Yesterday, I was on my way home from a grueling and excellent Yoga practice, and Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide came on my Pandora station. There’s always been something of this song that I didn’t quite “get”, but yesterday I felt like I understood it for the first time.
I took my love, and I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
Till the landslide brought me down.
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
I don’t know…
Well I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Casuse I’ve built my life around you.
But time makes you bolder,
Children get older
I’m getting older, too.
There’s more but I’ll leave it there. If you didn’t hear it in your head as you read that go to Youtube and listen again, it’s a good song. The Fleetwood Mac version, not the Dixie Chicks, you heathen.
I’m scheduled for hysterectomy in two months. I thought I had a grasp on what Cronehood meant when my chick flew the nest, but I didn’t. I’m glad I started wrapping my head around the concept then, though. This is cronehood, for me. There will be no more children. But it’s more than that. It’s six weeks of having to ask for help, and that is terrifying.
But time makes you bolder, too. I’m unafraid of speaking my mind in a way I never could have been at 20. And that’s a good thing. There are many good things about cronehood. Yesterday I imagined the familiar three moon phase symbol many pagans use that represents maiden, mother, and crone. Waxing, full, and waning. I imagined my life as a cycle of the moon and wondered what it would look like right now. Waning gibbous, probably.
Every journey is different, and I am blessed. My boys came over yesterday to pick strawberries with me, hang out, play video games, have dinner. Mothering always runs the gamut of emotions and phases, but if you get to this part of it and you’re still friends, you’d better be counting your blessings. And I am. When I am stuck in bed for six weeks after surgery, these two and my husband will be the ones I rely on, hard as it is for me to rely on anyone. But when my moon is a tiny crescent I’ll need to, and probably more times in between, so maybe this is a lesson in how to need someone, how to be someone other than the helper and caretaker. That’s part of cronehood too… letting the tables start to turn. Letting your children start to help care for you. That, for me at least, is going to be the hardest part.
This morning at breakfast, I noticed the sky in my spoon.
I guess this requires some back story. Like many people, I have an off-again on-again relationship with eating well. I do well for a while, fall off the wagon, then get back to it again. I track it for a while, lapse, decide I hate tracking. I’ve never been a fad dieter — that’s my mom — but it’s so much easier to just eat whatever comes along, slap something on the table when it’s you that’s responsible for what’s on the dinner table… if you eat at the table at all. Right? When I decide to eat “right,” I simply choose to eat clean and eat things in moderation.
I’ve been in an off-again, off-the-wagon phase since vacation and starting college (did I mention starting college? I guess that’s a topic for another post). And then last week I had an IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) flareup at the same time as a cold, and that was no fun. Okay, back to the wagon.
But this time, I decided I’m not going to worry so much about what I eat, as how I eat. I’ll wager you’re like me and most of the time when you’re eating, you’re also doing something else. Surfing the web, watching TV, reading. Talking to another human kind of counts and kind of doesn’t. It definitely does count if there is another human present and you are both doing separate things at the same time while also eating. Don’t do that. Look at your loved ones once in a while. Across a table is a good time.
Anyway, this time I decided not to “diet” or even “eat better/clean/whatever.” I’ve been exploring the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in so many ways, and I thought that this time around I would change only one thing: I will eat mindfully. I will really think about whether I need that ice cream and whether I know what’s in it. If I’m unwilling to sit still and savor that thing I think I’m craving, did I really want it? Or did I just want something to mindlessly shove into my face to fill a different need? Am I actually hungry? If not, why am I eating?
A long time ago I came across something in a Thich Nhat Hanh book about mono-tasking. About taking the time to do what you’re doing and paying attention. I played around with that for a while but I discovered that it was really hard for me to just eat when I was eating.
Last time I was at McKay used book store I picked up a book called Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays, MD. I’ve barely started reading it, just the last day or so. The irony is that I was sorely tempted to read it while I had breakfast. Heh.
But I know how to be mindful. So this morning while I was making my breakfast, which was a bowl of bulgur hot cereal with dried cranberries a sprinkle of granola, slivered almonds, raw milk and honey, I paid attention to everything. It’s 25 steps from my bedroom to my kitchen. My refrigerator could use cleaning. I filled the bowl about one third with the cereal. Honey is beautiful, I love transparent things that catch the morning sunshine coming in my kitchen window. Cold, clear water readily available from a tap in my house, that also is a miraculous thing, have you ever thought about that? Not to mention ice. Imagine an ancestor even three generations back plopped into the middle of your kitchen. We have running pure water we don’t have to go anywhere for, and lights with the flick of a switch, and ice.
I sat down to eat. I actually set my meditation timer with background music, because I wanted to remind myself not to just let my mind wander, but focus on where I was and every sensation. Eating is the only time, really, that you can mindfully indulge every sense: smell and taste come into play in a way that is much more powerful than at any other time, and you can notice the sensations of the food, the sound of your crunching and any other sounds that are in your environment. Sight really starts to take a back seat, which is why your brain tries to get bored and find other things to do, because sight is so prominent for most of us all the time. Entertain me.
Maybe that’s why I noticed, as I sat at my desk in my dimly lit bedroom, that as I lifted my spoon to my lips, the sky outside my window was reflected in it.
I’m pretty sure that if I was reading that book, or anything at all, I wouldn’t have noticed that. Here’s an excerpt from John Kabat Zinn’s foreward to the book:
“But just like Blake’s grain of sand and his wild flower, you can see the entire world in one raisin, hold the universe and all of life in the palm of your hand, and then, of course, in your mouth too, as it soon becomes a source of nurturance on so many different levels, energy and matter and life itself enlivening and replenishing the body, the heart, and the mind.”
So it was pretty poignant that the sky was in the handle of my spoon and all the world and all five senses were in the sweet goodness at the end of it as I put it in my mouth.
I’m convinced that mindfulness is the answer to everything. Even if my IBS isn’t cured, or if I don’t lose weight, I stepped a little nearer to the center of being this morning while I was eating breakfast. And if those two things do happen, that’s a win all the way around.
News first: I’m going to college. I’ve applied to Motlow State Community College, I’m in the process of working my way through red tape, and I start in the fall. Tennessee has begun the TN Reconnect program that funds two years for returning adults who don’t already have a degree. After I have said so many times that my biggest regret is not going to college, I hardly have any excuse. Well, I could have excuses. It turns out I could have a lot of them. One of my biggest ones has always been, “but I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I’ve always been afraid of “majoring” in something because I am one of those people who “minors” in everything that catches my fancy. Tentatively, though, I’m thinking of majoring in Art for my Associates and then going on to Appalachian Center for Craft/TTU for a fine art degree in metalsmithing (but I’m keeping my options open, of course).
So I am beginning college in August and my son Brandon (pictured above) is beginning his last semester of college before he becomes the first person in his family or stepfamily to graduate college, with a degree in Fine Art/Painting. That’s a big deal. He has his whole future ahead of him. He is currently in Boston experiencing the world, and I am immensely proud of him.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about futures and dreams and new beginnings. About the legacy of dreams that we give our kids.
I was listening to a podcast last week, which was very inspirational about “you got this, you can do this, live your dream” sort of stuff. They interviewed a jewelry designer who is working on a line of $300 handbags for Nordstrom to go with her manufactured line of jewelry. So not in my wheelhouse. Anyway I was listening to this lady and thinking how much she reeked of Privilege.
And it occurred to me that I, liberal hippie girl who just wants to make art and make the world a better place for all sorts of people, have a slightly different aroma (it doesn’t come from a perfume counter at a mall department store, it’s more like patchouli and dirt under my fingernails), but it’s still pretty solidly Privileged. I’ll just take a sec to thank my stars and my husband for making it possible for me to even think about going to college. I dreamed of it once before when I was a single mom but couldn’t make it happen.
Then I started thinking about that message, You Can Be whatever you want, if you dream hard enough and work hard enough. We tell it to every child. Disney has been selling it for a century.
But it’s not true. I think we’re killing our kids with it. An increasing number of kids who live in families who are not middle class, who cannot afford to send their children to college, or sometimes to even feed them adequately. We tell those children that they must go to college to realize these dreams and then we sell them into indentured servitude to pay off the dream before they can realize it and, side note, tell them they can declare bankruptcy on any kid of debt except for college debt. Sorry. Keep working. When are you going to have kids?
And then we wonder why they get depressed when their dreams fail, why they fall into traps of addiction or mental illness. We TOLD them that they could have it, if they worked hard.
They DO work hard. Kids in my son’s generation are working their butts off. They’re graduating college, or trying to and failing, and then saddled with years and years of college debt to realize their dreams, which may or may not happen for reasons that have nothing to do with how bad they wanted it or how hard they worked. Or something else gets in the way and they end up enslaved to a job Wal-Mart or somewhere in corporate America so that they can keep having health insurance.
This has gotten depressing. I think what I am saying is, if we’re going to sell them this story, we need to back it up. We need more states to be like Tennessee, who already has a program to give kids $4000 toward college each year if they keep their grades up. I was thinking I was going to college anyway, but TN Reconnect sealed the deal. We need to make community college free for the asking. We need to put our money where our mouth is for these kids (and adults) so that we can mean it when we say, You can be what you want if you work hard.
I got political, I guess, when I was trying to be philosophical, even introspective. But this should not be a political issue. I’m really thankful that my state legislature, which I generally despise ideologically, and which has dropped some real legislative stinkers in recent years, has made this a priority for people who want to pursue college, all ages.
So here’s a toast to Tennessee, a hope that other states will follow suit, and maybe even the federal government, eventually. Here’s a toast to our dreams and our kids’ dreams. Here’s a toast to our parents’ dreams. When I told my 75-year-old aunt that I was going to college, she was very excited for me. She said she wanted to go to college so bad, but girls didn’t go to college then. My mother wanted to go to school for Art, but was told that my grandfather “wasn’t supporting no starving artists.” I guess it’s progress that we let our girls dare to dream that they can be what they want, maybe? I hope that in a generation or two we can back it up.
So I’m off to study madly for a placement test in two days — I said, Brain, let’s go back to school, and Brain said, You realize you haven’t asked me to do Algebra in a quarter of a century, right? It doesn’t matter. Let’s do this, for me first, but also for all the women and men in my family who had different dreams that didn’t happen.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Here’s to the American Dream, available to all.
I realized something: I need a vacation. I realized it while I was journaling a couple of days ago. I realized I really need to take some time to do nothing but make things.
So I’m doing an Art Retreat next week. My day job doctor (I type medical records) is taking the week mostly off, so I am taking every thing except one off my schedule and I am going to let my Inner Artist off the leash to play and do whatever she wants — make things, not because they’ll sell, but because I want to, because I want to try new things or just whatever.
If you read my stuff at all you know, I’m a journaler. I spend a couple of hours each morning reading (usually a self-help book or spiritual or classics/poetry), journaling, and meditating. I ran across an exercise in Christina Baldwin’s Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, where you pick one part of yourself to dialogue with another part. So my Everyday-Day-Job Self had a chat with Inner Artist self. You wanna hear?
M: So, we’re going to have some quality time next week, just you and I. What do you want to do?
A: ALL THE THINGS!!
M: Well, we can’t do ALL the things. Pick a few.
A: Why plan?
M: Because that way we can be ready, and have all our materials, work space ready to go…
A: That’s boring.
M: I know, but if we don’t do all those boring things, we end up fiddling with materials or turning the house upside down looking for them, and never get to actually playing.
A: Fine. I want to walk in the woods with Bandit and take wildflower pictures. And make a beautiful website to put them on, a Nature Notebook.
M: Okay, great. We’re ready to go on that one, just need to pick a place.
A: And I want to make an altar cloth, or maybe another small sewing project I can finish in a day.
M: Might need a fabric store trip for that, or not… we have a stash.
A: OooooOOOoo…. we could do the fabric marbling on the altar cloth. I’ve been wanting to do that. Then fabric paint on it. We need a cloth for every turning of the Wheel of the Year. Beltane is coming up.
M: I like the semicircular ones. Anything else we need for Beltane?
A: A light. Flowers. Tiny paintings. Get the oil paints out. Or maybe acrylic. And maybe a wire tree for US, inviting whatever it is we want to bring into our life.
M: MORE creativity. More play.
A: YES! So maybe citrine and tiger’s eye.
M: I wonder if this might be the time to explore opening an Etsy shop with spirit-centered stuff…
A: I want to make tons of things in all different ways that are connected in Spirit, I’ve wanted to do that for ages… henna candles, wood burned crystal/incense/oil boxes — no wait, maybe do henna designs on those too. Wire trees, sun catchers, tarot bags (there’s a one day sewing project), spirit art, fabric stuff, bookmarks… all the art I love to do, with a common theme, and constant innovation and experimentation.
M Okay. You play next week, and see what we come up with . There’s no pressure, though. We could make things for just us if that’s what we want to do. Just make a mess and see what comes of it. I’ll make a list of materials.
A: Yeah, you do the boring stuff. I want to wander around in the craft store though.
So we did. We wandered Hobby Lobby and what do you know, she wanted to make candles too (we needed a jar for dipping the henna candles in paraffin wax anyway…).
Next week is part Art Retreat, part Spirit Retreat, part Nature retreat. We’re getting all the adulting and “boring stuff” out of the way this week and next week she gets to be the little girl playing in the finger paints again. Oh, and I ditched the Facebook app off my phone, it’s a time suck and too tempting. Now I’m just dropping in Facebook once or twice a day to upload pictures and projects and say hello. Hello! Pinterest, though, that’s a different story.
What would happen if you let your inner artist off the leash? I might need to make a regular habit of it.
I started this series of watercolor Southeastern Wildflower Postcards last year, and with spring in the air and blooms popping up here and there, the painting bug bit me, which is awesome. I do random little paintings and I also keep a nature journal. These are from photos taken by me and by my naturalist friends, and I think in the case of all three of these they are done from photos by my friend Don Hunter.
Here’s why I love drawing and painting things in nature: you notice things. As an example, I noticed that the veining on these tiny common blue violet flowers (Viola sororia) is the same as the veining on the leaves, which makes perfect sense of course. I noticed that it looked a LOT more like a violet when I added the scalloped edge to the leaves. And I noticed that Inktense watercolor pencils are splendid.
This was my meditation this morning. I put on groovy meditation music, which not only facilitates the right-brain shift that makes art so much easier, but once you’re there, you’re meditating. And it’s different than sitting with a mantra or some other focus… youre noticing, in a way you don’t tend to see all the time, unless you are making art on a regular basis. Then you tend to see that way all the time, or at least much of the time.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Russ and I went kayaking this afternoon, the maiden voyage for 2017. Rivers seem like a theme today. I found a lovely river meditation that I want to try in which you ARE the river, surrendering to the course. I’m looking forward to trying it.
Russ was getting frustrated with the wind, the current, everything. I told him I’d paddle, just chill. We passed a little waterfall and stopped paddling and just listened to the laughter of it. Then we started noticing a heron following us along the bank, a beaver dam along the water, the chill the evening wind was carrying as it whispered through the newly budded trees.
On the way home I asked if he had fun and he said he’d had a hard time relaxing but once he did, it was fun. You can paddle and paddle up the river of life, cursing everything along the way, striving, feeling like you’re getting nowhere and everything is against you. But the minute you stop and get quiet and notice things… sounds you’d been ignoring, the beautiful thing right under your nose, the sensations in your own body, the glory of the sky… well, it changes everything.
I listened to an On Being podcast (my favorite) this week with Gordon Hempton, an “acoustic ecologist” who mourned the loss of quiet places in the world. I’m going to send you there to listen to it. In it, Hempton walked listeners through a journey into a rainforest, accompanied by his own recordings of the sounds you’d hear there, and it’s pure magic.
These things — meditation, spending time in the quiet places in nature, being with horses, making art — are training to do just that: slow down and notice.
My cat Magoo is dying of probable cancer. He is so weak, fading away before my eyes. Last night I lay on the office couch (his preferred spot) with him, crying. So many people have said, “Noooo, not Magoo. He is the best cat.” To know him is to love him, even if you’re not a cat person. Everyone is a Magoo person.
So I will take care of him and pray for the miracle I guess I have expected. He told me a few days ago that he was dying, but I wasn’t ready for it and I pretended I didn’t hear it. No, my spirit said. He didn’t argue, that’s not his style. But I took him to the vet yesterday and I can’t be in denial anymore. I was worried I’d lose him overnight, while he was alone. I don’t want him to be alone.
Why is that? Why do we fear being alone at the moment of death? Is it something everyone fears? I didn’t realize I feared it until just now. The reason I was so insistent on being with my old dog Rascal for his surgery is because, if he died, I did not want him to die alone, without someone he knows there. Surely this is some sort of projection of my own fears onto them.
I have always believed that the animals in our lives teach us about life and death. I have always thought that it’s good for kids to have pets so that they understand this process before the time comes when they must face the death of a beloved human. And each creature I have loved teaches me some new thing or things. We can see the whole of their life spans; in Magoo’s case, truly the whole. He slid into the world under my desk 15 years ago when I was fostering his mama. I was 31, and I think he was the first creature I had ever seen born (not counting my own son, because I was hardly watching that), the first of his litter of five, his eyes squinted shut and his ears pasted to his head, which looked gigantic on his tiny kitten body (thus his name). I have never believed in breeding animals just so your children can “witness the miracle of life,” but I was grateful for this opportunity for my son to see it. I think it’s important for human children to see life begin and end, and not be shielded from either. Is it callous to say, get your kid a goldfish, because he needs to see it die?
But we do. We need to know that death is a sad thing, but not a fearsome thing. Loving a thing that dies creates a call in your spirit, an opportunity to grapple with questions we didn’t know we were asking. Like, why am I afraid of being alone at the moment of my death?
I always said Magoo was a Zen master. When Otto was small he would crouch, butt-end wiggling, getting ready to pounce on then seven-year-old Magoo, who was sitting, dozing (meditating?) in the sunshine with his eyes closed. And eventually the kitten would work his wiggle into a pounce, and Magoo would lift a paw and bat him down while not seeming to move a muscle otherwise. He is the ultimate Taoist, yin and yang in his fur, going with the flow of life and enjoying it all along the way, loving and offering love at every opportunity, making every friend he can gather. Nothing really rattles him.
He meets the end of life with the same equanimity. He never read Dylan Thomas. He knows that his words (meows?) don’t need to have ever “forked lightning.” It is enough to be, and to have been, and to love, and to have been loved.
We humans want to make our indelible mark on the world. We want to have children so that something of us survives. We want to create things, knowing we are brief, looking for something to outlive us. But nothing we can do while here will mark ineffaceably the time we spent here in this body. The epochs are inexorable and even Oyzmandias falls, his features erased by the sands of time.
But our spirits endure. Each moment I am alive, I am sending my spirit out to make a connection. What I create on paper or stone may not last forever in its own right, but if for the briefest moment it, or a word I said, or a gesture I made, made someone else feel less alone, then that spark of memory will come around again. I do not have to wait for death to be reborn. All I have to do is, like Magoo, send my love and my light out into the world. I cannot know where it connects, flickers, becomes something new where it joins the light another creature is sending into the world, but I do know this: where those flickers are, there is no darkness, and we are never alone.
My good friend Ric Finch told me that this post is incomplete, that I should tell the story of Magoo’s final hours, which happened after I wrote this.
Magoo had a fan club. The last two days, half a dozen people came to see him, and he said goodbye to each one, sitting in their lap, his bones jutting out. I think it was important to him, the goodbyes. I think he was waiting until he’d said them before he was ready to go.
He had a rough go of it the morning of the last day and I started fearing that I’d made the wrong decision, that I should have taken him to the vet for assistance in the passing. But I should’ve trusted him and me, that I’d made the right decision. I think I did.
He grew weaker and weaker throughout the day and I finally put him in a little box next to my desk so he could be beside me as I worked. Throughout the day all of my other animals came and paid him respects, checking on him as he slipped away. And I was there at that moment, the same as I was there the moment he came into the world. My hands were on him as he took his last breath and he did go gently, peacefully, at home, surrounded by love.
After he had passed, we sat in the room with him in a little wake of sorts, talking about what an amazing cat he was. Otto, Magoo’s protege, came and moved aside the towel covering Magoo so he could look at him and say a final goodbye.
Otto grieved with me for weeks afterwards. I was sitting one morning, journaling and crying, and Otto came to me and curled up in the space between my body and my journal as I wrote, with his comforting purrs. “I guess you’re the wise old cat now,” I told him. He head butted my cheek. “I guess I am.”
How ironic it is that nonhuman creatures can teach us so much about what it is to be human.
My friend Susan is a runner. It is so much a part of who she is. Yesterday she was speaking of running in the rain. She said, there’s something uncomfortable about going from dry to wet, but once you’re there, it’s amazing. You’re splashing through puddles like a child, and you feel exhilarated. She said drivers go by and yell “It’s raining!” and she yells back, “You’re missing it!”
Sometimes life connects dots for us in strange and unpredictable ways. This morning I found a guided meditation called “Exploring the Wilderness of Discomfort,” and I thought of Susan. And doors opened for me.
What if we didn’t avoid discomfort? What if we pushed past that barrier of initial discomfort, or fear, or hesitation? What if we lived our lives that way?
I thought of her running, every day, of experiencing every day and every thing it brings her. Today it is sunny and warm, tomorrow it is raining, the next day there is a dog that runs alongside her. It might be the same route every day but if we’re there, if we’re showing up, if we’re truly present, life has new gifts to bring us every day.
But we have to get up and get out and live, and run into life. What are you running away from? the meditation asked. When you experience discomfort, what are you doing instead of being with that discomfort, what are you escaping to?
There is so much here for me. I think we as a society have learned to run away from discomfort. We get the first twinges of a headache or indigestion, we take a pill. We find someone on the Internet who doesn’t agree with and we “delete” them from our friends list. We go into a creative endeavor and find that we’re not very good at it, which is uncomfortable, so we give it up, before we have given ourselves a chance to play.
A chance to run in the rain and splash in a puddle.
So I’m asking you today to do something uncomfortable. Sit with it, push past it. Don’t grit your teeth and bull your way through it. Approach it with a childlike, running-through-a-puddle curiosity. See what happens in your heart. See what happens in your life. Maybe it’s raining, but maybe, if you’re driving by, you’re missing something. See what it is.
I’m listening to a podcast called the Ten Minute Writers’ Workshop in which they interview seasoned writers. Nobody has any reason to be interested in my answers to these questions since I have nothing more than a few poems published, but I’m answering anyway. Someday, when I’m famous, someone will come back to this post and give a crap, yeh? Never know. And yes, I’m interviewing myself. I might interview some of my fellow writer or artist friends later, that’d be fun.
What’s harder the first sentence or the last?
Oh, the last, definitely. The first sometimes arrives in my head whole and ready. The last, that’s the thing you want the person to close the book or look away from the poem and stare off into space thinking about what you’ve just said for a good ten minutes, and then carry it around with them for at least part of the day. People fish around for a “hook” for ages, but for me it’s all about the resonance that stays at the end.
What’s the best advice you were ever given in a creative endeavor?
When I was learning oil painting, my painting teacher told me, “Don’t be afraid.” Which was her way of saying Just Do It. Sit down and put something on the canvas/page. What’s the worst that could happen, right?
What’s your best time of day to write?
I’m totally a morning person. Whatever I do first thing in the morning sets the tone for my whole day. If I put off writing till evening because of something else going on, I’m likely to either not do it, or not like what I’ve done.
Do you have any rituals for writing?
I’m made of rituals. I get up in the morning and do my Morning Pages/Journaling with a good black tea with cream and sugar at my bedroom desk, then (hopefully) I meditate, then I stroll down to my studio with a second cup of tea and get to work on whatever the current obsession is, usually either art, or currently writing my first novel. I turn on my little iCube speaker, put on thinking music — Jim Butler for brainstorming, my Epic Movie Music Pandora station for cranking out writing. I do the brainstorming first, then the writing, hopefully.
Plotter or Pantser?
Yes? I started NaNoWriMo with no option but to Pants it, and I really disliked it. I am now backing up and doing my plotting. BUT, that said, I think diving in and doing real time writing was important too. I intend to write some back story and interpersonal character scenes this month that may or may not ever make it into the book, but letting the characters actually function on the page makes things happen that pure outlining probably wouldn’t. So I think I’m in the process of developing a process.
What is your fantasy job other than writing?
Do I have to pick one? I wanted to be a horseback riding instructor when I was a teenager. I still would love to rescue and train horses. I want to be an artist, I want to illustrate children’s books, I want to do a little bit of everything in life. Oh, and who doesn’t want to be a National Geographic photographer?
are a thing that happens in California every year,
not in lovely, green, humid Tennessee.
Nearly everyone in Tennessee has been to Gatlinburg
so when we heard it was burning, it was as if
a friend was on fire. Waiting for news. Is the candy shop still standing?
Is Dollywood burning?
Are the Ripley Aquarium animals all right?
It’s hard to imagine these things as ash. Places that feel like childhood friends, consumed.
It’s hard to imagine the Great Smoky mountains actually smoky…
but there’s the evidence, on the news, on the Internet
the mountains you remember lovely green misty
are now angry burning dying; a monster threatening
the streets decked in Christmas lights. An orange glowing haze as the fire
creeps closer and closer.
The people get out. Mandatory evacuation.
I imagine the horror of that one road out of town
the one that feels interminable when you’re waiting
for vacation to begin
and imagine sitting on that road
gridlocked in fear
as the flames creep closer.
We sit in our homes further west on the Plateau
praying, dancing, lighting candles for rain (the latter is ironic) —
please let the months-overdue rain that drenched us last night
go East —
save the people, save the animals, save the green things,
bring relief, stop the flames eating our memories.
My therapist tells me that all things in the history of my scanner brain are bringing me to a confluence. I’m a 5 on the Enneagram, and that means I’m great at pulling crazy things together and making something new out of it. Up till now I’ve been mostly gathering. Maybe I still am.
There have been many times in my life as an artist when I looked at the piece of art I was making and decided it was garbage and consigned it, literally, to the trash heap.
But they weren’t novels.
But there were other times, especially when I was painting oils, that my wonderful painting teacher told me it was okay to blot out that lovely perfect eye that was in the wrong place and paint over it. She even took the paintbrush from me and painted over that perfect horse’s eye and told me “go again.”
Life is art. Whoever told you there are no do-overs is totally wrong.
So yesterday, when I felt like the 37,000 words I’d written on my novel were absolute garbage that I didn’t even care about, I already knew the answer to that problem: Just Keep Swimming. You can’t edit what you haven’t written. Get to the end of the first draft, then go back and fix all the things that need fixing. I really was getting discouraged. I thought the whole project needed to go.
And then, I wrote Murphy into the story. If I write the sequel to this novel, he will be a main character, but in this story you just get a glimpse of him. And I love him. He made me realize that all the other characters thus far are cardboard cutouts next to him, maybe (horrors) even my protagonist.
Here’s a glimpse, in which my intrepid protagonist is hiding in the closet hoping “Billy” doesn’t discover her and her mates:
“Mmn,” Murphy grunted. He never once looked in our direction. “You know, my shift doesn’t start for another six hours. And I beat Green at cards last night and he owes me a flask. Tell ye what, if you’ll go get it from him, I’ll share it with you.” I heard the man’s bunk creak but I couldn’t see him. “Yeah?” “Yeh,” Murphy said, reaching out and tapping his empty whiskey bottle. “I’m out, and that’s a thing I can’t stand. But it’s dark and I don’t feel like walking over there.” There was a short silence. “You never share your whiskey.” Murphy, whose voice had been soft through all of the conversations I’d heard from him thus far, thundered, “MAYBE I’M FEELIN GENEROUS!” “Jesus,” the other man muttered. “Fuckin’ crazy Mick.” Murphy shrugged. “Your choice.” “Fine,” Billy grumbled. The bunk creaked again and I saw him get up and pull his boots on. Then he headed toward the closet. “Where you goin?” demanded Murphy. “To get my coat. It’s cold out there.” I heard two other tiny sharp intakes of breath as all three of us in the closet caught ours, quietly. “Ye fookin pansy,” Murphy muttered. “I’ll get yer damned coat.” “What the hell have you got in the closet that I’m not supposed to see, Murphy?” I felt Emmanuel’s big hand clamp down on my arm and I felt him brace to fight, if he had to. “Best ye doont know, Billy. Ye’d have to tell and then I’d have to kill ye.” The door cracked open and he wisecracked, loudly, “Shoosh, love, don’t make a sound now, I’ll pay ye as soon as he’s gone.” There was a hearty guffaw from the room. “I don’t know how you managed that, you bastard. Captain Briggs catches you, he’ll have your left nut.” “Good thing he woont, then. Go along now, Pansy boy, the whiskey’s waitin.” He threw the man’s coat at him. “And if I drink it before I get back?” “I’ll shit in yer boots.” “Filthy mouthed damned Mick,” the man muttered, and the door slammed.
The bad news is, I am definitely a character-first writer, so if my characters are crap, my novel is crap. The good news is, I know how to go back and make them better. Dory has it right. The answer to art is the answer to life.