My creation…bwah hah hah

It was a dark and stormy night.  I was alone in my lab with the parts.  Joints that had lain untouched for years in a jumble around me.  Thunder rumbled.  Some would say the body on the bench was deformed.  Unnatural.  I admitted that there was an ungainliness to it.  Feverish, desperate, I fastened the pieces, unwilling to think past the moment when life might return.  Lightning speared the sky.  With trembling fingers I attached a reed to the mouthpiece, ready to breathe life into the Franken-clarinet. 

As in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, I was alone with my creation.  The Frankenstein movies typically have the primary cast members in the lab at the creature’s awakening.  Dr. Frankenstein himself, his fiancée, his best friend, and an assistant or two.  The original Frankenstein, he’s alone, and he flees his creature the moment it draws breath.  Why?  Because he suddenly notices that it’s ugly.   

I’ll admit that my creature wasn’t the prettiest.  Nor are many of the other Franken-clarinets around.  It’s a common practice among clarinetists these days to change out one or more pieces of the soprano clarinet in order to improve the instrument’s sound or tuning.  Practically nobody sticks with the factory mouthpiece.  The upper and lower joints, where the key work and tone holes are located, are the most important and are usually kept together.  The barrel, which joins the mouthpiece to the upper joint, and the bell, which fits onto the lower joint, are often swapped out.  The substitute barrel or bell can be of a markedly different color and shape than the original version; these clarinets can sometimes look as though they are well advanced on the journey to lamphood that is the ultimate fate of many aged instruments.   

Victor Frankenstein just can’t see past his creature’s ugliness.  Some critics have noted that the crime in the relationship of Frankenstein to monster seems more a violation of motherhood (rather than fatherhood) in its abandonment of nourishment and guidance.  Shelley was just 18 when she started the book, the idea originating from a ghost story competition at a house party.  She was pregnant at the time and had already lost one baby.  She knew firsthand that a newborn thing may not be particularly beautiful and can inspire both love and fear.  A baby is sublime—a word that comes up a lot in the text.  The term is used in the Romantic poetic sense, to mean a human reaction to something overwhelming (a mountain, an electrical storm, a birth) that combines ecstasy and terror.  

It goes beyond standard Franken-clarinetting to mess around with the joints, but I was desperate.  I have loved playing clarinet more than most things.  My experiences with the sublime have chiefly come through music.  My Yamaha CSV Bb clarinet, now 14 years old, had a creamy sound and was once a joy.  Except that the upper joint had a habit of cracking.  Once in the first year, then about every two or three years after that.  Cracks make playing effortful and perilous, especially on the high notes.  They are expensive to repair.  I got the latest one fixed in November, but the instrument still felt like it was pushing back on every breath.  

My husband Dave, who stopped playing clarinet about five years ago, said I could have his Bb Buffet if I wanted.  Buffet makes great clarinets, too.  Dave’s horn had been in its case for so long that its keys were fuzzy.  Also a rubber thumb rest cushion had disintegrated also, melting and spreading into the tone holes of the lower joint.  It was unusable.  

I had two unusable Bb clarinets, two different brands, and hope and terror.  That dark and stormy night, I stuck Dave’s Buffet upper joint onto my Yamaha lower joint.  Unnatural!  The  Buffet joint, grayish black, the key plating worn off in patches where fingers had hit them.  The Yamaha joint ebony, with keys  still bright.  

Shelley’s creature, also a jumble of parts, starts out with plenty of potential.  Strong, tall, and (in the book) graceful, he learns to feed and shelter himself, teaches himself to talk and read, and spends many months doing humans hidden kindnesses.  All to no avail; the humans misunderstand and attack him.  “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” he tells Frankenstein when they meet at last.  The movie creature achieves this psychological transition in a matter of days; the novel creature, years.  (The novel is of its time and moves slowly.)   

I apologized to the thing I had made and tried a few notes.  They felt easy and free.  It had been so long since playing felt that good.  

Frankenstein never apologizes to his creature.  He agrees reluctantly to help it, then breaks his promise, leading to more deaths and a final chase to the ends of the earth.   

Some of the Frankenstein movies have happy endings (at least for most of the principle characters, including Doctor Frankenstein and his bride).  The novel doesn’t.  Frankenstein, unsuccessful in his chase, dies.  The captain who has helped with the last leg of the journey turns away from his quest for the North Pole.  The creature proceeds Pole-ward.  The sublime remains unattained.  

The tuner reassured me that the notes were where they needed to be.  I set to work with a polishing cloth, tape, thread, and screwdriver.   Soon I had a working clarinet (though I’m still tinkering with barrels and bells).  The sublime remains unattained—but possible.    

Attack of the morning page!

YouTuber.  Beautiful morning-light shot after shot as she performed the routines that have made her so successful.  She drank water, took her vitamins, made tea, and set out a notebook and a gorgeous pen on a blond-wood table in preparation for her morning pages.   Watching from home, I gave her a 10 out of 10.   Journaling in the morning is promoted on lots of lifestyle channels, but this was the fourth video I’d seen in less than a week where morning pages were mentioned.  She was also the fourth out of four people who admitted that they hadn’t actually read the book that popularized morning pages, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992)…  Unlike the others, though, this YouTuber had acquired the book and said she intended to read it soon.  

This felt like a sign.  I, too, had an unread copy of The Artist’s Way, collecting dust on the bottom shelf of my bedroom bookcase!  On round one I’d evidently made it to the end of the introduction, where Cameron describes how she’d become blocked after she quit drinking.    Alcohol had been essential to starting and finishing her writing, though with increasingly destructive effects on her health, and she wasn’t sure how to proceed without it.  When she found coping mechanisms that worked for her, she started teaching them to other blocked creatives and eventually turned the program into the best-selling book.   

When I bought The Artist’s Way Sonny was in elementary school and I’d stopped all professional and most personal writing, although I still had music for a creative outlet.   I remembered trying morning pages, but not how long I’d done them or why I’d stopped.  

The Artist’s Way is a set of activities and prompts intended to be used over the course of 12 weeks.  The preamble before Chapter One discusses the elements of the program.  First, of course, the morning pages:  “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.”  Second, the “artist date,” which involves going somewhere alone once a week for a treat (none of the Youtubers has mentioned this element, so I think I must be farther along in the book already).   The purpose of morning pages is to clear the mind in order to face the work of the day; the point of the artist date is to gather inspiration.   

I didn’t hear about Cameron until the 2000s, but I’ve been free writing since the mid 1980s, when I crept into a church basement for my first fiction workshop.  The instructor started most sessions with exercises based on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1986).   Start writing and don’t lift your hand from the page for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever.  No cross-outs, no revisions, just turn on the spigot and see what happens.    

Like The Artist’s Way, Writing Down the Bones doesn’t try to teach craft.  There are no sections on plot construction, setting, description, showing versus telling, or characterization.  No grammar hacks.  No sample query letters.   The intention is to provide habits of body and thought that get around one’s internal resistance to writing.        

Over the years I’ve done so much free writing that I can meander for as long as my hypothenar and adductor pollicis muscles hold out (along with those pesky palmar interossei).   But practically, it usually only takes a few minutes until I focus on an interesting idea or image, and then I start writing for real (aka the hard way).   

Cameron explicitly positions the morning pages as a meditation.   As I’ve hated meditation more every time I tried it, maybe this explains why I’ve been stuck for years on page 20 of the book, but who knows what might happen this time?  I double my page count with a trudge through “Week One: Recovering a Sense of Safety.”  It’s a struggle at points due in part to her dismissive language towards anyone who isn’t pursuing an artistic career full-time.   The chapter tasks run from the mundane—morning pages, the artist date, and affirmations (which I will skip, as I like affirmations even less than I do meditation)—to the rather thrilling: starting a war between “enemies” and “champions” of my creative self-worth.   There are a lot of rules.     I suppose if I see the morning pages as a substitute for the ritual of drink-writing, the rules are a bit more understandable, substituting for the rituals of bottle, pen, glass, words, sips, connections, words…  

If I’m going to give the method a try, I’ll have to bend a morning pages rule or two.  Handwritten: no problem.  Three pages, okay, that’s a reasonable goal and doesn’t take too long.  Stream of consciousness: nope.  Permission to abandon a line of thought without apology or transition?  Heck, yeah!   By the time I make it to my comfy chair by the journal most mornings I have some kind of question to pose, even if it’s just “How did I sleep last night? or “What fresh hell is this?”   My first morning pages question, three days ago, was why I had hated the Mannerist paintings (I’m taking one of those online art history things).  That led to an exploration of sarcasm and beauty and autism and embarrassment, and after I was done with my three pages, I felt calm and fairly focused.   Success?   

First stories

From my father’s capacious basement—possibly it occupied one of the shelves east of the entrance to Narnia–comes another musty box, marked “Jean: misc.” The downsizing process has uncovered boxes packed in the ’70s and not touched since. Not a surprise: stuff builds up over time. If I’d been given this box in the ’80s or ’90s, it would be long gone. I anticipate a weird jumble, as all of the boxes that my father’s efforts have uncovered were clearly packed in the late stages of a move, when people have run out of patience and time and things are thrown in any old way.

Now I think that it might be genetic, my tendency to unpack until I find the toaster oven, the pillowcases, and the clock radio and then leave off with the intent of getting to the rest tomorrow (“tomorrow” = sometime within the next year). Who knows what weird things from 2005 I’ll be mailing off to Sonny one day…

Today’s package goes way, way back. It includes my baby book, with a padded fabric cover and pages for cards and pictures and all kinds of notes, intended to stretch over the first five years. Similarly to my experience with Sonny’s baby book, my mother makes entries with enthusiasm and energy for the first few months. Then things get spottier. The entries thin around three years in. (By that that point she had a second baby) Year four is entirely blank, but there’s a short summary at the five-year mark noting my voracious reading habits and love of drawing and writing stories.

The things I don’t remember! Reading, yes, but that I wrote stories at this age is news to me. I suppose most kids are story-making at that age–Sonny was, for sure. However, I don’t remember writing much until around age nine or ten, when I produced mostly “reports” about animals and insects.

Also in the box was a construction paper drawing of my family, folded into sort of a dust cover for 10 stories that I wrote when I was five and six. Packed away from light for decades, most of the lettering pencil on filler paper, the lines haven’t faded much. A few pages have crumbled corners. Each story is folded or stapled into its own little book. My first grade printing is way neater than I’d have expected. Included is an alphabet sheet for reference. Like the banner that used to hang above the chalkboard in my classroom, the capital letters stretch between two lines, alternating with their lower case versions, AaBbCc, etc., followed by a parade of numerals, 0 to 9.

The stories are modeled on picture books. They have titles, dedications (“To My Family”), page numbers, and illustrations that reveal my art skills haven’t progressed much over time. I love the journey into this little head and her preoccupations: trips to the zoo, bedroom decorations, trouble-making cats and monkeys and sad dolls.

Here’s one of them. The spelling is mostly corrected, though my idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalization are preserved.

Page 1: The Story of Grandma, Jean and Joy

Page 2: Chapter One: By a pleasant Brook with some fresh nice soft grass on its bank. You will find a path that lead’s you through a forest. Once three girls found this Path. The girls’ name’s were, Jean Joy and Grandma and they decided they would. So they did. [illustration: the three girls by the brook]

Page 3: Jean said “This Path looks “strange.” It’s not like the “others.” “Yes,” said Grandma. It’s crooked and the other’s were “straight.” [illustration: the girls look at the path]

Page 4: They did not know that this was an enchanted Rd. It led to a witch’s house. A witch that ate children like them. And– [illustration: witch]

Page 5: She Saw them. [no illustration]

Page 6: [blank]

Page 7: Chapter two: But she did no harm. By that time it was dinner time. And the place that they were there were lots of fruit trees. The fruit was good. [illustration: trees, girls eating fruit]

Page 8: The Road led to a house. They went into the house. The sign said That nobody lived there, but the room was furnished. [illustration: table with candles and plates]

Page 9: The Bedroom was furnished too. This is how it looked. [illustration: a picture, a window, a cradle]

Page 12: They walked away from that, but their faces were different. [Illustration: one girl’s features have turned upside down; another’s have turned into sideways blobs, and the third girl has an X across her whole face].

Page 10: Chapter three: A cat was causing the trouble. [illustration: cat]

Page 11: They told him to stop it. He did.

You may notice that page 12 comes before Page 10 and 11. My theory is that my mother may have exercised some editorial discretion and reordered the pages. (I prefer my original ending.)

Introduce characters and setting, show the equilibrium, destabilize it, add obstacles and opponents, achieve a new equilibrium where the characters have changed.

Storytelling, such a natural thing, but so easily forgotten.

Poor Amanda…

My novel keeps getting stuck.  I go confidently for a few pages and then for no apparent reason I’m firing off in every direction and all movement ceases.   It reminds me of trying to make a left turn in my mom’s Ford Pinto while I was learning to drive a stick.  Each limb had one simple function—clutch, gas, steer, shifter—but coordination there was none.  Yet again I’d be waving angry drivers around me as I sat, stalled, in the middle of the intersection.   Although my novel isn’t bursting without warning into flames, as so many Pintos tended to, neither has it clicked into gear.

I can bull through with a few forced words every day.   Or start at a different point in the story and worry about the transitions later.  Or rewrite with some tweaks.  Or give up, start a new project.   Giving up often seemed the right thing to do with the Pinto, especially when I’d park it somewhere for an hour and come back to find the engine wouldn’t turn over.

 I’ve gone with the rewrite with tweaks strategy for now.  Tweak number one is to change from a first-person point of view (POV) to a multiple third-person POV.  

Sorry, Amanda.    

Amanda is my central character.  She’s almost 15,  caught up in two worlds that she doesn’t yet understand.   Amanda’s head is an interesting place, but it’s also sometimes a sulky and blinkered teenage hellhole.   I like it there, but sometimes I suspect my readers could use a break.  There are also important things happening that she doesn’t know about that we need to see.      

There are no hard and fast rules for POV; it just has to work with the story.  Third person POV is maybe the most flexible since there are so many varieties.  Omniscient third-person where the narrator knows all gives a sense of space and grandeur.  Single or multiple third-person viewpoints, especially rotating ones where the characters know and interact with each other, can make for a story that is fascinating and kaleidoscopic.    

Only a few writers (in my opinion) have mastered the art of fictional second-person POV.  A lot of us are chicken to try it.  “You” fiction is tough to manage, as its tone can recall the urgent hectoring of an advertiser or parent…you need these sunglasses…you don’t want to spoil your dinner… It’s easy to turn off the reader.            

Good old first-person POV, as I’ve been using in this blog and in my book, has an immediacy and draw.  It’s fun spending time inside someone’s head.  The drawbacks of second-person don’t seem to apply to first-person accounts,  maybe because we’re constantly talking to others, all of us using “I,” so it’s easier to process a first person narrative I as talking to us, not directing us.  However, there’s always the danger of the reader starting to feel stuck with this person, as well as the question of whether the central character needs to be the I-narrator.      

Detective fiction has wrestled with this issue, with interesting results.   (My story isn’t a detective one, but there are puzzles to be solved, so there are commonalities.). The writers who’ve created master detectives—those who have a superior command of logic, deduction, psychology, etc.—almost always chose first person narrators who are not the grand detective.   They are nosy friends (Hastings, Dr. Watson), employees (Archie Goodwin), or people who happen to be involved in the case.    These I-narrators can be avatars for the reader.  They indiscriminately note the details, true clues and red herrings, and opine on the suspects and the case.  They study the great detective and require him to explain his conclusions.   In another kind of detective story, more noirish, first person detective is a good choice because solving the puzzle is relatively incidental; more important are the perils and quirks of the investigation and the character of the detective as she navigates the dangers.

The proof will be in the prose.   I’ve started the third-person rewrite, and things are moving.   As to direction, we’ll have to see.  When the Pinto would fail to start from its parking place, all was not lost.  If the car could be push-started—say, by releasing the parking brake and letting it drift down a hill—once a little momentum built up, a turn of the key would set the engine purring into life and then the Pinto would go along fabulously to wherever I chose.   For a while.

Old favorites, new eyes

“He looks just like you,” my mother-in-law Ann told me, not quite able to conceal her disappointment.  It was Sonny’s first Christmas and her first sight of him.  I don’t know why people do this so much with babies.  Sonny has turned out to look very much like Dave, with similar height, build, smile, and hair texture (he’s got my hair color, though).   Ann would approve.

I noted the disappointment but didn’t mind (much).  I wanted Sonny to be like me in more important ways than the physical.  I especially hoped he was going to love reading the way I do.

I have been a voracious reader and rereader from the age of four.    Lots of kinds of books:  nature guides about bugs and birds; historical fiction like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of life on the prairie and Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me; science fiction by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton; classics from Stevenson, Poe, Conan Doyle; mysteries like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown; the Bobbsey Twins…  Most especially I loved fantasy books.  Some of my favorites included E. Nesbit, Jane Langton, Susan Cooper, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien, who ruled them all.

My parents read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to my sister and me in the evenings in our house on Telegraph Road.   That house had unexpected doors—especially the second storey door that opened onto the hillside instead of thin air—and I found that fascinating.   It may have been a reason for my love of stories where people find doors that open from one world into another, as in the Narnia books.   Soon I was reading and rereading the Narnia books all by myself.

I was eager to share with Sonny the stories and characters I had loved and to encounter them again after decades away.   One fun thing about being a parent is introducing your kid to the wonderful stuff, music and books and holidays and ice cream and trees.  We started with board and cloth books and progressed to picture books: fairy tales in Golden Books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Click, Clack, Moo, Counting Crocodiles, Cat in the Hat, Thomas the Tank Engine.  Sonny got to the point where he didn’t need as many pictures in his books, so I made lists of my old favorites and scoured the library.

Sonny liked fantasy and trains and funny books, so I read him the first Harry Potter—not a book from my childhood, but in the fantasy genre and featuring trains on occasion.  Then we went on to The Hobbit, which went well.  Next on the list was Narnia, so we began The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.        

This shattered my plan.  An impatient twinge turned into active dislike.  Maybe it was the proximity to Tolkien, whose writing style I prefer.  Lewis’s allegory was heavy handed, his tone condescending rather than simply old-fashioned.   I found myself arguing in my head as I read.  Sonny enjoyed the book, but he didn’t ask for more of the series.   I switched to different series, series that were new to me:  Bunnicula,  Percy Jackson, and more.     

Sonny learned to read and had become voracious in his own way.  Fantasy and manga and game guides, lots of graphic novels.  Always bringing a book along in the car or to a restaurant.  

At one point Dave, Sonny and I went down to the DC area and Virginia.  We visited several houses I’d lived in as a kid in that state, drove past my high school, even ate at a real Krispy Kreme.   Sonny had his head in a book for much of the travel time, but he looked up when we asked him to.  The house on Telegraph Road was smaller than I remembered.  Truly tiny, and still packed into the hillside.   Thirty years’ absence and my being a foot taller, time and fresh eyes.  It felt curious but not painful.

It was, though, painful to read about Narnia again with fresh eyes.  I worried that revisiting other beloved authors would be risky.   It’s hard to feel a happy nostalgia about a book when the gilding is faded and peeling.

Every once in a while Sonny YouTubes a bit of an old TV series from his childhood—Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine—and finds it hilarious that he was once very into these.  A healthy attitude.  At some point I’ll work up the nerve to revisit other old favorites.  Maybe to love, and if not to love, at least without pain.

The Sears days

Amazingly, I’ve stuck to my morning drawing habit.  A few minutes absorbed in making something resembling stick figures calms and organizes me.  Beneficial, since I’m someone who just can’t get into meditatation.   Once in a while I get scribbler’s block; then I tend to just put color all over the page or to copy someone else’s sketch.  Today I copied a sticker of a pineapple.

“That guy looks like he’s about to toss his cookies,” said Dave.

I side-eyed my husband and front-eyed my sketch.  The sticker pineapple’s curve was elegantly convex, and its orangey-gold color practically radiated vitamin C.    My pineapple was lumpy and squat and jaundice yellow.    It did, perhaps, slightly resemble  a head, topped with  green hair that hadn’t been cut since well before the barber shops were closed.   To clarify a tropical intention, therefore, I added an umbrella drink and a swimming pool.    The pool needed a float, and as I was attempting to draw one in profile, Boom! I was slapped back into the 1970s and into a faraway land I once loved–the world that lived between the sturdy covers of the Sears catalog.

Oh, that wonderful day when catalog arrived in the mail!  A hefty block of more than 1,000 shiny pages.   We didn’t shop much at Sears.  Every once in a while my parents would buy something like socks, or a hammer there.  Nevertheless, we stayed on the store’s mailing list.  Sears bricks-and-mortar stores had clothes and shoes and tools and appliances, typical dull department store stuff.  But the catalogs were entirely different, crammed with interesting and delightful items.  Clothes, appliances, and tools, but also toys and furniture and decorations and games and camping stuff and instruments.  In my tween/early teen years,  I used the catalog to daydream about the life I wanted.

Some favorite sections:

  • Girls’ clothes, most notably mother-daughter matching outfits.   Sears was big into matching husband-wife, father-son, and mother-daughter ensembles, as well as pajamas for the whole family.   I wanted mom-and-me gingham pinafores or hostess dresses.  I never even hinted at this to my mother, who would have been horrified at the very idea.
  • Bedroom furniture.  Catalog me didn’t have to share a room decorated in muddy  earth tones of orange, brown, and green with her sister.  Catalog me had her own room and a white “French provincial” matching bedroom set: canopy bed, dresser, and dressing table with a fancy mirror in the middle of it.   All the curtains and the bedspread white with embroidered flowers.
  • Swimming pools and paraphernalia.    I skipped right past the playground equipment, treehouses, and croquet sets to the above-ground pools.  Not a dinky round one like the pool of the Abernathys, two doors down, barely big enough for two or three teenagers at a time.   Sears sold those dinky pools, but Sears also sold my dream pools, two or three times the size, some with an attached  deck with space for lounge chairs and side tables, where you had to climb a little staircase to enter.  Around this time I’d read a novel called The Social Swim, in which the parents of a shlubby, lonely girl put in a swimming pool and suddenly a bunch of kids starts coming over every day to hang out.  Over the course of a summer she makes a bunch of friends, becomes svelte from all the swimming, helps out in a hospital, conquers a mean girl, and gets a boyfriend; a typical and kind of shallow novel, but at around 12 it was catnip to me.  If only I had a pool…maybe my problems would be solved, too?   Along with the grand pool, there would be all kinds of floats–kids’ size with sea monsters and larger ones shaped like swans, and the fanciest of all, the floating chairs with cupholders built into the arms.

Sears’ catalog also provided me with replacement relatives.   Once the new one had arrived, I took scissors to the old catalog.  I snipped out pictures of clothes and bedroom furniture, etc., but also images of people people.  A kindly looking model in mother-daughter PJs with a girl of four or so became my new mother and little sister (Rebecca).   A new father had a big smile and a full head of hair and a football ready to throw.  I knew he’d be a great dad to the athletic, smiling high schooler whom I’d named Rusty, and to the rest of us.   Tim, smaller and bookish-looking, soon joined them.   Eventually there were six new siblings, plus me (in the middle age-wise), two cats, and a dog as well as my new mom and dad, pasted in a notebook with their names, ages, and hobbies printed alongside their pictures.   The fancy pool was big enough for all of us, if just barely.

In that notebook they sat and stayed, those characters I’d created and the suburban-opulent world I’d dreamed for us.     Fun hours putting the notebook together and figuring out the names and personalities, but once that was done there was nothing else to do but look at them.  I couldn’t bear to let the people in my curated family change or get out of balance.   They looked fashionable and happy, but whatever story I’d been trying to tell about them, and me, was too boring to matter.

I’d committed a cardinal sin, a beautiful stasis.  Change has to happen to characters and their world.  It’s never a wonderful world below the surface.    Scratch the French provincial dresser.  Have a screaming argument in matching dresses.  Discover a body on one of those fancy pool floats, barely cold; an umbrella drink, untouched, in the cupholder.

Wordsworth Street

Up early enough to see a reporter and crew, reporting on the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death, arrested in fiery Minneapolis on live television.  Other tragedies, national and local, are also on my mind. The dismal landmark of 100,000 official COVID-19 deaths in the US is just a couple of days past.   Last night, my town decided to cancel art, music, and phys-ed in the schools for the upcoming academic year, piling on the punishment for our children.   My journal’s open, but words are locked away.   I put down the pen, again and again.

I leave the house before seven, hoping that a rambling walk will organize my thoughts.   Daily explorations have both comforted me and fostered a kind of relaxed energy.  Spring doesn’t care about my problems and flowers with abandon.   Today the rabbits and birds seem to be sleeping in under a blanket of humid, still air.  I walk anyway, out of ideas.

I descend a hill, cross a big road–very few cars–and trudge up another hill.   Here’s   Wordsworth Street, a couple of short blocks that can be walked from one end to the other and back in five minutes.  This sparks a longer trail of thoughts.   The Romantic poets were my favorites in college:  Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge.   For a moment I’m back in the big chair in the student center, turning the crackly onion skin pages of the Norton Anthology.  When I need to rest my eyes from reading, I look out the window at an enormous weeping willow and beyond it to the long blue of Lake Michigan.   The brain allows just a flash of this pleasant memory, then jerks back to present horrors.

I pass houses with neatly manicured lawns and a few where the dandelions are high and baldheaded, where honeysuckle vines spill over a fence and onto the road.   Outdoor furniture in almost every yard: picnic tables, iron benches, porch swings, Adirondack chairs.   Areas carefully constructed to be comfortable spots to sit, relax, and enjoy coffee, conversation, a sunrise, a bird bathing, children at play…

A quote nudges, Wordsworth on poetry being born of “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”  Not sure that I’ve recalled it correctly.  I forget what my professor made of it and remember my 19-year-old self dismissing the idea, since people have made amazing poetry through good times and bad.  Tranquil’s never been a part of my personality.  The closest I get to these days is arriving at my house after a walk and seeing Capone mrrrwling at me from his window.

At home I look up the quote, which is from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and which (of course) in context proves more complicated.   Wordsworth’s entire sentence:

“I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”

He’s talking about the opposite of what I’d understood as an undergrad.  A writer has to tear down tranquility in order to compose, return to a raw response to the situation.   To relive that day the house burned down, the shock and fear.  But why the tranquility in between, I wonder?

Wordsworth continues:

“In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.”   (Italics mine.)

There’s something ghastly, though admirably honest, about Wordsworth’s description of his compositional process.  I feel a guilty kinship.  You don’t just go back to the terrible feelings, convey them, make them into something compelling:  you enjoy doing it.  You take yourself out of the tranquil state in search of the endorphin hit as the right word hits the page.   But enjoying something is not in itself bad.  There’s something to be said for turning emotions into poems.  Or symphonies, or paintings.  Even…a blog.

 

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

That’s Shakespeare in the prologue to Henry V.  Check out the picture at the top of this blog–can you see the Muse there,  in the top left-hand corner, making her fiery music?  

Minneapolis is burning.  I’m lightheaded from the oxygen in my room.  I mourn the people who begged for air, jammed under police knees or crammed in ICU beds, discounted by the despicable as being “on their last legs anyway.”*  Tranquility lies in ashes.  I touch the match to my pen and start to write.  

 

* The person who characterized COVID-19 victims thus is former Fox News presence Bill O’Reilly

38 Plays

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?  — Shakespeare, from Sonnet 8

Another pre-dawn.   I’ve been awake a couple of hours, worries and random thoughts skirling madly in my head.   The clock shows 4:30, and I wonder if it’s too soon to creep downstairs for coffee or whether I’ll disturb Dave.  I decide to go for it.  Dave’s awake, too.   We half-joke about yet another early-early a.m.  I get the coffee going and wonder if things will ever be normal again.

That was January, 2019.  Dave had been in a bicycle accident six weeks before that had, among other things, fractured his C2 vertebra.  He was still stuck in an uncomfortable hard neck brace, in pain much of the time, uncertain of how much function he’d regain.  I was deteriorating after six weeks of little sleep and lots of worry.   My usual comforts in trying times had utterly failed me.  Music-making was a chore.  I couldn’t bear talking to my friends.  Couldn’t concentrate long enough to make sense out of a TV show.  Lacked the energy to exercise.  Writing was limited to short, all-caps sentences in my journal, trying to shout down the what-ifs in my head.

How Shakespeare came into my mind, I’m not certain.  I studied English Lit in college, including Shakespeare, and seen some of the plays, but it had been some years since I’d read him.     Still, I had the Riverside Shakespeare book (Christmas gift from the ’80s) on the coffee table.  The plays, poems, sonnets, and learned commentary:  1,923 pages of capital-C Culture packed with small text and practically microscopic footnotes.  I couldn’t write.  Maybe I could read.

I decided to tackle all thirty-eight of Shakespeare’s plays (even the one whose authorship is disputed), in roughly chronological order, one per week.  I read scene by scene.  After each scene I wrote a summary and/or reaction.   Not literary, per se, but I did note craft elements like character development and plot.   After reading a play, I would find an online version and watch that.

I read in the dining room with the book open on a table-top music stand.  I read in doctors’ waiting rooms with the book propped on my knees.  I read in hospital cafeterias and at physical therapy appointments.  I read in bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Within a few weeks of starting this project, I started feeling…different.  To parse Shakespeare, at least for me, requires deep concentration, effort rewarded by the beauty and liveliness of the language as well as the plot twists.   Flexing my concentration muscles made my brain tired enough that I started sleeping better.  Sometimes I dreamed in iambic pentameter.  Conversation and dialogue became more enticing.   And eventually–around week 35–I found myself wanting to write again, and energy to try.

It’s 2020 and deja vu all over again, only now the world’s joined in the despair.   I go in and out of the guts to face a blank page.  A composer friend recently posted a Facebook status that he feels his identity has been destroyed by the pandemic; he can’t write.  That post generated responses about evenly divided between people who were writing because of the pandemic and those who felt blocked because of it.

Many of us have times when the muses abandon us; the trick may be to sneak behind the scenery and stalk them for a while.  Maybe you can’t write, but you can read.  Maybe you can’t read, but you can walk in the sunshine.  Maybe you can’t walk in the sunshine, but you can zombie-crawl towards something.

Let this sad int’rim like the ocean be

Which parts the shore, where two contracted new

Come daily to the banks, that when they see

Return of love, more blest may be the view; 

As call it winter, which being full of care, 

Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.  — Shakespeare, Sonnet 56

 

 

Still Life Goes On

For Christmas, 2019, I suggested that my husband give me something I’d noticed in the Barnes and Noble bargain section, a coffee table book called Musee D’Orsay, with text by Valentin Grivet.  The Musee d’Orsay is a relatively young museum (it opened in 1986) in Paris which features art from 1848 through 1914.   Because it used to be a train station, and because of its narrow focus, it’s a manageable size…that is, you can see much of the collection in an afternoon’s visit, at least theoretically.  As I made my way through rooms packed with works by Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin, etc., I kept having to stop and catch my breath, but I still caught a lot of it.

Christmas morning: Dave came through.   I decided to read this book from cover to cover.   That’s a relatively new thing for me, but I’m trying to use what I have.  I’m reading the books in the pile, listening to the CDs, playing through the sonatas, emptying all of the shampoo bottles.  And, of course, Writing In The Empty Notebooks.  The book lived on my nightstand, and I reviewed a few pages a day, starting at the beginning and going through to Fin (page 271).   I looked at the pictures and read the blurbs about them, not trying to understand, just focusing.

Disclaimer: I know almost nothing about art.  I have no artistic talent.  I enjoy museums–any travel involves a museum visit–and have a couple of real-artist friends, but my last formal art class was general art in sixth grade, once a week.  The  teacher was unimpressed with my stick people.   Dave and I have gone to a couple of paint-while-you-drink bars in the past few years.  That was fun, but my results were pathetic.

I enjoyed the book, as it combined pretty pictures with memories of Paris in June, our lovely long weekend, and anything that took me for a few moments away from the dark winter mornings.  Then, about a month in, something weird happened.

Driving home from dropping Dave off at the T one morning, the dawn sky pulled me into itself, grading from dark blue to light, golden at the very edges, the tree branches glistening with ice droplets, the telephone wires with a few birds perched on them.  Another day I was captured by the view from my bedroom window:  houses curving up the hill along with the road, rectangles of soft beige and rust, the irregular, dark greens of bushes, the brown spiky trees, the dormant yellow grass.   There were paintings everywhere I looked.  The world was vivid, beautiful, interesting.  Also: framed and controlled.

This weird vision-thing lasted for weeks, then faded.   I finished the book in February and thought I’d maybe begin sometime on one of our other coffee table books.

This morning, mid March, Dave and Sonny went to Sonny’s college dorm to clean out his room.  We had scheduled an appointment for 10 a.m.–social distancing in the pandemic making this paramount–a few days ago.   At noon they were back home, and I helped them unload the car.  Laundry detergent, bags of chips, a precious roll of toilet paper, sheets and blankets, cooking utensils, and the like were dumped in the living room and redistributed to the appropriate places in the house.  I felt overwhelmed with disappointment as the realities of a canceled senior semester hit again: no recital, no graduation ceremony, no period to this 22-year parenting project launching into its next phase.   Plenty of anger, as well.   We spread Sonny’s dishes over the kitchen counter, Dave and I washing and drying them and putting them back into our cabinets–suddenly we have more than three dinner plates!–and the scene arranged itself in my mind into a Still Life, beauty and order and a narrative flow.  Trying to manage the messiness of this life.

  

Boogie-woogie-hygge

Hygge has made it to my town library!  Hygge’s a Danish word, pronounced Hoogie, it’s branded as a Scandinavian approach to happiness.   I’d seen references to this trend on TV and in magazines and found it intriguing.  When How to Hygge appeared on the New Books shelf, I eagerly checked it out.

The elements of hygge as presented in the book: get exercise, preferably outside.  Value and treasure hanging out in the house with family and friends.   Take pleasure in eating and drinking, especially homemade pastries, preserved fish dishes, and glog.  Lots and lots of glog.  Wear thick socks and cuddle up in soft blankets, watching the fire.   Have a home that features simple wood furniture, with minimal clutter, but with plenty of books and candles and cut flowers (but only of the same color, evidently two or three colors is not Nordic).  Take pleasure in mastering skills like wood chopping and room painting.

Part 1 – Exercise, preferably outside 

“I just bought these boots this morning,” said Dave, as we hippety-hopped—or, more often splashed–our way along the muddy trail.  Both Dave and Sonny (Sonny was home for Easter weekend) had been up for a family hike around the Ponkapoag Pond.    The pond is surrounded by woods.  The trees were still bare, the spring buds just starting to appear.  The ground was mostly dirt and rocks and fallen tree trunks, some of them obviously recent uproots after a viciously windy set of storms.  April showers had made navigating the trail more of a challenge.  Dave was the only one of us who had appropriate shoes, and he wasn’t yet ready for them to get too muddy.  Meanwhile, Sonny and I wore sneakers, not waterproof.  After about 20 minutes, my socks were soaked through.

We backtracked and tried a different trail, where another few minutes’ hike found us water-logged again.  Where the water hit the trail, though, we got to enjoy a patch of vivid green vegetation, a hopeful vision.

“Who wants to go back to the car?” asked Sonny.

Part 2 – Treasure time spent with family and friends 

“So who wants to hang out tonight?” I asked.

“Hang out and do what, Mom?”

“Make a fire.  Sit on the couch and talk.”

“But it’s 60 degrees outside.  And didn’t we talk at dinner last night?”

“There’s hockey and baseball on,” said Dave.

I would have to finish the hygge experiment on my own.

Part 3 – Eat, drink, and make your house hygge

I decided to conduct this part of the trial in my studio, where I already had cut flowers–some pink, some purple–in a vase.   They were pretty, except for some raggedy bits where Capone the cat had nibbled at them.   While my studio vibe isn’t minimalist or Danish, I do have wood furniture and lots of books.  I put some candles on my desk and started moving them around, trying for a calming arrangement.   Now for the food and drink…The only pastries in the house were individually wrapped Entenmann’s cheese danishes, so I put one on a plate.  No glog in the house, either…I had a sore throat and headache starting, so I made a nice hot cup of Nighttime TheraFlu.  I lit the candles, took my snacks and a book, wrapped myself in a blanket, settled into my comfy chair, and waited for the hygge to hit.

I’m a quarter Norwegian, after all.  I figured that within half an hour I’d develop a contented, maybe slightly smug, happy feeling.  Forty-five minutes, max.

An hour and a half later: book finished, feeling fairly relaxed, but a bit disappointed.  I blew out the candles.  Wax had dripped onto my desk.

Part 4 – Take pleasure in mastering simple skills 

I spent 10 minutes getting the candle wax off my desk.   I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Part 5 – Aftermath

So I’ve failed hygge.  A quarter Norwegian turns out not to be quite Scandinavian enough.  Yes, hygge was pleasant, comforting, but it also felt like sinking in one of those beanbag chairs that kind of clutch at you and force you to contortionist measures in order to get up.

The closest I’ll ever get to hygge, I think, is the time I spend, most afternoons, drinking  a mug of coffee in my comfy chair.   The chair’s by the window, so I can look out at the garden and the street, with all its cars and trucks, and I can look at my office clutter and remind myself of what I’m trying to get done today, and I can enjoy the pictures on the wall, and I can check out Capone snoozing (dreaming of world domination) on the piano bench.  I get a teeny bit of relaxation, but by the time the coffee’s gone, I’m ready to bounce out of the comfy chair and head for the world outside The Nest.  Turns out that I need mess and energy alongside the calm.