On the Atlanta Highway in Montgomery, Alabama there is a restaurant called Martha’s Place.
Beside the parking lot is a huge sparkling double fountain set apart by brick, trees, and park benches where you can rest. In the windows are tall, one story high curtains flanking the generously portioned windows. Immediately, you think to yourself: I am underdressed. And disappointment and panic set in. This would not be a first. But no, there are bodies of all sorts, young and old, making their way to the entrance. They are enclothed variously and quite a few in the average casual dress of the street. You feel relief and grab your pandemic mask, your jacket.
Inside, at the hostess station, a woman charges you $11. There is no menu, no waitresses, but a large buffet. You think to yourself: Such a foreign sight in the midst of a pandemic. But of course, there are safety measures, and required gloves as well as masks. And you remember the now foreign process of communal meals, large gatherings, church dinners, weddings, funerals, potlucks. You are both depressed and happy because here it is, something like what you have hoped for all along.
You came here for good old Southern food. Not road food disguised as Southern food, but something a mama or grandmamma might make, an aunt or a favorite neighbor. And there it is: fried chicken and catfish, roast chicken, gravy, fried okra, greens, mashed potatoes. You order your iced tea unsweet, which a waitress does bring you, but you notice, thankfully, it needs nothing added to it, no fake sugars, just a squeeze of lemon. It is the best tea you have ever tasted. And as you sink into soul goodness, you begin to listen to what could be your relatives, all around, you, ‘Bama accents, people telling stories at their tables, a man who could have been your grandaddy telling his stuttering Bible salesman joke, and your Uncle Willie cackling, your grandmamma snickering.
It honestly feels like a teeny bit of heaven, a slice of memory, a piece of your life. I had to go and hit the road, and only had a quarter of an hour to invest in it, but I took my tea. It satisfied for hours later – the food, the memories, the tea.
You won’t feel unwelcome if you find yourself at Martha’s Place on Atlanta Highway in Montgomery, Alabama. Go. Tell them a weary and grateful traveler sent you along.
The night my son graduated college I lay in my hotel room and dreamt I failed at my own assisted suicide. As I write this, I am happy to say, the dream had no real basis in my life and everything has been a success for my son. All efforts on my part to mold and help him have created a life of sorts for him, though I was in no way alone in these efforts and of course it has been with his own applied effort that he has seen success: his graduation with honors, his happiness, his friends, his securing of a promising job, his blossoming relationship with another. It was all I have wanted for him. Then why in my dream did I die, or want to?
In the dream, I survived my own suicide attempt, an assisted operation by a company offering death to those who had reached a dead end. It was all most clean and clinical. Reasonable, really. Nothing messy or obscene. They shaved your head and you lay down in your medical gown and you ingested a dram guaranteed to bring an end. In a probably not so original turn, I changed my mind after swilling my portion. But I emerged, having labored through the effects.
On the long drive home from my son’s graduation, I encountered a cat at the hotel where I was staying. She was black and white. I don’t know why I assumed the cat was female. She was slight, so maybe that was it. I surmised she lived at the hotel where I was staying in Tallahassee where I stopped both on the way up to Alabama and on the way down to Orlando, which is home. The cat was scruffy and hung around the garbage cans. She was scrappy, a survivor. I was going to write a little story about her, about a prostitute who lived in that hotel and fed her, or about a child who stayed in that hotel and loved her. Maybe the child was kept there against her will and the cat represented her own little soul. Or maybe the child was the daughter of a preacher or hoodoo priest. She worked on her school lessons at the desk in her room and she soaked dreamily in the tub enclosed by the striped curtain while her daddy went out and healed people, sprinkling them with holy water, feeding them wine for sacrificial blood. Or simply grape juice for said blood. Maybe he cleansed people and their homes with Florida water, readying them for a spiritual encounter.
The hotel in Tallahassee seemed to attract human kinds of ghosts as well as cats, people who drifted around the property, including a man who gruffly approached me that night when I was on my way home. The man presumably hoped to get a light. I emitted a small shout of surprise when he started speaking. Passing semis on narrow highways all day can make you nervous. My son’s college town, campus, surrounding neighborhoods were shiny, beautiful, well kept. People walk with purpose, laugh a lot, smile. Likely in that place, people had their own lighters, if they smoked. Likely in that place, lighters were made of gold. When I left my Tallahassee hotel to hit the road for Orlando, the man was still in his car in the parking lot, a small beat up white number, a sporty vehicle popular in the eighties. Presumably, this was his overnight space.
On the road home, I wondered about the dream. I did survive cancer, so maybe this was it, the dream’s raison d’être. In a way, the treatment is voluntarily almost killing yourself in order to survive. I was not sure if that’s what the suicide dream was. I had also committed myself to surviving until my son’s graduation and Lord willing, without relapse. Mission accomplished. So maybe it was that ending point that triggered it.
Something else occurred to me regarding set purposes and deadlines – literal deadlines – and how such a dream as mine might have arisen in my subconscious. My preacher father recalled a story for all of us, all having dinner the night after my son’s big graduation day in Alabama. It was a story about his journey to the Dead Sea. He along with my mother regularly conducted a group to the Holy Land and on one occasion, at the shore of the Dead Sea, a group member told his wife: This has been the realization of my life. [Dad’s storytelling words were better, but this is the gist.] And then, on the spot, the man died! Such an incredible story had all of us reeling. It was a tale among many fabulous tales of the lives my parents have led and with which my father, when gently prompted, will regale us.
And also, what’s more, regarding my puzzling through the dream’s origins, there is this: I am bipolar. Suicidal ideation is an erstwhile friend, though never a realization, kept mostly at bay by effective meds and treatment. Surviving cancer treatment and bipolar together was no small feat. And I had, years before, learned my biological mother killed herself. When I passed the age at which she killed herself, I considered myself a victor. (As if you cannot tell, and can probably guess if you read my blog occasionally, a bipolar person can sometimes have an odd way of structuring her own reality.)
Furthermore, my own adopted parents – I consider them my only parents – having taken care of me since I was a baby, did so with considerable care and sacrifice. I do not feel myself identified with this foreign history. I am not the dream because it is my dark underbelly and fear, and that darkness is not me on the whole, though the dream suggests it is some part of me. I am a kind of cat, a black and white cat like my feline friend at the hotel.
At certain points, we are born into something we hadn’t anticipated and past histories fall away and we are left, blinking, having survived all self-destructive drams. We have rashly made promises to ourselves and set goals, not realizing that even lofty visions and hopes can be limiting. We become more more opaque as decades pass. We move on, hardly noticing one another, but we thankfully pick up the leftovers until we decide what to do, before we can clean up and start again.
I made a recording of my last blogpost. And I have started a podcast on Spotify. I hope to have a Youtube channel as well. With both venues, I am primarily interested in storytelling.
I have really missed gathering for public readings during the pandemic. Recording stories has been a longtime desire, even before the world changed so dramatically. WordPress made it so easy for me to take this step when they directed me to the Anchor platform.
This is a beginner’s efforts, but I hope you will enjoy. — Meg
Here is a fairly unrevised response to a writing prompt from a writing group meeting a couple of weeks ago. I wrote this in my favorite little 4×7 spiral notebook I use to write fiction and track expenses and doctors’ appointments. I did not write this on a keyboard, neither did anyone else. And when we shared our results out loud, we couldn’t always tell what we’d written! But I do think there is something to be gained from putting thoughts on paper. Ok, the prompt was as follows or I remember it as follows: Someone is lost or in danger and someone else shows the way to a hiding place. [We had five minutes to write.]
She felt alone, abandoned, recently expelled from her husband’s home. Her sisters and mother were far away in the hills. She sought shelter in the forest. The trees looked the same – uncompromising sentries, impenetrable gaze. Something tapped her on the shoulder. There was the sound of dry leaves like crackling skin. “I have room for you,” said a tree, “in a quiet place inside.” And the tree made her small, and she walked into a space between the arches of its roots and she opened a little green wooden door labeled #7. A kettle was on over a tiny stove and a fire of moss crackled on a tiny stone hearth. She lay upon a cushion of leaves and listened to the creaking of the tree trunk, its sighs the low moaning an old spiritual. She felt herself drift down, down into a dark pool and she dreamt of poppies and warm springs.
My first attempt at audio! Well, I have recorded a story for a journal, but this is my first attempt for the blog. You can also follow my podcast on Spotify. I am a beginner, so please have mercy. But I do hope you enjoy.
The day Mama forced me to pick up the burned pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day Pony and Apple Pie started hanging out near Daddy’s old rusted car. Pony and Apple Pie were imaginary friends even though I was almost too old to have imaginary friends. I didn’t have too many real life friends by the time Mama forced me to keep her terrible secrets. The day I picked up pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day I almost lost my mind.
“Don’t you tell no one about Uncle Charlie,” said Mama, “not your sisters, not your friends, not that no-count boyfriend.”
I could have told her there was no one I could talk to anymore.
Mama had shot Uncle Charlie because he threatened to tell the Sheriff she had killed Daddy. She had shot Uncle Charlie when we sisters hitched a ride to town for ice cream. When I came home, I saw her on the floor, hair tied up, wearing dishwashing gloves, and dipping a sponge into a bucket of bleach. Something was wrong. And eventually, when she needed my help, she told me what it was.
Uncle Charlie was the best man Mama had ever been with, well, that is, except Daddy of course. Uncle Charlie was Daddy’s brother, and there I was one day, picking up pieces of him, mostly bone and teeth, and scattering these pieces in the woods and all over to help hide Mama’s crime. All I saw for days after were black spots. All I smelled and tasted was burned flesh.
Once, before Uncle Charlie disappeared, my younger sister, Mercy, stood up to Mama and told her she would tell the sheriff on her, would tell the sheriff her Mama had killed Daddy. Mama had one of her boyfriends drive the two of them out to a field. The boyfriend pulled a shotgun on Mercy. He would have killed her, except Mercy snuggled close to Mama real quick so he couldn’t shoot without hurting both of them. Mama held her and stroked her hair and said, “Don’t hurt my baby!”
Mercy said that for a minute, she believed Mama wanted to protect her. When she told me this, that’s when I knew I wouldn’t dare tell her about Uncle Charlie. I didn’t think she could handle it. I was worried she would tell Mama off, then Mercy might get shot and burned, just like Uncle Charlie.
Apple Pie and Pony kept me accountable to Uncle Charlie’s ashes. They kept showing up, in my dreams, in the yard.
“Oooo girl, like you at a barbeque!” said Pony, and he and Apple Pie high fived. They danced around the yard, the yard full of rusty car parts, an old mattress.
“I ain’t never been to a bar-bee-que like dat,” said Apple Pie. “Where da sauce?”
Pony fell out, then made it look like he was a clown and kicked his feet out so he sprung up again. “Sheriff gonna lock you up little ash girl!” And as he said this, he came near and put his face close to mine. There was smoke rising up from his smiling mouth.
“I like Applewood smoked bacon,” said Apple Pie, who was the larger of the two, much larger, and maybe the slower, mentally. He looked down at his hands. He was picking at the skin the way my diabetic grandaddy used to do.
“You know how how dogs gets fleas, chile,” said Pony. “You gots to get yo’ sistas and flee on up outta here. One of you chilrun may already be in danger, you don’t know. May even be you!”
I knew Pony was right and I loved Apple Pie because he was just himself, didn’t even matter if he didn’t have much to say. Any man me and my sisters had ever loved, Mama had eventually cheated on or destroyed. She wasn’t always like that, but looking back, I think being poor made her mean. Too many times, we had no water. Too many times, we went hungry. She started dressing sexy to attract men. She was already pretty, but when she dressed sexy, men couldn’t resist. And then they wanted to marry her.
With all this stuff happening, I could feel myself getting black inside, as if I had sucked up the fire from Uncle Charlie and it was burning from the inside out.
One night, when Mama was out, we sisters held hands and escaped. We made our way across fields and ditches, avoiding roads, until a man and his wife found us crossing their property. None of us would say what we were doing. We stayed at their house until the sheriff came out to meet us.
The night I told the sheriff about Mama killing Daddy and Uncle Charlie was the night Pony and Apple Pie left me sleep in peace. There was no interrupting my dreams to talk of ashes. That night I dreamt of Daddy making strawberry ice cream for us with the old timey machine. He looked at me and smiled. I jolted upright in bed. He was alive! But no, it was morning, and I could see I wasn’t in Daddy’s house anymore. Still, I knew he was an angel. I knew he would always be my Daddy.
Crime very loosely based on a case of a missing teen whose mother is suspected of killing her husband and then killing her teen daughter in order to prevent her from whistle-blowing. Details have been altered.
Sometimes a film resonates. The 2020 psychological horror/gothic horror Agony, directed by Michele Civetta and starring Asia Argento is a film that explores family legacy, an entrenched community, prescient wisdom, madness. Isadora, a New York City artist, receives word her mother has recently passed away on her Tuscan estate. This news is especially unsettling to Isadora because her father had told her thirty years before, when she was a child, that her mother was dead. Furthermore, Isadora is told she will inherit her mother’s sizable estate if she will accept the transfer of her mother’s title of Marquesa. Against the guidance of her father, she travels to Tuscany, child and husband in tow, to search for answers.
We learn the father believes he was protecting his daughter by not telling Isadora the truth about her mother’s death. He believes her mother to have been an unstable, and even dangerous. However, as things unfold, it is unclear what has actually occurred in the mind and life of Isadora’s mother, Carlotta, the former Marquesa. Facts begin to blur, Isadora’s own dreams and premonitions begin to mediate reality, the town’s superstitions and tendency to fatalism limit alternate versions of history, and Isadora begins to fall into madness. This is so well done. There are moments in which it would have been nice to have some kind of interpretative narration regarding the meaning of some of Isadora’s private moments of madness, but overall, the story skillfully conveys the idea that Isadora, by returning to Tuscany, has fallen into a confounding maze.
To me, the film conveys the idea that while we may try to find the “truth” about the past, about those we’re related to, people who may share with us a history and disposition, a clear picture may not always emerge, or if it does, we become too deeply entrenched to create a new life and move on. I appreciate the way the film explores this idea in such a rich and colorful way. And in a way that only good horror can do, it operates on a level of conservativism: We think we will go far. We believe we may get somewhere. But we may just be in for a rude awakening.
Rosamund Pike plays a ruthless con-artist who exploits a legal loophole to run a long con on the elderly. Such a force requires an opposing force to make a proper conflict and one is found in Peter Dinklage, playing a Russian mob boss whose elderly mother (Diane Wiest) is a mark of the con.
Pike is most convincing to me in this role. She is a brilliant actor though another recent role, her portrayal of Madame Curie, left me unconvinced and unsettled. Will you think less of me if I say I loved and preferred her portraying evil here? (I know, I am sometimes a bad person.) There is a precision to her execution that is wholly satisfying, and it seems to me, a great fit.
There is a nice balance in the film, details that bring an almost convincing humanity to this huckster, but realities are never far from the story’s cosmic – and comic – balance. And definitely no one can accuse this grifting character of slacking!
Diane Wiest and Peter Dinklage are perfect. I love Dinklage as a mob boss! Encore!
When we were young and in love, we dressed up when we traveled, even when we traveled for vacation, even though we were born into a liberal, unfettered age. To the airport, we wore suits, dresses, pressed button downs, designer sweaters, polished shoes, manicured hair, new luggage. It was a kind of formality, an austere dignity, a removed way of occupying space with others without speaking to anyone, not even to each other. When we were young and in love, we bought the New York Times and read it cover to cover, quietly shifting through the paper sheets, exchanging favorite sections, reading while we drank rich coffee. We browsed bookstores, bought hardbacks and diaries to take with us on trips.
The way we conducted ourselves when we traveled in our younger years, it was as if we lived something unspoken between us, a practiced script from our parents’ time, our grandparents’ time. When we were children, we were old. And when we were young, we were older still. And yet when we were young and in love, we were too young to realize we could not stem hardships with such artificialities and habits.
When we went on honeymoon, we each bought novels chosen specially for the trip. We read our novels on an old mattress in a friend’s London flat, the sunlight pouring through a dusty window, the owner’s dishes lying dirty in the sink.
When we took trains from Sicily to Paris, we maintained our dressed up dignified formality, maintained our sense that life would always be like this. We believed we would never pick fights, wound never squabble, would raise a family in serenity and stability. We would have our own cool brand of quiet acceptance and separate spaces, clothing ourselves formally, clothing our children thusly.
It was a kind of impenetrable adulthood we created when we were young and in love. This is what it was like when we were young but too young to really know we were playing at something, too young to imagine we may not have been in love. We didn’t know life. We wore blinkers. We willed ourselves not to repeat a kind of pain, a kind of chaos. What we relished when we were young and in love was an illusion.
What are your Kathy-Griffin-pie-my-making moments? Moments where you can close out the world and engage in something self-nurturing and calming? Patty Griffin’s song “Making Pies” strikes me as more and more brilliant the further the world has drilled down into mayhem. In the United States, this mayhem includes the pandemic threat, threats to justice and democracy, gun violence, to name a few. And every time I have heard Patty Griffin’s song – whether several years ago or today – I get teary. Her song speaks to the world. And great songs are timeless. What this song says is that during our uncertain and fear-filled times, it is good to get in touch with a way of being that focuses the concentration and calms the nerve, bringing us back to ourselves.
And no, not everyone makes pies! I couldn’t make a pie to save me, though I had a friend carefully explain the method and recipe years ago when I was staying at her house in Haddonfield, New Jersey.
But maybe it’s good to always have such a thing: Something you do that makes you not mind if you get your hair messed up, if you get a little flour on your face. Sure, maybe you started out worrying about such things, but at some point, you just said “it doesn’t matter,” then got down to business. Maybe just surviving right now may seem pie-making enough although a forgetfulness is what I seek, apart from survival, a kind of self-forgetfulness that is not chemically induced and is a kind of “making.”
At present, a pie-making moment is being in school to learn editing – and doing it no matter how difficult it is for me. But also, on the side, and just as important for my mental and emotional health: doing creative writing exercises, posting polished older fiction and memoir pieces, sharing what is new and vulnerable, reaching out to writing friends old and new, keeping dreams alive and not being afraid of failure. Maybe you like to garden, build something, play with your pet, make beer, sew, crochet, bake, cook, grill, catch fish, play a musical instrument, create videos or visual art, read a book, write in a diary, volunteer. Maybe there is something calling out to you, some new career or avocation which involve those small, self-forgetful, pie-making steps.
In the next post, I will share the results of a couple of creative writing exercises, along with the prompts my online writing group used to inspire our raw efforts. For a little while, I may use my blog as my test kitchen in order to keep challenging myself every day if I can. Maybe something longer will come from these pieces or maybe I will be able to see old stories a new way. Or maybe I will just be more invigorated and encouraged as a person.
These are the things I do because I must do them. Besides, these pies are so delicious, even though some are trial pies. They are delicious because I made them.
In an attempt to gain real world experience after three years of studying Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Joyce, Shakespeare, you apply for a summer advertising internship in Hollywood on the shaky notion that at least it’s communications, it’s all communications – right? – the artful use of language to woo an audience. When you arrive you are all east-coast and corn-fed. You aren’t fat, but solid, pretty, but not stunning. Besides, you wear clothes and earrings that match, a purse that goes with.
They have no idea what to do with you so they sit you in front of a huge TV and show you how to use a large knob to stop the pictures. Somewhere, in one of the edit bays, they are allowing a woman your age to write a script, someone, who has never read a book cover to cover, but who is loud and flirty and skinny.
And yet there you sit with Guilala, a giant Japanese Gila monster, who crushes cars with feet that wobble. He smashes elevated trains and spews his wrath while tiny people flee. You are supposed to write down the numbers on the frames to use for film distribution commercials. You are supposed to take notes. They will be doing a Japanese monster campaign sometime in the future. You write down every frame. You have no idea what you are doing. No one cares. No one is watching or holding you accountable. No one is teaching you anything.
You love Hollywood and hate it. You cross seven lanes of L.A. traffic in between your exit in Burbank and Sunset. (This is the only thing, actually, that impresses your parents, that you can navigate this.) You love your night drives down the Pacific Coast Highway. You take day trips to Laguna. The surfers tell you to go home. You walk through rock formations. You spend your day half-self-consiously enjoying the warm sun.
One night, a policeman picks you up for prostitution. You had just gotten out of a movie at the Mann Chinese Theatre. You are shocked but then you remember the cutoffs you are wearing. They are not too short you think. Any woman out after midnight on Sunset is a suspect, he says. He drives you to your car. Luckily, you are not in trouble.
You have never known people to act so self-important as they do here. And yet, you find yourself getting in on the act. It creates a mini-scene that you jump out of your car with the film that is overdue, that you pop out onto the sidewalk to make an urgent delivery. Someone could see you. Someone could say, “That girl’s important. Who is she?” Some tourists could notice you. That’s what you want, most of all, is to be seen as some kind of insider.
At the end of the summer, back in Florida, you break up with your boyfriend of three years, the one your parents wanted you to marry even though he was a Catholic. He hadn’t wanted you to go to Hollywood at all. Neither had they. But you can’t talk of Hollywood without crying. It has broken something in you and how can you explain, in a way that they will understood, exactly what it is.
Sometimes you put yourself out there into cyberspace as a little writing fish in a pond of much bigger writing fish with a spark of something inspired by an exercise. I do this because I need to come up with something created that isn’t simply reflective of what I am constantly surrounded by during a global pandemic.
This is why writing prompts can be so useful. I often pair a prompt with something I am already thinking about writing, such as an idea for a story or vignette, but which I fear could be quite humdrum. A picture prompt helps me give it a tiny twist. I don’t have the picture that inspired the prompt-based writing I did today, a picture prompt a writer posted on social media, but below is a similar picture.
Sometimes I forget but remember when I finally sit down to write to a prompt: Writing is ongoing, even when one is not writing. Prompts just help draw out something that is going on beneath the surface. The writing I have shared below may not be all that great, but I’ve gotten it out there and feel better and will probably be less grouchy.
The one thing they don’t tell you when you are young and small is that when you are old, you will be expected to be loud and outgoing. Brash. I mean, sometimes you try it, right? But you know, deep in your heart, you belong in the forest, in the root of a tree, where you once glimpsed the sun between the leaves and closed your eyes to the dappled light, to the wind shuffling the leaves, a sweeping shush of scattered papers, all these papers covering you. They are the skin of the world and your existence, your body, lies underneath – safe, in hidden calm. In the heat of the day, you curl into a dark place. You ignore the productivity pushers, their outrage and demands. You find a slip of a chair in a dark room, a slip the shape of a soft slipper that is upturned at the heel and you rest open it, fall asleep and dream an earthen dream of moss, of leaves molded and dry, a soft bed of flowers, a table round which happy friends toast libations in acorn cups and fall out in merriment.
In choosing the picture on unsplash, I learned that this is a tree in the Himalayan forest, a little fact that makes this even more interesting to me.
I will share the results of another exercise on another day. It is something I cooked up when I met with writing friends on zoom. This post is getting lengthy.
And now for my movie thoughts: If you like movies that shake you, that take you out of yourself, that are creeping with almost no jump scares, watch “The Open House” on Netflix. I am still so shaken by it and I watched it on Sunday. It is not for the family and maybe not for someone who just isn’t into this kind of thing, or not into it right now.
I’m enjoying the documentary Hillbilly on Hulu. If I were to pick an alternate title for the film, it would be something like The Polarization of the United States. If anyone wants to understand what happened recently in our politics, this film would be a strong starting place. If anyone who considers themselves progressive and/or Democrat but doesn’t understand how many Southern Democrats won’t vote for a politician who marginalizes them and lacks respect for their economies, even if that politician is Democrat, this film would be a strong starting place in understanding this phenomenon.
I’m not savvy enough to gauge whether any progress has been made in binding the rift that nearly brought our democracy to ruins, but one simple thing I do think is true: Respect would be a start in beginning our healing. The easy thing is to rant on social media or hold at arms’ length those who disagree with us. The harder, but more effective thing, is engaging in self-reflection, reaching out to others to listen and learn, owning shortcomings and foibles. The easy thing is to fall in line with any kind of tyranny, whether it be on the right or left in order to fit in with family, friends, religious organizations, community. The harder thing is to work out a position somewhere in between, a position that takes into account different viewpoints, a position that promotes peace and compromise.
I am being overly simplistic. And I think there are quite a few factors not posed in the film that have contributed to the polarization in our political climate. And the documentary is about much more than politics. What I can relate to is not always owning my deep South history and background, of not understanding others, of judging rather than listening. Hillbilly is a welcome, meditative, eye-opener.
Silas House, an author, professor, a contributor to the film, and someone I feel privileged to have heard speak at a southern writers conference, wrote the following poem for the documentary, Hillbilly:
Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem. A knot of complication. But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it, and feeling everything in between. You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.
One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches Must attend weddings and high school graduations. One must study the history of the place and come to understand it Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people and the callouses on their hands and understand the Gestational and generational complexities Of poverty and pride and culture
Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.
It was clear: The gratitude had completely drained from the situation. Ms. Hardin stood square shouldered to the burly repairman filling her apartment doorway: “Miss, you can’t put items out here! You mus’ move all dis’ stoff!” said the Latin man, indicating donations she had left in the breezeway for her neighbors, the kinds of items that only last year would have met with sly, secret takers within the hour, especially on a Saturday. She had left out welting pads, unopened dog food, a dog bed, a child’s plastic tea set, a stuffed pink kitty. No one had questioned her before when she left food outside, framed art, an unwanted office chair, plastic Christmas dishes, a Christmas stocking, cans of pumpkin.
Her pet had died a few months ago. And the hope of the online job she thought she might take teaching children in China had shriveled up with the news that the country’s government would not employ uncertified teachers. So she was giving away pet supplies and props she would have used to teach Chinese children English remotely. Plus, she had bought too much food with news of a global pandemic. The things she left in the breezeway had been representatives of old lives shed, old hopes abandoned and withering, foolish, extravagant purchases, signs of her weakness and anxiety, and it was always a relief when someone took them away.
One of her neighbors, Jose, had always made her feel important in who she was as a person. He smiled and said hello whenever he saw her. His dog and her dog had seemed to like each other. She and Jose had often talked about their dogs, their families. Jose was Latin too, just like the apartment repairman, and in fact, most of the residents of the old Orlando apartment complex were Latin, though some came from other areas of the world as well. Miss Hardin was very Caucasian. She tried dyeing her hair a dark brown, but it inevitably lightened. She couldn’t remember much of her high school Spanish. She had been to Mexico once on a church mission trip with other high schoolers when she was younger. She was a marvel then, and was able to hold entire conversations in a foreign tongue. And the Mexican people of the small town in the Yukatan Peninsula had seemed happy the young Americans were there. And that was the first time she truly felt of use to someone.
Jose had shown his wife the two framed pictures and a fancy side table with gold leaf Ms. Hardin had left outside her apartment that first month of her residence. “These will look great in our place!” he had enthused. “Don’t you think?” he said, consulting his wife. She merely nodded. She didn’t talk as much, seemed rather quiet. And later Ms. Hardin noticed they had moved the items up to their apartment because when she went out on an errand, they were gone. The warm feeling of their gratitude gave her a sense of buoyancy, energy.
This began the pattern of Ms. Hardin’s life among her new neighbors, interrupted and crushed only by a couple of thefts of delivered packages from her doorstep. The thefts left her flabbergasted and angry: She had been so nice to everyone! So generous and friendly! She felt a deep sense of betrayal, and even fear. She avoided everyone for a while and wasn’t as talkative or outgoing. She posted an angry note to the apartment community as a whole, asking for the return of her items. She called the apartment office to ask them if they had cameras on the buildings for security, or if they minded her installing her own. The apartment manager talked her down, sharing stories of her own negative experiences, experiences wholly foreign to Ms. Hardin, who had always lived among neighbors who took care of each other.
Over time, the sense of betrayal eased. One morning during the pandemic, Jose had spoken with her outside her apartment and had thanked her profusely for the cans of chicken soup she had left outside her apartment the night before. She was glad he and his wife had made use of them and that feeling of pride swelled in her again, that feeling she had made someone happy, that sense that she herself contributed and made people feel grateful. She knew in her heart Jose and his wife were not the thieves. Since the reassignment of another couple to a different apartment building, the thefts had stopped.
And yet, here, on this day, one year into the ravenous worldwide pandemic, the ingratitude had shown again in the repairman’s brusque manner. Jose and his wife and their dog had recently moved away. And apparently, there were no more takers. Normally, she would have left the items out all Saturday and they would have been gone by Saturday night at the latest. The repairman hadn’t bothered to know her name and was only harsh in his tone, not minding her fair complexion, the pearls at her neck, a knowledge of her family’s history in town, the fact that she was once a debutante, a Daughter of the American Revolution, a member of the homecoming court. She was a fussy, plump middle aged white lady who wore capris jeans and clogs, whose face looked sour when she wasn’t smiling, whose tiny readers sitting propped on her nose fogged up from her face mask. That was all he saw. And someone who made trouble. And someone who didn’t obey rules. And an example of someone who made his life more onerous. And a person who didn’t belong on this side of town, who didn’t fit in, but who for some reason, was trying to. And in her secret heart, she knew many of them were not those she would choose to be with had circumstances not created the necessity.
As she pushed past him to grab her donations from the breezeway, she had mumbled to him that she was only trying to help. And then she hurriedly shifted the items to her little banged up car for a charity run later.
There was no gratitude. And who was she if not magnanimous, who was she if not looked up to and appreciated. After returning from the heat of her car, she closed herself up in her apartment and snapped shut the horizontal blinds. It was 4 p.m. She poured coke and whiskey into a highball and turned on the Christmas tree lights It was April but she didn’t care. She missed Jose and wanted to cry. He was just a friend, and not really that, just someone who knew how to speak to people. And no doubt, people wanted to know him and know how to help him. He had been popular. And now the apartment community was quiet and dull.
Her son was away starting his new life. Her son, a senior at a small liberal arts college, well spoken, accomplished, a staunch Christian. Ms. Hardin was a divorced woman, and she sometimes grieved mistakes she had made, including ones the god Lord himself would have been aggrieved to witness, but the boy wasn’t one of them. And now with her sweet little dog gone, there just didn’t seem to be as much going.
The numbness started to overtake her, that warm, familiar feeling when she drank at this hour and for this purpose: the purpose of shutting down, shutting off. Who was she? She didn’t know. There were tiny achievements, however, and as the sky changed light with the dusk, she made note: A woman on her porch who had always stared at her when she walked by to the post office boxes, stared at her without returning her wave, had finally waved back at her the other day. It wasn’t much. But maybe, she thought, maybe people who see you a lot, who get used to you, and see you are not their worst fear, their worst nightmare, not the stereotype of every negative thing they’ve imagined or experienced, may eventually come to some sort of acceptance, recognition. Ms. Hardin was almost certain the woman knew no English. But they had shared a gesture. That was all. It didn’t inspire the self-satisfied and important feeling she had experienced when Jose had been overtly grateful to her. But the woman’s tiny wave had given her something to hold onto.
She put down her whiskey and joined in what she had done for many years for her family and what women all over her apartment complex were doing at this moment: The preparation of dinner with the heating up oil and garlic in a pan, the adding of spices, the opening up packages and cans. Tonight would be black beans, with jarred red peppers, olives, raw onions, the kind of dish her Cuban neighbors had made her family when her son was young, when she was still married and her family lived in a new home in a new neighborhood carved out from a defunct military base. Her neighbors were beautiful, wealthy neighbors who had escaped Castro, and who were solicitous, grateful. Ms. Hardin had been young, and her neighbors had invited them to family events.
No one would believe all the people she had been. Some days, she hardly believed it herself. And they were all – all these people she had been – were all together with her in this apartment, shuttered away from the mayhem and disaster of the world. Likely everyone, in their own little boxes, were also concatenations of selves – immigrants and refugees, racists and thieves, lapsed Christians and fearful hypocrites, disabled soldiers and irascible elderly, lonely travelers and lost children. These were easy, romanticized categories, she knew, but in thinking somewhat philosophically like this, Ms. Hardin liked to think herself an amateur mystic with a penchant for the tiny, broken things, the flotsam and jetsam, the simple and forgotten, herself one among many of the tiny people who somehow mattered despite invisibility. It was silly, she knew, but it was all she could think about for now. And at least there was this: She wasn’t alone.
: an imperfection or lack that detracts from the whole also: the quality or state of being flawed or lacking
There are times I become uncomfortably aware of a shortcoming, and I do indeed have more than one of these! The above definition of “shortcoming” is taken from the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I looked it up this morning in my hardcopy reference as part of an exercise which tests my copyediting ability and diligence in working with compound words. As part of working on a certificate in editing, I am learning that relying on authoritative texts, rather than simply memory or instinct, separates a quality copyeditor from one hobbled by shortcomings. I have to dismantle a kind of glib, glossing over and really see each letter and word afresh in order to truly help remedy a text.
Being in school and learning new things can be a very humbling experience, even humiliating if one has an extra layer of pride. I failed my first copyediting test last week. I didn’t give myself time and I missed at least half of the typos I should have caught and marked with my newly minted Frixion red pen. If “shortcoming” had been on my quiz last week, I wouldn’t have bothered to look it up. I would have been safe in not doing so because that is the correct spelling and no hyphen is required. Still, I know I have to develop new muscles to begin to be a better copyeditor. I have to slow down and look more things up. I have to give myself more time. I have to consult the dictionary and the style manual. And as the quarter moves along, I will be consulting other references as well.
Are you ever scared to try new things because you are worried about your own shortcomings? And yet how can we grow if we can’t face our shortcomings? Editing copy and creative writing don’t always feel like the same thing to me, but they seem to be two sides of the same coin. I think I have been a bit lopsided when it comes to the world of words and I hope to add to the whole in terms of my abilities and skills. But it can be scary. What if I can’t ever strengthen this underdeveloped side of me so that I can be useful to others? All I can do is wake up every day, learn from past mistakes, and do better. I invoke Yoda who exhorts Luke Skywalker to full commitment in Empire Strikes Back: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Tonight, I took a break from life to watch a movie starring Elisabeth Moss who plays a 90s punk rock singer. (Her Smell) She is the leader of a band who has made it big but who, at the beginning of the movie, is showing wounds from the destructive power of a controlling narcissist. After watching it, I compared my reaction to some other critics who admit to extreme discomfort for the first hour, more or less. Interesting. I was fascinated throughout.
The movie actually has a Shakespearean quality, not a nails dragging on chalkboard quality. I think the discomfort is because it’s a woman playing the narcissistic, paranoid, and unlikable king, drunk with power, heading for destruction. No, she is not a “good mother.” She is not a good person. That is a little beside the point though it is indeed a point.
But I never felt the plot or content of the text or staging and character actions were wrong or cause for discomfort. The character is unhinged, not the movie. Nor was the beginning still or stagnant. It was appropriately dark. It set the tone, the mood. And the drama was age-old. It had bones. It had a dark, dark patina. Moss took us into the darkness and I felt her commitment.
I won’t give away what happens. It is not completely of the tragedian persuasion, but it holds onto its darkness until almost the bitter end. Powerful and effective. Impressive. Not one for the children or those who are in the mood for lightness, but if you stay open to what comes, and hold on throughout, you may find quite a range is worked through. The language and rhythm of spoken exchanges and unhinged monologue is dizzyingly intoxicating in and of themselves. And the score undergirding the spoken words and actions of the characters contributes wildly to the mood: There are vague sounds such as amplifier feedback and crowd noises even as they are sometimes non-diegetic sounds and sometimes only tangentially related to the present action. The score bringing home the underpinning pressures, the ground situation; they are the waters through which these character must swim if they are ever to find air. They are the dark and stormy night.
On a hot Florida spring day, the ragged Easter bunny ripped through the outdoor Christmas lights lining the little row of bushes between apartment buildings. He was delivering expired chocolate candy manufactured in the days when there was regular commerce. The wrapped chocolate eggs in his basket were chalky and the bunny was worn, the once white fur gray, the once pert ears stabbing the air before his face. Mrs. Burkinsales had skimped on the ribbon for her cheap door wreath rather than buy the more expensive wired ribbon. The lifeless burlap bow hung in the heat. He crushed some chocolate in his paw and tossed a handful into Billy’s basked which lay under the spectacle of the wreath. He was burning up and wanted to take off his head but then he wouldn’t get paid. He spun around to the next door and took Angelina out with the trail of broken lights streaming from his furry body. She screamed, her legs bleeding. People in the breezeway were opening their doors. He stole around the corner, facing away from view, toward the fountain, but far enough from the apartment office. A smoke would be good. And a nip. He took off his head. The whiskey went down nice and fiery. He wanted to cry, but returned his flask to his bunny pocket, put on his head, and punched a cheap plastic pumpkin forgotten and cracking on a window ledge. He snuck around the outside perimeter and went to the office to collect his pay. He was greeted by police who charged him for assault. In a delusional, heat-stroked moment he thought he was being charged for punching the plastic pumpkin, then realized it was for the plastic shards in the child’s leg. No one would bring his wife a check and he wouldn’t be able to buy candy for the child. Once he was put in holding, he punched out another unfortunate soul. Finally, someone punched him back. Nothing felt better than that blood.
This afternoon after doing errands, I thought I might watch television to see what was happening in my very own hometown, a convention just down the street: A televised speech of the most corrosive political influence in our nation’s history.
Instead, I made the choice to turn off the television. Rather than indulge my grief over so much unmitigated darkness, I streamed the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu. And yes, this also caused me to grieve. I grieved for the crushing of a beautiful, talented, brave spirit by forces still in existence, forces recently emboldened.
It has tumbled down upon me today – not just from watching this movie – but all weekend as I’ve been hearing about who has been speaking at this conference, who is and who is not attending, who is and who is not being represented – that things have not changed. If they were changing, they have somehow snapped back like a released rubber band.
In the spirit of Billie Holliday, we who want to forge a new path must keep singing our songs, songs of truth. We must sing our hard songs, the songs that threaten because people don’t want to listen. Billie Holiday’s Grammy-Award-winning song that was recognized by Time Magazine as “Best Song of the Century” was “Strange Fruit,” a powerful calling out of the lynching of black Americans in our country. There is not to this day national hate crime legislation against lynching and there has been a case of lynching as recently as 2020 (citation of then-Sen. Kamala Harris, Senate floor). That this dark conference today consisting of white nationalists is taking place in the south bowled me over as I watched this movie today.
I have lost a couple of relatives because they don’t want to hear these kinds of songs and understand how the outcry in them speaks to the kinds of dark politics literally taking the stage at present. I mourn this loss. I love these people. They made me who I am but many are trapped. I hear the attempts to embrace certain policies promoted by this party, a party who foments racism, sometimes seeming to do so while “politely” looking away. I hope to get the call one day that my loved ones are singing the song too.
Who is meeting in my town represents dark elements, some of the darkest in our nation. There is just no getting around it. I feel the day would have been best met with black skies, hurricane weather, the ground shuddering with the force.
But in Florida, a hot, sunshiny day can be just as ominous.
I am told that to be a professional (writer, editor, writing coach), I should not get political on social media. But as someone who is involved with the arts and people creating the arts, I’m just not sure I can separate all these selves. Billie Holliday is a stunning example of the undivided self. Look at her experiences and the truth and pain welling up in her art. She was a genius. And that was her power.
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.
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