis of Middle East politics and our involvement in the area as well as the events of 9/11 and the aftermath of The Arab Spring.
Though Jamal Khashoggi advocated freedom of speech, not overthrow, his voice, even from the auspices of American newspapers, would not be tolerated by his government. It is a devastating documentary but well worth watching, a must-see.
Before beginning my MFA, I co-led a group on a discussion board called “Shelfari.” In our group “fiction effect” we discussed books, conducted interviews of authors, explored topics having to do with writing and literature. We had an uptick of participants who were experiencing limited access to the internet due to censorship and government controls. It was so painful to hear that many were scared to participate for long periods of time and some were putting themselves in danger to do so at all. They highly recommended the book We are Iran. Watching this documentary tonight reminds me to re-order my copy. In these pages are voices of the Persian blogs.
Sadly, Amazon shuttered Shelfari in 2016 because of its supposed lesser impact and reach than Goodreads. I have since read an argument for the excellence of Shelfari which at least in my experience feels true: The structure of discussion threads allowed for greater focus and organization and participants were truly passionate readers. I hope one day another like reader-based discussion platform will emerge, particularly in these times in which lay readers appreciate access to deeper, firsthand information about world events. Readers, students, and writers worldwide desire a place to interact across continents and oceans.
When I was a girl, my family was given a trip to Egypt and Israel. Egypt was an incredible country. The people were so beautiful and welcomed us so warmly. When things changed there after The Arab Spring, it hurt my heart.
The documentary may also be upsetting regarding America’s prioritizing oil over human life. Maybe one day the words and life of journalists like Jamal Khashoggi as well as his friends and the voices who call out to be heard will act as change agents and we will once again enjoy greater fellowship and mutual support.
There was a radiating pain that traveled from the right side of her neck and shoulder to her fingertips. A breast and thyroid cancer survivor, it terrified her. Months before, a couple of months before the outbreak of the pandemic, she declared her own freedom from a drug that would have prevented relapse. The drug had hobbled her and she was tired of feeling old in midlife, of making excuses for her immobility, of being embarrassed because she did not look old enough to be moving that way. It had been worse than chemotherapy, especially because no one had told her this would happen. People rang a bell on their chemo ward last day of treatment, people sang and clapped. There were no more bells for this interminable, solitary journey. She would have had to stay on the drug for five years. Although she had grown her hair back, she was moving like she was one hundred and if she was moving, she was in pain.
Now there was this new thing she couldn’t face, this new pain she couldn’t pay for. A nurse for her oncologist had said over the phone it sounded like muscular pain and so she went to a chiropractor. He was able to get her to the point of mobility but he also pressed on the radiated flesh of her right side in a way that broke her down again though not completely. And she couldn’t afford him after a while. And she was avoiding doctors again like she did when her right breast flared with cancer, but now it felt like there was a valid reason: the pandemic.
The pain almost kept her mentally alive some days, she was on a routine of over the counter meds and CBD oil. Every several hours, there was something new to take. Every few weeks, she researched and dug for help. Her fear could be killed with an occasional television series streaming binge or a belt of alcohol, a glass of wine, just enough to keep her going until the next day.
She couldn’t find a job. She had plenty of education, but much less job experience. There was pressure now in her family that she find a job. When she was married and later when she had a son, no one wanted her to do anything but keep a house. Even writing was discouraged. Now that she was middle aged with no work experience, almost zero, as well as juggling pain and anxiety, family could only seem to be happy when they thought she might work.
She was the husk of a used body, the kind you might throw onto a pile of other used bodies on the outskirts of a city, bodies whose sole function might be fuel in the burning or at least nurture for the soil for they were useless otherwise by society’s standards. She was so angry some days she thought she might already be producing fuel but really it was just a bit of noxious gas, dissipating and aimless. The desire she felt to go toward a direction was often thwarted by anxiety, either that or its seeming opposite – despondency.
She was able to see the tops of a tall stand of pines from her apartment window. It reminded her or her girlhood in South Carolina. How beautiful was the wind through a pine forest, its swishing like the sifting of dry grain, the needles glistening in the sun. One day she may lie at their feet and fall asleep and not get up. If she cannot afford the rent increase in a pandemic, if the pain gets worse, if she is squeezed by despair or hunger. She would never have advocated giving up, having fought so hard during years of suicidal ideation, divorce, cancer, diabetes. And yet how many pressures add up to the end? She knew this is one thing that perhaps she had never put seriously to herself until now. Pandemics, she was finding out, may turn out to be the final pressure vise.
But she was pretty sure that even if homeless and ill in her sunny climate, she would not give up. She could see herself as the crazy singing patron who came into the public library thirty years ago and sang her reference requests or the coupon lady with tons of flyers cutting and cutting all day at one of the tables.
She had been a librarian at the time, a time before her marriage. Such patrons and other lost souls, many of them homeless, many of them unwashed and mentally ill, were legendary among the staff. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t stop living by her own hand, no matter what. Even if no one would claim her, even if she could barely claim herself, she imagined she would go on, she imagined she would sing and sing and sing, alone and to trees, to her aged dog, to the dirty streets, to God.
Does this kill you like it does me? The beauty of her voice and the poignancy of the words, it’s almost too much. Heartbreaking.
Christmas has always been both beautiful and devastating for my family. My brother died before Christmas Eve years ago and that has always colored the way my family has experienced all holidays. And years before he died, we were in Israel for Christmas, in the fields where the shepherds would have been tending their flocks around the place Jesus was born. My brother was old enough to share in memories of our experiences of both Israel and Egypt.
And now, with the coronvirus disaster, this song devastates just as thoroughly. Will there be a place where we will all be together? No matter what has happened to us? I do believe this is true.
We have had some losses in my extended family this fall and winter. It makes me think of every memory I have had with those I am related to, memories we take for granted until people who have shared those memories pass away or become unable to recall them. Lately I have been thinking about traditions in my family, traditions having to do with food for example, and travel. These things were important in my family as a girl growing up, but they were also important in my married life, and later, my single motherhood years.
Recently, for some reason, I have been thinking of the Chef Boyardee Cheese Pizza Maker Kit. Ok, so it’s not necessarily the most sophisticated way to make a pizza at home, but growing up, it was very fun to make this together and share it as a family. Mom and Dad made it fun because it was shared. To me, it was the best pizza on earth, even better than the Shakey’s my family used to go to in Dallas, a pizza joint with seriously stringy cheese! The best part about Chef Boyardee kit was that everyone had role to play: there was the stretching of the dough on the pan, the browning of the beef, the spreading of the sauce, and of course the sprinkling of beef and cheese on top. And someone always handled the salad. Every Friday night, that was our tradition. Out of curiosity, I googled it and it’s still being produced and sold while Shakey’s is mostly shut down, a shadow of its former glory.
My son and I have been sharing stories of a relative who has recently passed. She was the “picture taker” in the family and left hundreds of photos behind. Our memories are also pictures. Do you have a blog or journal? Do you put down your memory pictures to share with others or just relive when you are alone or going through a loss?
One of the best ways I’ve found to relive memories is to pass along recipes and food traditions, the recipes and food traditions that were passed along to me. Many are simple, but in a way, that makes these recipes and food traditions all the more beloved. I pass them along, but also make sure to add my own that I’ve developed over time. I really didn’t know how to cook thirty years ago as a newly married woman but over time and through my travels and experiences, I have picked up a few things to add to my repertoire.
Other food memories and traditions I have as a girl: Dad’s Saturday morning habit of making beignets for our breakfast, the smell of his smoker in our backyard on the weekends, the kids’ Sunday morning tradition of helping Mom make a good breakfast for Dad who was a preacher and on his way to work, and all of Mom’s delicious dinners which were ready every single day, on the money, by 6:00 p.m. How did she do it? I really don’t know.
Sometimes I want to go back to those seemingly simpler times. Why do we have that longing ingrained in us? I am not sure, but on my better days, I think of what we’ve gained rather than what we’ve lost from memories shared and food passed around a table of those we have loved.
I fell asleep to a youtube Harvard lecture on the radicalization of a fascist. I had spent the early evening applying for a barely above minimum wage job when the site timed out because I took too much time downloading an app to help with a cover letter. Back to square one in a pandemic in which, as a cancer survivor and diabetic, I shouldn’t be working among untested individuals. Yet bills come, living expenses rise even with a tidal wave of death.
During youtube lectures of the American Historical Association, I sleep and dream of a fight I am having with a Greek restaurant owner, apparently trying to convince him to allow me to sell my barbeque at a Mediterranean food festival. “Barbeque, barbeque, barbeque! Always with your barbeque!” he says. Apparently I knew him well. Apparently, we had had many conversations about this strange topic and it seems, other things too. I think he likes me, for he tries to apologize. In his way. In the only way possible allowed by his culture for men. Though no one would taste the barbeque I had made.
In another dream, at a family gathering in a modern house I didn’t recognize – we always had traditional houses such as English Tudor, Farmhouse, ranch style, craftsman, tract homes which looked like such houses – a German guest of mine was visiting. When the arguing among us became intense, our guest engaged his jetpack with a manual pump that rendered his exit almost silent, and he floated out of the large open skylight. Before I fell asleep, I had learned the European fascist had a difficult time with long term relationships but occasionally sought connectivity with families of his choosing. Only for brief periods of time.
Previously that week, in my waking life, I had had a fight with my college age son. We never fought these days, almost never. In my once more lonely nest after Thanksgiving, I killed the regret with wine, over the counter meds, cbd oil, lazy indulgence, early bed, a failed job application. I woke feeling less alone, somehow, my sleep populated by people who seemed vaguely similar to people I knew in real life, pre-pandemic. Dreams had been illusive up until last night. “Insomnia” I learned from a “doctor” in a horror movie, actually means “without dreams.” I don’t really think this Hollywood-produced doctor is giving me the precise skinny since the Greek is literally “not sleep,” but maybe I am using a fine tooth comb, so opposite the dream state, and Hollywood creative license.
I can’t say for sure I want to find out what characters may pop up tonight but maybe the Harvard European Studies department and the American Historical Society lie in wait for just such occasions, to bring us to ourselves, to bring us to closer acquaintance to the dictators within, the evil we project, the friends among us who simply want to be understood, feel they have a place. Do you think we might have greater peace if we make room for our enemies? Even if that enemy is we ourselves?
Do you have a favorite holiday literary tradition? Maybe there is a story or book you like to read each year, or maybe you like to purchase or borrow a new book or collection for the season. Maybe you like to indulge with children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews with all of the stories they enjoy. In Iceland, there is a tradition in the fall called Jolabokaflod or the “Christmas Book Flood” in which books are bought for the holidays. Books are given as gifts on Christmas Eve and the night is spent reading. In Victorian England, people sat around their fires and told ghost stories, a tradition reflected in the format of Henry James’ novella Turn of the Screw.
When I first became serious about reading short stories about thirty years ago, I turned to the writer I had fallen in love with as a college English major: John Cheever. Every year for quite a few years at Christmas I read his entire collection. Then I chanced upon the marvelous collection Christmas at the New Yorker: Stories, Poems, Humor, and Art. It also includes John Cheever, as well as John Updike, Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Ford, William Maxwell, J.F. Powers, and other literary lights. I started reading from this collection every year. Over time, I have also become interested in slightly more old school ghost stories, such as those penned by M.R. James and feel the reading, and listening to them on Audible, is very much in step with English Victorians.
This year, I’ve found a new collection through my new kindle called Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season, edited by Tanya Kirk, collected from the British Library, written mid 19th to mid 20th century. Some are more or less “chilly” to me, but all I find very interesting given the Victorian tradition of Holiday ghost stories. The forward provides some clues as to why and how this tradition evolved.
I am also attempting to revisit a powerful story I read by Heinrich Boll years ago set at Christmas, having to do with a misunderstanding between a husband and wife. There is a sense of yearning for forgiveness on a snowy night in a train station. I lost the collection in my move, or misplaced it, or may have inadvertently donated it, and so I have ordered another, the selfsame 18 Stories by Heinrich Boll, a wonderfully used copy, and hopefully loved. I look forward to receiving it soon.
This year I also ordered another copy of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw after believing my copy lost. But alas, I found it today, the Norton Critical Edition, an edition I loved pouring over. However, the inexpensive used copy I ordered last night and which is waiting for me at the bookstore contains other Henry James stories as well as his classic so likely I will be picking it up. If you have seen the series The Haunting of Bly Manor or the movie The Turning as well as other filmic adaptations, these offerings might give you some sense of Henry James, but the written word such as the Norton Edition is the way to go to really develop a full appreciation of his technique and skill.
I also hope I will have some down time for some of my collections of fairy tales from around the world, an illustrated Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the absurdist writings of Daniil Kharms in some of my paper copy books as well as an ebook I found via kindle called “7 Best Short Stories: Absurdist” edited by August Nemo.
Whatever your traditions, I hope you will find a story you enjoy this holiday. Our religious traditions are about telling stories and so maybe this craving to come to story at this time of year is related to this, whether the story be of darkness or light, realism or fantasy.
I am bitter because I have been denied Netflix’s previously “free” access to the completely darkly comedic “White Reindeer” starring the brilliant Anna Margaret Hollyman. (Netflix no longer provides this lovely.) If you like dark comedy, you will love this. If you are a woman and are not sure about dark comedy, yes, you will most certainly love this. Now I will have to pay to watch it on Amazon. And if you have an appreciation for the darkly bizarre, the horror “Don’t Leave Home,” also starring Anna Margaret Hollyman, is a previous Netflix offering which may now be streamed on Prime Video at cost.
Also, you can stream all of Hulu’s own original movies with a 30 day trial! Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! If you wisely go for it, let me highly recommend the new Hulu Christmas original “Happiest Season.” I watched it yesterday. Tears. I predict: New all-time classic.
I am also really enjoying Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” series and am a huge Elizabeth Moss fan. I am relatively new to Hulu but definitely find it a great service, a wonderful new alternative. I am chilled by the series version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” because so many political aspects portrayed in this dystopia have come to fruition. And the quelling of rights and freedoms with military force is something I hadn’t anticipated witnessing in my lifetime when I initially read Margaret Atwood’s amazing classic as a college English major over thirty years ago. And of course the attempted “coup” to overthrow our recent election could have been an element of that dystopian vision. The current refusal of many of the GOP to acknowledge the outcome of our election signifies a dangerous tipping point of authoritarian rule in our once shared democracy. It is a real time Holiday Horror of the grandest, truest magnitude.
It was said the Burmese python of the Everglades was the local embodiment of Krampus set loose on Florida, and like Krampus had a taste for child flesh. In the legend of European countries, Krampus, half goat half man, licks naughty children with his forked snake tongue and drags them to his underground lair where Christmas trees are black and reindeer are dead.
Florida people were smarter than the state gave them credit for. They knew it was simply a campaign to inspire them to rise up and kill the Burmese python invader let loose when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a breeding facility. And yet the idea slipped into the consciousness of witnesses to snakes who could swallow local gators, much less strangle a man to death and easily feed on smaller animals.
It was the women who began demanding the taste of python meat for dishes. No one’s baby would be lost to Satan. They would defeat him handily with Everglades cuisine. The first Everglades’ Krampus celebration began Christmas of 2017: Papa Christmas in swim trunks and a white beard set down to the ladies’ Poached Burmese Python Curry. He took the first bite at a large outdoor feast. Everyone cheered, drank beer, and passed platters.
It was said that night a baby was taken in the night to even the ledger. Satan’s henchmen worked in darkness. No one minded the cicadas chirping their insistent alarm. Many creatures were murdered in the dead of night. No matter, men learned to hunt with ferocity, women to adapt their recipes, and the state generously paid trappers to capture and kill.