Backwards and Forwards

I haven’t written here in a while, and my writing has languished a bit without a regular writing group and because of life and because my book is out at contests and one publisher being reviewed, so I decided to commit to the A to Z blogging challenge this year.  My first post will be on April 1.  A lot will happen between then and now, and I’ve chosen this theme to talk about the past and the future, but the present may end up being the most pressing, in this time of Corona.

Also, I am moving this week from Easthampton to Holyoke, and there are boxes everywhere.  Life is rather crazy.

 

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Writing in Scotland

I’m in Glasgow, Scotland, in a trendy hotel called CitizenM.  Our room is tiny—only as wide as a king bed, with an enclosed shower/toilet combo next to the door, a tiny sink just outside.  But the common areas are chic and interestingly curated.  Lots of charming jokey signs that are somehow not annoyingly hipster.  Bob and I are hanging out in one of the common areas on our laptops.

We are both working on writing projects, and this long-planned vacation is interfering a bit.  Ha!  I’m grateful for such a problem, and here we are, writing.  I had a “beta read”* of my memoir that was extremely helpful, and I’ve been honing my manuscript in response to the reader’s comments.  She really saw what I was doing and zeroed in on places where the writing is effective, and where it could use some development or paring.  Such a thrill.

Part of my current revision involves looking back at some of the research material I’ve gathered about my mother.  Seven years ago, I visited the archives at Bryn Mawr College, where she got her B.S., and found a treasure trove of material that I am looking over again.  For a Bryn Mawr audience, she wrote in more detail about her work life (she would call it a “career”, in quotes; she always undervalued herself).  I have emailed the alumnae office to ask what they use their alumnae surveys for—my mother responded to them in great detail.  She also had a rich correspondence with someone in that office, and I’m not sure why.  I think perhaps it was for an article in the alumni magazine.  I am in awe once again at the rich and varied life of my multi-talented mother.

And I found a note from an alumnae magazine about a trip she took with her parents (her mother also a Bryn Mawr alum) and my father in 1950 when they were living in England.  They took a tour of Scotland, including Loch Lomond, where I visited today!  I am roughly 5/16 Scottish (my paternal grandmother pure Scots, her husband a half or a quarter), and I see many large blue eyes like my own, as well as lots of doughy white people.  Well.

Loch Lomond

Glasgow is a cool multicultural city, with unusually sunny warm weather, much more pleasant than the record highs Bob and I left behind in the Northeast U.S.  The architecture near our downtown hotel is a mix of ugly new and Georgian.  Our tour guide/driver today wore a kilt that alternated military camouflage and the Buchanan tartan, which was my grandmother’s tartan!  After Loch Lomond, we went to Stirling Castle, which was lovely.  Again, an unusually sunny day with terrific views.  I especially liked all the green spaces inside the castle grounds.  It was a real fortress and used as a military base until 1964—recent!

Tomorrow we go to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival.

*See definition in previous entry “What Counts As Writing.”

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What Counts as Writing

Tinkering with already-written stuff

Making notes

Crossing out/deleting notes

Trying to remember what notes mean

Rereading a critique

Thinking about a character and feeling stuck

Napping while thinking about said character

Journaling about writing

Blogging about writing

Tomorrow Bob and I are leaving our self-created writing retreat in the Northeast Kingdom.  That’s right, we’re in Northeastern Vermont, which claims this moniker.  It is quite lovely.  Somebody actually asked us today if this was our first trip to the Northeast Kingdom.  Unironically.

I did all of the above activities today, and also went running by Lake Memphremagog with Bob and Callie.  While they napped, I took a kayak out.  I appreciated solo kayaking—yesterday with Callie sharing the kayak it wasn’t so smooth.  I mostly drifted, looking at the different views from the middle of the lake.  Then I took a swim and a hot shower.  Bob was aware of none of this, sleeping in the hammock.  Callie knew and whined a little.  Later I napped too.

This evening we walked to the Canadian border, a little over a mile down the road.  Our view from the cottage is mostly Canada.  But the Northeast Kingdom stops at the border, apparently.

I had hoped to work on my memoir, which I began in 2009, but I am waiting for a beta reader* to get back to me—she got the flu and has been delayed in sending me her comments.  So I worked on some linked short stories I’m calling the Boob Stories.  They have the same main character who is a late bloomer, like I was, and very self-conscious about it.  The first story I wrote involves a synchronized swimmer who is also an avid pot smoker.  That was me too.  So far I have six linked stories that all touch on boobs in some way (see what I did there?).  It’s fun and silly and I hope not trivial.  Managing boobs is a big part of girls’ and women’s everyday life.

I also have a novel-in-progress with a main character who is transplanted from Jane Austen’s Emma to 2015. Paying more attention to the Boob Stories now makes it clear that I have three writing projects going at once.  This is neither good nor bad.  (Not to mention my sabbatical project for Spring 2023.  More on that in a future post.)

All of this counts as writing.

*A beta reader is, according to Wikipedia, “a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing, who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author.”

Province Island on Lake Memphremagog, mostly in Canada but partly in Vermont the Northeast Kingdom.
Arretez!
The road to Canada.
Callie not sitting in the kayak.
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Art

At MOMA today (Museum of Modern Art), a few pieces moved me. A Monet I don’t know if I’ve ever seen called “Agapanthus,” a word I’ve never heard. Dorothea Lange and other black and white photos of ordinary people. Harlem Renaissance art–Jacob Lawrence and others. An amazing painting from 1929 by Archibald John Motley Jr. of Chicago called “Tongues (Holy Rollers).” A rendition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man’s underground home full of light bulbs by photographer Jeff Wall. Sculpture in the courtyard, and the buildings visible outside it. Much of the contemporary art seemed pretentious and boring, but I admit I am a philistine in this area.

Monet, Agapanthus
Archibald John Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers)
Jeff Wall, photo inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
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The Beatles and the Saris

Five or six colorful saris appeared in my family when I was four.  I have no idea where they came from, maybe from one of my dad’s graduate students.  We did all sorts of things with them, but they didn’t seem like clothes to us.  They were taller than the ceiling; their length seemed miraculous.  Their most magical incarnation was when we hung them over exposed pipes in the basement.  Suddenly our play area was transformed from a grubby semi-furnished room with an old linoleum floor, a fraying patch of carpet, and a dusty couch, to a place of flowy mystery.  We swirled between and around these diaphanous silks, thin enough to see through, their colors muting everything on the other side.  Flecks of gold and thread patterns grazed our cheeks as we slid through burgundy, chartreuse, sky blue saris.

I think some of them were still hanging when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan the first time.  Our whole family came down to the basement to watch, which made this an event.  My father sat on the floor, the television light flickering on his horn rims; my mother sat on the arm of the couch where my older sisters hugged pillows.  My brother and I danced.  I was four; he was six; we were in constant motion.  The saris swayed behind me as I moved my hips from side to side, transfixed by the bouncing young men and their happy music.

I’m making some of this up.  The carpet might not have been there yet; we’d only been in our house for two months then.  Maybe we’d hung the saris because there was so little in that basement.  Maybe we all sat on the floor because there was no couch yet.  One or two saris must have come down so we could all see the TV.  Or maybe the saris were gone by then, but my memory has conflated the magic saris with the magic band.

What I do remember:  a dark room, all six of my family members together, my parents joining us kids to watch TV, a rare thing.  My mother’s enjoyment of the music, and, perhaps, of all of us being together.  My father as part of the fun.  This, this is what was so rare, my father joining in, not leading, not telling us what to do, not correcting us.  We all loved the Beatles from that day on, or that’s what it felt like.  At least, my dad didn’t object to them.  He allowed this joy in our house, at least that one day, and maybe the next time the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan too.  And maybe the next two times after that.

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A Return to Blogging

I’m committing to writing on this blog a few times a week for the summer.  After that, we’ll see.  I have been writing a lot, but since I’m trying to publish, I don’t post, because blogging counts as published in many cases.

Gee, what’s been happening the last two years?

Well, the pandemic.  Perhaps you’ve heard.

And two years ago my husband and I separated.  Now we get along pretty well.  Not trying to make the marriage work.

My dog Weezy died in June 2021, and a month later I got my sweet Callie.  Weezy was a difficult, bitey, neurotic dog who somehow wormed her way into my heart, and she was my main companion in the early pandemic.  Her need for daily walks kept me sane and busy, as I taught from home and saw few people, like so many of us.

Callie is the sweetest dog ever.  I do credit Weezy for making me into a dog person, though.

My daughters are grown and flown.  Liza graduated from Wesleyan this May.  I’m impressed with her, and with my own students, for persevering during the pandemic and getting their degrees.

Almost a year ago I met my sweetie, Bob.  We are going on our own writing retreat to a lake in Vermont for five days next week.

I think about retirement.

I have two grandnieces and a grandnephew.  And two sisters who are grandmothers!

I have trouble believing I am 63.  I have had trouble believing my age since I turned 50.  But I stepped in a hole and sprained my ankle a week and a half ago, only mildly, thank goodness.  I had started running last August, and had to take a week off.  Back to it, and then I fell again a few days ago in Manhattan, tripped on a lip of asphalt on a traffic hump.  Just a few scrapes.  But I need to take care of these old bones!  Falling twice in the space of a week and a half, with friends and strangers hovering over me asking if I was okay, is something I want to be careful to avoid!

I feel connected to lots of people from so many areas of my life through Facebook, and yet also feel isolated at times.  A paradox.

Here are photos of me and Callie, and one of silly nervous Weezy, a few months before cancer took her.  More soon.

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Z is a letter that barely appears in this

On my 41st birthday, she made me dinner, got a beautiful cake with buttercream frosting, and gathered people around to sing to me.  My husband was working out of town and I had a new baby and an almost four-year-old.  There were gifts too, sweet and unexpected, a book I might find time to read, a pretty dish, a piece of Japanese cloth.

“See what I have to put up with?” I joked to one of her friends, there for me.  “For over twenty years, it’s been nothing but give give give.”  She smiled and kept moving, clearing up, corralling people into the living room, but it was really the dining room, a low chandelier with no table under it, we kept hitting our heads.  My family and I were in her living room, futons filling up the floor, our stuff overflowing from duffels on the couches around the edge of the room, homeless.

It was temporary.  I had a job lined up, and Scott was working two hours away.  Liza was six weeks old and Lena liked all the people in the house distracting her from losing me to her baby sister.  We were looking for a place to live, and would move soon.  Meanwhile we were in her loving orbit.

This friend, Big Lena, all five feet one and three quarters inches of her, gave herself so generously to us, her house, the people that gathered wherever she was because they knew too what she was and they felt so loved in her presence.

I still am in wonder that I get to call her best friend.

unnamed

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Y is for Yet

And yet.  But.  These qualifiers that intrude.  I am enjoying the time at home, and yet.  I know I am lucky to have a paycheck and work from home, while so many others have lost their jobs.  But.  I feel guilty for preferring to never go out.  And yet, I would go crazy if not for my daily walks outdoors.  But.

Because of my overactive brain, I can never be one thing.  Happy?  And yet.  Good enough?  But.  Insert all my failures here.

Yet I still go on, and on, and on, and on and on and on.

Words become nonsensical if repeated too much.  (I could never stand Gertrude Stein.)

Right now my brain hinges on getting my book published.  It is at two contests and a publisher.  I have no idea if the pandemic is delaying responses—I sent it out in December and January.  I intend to send it to more places, and yet, I have not.

So many ways to not be good enough.  WHEN the book is published, I will find a new way to and yet myself.

At least I stopped myself from writing IF.

This is what is coming out today, for Y, the second to last day of the blogging challenge.  It feels too vulnerable to post.  My imagined audience cringes.  BUT perhaps I am revealing their anxieties and insecurities as I air my own.

IF I decide to post this.

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X is for Xonk

I feel a little possessive of X.  Probably left over from learning how to spell my name, and noticing that few others had X’s in their names.  Then the fun of spelling backwards.

Ecila Xonk (say it out loud)

Orred Xonk

Ynnaf Xonk

And the most fun to say out loud:

Allebasi Xonk

My mother’s name backwards is the most like a really name:  Nelle Xonk.

And X gets to be a Z sound when it’s at the beginning of a word, so we are all zonked Xonks.

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W is for Writing

It’s been hard to keep up with this blogging challenge in pandemic times.  Hard to think or write about anything else.  I believe we will likely be staying at home for many more months, and that I will be teaching online in the fall.  The administration at my college is holding out hope for an in-person experience, but I am not optimistic.

I do not have a word for this malaise.  It’s a creeping worry and uncertainty.  Not knowing is hard for us planning humans.  I waver between an appreciation for what’s simple—having a place to live and enough to eat, being able to go outside every day, keeping in touch with loved ones.  Working from home feels artificial and temporary, and when the Zoom screen turns off it all goes away.

I could easily just sink into introversion on my laptop and in books.  It takes effort to write, and to go out and take socially-distant walks with friends, but I am always happy to have done so.  We do things we don’t want to do so we’ll feel better later.  I even wavered on Zoom yoga today, but I did it, and was glad I did.

One foot in front of the other.  One word after another.  One blog and then another.  Almost at Z.

20200419_144141_resized

Zooming with my sibs.  We are all holding up our right hands.  Wut.

 

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V is for Voice

Not everyone writes, or writes much.  Writing is not the distinctive expression of the self, for everyone.  But I am close to some people whose voices in writing capture who they are, and their writing moves me, more than their presence does, sometimes.  We can be bored together in person, but when we choose to write, and share our writing with another, when we write about something urgent and pressing—the self comes through.  And I treasure those selves shared with me in writing.  This is why we feel we know great writers, whether they write about themselves or not—their distinctive, crucial voice feeds us, and we know them.

I have written about reading my own journals from age 12 on up, and how my voice is essentially the same over all these decades.  And I have written about my daughter’s first grade journal, and how thrilling it is to hear that familiar voice, through phonetic spelling and simple sentences.  There are others whose written voices have brought me close.

My friend Lena and I became friends gradually in person, cautiously spending more and more time together, becoming housemates, but the summer after we first lived together we began writing letters.  I recently reread one of her letters from that first summer, 1980, and there she was, the same person I have loved for over forty years.  The letter was full of soul-searching, as letters from 20-year-olds often are, and I remembered that earnest friend, and how our closeness thrilled and relieved me.  Here was someone who poured herself out to me in letters as I did with her.  She moved to Japan and we kept up the writing, tiny words filling aerograms and onion skin paper in air mail envelopes.  We’d talk on the phone every month or so, counting the minutes, which ticked off their price as we gabbed on.  Today we live near enough to see each other regularly, and once in a while I email her and it feels familiar, that writing voice writing to her.  The me that she loved and accepted.  And I can’t throw away her letters because there she is, then and now.

When my mother died, I called her cousin in Wyoming to let her know.  I had never met her, but when I went through my mother’s address book, calling people I remembered her mentioning as important, I knew I had to call Cousin Jane.  Jane knew all about me, from my mother’s letters and long phone calls.  She knew my mother’s version of me, a beloved, accomplished daughter.  Now and then other cousins send me letters my mother wrote to them, and I get to hear from my mother again, in her letter writing voice, and she is so alive to me.

My first love and I were separated by an ocean early in our time together, and he wrote magnificent, witty, searching letters.  He wrote his way further into my heart, and I felt I knew him even better when we came together again.  Whole courtships can be conducted by letter, and have been.  I missed his voice when we broke up, and I still have those letters.

So many voices fill me up.

20200428_200122

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