Friday, 1 May 2020

From the quarantine trenches

Reading: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Listening to: All the to-do jobs around the house calling to me at the same time
Outside: Clouds taunt with possible rain

What a difference a year makes.

Long time, no see!

In my last blog post one year ago, recounting an April visit with my daughter to the community park, since what feels like a geological age, I spoke about Being the Change. And here we are again, enacting change in an environment that really, really doesn't like humans right now. We are usually scurrying, meddlesome creatures, exploiting land and fossil fuels for our own selfish gain. And now we are stopped, stunned, and peering through our living room windows like pensive house cats, wondering who will go by next, what will happen next.

The birds are louder, the cars are less, the air is cleaner.

Our species suffers: 26,000 deaths from Coronavirus in the UK alone, as of 20 minutes ago, according to Wikipedia. People all over the world are mourning their loved ones, the ones who have passed, the ones who are fighting, alone, in their hospital beds.

Countries compare their death numbers like nervous, knock-kneed schoolchildren comparing grades on a particularly tough test: Who has done the best? Who has done the worst, and why? There really are no answers; there are different testing methods used, and numbers fluctuate and will continue to do so until this is All Over.

Which, of course, as we twitch the curtains at the windows, staring down the street or as far as we can eek out a view between apartment buildings and over slanted roofs, we can't foresee an Ending. We don't know when it will happen or how it will look.

For the first time for many of us, we are experiencing our first Major Crisis. For others, this is something Terrifying That Can Be Gotten Through. They've done it before: The Second World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War. These changed lives, as our lives are changing. (But while they went to bed not knowing if their street would exist in the morning, we can at least depend on our Wi-Fi to bring us our favorite shows, news, food delivery and Ebay, holding out as best we can, giving us something to look forward to.)

We evolve to face the Unknown, which breathes in our faces, invisible. We are stepping up to it, putting our memes up on Facebook, bingeing on Netflix, ordering pizza delivery. We are joking, connecting in any way we can, via Zoom or Facetime and we are telling each other, "I'm in this with you."

So let's embrace the change. Let's applaud the NHS, those of us who live here in the UK. Let's applaud the legions of hospital staff around the globe, and anyone who must don gloves and mask and face-shield in order to do their daily work. Let's applaud ourselves for staying home and staying out of the way of essential workers. Hell, let's applaud the delivery drivers for that pizza. That pizza's getting us through this damn thing.

Let's slow down, learning along with our children since we are now their teachers; let's make those mud pies and play "pub" at the table in the back yard. Let's learn what it feels like to discover what's really essential, what really makes you happy, through all of this hardship. You may have lost your job, or you may have lost your wedding, your trip, your big 40th birthday celebration that you didn't know about that someone spent a long time planning. You may have lost the chance to hold your brand new grandchild. You may have lost someone. You may have lost a sense of yourself, anxious house cat that you are now.

In all the things that we lose, we must remember that we are all in this together. We mourn together. We heal together. Those good bones of this world are still here, that integral structure that keeps us solid. Those good bones are still here, and we're still inside them, and when we emerge again in an entirely new world - one in which we will wash our hands more often, or still wipe down the groceries upon entrance to the house, or stand six feet apart at all times - we will emerge deeper. Stronger. We will emerge thankful. 

So that when our children grow up, we will tell them about the world from Before. They will hear our survival stories, our sad stories, and our stories of hope, and they will see that the world goes on, connections live on, and that we must always hold hands through the scary times. They will understand the impact of choosing to be kind

Lena hugs and whispers to her new brother or sister, Pumpernickel.
April 24, 2020

We are all in this together. 

So I ask you to write, reflect. Feel deeply. Connect. Connect with your departed ones. Commune, in any way you can, with your family and friends and feelings. Sing, dance, paint, cry. Bake and laugh. Mend and create. Learn and teach and share and rest. Change.

So when the time comes that we can gather again, our reunions will mean that much more.

Stay home, stay safe, save the NHS.

Happy Friday, everyone.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Be the change

Reading: I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
Listening to: "Be" by Neil Diamond
Outside: Rain threatens and waits.

Us and a flower.
- Bentley Park, April 18, 2019

So I was on the treadmill yesterday, and a little bug of a thought got jittering around in my head and wouldn't stop buzzing. I ran through it, but it still wouldn't let me go, and so I'm here to tell you about Things That Rustle My Jimmies.

I mean there are quite a few things.

Like when I leave the windows open and it rains.

Or when I have laundry drying on the line and it rains.

Or when there's a bee in my living room and she doesn't listen when I say the window is open over here. Over here. But they're endangered and important to the planet so I have to do everything I can to get her out safely without her getting scared and stinging me and dying. Cue a lot of gentle paper-wafting, coaxing, and a little bit of nervous sweat.

Or when a TV Preacher asks his congregation for millions of dollars to fund his fourth private jet. I mean, why in the world? Why are we even allowing this? Is this not the exact opposite of what Jesus represented? (I am not a Christian myself - despite every effort of my family's early teachings; I have learned over time that I am who I am: I've learned you should never try to wear shoes that don't fit, because they will hurt. But that doesn't prevent me from recognizing, and being, a Decent Human Being.) There are countless others, real religious leaders all over the world, working night and day to scrape up funding so that they can keep their church or mosque or synagogue doors open, so that they can sponsor food drives or library collections, so that they can donate money to the people who need it most, and this guy wants a fourth private jet. This particular TV Preacher, certainly narcissistic if not psychotic, appears intoxicated on his own power; religion has nothing to do with it but is merely the vehicle for his obsessive hoarding.

Or, of course, a giant Wall. Wow, that Wall. (Why stop with merely one Wall? Why don't we build walls between every single state, crossing rivers and roads? Why not put them in our back yards, turn every house into a fortress? Why not? Let's close everybody out. Because who can you trust? The only thing we have to fear is tolerance and understanding.)

Or America's lax gun laws, so lax it's as if the laws don't even really exist.

Money, not humanity, seems to be running the United States right now. And pretty much always has, off and on, since Columbus came in and shit all over everything the Native Americans worked so hard to create, protect and preserve. That's why we have psychotic TV preachers. And ass-backwards abortion laws (because let's remember, in America's Deep South, lawmakers have decided that they can rule women's reproductive organs, and by doing so, have not prevented abortions, but have prevented safe abortions).  Also we have staggering medical bills, because in America, treating illness is a business. It's purely numbers, cash and coin. 

Stephen King wrote somewhere (maybe it was in The Long Walk?) about how we're all trying to create a bulwarks against mortality. We all want something to leave behind, a monument to the world to proudly declare, I Was Here. What is your bulwarks going to look like? What are you collecting, earning, or making today that you will leave behind? Is it cartridges of ammunition or compassion for others? Trouble or trust? Will it be a Wall, studded with sentries, or will it be sharing a table of photographs with your family and friends - sharing stories of infancy, of travel, that sense of wonder of the world? Will it be an invitation to share a book or a meal, to make a friend, to hold a hand - or will it be fear and anger? Will it be prejudice or promise? Music or madness?

How about the future voices of your children (or nieces or nephews or beloved friends' children)? After all, that's the great biological imperative - to keep our species going. Will they speak only of making money and buying things, or about how they helped someone learn to dance or play the piano? Will they squash a bug or save it? Will they be proud, and happy, and will they do nice things for others? Will they recognize the nice things others did for them? Will they know that kindness is far, far more important than cleverness? I mean, really, really know it?

So here's what I think: let's celebrate those real leaders who have left a lasting monument through bravery and deep truth: Chief Seattle, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. 

Let's help that guy trying to get on the bus with a stroller. Let's pick up that piece of trash. Let's pay a stranger a compliment and make their day. Let's help someone up the stairs. Let's put the phone down and listen to our children. Let's recycle for crying out loud. I know, I've been there with the excuses: I'm running late, I'm too busy, too tired, my hands are too full - I admit it.  But kindness is the most important gift to bestow upon those who will inherit the earth. Our children are watching.

Be the change, friends. Be the change.

Lena awe-struck - a Monument to Flowers.
She calls it hers. I assure her she will make her own someday.
- Bentley Park, April 18, 2019

Happy Thursday, everyone!

Thursday, 2 May 2019

How to keep your sh*t together

Reading: Magic Terror by Peter Straub
Listening to: "Doe-Eyed Dancer" by Wild Moccasins
Outside: Rain, glorious rain

Dear loyal, neglected readers,

So it's been almost a year since I've graced you all with my presence.

I'm sorry about that.

Really, I am.

I don't have much to show for it except tons of train tickets to and from Sheffield which have accumulated in my daughter's room, wild across dresser and window sill and floor, splaying out like poker hands. In between trips to big S-town and back, where I work untangling misspellings and garbled syntax in death notices for newspapers across the country, I've joined my family on whirlwind visits to caves and cafes, swimming pools and ice skating rinks. Grinned up at the gallows while docents at the preserved, ancient Nottingham Gaol explained the hangings there more than a hundred years ago, telling stories, histories, in a funny way, because history can sometimes be a comedy. Even when it's really not. I tromped down the narrow staircases of the Robin Hood Experience, taking in the Pound Shop Halloween decorations sprouting up everywhere, giving the young (and the young at heart) an idea of the Sheriff of Nottingham's wickedness - spray-painted foam tombstones, skulls and crossbones, glow-in-the-dark skeletons strung across doorways. I have observed, relented, to a fallow writing period, and allowed the stuff in my mind to catch, take seed and grow.

I have done everything I can to distract myself from Purgatory, the Waiting Room, the Inertia of Uncertainty, as the Powers that Be decide the fate of my manuscript.

Blogs of the people who have been there, who are still there, give advice on how to keep your sh*t together. They say just live. Just keep on truckin.' So I'm doing that.

I've eagerly lapped up Life, all of it - chilly sheep-spotted hillsides, dripping stalactites, quirky pubs. I have walked through my village, breathing in the hearth fumes, vapors of Victoriana still lingering well into the 21st century. I helped find a way out of Nottingham, missing my daughter after our delicious weekend away, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of my husband's friendship, following the Google Maps version of our exit back onto familiar roads, my pink-polished fingernail catching the diffused light through the windshield.

I've written another book or two.

And read several books, some for the third or fourth or fifth time. Maybe I craved something familiar, like a room I used to live in, where all the furniture is exactly where you remember it to be.

I've eaten a lot of chocolate. Ice cream. Wine also continues to be my friend.

My daughter, in my home office, requesting a snapshot
in her new summer outfit, "Writing just like Mommy."

I am still following a map, that Virtual Map in my head. I'm sure you have one, too. The one that's splatted with those saccharine platitudes in curly cursive you find in card shops, on fridge magnets and stencil-burned into driftwood picture frames: The one that reminds you to enjoy the journey. To learn to dance in the rain. The map unrolls an inch at a time, like weak headlights bathing a midnight country road. Giving you just enough to roll ahead and trust what's out there in the dark

You know what, f*ck it, I'll just pour the wine into the ice cream.

Have a great Thursday, folks!

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Girls like you

Reading: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Signet Classics) with an Introduction by Stephen King
Listening to: "Girls Like You" by Maroon 5
Outside: Crispy, charred dandelions. Yellow grass. Angelic clouds.

As we boil through a summer the UK hasn't seen since The Bronze Age (?) I sweat at my laptop keyboard. I submit myself to another day of waiting.

I am doing everything I can not to lose my mind.

I listen to "Girls Like You" on repeat for the five hundredth time. Something about this song and music video feeds me. I drink up these women and Adam Levine's tattoos. I love the camera's revolutions around and around, these women and the ways in which they have impacted the world. I love their revolutions: Athletes, politicians, singers, actors. These women are authors, bloggers, life-changers. They breathe deeply and Make Things Happen - Olympic gold medalists, comedians questioning the status quo, and Ilhan Omar, Minnesota's first Somali-American Muslim legislator - and here they are, dancing on a stage with Adam Levine (whose deliciously gory role in American Horror Story: Asylum made me a forever fan).

I measure my days in loads of laundry, in sun-drenched school runs, in shifts at work. I have cooked meals, allowing myself to enjoy it (I am not the domestic type - as a child I bridled against anything Ladylike. I was - thankfully - rarely chained to the kitchen's countertop or to the making of meals; I was uncaged to run through the woods like one of those wild, soapless kids in Lord of the Flies). I stand in my grown-up sweltering kitchen, feeling that cool breeze waft and I turn to make sure the pan doesn't boil over; I try to let domesticity soak into my pores, if only for twenty minutes. I have kept myself busy during my journey to traditional publishing. I have a literary agent who has said those magic words: This is going to be great. My journey continues. Here is the hardest part.

So, one step below the summit of this mountain I've climbed since March of 2010, I wait, knowing there will be a rope to hang onto that's just not there yet. I turn around, away from the mountain-face, to take in the vista, and here's what I see:

A woman on edge, me, checking her email. Again.

A Facebook newsfeed - children separated at the US-Mexico border, shootings in American classrooms, in a Maryland newspaper office. The terror, the questions. The urge for something to change. Friends wishing to emigrate.

A new novel's first draft just shy of 72,000 words, cracking its way out of the shell of her mind, breathing for the first time, spreading its wet wings.

A fresh glass of shiraz.

I also see this:

My family, my best friend. Each one brightens my life.

Part of my Wall of Inspiration.
My American Flag:
my beginning, my love, my challenge to change.

My mom on her wedding day, September 11, 2001.
She was my audience, the voice in my head,
my narrator for every story.
Still is.

I survive off of Adam Levine and his song's busy women. They act as my fuel: they each moved mountains, and therefore so can I. I have my friends and family and my daughter cheering me on from my mountain's base camp. Their voices are always there, and they send up cheerful Thermoses of warmed soup when I need it most, tamping insanity down, quieting its flames. Here we are, just below the summit, and I wait for those at the top to send down the rope. (All it takes is one yes.)

I stand here, and wait, flexing my fingers to grab hold.

Lena and her brand new dream catcher, May 2018.
May her dreams always be big.
The world needs a girl like her, too.

And you, too. Your mountain awaits.

Happy Saturday, everyone!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Life after life

Reading: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Listening to: "Faded" by Alan Walker
Outside: English fog à la James Herbert

From my 1998 journal:

I am fifteen years old in the picture at left. 

A sophomore at MVHS.
Dirty blonde or mouse brown hair.
Ocean blue eyes (thanx to my new contacts)

As I look at this picture, I wonder, what will I be doing in 20 years? What state will I live in? What dreams will I have in what unforeseen bed?

Thursday, September 24, 1998

Well, fifteen-year-old me, here's your answer:

I'm a mom home from work, raking my hands through wavy post-ponytail hair. I don't even live in the United States anymore - I have moved to England and I've been here for almost twelve years. Blue-eyed and little more blonde, I straighten my glasses - I no longer bother with contact lenses - as I look at this picture and tell this girl: Hold on tight, chicken - you're in for a bumpy ride.

Mother's Day. May 10th, 1998

This girl doesn't know it yet, but she is about to embark on some rough seas. She is soon going to say goodbye to the tidy completeness of her nuclear family, as that ugly word "divorce" rises up slow but urgent and smokes everything out. There will be nothing but an empty garage bay where Mom's car used to be, and a house with empty walls: crumb-strewn, off-kilter. Bye, Mom.

She will watch her sister's car drive away down the driveway for the last time. She'll stare out that living room window and wish her sister back, but she is gone, off to Washington State, to join Mom. The crushing abandonment, a silent house, and me, at age seventeen, drowning in the dust. Bye, sis.

There will be many more leavings, many more goodbyes. You will go off to college at Ball State University! (Bye, Dad and Step-Mom!) You will move to England! (Bye, Literally Everybody I Have Ever Known!) That first one will be hard. The second one will be even harder.

And, here, the hardest thing of all: You are going to drop a flower on your mom's casket.

Maybe, I realized, as I sat in my living room this past Saturday surrounded by all of my old journals and treasure boxes and rocks and drawings and photographs and cards and letters and old McDonald's toys and all the pages and poems and thoughts that made up my life, perhaps these goodbyes, however painful, shaped me into the explorer and deep thinker I am today. I had to learn to begin again every time. Beginnings are scary. But begin we must. And here I was, tear-streaked, cradling a decades-old notebook like a newborn babe: I had survived. I had made it through the impossible and crawled out into the sunlight on the other side.

All those things I wrote about, in English and choppy, sophomore Spanish, summed up my experiences and my hefty of catalogue of Naive Unknowns: what was the big, wide world like? How hard is it going to be? Am I strong enough to make it? (Would I die early? I wondered obsessively. Would I get hit by a drunk driver? Fall down the stairs? Get mugged at Wal-Mart?)

Top: Mom, age 7, aboard the U.S.S. Constitution at Boston, February 22, 1954
Bottom: A card, "SCHOONER," from an Original footpainted by P. Driver
(Published by the Association of Handicapped Artists, Inc.)

" isn't quite so simple anymore."

This very night, on the eve of the first year of my mom's passing (I hate to call it an anniversary - as one who proof-reads newspaper family notices for a living, I prefer to keep the word "anniversary" on the Happy side of the page), I can honestly say to my fifteen-year-old self that I now dream more deeply. I live and see more deeply. The yawning darkness of indecision and fear still have that depth and wholeness, that cruel voice and texture that they always had - perhaps more. But my dreams now are much, much bigger.

So, child, there you are. You are living a new life after the loss of your mom (our mom), and you are hungry for nostalgia, for the chlorine of the summer pool, for one last walk down to the boat dock with her. You paw blindly around in the dark of your thoughts, sometimes, grasping for firm memories to hang on to. These memories are the solid masts and rigging when the sea-storms rage. You are going to wish and want and feel.

"What will I be doing in 20 years?"

Here's what I'm doing: I'm writing this letter to you, to say there is a life after life.

Hang on tight.

A letter saved sealed for twenty years, 
as per Mom's instructions.
Inside: I found love. 

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Twinkle lights, incense and the nothing that is

Reading: The Shining by Stephen King
Listening to: "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten
Outside: A balmy afternoon, but a nice break for snow-furred reindeer

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens, 1921

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have had been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

A stick of incense waits, unlit, on the window sill. It waits and I hesitate. Do I do this? Do I dare? I can imagine it: that single unfurled curl, ghostly as it rises. In that smoky taste, I'll think of you, Mom.

Mom: the Great Giver of Socks.

It's Christmas Eve, and I work. I comb through The Untouchables, teasing out extra words and snags, following my literary agent's sage advice. I am eager for the day I'll show it to the world.

My sister's drawn heart - illuminated love - around my work. Thanks, Jenny!

And I run. The treadmill's electric hum, my Asics' rhythm as steady as my heartbeat. I go on my three-mile run to nowhere as I stride my way through memories that spring forward like pictures in a pop-up book, the pages of my year's past rising and falling one by one, a forest of words and feelings moving past, an emotional tour of 2017.

Lena, freshly four, at The Deep in Hull, communing with sting-rays. November 19, 2017

Lena turns four! November 19, 2017

And I write this. I do anything to keep busy, to keep from remembering. Because when I remember, I crumble. I go down into the pit again, into the curl of your lap, or the lightness of your hug, or your sarcastic laugh that always had a hidden truth behind it. My enigmatic mom.

And now, here I am, glass of wine next to me and I'm braced for memory. The losses I've endured this year have been larger than anything I can yet imagine. I have lost one of my most treasured bracelets, my childhood home and, of course, a few weeks later, you. I like to imagine an accidental but crucial transfer of energy - the bracelet to a needy magpie, using the shiny chains and charms to find a mate or line a nest; the childhood home to a growing family with small children who can hide in the closets among the smell of leather shoes and an ancient white rabbit fur coat, just like my sister and I used to; you to a mysterious plane - perhaps of nothing, perhaps of everything - that I can't possibly know.

So this year we have a bare, braceletless wrist. We have an Indiana home warming a new family. And we have an Alabama gravestone in the place of you. And we have a whole new appreciation for your many facets now, each glittering brightly in so many different ways: through the new-found connection of your four daughters, through your paintings that brighten our hallways and living rooms, through your pictures and poems, your countless reminders that those who loved you see every day.

By my mom. December 21, 2005

And, now, through the snap of the lighter, the flicker of flame and the rise of your ghost from the incense I have been so afraid to light until now. Can I handle it, the smoky-cinnamon memories of your cookies, your springy Christmas bows, your best gifts to me that - I'm only realizing now - never came from a store?


Because downstairs sings my little girl, so in awe of the twinkle lights on the Christmas tree. In pure awe, just like I used to be. And still am. Christmas is full of lights, Mom, and now you're one of them. 

Merry Christmas, my dear Constant Reader. May this season bring renewal even in the hardest of times - looking through the nothing that is there, and finding what is.

I hope your holiday season is as beautiful as the Yuletide spirit itself.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Black Magic

Reading: The Running Man by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Listening to: "Black Magic" by Little Mix
Outside: Warm wind and dancing leaves

In between the loads of laundry,
the jogging and the push-ups and the plucking
of naughty weeds from my flowerbeds,
I raise my sore arms to welcome you!

This! Is Inspirational Autumn. For me, the best time of year.

It is the sacred spin of the earth into winter, tilting its axis at that last golden time before the frost's clinking, bare boughs. This is the particular shallow rise of the sun, the calm letting go of leaves that make a fantastic, haunted, crisp sound when you walk through.

Lena's Autumn Leaf Extravaganza, October 2016.

This is the time of year that sparks, well, sparks: campfire flames that pop and crackle and float up little phantoms of light; the flint-like crunch of bonfire toffee here in the UK; the glow of flame on pints of apple cider. This is the time of shadows and stories. Of skeletons and lost love, of graveyards and dares. I loved this time of year as a child.

And who wouldn't?

Halloween, people, Halloweeeeeeeen!

And, growing up in the farmland-suburbs of central Indiana, I was a child reared on this:

The Wondrous Thing Itself

And with those horrifying illustrations, these folk stories of hunger, love and death all swirled around in my pre-adolescent brain, mixed with the spiders I encountered daily in the loft of my playhouse, where I'd station myself, physically incapable of moving from the musty orange patio-bench mattress where I sat crosslegged, paralyzed by both my fear of arachnids and also for what may be lurking on the floor below. My stomach went cold, my synapses connected - these crones, zombies and haunted children, storied between Schwartz's pages, could come find me, and I was sure they were wheezing by the playhouse door, waiting.

That, and the campfires my sister and I would share with our neighbors, our friends, school kids still thrilled with the new clothes and tensions of a new school year, all of us full on Twizzlers and Cokes. We'd look at each other across the heat of the the flames, right at the edge of the woods, our features changed, distorted magically by the firelight. There were hayrides, Halloween parties and trick-or-treating in the early dusk, when the sun glowed low and orange over the harvested cornfields, all those dried stalks like rows of tangled bones, when the crickets were a symphony every night.

The long strip of our asphalt driveway, its gentle curve onto the cul-de-sac that would lead to my faraway future: My need for deep, dark stories, my aching open invitation for readers to join me in a place where unknown things - things you don't want to see, things from which you can't look away - howl.

...And here I am, age 34, between books, saying Good Luck to one manuscript as it's prepared for New York acquiring editors' desks, and saying Welcome to the World: gently coaxing a new story into being. My latest manuscript is putting on weight; these characters begin to breathe. I'm walking alongside each one of them, every bit a part of the story as they are. Like any good book, this story unrolls seamlessly in front of me, taking me down a dark path. It's a landscape coming to life.

Me, in my writing cave, doing the thing I do best.

I am once again in awe of the beautiful, unpredictable curves of fiction, the way a story can twist under your fingers, weaving around itself, growing like a vine. The inherent black magic of it: the emotional charge of that single lit window in all that darkness. The need to know. A lace-veil swept aside, giving you that glimpse into another world, another heart.

I hope you have as inspiring an Autumn as I do - may those jack-o-lanterns glow in a certain sinister way, just for you. I hope you detect phantoms in the dark, and I hope they pause to whisper sweet nothings in your ear.

Happy Saturday, everyone!