The Dead Doll

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There was once a dead doll. Not only was it dead, it ruled a large portion of the population. But how can a doll be dead, you say, is it not already just an object? Isn’t it we ourselves who are alive? You would think this would be an obvious assertion and therefore a way to undercut absurdities. But for people who believed in the doll, and believed it alive, they lived and died by absurdities without being aware.

In fact, they spoke the doll’s language, they adopted its speech patterns and thoughts, for to do otherwise would render one powerless among those who believed. But a dead doll can’t speak or think, you say, not to mention the fact that a doll can’t live. But oh yes it can. It lives in the imagination which is where its thoughts and words reside.

When the worshippers weren’t looking, when they were all asleep, the doll’s head would get twisted around by the wind when the dead thing sat under the tree outside. It’s hair shifted to reveal another face and its hair fell into place to hide the remaining faces. By quarter turns, it could reveal four faces, and yet, they all were all versions of the same expression: anger. This added to the impression that the doll was indeed alive and always angry. Ergo, people did what they could to appease the doll and thrashed those who did not believe, who did not worship and appease.

One night, people lay before a doll little notes, written confessions regarding those in their past they had loved more than the doll, things they had believed in before they knew of the doll’s existence, acts they had committed contrary to the doll’s wishes which had to do with love, freedom, and compassion. Before the angry doll’s face, they built a little fire and burned up all they had valued, they danced around it, they humiliated and disgraced themselves in order that they might elevate the doll king who was the almighty, powerful, and knowing one.

It is said some who confessed around the fire died later that night by tiny daggers in the throat, inserted by the doll king, for they were never seen again. It is said he scrambled up their walls, into their windows, and across their beds, and sliced open their jugulars.

It is said others were allowed to live but were largely ignored, for who can ignore better than a doll king? Who can better scorn and mock than a doll with four angry faces? He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of killing them. He would make them suffer forever before his stern, uncompromising visage.

ms. hardin reads of the fall of empire

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

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

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

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

Elizabeta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sat. It felt marvelous!

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

He did as instructed.

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

Of course not! I’m sleeping! he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t.

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

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

She shook her head.

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

And he smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 4th

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music for July

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

Classical Saturday

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

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

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

seamstress

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There was once a young woman who lived deep in a wood. She was deft with her labors, keen in her mind, strong in her body. She loved the children who would visit her during the day while she worked. She fed them fresh-baked cookies and pies. The sweetness from the oven wafted from the windows of her little cabin so that even wildlife gathered round in hopes of a few crumbs or a stale crust. She was also a skilled seamstress who made everything from gowns and wedding dresses to tailored suits and children’s clothing. Never did she turn away the company of a child, no matter how mean his appearance. Nor did she refuse to make clothing for those who were poor but needed raiment for the winter. Somehow, the young woman was never in need and this abundance overflowed to what she was able to give to others.

On the other side of the wood, there was a small village of shops, a town hall, and a church. One evening at a town hall meeting, a woman, a stranger, stood up and began interrogating the town: Who is this woman who lives in the wood and is so generous? Where did she come from? Why is she there? What does she want? Who are her parents? For a while, the villagers just stared, for they didn’t know this strange woman. They hadn’t seen her enter, and she had a strange appearance. She wasn’t like them, these hardy folk who worked hard and whose hands were rough and yet who wore smiles and assumed nothing. She was chalky and thin and had long, dark dull hair, and long yellow nails and teeth. Yet despite her unpleasing aspect, they began to wonder: Who was this child among them, this generous young woman? Who were her parents? Where did she come from and why was she here?

By day, the old hag drug herself around their shops and ran her yellow nailed fingers over their goods and she began whispering inanities: The girl was actually a witch who was actually a goat practicing the dark arts so that the souls of the children who visited her home would become ensnared and lost to wickedness. She would turn the children into goats and they could become other beings, little devils in disguise, who would slowly bring the world into ruination and suffering. She wears a lovely face, doesn’t she? the old hag would say, grimacing which was her interpretation of a smile.

People laughed about the hag in private. They sat over teacups and coffee pots and said at least they’ve finally got some entertainment. They wondered if they should tell the young woman what was being said about her, for she never attended town hall meetings, but they decided the woman was better off left undisturbed: probably why she didn’t attend was to avoid such foolishness, and good on her, and let’s honor that, and so forth.

One night one of the children had a terrible dream. It was about a goat who stood in a field and called his name. It looked at him with its wild nonhuman slits-for-pupils eyes and said “Daniel!” There was something terrible about the goat, said little Daniel, and it had blood dripping from its mouth and down on its legs. Then it ran away, into the forest, where the young seamstress lived.

Daniel’s mother was shaken to her bones. “Now lookie,” she said to Daniel’s father. “Now just lookie here! What that crazy old bat said was true! Look what this child’s dream portends!” And then she melted in tears over her son’s small body as he lay upon on his narrow bed.

“Now, now,” said Daniel’s father, smoothing his wife’s hair. “Let’s not run away with this. It was just a dream.” But in his heart, something had begun to pick away at him.

The next day, Daniel felt badly that his mother had reacted so to his dream. He had heard the rumors the old hag had whispered about the seamstress, but had rejected them out of hand. He regretted his emotions and fear for he loved the seamstress. She always treated him with special kindness for his parents couldn’t always afford the school clothing she made for him every autumn and she even made him fine leather shoes as well. He should have kept the horror of the dream to himself.

However, he had to investigate, to see for himself, for he was a curious boy, and prided himself on knowing facts even though he knew the seamstress very well for he had visited her over one hundred times at the open window of the Dutch door where she handed out cookies to hungry children. And he had been inside her cabin to be measured and fitted for his school clothing upwards of about twenty times. Even so, he set off for the wood the next day after eating his breakfast. He embarked upon a secret mission to banish from his mind any doubts and fears sown by the old hag.

He passed through the meadow where he had dreamed a bloody goat was calling out to him and he tromped down into the dark wood, where there appeared to be a specter of darkness hovering about the copse of trees that surrounded his beloved seamstress’ home. There were dark clouds directly above the little cabin, so low as to be below the treetops. He approached with care, hugging the outer wall of the cabin, and slowly raising himself above the windowsill.

What appeared at the sewing table where the seamstress normally worked was a bearded hag with a chalky face and long dark hair, two horns, long floppy ears, eyes with slits for pupils. Threads of gold, pearl buttons, strips of leather, silken and brocaded fabrics hovered about its horrible head and appeared stitching themselves together while the goat sat, hooves upon the table, eating from a table of weeds.

Daniel scrambled away from the window. But the goat must have heard the thump of his back against the outer wall, for it clomp, clomp, clomped with its massive hooves on the wooden planks of the porch and said “Daniel!” just like in his dream. “Come out, boy!” And so, Daniel rounded the corner of the cabin to gaze on the terrible specter of a goat on its hind legs, its horned head casting a shadow over his face.

The goat jumped down from the porch onto on all fours, and nearly rammed the child from behind but Daniel scrambled up a tree. Daniel sat patiently on a branch while the sun set and as an inky blackness settled on the forest. When the goat fell asleep, Daniel went home.

He decided not to speak about what had happened. He wondered if anyone would believe him or whether they would think he was possessed and then he would have to be subject to the insistent, ancient Father Janneth who would try to take the devil out. He quietly cried himself to sleep that night, not just because of this new fear of what had happened, but because something inside of him was different, and it made him feel sad.

As the weeks passed, nothing appeared changed in the town. There were still praises for the seamstress’s handiwork and her generosity and eventually the hag and rumors about the hag died disappeared. It was said the old thing must have moved on to other places.

But Daniel never saw the seamstress again. He refused to go to her cabin in the wood. He didn’t even want sweet things to eat.

Daniel never married nor had children. He became known as the town eccentric. He took in dogs. He trained them to hunt and protect children and help the blind and frail. He knew some lightness had left him when he had gained a dark knowledge of the seamstress, but could never puzzle it out. He never really understood if it was real, or if it stood for something else.

At any rate, his faith and happiness were found in animals. He became a quiet man who kept to himself, but he was not altogether unhappy.

Little Cinder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rare Songbird

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

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

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

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

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

Martha’s Place

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

Beside the parking lot is a huge sparkling double fountain set apart by 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.

Breakthrough Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My New Podcast: Audio, little green door

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

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

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

little green door

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

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

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

ash girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film review: Agony

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Suzy Hazelwood, flickr

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

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

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

what to watch? I care a lot.[!]

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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!

Netflix

travelglam

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

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

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

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

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

finding zen in chaos

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

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

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

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

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.

Matchy Matchy in Hollywood

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Here is an oldie from a previous blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

exercises in vulnerability and a movie

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Once Upon a Time by Rachel.Adams, flickr

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

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

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

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

The Polarization of the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

simple gesture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, here, on this day, one year into the ravenous worldwide pandemic, the ingratitude had shown again in the repairman’s brusque manner. Jose and his wife and their dog had recently moved away. And apparently, there were no more takers. Normally, she would have left the items out all Saturday and they would have been gone by Saturday night at the latest. The repairman hadn’t bothered to know her name and was only harsh in his tone, not minding her fair complexion, the pearls at her neck, 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.

notes of a beginning copyeditor

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

shortcoming

noun

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

Definition of shortcoming

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

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

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

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

Something She

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Photo by Catalin Pop on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Bunny

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easter island? by T, flickr

On a hot Florida spring day, the ragged Easter bunny ripped through the outdoor Christmas lights lining the little row of bushes between apartment buildings. He was delivering expired chocolate candy manufactured in the days when there was regular commerce. The wrapped chocolate eggs in his basket were chalky and the bunny was worn, the once white fur gray, the once pert ears stabbing the air before his face. Mrs. Burkinsales had skimped on the ribbon for her cheap door wreath rather than buy the more expensive wired ribbon. The lifeless burlap bow hung in the heat. He crushed some chocolate in his paw and tossed a handful into Billy’s basked which lay under the spectacle of the wreath. He was burning up and wanted to take off his head but then he wouldn’t get paid. He spun around to the next door and took Angelina out with the trail of broken lights streaming from his furry body. She screamed, her legs bleeding. People in the breezeway were opening their doors. He stole around the corner, facing away from view, toward the fountain, but far enough from the apartment office. A smoke would be good. And a nip. He took off his head. The whiskey went down nice and fiery. He wanted to 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.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”

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Rose by JLDMphoto, flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday thoughts

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

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

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

Writing flash fiction with Kathy Fish

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

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

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

Best wishes — Meg

Within A Forest Dark

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

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

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Writing flash fiction with Kathy Fish

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

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

Magic Turtle, part 4

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turtle by Alexander Stoian

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

Ms. Myska receives a Valentine

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

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

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

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

Valentine Man

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Photo by Fadi Xd on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

early post modern, Alice Neel

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

Celtic prayer

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

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

certifiable

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Crumbling Building 1660 C by Jim Choate, flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Bailey Sarian

Velveteen Rabbit played the numbers

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The Beloved Toy Rabbit | Russ. I love you every second of ev… | Flickr

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

*The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

Fifty-word Inspiration: Homecoming

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The Daily Post Writing Challenge Fifty Words; The Daily Post Fifty word Inspiration

butterfly of steel by J.S. B., flickr

We gather in the graveyard. There you are, nails radiating out from your head. I don’t tell mother I have nightmares of you crying.

We say We love you.

You say I’m sad you’re fighting.

We say We’re sorry.

And there it is, your shy smile. Then you are gone.

sunroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby angels

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photag_at 20150322 112 flickr

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.

For the love of story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings and good health – Meg

Bling Empire, Netflix

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Manikens by Byron Miller, flickr

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