Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Work, Work, Work

Two big things happened last week. I made it page 600 in Anna Karenina, and I began to write the first draft of my new book.

I have been inching toward page 600 for a while. And I have been ruminating the stories for the new collection much longer. And I have been telling myself every Monday, that this will be the week, this week I will begin the last quarter of the the Tolstoys' novel and begin the writing my own new stories.

Each week it didn't happen.

So when a colleague of mine said she was getting back to her early morning writing practice, I asked if I could join her. We do not write in the same physical space; she lives in the next state just south of me. But through the magic of technology, I know there is someone waiting for a response to her 6AM text: Making coffee.

I reply: Making tea.

And we begin.

The first day was easy, like the first day of most things: school, marriage, job. But Tuesday's writing was harder and slower work. Wednesday found me jiggling my leg and fidgetting in my seat, but I stayed right there. Thursday, I woke up late, but I managed to do some writing before the day was over, in part because my colleague texted me toward dinnertime, asking how things were going.

Friday was a bust. I overslept.

But I wrote Saturday.

I took Sunday off.

Monday another bust.

And today, this morning, I was restless in the bed at 5am. I rolled back and forth until finally I could not wait any longer. By 5:30, I was in the kitchen, boiling water for tea, putting away clean dishes while I waited. While the tea steeped in the pot (no single mug for me this morning), I lit the fire in the living room, got out my new binder, took out paper and pen.

Did I mention that I am writing the new collection by hand?

Yes, just as I round the bend toward the last leg of an 800 page novel, I embark on a new exercise in creative torture. I don't know why I am doing it this way. I only know that something suggested that I needed to get these ideas down on paper. By hand.

So let's time travel back to last week again. Each morning, after I wrote, or failed to write, I put away Anna Karenina binder and pulled out my other one. Well, actually, I left the binders where they were and moved my body to a table in another room. That was easier, and got me out of my seat, like walking from biology to English class in high school.

Each day, after I coped three pages of Anna Karenina, I took a walk and wrote my daily essay in observation, a practice I have had with another colleague. She lives in the state to the west of me.

Then I had lunch and read for an hour from Four Sisters, a book about the Romanov Grand Duchesses in the years leading up their murder during the Bolshevic Revolution.

After that, I collect eggs from the chicken coop.

Then I sit down to submit one or two stories to literary journals or writing contests.

The rest of the day played as it does for most of us: making dinner, washing dishes, folding laundry, and yes, to be honest, watching a little mindless television.

When I would finally lied down in bed and fall asleep, some partly conscious part of my brain was writing down my dreams. In the morning, all I could remember were words: dandle, atmosphere, cricket, running. The only visual memory I could recall was seeing my hand scrawl those words on my dream.

The life of a writer. This was supposed to be exciting and organic. Instead it is the same thing day after day.

A couple of years ago, I read a quote, written on a post-it note stuck to the desk of another collegeague, in the state to the east of me. "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Flaubert, another old, smart, white dude (I'm quoting my colleague,whom I contacted after I failed to unearth the quote, because I thought it was written by Proust).

Still, there is truth in it.

In five days of practicing (and I do mean practicing) this routine, I have written about feeling for phantom uteruses, developing a vaccine to prevent adultery, drowning mice in the toilet, and rescuing baby opossums from a dead mother's body.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Jane Effect

Jane had it all. Her brother invited her to live on his estate rent free. Her sister managed the household. She didn't have a husband or children to suck every drop of creative energy from her soul so that she fell into bed exhausted each night, berating herself for not having written....again...

All I am saying is that she had no excuse NOT to write. This explains perfectly why, despite dying at 41, she wrote and pusblished seven novels. Right?

Wrong.

I am the master of not writing. Sometimes I am best at it when I have nothing else to do.

Here is a (partial) list of things I can do instead of write:

nap.

freeze 20 pints of blueberries.

sort winter clothes.

clean out the chicken coop (yes, some days, I would even do this to get out of writing.)

bake pumpkin bread to give to the teachers, the assistants, the school social worker, the school secretary, the school nurse, the cafeteria lady, and the principal on the last day before winter break.

watch What Not to Wear marathon.

watch Sex and The City marathon.

watch recorded episodes of Modern Family.

watch Angels in America.

watch Grey Gardens.

fold laundry.

drive two hours (one way) to rescue three hens.

walk the dog.

copy Anna Karenina.

If a writer doesn't want to write, she can find a way to get out of it. Jane could have done that too, even without cable television. She could have hand embroidered the bed curtains.

The most worthy of causes can be used to avoid our own work, the work we are meant to do. This becomes especially tricky when we avoid writing in support of those we love. Because of course we want them to succeed, to be healthy, to be happy. And this is a good thing.

In the winter of 2010, I was in my last semester of graduate school, the time when one is most likely to give up. I was revising my creative thesis, or would I call it now, my bookmanuscript. I worked in a little room off the kitchen that was the old butler's pantry. I turned the thermostat down to 60 degrees. I shut off the radiator in my little makeshift studio. I placed a small space heater beneath the desk, creating the only warm space in the house.

Once, when the kids were home, requiring me to heat the whole house, I stood up from the chair and yelled, I quit, I can't do this. In less than a minute, three faces appeared in the doorway, three daughters, one of whom was 17, though she was younger at the time, who put her hand on her hip and looked right at me and said:

"You can't quit. You have come too far to quit. And what kind of example would that set for me?"

Damn you, daughter who listens to my every freaking word.

Sometimes what we do for ourselves is what we do for the ones we love.

And so she write.

She carves out a tiny space where nothing can fit except her and her words, whether that is a small round table in her bedroom somewhere on her brother's estate or the one warm spot in an empty house, or the voice of a daughter who won't let her quit.

 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Cassandra Effect

I arrived in London at 8:30 on Tuesday morning. Despite having taken a red eye from Chicago, and knowing I had three days and no time to waste accomodating jet lag, I dropped my bags in the hotel room and headed back down to the front desk to call a taxi. I had read that we were close to Jane Austen's house, and I decided to venture out and find it.

This was not a planned trip to the UK. My husband had to go for work, and falling over our ten-year wedding anniversary, he cashed in ALOT of frequent flyer miles to surprise me with a ticket of my own. Our 25-year-old daughter, a teacher, agreed to stay at the house with 17 and 13 while I was gone. I located my passport and packed a bag, after I did the laundry, went grocery shopping, visited my dad at the nursing home and wrote out dinner menus for the girls.

"You should go to Bath," 25 said to me, having visiting the town when she was doing a semester abroad in college. "You will love it."

So I did my due diligence, read the train tables and made plans to go on Wednesday. (Details of this adventure to follow in the next post).

Jane's home, however, the house where she did most of her writing, is in Chawton. Her brother Edward inherited the Chawton Estate from a distant cousin, changed his surname to Knight, and invited his mother and two sisters to live rent-free in a small cottage on his property. They accepted. And it is here, at a tiny writing table by the window, that Jane wrote and revised her novels.

Standing in the bedroom Jane shared with her sister Cassandra, I read a plaque that told me about Jane's daily routine. She spent the morning writing. In the afternoon, she and her sister would walk for hours in the fields and pastures of her brother's estate. They spent the evenings reading, sewing and embroidering. Throughout the house I find examples of Jane's handiwork: a glass case of embroidered baby bonnets for her nieces and nephews, replicas of hand-sewn bed curtains, a pieced quilt top, and a delicate, embroidered shawl.

The plaque goes on to say that it is because of Cassandra that Jane found time to write. Those mornings that Jane spent at her desk, Cassandra managed the household. She oversaw the baking, the cleaning, the collecting of eggs and vegetables, as well as herbs from the medicinal garden. She planned meals, sewed her brother's shirts and took care of hundreds of other minute details necessary to keep house in the 18th century. She also drew and painted the only two known portraits of Jane. Reading this, staring at the little painting of Jane in a blue dress, I know who I came here to see.

Across the street is a teashop called Cassandra's Cup, a nod to Jane's sister, to her creative contribution. Two unmarried sisters, one of whom is wife to the other.

Instead of sitting in the teashop and enjoying scones and clotted cream as I had planned, I walk in the rain toward Chawton House, the old manor house of the estate that is now a library for women's writing of the 18th and 19th Centuries. I wander into the cemetery beside the church.

I find Cassandra's grave and pay my respects.

 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Losing vs Letting Go

Two days ago, I finished Caroline Moorehead's A Train in Winter, the story of French women sent to German concentration camps, women who worked to undermine German occupation in their country. Not everything that happened to them came at the hands of Germans. Many were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and died because of French collaborators, people along with German orders to keep their families safe. while others were rewarded for their actions.

I have read many books on WWII. I have heard talks given by concentration camp survivors. This book was different. I had to put this book down more than once, walk away. I dreamt of being held against my will. These are stories of loss and suffering beyond anything I have read about before.

I have spent much time healing from my own losses. They are many, but they are nothing compared with what these women experienced. The few who returned home mourned executed husbands, bombed homes, children who grew up in their absence. And the French people were slow to recognize the role they played in the suffering by the women, fellow French citizens. Who should be punished? What measures should be taken to hold them accountable?

Many women never could reacclimate to a life after after Auschswitz and Ravenbruck, in part because the return home took away the very thing that allowed them to survive: their reliance on each other. In the camps, when one women's meager food rations were withheld, the others all chipped in pieces of bread, often summing up to more food than she could eat. Women who worked as secretaires for the SS risked their own lives to find safe jobs for others. They hid sick women from the guards. Over and over they commited acts to guarantee survival, not necessarily their own but someone, anyone. It was the only way to keep themselves alive.

About Christmas 1943, Moorehead writes:

"Food, saved from parcels from France and vegetables pilfered from the gardens were made into

a feast of beans and cabbage, potatoes with onion sauce and poppy seeds. The women ate

little, having lost the habit of food, but the sight of so much to eat made them cheerful."

I copied this passage into my journal. I was so struck by the vision of starving women, deprived of food, that the mere sight of it was enough to sustain them.

Some children of women who did not survive refused to believe that their mothers were not coming home. Moorehead reports one child who went to the train station for years, despite being told that her mother had died. I am reminded of Anna Karenina's son, who refuses to believe she is dead, the lie that has been told to him by his father. Nine-year-old Seryozha looks for his mother's face in every woman he sees on the street, so certain is he that she is still alive.

One dead mother, one living mother, two motherless children.

We have all faced losses, some greater than others, but I suspect none felt more deeply to the individual than their greatest ones. Much harder to let go of than the thing itself is our own hope for how we wished it had been. I had lunch with my sister yesterday, and we spoke of much we can hurt each other and those closest to us when we refuse to let go of this hope for what we cannot have. In 2014, our parents sold their home, after months spent cleaning, throwing away and selling stuff that had been accumulated over several decades: a secretary desk belonging to my grandfather that crumbled to sawdust when my sister reached out to touch it, a broken ceramic windchime that was a gift to my dad, hundreds of pieces of well-seasoned lumber, walnut and cherry and oak, crates of license plates, and church statuary of the saints.

And tools.

At one point, we counted 14 pitchforks. I may be off in that number, but does it matter? Isn't 2 or 3 or 4 too many, especially when you don't have anything to pitch?

It's been almost a year, and still my father won't stop talking about what he has lost. And my sister said something so wise yesterday. She said, how do you make someone want something he doesn't want for himself?

In a few days, I find out if my short story collection might be published. For those of you who don't know, my collection Three Sisters: A Hybrid Collection has been selected as a finalist in the Sou'wester First Book Award with Dock Street Press. I want to win. I didn't think it mattered to me. I am playing all the mind games I can to convince myself otherwise. But I want so much to get that email that says, Congratulations! Some days, some hours, I am more rational about it then others. I tell myself, if I lose, then I will go back in and revise one more time, maybe I'll ask for feedback about how I can improve the piece. I'll read the winning book to see if I can glean any wisdom from it, and to support the press and the author.

At other moments my thoughts spin out of control and I am imagining how it will feel to hold my book in my hand, as if that is the thing I have been wanting. I imagine myself being interviewed on Fresh Air (when I confess that to another writer, she says, why do we writers always imagine that?). I dream about which story I will pick for readings.

I do not want to lose. But I don't get to make that choice. The only choice I have is to decide whether or not to be cheerful at the mere sight of a feast set on the table before me.

 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bathing Beauty

This morning I want only to curl up on the couch next to the dog and close my eyes and sleep. But then I receive a text from my walking and writing companion, asking if I am ready to begin. She knows that on Tuesdays, I walk to the Writing Habit, a weekly gathering with a few other writers where we...well...we write. We don't critique our work or do writing prompts. We bring our laptops and notebooks and we find a spot and we write for two hours.

To the text message I respond, I feel tired today.

Then I send another text to my writing group, repeating that I am tired and ask if anyone else is planning to come today, the implication being that if they stay home, I can too.

Someone respond quickly.

"I'm coming! The kids are back in school!"

And so, I drag my ass up off the couch, leave the dog sleeping soundly and head upstairs to shower and dress.

I don't shower every day, less frequently since spending the summer in Michigan. The water pump at the cottage does not allow for excessive water usage. I am always trying to find ways to conserve water, which is kind of funny when you look out my window and see a beautiful blue lake.

When I cook, I start by bringing the water to a boil while cooking seven or eight eggs, which go in the fridge for lunches. Then I cook broccolli or green beans, next some ears of corn and finally, the rice. All these things go in to the fridge to be used at another time. If I am not cooking rice, maybe I am ending with potatoes that day, I cool the pan of broth and use it water the basil growing in boxes on the front porch or the hanging basket of morning glories.*

We encourage sailor showers, where one rinses off, shuts off the water, soaps up, then turns the water back on to quickly rinse again. One of the kids, who shall remain nameless, asked if he could shower with a "friend," to save water. While he made a convincing argument, we did too: there was a good chance that shower could take longer than the ones they would take separately.

By July, the lake is warm enough that we stop showering altogether (as opposed to all together).

We bathed instead in the lake. We carried our biodegradeable soap and shampoo out to the end of the dock. The girls jumped in right away. 13 even took to shaving with the lathery soap we bought from a local alpaca farm, the soap encased in a felted wool cover that exfoliated the skin as well. We would lather up our hair too, pile it on top of our heads and swim around. We gave ourselves mermaid names. My favorite part was after scrubbing clean and stacking the soap and things on the dock, we waded out to the deeper water. I have never been partial to diving, but here, I would lift my arms over my head, hands outstretched to part the surface and dive down into the cool lake water. This bathing left me feeling cleaner than I have ever felt in my life. No bath in a porcelain tub has ever left me feeling like that, no shower of water from overhead either.

I remember a scene in the novel where Dolly, Anna Karenina's sister-in-law, has been banished to the country with the children. Anna's brother, Stepan Arkadyevitch, arranges this as a way to save money. He finds it less expensive to raise a family in the country. Their cow provides milk; chickens give eggs. On Sundays after church, Dolly takes the children to bathe in the creek. The children splash around, playing and cooling off until the governess makes sure they are scrubbed and polished. Dolly admits to herself that bathing with her children is one of her most pleasant activities. I remember well the feel of a child's slippery naked legs clasped around me.

A group of local peasant women join them at the river, and at first Dolly is self-conscious. As the two groups of women begin to strike up a conversation, they talk of children and breastfeeding. Dolly, whose youngest child is still an infant, is surprised to hear that the peasant women nurse their children for two or three years. The whole time they are talking, Darya and her children are half-dressed; the peasants in their good Sunday clothes. The scene remains, five hundred pages into the novel, my favorite moment of the story. The intimacy of the moment comes not from their nakedness, though it does provide a backdrop that suggests we humans are not all that different from each other. Tolstoy could have written Dolly ashamed, made her run away in the bushes to dress and whisk her children away. But he doesn't do that. He imagines instead, an opportunity for the women to come together on equal ground and find the other women more pleasant and engaging than they expect and probably than they had been taught. Dolly finds herself not wanting to leave the women's company.

This morning, standing in the shower, I pick up a bar of lavender-scented soap and rub it over the washcloth spread across my hand. I watch as the outline of my hand emerges in white lather set against green cotton. I spread out my fingers to make the shape more distinct. I could, in theory, stand here letting the hot water run, but I don't. My experience of water is different now. It has changed me, and I can't change it back, even if the lake is hundreds of miles away.

*I discovered this idea in An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Two Markets

Not long after I set out, I realize the bike ride from home to the farmer's market downtown is almost the same distance as from our cottage to the market in Elberta. All summer, I rode those six miles on a trail that follows the Betsie River, past turtles sunning themselves on logs, water the color of milky tea, and numbered bluebird houses.

Also sweet peas growing wild.

And campsites.

And homes of people who live here year-round: snowmobiles covered in blue plastic tarps and parked in front yards, snow plows unhinged and set beside the garage, gardens already bearing fruit, unlike mine, planted in mid-june and still has only blossoms.

I have moped around since my return to the city, fretting the noise and the air-conditioned air.

Riding along this hot pavement, I am finally glad to be home. And it is an abandoned building which brings me joy. I park my bike and look inside each of the shops, their back walls busted out and letting in sunlight.

I am hot. I have sweat running down my back, along the sides of my face. Drops of it rest in the curve of my eyelashes. My water bottle forgotten, I cannot believe the peace I feel at being back in this rundown place. Right then, I decide that I will take pictures of this trip, to share here with you, because I have been trying to understand how Sophia felt, returning to Moscow after a summer at their country home. I thought she would have been sad, like I have been, but maybe by leaving and coming, she was able to see the beauty in both places.

 

I love the symmetry of these two doors.

 
An empty lot beside the house is now an urban garden.

 

Years ago, a giant clock on the side of this pet shop used animals in place of numbers.

 

 

 

These wildflowers (as opposed to weeds) grow around a gray utility box. This is the last picture I take before riding on to the farm market, where I buy corn, red potatoes, 2 cantelopes, and pork burgers.

For lunch I eat a saugage slider and a roasted Indiana sweet corn popsicle.

After that, on a whim, I ride to the fabric shop on Massachusetts Avenue. I buy three fat quarters of fabric by Liberty of London, which remind me of my story titled "Liberty," part of my current collection. It is named after the department store famous for these detailed floral prints. I also buy a pattern to make throw pillows for 17's bedroom and one button, shaped like a fawn.

I refill my water bottle in their bathroom and ride home.

 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Vinyasa Writing

Back home again, in Indiana.

For two months, no one looked at me at 6pm and asked, what's for dinner? We survived on an odd mixture of pie, frozen pizza, bagels and salads. Or my personal favorite, a bowl of fresh cherries, pits disposed into the grass, or in 13's case, at the person sitting across from her. Once I made stir-fry, another time pasta, which we ate for several nights in a row.

The kids and I took turns washing dishes. Each person was responsible for their own laundry. I had more free time than I have had since childhood.

 

And yet, I did not write. Not one blog post. Not a letter home. Not a draft of a single word for the new story collection, even though I had set the lofty goal of finishing a first draft, just a shitty first draft (thank you, Anne Lamott) by the end of the summer.


What was I thinking?

My completed collection took five years to finish, and who knows, made need another revision before it gets published. It has been a long time since I wrote a first draft. I forgot how much time is spent in the percolation stage. That's what a composer/musician friend calls the period of time when an artist feels or looks to other people like she is doing nothing, when in reality, lots of good stuff is brewing inside. Twyla Tharp calls this scratching. This summer I did lots and lots of scratching. I plan to share some of those things with you in the coming weeks.

In addition to scratching, I also did the hardest work of my life.

I learned to sit still.

Easy, you say?

Well, hold on. I don't mean sitting still on the couch, stretched out, binge watching The Food Network, or even reading a good literary novel.

I mean sitting upright, muscles tightened around my spine, my pelvis and the bones of my thighs; shoulders relaxed away from my ears; my head and neck aligned with my spine; an imaginary thread lifting from the top of my skull into the sky so that I feel tall and straight. I mean feet planted firmly on the ground as if I am standing in mountain pose. I mean working so hard to sit straight and tall, strong and yet not tensed, that sweat rolls down my back and along my temples, a line of it across my upper lip.

That kind of sitting takes more strength than I ever imagined.

I was able to do this work with the help of the yoga teacher I found in Michigan. I did some research about area yoga instructors, finally settling with Jess on instinct after I read her bio. It was a huge splurge, but the best money I ever spent. We began with private yoga sessions. 90 minutes focused only how I am moving my body. I was pretty closed up at the beginning, and those first stretches left me feeling exhausted and tender. When we finished our first session, I stood up and walked straight to the tiny bathroom at the back of her studio and threw up.

We continued to work together, transitioning to classes with her or other instructors in the area. By the time I left Michigan to return home, I was going to yoga class three times a week. This might not seem like much, but that practice extended far beyond the mat. I was paying attention as I rode my bike, walked, bent over to pick up the newspaper, swam in the lake or lay down at night to sleep.

Even though I did not start my own new writing project, I did continue copying Anna Karenina. I found that when I sat with my feet planted and stayed aware of the placement of my spine and shoulders, kept my jaw relaxed, focused on my breathing, I could sit still and copy much longer. If I caught my mind wondering how many pages until I would finish a chapter or thinking about what I needed to do when I finished or, the worst, how much longer it would take to finish copying the whole novel, I brought my attention back to my breath, I moved my hand word by word, until I reached the end.

When I told Jess about this, about how I felt like I was truly developing a "practice" for the first time, after years of attending yoga classes, she said this:

"The physical practice of yoga was designed 1) as a way to make the body strong enough to endure long periods of stillness and 2) a way to understand what we are capable of with discipline, practice, mindfulness.

All this time I thought writers did yoga so they could let go and be creative. Turns out, yoga was giving them the strength to sit in a chair for long periods of time, to hold that pose, even when the character was about to make a huge mistake, or when we wanted to walk away because writing that story hurt too much. I have never felt more acutely how important my physical body is to telling a story.