Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading Maps

Yesterday, I spent some time in doodle therapy, thinking about what's taken me so long to finish and submit a novel. I've been writing since…well, since I could write, but I've never made one honest attempt at making a living as a writer. Actually, I've never even made one dishonest attempt. I've started dozens of novels, but until recently, I'd never finished one. I'd get within pages of finishing and always just abandon the project, ceasing any writing for sometimes a year or more.

It's never occurred to me to wonder why I have no follow through because, I think, the answer was always so patently clear that I didn't feel that I needed to think about it. The answer was simply that I would never be a writer. Of course, that's circular reasoning. I will never be a writer because I will never be a writer. It's the psychology of the thinking that I've finally begun to contemplate.

Why do I assume that I'll never be a writer?

So I began to doodle. First, I doodled my life as a writer…what it would be like. There's a lovely palace with a rose-clad tower and an open courtyard, a large, tidy vegetable garden and a topiary garden, honeybees and a friendly sunshine, bushes and trees bearing fruit. An idyllic place. Although, naturally, there must be a lot of work involved in the maintenance of such a place. But it's work that I love. Pruning hedges and digging in the black dirt around tomato plants and strawberries.

At the bottom, I doodled my life as it is. Not unpleasant. Idyllic in its own way. Fields of security and contentment, a safe fence keeping out dangers, a calm pool where I can reflect and rest. I could be satisfied for ever without becoming a writer, remaining confined in the world as I know it. However, there are hidden risks here in the safety too. The cow and the sheep never move. A shutter fell off the little cottage. Rolling up those hay bales, beautiful pillows that they are, is hard work and not what I want to do with my time.

From the cottage to the palace, I scribbled a curvy path, wondering what it was that kept me from making the journey from one end of the page to the other. I knew for certain about the forest, and so I added it first. Self-doubt. That's a tree in there. I'm not sure where it comes from. I've had a pretty good run. No one's ever told me that I couldn't or shouldn't be a writer. Quite the contrary. I've had lots of encouragement. But self-doubt seems to be the tree in greatest abundance. Then, there's the unknown. What will happen if I try? I know what will happen if I don't. Nothing. Nothing ventured, nothing lost. There's fear in there, a black, ragged tree that stoops over the path, menacingly waving its pointed limbs. Confusion and lack of focus as well. Just trying to imagine what might happen, what prevents me, what to do causes my head to clutter with dead leaves and fallen limbs.

But then if I trudge through, I gain courage and confidence; though I imagine I'll have nightmares about the forest forever. I think I'm in the forest now.

After the forest, I had to think a little harder, and the next point on the map was further back, just across the road from my little cottage. I built a high wall and put the Eiffel Tower in it and tiny tourists enjoying the experience. Two lounged on a picnic blanket, one painted it at his easel, a clown did somersaults, and two more people sat at a small table and toasted over a glass of wine. What is this little fantasy world? Envy. I'm not free of it. I keep it to myself, but I certainly feel it, and sometimes I convince myself that everyone I know is busy fulfilling their dreams but me. Of course, I imagine everyone feels that way sometimes though no one likes to cop to it. But that's not the only pitfall in this wonderland across the street. I peek over and compare myself to others there. I tell myself, for instance, "Of course, she gets to go, she's so much more clever than I am." There are hundreds of skills that other people have that I do not, and I could sit around all day and spend valuable writing time comparing and contrasting. An utter waste of my time and what effort I do have. And then again, maybe envy and unfair comparisons should be signs to me of where I need to focus my own efforts.

Beyond the forest, jagged, pointed mountains peak. Fatigue. Different fears. (What if I can't make it to the top? What if I slide back down? What if a rock hits me on the head and I get a concussion and forget how to write?) More self-doubt. Lack of inspiration to carry me all the way. (What if I run out of ideas?) What a cold and scary place, but wouldn't I gain insight from those heights? A new vista? Wouldn't those new vistas give me greater wisdom? Wouldn't wisdom and new heights give me more confidence? More ideas?

Finally, having passed through the mountains, weary and no doubt shocked, as I hadn't intended to go so far, I see the palace, but I also see a tidal wave storming towards me. I suppose its insecurity. I'm sure everyone feels it, even when they succeed. Perhaps especially when they succeed. But the wave is also passion and vitality, imagination and freedom.

Honestly, even after all that, I still don't know where these dangers begin. But then, beyond saying, "Yes, the walnut tree comes from a walnut," it's just as hard to say exactly which crow or squirrel deposited the nut just so. Beyond saying, "Yes, of course, the wave comes from the sea," it's impossible to say exactly which curve of the shore created the wave, which disturbance of water molecules. Instead of trying to figure out where my fears come from, maybe the best approach is to use the map to remind myself that overcoming every fear has a reward, even if its not the one that I'd hoped to gain. Every little step takes me one little step closer to where I want to be, and no steps take me nowhere at all.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Attempting New Lives

I am a short-sighted person. I can tell you honestly that I have never had a ten year plan. I'm not sure that I've ever had a one year plan. I have ideas, vague notions, castles in the sky, and when I'm called to make a decision, I generally do it with little forethought or planning.

No. That's not entirely accurate.

I do plan. Sometimes I plan for months. I scour atlases and worn, informative books, sketch detailed drawings or outlines in journals, clip images from magazines and paste them into other journals. And then, when the time comes to do the thing that I've been planning, I put all of the journals and books and atlases and images aside and do something entirely different.

My kitchen floor, for instance. As I peeled back the probably asbestos-ridden sixties tiles and scraped at the sticky adhesive day after day for a month, I imagined painting an Oriental rug in the center of the floor. I sketched it out and dreamed about it each night. However, when the time came to start it, I traced circles with a mixing bowl and painted in a pattern of circles and diamonds instead, not bothering to determine the mathematical center of the floor, by the way, which galled my math teacher neighbor.

For years, I've drawn layouts for my kitchen garden, but in the end, I threw it together, completely disregarding the geometric loveliness of my fantasy gardens. In fact, once again boggling my neighbor, in digging post holes for the entryway, I dug one too deep, causing the posts to be significantly different in height, but I left it that way, declaring it to be an artistic choice.

Now, I am at that stage in my life where I wonder if a ten year plan wouldn't have been a bright idea after all. What was it that I wanted to do? I know beyond a doubt that I didn't want to teach when I was in high school. I was dismayed when I got the Teaching Fellows scholarship. But here I am, and I'm not bad at it. The fact is, I even enjoy many aspects of teaching, the creativity, the kids, the summer vacations. The summer vacations can never be sold short.

Still, I'm sure that there was something else. Did I always want to be a writer? I can't remember. I know that I always wrote. I wrote short stories about monsters and talking dogs in kindergarten and short stories about mothers and children in high school. I penned imaginary newspapers and tons of terrible poems about love and death. But I'm not sure that I ever thought, "I want to be a writer when I grow up." Maybe I just never thought it was possible.

So here I am trying to decide if I was wrong-headed. If I never allowed myself to make the plan because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to follow through on it. And if that's the case, if I felt that I wouldn't be able to follow through because I wasn't writer material or because I'm an inherently lazy person who finds planning easy and follow through...well, work.

Regardless, it's back to revising the novel. I don't have a plan, but I have an idea. Maybe that's the best approach to attempting new lives after all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My son's dreams

I have been curious about my son's dreams since he was old enough to have them, since I watched him sleep in my arms as a warm, milky infant, his eyelids fluttering wildly as they do when the dreamer has entered his fantasy.

I wondered of course what fantasy infants could have when their whole world is new and fantastical, filled with giants and ephemeral faces moving in and out of view, unknown beasts and unexplained lights and sounds. How would an infant even know the difference between dreaming and waking?

And then when he was three, he started to recognize dreams for what they are. He had a terrible nightmare about a bunny rabbit who sat on top of his head and wouldn't get off. I spent days trying to imagine this dream and what made it so terrible, trying to envision the reality that his fresh little mind had created.

Fearful of more nefarious rabbits, Fain requested that I do something about his dreams, so I began to "make" dreams for him over his head before bedtime, throwing in pinches and dashes of things that he would like: candy islands, pirates, sea monsters, skies raining Transformers...no impertinent bunnies. When he would complain about a nightmare, I would assure him that I had checked on him in the night and that the dream that I'd made was playing out smoothly in the air over his head. I could see him there, and he was having a great time, fighting pirates and eating candy. It really did seem to convince him, and for a while, a few years, I didn't hear anymore about nightmares.

Until Tuesday night. The night before the school Christmas play. He woke Wednesday morning to tell me that he'd had a bad dream and that I was in it. I'd ruined his Christmas play! I asked what I had been doing to ruin it, and he told me that I'd been blowing kisses everywhere, kissing him in front of everybody.

Well, it's pretty clear to me that kisses and bunny rabbits are bad news to a young boy, and I suppose that's natural. I'd really like an opportunity to see this dream in which I am so sorely indicted of heinous public displays of affection, but in the mean time, I recognize a growing boy's need for his mom to back off, so I promised him that I would never kiss him in public again, to which he replied, "But you'll still kiss me, right? When I ask?"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Hill Where They Abandoned Old Women

I've been thinking about a book that I want to write. I have the title: The Hill Where They Abandoned Old Women, and I know that it will be divided into four sections, one for each season. I know more, but I won't tell yet because it's too early, but it has me contemplating time.

I imagine time in a Victorian lady's traveling gown, green velvet, hair a ringleted mass crowned by a tiny hat with a large ostrich feather. She sits on a wooden bench at a depot, her back line-straight. She has booked passage, and she awaits her transportation demurely, smoke curling around her, dampness in the morning air.

Of course, time does not wait. She booked passage years ago, and she has been riding ever since, I suppose, but it never seems that way to me, and the very idea of time overwhelms me when I try to make sense of it.

Time is really the addition or subtraction of elements from our lives. In this moment, there is the scent of freshly brewed coffee in the air and the sound of the heater sighing its warm breath through the rooms. There is an absence of my son's capering adventures with imaginary heroes and villains because he is asleep still. As time passes, he will wake and there will be an absence of stillness and the addition of silliness, and I will know that time has passed.

If all remained the same, no aging, no births, no giggling or crying, we'd never note the passage of time; we'd sit stiff as boards there beside time at the depot, wishing for a game of I Spy to remedy our boredom, but there wouldn't be anything new to spy, and so we'd remain bored.

Time gets a bum rap, and so does age. Years and decades pass, filled with delight and with hardshipa, and then you reach a certain age when all that defined you slips away, your appearance, your job, your children, all of it, but I've listened to my grandmother tell stories about her grandmother, and I see that what is left is all of your time, given back like a Christmas gift to share with anyone who will sit still and share. All of your time is given back when you grow old, and the sharp edges are worn away like green glass on a beach, and your time is soft and smooth and lovely to behold

Monday, December 13, 2010

Snow Day Hoodoo

This morning, I woke at 4:00 to write, a habit that has taken several months to become habitual. Snow was whipping around in the dim cone of light projected onto the darkness by the street lamp next door.

I quickly paced through the house, turning the light over the stove on long enough to get a pot of coffee brewing, flipping lights on and off to finish the little tasks that have become my morning ritual. Normally, I would leave lights on all over the place, but not on a morning when snow is falling. Silly as it is, I've got myself convinced that if I leave a light on, it will somehow affect the delicate weather pattern. Hoping against hope for a snow day requires certain superstitious sacrifices. I will not contribute even a joule to the heating of the immediate vicinity through reckless light emission.

So devoted am I to the snow day that I have on countless occasions performed snow day dances. Fain and I frequently pray for them.

To the teacher who argues that we'll have to make them up at the end of school, I say that the end of school may never come. Any number of natural or manmade disasters or acts of God could come between today and that precious June day when we are all released from our scholarly servitude. We are promised only today, so let's make it a snow day.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Infinite Variety of Christmas Trees

I pulled down all off my Christmas boxes before Thanksgiving. I admit it. The busted, brown boxes overcrowded with ornaments that span my life and some that predate my time were all stacked up, forming a fortress in the living room on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

I love Christmas, but it was not holiday joviality that caused me to start working early. It was the irritability that decorating for the holiday generates. I wanted to get it over with before Thanksgiving.

I'm not one of those women who spends a week decorating. (My neighbor is, God love her, and she usually waits until the week before Christmas. At the last minute, her house becomes a photo spread for Southern Living.) If I can't get it done in a day, it's not worth doing. That's my motto in most endeavors. In truth, if my attention is diverted within an hour, it's pretty much all done but the Christmas goose.

That Saturday, I attempted to decorate and clean the house at the same time, a laughable feat, with Christmas music playing until my son decided to use the laptop to play video games while I worked (thanklessly) on the task that he had personally requested, at which point, I began to threaten the very existence of the holiday season. He, fearful that he would not get the coveted Nintendo DS, carefully got the Johnny Matthis "Marshmallow World" going again to drown out mommy's growling, and I finally gave up before the tree was decorated, having discovered that many of the pre-lit lights had suffered in my parents' attic and given up the Christmas ghost.

Later in the week, we had a friend and her child over as well as the neighbors for a tough roast and cold mashed potatoes (because that's how I roll), and I let the two boys decorate the tree, much to the amazement of my friends. As I mentioned, my neighbor has one of those really beautiful white light color coordinated Christmas trees and my friend has always had the same. They've got the really lovely fragile ornaments that children really shouldn't handle.

My tree is not so. First, there's the outed lights. I'm not going around the tree trying to figure out which one is the traitor, so I just wrapped some more (multi-colored) lights around the branches to hide the dim little corpses. Then, there's the selection of ornaments. One, for example, that elicited the comment, "You're really going to put that on the tree?" is a cheap-o stuffed rhinoceros that Fain and I were forced to decorate in pre-school. Yes, it's hideous with its cotton ball Santa beard and felt Christmas vest, but I can't quite bring myself to leave it in the box. There's a puff ball ornament, what I think is meant to be a yellow and blue owl, that belonged to my parents before I was born. It was always one of my favorites because it was so ridiculous.

So the boys hung the ornaments, mostly on the same five lower branches, which I did rectify later, and the tree looks really lovely to me now. Like a quilt or a homemade cookie.

I find myself excited by lunch time at the idea of going home to see my cozy little cottage, warm and full of twinkling lights, like a star in a kaleidoscope. A Christmas tree, whether pristine silver and white perfection or a Charlie Brown fiasco, makes a home feel different. Makes it feel like just the place you want to be at the end of the day.
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A Mirror, A Summer, A Street by Autumn Crisp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.