Hi! I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a few days. I’ve been in a bit of a panic, as indicated in my last post, regarding rising rental costs here in central Florida. But now, it seems I’ve resigned to hunkering down where I am for another year, starting to sell a lot of my stuff, and possibly moving when a renewal offer is on the table again.
I am taking the challenge by the horns and setting up ways to bring in a little extra money. On a new writing platform called Simily, I have set up an account where I can post my stories, interact with other writers, and get paid when I receive views. It’s two cents per story view, but I expect the site audience to grow and the corresponding passive income to grow as well. If you would like to help me, or if you’re just curious, check out my profile to get links to my stories. I will be adding more over time.
And check out the site as a whole while you’re there. Consider subscribing. One thing I like is how easy it is to find content I want to read. I can go to “groups” and I can see the genres and categories writers are posting work to. I can join those groups if I want to post and share and participate in conversations. Or I can read without joining. By being a subscriber to the site, I can follow my favorite writers. Subscribing is not expensive. And because the site is still new, it’s not overwhelming to navigate. It’s still in development, an exciting time to hop on board.
That’s one of my busking projects at the moment. I’ll be back to share more. I hope you are doing well this Friday. Yours truly.—Margaret
Ok, no it’s not that cold here in central Florida, and thank God for Great Clips, but as far as the weather down here is concerned, it was 36 degrees in the wee hours of this morning. Many of our warm-weather creatures have it rough right now. This awesome pic is from a Huron County Museum archive on flickr. The date is circa 1917.
In other Florida news, rental prices in Central and South Florida have skyrocketed, up by approximately thirty percent. It has affected me and so many Floridians. I’m a little worried for our state, to say the least, regarding this and other things. I keep thinking about Ola Belle Reed. She was wise and talented. Be well.—Margaret
Tonight, I watched the movie Patrick’s Day. It dramatizes a Nurse-Ratched style relationship between a mother and her mentally ill son. Blessedly, it is the son’s love for another woman, a romantic relationship, that begins to shake his mother’s domineering hand.
It is a wrenching movie at times, though again, a bit dramatic. Electroconvulsive therapy is portrayed as a horrendous instrument and in the movie, is used as a tool of control, whereas in IRL, it helps people at the end of the line who often have no other options. I’ve heard it’s more patient-friendly (At one time, yours truly was presented this depression-busting option as a way through a medication-free pregnancy, but I felt fortunate I did not require it, regardless of reassurances.)
Though the finer points of mental illness and treatment may have been stretched a bit, I thought it a great movie about mental illness, and a great movie in general. Movies have only touched the tip of a very big iceberg when it comes to exploring mental illness as a fictional subject. Sometimes the movies that are made follow a kind of morbid trope. For example, we have seen a Nurse Ratched before, though the Nurse-Ratched-type mother in Patrick’s Day inspired some pathos. (The mother of Patrick’s Day also reminded me of Frances Farmer’s mother in Frances.) It’s a big bravo for the movie that the plot continued to spin out, using character change and development to level up as it were. Ergo, it is a step beyond the grimness of Cuckoo, Frances, Girl Interrupted, etc.
I’m interested in finding out other people’s opinions of the portrayal ofillness and caregivers in this and other movies. I hope for continued dialogue, and of course, more movies.
Janneth rolled back her screeching patio door to the mild night, to a pleasant weather belying the human realities of plague, of economic and political collapse. On her hip, she held baby Isla who played with her bright yellow necklace. The bauble had been an impulse purchase during her now extinct state of existence. The little red-headed wonder put a beaded strand into her mouth and Janneth’s heart skipped a bit, grateful for this tiny source of joy.
Guntar had awakened them with repairs to his vehicle, a noise that in an earlier time would have annoyed her to the point of submitting a written complaint to the apartment management. And now, she wondered if he knew she was the cause of them shooing him away to the outer edges of the lot for his nighttime maintenance, somewhere remote (Yet now, with management seemingly shuddered, he was apparently taking liberties.)
She wondered if he was someone to be relied upon, someone to graciously receive a request for assistance. She had never noticed a spouse or girlfriend. Maybe he had been the kind of son to be helpful to his mother or father even later in his life. While she listened to his work, she cooked a bread round on her camp stove which she kept on her porch, her new makeshift kitchen. She would heat the bean soup as well. She hadn’t been camping since she purchased the stove several years ago ahead of an anticipated category 3 hurricane. She and her family had lived through Hurricane Charley but had been weeks without power. She had a fear of a return to that helpless sense. And now, Isla depended on her. Her father would be proud, that she was surviving. She only ever wished she had as much faith.
Isla’s father had left to find his parents, to help them, and he had not returned. In the distance in the direction of the theme parks where Janneth had worked as a creative director, a dark cloud of smoke plumed out over the trees, obscuring the stars. Something in the pit of her stomach warned her it was time to leave. Weeks before, there had been talk on the internet of people fleeing further north, into Canada. It would not be safe here much longer for those who did not have a bunker and an endless supply of resources and weapons.
She held Isla on one hip and with her other arm, lifted the pot of soup and the warm bread. Guntar was bending intently over some project when she approached. She tried to make her presence obvious so he wouldn’t be startled. To her, his truck looked like it could go anywhere. Most days, he had parked it in the lot where it sat unabashedly caked with mud. Now, it couldn’t look more appropriate.
She hoped to appeal to some sense of a protector instinct. When she asked him what his plans were, having laid the fragrant food offering beside his bent knee, he seemed willing enough to share that he was leaving, traveling farther north and over the border.
I think that is very wise, she said.
Next day, she was glad she had added the last of the whiskey flavored coffee to the bean soup for he softly knocked on her door.
Do you need a ride? he said.
And she tried to hide her brimming eyes as she turned to let him in.
I had lost my alimony, the pandemic being what it is, the source of my income having passed. I sold everything, including my car, furniture, and almost all possessions. I managed to find night work as a turndown attendant for Hilton. I managed to put a roof over my head, but just. I now qualified for low-income housing.
On my first bus ride into work, I sat near the back, hoping to avoid passengers peopling rows on their return journeys home, their night jobs at Disney and surrounding theme parks.
But then, wouldn’t you know who climbed aboard: a repairman for my former apartment. It was the kind of apartment you had to be wealthy to afford. Tony had become overly friendly during those last few months of my residence. Water had flooded into my hallway and soaked the carpet. He spent as much time flirting as trying to solve an increasingly dire issue. He asked me if I wanted to get a massage with him and went so far as to touch my back.
I pulled up my jacket hood and rang the bell to get off. I had managed to avoid him. One more month to find another job. One more month until eviction.
I will never forget that stretch of road outside of Starke, Florida, as we headed up to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was singing my favorite Alison Krauss song playing on the CD player and our child was in the back. Apropos of nothing, you banged your hand on the wheel, “The sound of your voice, that strained, breathy quality just makes me want to go out of my brain.” And then the silence, the burning shame, the hours of the drive spent thinking how hideous my voice had been all this time when all along I hadn’t really considered it.
[I am writing this sitting outside a car dealership where I am having an expensive engine diagnostic which could lead to an expensive repair. There are sirens going off, lots of exhaust. This major road is considered a kind of East coast vice alley. And I have never written a story on my phone before. I am determined to have Flashnano adventures. Happy Flashnano day 2 fellow scribes.]
Frankie stroked his pussy, the ginger, while Greta fixed her eyeliner before the gold antique mirror in his retro-styled apartment. She always stopped by before dates to make sure she didn’t look crazy. Or desperate.
He was always cool as a stone sphinx. “You be the judge, not the other way around, honey.” He said, extending his drink out to her, a skinny ‘Rita, and she tripped over the calicos. How did cats always know she hated them? They loved her more for it and wanted to be as physically close as possible.
She slurped down the boozy lime coolness.
“Come back here after,” Frankie said. Actually, that was usually the best part of her night.
When the evening was over and her date had walked her to her car, he wouldn’t allow her to open the door and get inside. Something in his eyes had alarmed her, something dark.
One thing I enjoy about flash fiction writing is that it often involves community.
A few years ago, I joined an online platform for poets and writers. We frequently posted new short pieces and received encouragement and feedback. It was my first time interacting with other writers who, like me, were writing small, concentrated work.
I have also been involved in a flash fiction competition that was held in a public space. Let’s just say, I didn’t win and the handling of the competition was humiliating. In general, writing can be competitive for certain people and in certain settings. That just isn’t me.
But having a short piece to read at a creative event is a great way to participate in sharing with others. Participants often read for five minutes and flash writing fits into this (I use a shorter 250-word piece for a five-minute reading and a one thousand word piece if I have 20-30 minutes.). A meaningful night organized by a friend had some of us reading our stories in an outdoor museum setting. At the end of the night, I got to read a piece with a band playing in the background.
This month, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight 250 word flash fiction competition. Although “competition” is part of the title, the meaningful part for me has been interacting with others—reading their work, giving feedback, receiving feedback.
Next month, I will be involved with Nancy Stohlman’s Flashnano. Some are meeting on social media to share their short pieces and interact. I often meet new people and this has taken on a whole new meaning for me during this season of pandemic.
While public spaces are shuttered to creative gatherings, it has been a relief to find solace among fellow writers online.
Now dogless, unemployed, and frail during the pandemic, Greta found something oddly comforting in the mechanized kitchen trashcan in that it registered her presence. On Halloween, the lid clamped down on her hand and pulled her inside. There was no dog to sound the alarm.
When I was alive, there had been a presence in my room. I used to lie frozen. The night my body gave way to sleep, icy hands stretched out to choke me. In my immortal form, I linger in dark corners, jealous of the sleep-rich.
Life as a domme demanded she be prickly. With few other resources, this idea for making money had somehow evolved but humiliating took commitment. When a man begged her to freak him out using his credit card, she was sold.
I want to recommend the documentary The Waiting Room, a cinéma vérité documentary about an emergency room in a public hospital in Oakland, California. Stories of people living on the financial edge and the dedicated care workers doing their best to provide help are often devastating and heartbreaking. But there are many moments of light and hope, especially embodied by a nurse who does health checks in admissions. She reminds me of a phlebotomist I used to see when I had to go into the hospital for treatment. She always knew where to find a vein, what to say to put me at ease, and how to inject the moment with humor. In The Waiting Room, the ER serves a patient population without insurance, those in danger of slipping through the system. There are stories and scenarios that caused me to tear up. So much of our entertainment can be derivative and deadening. Though this documentary concerns itself with life and death, it is truly alive in the most human sense.
When her cancer returned, she held an impromptu dance in the cancer center lobby. She blasted Foxy Brown’s “Candy,” giving a special dance tribute to the administrator who tried to charge $1500 before her first treatment. Other patients, bald and hobbled from treatment, shuffled their feet and laughed.
She had vowed she would do it, end her life today. But she had planned Timmy’s birthday party. She stood in the midst of a party store aisle, her face sweating under her mask. Maybe after her son’s birthday? Tears blurred the colors of the garish decorations. She couldn’t decide.
I am watching Dopesick on Hulu, a drama exploring the rise of the opioid crisis. I highly recommend it. It has me remembering the old days of trying to wean myself off Klonopin and the initial cold turkey approach fallout. When I decided to do a search of its relative addictiveness compared to opioids, I found it right up there with the top 9. At one time, I had a blog under a pseudonym where I wrote about my experience. I wish you well on this Thursday, ten days until the eve of All Hallows.
The trees have planned their revolt against a country using them to string up men by the neck until they are dead, the burning cross somewhere nearby or else deep in the heart. It doesn’t take a hurricane to uproot the trees and send them thundering down. It takes injustice.
There was a time before the draining of Florida swampland when giant cypress towered over one hundred feet tall. In the late 19th century, cypress were felled for shingles. Daily I drive over a bridge spanning the headwaters of the Everglades: Shingle Creek. I hear cypress cousins bemoaning lost histories.
I submitted my 250-word fiction to NYC Midnight, roughly 12 hours ahead of the deadline. I have been assigned to a group of writers who have been given the same parameters of genre, action, and word. Submissions are anonymous. This is all most mysterious. But fun.
In four hours, I will receive a prompt that will begin my 24-hour journey in a 250-word writing contest. I am providing the link because there’s still time to register if you are interested. I’ve heard good things and participants get to meet other participants and receive feedback. There are three rounds (ding-ding). Enjoy your Friday.
No one has a complete picture, even if they were “there in person,” but…
Everyone knows what they think happened, and what it meant to them
This is true in both fiction and non-fiction.
True, journalists, as non-fiction writers, are supposed to render facts as objectively as they can. But honest, objective fact-finders know that even after interviewing eyewitnesses (“blind men”) their summary will inevitably fall short of “complete.” Hence, “rioting occurred” is more accurate than “the protest turned into a riot” (did everyone riot? Were there no objectors?). And “many wept” is more accurate than “there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience” (did no one roll their eyes and visit the loo?). There’s no such thing as a complete picture, and so, in essence, there’s no such…
Inspired by the BBC select documentary The Pregnant Man, Amazon Prime Video
Respect the woman who became a man who became a woman to carry his wife’s baby and who became a man again. He has lived a thousand dreams of metamorphosis, possibilities curled up inside, waiting for change.
During the Depression, four men took life insurance policies out on drunkard Mike “The Durable.” They poisoned him, froze him, gave him a broken glass sandwich, hit him with a car. Finally, they killed him with carbon monoxide. They were scorched in the electric chair but Mike became a legend.
Have you seen the movie News of the World? It stars Tom Hanks who plays a Civil War veteran turned itinerant storytelling newsman. He agrees to return an orphan who was taken in by the Kiowa. They travel across Texas and face many dangers.
I loved it. And it would be a good family film. There is violence, but not a crazy amount. The young actress Helena Zengel plays the child and she’s amazing.
It may be that I’m originally a Texan and have considered moving back to Texas, but likely it is the stellar performance of Mr. Hanks and Ms. Zengel and the high production value of the film that makes me really glad I watched this.
Bottle broken my promise to you left the divorce papers on the hall tree your mother’s wedding gift to us to whom was also given a baby a name you used to call me whose life consumed with mid-day drinks, as well as midnight when I see our end.
Swollen white molded strawberries like victims of Pompeii; forgotten raw brisket for marinating, bloodying the sink; neglected half-dry clothes mildewing the wash—the ghost of your mother tisks from the corner. You bristle. She used to say you thought highly of yourself. Now you know you are no one, nothing.
I figured out my blogging “bug” that I posted about yesterday. Turns out there was an issue with my not changing the settings. Since I have started engaging in Inktober, more posts appear on my initial page because of how short these posts have been. And so, I needed to increase the count for the number of posts that appear in the feed. So, mea culpa. The bees have the right idea here: Let’s go back to sleep. It is nice to know even lovely bees have a siesta. Enjoy your Saturday.
I happened to scroll down my posts and noticed quite a few posts are showing up again further down in the posting order. All of these posts should only appear in order at the top of the page as this is how they are designated in my settings. I have so little buzz today, WP. You wouldn’t try to harsh it? If I see a repeat of this darling bug further down in my posts, I may have to wonder if my blog is haunted by ghosts of posts past.
I have two terrible memories of elementary school. One was of poor Leah, large as a whale, falling off the roundabout and all of us flying past, kicking her while she cried. The other was a nightmare around this time of a tiny bird dying because we stoned it.
It’s a cold October night, and you are watching your son play soccer. In the bleachers, your ex is snuggling with his new, younger wife. The cruel wind cuts through your coat, a reminder that you are merely a womb and have served your purpose.
If you love literature and you love to watch movies, I would recommend the movie Genius with Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nichole Kidman, and Laura Linney. Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, a book editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons who edited the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Law plays Thomas Wolfe, the famous writer of Look Homeward, Angel which was also edited by Perkins.
If you watch this movie, be prepared to feel something. Well, I guess I should only speak for myself. I’ve watched it before but I find in revisiting movies during the pandemic, certain movies almost feel new to me. I don’t remember getting as emotional. Our world has changed so much.
Often the time of the first impulse to write something is the best time to take it down. For me, impulses don’t age well. It is like knowing you love someone but delaying a response to their own love declaration for you—whether your response is a few seconds late or minutes overdue or you are tardy a few days or longer, heaven forbid.
An idea touches down on my noggin and it’s as if it is saying: “Here I am, waiting to bless you.” But then sometimes I think I must say: “I’ve told myself I absolutely must be serious about such and such (insert adult task) and if you would be so obliging as to interrupt me at a more convenient time.” A few hours or days later, I’m ready to rock and roll with my lovely and I’ve lost a sense of the tone, the pitch, the rhythm. It had a real tangible feel and now it’s just a bit of yellowed nostalgia like aged, delicate paper. I can’t connect words to an old feeling. I can’t recapture the mouth feel (Yeah, that’s a food metaphor).
Why is it hard to write and be a normal person? Because it is. I think early clues of my own “abnormality” would be others’ teasing me for often spacing out or being slow to join classmates in learning activities. Surely that was an early form of the waking dreams I was subject to and later pursued as an adult, attempting to capture them in writing. And yet, to write what I hope to write and that is, the things that are most important to my heart, the stories and words that feel most urgent, means I can’t allow myself to get “too old”—allow myself to get stodgy, curmudgeonly, closed. I have to walk around open constantly and willing to take down words on command. I guess the only hindrance would be lack of writing instruments or going under sedation for a procedure. Or of course, driving.
A couple of days ago, I thought of my response to the Inktober prompt “star” (see my earlier posting of Inktober prompts). I had a sense of the sound, the feel of how I wanted to approach it though I said to myself, you know, I want to learn more about meteor showers and where to watch them. This little research made me even more excited about the prompt. But instead of marrying my feeling and early sense of sound together with my research, I left my love alone to pursue some chores.
What I have now is alright, but it wasn’t what I intended. But this often happens. We live in the world. The world won’t stop for us to write and then carry on once we decide to engage in the world again. Then again, our beloved conception of an idea won’t always be present for us in the same way it was initially, though she is often present for a competent dance or two. This has been my experience. It is both thrilling and frustrating, just like love.
A note from yours truly: One thing I love about WordPress is witnessing beautiful art and writing by people I follow. The memory of this work and the story that accompanies it has stayed with me this past couple of weeks and I thought I would share it. I hope you will check out this blog.—Margaret
Gotta song that you think
goes with one of our vases?
We invite you to add yours
in the comments!
I am visiting once more Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, a novel narrated by the fictional 92-year-old Marian Leatherby who, early in the novel oft quotes her friend Carmella: “One can never trust people under seventy and over seventy.” There are early opinions of antimacassars, a description of collecting and spinning cat hair for a sweater, and an expression of love for her crone beard which she finds rather “gallant” though she notes the “more conventional” would find it “repulsive.” And of course, there is the the hearing trumpet, a gift from her friend Carmella. It is encrusted with silver and mother-of-pearl and shaped like a buffalo’s horn. The instrument will empower her hearing to bionic proportions, apparently.
Find me a narrative or a comedian that will make me laugh, even in tough times, and I will be forever hooked. Leonora Carrington was a British-born surrealist artist and writer who lived in Mexico City most of her adult life, beginning in the 1940s. I used to have an art book (Surreal Friends) with her work included, along with two other surrealist artists in exile in Mexico in the 40s—Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. I was needing cash and had to sell a couple of art books, and alas, this tome was able to fetch me more than any other. But it was a beautiful book.
Even more precious to me is Carrington’s beloved novel from the publisher Exact Change The Hearing Trumpet which, if memory serves, was recommended me by my first writing teacher and friend over twenty years ago. The narrator turns the world upside down, shakes down its pockets, and admires the paper clip and the dime and the bunched up lint that falls out. It is subversive in that it refuses standard issue readerly expectations and novelistic conventions; it subverts capitalistic, materialistic values; it questions normative views so often adopted even in art and literature, but especially in a consumer society.
It delights: You think you know what this character is about and then, in the next sentence, you have no idea. She defies your expectation, and in fact, any preconceived expectation at all. Despite what judgements our world and our literature would commonly impose on such “characters,” Carrington constantly offers up a world that is more exciting, more imaginative, more full of possibility and less limited, less limiting.
I hope to successfully revise and find a home for a story of a woman who has a rich inner life as well as an active and rich imaginative life though she is trapped by the ravages of age. She can’t even speak, but she travels in memory, interacts with a ghost friend, imaginatively reinterprets a relative as a fairy tale character. I was perhaps remembering some of Carrington when I wrote the story, though I was also remembering a story by Lars Gustafsson, and likely stories by my first writing teacher as well as writers such as Janet Frame.
No matter what is happening in real time, we can live and create in an alternate reality, perhaps one that causes us to examine ourselves, what we value, who we value. A subversive vision can be mild and couched in humor but it upends the world.
A cancer patient’s family moves away while he’s in treatment. Afraid and lonely, he realizes he may need a church who will burry him. After joining a church, he learns his way into a plot is to tithe but all disposable income is owed the hospital.
Terramae makes peanut butter chocolate frogs for trick or treaters, but her boyfriend, a chef, uses them for a mole. She yells at him and he says “I wish you would just smoke one big doobie.” She makes a huge batch of frog edibles for his staff. Everyone gets fired.
There is a light in the world for a little Prince and we, the children who have died at the hands of our caretakers, see it at night from where we reside. We are the Realm of the Comforters. We are a ragged crew, deformed, still, from our injuries but beauty in the afterlife is not the beauty that is prized in life. We wear our raggedness like battle scars. It grants us a certain power: The power to empathize, the impetus to act, the motivation to bring justice to children on earth.
Baby Prince was drowned by his very own father. A distraught mother and an angel detective helped solve the crime and and put the father away, but of course, this was not enough to save the child. The dear one came into our world choking and screaming, for children who have been killed at the hands of those who are tasked to love them are in a certain kind of confused state. Our Book of Souls states it is natural for a child to love a caretaker beyond all reason for love is the first rule. And yet, confusion and anger exist in that love and serve to render the child inconsolable.
We found the child in his crib sitting up, wailing, though he had already died. In our Book, we are allowed to comfort the newly deceased but only to bring them rest until they are discovered. It was likely no one heard him die for he had been held under water. After this heinous act, his father had placed him in his crib so that he could “discover” him and cash in on an insurance policy.
We suspended ourselves from the ceiling in the nursery, reaching down in unison to the child in the crib to form a small basket nest, a cradle for rocking, a place over his bed. We sung of babies finding sleep in trees in leaves with birds chirping, a place to safely rock and dream. Gradually, he was comforted, and slept, and we slipped him onto his blanket. The next few nights, a beam of light followed him from his room to the hospital and to his little grave, and at night we visited the grave until he joined us in our Realm, to be mothered and comforted, to play among us, to be our little Prince.
A fit and successful man, Ryan loves his mom, but feels sorry for her too, in the way that only newly minted adults will sometimes feel sorry their older relatives, particularly those closest to them, well ok, admittedly, in the way newly minted adults will sometimes feel sorry for their mothers. It has occurred to him that had his parents stayed together, the burden of thinking so much about his mother could have been displaced, since it would have been largely the responsibility of his father. Now he felt the weight. He had rebelled against taking this on in high school, but gradually assumed the mantel as the years progressed.
When he visits his mother, Ryan has a protocol for keeping track of her. Inevitably, her preparation of an elaborate meal helps him create ruses to slip off into her room: He wants to check his weight because he doesn’t keep a scale at home; he wants to look at her pictures because he likes looking at them; he needs to borrow her Bible to look something up. Had Ryan lived in town, his mother would have been suspicious that he went into her room at all, but she was always so happy to see him, she didn’t ask questions.
He knows where she keeps her blood sugar monitor; he checks recent readings and the ninety day history. He syncs the scale he bought her to his phone and tracks her weight; nothing new there which is both good and bad. He checks the notebook beside her bed where she keeps a written record of finances and doctors’ appointments. She is still in trouble financially and physically though her smile and easy manner seems to bely that. This was just her way. He checks her Bible. The tiny piece of paper he inserted at the edge of a page in the New Testament is still in place which means she hadn’t unzipped the cover and read her Bible and likely hadn’t attended church and Bible study. There is a whiskey bottle bedside— not great—though it is still mostly full. The dust level on her dresser is reaching visible though oft used surfaces like her bedside secretary desk is variably dust free.
Sometimes, he had been surprised by notebooks found in her secretary such as a girlhood diary she kept of her travels with her family in Egypt and Israel. The notebook contained hieroglyphics and their translations and notes about Christmas in Israel, but also complaints about his aunt and grandmother, that they huddled together and gossiped on the trip and left her out. His late uncle and grandfather formed the male unit. She complained she didn’t fit into her own family. This had surprised him, though she would never have admitted any of this to his face. She may not have remembered writing this down. Who knows that she didn’t remember this experience or remember sticking this journal into her secretary desk.
One time he had seen his mother, a younger version of his mother, tidying up the bookshelves in the spare bedroom where he slept. He had sensed her presence, and when he opened his eyes, it was confirmed, but he was afraid. He knew she was not the mother that was alive now. His current mother had thinning hair and moved more deliberately, as if she were thinking before deciding to invest in a certain commitment to act. He was afraid for as he observed this newer version of her—which was younger and more carefree–he also heard his older mother in the kitchen, making his dinner. At dinner, he said nothing about this phantom but he had the unsettling sense he didn’t know his mother, that he didn’t know anything about how she lived or what she thought or how she had experienced life, though she still seemed to know a great deal about him, even what he chose to leave unspoken.
It was always a relief to leave his mother’s home and enter into the chaos of his father’s life, one with fewer memories of the past, a new family with a new mother and brother, where life with his father’s former wife was rarely, if ever, spoken of. And then it was even more of a relief to go home to his own town where there was less history and more possibility, where anything could happen, where the horizon expanded out in all directions.
And he was thankful he had yet to see his mother’s younger double here at his new apartment. He prayed for a stay of execution.
In the early days of the circus, the 19th century, there was puritanical disapproval because “entertainments” were considered a sinful waste of time and the outfits that performers wore revealed too much. But the animal menagerie that was set up alongside the performance tent was a shrewd move to recruit an audience among the faithful. That is the setting of this mini-story which reveals a child’s dreams. Dreams, I think, are the lure and effect of the circus. (I realize I’m not writing of Halloween or writing spooky yet with the circus theme. I’ve become intrigued by the research.)
Henry Buckland, a religious man of New England, took his family to see the animal menagerie. But Little Henrietta broke away to glimpse a forbidden scene under the big top: the trapeze. She vowed to be a trapeze artist one day and wear a gorgeous, glittery outfit.
I’ll have to admit, I have a thing for the #LeaveItChallenge on YouTube. Folks leave delectable items well within reach of their dogs and tell them “leave it” then leave the room. (There is a similar challenge for children called #candychallenge.) The camera tracks just how these tortured subjects react to the temptation.
I have recently purchased a book of the earliest versions of the Brothers Grimm folk and fairy tales. Later versions of these tales were sweetened for younger audiences. The earliest forms are more brutal, just like our R-rated movies and and more salacious forms of entertainment. But then there are some funny tales as well, such as Clever Gretel. I won’t ruin it for you, but let’s just say Clever Gretel is a #LeaveItChallenge laugh-riot.
This story is based on the case of a family annihilation in Mendocino County, California on March 26, 2018. See Broken Harts, Prime Video.
After two mommies drove a vanload of adopted children off a cliff, we the children of the Realm gathered the newly dead children in our arms. There is nothing like the cries of children who have died at the hands of their caretakers. Often, they have been abused for years.
My first grade teacher broke yardsticks over our desks when we colored “wrong.” At her funeral, I wondered if she drooled after her stroke. Since it was open casket, I was terrified she knew my naughty thoughts and was gonna get me.
She had been drooling on her pillow but wasn’t worried until she saw her face: It was twitching. Her brother took her to the ER but the nurse brushed them off: She was too young to have a stroke. Her brother yelled for the doctor and saved her life.
After miscarrying, I started sleeping in the nursery under the Chagall print—a chicken pulling a carriage for a couple and their baby. While I was asleep one night, Marty left a note: “I love you but I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry.”
Having endured white torture overseas, the journalist returned home. White rooms, chalk floors, soundlessness—the sensory deprivation of his confinement had cast the spell of Lethe. He did not recognize family and yet he panicked at the prospect of being left alone.
Young men of the Ivy League fraternity hosted a “pig roast,” a competition to score high in bedding women. Tie breakers were won using the scale: The man who slept with the heaviest young lady reigned supreme. There was institutional punishment but heartfelt contrition of members was nowhere in evidence.
Tranquil, Jesus-loving hippies, seduced by the revolutionary music of a new religious movement, found themselves engaging in “flirty fishing” for the cause of God. “The Law of Love” superseded “The Law of Moses” said their guru. Years later, former cult members mourn lost innocence. Some don’t survive the shattering.
Coca Cola Vintage by Antonio Marín Segovia, flickr
Florida man, sociopathic genius, Mensa member, chemist, having silenced his neighbors’ barking dogs for good, laces the boisterous family’s soda bottles with thallium. Like the dogs, the mother loses her hair. Her liter are poisoned. The mother dies, but the Florida man is dismayed to find prison especially noisy.
As she ascended the stairs to her bedroom, her mother’s poisonous words followed her: “Just go on up there and write to your God!” And the poison dripped out of her eyes as she bent over the once-private journal, dampening the paper and blurring the lines.
Have you seen the four-part documentary series LuLaRich on Amazon Prime Video? It’s interesting. At first, I wasn’t going to watch it because in general, patterned leggings, a key product of LuLaRoe, aren’t my thing. Lols. (Well, I do confess, I purchased flowered bike shorts from another clothing store recently!) In terms of real time events, when things were starting to go down with this multilevel marketing company, I was in the throes of crises involving divorce and ill health and wasn’t tuned into the world. Furthermore, I realized, having watched the initial few moments of the first episode of this series, I would not have been the demographic target. There was an upper middle class, married woman vibe. That no longer fit who I was.
Though the story in this documentary may seem an illustration of aspirational-white-girls-getting-their-comeuppance, the dynamics of this toxic culture could apply to other situations as well. I don’t want to spoil the series should you decide to watch it. And I’m not a big business person so I have my limitations regarding the subject. What I do want to say and what this drove home for me is that we are all vulnerable to things when we feel wanting in some way—whether it be a lack of funds; a lack of purpose; a lack of self-esteem; etc.
Regarding things we do because we are vulnerable, I joined a support group that had started meeting on Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic. They meet frequently—every week—and I’m not big into sharing too much of myself with strangers in frequent meetings. Every now and then, ok, I can be this vulnerable, but well, there is a time to share and a time to keep to oneself. In comparing the first time I met with them with a time that is more recent, I have noticed how much emphasis is now given for members to rely on the group. In fact, sometimes the leader made exclusive claims: True support can be found only in the group. Not all statements were as bold, but I sensed a marked difference. I could have been misinterpreting what I was hearing, but I think it equally possible this is a major red flag.
We are all vulnerable, especially right now. I think it is worth listening to the small voice inside, or training ourselves to do this. We may sometimes override this voice, the very embodiment of our intuition, because we are desperate for whatever is being promised by someone else. But how do we know we won’t get trapped by something that could harm us? Everyone is vulnerable to this kind of a trap. It only takes a certain kind of person saying a certain kind of thing during a certain time of need to influence us to take the bait. This certain kind of person can seem to be utterly benevolent, or just radically awesome. We have to test the waters. Sometimes they are grounded and acting ethically. But, in general, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Nothing new there. But for me, the puzzle is how to reach out in vulnerability while also maintaining a kind of critical stance.
This blogpost is longer than I intended it to be. However, to summarize, I really do like LuLaRich and hope you will watch it! And it did make me think that we are now more vulnerable than ever. And though not everyone who misleads people is aiming for their destruction, the process of leading can do a psychological number on the person in charge unless they’re well grounded and make active use of accountability structures.
No matter where you land politically or by any other measure, there is a small voice inside. Listen. It may tell you it’s time to go rogue.
Here’s another bluegrass favorite that’s come to have so much resonance. I hope to learn more about Ola Belle Reed. This was co-written with Dave Reed, her son. It’s in a go-to playlist on Spotify. Good thoughts to you this Saturday. I’ll put another beauty below. — Margaret
When you feel alone in your illness, let your strength demonstrate your dignity, let the sun crown you sister and brother, let the moon guide you as your mother and father. And if it is your turn to lie down, let the gentle earth receive you in her arms.
On a work break, he slipped his hand under her blouse to roughly fondle her pitted breast. She was on her way to a radiation appointment. Men seemed attracted to her damage but her passion was reserved for photons. She slapped his hand away. Imbécile!
This reminds me of summers in North Carolina. We would go to a square dance where this song was popular. This was a dance, but not a square dance. It was a couples’ dance. I never learned it and guy partners who knew it were very few. A couple our age always danced to this, flying all over the barn. They were amazing. I am quite fond of this old Red Foley song. Every now and then, I just have to hear it. There is no substitute. Happy hump day.
Whenever she heard certain songs, thoughts of a former boyfriend reached inside and twisted her insides. It had taken time to see his lack of interest, but they had both loved rock and roll. Did she really want to exorcise his ghost? She wasn’t sure.
I begin today this year’s fall-fifty-word-challenge. Some of these small pieces may be kitschy; some may be tongue-in-cheek; and some may not have as much to do with Halloween as with the darker aspects of life in general. I confess I wrote this one sans prompt. I intend to post some prompts for those interested in participating.—Margaret
Sitting on the toilet lid, she slumps against the bathroom wall, her eyes fixed on the shower curtain, the spoon fallen to the floor, blood trickling down her arm.
They found her blue-lipped. Her sister said it was China Girl, come to take her from the pain.
In this week leading into Labor Day weekend, our nation and my state is literally wracked with illness and death; Louisiana has been ripped apart by a hurricane; there is fear and uncertainty in Afghanistan and mourning for lives lost. Furthermore, there are school districts who will be financially punished for trying to keep children safe from a deadly virus and there are many people facing eviction notices. Last year, the inception of the pandemic was only preamble.
This morning, it was in an addled frame of mind that I opened my closet door to see a small open bin on the floor, something from my previous move I have been gradually sorting through. There on the top, I noticed a collection of pictures which were scattered face down. On the backs of the pictures, there were names and dates written in cursive in an unknown hand. I turned them over to see some glimpse of an almost forgotten history, a record someone else kept for interested parties. I don’t remember who took the pictures of me because I was a baby, but there I was supposedly and playing with a playmate I would never see again. There were also pictures of my biological mother as a child and and also as a young woman. There was a picture of my biological grandmother, a few of my grandfather, two of my half-brother. I hadn’t expected to see these pictures this morning. Oddly, I felt nothing. But years ago, when I first saw them, I felt a great deal. It was at that moment of being presented with them that I learned things that were hard to know. For years, I kept the pictures tucked away in a bookshelf in a manilla envelop, away from view as if they held an electric charge. But moving and disruption has a way of discombobulating everything, and there we are, our private things lying about like a tossed salad.
Watching the film Horse Girl this afternoon, I was drawn into a deep grief, perhaps primed by the pictures of my biological mother in various stages of her life. And there was something so disturbingly recognizable about the film’s main character and her story, something so recognizable in her foibles and derailing mind, her struggle with a mental illness passed down by her grandmother and mother. The major existential question she asks is: How much of their illness is also mine?
I have also been in a grieving process since the onset of the pandemic for I have begun to lose my adopted mother to dementia. It brings home more starkly than ever that sense that when everything is stripped away, we stand naked and alone.
I will not get into more detail about the film and I won’t go into my own history here, though I have done so elsewhere, having spent years keeping it to myself. But for now, I’ll just leave it at this: I could relate to so much material that was in this film. I was riveted. It broke my heart. It is worth your time if you care to explore.
Prefatory note by yours truly:I wanted to share this fascinating post. Several years ago, at the Florida Film Festival, I saw the film I Dream in Another Language. a dramatic and beautiful film exploring the stakes of the death of an indigenous language in Mexico. Though the film explores sometimes mystical concepts, it also explores an intriguing line of thought: When a language dies, whole realms of experience and culture die with it. If you are interested in this concept, I invite you to watch the film and read the reviews to start your exploration. And I hope you will follow the link to this website to read about this linguist’s inspiration and work in Southern Italy.
Written by Dyami Millarson This picture was taken during my last visit to Southern Italy, I played football outside like some of the locals. Whilst I was there, I had taken the opportunity to continue my Molesian fieldwork. Profoundly inspired as a teenager by David Crystal’s Language Death, David K. Harrison’s When Languages Die, Daniel […]
It is almost September! Which means it is almost October! Which means it’s close to Halloween!
I was revising some posts this morning, and particularly the fifty-word fiction pieces I wrote for last year’s Inktober. A few years ago, I started following someone for this little literary spooky spree, writing a delicious bite-size story each day of October. But for a couple of years, I have blazed my own trick-or-treat trail, creating my own prompts. And last year, I wrote several posts laying out my thoughts about writing fun size.
I plan a return to Inktober excitement this year. And I may start as early as September. October being what it may be for me this year, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to craft gloomy confections. If you want to join me, I hope to post prompts soon, some of which may be repeats, but which I enjoyed, ergo: Favorite prompts, round two!
Prime the pump with scary thoughts while I put a cauldron over the fire.
Weekends are work days for me, though I try to do some “weekend things” when possible, such as a home movie night on Saturday, complete with popcorn and a Diet Coke. I know, sounds wild, right? Ah, pandemic life. Maybe you sense some recognition when I say I am still a bit shocked the pandemic hasn’t ended yet, but has instead intensified, particularly in my home state of Florida. I unapologetically watch movies or tv series when I need an immediate wind-down from the world.
I say all of this to say: Yesterday I enjoyed watching a Swedish drama series called Beartown. It concerns a family who return to their small hometown in Northern Sweden having faced a family tragedy some time before. The father is a retired professional hockey player who has been hired to coach the local hockey team. The mother is a lawyer. The daughter is in high school and the younger son is in grade school.
Trouble is foreshadowed in a dramatic opening scene in which someone is chasing someone else through heavy drifts of snow. The one giving chase carries a shotgun. They run through a forest and down an embankment. At some point, there is a shot, but we do not know what happens and identities are obscured. The story is backtracking to what events, what pressures, what dynamics led up to this particular moment.
I like this series. It’s not sensationalistic though it can be stark. For the most part, my suspension of disbelief gets a rest. I appreciate its fairly balanced realism though some character faults are starkly drawn.
The series explores the impact of pressure in peer groups — especially youth sports culture — and in an insular community focused on this culture. And it masterfully portrays the ripple effect of violence. It concerns issues of integrity, courage, friendship, parenting, grief, group behavior, and shrinking opportunities and resources in a waning industrial town.
I think it is one to share as part of a family with older children, especially teenagers, but also possibly middle graders. It would appeal to students involved in both sports and the arts and students who may feel marginalized as well as those who are popular but who nonetheless feel insecure and under pressure.
Spoiler alert: It does portray a rape but the scene isn’t gratuitous and the subject isn’t used to portray a helpless victim or to demonize an offender. However, it shows the destructive power of sexual violence as well as cultural influences that feed this violence.
While the movie is Swedish and there are English subtitles, the gist of it is easy to follow and text is not rapid-fire. The filming is beautiful and the setting would possibly stimulate interest in another culture among young viewers. It is a very fine drama.
I can picture using this as part of an in-home “curriculum,” complete with thought-provoking questions to prompt discussion, though of course it is best to screen this before sharing it with a younger audience..
For both young viewers and those who are more “mature,” there is something for all. Oh, and don’t forget the popcorn!
On the Atlanta Highway in Montgomery, Alabama there is a restaurant called Martha’s Place.
Beside the parking lot is a huge sparkling double fountain set apart by a brick terrace, trees, and park benches where you can rest. Along the front are one-story-high curtains flanking the generously portioned windows. Immediately, you think to yourself: I am underdressed. And disappointment and panic set in. This would not be a first. But no, there are bodies of all sorts, young and old, making their way to the entrance. They are clothed variously and quite a few in the average casual dress of the street. You feel relief and grab your pandemic mask, your jacket.
Inside, at the hostess station, a woman charges you $11. There is no menu, no waitresses, but a large buffet. You think to yourself: Such a foreign sight in the midst of a pandemic. But of course, there are safety measures, and required gloves as well as masks. And you remember the now foreign process of communal meals, large gatherings, church dinners, weddings, funerals, potlucks. You are both depressed and happy because here it is, something like what you have hoped for all along.
You came here for good old Southern food. Not road food disguised as Southern food, but something a mama or grandmamma might make, an aunt or a favorite neighbor. And there it is: fried chicken and catfish, roast chicken, gravy, fried okra, greens, mashed potatoes. You order your iced tea unsweet, which a waitress does bring you, but you notice, thankfully, it needs nothing added to it, no fake sugars, just a squeeze of lemon. It is the best tea you have ever tasted. And as you sink into soul goodness, you begin to listen to what could be your relatives, all around, you, ‘Bama accents, people telling stories at their tables, a man who could have been your grandaddy telling his stuttering Bible salesman joke, and your Uncle Willie cackling, your grandmamma snickering.
It honestly feels like a teeny bit of heaven, a slice of memory, a piece of your life. I had to go and hit the road, and only had a quarter of an hour to invest in it, but I took my tea. It satisfied for hours later – the food, the memories, the tea.
You won’t feel unwelcome if you find yourself at Martha’s Place on Atlanta Highway in Montgomery, Alabama. Go. Tell them a weary and grateful traveler sent you along.
I made a recording of my last blogpost. And I have started a podcast on Spotify. I hope to have a Youtube channel as well. With both venues, I am primarily interested in storytelling.
I have really missed gathering for public readings during the pandemic. Recording stories has been a longtime desire, even before the world changed so dramatically. WordPress made it so easy for me to take this step when they directed me to the Anchor platform.
This is a beginner’s efforts, but I hope you will enjoy. — Meg
Here is a fairly unrevised response to a writing prompt from a writing group meeting a couple of weeks ago. I wrote this in my favorite little 4×7 spiral notebook I use to write fiction and track expenses and doctors’ appointments. I did not write this on a keyboard, neither did anyone else. And when we shared our results out loud, we couldn’t always tell what we’d written! But I do think there is something to be gained from putting thoughts on paper. Ok, the prompt was as follows or I remember it as follows: Someone is lost or in danger and someone else shows the way to a hiding place. [We had five minutes to write.]
She felt alone, abandoned, recently expelled from her husband’s home. Her sisters and mother were far away in the hills. She sought shelter in the forest. The trees looked the same – uncompromising sentries, impenetrable gaze. Something tapped her on the shoulder. There was the sound of dry leaves like crackling skin. “I have room for you,” said a tree, “in a quiet place inside.” And the tree made her small, and she walked into a space between the arches of its roots and she opened a little green wooden door labeled #7. A kettle was on over a tiny stove and a fire of moss crackled on a tiny stone hearth. She lay upon a cushion of leaves and listened to the creaking of the tree trunk, its sighs the low moaning an old spiritual. She felt herself drift down, down into a dark pool and she dreamt of poppies and warm springs.
My first attempt at audio! Well, I have recorded a story for a journal, but this is my first attempt for the blog. You can also follow my podcast on Spotify. I am a beginner, so please have mercy. But I do hope you enjoy.
The day Mama forced me to pick up the burned pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day Pony and Apple Pie started hanging out near Daddy’s old rusted car. Pony and Apple Pie were imaginary friends even though I was almost too old to have imaginary friends. I didn’t have too many real life friends by the time Mama forced me to keep her terrible secrets. The day I picked up pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day I almost lost my mind.
“Don’t you tell no one about Uncle Charlie,” said Mama, “not your sisters, not your friends, not that no-count boyfriend.”
I could have told her there was no one I could talk to anymore.
Mama had shot Uncle Charlie because he threatened to tell the Sheriff she had killed Daddy. She had shot Uncle Charlie when we sisters hitched a ride to town for ice cream. When I came home, I saw her on the floor, hair tied up, wearing dishwashing gloves, and dipping a sponge into a bucket of bleach. Something was wrong. And eventually, when she needed my help, she told me what it was.
Uncle Charlie was the best man Mama had ever been with, well, that is, except Daddy of course. Uncle Charlie was Daddy’s brother, and there I was one day, picking up pieces of him, mostly bone and teeth, and scattering these pieces in the woods and all over to help hide Mama’s crime. All I saw for days after were black spots. All I smelled and tasted was burned flesh.
Once, before Uncle Charlie disappeared, my younger sister, Mercy, stood up to Mama and told her she would tell the sheriff on her, would tell the sheriff her Mama had killed Daddy. Mama had one of her boyfriends drive the two of them out to a field. The boyfriend pulled a shotgun on Mercy. He would have killed her, except Mercy snuggled close to Mama real quick so he couldn’t shoot without hurting both of them. Mama held her and stroked her hair and said, “Don’t hurt my baby!”
Mercy said that for a minute, she believed Mama wanted to protect her. When she told me this, that’s when I knew I wouldn’t dare tell her about Uncle Charlie. I didn’t think she could handle it. I was worried she would tell Mama off, then Mercy might get shot and burned, just like Uncle Charlie.
Apple Pie and Pony kept me accountable to Uncle Charlie’s ashes. They kept showing up, in my dreams, in the yard.
“Oooo girl, like you at a barbeque!” said Pony, and he and Apple Pie high fived. They danced around the yard, the yard full of rusty car parts, an old mattress.
“I ain’t never been to a bar-bee-que like dat,” said Apple Pie. “Where da sauce?”
Pony fell out, then made it look like he was a clown and kicked his feet out so he sprung up again. “Sheriff gonna lock you up little ash girl!” And as he said this, he came near and put his face close to mine. There was smoke rising up from his smiling mouth.
“I like Applewood smoked bacon,” said Apple Pie, who was the larger of the two, much larger, and maybe the slower, mentally. He looked down at his hands. He was picking at the skin the way my diabetic grandaddy used to do.
“You know how how dogs gets fleas, chile,” said Pony. “You gots to get yo’ sistas and flee on up outta here. One of you chilrun may already be in danger, you don’t know. May even be you!”
I knew Pony was right and I loved Apple Pie because he was just himself, didn’t even matter if he didn’t have much to say. Any man me and my sisters had ever loved, Mama had eventually cheated on or destroyed. She wasn’t always like that, but looking back, I think being poor made her mean. Too many times, we had no water. Too many times, we went hungry. She started dressing sexy to attract men. She was already pretty, but when she dressed sexy, men couldn’t resist. And then they wanted to marry her.
With all this stuff happening, I could feel myself getting black inside, as if I had sucked up the fire from Uncle Charlie and it was burning from the inside out.
One night, when Mama was out, we sisters held hands and escaped. We made our way across fields and ditches, avoiding roads, until a man and his wife found us crossing their property. None of us would say what we were doing. We stayed at their house until the sheriff came out to meet us.
The night I told the sheriff about Mama killing Daddy and Uncle Charlie was the night Pony and Apple Pie left me sleep in peace. There was no interrupting my dreams to talk of ashes. That night I dreamt of Daddy making strawberry ice cream for us with the old timey machine. He looked at me and smiled. I jolted upright in bed. He was alive! But no, it was morning, and I could see I wasn’t in Daddy’s house anymore. Still, I knew he was an angel. I knew he would always be my Daddy.
Crime very loosely based on a case of a missing teen whose mother is suspected of killing her husband and then killing her teen daughter in order to prevent her from whistle-blowing. Details have been altered.
Sometimes a film resonates. The 2020 psychological/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.
In the black comedy I Care A Lot, Rosamund Pike plays a ruthless con-artist who exploits a legal loophole to run a long con on the elderly. Such a force requires an opposing force to make a proper conflict and one is found in Peter Dinklage, playing a Russian mob boss whose elderly mother (Diane Wiest) is a mark of the con.
Pike is most convincing to me in this role. She is a brilliant actor though another recent role, her portrayal of Madame Curie, left me unconvinced and unsettled. Will you think less of me if I say I loved and preferred her portraying evil here? There is a precision to her execution that is wholly satisfying, and it seems to me, a great fit.
There is a nice balance in the film, details that bring an almost convincing humanity to this huckster, but realities are never far from the story’s cosmic – and comic – balance. And definitely no one can accuse this grifting character of slacking!
Diane Wiest and Peter Dinklage are perfect. I love Dinklage as a mob boss! Encore!
When we were young and in love, we dressed up when we traveled, even when we traveled for vacation, even though we were born into a liberal, unfettered age. To the airport, we wore suits, dresses, pressed button downs, designer sweaters, polished shoes, manicured hair, new luggage. It was a kind of formality, an austere dignity, a removed way of occupying space with others without speaking to anyone, not even to each other. When we were young and in love, we bought the New York Times and read it cover to cover, quietly shifting through the paper sheets, exchanging favorite sections, reading while we drank rich coffee. We browsed bookstores, bought hardbacks and diaries to take with us on trips.
The way we conducted ourselves when we traveled in our younger years, it was as if we lived something unspoken between us, a practiced script from our parents’ time, our grandparents’ time. When we were children, we were old. And when we were young, we were older still. And yet when we were young and in love, we were too young to realize we could not stem hardships with such artificialities and habits.
When we went on honeymoon, we each bought novels chosen specially for the trip. We read our novels on an old mattress in a friend’s London flat, the sunlight pouring through a dusty window, the owner’s dishes lying dirty in the sink.
When we took trains from Sicily to Paris, we maintained our dressed up dignified formality, maintained our sense that life would always be like this. We believed we would never pick fights, wound never squabble, would raise a family in serenity and stability. We would have our own cool brand of quiet acceptance and separate spaces, clothing ourselves formally, clothing our children thusly.
It was a kind of impenetrable adulthood we created when we were young and in love. This is what it was like when we were young but too young to really know we were playing at something, too young to imagine we may not have been in love. We didn’t know life. We wore blinkers. We willed ourselves not to repeat a kind of pain, a kind of chaos. What we relished when we were young and in love was an illusion.
What are your Kathy-Griffin-pie-my-making moments? Moments where you can close out the world and engage in something self-nurturing and calming? Patty Griffin’s song “Making Pies” strikes me as more and more brilliant the further the world has drilled down into mayhem. In the United States, this mayhem includes the pandemic threat, threats to justice and democracy, gun violence, to name a few. And every time I have heard Patty Griffin’s song – whether several years ago or today – I get teary. Her song speaks to the world. And great songs are timeless. What this song says is that during our uncertain and fear-filled times, it is good to get in touch with a way of being that focuses the concentration and calms the nerve, bringing us back to ourselves.
And no, not everyone makes pies! I couldn’t make a pie to save me, though I had a friend carefully explain the method and recipe years ago when I was staying at her house in Haddonfield, New Jersey.
But maybe it’s good to always have such a thing: Something you do that makes you not mind if you get your hair messed up, if you get a little flour on your face. Sure, maybe you started out worrying about such things, but at some point, you just said “it doesn’t matter,” then got down to business. Maybe just surviving right now may seem pie-making enough although a forgetfulness is what I seek, apart from survival, a kind of self-forgetfulness that is not chemically induced and is a kind of “making.”
At present, a pie-making moment is being in school to learn editing – and doing it no matter how difficult it is for me. But also, on the side, and just as important for my mental and emotional health: doing creative writing exercises, posting polished older fiction and memoir pieces, sharing what is new and vulnerable, reaching out to writing friends old and new, keeping dreams alive and not being afraid of failure. Maybe you like to garden, build something, play with your pet, make beer, sew, crochet, bake, cook, grill, catch fish, play a musical instrument, create videos or visual art, read a book, write in a diary, volunteer. Maybe there is something calling out to you, some new career or avocation which involve those small, self-forgetful, pie-making steps.
Sometimes in my posts, I share the results of creative writing exercises. Sometimes I use my blog as my test kitchen in order to keep challenging myself every day if I can. Maybe something longer will come from these pieces or maybe I will be able to see old stories a new way. Or maybe I will just be more invigorated and encouraged as a person.
These are the things I do because I must do them. Besides, these pies are so delicious, even though some are trial pies. They are delicious because I made them.
In an attempt to gain real world experience after three years of studying Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Joyce, Shakespeare, you apply for a summer advertising internship in Hollywood on the shaky notion that at least it’s communications, it’s all communications – right? – the artful use of language to woo an audience. When you arrive you are all east-coast and corn-fed. You aren’t fat, but solid, pretty, but not stunning. Besides, you wear clothes and earrings that match, a purse that goes with.
They have no idea what to do with you so they sit you in front of a huge TV and show you how to use a large knob to stop the pictures. Somewhere, in one of the edit bays, they are allowing a woman your age to write a script, someone, who has never read a book cover to cover, but who is loud and flirty and skinny.
And yet there you sit with Guilala, a giant Japanese Gila monster, who crushes cars with feet that wobble. He smashes elevated trains and spews his wrath while tiny people flee. You are supposed to write down the numbers on the frames to use for film distribution commercials. You are supposed to take notes. They will be doing a Japanese monster campaign sometime in the future. You write down every frame. You have no idea what you are doing. No one cares. No one is watching or holding you accountable. No one is teaching you anything.
You love Hollywood and hate it. You cross seven lanes of L.A. traffic in between your exit in Burbank and Sunset. (This is the only thing, actually, that impresses your parents, that you can navigate this.) You love your night drives down the Pacific Coast Highway. You take day trips to Laguna. The surfers tell you to go home. You walk through rock formations. You spend your day half-self-consiously enjoying the warm sun.
One night, a policeman picks you up for prostitution. You had just gotten out of a movie at the Mann Chinese Theatre. You are shocked but then you remember the cutoffs you are wearing. They are not too short you think. Any woman out after midnight on Sunset is a suspect, he says. He drives you to your car. Luckily, you are not in trouble.
You have never known people to act so self-important as they do here. And yet, you find yourself getting in on the act. It creates a mini-scene that you jump out of your car with the film that is overdue, that you pop out onto the sidewalk to make an urgent delivery. Someone could see you. Someone could say, “That girl’s important. Who is she?” Some tourists could notice you. That’s what you want, most of all, is to be seen as some kind of insider.
At the end of the summer, back in Florida, you break up with your boyfriend of three years, the one your parents wanted you to marry even though he was a Catholic. He hadn’t wanted you to go to Hollywood at all. Neither had they. But you can’t talk of Hollywood without crying. It has broken something in you and how can you explain, in a way that they will understood, exactly what it is.
Sometimes you put yourself out there into cyberspace as a little writing fish in a pond of much bigger writing fish with a spark of something inspired by an exercise. I do this because I need to come up with something created that isn’t simply reflective of what I am constantly surrounded by during a global pandemic.
This is why writing prompts can be so useful. I often pair a prompt with something I am already thinking about writing, such as an idea for a story or vignette, but which I fear could be quite humdrum. A picture prompt helps me give it a tiny twist. I don’t have the picture that inspired the prompt-based writing I did today, a picture prompt a writer posted on social media, but below is a similar picture.
Sometimes I forget but remember when I finally sit down to write to a prompt: Writing is ongoing, even when one is not writing. Prompts just help draw out something that is going on beneath the surface. The writing I have shared below may not be all that great, but I’ve gotten it out there and feel better and will probably be less grouchy.
The one thing they don’t tell you when you are young and small is that when you are old, you will be expected to be loud and outgoing. Brash. I mean, sometimes you try it, right? But you know, deep in your heart, you belong in the forest, in the root of a tree, where you once glimpsed the sun between the leaves and closed your eyes to the dappled light, to the wind shuffling the leaves, a sweeping shush of scattered papers, all these papers covering you. They are the skin of the world and your existence, your body, lies underneath – safe, in hidden calm. In the heat of the day, you curl into a dark place. You ignore the productivity pushers, their outrage and demands. You find a slip of a chair in a dark room, a slip the shape of a soft slipper that is upturned at the heel and you rest open it, fall asleep and dream an earthen dream of moss, of leaves molded and dry, a soft bed of flowers, a table round which happy friends toast libations in acorn cups and fall out in merriment.
In choosing the picture on unsplash, I learned that this is a tree in the Himalayan forest, a little fact that makes this even more interesting to me.
I will share the results of another exercise on another day. It is something I cooked up when I met with writing friends on zoom. This post is getting lengthy.
And now for my movie thoughts: If you like movies that shake you, that take you out of yourself, that are creeping with almost no jump scares, watch “The Open House” on Netflix. I am still so shaken by it and I watched it on Sunday. It is not for the family and maybe not for someone who just isn’t into this kind of thing, or not into it right now.
It was clear: The gratitude had completely drained from the situation. Ms. Hardin stood square shouldered to the burly repairman filling her apartment doorway: “Miss, you can’t put items out here! You mus’ move all dis’ stoff!” said the Latin man, indicating donations she had left in the breezeway for her neighbors, the kinds of items that only last year would have met with sly, secret takers within the hour, especially on a Saturday. She had left out welting pads, unopened dog food, a dog bed, a child’s plastic tea set, a stuffed pink kitty. No one had questioned her before when she left food outside, framed art, an unwanted office chair, plastic Christmas dishes, a Christmas stocking, cans of pumpkin.
Her pet had died a few months ago. And the hope of the online job she thought she might take teaching children in China had shriveled up with the news that the country’s government would not employ uncertified teachers. So she was giving away pet supplies and props she would have used to teach Chinese children English remotely. Plus, she had bought too much food with news of a global pandemic. The things she left in the breezeway had been representatives of old lives shed, old hopes abandoned and withering, foolish, extravagant purchases, signs of her weakness and anxiety, and it was always a relief when someone took them away.
One of her neighbors, Jose, had always made her feel important in who she was as a person. He smiled and said hello whenever he saw her. His dog and her dog had seemed to like each other. She and Jose had often talked about their dogs, their families. Jose was Latin too, just like the apartment repairman, and in fact, most of the residents of the old Orlando apartment complex were Latin, though some came from other areas of the world as well. Miss Hardin was very Caucasian. She tried dyeing her hair a dark brown, but it inevitably lightened. She couldn’t remember much of her high school Spanish. She had been to Mexico once on a church mission trip with other high schoolers when she was younger. She was a marvel then, and was able to hold entire conversations in a foreign tongue. And the Mexican people of the small town in the Yukatan Peninsula had seemed happy the young Americans were there. And that was the first time she truly felt of use to someone.
Jose had shown his wife the two framed pictures and a fancy side table with gold leaf Ms. Hardin had left outside her apartment that first month of her residence. “These will look great in our place!” he had enthused. “Don’t you think?” he said, consulting his wife. She merely nodded. She didn’t talk as much, seemed rather quiet. And later Ms. Hardin noticed they had moved the items up to their apartment because when she went out on an errand, they were gone. The warm feeling of their gratitude gave her a sense of buoyancy, energy.
This began the pattern of Ms. Hardin’s life among her new neighbors, interrupted and crushed only by a couple of thefts of delivered packages from her doorstep. The thefts left her flabbergasted and angry: She had been so nice to everyone! So generous and friendly! She felt a deep sense of betrayal, and even fear. She avoided everyone for a while and wasn’t as talkative or outgoing. She posted an angry note to the apartment community as a whole, asking for the return of her items. She called the apartment office to ask them if they had cameras on the buildings for security, or if they minded her installing her own. The apartment manager talked her down, sharing stories of her own negative experiences, experiences wholly foreign to Ms. Hardin, who had always lived among neighbors who took care of each other.
Over time, the sense of betrayal eased. One morning during the pandemic, Jose had spoken with her outside her apartment and had thanked her profusely for the cans of chicken soup she had left outside her apartment the night before. She was glad he and his wife had made use of them and that feeling of pride swelled in her again, that feeling she had made someone happy, that sense that she herself contributed and made people feel grateful. She knew in her heart Jose and his wife were not the thieves. Since the reassignment of another couple to a different apartment building, the thefts had stopped.
And yet, here, on this day, one year into the ravenous worldwide pandemic, the ingratitude had shown again in the repairman’s brusque manner. Jose and his wife and their dog had recently moved away. And apparently, there were no more takers. Normally, she would have left the items out all Saturday and they would have been gone by Saturday night at the latest. The repairman hadn’t bothered to know her name and was only harsh in his tone, not minding her fair complexion, the pearls at her neck, her family’s history in town, the fact that she was once a debutante, a Daughter of the American Revolution, a member of the homecoming court. She was a fussy, plump middle aged white lady who wore capris jeans and clogs, whose face looked sour when she wasn’t smiling, whose tiny readers sitting propped on her nose fogged up from her face mask. That was all he saw. And someone who made trouble. And someone who didn’t obey rules. And an example of someone who made his life more onerous. And a person who didn’t belong on this side of town, who didn’t fit in, but who for some reason was trying to. And in her secret heart, she knew many of the residents were not people she would choose to be with had circumstances not created the necessity.
As she pushed past him to grab her donations from the breezeway, she mumbled to him that she was only trying to help. And then she hurriedly shifted the items to her little banged up car for a charity run later.
There was no gratitude. And who was she if not magnanimous? Who was she if not looked up to and appreciated? After returning from the heat of her car, she closed herself up in her apartment and snapped shut the horizontal blinds. It was 4 p.m. She poured coke and whiskey into a highball and turned on the Christmas tree lights. It was April but she didn’t care. She missed Jose and wanted to cry. He was just a friend, and not really that, just someone who knew how to speak to people. And no doubt, people wanted to know him and know how to help him. He had been popular. And now the apartment community was quiet and dull.
Her son was away starting his new life. Her son, a senior at a small liberal arts college, well spoken, accomplished, a staunch Christian. Ms. Hardin was a divorced woman, and she sometimes grieved mistakes she had made, including ones the god Lord himself would have been aggrieved to witness, but the boy wasn’t one of them. And now with her sweet little dog gone, there just didn’t seem to be as much going.
The numbness started to overtake her, that warm, familiar feeling when she drank at this hour and for this purpose: the purpose of shutting down, shutting off. Who was she? She didn’t know. There were tiny achievements, however, and as the sky changed light with the dusk, she made note: A woman on her porch who had always stared at her when she walked by to the post office boxes, stared at her without returning her wave, had finally waved back at her the other day. It wasn’t much. But maybe, she thought, maybe people who see you a lot, who get used to you, and see you are not their worst fear, their worst nightmare, not the stereotype of every negative thing they’ve imagined or experienced, may eventually come to some sort of acceptance, recognition. Ms. Hardin was almost certain the woman knew no English. But they had shared a gesture. That was all. It didn’t inspire the self-satisfied and important feeling she had experienced when Jose had been overtly grateful to her. But the woman’s tiny wave had given her something to hold onto.
She put down her whiskey and joined in what she had done for many years for her family and what women all over her apartment complex were doing at this moment: The preparation of dinner with the heating up oil and garlic in a pan, the adding of spices, the opening up packages and cans. Tonight would be black beans, with jarred red peppers, olives, raw onions, the kind of dish her Cuban neighbors had made her family when her son was young, when she was still married and her family lived in a new home in a new neighborhood carved out from a defunct military base. Her neighbors were beautiful, wealthy neighbors who had escaped Castro, and who were solicitous, grateful. Ms. Hardin had been young, and her neighbors had invited them to family events.
No one would believe all the people she had been. Some days, she hardly believed it herself. And they were all – all these people she had been – were all together with her in this apartment, shuttered away from the mayhem and disaster of the world. Likely everyone, in their own little boxes, were also concatenations of selves – immigrants and refugees, racists and thieves, lapsed Christians and fearful hypocrites, disabled soldiers and irascible elderly, lonely travelers and lost children. These were easy, romanticized categories, she knew, but in thinking somewhat philosophically like this, Ms. Hardin liked to think herself an amateur mystic with a penchant for the tiny, broken things, the flotsam and jetsam, the simple and forgotten, herself one among many of the tiny people who somehow mattered despite invisibility. It was silly, she knew, but it was all she could think about for now.
: an imperfection or lack that detracts from the whole also: the quality or state of being flawed or lacking
There are times I become uncomfortably aware of a shortcoming, and I do indeed have more than one of these! The above definition of “shortcoming” is taken from the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I looked it up this morning in my hardcopy reference as part of an exercise which tests my copyediting ability and diligence in working with compound words. As part of working on a certificate in editing, I am learning that relying on authoritative texts, rather than simply memory or instinct, separates a quality copyeditor from one hobbled by shortcomings. I have to dismantle a kind of glib, glossing over and really see each letter and word afresh in order to truly help remedy a text.
Being in school and learning new things can be a very humbling experience, even humiliating if one has an extra layer of pride. I failed my first copyediting test last week. I didn’t give myself time and I missed at least half of the typos I should have caught and marked with my newly minted Frixion red pen. If “shortcoming” had been on my quiz last week, I wouldn’t have bothered to look it up. I would have been safe in not doing so because that is the correct spelling and no hyphen is required. Still, I know I have to develop new muscles to begin to be a better copyeditor. I have to slow down and look more things up. I have to give myself more time. I have to consult the dictionary and the style manual. And as the quarter moves along, I will be consulting other references as well.
Are you ever scared to try new things because you are worried about your own shortcomings? And yet how can we grow if we can’t face our shortcomings? Editing copy and creative writing don’t always feel like the same thing to me, but they seem to be two sides of the same coin. I think I have been a bit lopsided when it comes to the world of words and I hope to add to the whole in terms of my abilities and skills. But it can be scary. What if I can’t ever strengthen this underdeveloped side of me so that I can be useful to others? All I can do is wake up every day, learn from past mistakes, and do better. I invoke Yoda who exhorts Luke Skywalker to full commitment in Empire Strikes Back: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Tonight, I took a break from life to watch a movie starring Elisabeth Moss who plays a 90s punk rock singer. (Her Smell) She is the leader of a band who has made it big. 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.
On a hot Florida spring day, the ragged Easter bunny ripped through the outdoor Christmas lights lining the little row of bushes between apartment buildings. He was delivering expired chocolate candy manufactured in the days when there was regular commerce. The wrapped chocolate eggs in his basket were chalky and the bunny was worn, the once white fur gray, the once pert ears stabbing the air before his face. Mrs. Burkinsales had skimped on the ribbon for her cheap door wreath rather than buy the more expensive wired ribbon. The lifeless burlap bow hung in the heat. He crushed some chocolate in his paw and tossed a handful into Billy’s basked which lay under the spectacle of the wreath. He was burning up and wanted to take off his head but then he wouldn’t get paid. He spun around to the next door and took Angelina out with the trail of broken lights streaming from his furry body. She screamed, her legs bleeding. People in the breezeway were opening their doors. He stole around the corner, facing away from view, toward the fountain, but far enough from the apartment office. A smoke would be good. And a nip. He took off his head. The whiskey went down nice and fiery. He wanted to yell “Fuck!” but he returned his flask to his bunny pocket, put on his head, and punched a cheap plastic pumpkin forgotten and cracking on a window ledge. He snuck around the outside perimeter and went to the office to collect his pay. He was greeted by police who charged him for assault. In a delusional, heat-stroked moment he thought he was being charged for punching the plastic pumpkin, then realized it was for the plastic shards in the child’s leg. No one would bring his wife a check and he wouldn’t be able to buy candy for the child. Once he was put in holding, he punched out another unfortunate soul. Finally, someone punched him back. Nothing felt better than that blood.
This afternoon after doing errands, I thought I might watch television to see what was happening in my very own hometown, a convention (CPAC) just down the street: A televised speech of the most corrosive political influence in our nation’s history.
Instead, I made the choice to turn off the television. Rather than indulge my grief over so much unmitigated darkness, I streamed the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu. And yes, this also caused me to grieve. I grieved for the crushing of a beautiful, talented, brave spirit by forces still in existence, forces recently emboldened.
It has tumbled down upon me today – not just from watching this movie – but all weekend as I’ve been hearing about who has been speaking at this conference, who is and who is not attending, who is and who is not being represented – that things have not changed. If they were changing, they have somehow snapped back like a released rubber band.
In the spirit of Billie Holliday, we who want to forge a new path must keep singing our songs, songs of truth. We must sing our hard songs, the songs that threaten because people don’t want to listen. Billie Holiday’s Grammy-Award-winning song that was recognized by Time Magazine as “Best Song of the Century” was “Strange Fruit,” a powerful calling out of the lynching of black Americans in our country. There is not to this day national hate crime legislation against lynching and there has been a case of lynching as recently as 2020 (citation of then-Sen. Kamala Harris, Senate floor). That this dark conference today consisting of white nationalists is taking place in the south bowled me over as I watched this movie today.
I have lost a couple of relatives because they don’t want to hear these kinds of songs and understand how the outcry in them speaks to the kinds of dark politics literally taking the stage at present. I mourn this loss. I love these people. They made me who I am but many are trapped. I hear the attempts to embrace certain policies promoted by this party, a party who foments racism, sometimes seeming to do so while “politely” looking away. I hope to get the call one day that my loved ones are singing the song too.
Who is meeting in my town represents dark elements, some of the darkest in our nation. There is just no getting around it. I feel the day would have been best met with black skies, hurricane weather, the ground shuddering with the force.
But in Florida, a hot, sunshiny day can be just as ominous.
I am told that to be a professional (writer, editor, writing coach), I should not get political on social media. But as someone who is involved with the arts and people creating the arts, I’m just not sure I can separate all these selves. Billie Holliday is a stunning example of the undivided self. Look at her experiences and the truth and pain welling up in her art. She was a genius. And that was her power.
For my birthday, my sister sent me a text of a picture of a quote by Henri Nouwen. It basically states birthdays are about celebrating the joy of one’s existence. Unlike so many other celebrations in our lives, what makes the day special is that the day is an existential recognition. It was such a wonderful quote it inspired me to peruse my bookshelves to see which of my Nouwen books survived my recent move and downsizing effort. From a distance, I saw a friendly cover, a deep red paperback cover for Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I thought: Isn’t spotting a cherished book a little like seeing a friend or beloved relative from afar? You know their walk, their stance, the things they tend to wear. You see and know them immediately.
With my book beside me, the cover art the classic Rembrandt “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I am beginning to recall a scene in Nouwen’s TheReturn of the ProdigalSon: When the father sees his son from a distance, he runs out to embrace him, to welcome him home. Aren’t we all yearning to be welcomed home? Whether in a relationship, or in some personal, spiritual sense, is this not our hope, our journey? Happy birthday to me, and well wishing to you, for we should all know no matter who we are, there is hope for healing, for belonging.
Kathy Fish is an accomplished writer in the flash fiction form. In her newsletter, she generously shares thoughts about writing flash fiction and provides prompts to help get you going. Her posts draw from her craft book The Art of Flash Fiction. I strongly encourage you to sign up for her newsletter. I have! In this week’s installment, she gives a prompt for starting a flash fiction story. I hope to squeeze in some time to follow along! Best wishes – Meg
The magic turtle, the most powerful animal in the swamp, failed to use his power to save the other animals from the Burmese python. After the behemoth was freed, the magic turtle stood on a very high and guarded platform to lecture the ravenous apex predator.
The Saturday night before Valentine’s Day, there was a sharp rapping on Ms, Myska’s door. By the time she slipped on both of her face masks, her face shield. her gloves, the visitor had gone. On her doormat was a red foil gift bag with tufts of tissue paper jutting out. She looked in all directions, but there was no one in the hallway of her apartment building. She retrieved the package, stepped back inside, and applied the deadbolt.
She set the package on her hall tree bench. She gently removed the tissue paper to reveal a large box that smelled faintly of something rich and sweet – chocolate. She removed the box from the bag: “St. Basil Gift Box Assorted Specialty Chocolates.” There was a card. All it said was “Tony.”
She had met Tony Lasko, the ice cream man, months ago, when he drove his truck through the neighborhood. After he became sick from the coronavirus, she had not heard from him. And after more virulent strains had entered the population, she was even more reticent to go outside. She doubted she would have met him out anyway.
She took off her disposable gloves and sat on her sofa beside her window, the window where she had first seen the ice cream truck go by. She hugged the chocolates of her motherland to her chest.
Along the shore of his lake in the city of lakes, he fashions boats from waxed paper, affixes huge tissue heats to the corners, sets candles inside and lights them so that the miniature craft are drawn along on the dark water. Lovers pay fifty cents to see their boats glowing and drifting only to witness their incineration somewhere near the opposite bank, the cinder and ash ascending into the grey twilight, the smell of burnt paper, like kindling that flames and is quickly gone, filling the air, an acrid, comforting smell of home fires and warmth.
No one asks him any questions about the meaning of all of this or how or why he started, nor does he think of it too much. He thinks only of the delicate feel of the tissue, the lightness of the string, the slippery paper smoothed and sealed by wax, the fire on the water, the lovers’ faces as they stare at what they have paid for, prompted by who knows what, fascinated to see what becomes of their boat though they all must know what will be so why do they stay to watch? It is a mystery. Are they sad or satisfied somehow in the justification about their beliefs about tissue and hearts and fire, or had they hoped to see their boat, of all others, land safely on the other side?
Every night a woman who brings him a snack of rice and vegetables wrapped in a tortilla pays him fifty cents to place something small in her boat – tiny babies from Mardi Gras cakes, bodkins she wore in her hair when she was a girl, pieces of wool from her sewing basket in which she keeps materials to make socks for soldiers, crosses she buys in packets of ten, pieces of kibble. She always has a prayer and dedication which she asks the man to recite though every night he protests he does not have his glasses and every night she gives him her late husband’s readers from the nightstand. As the boat floats out, he says her prayers for the soldiers, the young life, the married couple, the single women, the woman herself and her cat and her grandchildren.
One night, he found himself reading a prayer in which he was the subject. He had set a boat in the water containing a gold heart. He snatched the boat back, soaking his trousers. He retrieved the heart. This is my gig, he said gruffly, as if she had taken something from him. She asked for his blessing upon the heart. She asked him to kiss it. Instead, he chucked it out into the lake with all of his force where it plunked into the dark center and disappeared. They stood for a moment, the frogs screeching in judgment. It’s time to get a move on, he said. People are waiting. Indeed, a line had formed and that was the last night he saw her.
Every night he was hungry for the food she gave him and every night he had nothing to wonder about, what she would put into her boat, how she would ask him to pray, the feel of her late husband’s glasses upon his nose. How he missed that feel, strangely enough, and the strange prayers she had written, not like the coherent prayers he knew, but her erratic thoughts upon a subject, not a petition, but a statement as if she were telling someone how things were. He missed it.
And so he collected things for her, things he thought she would like, things he liked too, things forgotten and dusty in closets, things from childhood and a career and family from another life, and he put them in boats and watched the boats burn and sink with prayers on his lips uttered in a strange tongue, her way of speaking and thinking that had become his way of addressing God. He believed himself capable of finding that gold heart had only there been money for proper equipment and younger lungs. In its depths the dark lake held his gift and he did not mourn but for the first time understood why couples waited until they saw what they knew would come to pass, and that in the waiting they anticipated what was most beautiful, a beginning and an end, all at once.
In watching a documentary about the English 20th century artist Francis Bacon, I couldn’t help but think of Alice Neel. Though Bacon’s figures were often disfigured, more approaching Picasso sometimes, the lines of some of his more figurative bodies reminds me of the wavering lines of Neel’s haunting portraits. In Neel, the figures often look at you directly or just off to the side but there is always a vulnerability. It is hard to describe the effect. I didn’t know much about Bacon until I’ve learned a tiny bit just now. Neel was someone whose work I had in a large art book. It made me feel like I knew her. I had to sell it to get by at a previous time in my life. This was something I imagined Neel would relate to, having been someone who scrambled a bit early on. I mourned the sale as well as the sale of a Cy Twombly book I had bought at the Tate Modern. Alice Neel is a formidable artist and an example of someone who practiced her art constantly, whether anyone made note of her or not, whether she had money or not. To me, it is an incredible story of resilience, struggle, and triumph.
I appreciate the thoughtfulness and beauty of Jessica Brown’s writing and blog. She was an MFA colleague at Seattle Pacific University and thankfully, due to the efforts and talents of friends, our cohort has remained in contact. I wanted to share her thoughts about Celtic prayer with a link to her blog. In reading this, I am reminded of Kathleen Norris’ The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality). I feel inspired to revisit this and other works by Norris. Please add beauty, quiet, and spirituality to your day with the wonder of “small prayers for small tasks.”
Lyla wanted to be called manic depressive – by her therapist, by everyone. And not bipolar. So clinical. So politically correct and so, well, inaccurate. It felt dishonest. And Lyla lived in Florida. It was hot. She considered herself hot-headed and a tropical gal, perfect for the environment, well-suited. Mentally ill people flocked here for the warmth especially if they found themselves without a home. She often felt herself to be very close to this circumstance.
In response to Lyla’s demand that she be called manic depressive, her therapist put on her analytical face, a kind of receding expression Lyla had come to know well in person though in a zoom meeting, it lost some of its power. “I would like to understand why you want to be labeled manic depressive,” she said. “I am worried you are not being fair to yourself.”
This one used her “I” statements, thought Lyla. This was Lyla’s fifth therapist in ten years. She didn’t welcome the chaos and emotional upheaval of therapy shopping during a pandemic.
“I like it,” Lyla said, wanting to be impulsive and draw others into reacting impulsively. She didn’t feel like she should have to provide an explanation for what she wanted. She expected to get what she wanted, especially from someone she was paying.
Her last therapist told her, since she was divorced and in the throes of midlife, she could do whatever she wanted, come up with a new identity, dye her hair purple if she chose, dress how she pleased, pursue new hobbies, a whole new lifestyle. She missed that therapist, but during their last session, the therapist had hinted Lyla might be unfit for motherhood. Lyla had stormed out of the therapist’s office. That was back when treatments were in person, back before her son successfully went to college and began his own life. The drama of such confrontations and exits from therapy were gone, part of a former era in mental healthcare it seems. So much for in-person tantrums.
These attempts to meet on a computer screen reminded Lyla of her early days on lithium. There had been so little she seemed to experience directly. It was like she was swathed in cotton batting. That was before she switched meds, temporarily lost her hair, and started to puff out. But she was more herself again once she got used to it.
“I think crazy people who are acknowledged as such are seriously missing in our world. Everything is so politically correct. Everything is so bland. It’s boring.”
More gazing from cool blue eyes. Had she actually spaced while Lyla was talking? Blue eyes then wrote something down in her notebook. “Well, ok,” she said, looking back up into the tiny eye of the camera. “How are your meds?”
And that was about it. About ten minutes total. There was no lively debate, no storming, no confrontation. Lyla had been looking at her own face half the time on the screen, which was distracting. And the spaces of time between their exchanges were even longer with the technology.
Once they had set a date for the next appointment, Lyla signed off and slammed down her laptop. It was draining. And now, so quiet.
Lyla had developed a fascination for a west coast youtuber who was a makeup artist.* The youtuber applied fabulous and meticulous faces to herself. Each episode was different. While she transformed her whole face, from kinda cute to a magnificent beauty, she told true crime stories. Lyla could not get enough of these videos. They were mesmerizing, hypnotic. She sometimes fell asleep to the young woman’s gossipy but confident style as the stories stories scrolled from one to the other. She occasionally woke to the laptop almost overheating.
Had Lyla been better at makeup, this could be a fun hobby to try. And well, she just didn’t have the kind of bank it would take to get tools, paints and powders together. Another woman on youtube, a much older and not quite as cute but kindly looking, read lesser known fairy tales in a gentle voice. That was wonderful too. And she spun her own web.
Why couldn’t she transform herself into a youtube star? She didn’t know. What was she going to do? She had drowned a couple of plants from overwatering, had sent multiple texts and emails to friends and family, walked the neighborhood a couple of times when she felt inspired.
But without the friction of the presence and annoyances of others, there was no motivation to be quirky, there was no identity, only endless self, whatever that was on any given day. She knew of bipolars and unipolars as they are all called now, who had suicided or slid into substance abuse during the pandemic. Those days were over for her, pandemic or no. Besides, it was only fun when there was someone to perform for.
She looked into her closet as if for an answer. On a shelf, she spotted a paintbrush and a pot of green paint the color of a sweet pea. It was leftover from when she revamped a small table to go beside her old wicker lounge chair on the porch. Over the headboard in her bedroom, she painted a little minimalistic flower with a petal falling down like a tear.
She wasn’t really supposed to paint on her walls, but who was coming by to see? Repairmen for the complex only entered apartments in cases of extreme emergency. And it felt good, what she had done. Like, someone would eventually see and know she had done something wrong. There would be a reaction! She fell asleep that night, satisfied. That night, she dreamt of Chagall paintings, of slightly abstract and surreal images – flowers, people, animals, buildings, designs. When she awakened, she ordered paints and brushes, much cheaper than women’s makeup.
Over the course of the week, she started with the little area around the flower. She began to expand the space with a profusion of flowers she loved – bougainvillea, Don Juans, clematis. She realized she had forgotten something and painted over them with an azure blue. She then painted her room with the color of the sky. Then she filled in the sky with deep green vines, fuchsia blooms, white and purple flowers, red roses. In the dining room, she painted the walls blue and painted people and chickens and angels and the Eiffel tower and planets floating off into space. She painted her bathroom a burnt orange and painted huge white and green paisleys. She ordered a special acrylic paint and drew tiny figurines and sayings on the tile of the backsplash in the kitchen.
When she was finished, she painted her arm like the tattooed west coast youtube makeup artist. She painted vines and flowers, and she made a vine look like it was going up her neck. She painted flowers coming out of her hair along her forehead. She made a huge drink of punch and rum with lots of cherries and canned pineapple. She sat on her screened-in garden porch and sipped her drink until she felt numb. She watched the light change as the golden hour approached. She watched the children and dogs go by. She watched a squirrel scampering on a nearby tree, a green lizard suspended on her porch screen, a palm branch falling to the ground.
I am perfectly manic depressive, she thought, sipping the cool, sweet drink. Hells yeah, this was it. But ok, I’ll take my meds as per. But being crazy is the one thing I got, the one thing with an edge.
A jay squawked from high up in an oak, as if he agreed her and would call a crazy person out if that was the reality. Lyla lifted her drink in a toast to the little dingbat.
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.
Over the holidays, I posted about what I was reading, particularly as it pertains to a short story by Heinrich Böll, one of Germany’s greatest post World War II literary authors. Today, I am looking back on a short story collection I picked up in a wonderful used bookstore when I lived in a different part of town. The collection is called The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern, published in 1986 by Penguin. Halpern also edited The Art of the Story, published more recently (2000). My copy of The Art of the Story may have been lost in a recent move but I have plans to order one used.
A story which stood out to me on my initial perusing of The Art of the Tale several years ago was Truman Capote’s “Children on their Birthdays.” It has since spurred a small Capote spree: Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a story collection, though I know this is only a small portion of the whole. Previously, my main exposure to Capote had been Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote. However, that movie piqued my curiosity about Capote’s friendship with Harper Lee, “Nell” as she is known by friends. My grandparents knew her when they lived in Mobile. Capote was from Monroeville, right up the road. Harper Lee lived next door to Capote’s cousins who lived in the “Faulk house,” now designated by a historical marker. I’ve always wondered if my grandparents knew him too.
“Children on their Birthdays” is set in a simpler time. A highway from Mobile is unpaved and dusty during a dry summer, down which a stranger comes to town, a strange little ten year old “Miss Bobbit.” It is an era in which people sit on their porches, children loll about in the yard, everyone knows the fragrant smell of the neighbor’s sweet flowered hedge. About the only thing I have to compare this to are my younger days in South Carolina and especially, summers in North Carolina where my family used to go for a few months. Everyone knew everyone. And we sat on porches, watched people walk dogs, steal apples, smell fragrant mountain laurel. In Orlando, my mother-in-law would have known simpler times like this, when major roads were unpaved, an unthinkable situation now.
What Capote always seems to get so right is voice, especially that southern voice. (I imagine his speaking voice to be a drawl and am afraid I am forever influenced by Hoffman’s portrayal.) The “voice” of his fiction does not lag. It is intriguing. It often sounds like gossip, only possible in cultures in which congregating was the main event. There is poetry in his lines. And because of all of these elements, I never lose interest. I must see what happens next! To me, he is a classic, skilled storyteller through that extra layer of a fictional narrator. There is something very small town southern in that and though my circumstances are now different, it ties me so strongly to my childhood in which someone telling a story was the centerpiece of gatherings.
Reading The Art of the Tale is like visiting a kind of literary home. Good “friends” are here: Margaret Atwood, Samuel Beckett, Russell Banks, Raymond Carver, Carlos Fuentes, Italo Calvino, Isak Dinesen, Bernard Malamud, Alberto Moravia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Maxwell, Nadine Gordimer, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, William Trevor, Richard Wright, to name a few.
Sometimes I do feel like the old conditions from which many of my favorite storytellers emerged are changing and sometimes I wonder how that will affect story in the future. Many of us are not as in touch with the natural environment, taking shelter in community, planning lives around houses of worship as well as a nuclear family. That changes our voices and our sense of the world. Though at the very least, I pray we will at last be able to enjoy greater freedom when a worldwide health crisis subsides and then I suppose we can take stock. Who knows, maybe there will be a revival of appreciation for things we used to take for granted.
Who are your favorite writers? Do you have their stories on a shelf? In your heart? Do you know how to find them online or through your electronic devices? Do you feel, like me, like they are your old “friends?” To me, it is never too late to renew old friendships. And it is more than wise to expand the circle to enclose the new.
I’m not young. I’m not skinny. I’m not rich. I’m not able to hang out with anyone outside of my pod of proven coronavirus-free people and when I do, we’re distancing. And the only person on “Bling Empire” I may have something in common with ethnically is the boyfriend of one of the rich ladies….I am 1/16th Cherokee. And in no way am I Asian, unless I am a descendent of Genghis Khan which, rumor has it, according to genetic tests, many of us are because he was, well, so prolific. But having cried a good 8 hours on Wednesday out of relief that we still have a democracy, I am spending this Saturday night watching a typical kind of “reality” show about an alternative world – alternative for reasons elucidated above. The subjects are “crazy rich Asians” in Los Angeles. I’m watching an episode and drinkin’ my low rent cab sav. Or at least I’ll see if I am able to handle an episode – or some portion of. But it is a change from heavy! And stressed! We all need a break. Enjoy yours – Meg
There is nothing more satisfying than to fall asleep to a dying candle and awaken to a burnt wick. Something old has gone, something new has come.
There is nothing more satisfying than to wake to remember the words you were trying to say, words your broken heart prevented you from recalling. When you wake from your brokenness, you go straight to your notebook to take the words down in a rush.
There is nothing more satisfying than a parade. Everyone is laughing. Everyone is cheering. Everyone is dancing. Well, almost everyone. The ones whose fears cosset them in sadness, anger, and regret will warm slowly to the clowns who produce candy, flowers, and doves. Even the fear filled ones in jail cells, even the fear filled ones in hiding places – abroad and at home – will wake to an unexpected grace. And after the parade, all will spend years at a banquet, feeding their families and healing their bodies.
There is nothing more satisfying than a child speaking of her grandfather, the great liberator. She speaks to an echo of a dream, buried but not forgotten, to white and to black, to all shades of beauty between. She stands at the microphone and the crowd is hushed, the children are thrilled: One of their own brings hope from a forgotten country.
There is nothing more satisfying than to wake from a dream of your father. You have sliced your own hand with a kitchen knife and to hold it together and help it heal, he will take you to the hospital. He is the same father of your childhood who allowed you to brush his hair with a tiny brush. He and your mother made you a beautiful dollhouse many Christmases ago. You are divorced now and middle aged. Your houses have all been sold or broken. But in the dream, your aged father sees you through to the end.
There is a magic turtle who is the most powerful animal in the swamp. Yet he is a silly turtle: He flips and flops. When he is on his back, he seems more empathetic and is ready to help other animals. But when he is on his belly: No dice.
Since I discovered this amazing video, it has impressed so much on my heart: Casals’ beautiful address to the United Nations during his reception of the UN peace medal, his gorgeous composition and delivery of notes, the images of flying birds, and a picture of Casals’ White House performance during the Kennedy era.
I remember watching this since the 2016 election and reflecting that we will likely not have a celebration of fine artists like we did with Obama, like we did with JFK, and like we did under other presidential administrations. This made me sense the darkness we were living through. It is amazing we have survived this void of culture.
And it is amazing our lawmakers survived a seditious attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6. I am saddened by the loss of life that was a result and I am sad some are now quarantining as a result of the unlawful invasion by those pursuing a violent insurrection.
On a more personal note, my memory of this song and watching the video again today has made me sad because I had to put my dog down this past weekend. She had an enlarged heart and was having complications. I like to think of her spirit as flying up there with all those beautiful birds. And I like to think our White House will one day resume its recognition of artists who lift the human spirit, those like Pau Casals.
There is a magic turtle whose shell is pure gold. And yet he is a silly little turtle: He could use his power to move fast and save the animals from the Burmese python. But he is a turtle after all, and knows this is who he will always be.
I discovered Squeaky Car Wash after dropping my dog off at the vet on a sunny, cool December day in my central Florida town. My dog has an enlarged heart and needed shots and a checkup. During the pandemic, pets are dropped off with an assistant at the curb and there is no face to face contact with vets, only a doctor’s follow up phone call.
As always, I wanted the cheapest carwash possible and found it was the five dollars as advertised on the road sign. So many financial pressures were mounting but a dusty car felt a bit demoralizing. A few weeks before Christmas, a rental moving truck had crushed the back end of my car. Though it was not my fault, my insurance company had decided not to waive the remainder for repairs. And I could not afford to make up the difference, especially now in a pandemic with my own health issues much less my pet’s. Luckily my car was operating, including the rear light. But cosmetically, it looked a bit less than the glory of yesteryear.
A bearded, middle aged man stood at a kiosk outside of the drive thru wash. He took my credit card and offered a membership in case I lived or worked in the area. I told him I was only there today because I took my dog to the vet. He expressed his concern, saying he hoped my dog was ok. I thought it was a little strange, not to take my response as a matter of course. Then I realized it was a pretext for talking about his dog who died only a week before, just before Christmas. He had discovered the death upon waking. The animal was already cold. Then he relayed his emotion about breaking the news to his daughters.
Honestly, it did shake me up. Behind my aged and stretched out Tiffany sunglasses I had once enjoyed in an era when I thought I had money, I felt my face steaming up around my eyes. I told him I was sorry. I told him at least he was the one to discover his deceased dog before his daughters did. He also made a definite attempt to convey he had a wife. When I am friendly to men, they always seem to slip that in early as if there is some ulterior motive behind our conversation, or could be. A few years ago, I had come to the conclusion I was demisexual so if this were a different conversation, not about dogs, I could have told him to relax, there was no chance.
I felt a little strange about the conversation, honestly, as I quickly closed the sunroof before the mechanized tracks guided my bright yellow Ford hatchback into the dark cover of an assault of water, soap, and blue scrubbing strips. I realized sometimes I am bothered by this kind of thing as unfeeling and selfish as it may sound. I felt like I couldn’t afford the burden of a another person’s bad experience with something so similar to what I was experiencing. It was like when I took my dog to a favorite groomer when I lived on the other side of town. Somehow we talked about my new breast cancer diagnosis then the groomer started to cry about her daughter dying from the selfsame illness. I drove home in shock and a fresh new compounded worry and grief. And now, an ever present pandemic magnifies all grief and worry.
My dog and I have made it through the Christmas holiday, though there are days she has some troubling symptoms. Still, I am not quite ready to have that quality of life meeting with my vet. My dog’s breed suffers separation anxiety and these days, she has done weird things when I leave her alone for any amount of time. She still charms the vet and her new groomer, though I myself am feeling wary about leaving her anywhere except with a doctor who could help her if something happens. My mood goes up and down with each new turn and some days it feels almost more than I can bear.
For Christmas, my son and I gave her a little stuffed lamb that looks almost exactly like her. The little lamb is stretched out as if she were sleeping on her belly. I try to remember to place them together when she naps on the couch and on the bed although at times I find her snuggled up next to it. I am glad we have done this last little thing for her as well as making sure she is in the best possible health she can be at this time.
It is hard sometimes to track the level of her awareness but I have never thought an animal should be in pain and there have been indications of that. I don’t know what will happen. I am not sure I can wake up to a deceased pet. But in the Episcopalian tradition, we have a service for the blessing of the animals, which means God cares for them. I know that no matter what happens, God will see my little girl home.
Every now and then I will receive a request for a funeral in the tradition of the old ways. In rural, agricultural Florida there is an older generation whose families have passed down stories and practices of funerary traditions in which the body is laid out in the dining room upon an unhinged door for viewing. What is not so well known is that various beliefs have arisen around this practice. What started out as a practice necessitated by the lack of resources for handling the deceased, has, in some family circles and regional subcultures, become a religious rite, even a godly demand.
I came to live and practice in Belle Glade or “Muck City” just south of Lake Okeechobee when I graduated from mortuary school. I had not planned on this profession but it had became necessary during a depression as a result of the pandemic. My adopted town was named “Muck City” because of the “muck” in which sugar cane grows. When the agriculture changed from farming vegetables to growing cane, many lost their livelihood and the area became depressed, crime ridden. But every city needs someone to handle their dead, dead from the pandemic, dead from murder, dead from complications of drugs and malnutrition.
The area considered the Florida Heartland is more like the deep south than other parts of Florida. And it is here where, among some pockets of Bible Belt believers, superstitions abound and religious beliefs intermingle with old time practices. It had become common among certain people to believe that a too early enclosure of the body in a solid box would not allow the spirit to grieve its own passing, would risk that the spirit would re-animate the body and would cause the corpse made alive again to live the horror of being buried alive. Therefore the old and seemingly defunct practice of laying a body out on a door for viewing was of great importance to such populations. In addition, the act of the dead lying on a door had become a sort of practiced fulfillment of the words of Jesus: “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved.” In addition, cremation was beyond the question. Again, Biblical verses were employed to explain the rationale: “Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever.” What happens when Christ comes again if there is no body, if it is burned?
I began to observe closely the faces of the deceased and try to discern their aspects to see if I could determine “rest” or “unrest,” to try to compare post death funerary rituals. In most cases, I was able to convince these fundamentalist families to allow their beloved dead to be laid out on a door in our refrigerated storage facility as opposed to the old school – and frankly, unsanitary way of letting it sit in their dining room or parlour – and so this gave me opportunity to make my observations. I had lost my wife in the pandemic a couple of years ago and so had no one else to answer to. We had no children. I lived in the craftsman home converted and dedicated to my business “Peaceful Rest.” Legally, it was not allowed for me to live where I plied my trade, but I secretly managed with a cot and a small electric stove, as well as a separate address, a post office box, where I retrieved my mail.
Two clients, a couple, had a fight over how they were to bury the husband’s mother. It was early in my practice and I was incredibly nervous over how to handle these kinds of situations. My job was to soothe the anxious, grieving spirits of the living, to be a reassuring presence, to provide some sort of authoritative mediation of differences. Apparently, the woman had become quite close to her husband’s mother and of course the husband was feeling his own loss deeply. The wife’s family had practiced the old ways of Appalachia and she insisted her mother-in-law had spoken about the beauty of these old beliefs and practices. The deceased was born and raised in Georgia and grew up in many of the old customs, still practiced by some.
The husband was a successful businessman, one of the city’s few, and saw such practices as primitive, arcane, and certainly only for those who are uneducated. He had in mind to cremate her and had been looking through options for urns while his wife tearfully implored him not to be rid of her body. I was able to find a middle way: A more traditional yet relatively modern casket viewing, ceremony, and burial. The wife still seemed unsettled by this, but was not quite as frantic, and the husband acquiesced to this seemingly more conciliatory way of interring his mother.
On the day of the viewing, several hours before, the body of the old woman having been prepared, dressed, and placed in the casket, the lid closed until the hour for visitors, I awoke to a dark silhouette against the window of my office where I slept. There was no noise, only a shifting figure of something dark lingering in the room in the earliest break of day. “Louisa?” I said, thinking somehow that it may be my deceased wife. But there was no response. I felt as if my heart might pierce my chest. I watched with a sense of foreboding but must have drifted to sleep at some point for when I woke, my office was flooded with light and there was no dark shadow. I had no sense of dread. I made my coffee and prepared for the day.
In the quiet time before the body was set out in the viewing room, I would go over everything and make sure of the makeup, the proper placement of the jewelry and hair, the collar, cuffs of the blouse.
But when I entered the refrigerated storage room, I saw that the lid of the casket of the deceased woman had been tossed aside and the corpse’s wig lay on the floor like a discarded mop head. Looking back, what should have occurred to me first is that there had been a robbery or some act of vandalism and desecration. What actually occurred to me was that an undead corpse, suffocating in a box, had made its escape, and was out in Muck City, seeking shelter, food, and family.
Kalene tried not to see it as a harbinger of death that her dog sat closer and closer to the bedroom door earlier and earlier each day. It had become their habit to go to the bedroom right after her last meal, which, during Kalene’s bout with an undiagnosed pain, had also been earlier and earlier with each passing day. In the days before lockdowns and worldwide panic, before pain wore on her as the sun set lower in the sky, Kalene was a lover of the night. She and her dog were night watchers.
Now, she took pills to numb pain’s effects. The pills made her sleepy. And so she and her dog got into the habit of retiring at six or seven in the evening. When there were no other commitments, their hour of turning in became four o’clock in the afternoon. Over the holidays, it became two o’clock. On New Year’s Day, she had returned to her bedroom at noon, not long after lunch, though sometimes her decisions were ruled not just by pain, but also by feelings, a kind of overwhelm.
The dog, who had become used to her round soft bed before the electric fireplace in her bedroom, now preferred to sleep in Kalene’s bed. Always a way to enter the bed had been provided, a cushioned footstool, a way to aid in the ascent. And the two of them would pile in with feather pillows, soft sheets and blankets. The dog had positioned herself closer and closer to Kalene in bed. In the mornings and throughout the day, the dog sat outside the bedroom door staring at her as if to ask: “Is it time for bed?” Something about that made Kalene very sad, very worried.
The little dog had developed a gasping cough since pandemic lockdowns. She had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart and prescribed pills. The prognosis was not great. Pills would not cure this malady. But the dog, like all healthy dogs, had loved hard her whole life, had loved her little family. And now there was change. There was uncertainty.
In the years before the pandemic, the little dog would not have gone to bed without her owner. Wherever Kalene was, that was where she wanted to be. And yet, here she was going to bed without her. When Kalene left her bedroom door open in the mornings, the dog would pile in among the rumpled sheets and sleep.
It reminded Kalene of an egg tempera painting by an artist of an old dog sleeping on a wooden four poster bed. Kalene had an original lithograph of another of the artist’s work, of wind from the sea blowing aged curtains into a dimly lit room. She hoped to frame it and put it in her bedroom. The other reproduction was a poster. It was an image of a woman sitting in the grass leaning toward an ancient, peeling house. Kalene doesn’t have the painter’s work “Master Bedroom” portraying the dog sleeping on the humble sanctuary of a worn coverlet. She doesn’t think she could bring herself to hang it in her home and see it every day. But of course, she knew of it. And Kalene’s dog now preferring the quiet sanctuary of her bed reminds Kalene of the subdued scene of this old dog curled on the pillows as if curling up on a headstone.
Friends accused Kalene of magical thinking. She once voiced concern to them one night when they were out that she fell down the stairs the day after she complained about her parents. She felt the accident was a kind of cosmic punishment for her ingratitude. One of her friends, a therapist, told her that this was “magical thinking” and of course the two incidents were not related. She did not tell her friend that she had once thought of her cancer as a kind of punishment for her divorce. Though she trusted her friend’s opinion, she was not altogether certain of the invalid nature of her understanding of things.
She was born and bred on the reading of signs. Her Protestant family extrapolated deeply into daily life for the telltale signs of God’s will and also evidence of God’s displeasure. Things were said about consequences for thoughts or actions that felt heavy handed and simply not true but some aspect of this practice of an attribution of causes implanted itself into her worldview. It was her habit to make connections to some concept of the Supernatural. And she often had a grim viewpoint. Where people saw nostalgia in the popular works of the egg tempera painter for example, works that had even become well beloved kitsch, she saw darkness, even death.
It was not a good sign her little dog, not long ago a frisky little impish thing, now made her think of the painting of the yellow dog in a wooden bed in a dimly lit room. The poster of the woman in the grass, leaning toward a dilapidated farmhouse in the distance had been a framed print in her grandparent’s home in Louisiana, a framed reproduction above the mantle. As a girl, the artwork always puzzled her and made her a bit sad, but as a girl she didn’t question many things. Things just were. She felt certain the adults knew what it was about and why it seemed sad and that one day she would figure it out. What she couldn’t know was that images and their associations could haunt you the rest of your life, that certain art will come back to you in your memory as solidly as an encounter with a friend or family member, as solidly as the face of a loved one.
She felt it impossible not to put too many things together, to try to practice the concept when applicable: This statement is true and that statement is true, but the two are not necessarily related.
Though the painting of the yellow dog may not have been a representation of death or even fragility, she now felt the concepts related. Maybe it simply meant to say something else entirely. But the dog standing at her doorway, begging for access to her bed when the day had not begun, began her thinking in a certain way, however much her dog’s behavior was related to her medical diagnosis or the dog’s new association of the bed and bedroom with the peace and quiet needed to cope with a new physical ailment.
To Kalene, her dog standing at the bedroom door waiting for rest felt like something more final. And what is to talk a Protestant girl-become-woman out of her magical ideas, out of believing the interconnectedness of the natural and supernatural world, out of the signs and portents she believes point to a reality that cannot be known by science? Reading the signs has helped her survive, so she thinks. And in a time when survival is at a premium, there is no setting aside survival habits, however ill-formed and maladaptive.
She is filled with dread for what she may find one day in her bed, more than what may happen to her own physical and mental health should she become ill. She does not want to think of finding her pet in her room, cold, lifeless. She wonders if she will ever be able to sleep in the bed again if that should happen. She wishes she believed in the cleansing of sage and other spiritual beliefs and practices but again, her modern day Protestantism kept her from certain practices. She feels sometimes trapped in a web, as an insect, her destiny determined, the chosenness of being a target of the spider, as she watches the world around her, only being able to emote, only being able to know: This is happening to me.
There once was a woman who wanted unconditional love from her father, the King. Yet, somehow, she had been consigned to polishing his crown, shining his shoes, preparing his royal throne. No one knew how this came about, not even the woman herself for while she should have been asking herself this question, she was busy focusing on what he said, how he thought, what she could do to finally cause him to love her without conditions. When she was a little girl, he loved her blond curls. And maybe, thinking back on it now as she made the a feast for the royal family, he loved her silence.
As many teen princesses will do, they will both attempt to please their royal parents and to rebel. It was hard to work out where Father and Mother ended and where a teen began, so such princesses pull away to see what happens, to try to detect the division, to confirm it actually exists, and to find out if love exists when there is separation. This young lady learned early that love does not always exist when you pull away. But there had still been hope for her: She could marry royally, and so she did, though there were still demands to appear at court, to raise children in royal traditions, and never tarnish the name of King and Queen.
As time went on, and the fanfare of royal weddings and the celebrations of royal births were distant memories, the woman met a kitchen mouse who whispered to her secrets about other worlds, other realities, places where children were valued for simply being alive. This perspective opened a door in the mind of the aging, royal princess, a special room she could return to again and again, an imaginary world where children were messy and chaotic, parents didn’t always have answers, and families simply gathered and let conversation unfold. The princess was so engaged with this dream she became inattentive for large portions of the day. Her children were grown and so there was only her husband to care for, but she forgot to order food and press his clothes. She didn’t attend royal gatherings and she didn’t attend to her father.
The ineffectual princess stumbled upon an island during one of her royal visits to the colonies, a visit her father insisted she take to clear her mind and restore her sense of duty to the Kingdom. And yet, the island struck her as a perfect place to daydream. What’s more, she met people on the island who liked to daydream too. Their conversations were free and easy. They took long, meandering walks. They sat for hours, simply waiting for the sun to set. They did not wait for special occasions to celebrate. Every day was a celebration. They were like children together and she insisted they were not treat her as a princess.
Word came from her Father the King by royal messenger on a royal boat: Come back or be forever disowned. Expect Me to never approve of your life forthwith. Your Husband has already deserted you as reason dictates. You will receive no Royal Inheritance nor Title. I will always treat you as a peasant, a mere servant for your disobedience, your lack of loyalty to God’s Anointed.
It occurred to the princess that she was already a peasant behind closed doors. And she was in a worse situation than a peasant because everyone assumed she was being treated as a princess. She laughed so hard the messenger departed, confused and offended.
It didn’t take long for her grown children to visit. They were shocked by her casual attire and attitude. Her son lectured her and her daughter became watchfully silent. But the princess begged them to spend time with her, to not let their discomfort dictate an immediate departure. They relented, and over time, they began to relax with the ebb and flow of the tide, with the free form of island life. She watched something new arise in them, a comfort in speaking with her more naturally. This state of circumstances felt like the dream life the kitchen mouse had whispered to her years ago.
“Mom, I don’t want to be a prince,” said her son. “I don’t want to be next in line to the throne.”
And her daughter said: “I want to be an artist, I have many dreams.”
To my readers: I am a writer of dark stories but I will not insist all dreams are tarnished by darkness. I believe in whispering kitchen mice. And I believe in bright islands where there is love and acceptance, even joy. And as silly as it sounds for dark writers to say so, I believe in a better new year, even if I am proven wrong. I don’t know, exactly, what happened in this family of this little story of mine. And I don’t know what the grown children eventually became, and where they decided to live, and how they relayed these decisions to the Throne and the Kingdom’s subjects. I don’t know how long the princess lived after finding freedom and happiness. But I argue for the open ending. We don’t know, do we, what will happen in our world. We are suffering, yes, but there may be an island, a space between the pain in which we draw breath, long enough to dream of something: What could be.
There is a magic turtle whose shell is pure gold. He is the most powerful animal of all animals in the swamp. And yet he is a silly little turtle: Whenever he tries to help others, he changes his mind, snaps, and retreats into his shell, lest his magic disappear.
This special has received some criticism, but honestly, my first time watching it without the jading influence of the nitpickers, I loved it. Female comics pack up 2020 in the way it deserves: With a spiked heel or laced-up boot to the backside.
One thing I liked about it, besides the line-up and cathartic hilarity, is that it acknowledges the things we’ve had to say good bye to for the foreseeable future, things that are good, things that have to do with our social selves.
But mostly, these ladies make short work of the things better off dead, things that never should have been alive in the first place. And they do so with comedic brilliance.
Watch it with what remains of your liquor and/or whatever mixer can be found at the back of your refrigerator.
Daddy drove us nine hundred miles to Florida the Christmas after Mama passed. It was just me, Daddy, and my little sister Lulu. Daddy said there wasn’t anything in Florida that wasn’t all around the world and that was Christmas love and reindeers and Santa. He didn’t want to see snow, he said, or get a tree or eat turkey. These things reminded him of Mama and he needed a break from feeling sad. He said she would have wanted us to go to Florida for Christmas. In fact, he said, she probably knew what we were up to right now and it made her happy.
When I wasn’t keeping my sister occupied with books and games of eye spy, I was watching the landscape change from naked trees and gray skies to thick grass and fat palms and I was watching for Mama to see if she was watching…
They say the selkie is a shapeshifter, a seal who becomes woman. When I lost you in New York, it occurred to me you may be this creature, the unreality of your presence and beauty has that quality of something otherworldly. And it occurred to me you may have returned to the sea.
The first day of spring dozens of seals washed up along the Jersey shore and it was among this wreckage of creatures I searched for you. How else to account for your disappearance into Grand Central the day we watched the silent protestors lying down to mark the murder of an innocent woman gunned down by the police? We met under the Pisces constellation; do you remember? I held your hand. When I let go of you, you disappeared into the crush of people.
They say a man can capture a selkie and make her his wife if he captures the skin she lays aside while she sunbathes and frolics in the sea. He must hide it, or she will put it back on and swim away. You may be somewhere off the shore. We have been told not to go near the seals along the beach, as if I have ever had the right to approach you in your freedom. But still I miss you, Maire.
I lit a candle for you at St Patrick’s. I listened to the young choir, their voices piercing the clutter of scaffolding, caressing the Pieta partially obscured by a tarp. A rose lay at the feet of Christ and Mary, the mother of sacrificing and long suffering. I went back to Grand Central and looked for you among the people who may have seen you in the station. I described your long dark hair, your chocolate eyes, your long limbs. I spoke with the man who slept beneath Orion’s belt, to the woman playing a saw with a bow, to the copper man still as a statue. I wondered if they may enjoy some special frequency not accessible to the rest of us as they lay closer to ground tremors, stars, tears, accidents.
You used to say whenever we visited the city it didn’t matter we didn’t have a plan. We must at least always meet here, at the Station, by the café, the place of our first meeting where we each enjoyed a madeleine and cappuccino. We agreed upon this. Do you remember? Remember when we spoke to the Portuguese couple new to the United States, whose grandparents had migrated through Ellis Island a century ago? They were so proud to use their newfound mother tongue. And I learned something about you too, as we spoke to this couple. I learned of your Irish roots.
I cannot find you and I cannot find the skin you left along the shore. As I said, the police have told us not to approach the seals who will bite. Is it any coincidence I still have the marks from where you bit me? Was that a sign, warning, a portent? We are told the seals are hungry and have come closer to shore to wait for the tide to bring them herring.
Are you happier there, in the deep? Is that where you are? I would like to be gentler with you now in my attitude toward you. I would like to be able to say I am happy if you are happy. But here is what I think: You may as well be dead, you are so thoroughly missing and no one has been of assistance, not even the police in all their brutality and misguided energies.
I have not given up hope. I have found the remnants of a seal, long perished, not quite the skin as in the legend, so I did not embark upon that turn. But I will find the skin of your being and take it for my own and hide it in a place you will never go and you will have no choice but to love me if you are still among us and not lost to the abyss.
Today, I consulted the woman playing the saw. She sat near the entrance to the crosstown train releasing into the air a song like the music of the spheres, of the sirens. She said to expect you, but that you would not come in the way that is proscribed but through an alternate portal. I was to go lie on a grave in Brooklyn and she wrote a plot number down on a piece of trash. How did she die? I say. But the woman who plays the saw pretended not to hear and so did not answer.
I have no proof to myself now whether you were real or wholly imagined, we never exchanged rings or any little thing, only intimacies and whisperings, shiftings between sheets, our bodies in light and shadow. And yet how to explain this hank of hair I keep in my pocket?
I boarded the train to Brooklyn. Passengers boarded a train on a parallel track. We leave together, both trains, going at the same speed, passing through tunnels and stations, the pillars between us framing parallel cars like the frames of an old movie. Do you move parallel to me now? At the cemetery, where I am directed, there is no sign of you.
At day’s end, the day before I must leave the city, I go to the museum and find a giant statue of a woman, made of candles, burning. I stand for hours, watching her melting, thinking of you shedding your pelt. I want to put my hands into the melting wax, feel its softness and heat but the museum guard is watching. What if I told him what I was searching for, would it matter to him? Perhaps he had a love like mine. Perhaps he had only a dream, would it matter? Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
I should talk to this man, brusque and stern, share what I found of a selkie song. I copied it from a big book at the library and keep it in my pocket so now the paper is soft and worn, the writing faded. Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
I want to recommend the haunting movie “The Siren,” written and directed by Perry Blackshear. It is visually beautiful and also relatively quiet which I always find refreshing, especially in a horror movie. The protagonist is mute as a result of a near drowning as a child. He vacations at a lake alone. Another man searches the waters for the mythological creature he is convinced killed his lover. There is a nice twist at the end and it made me think, as I grieve loss this holiday season: There is darkness and chaos in each of us as well as love, goodness, and light.
How are you this holiday? I’ll have to admit, I am struggling. Things are not as bad for me and my family as they could be. Yet, I feel as if the hardship of the last decade or so has been magnified by an international health crisis and a wild political scene which will hopefully not become more malignant.
I had to say goodbye to my son today. He is going over to his father’s. Then in a few days he will be traveling to spend some time off with friends before starting his final semester. The empty nest syndrome has struck once again, this time quite hard. I do sort of feel like whatever problems and issues I’ve had have become magnified with the pandemic: my single status post-divorce, struggles with health issues, struggles with my dog’s health issues, memories which can be hard to revisit, regrets, financial challenges, the deaths of family members.
For about five days this holiday, I enjoyed a flurry of cooking and cleaning and wrapping. I enjoyed the mom thing, the one role I have performed for a great deal of my adult life, besides being a writer which has always been secondary, ancillary. It’s like I’ve been in a bit of a denial because in a big way for me, being a mom in almost all the ways I’ve known it is just about over. I still don’t feel I’ve dealt with it completely or maybe my anxieties regarding coronavirus concerns keep me from processing other aspects of my life.
How is it Christmas can sometimes take you down to the studs? This Christmas feels especially challenging. I know I am not alone. And I know college kids are having their own struggles to contend with, some of them really difficult. In trying to flee that nest – a healthy pursuit – opportunities that have felt solid are shifting as if built on sand.
Sometimes the words Jesus spoke come back to me in times like these: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I found myself alone on the streets this year on Christmas Eve, alone that is except for the company of my dog. I had cheated on my husband and upon the discovery of my indiscretion, he changed the locks to our home and shut down my access to funds. My family was also angry – my parents and siblings – deeply religious all and furious, believing me damned. They refused entry into their homes. I didn’t have money for a hotel or even a tank of gas to drive to the beach. I set up camp in a stand of trees behind a garage apartment I used to rent as an office. I knew how to hide, for homeless people used to hide there. When I was working in the apartment I would make brownies in the tiny efficiency kitchen, package them, and throw them down from balcony and into the woods, down on top of their blankets and luggage. I hoped they would find them and at least have enough calories to sustain them overnight. And now I was among their number.
I had enough gas to get to this spot and enough to make it back to the house on Christmas to beg for forgiveness and hopefully, re-secure a place with a roof and shelter, a fire in winter. I had brought a big plaid flannel blanket given me by my late Granny, a tarp to secure to trees for a roof, my sleeping bag, a pillow, a small doggie bed, a mix of nuts and chocolate, a jug of water, pain pills, several bottles of wine I bought on sale, cigarettes. I lived in a mild climate, though it could get cold in winter. There would likely be other homeless seeking shelter around me. I might have to buy peace or my life with extra provisions. I established camp in the undergrowth of an ancient twisted oak and its smaller brethren – scrub oak – as well as palms, pine trees, low hanging Spanish moss. Except for the rumble of cars over brick streets, it was quiet in this little patch of woods. I set up the tarp to be as unobtrusive as possible and sat underneath it on my sleeping bag, my dusty little dog curled up on her bed. An acorn fell on the tarp, startling me, but I felt I would be alright and knew it was wise to at least camp in a familiar area. That choice had a calming effect.
As dusk neared, I laid down on the sleeping bag and covered myself with Granny’s red plaid wool blanket. How devastated she would have been been to learn of my indiscretion, my sin. And how sad she would have been to learn of her granddaughter sleeping in the woods, disgraced, away from the warm shelter of her husband’s home. When we stayed with her at Christmas as children, she would gather us around her chair by the fire and open the dark picture pages that told a story of the twelfth night and Frau Perchta, a haggard old witch with a long pointed nose, sharp teeth, devouring eyes, a hunched form, claws for hands. Frau Perchta scoured the world to check on children: Were they spoiled little brats lazy with their chores? Or did they help mother and father? Were they polite and kind and good? Or were they the worst children in the world – mean, disobedient, shameful? There were pages where Frau Perchta enters the house to inspect the children’s rooms as well as the children themselves, to ask the parents questions. Then there was a horrible page, a page containing a picture of Frau Perchta gripping a child with one of her large claws and scooping out his insides with the other, the poor child’s face and limbs black with death, x’s for eyes while his good siblings watched with large saucer eyes, tearful and afraid. Then Perchta stuffs the bodies of the bad children with garbage – leftovers from Christmas feast, carcasses and bones of dead animals, ripped packaging from presents. She sets the bad, stuffed children up near the Christmas tree and they dully look at their surrounding with unseeing, button eyes. On the next page, good children – rosy cheeked and smiling – hug Perchta, and she embraces them in her thin, frail arms draped with rags. She gives them gifts and candy.
A baby pine tree was brushing the top of my tarp. Shadows danced and played overhead. The sorrow of my grief for what I had done, whom I had hurt, and a new feeling inside – a burning self-hatred – overtook me. I felt myself slipping into sleep despite my resolve to stay alert through the night, to protect my turf should the need arise.
I later awoke in the night to the sound of my dog barking frantically. There was something scratching insistently on the tarp, something sharper than pine needles, something alive and moving, a creature or person. A flickering candle revealed a silhouette: A woman with a hunched back, long dripping hair, sharp protruding face, ragged clothes. She set down a huge sack which rattled along the ground and then there was an overpowering smell of rotting carcasses, decaying flesh.
I bolted upright from my sleeping bag and felt around for my sweet dog. The poor little thing was outside of the tarp with the old woman. I managed to escape out the opposite end of my temporary shelter. I fled, the wind in my ears, car keys jingling, but my dog was captured. I cried and yelled out for her but she cried out sharply in pain and fear. I knew she had been caught, crushed to death, my proxy for my sin. I fled to the home of my husband, hopeful for shelter. I apologized profusely on the threshold, begging, pleading, crying but I was not granted entry. Instead I was given forty dollars and told not to return.
The night was dark and strange. There was chaos and shooting in the place I managed to afford. I barricaded the door with the bed and slept on the floor of the bathroom.
There is always a plan for those who stray: a dirty, seedy, dark underbelly life. So listen my children: Stay on the side of light. Do not neglect your duties. And God grant you and your children health, happiness, and peace this holiday season and all Christmases to come.
Tonight I watched “Kingdom of Silence,” a documentary about Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Instanbul in 2018. It contextualized his life against an analysis of Middle East politics and our involvement in the area as well as the events of 9/11 and the aftermath of The Arab Spring.
Though Jamal Khashoggi advocated freedom of speech, not overthrow, his voice, even from the auspices of American newspapers, would not be tolerated by his government. It is a devastating documentary but well worth watching, a must-see.
Before beginning my MFA, I co-led a group on a discussion board called “Shelfari.” In our group “fiction effect” we discussed books, conducted interviews of authors, explored topics having to do with writing and literature. We had an uptick of participants who were experiencing limited access to the internet due to censorship and government controls. It was so painful to hear that many were scared to participate for long periods of time and some were putting themselves in danger to do so at all. They highly recommended the book We are Iran. Watching this documentary tonight reminds me to re-order my copy. In these pages are voices of the Persian blogs.
Sadly, Amazon shuttered Shelfari in 2016 because of its supposed lesser impact and reach than Goodreads. I have since read an argument for the excellence of Shelfari which at least in my experience feels true: The structure of discussion threads allowed for greater focus and organization and participants were truly passionate readers. I hope one day another like reader-based discussion platform will emerge, particularly in these times in which lay readers appreciate access to deeper, firsthand information about world events. Readers, students, and writers worldwide desire a place to interact across continents and oceans.
When I was a girl, my family was given a trip to Egypt and Israel. Egypt was an incredible country. The people were so beautiful and welcomed us so warmly. When things changed there after The Arab Spring, it hurt my heart.
The documentary may also be upsetting regarding America’s prioritizing oil over human life. Maybe one day the words and life of journalists like Jamal Khashoggi as well as his friends and the voices who call out to be heard will act as change agents and we will once again enjoy greater fellowship and mutual support.
There was a radiating pain that traveled from the right side of her neck and shoulder to her fingertips. A breast and thyroid cancer survivor, it terrified her. Months before, a couple of months before the outbreak of the pandemic, she declared her own freedom from a drug that would have prevented relapse. The drug had hobbled her and she was tired of feeling old in midlife, of making excuses for her immobility, of being embarrassed because she did not look old enough to be moving that way. It had been worse than chemotherapy, especially because no one had told her this would happen. People rang a bell on their chemo ward last day of treatment, people sang and clapped. There were no more bells for this interminable, solitary journey. She would have had to stay on the drug for five years. Although she had grown her hair back, she was moving like she was one hundred and if she was moving, she was in pain.
Now there was this new thing she couldn’t face, this new pain she couldn’t pay for. A nurse for her oncologist had said over the phone it sounded like muscular pain and so she went to a chiropractor. He was able to get her to the point of mobility but he also pressed on the radiated flesh of her right side in a way that broke her down again though not completely. And she couldn’t afford him after a while. And she was avoiding doctors again like she did when her right breast flared with cancer, but now it felt like there was a valid reason: the pandemic.
The pain almost kept her mentally alive some days, she was on a routine of over the counter meds and CBD oil. Every several hours, there was something new to take. Every few weeks, she researched and dug for help. Her fear could be killed with an occasional television series streaming binge or a belt of alcohol, a glass of wine, just enough to keep her going until the next day.
She couldn’t find a job. She had plenty of education, but much less job experience. There was pressure now in her family that she find a job. When she was married and later when she had a son, no one wanted her to do anything but keep a house. Even writing was discouraged. Now that she was middle aged with no work experience, almost zero, as well as juggling pain and anxiety, family could only seem to be happy when they thought she might work.
She was the husk of a used body, the kind you might throw onto a pile of other used bodies on the outskirts of a city, bodies whose sole function might be fuel in the burning or at least nurture for the soil for they were useless otherwise by society’s standards. She was so angry some days she thought she might already be producing fuel but really it was just a bit of noxious gas, dissipating and aimless. The desire she felt to go toward a direction was often thwarted by anxiety, either that or its seeming opposite – despondency.
She was able to see the tops of a tall stand of pines from her apartment window. It reminded her or her girlhood in South Carolina. How beautiful was the wind through a pine forest, its swishing like the sifting of dry grain, the needles glistening in the sun. One day she may lie at their feet and fall asleep and not get up. If she cannot afford the rent increase in a pandemic, if the pain gets worse, if she is squeezed by despair or hunger. She would never have advocated giving up, having fought so hard during years of suicidal ideation, divorce, cancer, diabetes. And yet how many pressures add up to the end? She knew this is one thing that perhaps she had never put seriously to herself until now. Pandemics, she was finding out, may turn out to be the final pressure vise.
But she was pretty sure that even if homeless and ill in her sunny climate, she would not give up. She could see herself as the crazy singing patron who came into the public library thirty years ago and sang her reference requests or the coupon lady with tons of flyers cutting and cutting all day at one of the tables.
She had been a librarian at the time, a time before her marriage. Such patrons and other lost souls, many of them homeless, many of them unwashed and mentally ill, were legendary among the staff. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t stop living by her own hand, no matter what. Even if no one would claim her, even if she could barely claim herself, she imagined she would go on, she imagined she would sing and sing and sing, alone and to trees, to her aged dog, to the dirty streets, to God.
I am bitter because I have been denied Netflix’s previously “free” access to the completely darkly comedic “White Reindeer” starring the brilliant Anna Margaret Hollyman. (Netflix no longer provides this lovely.) If you like dark comedy, you will love this. If you are a woman and are not sure about dark comedy, yes, you will most certainly love this. Now I will have to pay to watch it on Amazon. And if you have an appreciation for the darkly bizarre, the horror “Don’t Leave Home,” also starring Anna Margaret Hollyman, is a previous Netflix offering which may now be streamed on Prime Video at cost.
Also, you can stream all of Hulu’s own original movies with a 30 day trial! Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! If you wisely go for it, let me highly recommend the new Hulu Christmas original “Happiest Season.” I watched it yesterday. Tears. I predict: New all-time classic.
I am also really enjoying Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” series and am a huge Elizabeth Moss fan. I am relatively new to Hulu but definitely find it a great service, a wonderful new alternative. I am chilled by the series version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” because so many political aspects portrayed in this dystopia have come to fruition. And the quelling of rights and freedoms with military force is something I hadn’t anticipated witnessing in my lifetime when I initially read Margaret Atwood’s amazing classic as a college English major over thirty years ago. And of course the attempted “coup” to overthrow our recent election could have been an element of that dystopian vision. The current refusal of many of the GOP to acknowledge the outcome of our election signifies a dangerous tipping point of authoritarian rule in our once shared democracy. It is a real time Holiday Horror of the grandest, truest magnitude.
Does this kill you like it does me? The beauty of her voice and the poignancy of the words, it’s almost too much. Heartbreaking.
Christmas has always been both beautiful and devastating for my family. My brother died before Christmas Eve years ago and that has always colored the way my family has experienced all holidays. And years before he died, we were in Israel for Christmas, in the fields where the shepherds would have been tending their flocks around the place Jesus was born. My brother was old enough to share in memories of our experiences of both Israel and Egypt.
And now, with the coronvirus disaster, this song devastates just as thoroughly. Will there be a place where we will all be together? No matter what has happened to us? I do believe this is true.
I fell asleep to a youtube Harvard lecture on the radicalization of a fascist. I had spent the early evening applying for a barely above minimum wage job when the site timed out because I took too much time downloading an app to help with a cover letter. Back to square one in a pandemic in which, as a cancer survivor and diabetic, I shouldn’t be working among untested individuals. Yet bills come, living expenses rise even with a tidal wave of death.
During youtube lectures of the American Historical Association, I sleep and dream of a fight I am having with a Greek restaurant owner, apparently trying to convince him to allow me to sell my barbeque at a Mediterranean food festival. “Barbeque, barbeque, barbeque! Always with your barbeque!” he says. Apparently I knew him well. Apparently, we had had many conversations about this strange topic and it seems, other things too. I think he likes me, for he tries to apologize. In his way. In the only way possible allowed by his culture for men. Though no one would taste the barbeque I had made.
In another dream, at a family gathering in a modern house I didn’t recognize – we always had traditional houses such as English Tudor, Farmhouse, ranch style, craftsman, tract homes which looked like such houses – a German guest of mine was visiting. When the arguing among us became intense, our guest engaged his jetpack with a manual pump that rendered his exit almost silent, and he floated out of the large open skylight. Before I fell asleep, I had learned the European fascist had a difficult time with long term relationships but occasionally sought connectivity with families of his choosing. Only for brief periods of time.
Previously that week, in my waking life, I had had a fight with my college age son. We never fought these days, almost never. In my once more lonely nest after Thanksgiving, I killed the regret with wine, over the counter meds, cbd oil, lazy indulgence, early bed, a failed job application. I woke feeling less alone, somehow, my sleep populated by people who seemed vaguely similar to people I knew in real life, pre-pandemic. Dreams had been illusive up until last night. “Insomnia” I learned from a “doctor” in a horror movie, actually means “without dreams.” I don’t really think this Hollywood-produced doctor is giving me the precise skinny since the Greek is literally “not sleep,” but maybe I am using a fine tooth comb, so opposite the dream state, and Hollywood creative license.
I can’t say for sure I want to find out what characters may pop up tonight but maybe the Harvard European Studies department and the American Historical Society lie in wait for just such occasions, to bring us to ourselves, to bring us to closer acquaintance to the dictators within, the evil we project, the friends among us who simply want to be understood, feel they have a place. Do you think we might have greater peace if we make room for our enemies? Even if that enemy is we ourselves?
I came across this little gem when I played through Spotify’s playlist “Calm Down.” I highly recommend the list and I love this song. So addictive and memorable. Spotify introduces me to new groups and gets me out of old listening ruts. I’m working on a big CD donation to Goodwill. Just trying to get rid of things that collect dust. I hope you will have a good Thursday. — Meg
The movie Kindred Spirits (2019), directed by Lucky McKee and written by Chris Siverston, is a fine treatment of hidden evil. The evil hides behind nostalgia, a legendary tale of the past, the desire to want to believe in what masquerades as good and loving. It is a deeply disturbing unveiling of a reality hidden in the blindspot of family loyalty. You can watch it livestreaming on Amazon and Hulu.
For fans of crime thriller series, Hulu is offering all seasons of The Killing. I watched this a couple of times the past few years when it was streaming via Netflix. Now you can pay for each season on Prime or you can watch it with ads. Yeah no. Hulu is a much better deal and makes for a better binge. I’m a really big Amazon Prime Video fan but have to shop around for deals as with everything.
Bingeing is not so bad, right? We need a break from political and pandemic realities. Plus, it never hurts to have something to do in quarantine, especially over the weekend or whenever one is breaking from life.
I became a big fan of Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Billy Campbell, Michelle Forbes, Brent Sexton, Kristin Lehman, Eric Ladin, Jamie Anne Allman, and Annie Corley among other featured actors. The series is based on the Danish television series Forbrydelsen. The American version was developed by Veena Sud and produced by Fox Television and Fuse Entertainment. It is set in Seattle.
I’m sorry for all my typos in my attempt at a longer story this morning: “Sleepy Hollow.” I think I have ironed them out though the story itself will likely get revisited more than a few times. I don’t know if the time line and point of view are too confusing. The time line doubles back on itself and the perspective changes from omniscient to a rotating third so hmmmm…… Plus a lot of this takes place in the character’s heads while they are in bed which I now find kinda funny. Who knows, maybe it’s just notes for another story or maybe it basically works as it is. I try to wait to make that determination, sometimes for quite a while. I’ve been writing for six hours since 6 am pretty much nonstop so it may be time to do a contemplative chillax. lol (In bed?)
I was trying to get something out before the Halloween holiday began in earnest. My washer and dryer are located close to my front door and my clean laundry is piled up on my dining room table willy nilly! Along with cardboard boxes from my move since right before the pandemic. lol. So, hmmm. Not organized! I am counting on the holidays to motivate me. I am counting on the trick or treaters staring into my home to at least motivate me to tidy up what they can see. Haha.
Be safe today. Be well.
This is one of my favorite photos on unsplash. It could easily be the east coast of Florida but it is Manhattan Beach. Don’t you love it? Kind of makes me think of a Florida Halloween.
I am watching the anime film adaptation of a Japanese historical manga series called Miss Hokusai. The series was written and produced by Hinako Sugiura and adapted into an anime film by Keiichi Hara. It tells the story of Katsushika Ōi who worked in the shadow of her artist father Hakusai in Endo (modern Tokyo) in the early 19th century.
I am not used to anime films so I don’t know what to compare it to, but it is so fun and fresh. It is injected with modern rock and roll music, modern sensibilities, and some current language, yet it also flows fluently into quiet moments such as tea ceremony and moments of artistic creation. Plus, there is the cutest little dog who reminds me of my Annie, so: sold.
In one of the opening sequences, the daughter apprenctice inadvertently ruins her father’s painting of a dragon, a painting the patron expects most urgently. She sets herself to the task to try and make it right and create another dragon painting, but a young artist reminds her of a Chinese proverb: An act of painting a dragon cannot be forced. One must wait for the dragon to descend.
Later that night, there is a storm, and should I say what emerges from the storm?
I look forward to reading more about the film as well as the artist and his daughter in this wonderful review.
In the meantime, I will hazard a few questions with my dilettante thoughts: Are you waiting for something to appear from your storm? I don’t think patience is all that bad of an idea. Maybe you are waiting to make a decision. Maybe things just don’t seem clear. Sometimes when we try too hard, things don’t come together. Maybe you are waiting to feel something creative emerge before you can create.
Last year during Inktober I created my dragon piece. And now that I’ve seen some of this anime, I am totally inspired. I am also remembering at the beginning of this Inktober I was going to do something with gargoyles. At some point, a writing friend told me she worked on writing fictional gargoyles. I told her: Why not write imaginatively of the gargoyles who “survived” the burning of Notre Dame? I’m not sure if she was into my concept, but I may be! Or at least something similar. First I will wait for the gargoyle to descend.
Last year, a dragon appeared to a boy in one of my Inktober stories. Maybe this came from some deep memory of my late brother as a boy. He loved the 1977 partially animated film “Pete’s Dragon.” It is weird, I am only just now remembering this. He loved all films about animals and he loved all animals. The family situation depicted in my micro doesn’t depict our reality, but how my brother would have loved it if Pete had materialized in his life, “descended.” He was a creative guy and wrote wonderful fictional work. He understood the concept of the organic creative process.
When Daddy went to prison, a white dragon appeared. “Climb on my back,” he said. My mother was sleeping with another man. I felt the sad on the dragon’s skin. So much breath rushed through, maybe tears. I cried as we flew under the yellow moon, through the inky night.
Now Katinka was the most efficient housewife in the village. Before the sun had risen overhead, she had finished the laundering and had set the bread out to rise. Her kitchen and rooms sparkled, and the hearth cracked with a bright well fed fire. It was her habit to air her home in the spring as she worked. One day, in flew a brown striped bird with a pink beak and a white breast. The tiny lark perched upon the back of a dining chair.
He then said: “You will have to do something about that husband of yours, Stefan. Surely he is cheating on you with the great and beautiful Georgeta, and everyone knows it. They talk of her beauty and her youth and how tasty she must be and how your husband is enjoying the fruits of two trees.”
“He is not, you naughty bird!” said Katinka, grabbing a broom and chasing the bird around her little wooden house.
But the bird escaped her broom and landed on the threshold of the open door. He sat long enough to chirp about the various sexual feats of Katinka’s beloved.
When she finally managed to oust him, she sat on her chair beside the hearth and cried. She cried so much that she made a salty soup with her tears, which she then put in the garden for the deer.
That night, in their marital bed, Katinka asked her husband, “Have I ever given you cause to be unfaithful?”
“No, of course not, my love,” Stefan assured her. “There is none more beautiful in all of the world to me. You are the only one of my heart, now and forever. You should not trouble yourself with such things.”
The next day, Katinka was hanging out fresh laundry. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a brown striped bird bounding from branch to branch. Finally, it landed in her basket.
“I hope those wet clothes soak you so that you are damp and miserable,” said Katinka.
The bird only cocked its head to one side as it looked at her.
“Do you not remember that you were the bearer of evil news regarding my husband?” she said. “It was a falsehood. Were I not a kind woman, I would crush you and bake you into a pie.”
“At this very minute,” said the bird, “the king has entered the palace, the rowing has commenced across the moat, the snake is crawling its way to its hiding home.”
“That’s it!” cried. She threw a blanket over the basket, trying to catch the nasty animal, but it spirited away to the forest.
This encounter left her breathless and visions of what the animal was alluding to drummed through her head. How could it be possible? She believed her husband in everything he said. She was a good wife to him and had never even burned a piece of toast. And she was still one of the most beautiful women of the village, no small thing for a woman of her age, only a year younger than Stefan himself.
She made him ciorba that night for dinner, his favorite. She took extra care with the ingredients, adding the kefir that brings the tartness to the dish and whets the appetite. She wore a frock that complimented her figure and brought out the rosiness of her complexion. She brushed her hair a hundred times and wore her best combs. When she served Stefan the ciorba, she took care to bend so that he saw the beauty of her bosom and would catch the sweet scent of her perfume.
“You are beautiful tonight, my queen, and you have prepared my favorite meal for me. Whatever is the occasion?”
Katinka only smiled and sliced a generous piece of lipie for his plate. She watched him consume his dinner and then he took her to bed. They were happy as a man and wife and she could not be more satisfied that all was as perfect as the day they wed. “Nasty old bird,” she thought. “Tomorrow he will be bird pie, bird stew, bird bread. What is the meaning of all of his chatter?”
The next day she had to go to market. She was out of milk and butter and flour and she wanted to buy a string for his little bird neck. She would catch him and feed him to her husband who would be none the wiser. That would teach him.
On passing through the market she chanced upon the lovely Georgeta who was buying a wheel of cheese. She had the chance to observe the lass who seemed sweet and innocent enough, not at all the picture of debauchery painted by the filthy bird. It was just birds like this, thought Katinka, who created so much misery in the world. How many tears have I cried over his lies? I tell you, one teaspoonful is too much.
She built the bird a snare and to lure him, a mound of seeds. The next day, she found him in her trap, proving he can only be the bird brain she thought him to be.
When she pointed this out, he said, “But I have done nothing against my nature, Katinka. I have sung what is in my heart to sing. I have eaten the seed that my stomach craves. Mark my words: By next moon, you will be out in the cold and a new bird will fluff her feathers in your nest.”
And with that, Katinka wrung his little neck and put him into a pie and baked him in the oven, so displeased was she with the little thing. “I just hope the taste is not as bad as his words,” she thought. But the taste was as succulent a pie as she had ever made and her husband praised her and stuffed his face. He was passionate in bed with her that night, more passionate than he had ever been and she was pleased as a wife and could not help but smile at the memory of it the next day.
She found she missed the creature, however, oddly enough, missed the way his accusatory remarks had stirred her. Her life felt flat, somehow, plain. When her husband came home she was as dull as a worn pan. “What has happened to you?” he said and for many days thereafter he inquired after her missing beauty, charms, youthful demeanor. “Where is my fair bride?” he said one day and it struck her that he saw only the surface for he did not ask: “How is the heart of my beloved?”
And so doubt struck her for the first time since Stefan had declared himself her faithful husband. The bird had sung one note which now reverberated louder in her mind since taking the little creature’s life for their dinner. Stefan seemed to sing several notes which clashed: One a denial of his trysts, another his claim of an exclusive love for her, and yet a third his concern with appearances only and not the depths of her heart. This made it impossible for her to see him with a singular heart. What had happened to her dear, loving husband?
That night she collected tears silently by the bowlful and put them in the garden and the bowls outnumbered the deer necessary to take away her pain.
Sometimes it is hard to create horror in a world so horrific. I sometimes break from it out of sensitivity for the situation, incredulity over politics, and personal burnout. When I am not anxious, I sometimes feel flat. Can anyone relate?
The personal horror for me is realizing lessons I never learned which now lead me to hard choices. I have always been more of the grasshopper: playing, joking, laughing, making music, dancing. Creating stories comes more from that sense of play. Sensible, industrious ants bore me. See the link above in the caption to read the wonderful story by Aesop as provided by the Library of Congress.
When I was young, my mother made me stay in my bed in the mornings until a reasonable hour for waking. In a two story house, you could hear everything happening in the upper bedrooms and I was constantly getting up early, playing. Only after getting sick midlife did I start to calm down a bit though certain other hyper tendencies continued on.
I am not pandemic ready. I did not prepare myself. I did not take the calm, measured advice of others over the past few years to build a secure life. I am a grasshopper through and through.
Though I have my favorites in the political race, I understand people who do not want to face hard realities, who cannot bring themselves to admit how a lack of planning and lack of care led us to this place. So while I would like to be self righteous, I can’t be.
I think we as a nation are where we are at this moment because many of us are probably more like grasshoppers than ants, maybe even more than we care to admit. We like to play and be entertained. I should try to just speak for myself. Don’t be offended. Just a thought.
It was an awkward situation. He was much older and shorter and frailer than he appeared in the dating profile photo. He had sounded taller somehow with a kind of Texas swagger. When they met, however, the cowboy politician twang she imagined was something like a male version of Spongebob’s Sandy the Squirrel.
They met in the parking lot of a huge chain restaurant, with huge Chinese concrete dragons flanking the door. His assumption was that she had never eaten anything exotic or been anywhere and he was to show her what was what. She hadn’t disabused him. Secretly, she wondered if there was something a little bit masochistic about her: Let’s see how stupid this can get. Depressingly, years ago, she had sat with her ex-husband and their old couple friends in the kitchen at a special table, to be waited upon and served by the head chef. She kept this to herself as well.
As it turned out, he had all along, through their talks online, made a plan to create an unbreakable bond of sympathy between them: their shared illness, their previous bout of cancer. As soon as they were seated, he spoke in detail of his health status just last year, the necessity of a colostomy bag for a time, the impossibility of dating during treatment. He shared that they might have something in common.
First five minutes, she thought. She felt a little sick, felt she had in fact very little in common with this person who shared such personal things with her straight off with little to no compunction.
This was akin to him assuming that she had never been anywhere or eaten anything but burgers when in fact she had been many places in the world and cooked and eaten quite a bit. He was presumptuous and bossy, ordered for them even though she had said she wanted salad. He ignored her and ordered just what he was planning to, for him and for her. She was tired within the first ten minutes but she supposed his mentality was since he was paying, this was his show. It was old school.
They sat at a large half moon booth, at first at opposite ends so that she couldn’t hear him well, and he was the only one who was talking. She scooted closer when he did not which was awkward because she was aware of what the fine knit summer dress showed off as she bumped and jiggled along. It wasn’t tight or revealing, just flowing over her and not disguising her lack of tone. This is what it is to be dating at midlife. Embarrassing.
As the food arrived and they ate, there were more surprises: His life as a car transporter which afforded him travel to every state, famous people he had met, trips to Vegas, pictures he pulled out and began to show her one of which included a picture of a lady prostitute friend and her pimp. And he spoke of his grown daughter he had poisoned with information about her mother, his ex-wife.
All she could think about was her dog and how to get back to her.
He had also, like a few other men she had known, formed an over the top quick familiarity with the waitress. She had observed this strangeness in her new dating life, how some would take advantage of paid help – in restaurants and stores to flirt and speak endlessly of their lives, to try and win approval and interest or simply smiles, laughs. And when this happened, she was invisible. Or was that the whole point? She inserted herself with this one. Turns out, the waitress’s father was a pastor just like her own and both had been good men. They talked a long time too and joyfully, she thought, without him. There was no one else in the restaurant at that hour.
He was annoyed. He hated Christians and Christianity. A bunch of superstitious claptrap.
She thought of her dog again. The style the groomer gave her hair around her face was called “Teddy Bear:” round, soft, and full, round eyes. She kept her groomed so she could always see those expressive eyes.
“I’ve got to get home to my dog,” she said. “I know she’s going crazy.” She had driven across town though there was a location closer to her apartment, one she had suggested, but meeting where they did, so far away for her, had been one more way of showing who’s boss, to meet where he lived.
Unfortunately, he spoke on for a bit longer, asked her a couple of questions, discovered her employment status was “drawing on alimony,” told her “it was time to grow up.” At the car he made a crude joke about sometimes dating simply for the sex and not marriage, referring to her unemployed status. She gave him a quick hug which he said surprised him, he wasn’t even going to do that, feigning innocence, an old trick she was beginning to recognize. Her hug was goodbye and thank you for lunch though you threw your money away.
At home, with her dog on the couch, she was so grateful for the sun streaming through the window and gleaming off her glass side tables, the plantings around her patio, the huge palm tree, the sounds of birds and dogs and children, people walking by speaking various languages. She decorated in blues, reds, grays, and floral patterns. She would rather die than be without color. She couldn’t quite describe how she felt, only she was happy to be there.
She was most offended by his “it’s time to grow up” statement though the piling on of all of it from the instant of their meeting had numbed her, a kind of self negating abuse that felt familiar.
Months later, and no more dates with anyone, thankfully, but with the onset of the pandemic, she realized he wasn’t all wrong about her need for a job. As she had learned from other dates and other midlife steadies: Everyone taught her something.
Her youtube queue reminded her of a time she attracted men looking for vulnerable prey. In her desperation she had once sought solace and assistance in self-help videos. At last she stopped dating. But every time she spotted one of these videos she had painful thoughts of each of her torturers.
Incredible as it seems as I write this, our country has run itself into the ground. No one used an amendment to our Constitution to disable our leader from endangering the lives of citizens. I am only able to live and write this from a well fortified shelter.
All it took to avoid death was a cloth shield on the face. And yet, there was a state-run mind-warp loud as a bully or psyops equating the wearing of masks with weakness and disloyalty. Many of us are dying yet we war against subversion.
Meet Shayla, one of my characters who rents her Halloween costume from the vintage shop every year to “be a new person.” She’s actually a prostitute on Orange Blossom trail, a section of a much larger highway extending all the way from Rocky Top, Tennessee to Miami. The seven mile stretch of 441 through Orlando has a long held reputation for seediness and vice. Things were particularly dicey in the 70s though there are still many arrests made today for the same reasons as back then. On top of that, there is sex and drug trafficking. Young women get caught into this and don’t find their way out.
At 25, Shayla wants to entertain the children who trick or treat. She intends to dress and gives out candy. She is making homemade treats to give as well but knows in her dangerous neighborhood adjacent to The Trail, parents will not accept treats not presented in wrappers. This year, she has decided to dress as Elizabeth Báthory. A local theater group put on a play about her life a few years ago entitled Elizabeth Báthory, The Blood Countess.
When I first conceived of the story, I thought of writing it from the Shayla’s sister’s perspective after Shayla’s death. I would have the sister go around and clean out Shayla’s house and find devastating information, things she knew she was avoiding facing about her sister’s struggle. And/or the sister would be haunted by spirits in the house, things from their shared past. The first few paragraphs felt flat.
Then I decided to try a different point of view. Better. Though there is still the possibility of writing from different perspectives, depending upon what happens.
Change of perspective can help if something feels dead, particularly if the point of view character is too much like you. I remember a therapist analyzing a puzzling dream I had and telling me I was actually the character I had not thought I was in the dream.
The other thing changing the point of view does is that it loosens your voice. Sometimes every story can sound just the same. I guess some want that exact sameness. I always think changing it up may help, though I get comfortable and stuck too. I still don’t feel as shaken as I want to feel with this character. It might take a few drafts.
There are prompt based exercises during the holiday months for micro fiction. I participated in one in October called Inktober. There was a one word prompt every day of the month which more or less related to the theme of the season. People then posted their micro stories each day.
I am now seeing the advantage of this. You can perhaps go back and mine the material from the year previous to use in various stories or expand on old stories. I don’t know if that’s what I’ll do but I can see perhaps throwing in some more layers from minimalistic offerings to build richer stories.
And writing only fifty words throws you from that intellectual space. Sometimes I sense a scrim between me and the feelings I hope to get to and land on the page. This is a way to tear it up.
I may host Inktober again, though I am no longer on twitter. But I may host on WordPress.
Here is a jazz favorite to finish today’s post. Be well.
I am excavating beginnings of some old short stories to find points of tension and direction with the thought of developing one or more of them. I have hit on one, so, fingers crossed: An epistolary horror about a dystopian society formed by a capricious dictatorship unconcerned with the hopes and dreams of the little fella.
I have found it hard to start much that is new during the current conditions of the pandemic. I am finding I breathe better creatively when there is more movement happening. On the other hand, I can become too energetic and distracted when there are so many things happening, I don’t actually finish the longer work I start. I just write shorter. If I don’t get sick myself, I hope to use the current situation to concentrate. Slow myself down.
“Staged” is a British series on Hulu in which actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen play actors by the same name. Their play opening is postponed in the West End because of the pandemic. They use video conferencing technology to kvetch, get up to speed with spouses, and of course start getting a bit feral in appearance and behavior.
I’m about halfway through the current season. The inciting raison d’être of the calls is grounded in the desire of the director to get them together to rehearse. He believes their meetings will give them some advantage when things return to normal. But predictably, things start to fall apart.
On the one hand, it is hilarious and there is so much reality in the script I groan inwardly. On the other hand, it feels too real and so I take it in small doses. The very “real” part is the attempt to “take advantage of this golden opportunity.” In our current circumstance, I feel myself treading water even as I tell myself I’m making progress. And I do seem to have very ambitious friends who write a lot, no matter what. But I am not always convinced everyone advertises accurately.
In trying to survive psychologically, we are telling ourselves what we must. Lying to ourselves may be an escape. Other popular favorite escapes are eating and drinking. In “Staged,” Michael Sheen gets caught sticking a lot of liquor bottles in the recycling bin of an 80 year old woman. She comes to the door during a video conference and tells him to reclaim them. Ha!
I have been labeled an “escapist.” And now all these vehicles for escape are sending me down the rabbit hole.
I think of the Florida Gulf coast in this hurricane season. I wrote this story several years ago and published with an Australian journal. Growing up, it meant everything to me to learn how to fish in the Panhandle during the summer and sell crabs on the roadside. “Ladybug’s” passion for the sea and its creatures are modeled loosely on experiences I had with my aunt. Be well. — Meg
Her chair is a basket weave of rainbow, her floppy hat a mushroom cap. Every day she sits under the Australian pine, her thin legs stretched out toward the bay, heels dug into the soft sands of Anna Maria Island.
She speaks to birds. She tells them where to find mollusks, greenies, pinfish, tube worms, anemones, mullet, stonecrab, blue crab, fiddlers, spot, black drum, croakers, ballyhoo. The longer-legged wading birds walk along the shallow areas, knobby knees clear of the water for more than a hundred feet out. They are her friends: the common egret, the snowy egret, the white ibis, the roseate spoonbill, the great blue heron. When one of the larger birds is near, she speaks in soft tones. She embraces their world through her sympathy.
Sometimes she helps a grounded boat. She walks out on the bar and dislodges sand from the propeller. She gives the careless boaters a map, shallow areas at low tide drawn with her red pencil, the channel markers with an x. Had they had her aboard, she could have helped. But the birds need her more.
Once a week her daughter visits. She says Mother I really don’t think you should… and Mother I don’t think it’s wise that you… and Mother why don’t you try to see if you can… and Ladybug, for that’s her name among the locals, says “Umm hmm” until her daughter leaves for the city. The birds listen to her complaints. They nod their silent ascent.
When her son comes, he casts his rod, the only sound the fine unspooling of the line from the reel. She has taught him all she knows about fish and where they feed and when, the patterns of the tides, what he can find just by looking and what he has to know, too, in a deeper sense.
Her husband died pursuing shrimp. He allowed her to navigate while he went below to haul in the catch: At that time, the highest compliment any man could give a woman of a fishing persuasion. Superstition had it that this killed him. She did not remind them he died saving one of their own, a crew member entangled in a net.
During the long days she grieved him, she dreamed of pregnant nets, the breeze in her hair, her husband’s strong neck, the feel of his unshaven face against her cheek in a private moment. His expectation that she could endure anything, could do what she must, helped her survive. She sensed him with her, protecting her still and she began to understand something like faith.
Once her children were raised and gone, once the town forgave and forgot, she became Ladybug, a woman who talks to birds, a woman who graced the town – the grocery, the bar, the peel ‘n eat, the library, everywhere – with a red bug tattoo on the bone of her wrist.
I found a motel on St. Pete run by a quiet German couple. Earlier that day upon my arrival to town, I had deposited the money from the policy with no fanfare.
At check in I wore the black of a widow. I was very quiet, subdued, some might even say I seemed to be appropriately mourning.
On my first evening I wore to the pool a conservative kaftan, had a drink from the bar only at the cocktail hour and only one.
The police had questioned me a few days ago when my late husband died but only to rule me out, had made note of an alibi.
There would have been only the one motive, though a considerable one: the sizable life insurance policy.
After the questioning, I had to survive the duties – the mourning wife, funeral director, hostess and I was surprised I had it in me to be so cold and unfeeling. But all I had to remember was my husband’s iron grip on my arm, the bruising, the years of indignities, and I was a woman of steel. Before I left town I paid the death expert, my white knight.
At the beach, my first sunset there, how good the warm breeze felt on my cheek as I followed the path between the dunes, the setting sun on my back, the knowledge of the money tucked away in my account, my German hosts polishing my car in the lot.
There was a little brick hut apparently for storing beach equipment along the path. And beside it, a small concrete outcropping where five smooth black cats lounged.
What did they know? I thought to myself, amused. Very little.
On the beach as the sun fell I must have drifted asleep.
I woke up in the darkness to mewling and purring beside me. The cats, I thought.
One had pressed its lips to mine. I couldn’t move. It had taken all my breath, its yellow eyes penetrating the dark.
I woke, gasping for air. It had been a nightmare.
I sighed in relief and returned to my room. The next day, a group of them waited for me outside my door. I could barely pass to get breakfast.
I was not able to stay at St. Pete without the cats following me, more and more of them. It made me feel conspicuous and self conscious. And of course people looked at me.
I moved to another beach town further north and stayed inside most of the time but found they clustering near the door though I never fed them. They followed me when I went to to the grocery or to town, crowding in, harassing, mewling, hissing.
It’s been months now and I’m half crazed. To be honest, I hope to die.
The heat from the oven blasted her face. The blackened salmon was cooking nicely in the cast iron skillet, a deep rich glaze of soy and sweetener and garlic thickening under the broiler. How simple it had been to make from a frozen filet. A sweet potato was turning in the microwave.
She sat at her coffee table that conveniently lifted to table height and took her first bite of the dark pink flesh. How could life be so hard yet so simple?
She had managed to find a diabetic alternative to honey for the recipe: monkfruit sweetener. And yet, she could not tell a difference. That was what it was about: Challenge, opportunity, response, every ounce of her a scrappy animal, cancerous body parts removed in the fight, depression not an option.
And yet, her sister was well yet struggling too. They spoke frequently. And she had a good relationship with her son who had his own challenges. Her aging dog would need a vet visit soon which may lead to expensive steps to help her maintain. Storms were beginning to rip through the state. Fall always brought beauty and natural chaos and disaster.
She and her sister talked on the phone after she received word of the necessity of a biopsy. She was sitting in her car in the parking lot of a donut shop. She planned to get coffee and cream and as usual these days, eschew the donuts and bagels. She would wait to go through the drive thru until after they had dissected the situation.
There was at least this morale boosting conversation in her life. And there was this, something they laughed about but knew all too well from birth: They were made of survivor blood.
Ok, so that little “story” or vignette was about me, lols. I even tried to post it multiple times today because I haven’t mastered the new WordPress editor so if you’re seeing it in different forms and rearranged, know it’s been under construction.
Maybe someday I will make this into more of a layered story, but for today, I thought, why not share a recipe along with a little writing? It will keep me creating both food and fiction during this challenging time.
This recipe of sweet and savory salmon is quick, inexpensive, delicious, and healthy. If you don’t like salmon, I have other fish dishes I will share. Occasionally, I am going to try to share recipes you can use from your freezer or pantry. Please try this even if you think you are not a salmon lover. The delicious sauce masks some of the strong oiliness that can be a challenge and you might be converted after all.
I have to always try to find honey and sugar alternatives because of eratic sugar levels. I love honey and it would be a perfect just as called for in this recipe. But it is not necessary for the flavor or thickening of the sauce. Monkfruit sweetener can be easily and affordably secured online and is often a substitute for sugar. It has the reputation of not spiking blood sugar levels. Though like all such products, it is probably best consumed in extreme moderation. It is handy to have on hand for a pinch here or there.
Salmon filets are nice to have in the freezer, and you don’t need the crème de la crème with recipes like this. Mine come in a pack of multiple filets, skin on. Most salmon recipes are fairly of forgiving of skin and once cooked, it easily releases without need of special knives though I just serve it as is and eat the meat. I do have some recipes or methods to use in cooking with frozen filets with a variety of fish but most of the time it is preferable to thaw. Most fish filets do not take long to thaw and you can do this overnight or on the counter day of. Just be very careful not to forget about it, making it dangerously unhealthy. If you make a mistake, throw it out and start again with another filet. When the fish is thawed, use it same day and don’t refreeze. See link below. Enjoy.
I love jazz. This seems to be a beautiful riff on one of my favorite Gospel favorites “Oh How He Loves You and Me.” There is much to enjoy in riffs on old music, even if one would not normally consciously endorse a faith tradition. For me, Reed’s take reminds me of my girlhood and is reassuring in times like this.
When I was in seminary, we studied a perfectly reasonable and exciting concept: That children are fully capable of apprehending spiritual truth. That is, they don’t need to be spoonfed spiritual truths but the way can simply be open to them with open ended rather than didactic approaches. They should be free to make their own response. One such approach I studied with this in mind was a method involving an “art response.” Children were encouraged to draw pictures in response to the stories they heard, or in this method, saw their teachers re-enact using small figures in a box of sand.
The way to deeper spirituality has been all to often blocked and thwarted by narrowly prescribed behaviors by folk who are uncertain of the goodness and efficacy of God’s Spirit. Jesus taught the Spirit was like the Wind, no one could predict its path or stop its course. It is my belief that God is essentially loving and creative and has made us in his image. He has made us to love and create too.
May the spirit move deeply and may you be inspired. Peace.
This is a revision I posted a couple of years ago. When I first saw a skinhead documentary filmed here in the United States I began to think: Can I challenge myself to try and imagine what a young person would feel who is in the grip of this? I owe some of the images and ideas in the story to details I observed in the documentary as well as an actual story that occurred in Florida a couple of years ago.
I am posting this again having watched a film yesterday called “This is England.” In that film, as in my story, the young protagonist is forced into a wrenching situation. I recalled all over again the Billy of my story. Before our present time, I may have written the rhetoric of the group portrayed in the film as only applying to fringe groups abroad or in the United States. Now the rhetoric has invaded our own national scene.It feels fresh and current though of course, movements like this take time to seep into and invade culture so while it is current, it has also been a long time in existence.
My grandfather was a minister in the deep south. He used the pulpit to speak out about segregated busing. A cross was burned in his yard by a group whose method is intimidation and terror against those who do not support their agenda. Today, when public people speak against the agenda of division and hatred, they are bombarded with an avalanche of death threats and intimidation.
Perhaps it is worth imagining how we arrived at this place. And perhaps this imagination is now more critical than ever as we seek to navigate our present realities. Our future depends on this imagination and sensitive interaction. Barricading ourselves off and dividing ourselves off over every slight difference among us will not solve much bigger issues, especially as it concerns approaching those living the normalization of hatred.
At night, Billy sits with Brother John and the guys at their WAR house in the Panhandle as they watch the videos of the National Socialist Party. Billy always sits on the scratchy green tweed sofa that reminds him of his Granny’s but Brother John’s smells like earth and rain and the chocolate smell of mildew.
It is Hitler’s birthday. Mother Beulah has made a Nazi cake in the colors of the flag. She sets it on the oilcloth. Her arms are exposed and giggling like Granny’s. He imagines them soft to the touch. In the center of the sheet cake she had written in a thin chocolate scrawl: Happy Birthday, Hitler! Mama Beulah has arthritis and her hands aren’t steady but Brother John doesn’t fault her.
Billy gets a corner piece of the cake, where the piped chocolate icing has bunched up and there is a tiny SS bolt. Everybody is grabbing for the plates and tiny plastic forks. He pulls himself through sweat drenched boyhood, some bigger bodies too, shoving, the guys cackling and laughing. Mama never made a big cake like this. His birthday was on Halloween. She put a candle in a jacko-lantern. He blew it out. There was no one around.
Every night after dinner, they watch the videos of the Hitler youth in the Old Country, before The Second World War. They talk of the racial consciousness of the boy in the video who plays the drum so hard in the Hitler youth band, who looks like a live Little Drummer Boy from Billy’s nighttime book in the guest room at Granny’s. One of the guys, usually Grady, whose sideburns are so wide and long they’re almost a beard, always says that drummer kid’s got his shit together.
Grady wears black boots with red laces. Red laces mean something. Billy’s boots are red with black laces. If he grows up good in the movement and succeeds, he’ll get his blood laces and black boots.
Billy sneaks downstairs after the salute. The salute is when they stand and put an arm out to the Nazi flag on the wall and Brother John sings the anthem he plays on a cassette, a song about a pure white America. Brother John can’t sing and doesn’t always know the words but everyone has to put on a German helmet from the bin. No one smiles. You have to make your eyebrows bunch up and your eyes shaded. You have to sing very loudly and be serious and strong, like a soldier. When it’s over you have to say, very loudly, White Power!
One time they’d burned an American flag in the woods when the Klan came for speeches and a cross burning. They had a punk Nazi band play, definitely the kind of thing his stepfather hated, the sounds clashing like a car accident, screeching guitars, the band leader’s deep growls sounding like an animal. A force would take hold of Billy’s body and he would thrash about with the brothers in the heat and inky darkness, their bodies slamming into each other, girls watching from the fringes, silent and slouching.
He deserved to go to jail a few months ago, it was true. It had been while he was living with his Mama and Stepdaddy. He had held up a store with some friends and fired shots though no one got hurt. When he got out, only Brother John was there to make bail, along with Grady and a couple of guys his age, punk ass kids like him who were no longer wanted by their parents. His stepfather handed him over. He didn’t see his Mama again. He didn’t see his Granny. He didn’t hear the songs his Granny sang to him in her wavery voice, songs she sang to him at night about going to sleep, not worrying his head.
There is a mission that night of Hitler’s birthday, a ride along, an initiation of the new guys. He didn’t know about it beforehand. He is wrenched up from his bed by Brother John, his arm clamped by the same grip that held him sometimes against his will when secret things were happening, secret things even the other boys didn’t know about.
There is a group of the brotherhood in the pickup truck, the crickets and night frogs screeching all around, witnesses, and an owl its loud “hoo” insistent. They bump along in bed of the truck, Grady and another older guy, and another kid his age. Brother John is driving. The grand wizard has joined them, the wizard who always insisted from podiums in speeches that their brotherhood was about nonviolence. Billy asked the wizard once after a ceremony about the noose patch on his robe. The wizard merely glared at him, his face severe under a pointed hat decorated with stars.
When they get to a house in the woods, there are some other skinheads there already with sawn off shotguns. They bust in and haul out a black man and lay him out behind the truck. The man’s wife runs outside, screaming. A skinhead with a the big fat gun they called The Judge cocks the piece against her skull. The skinhead bending over the black man has a chain over his shoulder.
“You two boys, you young’uns!” he says pointing to Billy and the other young kid in the back. “Time to step up and be men.”
“You heard him now,” says Brother John. “Time to get out now and earn your laces! Time to do something important, be someone.”
The man with the chain tells the other boy to run the chain around the hauling hitch. Then he gives Billy the rest.
“It’s in your hands, son. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Billy thinks only of Brother John. Billy has no one. Nowhere he belongs. He would get his red laces and even the older guys would think he was a bad ass Nazi and no one would treat him like a baby.
Brother John and Grady hold the black man’s ankles. The man is kicking and screaming. Billy puts the chain around his ankles. Brother John hands Billy a lock to hold the chains in place. “It’s on you, son.” he says. “Let’s clean everything out now. Be a man.”
While the man kicks and screams, and Brother John yells at him, deep inside, Billy hears his Granny’s gentle wavering voice singing Mary Poppins’ lullaby: “While the moon drifts in the skies, stay awake, don’t close your eyes.”
Billy clamps his hand over the lock and sprints into the woods, the undergrowth slapping his jeans, the thick night air flowing over him like warm water, the throats of the tree frogs cheering him.
“Billy!” he hears Brother John call, but he is racing through the night and is soon at the highway and can’t hear them at all.
He chucks the lock deep into the undergrowth. He walks down the shoulder of the highway, hitching for a ride.
One quick note about a concern for keeping sole possession of one’s creative work or ideas, especially where it concerns publishing online. While it would be upsetting to me if I found someone had whole cloth lifted something of mine and claimed it, it is not the worst thing in the world either.
I took myself off of an online fiction sharing site where my book cover and title were almost completely lifted and copied with someone else’s byline. But since having had time to think about it, I realize that the best part of writing or doing anything creative is the simple fact of having written the first of your particular piece, cover, title or even simply the act of putting someone else’s work with your work which I do here with others’ photography.
Creating is chased by many for the pleasure of feeling at least for a moment you have created something new. Later you may realize how much of it was inspired by something read, something watched or heard. There is a time to realize all creating is a communal effort, whether we are conscious of it or not. We have been influenced by others in our lives, by things we have experienced, read, witnessed. But for a time what we have made feels newly minted and this is a terrific feeling.
Someone copying your stuff does not rob you of that initial pleasure of having created something new to you, or brought something into existence that didn’t seem to be in existence before. To me, it is the whole reason for creating. I have known writers to be completely caught up in the sense of being robbed. I understand. It is theft of property. But why give someone else the satisfaction of taking from your happiness as a writer, taking what you yourself have shown is worth someone’s trouble to take?
Creating is giving, to yourself, to others. It is letting go. There is no controlling whether someone will take your work, whether anyone will even read it, whether it will be treated fairly. But you give anyway.
I have had more than one person say creative writing and storytelling is merely navel gazing, self-centered escapism. Ok. All I know is people have always needed stories. It is a communal act of giving and receiving. I am not sure a civilization has ever imploded from a plethora of compelling stories.
To keep on creating no matter what is to grab for that brass ring again, to reach for that thing no one can steal. It is to be vulnerable, constantly. It is to create your design with sand. And in these current dark days it is to practice a form of mental health hygiene, to communicate across chasms, to join invisible communities.
If all I have is a notebook and pen, I know I can still create stories which may some day find an audience. Or I might be my only audience. It is a humanizing practice to write on paper, to paint on cave walls. It fulfills a primal need. It connects us to our past and to our future.
Never let anyone convince you you are doing something irrelevant when you write or when you encourage others to write. And never let acquisitive folk steal the joy of having felt the joy of that first creation, having created something new. Sure an editor may tell you it is like a lot of things he or she reads, but you still have that feeling of having created. That feeling contributes to the motivation to be on a constant hunt for that new story to share around the fire, with your own embellishments, your own angle. It is special to you and you have helped create it by participating in your art.
It was getting more difficult to see beyond the waves of the dead. They haunted the Lincoln bedroom, the oval office, the garden of roses where the crab apple trees had succumbed to the vicissitudes of fashion.
Some say the leader of the free world had to wear a special kind of goggles like reverse night vision goggles in order to make speeches that did not acknowledge them. The dead were as real and animate as the living.
They stood with him when he spoke, they whispered in his ear, they lingered among the living, his audiences, some distanced from each other, some sitting close. Even if the living sat close, the dead still managed to squeeze between them.
The leader of the free world had glasses made of gold, the lenses were rose. It was all the fashion. Some say it was necessary. The leader simply said they were cool, his new look. Others sported masks, he could sport his shades, but they were simply for coolnees.
With his glasses on he only saw the living when he looked out into his audiences, when he sat with others on a panel or in group discussions.
The appearance of the national flag changed with the glasses, however. He had to trust his advisors that what he was seeing was the national flag so he could put his hand over his heart when the national song was being played from a tape recorder.
The national flag cannot be viewed accurately with the glasses.
This morning I am going to participate with a local philosophical group to discuss this Sunday’s topic “Coping in the Pandemic.” We will hear multiple presentations based on the reading and then respond to the presentations. I’ll briefly present the topic “Writing during the Pandemic” based on the reading of a New York Times article “12 Ideas for Writing Through the Pandemic With the New York Times.” Though the target audience for the article is younger adults, people of any age can use these thoughtful and creative ways to either get started on a writing practice or refresh and recharge with some new ideas. The idea is, we need this for posterity, this keeping of a record, but also for therapy, for coping, for connecting with others.
I want to share notes I have taken in amending the article, to bring it within the age range of the group but also provide some of my own ideas. Though this is not comprehensive, it is a start. It is a kind of cheat sheet but only fully understood in conjunction with the reading.
It has been a while since I have “presented” and this is the first for me to do this on Zoom. Luckily, this time around it will be fairly brief. Like a lot of people, I have struggled to get adjusted to new realities though I consider myself a bit of an introvert. I have learned to appreciate the energy we feel when in the presence of others and how that contributes to well being. That being said, I am thankful for such alternatives. It is amazing that we even have them and I have been impressed by entertainers and political campaigns who have so creatively stepped up to offer connection through this medium. I am happy for groups like my group meeting this morning as well as a writing and book discussion group who are offering an online presence and connection as well as stimulating conversation.
The only thing is, I miss writing in coffee shops! I love feeling the energy around me, hearing the barista foam up a beverage, the sensation of being anonymous while I am alone but not alone with my notebook. Perhaps I should play a “coffee shop” sound track while I write? But would the artifice make it worse? There is the old song “People who Need People.” But what I am learning is we are all people who need people.
I hope you enjoy my notes. They are not perfect or comprehensive but offer some ideas regarding writing during a global crisis. The article is amazing and the links in the article are wonderful, impressive. Enjoy your Sunday.
Writing during the Pandemic – notes from 12 Ideas for Writing, NYT
Why write? To make a record of a historical moment in time. To engage in a therapeutic activity that can bring relief and perspective. To stay in touch with friends and family. To engage others in joint writing projects or in forming a community by building an audience.
What are some writing approaches? 1) A journal or diary of thoughts, feelings, events. See the article for prompts. Substitute concepts such as “school” and “extracurricular activities” for applicable concepts such as “work” and “community activities.” 2) A personal narrative. See the article for pointers and writing prompts. (Substitute for “school” words/concepts appropriate to your context, ie “work.”) 3) Poetry. If you are new to writing poetry, please refer to the link to “found poetry.” For picture prompts, I prefer using nuanced pictures and art I can find on the following sites: flickr, tumblr, or deviantArt, Saatchi Art, or copies of old news magazines such as Time. I often keep an artist’s notebook of pictures I have clipped, and also words/headlines. (Refer to the link to “found poetry” on how to use word clippings.) 4) Letters to the Editor. Refer to the link to Thomas Freyer’s tips. Once you have navigated to this link, scroll down to the section “Tips on How to Write a Compelling Letter.” 5) Editorial. For ideas, refer especially to the paragraph that discusses essential questions to ask regarding the pandemic and what they tell us about our world today. And perhaps you would prefer to make and create a video op-ed. See the link. 6) A Review 7) A How to guide, such as how to make a face mask. Other thoughts I have: recipes to give to friends and family members, a how to guide regarding a talent or hobby. 8) 36 Hour Guide on how to spend a weekend in a global pandemic. 9) Photo Essay. Check out the link to The International Center of Photography. Or simply, use social media as a platform for original photos and commentary, such as Instagram or a blog or website. 10) Comic Strip. Refer to the article for links, pointers, examples, and inspiration. 11) Podcast. Refer to links in the article. Also, consider a new and accessible platform such as Anchor if you are a newbie. You can create your own podcast from your smart phone! https://resonaterecordings.com/2020/02/review-of-anchor-podcast-hosting/ 12) Revising and Editing. Refer to the article for tips and inspiration.
My additional notes:
Publishing. Check out the excellent database of both fiction and nonfiction journals publishing writing: Duotrope’s Digest. It is kept fairly current and you can research using quite a few variables. It includes a variety of genres.
Fiction writing: Some of the article’s tips on poetry writing could easily apply especially with shorter forms under 1,000 words for example, or with word limits of 100 and 50. To write fiction, I will often use what is happening currently as a springboard or context for the story. I enjoy using visual and word prompts. The discipline of cutting down one’s writing that was explored in “found poetry” is a great way to create a powerful, compelling story. Constraints often bring out creativity. I have found it therapeutic to continue fiction writing during the current crisis, “telling it slant” as Emily Dickinson once said.
Form an online writing group: This is a great opportunity to meet with others to share work and read the work of others, to give and receive feedback. It is a great way to receive support, to build community.
It had become ridiculous. Victor, a musca domestica, a common housefly, had gained passage into Ms. Myska’s apartment via the cellophane packaging of a crusty French loaf. The arrival of the groceries, having been scheduled to arrive at 11:00 a.m., had nonetheless caught Ms. Myska unawares for she had fallen asleep.
“Oh!” she said, starting bolt upright, realizing what had happened. Sure enough, the packages were on the threshold. All seemed well enough, however: All seemed in order and the milk and cream were cold.
Still, Victor had found his way in.
For days, he had bragged to Jasmine, the wild leg of a landscaping foundation plant and Ms. Myska’s porch plants – Flaming Katy and Donkey Ear – that he would find a way to observe what was happening inside and get fat from the dog food Ms. Myska put down for her little Coton.
What he hadn’t counted on was Ms. Myska’s sharp senses and reactions. Greedily, he had secreted himself away inside the cellophane for a quick snack of French bread crust while waiting for her to open the door and let him inside.
When Ms. Myska spotted him she shouted out in alarm, her second “Oh!” of the morning. She crushed him dead, instantly, while he darted about. His body was unceremoniously scraped away.
Though Ms. Myska hated this condition under which she would have to accept her bread, she acknowledged her responsibility.
Victor’s children were not far behind in gaining access for they had become concerned. He was a hard father to live with. He had never given them any breaks. Still, that did not mean they wished him dead. And he had meant his hard regimented style for their benefit as they would soon understand.
Like Victor, they all bragged to Jasmine and Donkey and Katie they would do what their father had not managed to do and live long and happy lives with Ms. Myska in their natural state of commensalism, giving birth to baby flies and getting fat.
What they had missed was the early cautionary and leavening influence of a mother who had died young while they were but pupae. “Know your limits” she would have whispered to them in their self contained infancy. “Don’t become too proud, for surely you will know death too soon.”
Victor’s children managed to ride in on packages and groceries, to squeeze in between cracks in the screened porch.
Ms. Myska kept her outside door open during certain hours of the summer to enjoy fresh air, to water and tend to her houseplants, Donkey, a succulent, and Katy, a Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, and it was mainly during these hours that Victor’s children managed to gain access.
Jasmine, the landscape plant on the other side of the porch, stepped in at times and said something. “Chillax” she hissed as she rode the waves of the wind. But they were too busy plotting their way to the grave.
“We all have self destructive tendencies,” Donkey Ear interjected sagely one afternoon from his place on the wrought iron shelf.
What did he know? thought Katy, laughing to herself. But it was so like him to sonorously opine with a wisdom beyond his abbreviated age. She allowed him this indulgence.
They would all die one day. Even Ms. Myska would die, thought Katy. They would all become husks while something inside would be set free.
Katy had heard a priest on tv read a revelatory passage from the text Ms. Myska read every morning: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
Katy often wondered about this. She wondered how there were some people who thought carefully of the nature and future of the earth. She wondered if she would be celebrating along with other plants, humans, and geologic formations called mountains.
She thought the passage a little too hopeful, but she tried to stay open. Maybe there would be a new earth one day. She had to admit humans seemed insanely hopeful sometimes. But Ms. Myska seemed ok. If she wanted to read it in her book and believe it who was she.
A magic man came to town. Promised me I would dance. (I couldn’t walk.) Offered me his hand. (If I took it I would change.) Taking it, I felt electric. I felt tears. I didn’t want him to see me cry. But he did and smiled. I began to move.
There was no time to administer last rites. Spirits wandered hospital corridors. They moaned into the ears of physicians. The moaning was so woeful it penetrated the sleep of the hospital workers at night. Nothing relieved the cries of those who died alone.
A bird man watches the lithe lily girls dancing on the graves. Ashes, ashes we all fall down! He fills the beak of his mask with flowers. He points to one of the girls with his claw, indicating whose family will be next to die.
Because their parents died they made the children cakes: a Mickey Mouse cake, a beach cake with fondant shells, little hummingbird cakes they used to eat after school. At night the children dreamed of sugar until they drifted down onto an abyss. There was darkness, loss.
The children were told the dead, infected adults were going to the orange juice factory to be cremated. Only the children thought of orange creamsicles, hot summers, sticky fingers, cool melted orange cream. They wondered if they would be able to taste their parents on their tongue.
There is a hum deep in the woods. It draws neighborhood children from sleep. They slip on snow pants, boots. They sit around its warmth and light while it pulses, its voice a reassuring mother but warning them. In the days to come, they draw monsters and rivers of blood.
At sunrise she met her girlfriends for breakfast – she recently apartment-dwelling-divorced, they china-pattern-married. Women can spot a French bath and dry shampoo. They knew she had been out all night. Soon her girlfriends would be weekend-family-full while she would be shared-custody-echoes.
On Old Cheney Highway a landscape trailer sideswipes kids into the ditch. Sniffling, they pick up their bikes and start walking. A mother with a worn out hair dye job tongue lashes them for being late. They need to eat and clear out. A client is demanding a curse.
He took your lives, Colette and Barbara from Iowa, a place smelling of milkfat and hay, where your Mama was looking for you, and he buried you in a shallow grave in Port St. Lucie. Nightly a priest performs an exorcism of the Devil Tree where your souls haunt Florida.
Because of the virus, criminals were released from prison. We lived in Starke, home of Old Sparky, the electric chair. They weren’t releasing murderer Wayne Doty on death row who had had been begging for electrocution so his soul could go free. We loaded our guns, nailed our windows shut.
On her deathbed, Granny made me swear I wouldn’t let them cremate her so she could rise with Jesus on the resurrection. Promise! she said. They took her body out on an unhinged door, feet first so she didn’t look back and drag us down with her to the grave.
In my dark apartment, you are not administering the body and blood, I am not hearing the last words of Jesus to his disciples, I am not touching your robe, I am not climbing the pulpit to read the Bible, I am not holding your hand on the way home.
In a city wracked by contagion I fall asleep in a dark apartment shuttered against the angel of death. My dreams are of you as a child. I am you in my dreams though in life you are my mother. When I wake, I am finally capable of love.
What songs do you sing to yourself when you are alone? Do you sing of God’s idea of you? Do you sing of dreams of a planet redeemed by animals? Do you sing of the earth’s darkest heart? Are you a troubadour? Will you make something new with your mouth?
In Alabama, in the darkness of her car, now a sinking vessel, a mother thinks of her child, excited for Easter, only a few hours before the tornado. An angel is with this mother now. He goes into the water first, his head submerging, so she will not be afraid.
Jesus Land in Orlando had to deal with their Bible college actors slut shaming Mary Magdalene at the tomb reenactment. The casting had been a bit on the nose: An exotic dancer from Orange Blossom Trail. The park would stand behind their decision, maybe put the spoiled brats in concessions.
I had a dream Easter Eve. I was riding shotgun in a Mini being driven by a Cheeto. He was talking in an airy voice, telling stories and baby rhymes. I was nodding in and out of consciousness. With his little round circle mouth he offered ineffectual assurances.
Through the crack in the closet doors, the Easter bunny beckons children to hide, hide from the shouting, the beating, the smashing glass. He smells of booze and an old costume, like the mildew of the porch sofa. He holds them close and presses in their hands melted chocolates.
My mother is a wolf. She is with me at the campsite. There is a sign that specifically says: “Do not make food accessible to animals.” My mother sits at the table and has tea with me. She is sitting on her haunches.
My mother is crying. She says there are things she never taught me: how to sew from a pattern, how to manage my accounts, how to plan for a week’s worth of shopping. Her paw is on my hand. It is warm from scrambling over the sun-kissed rock. And though I know her blood runs warm, like mine, there is something new in her gaze, some coldness, something reptilian.
“I have no feeling any more, mother,” I say, “no regrets.” I am serving the cinnamon tea. I am serving it in delicate white china.
In the sun, my mother is beautiful. In the sun, the blue of her eyes like the sky penetrate my defenses.
“I did not raise you to take the hardships of your life this way,” she says. “I never told you it would always be the same. There are things you must do now to become who you must become.”
The smoke of the fire curls up into the air. I wonder if my mother will return that evening with the other wolves, to threaten me for my meager fare — a bird shot in midflight, a rabbit caught in a snare. I wonder if she will return for me.
She had come to see me during the day at other times, and not for tea, and not for any reason. I have felt the presence of the others hovering about the trees. So far, it has not resulted in anything, only a mild abrasion on the cheek when we kissed, an unintentional scraping, drawing a faint line of blood.
I am disappointing her, I feel, and yet I cannot move on. My old life is behind me, in ruins. I mourn it as for an ancient city, burning. My beginning has no map. My mother is not the woman in the yellow dress cooking dinner for my father and my brother and sister. All histories have melted away and these old regrets live on top of the mountain. And yet, except for a few tears, my mother runs in packs at night. I know she protects me, for in the morning, there is a drop of blood in the corner of her mouth or in the web of her paws that she does not explain but wipes away on a napkin.
And yet I continue to straighten the napkins and check the egg timer for steeping.
Published in Apocrypha and Abstractions, February 20, 2014