Saturday, May 31, 2008

Eudora Welty on writing

Monday is it! I start working on my book.

When I work on writing something longer than a blog entry, I like to read what other writers say about writing. One of my favorite sources of inspiration comes from Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster. I'm not a novelist, and yet his insights are penetrating and repeatedly call me to better writing, to more honesty, to depth and complexity even while putting the words down one at a time.

I love, for instance, how Forster reveals the power of the written word in creating intimacy:
In daily life we never understand each other, neither clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. (My note: I think letter writing gets close and may be a lost art in self-disclosure.) We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy being one of the conditions of life upon this globe.
See what I mean? So insightful...

So as I get ready to write, I like to remind myself of what other writers have discovered on that bumpy path themselves.

Eudora Welty, a notorious southern writer (what is in their water? I swear, the South produces writing gods!) is best known for her short stories like "Why I Live at the P.O." and "A Worn Path." My favorite of hers is "No Place for You, My Love" (a less frequently taught story) which takes a pair of northerners who don't know each other and thrusts them into the hot, disorienting, sultry air and space south of New Orleans, where they share a series of secret moments that brings them to life, even if only temporarily.

Welty is an artist, each word chosen for its exact right placement. There are no misplaced words, no accidental phrases. I remember reading an interview with her in Vanity Fair years ago where she explained that she would type her stories up on her old keyboard, then put the pages on a bulletin board. With scissors, she'd snip individual words and move them to the new "right" place using push pins. Sometimes the last line moved to the front of the piece and the opening words would take cover at the end, for that final surprise.

She writes in On Writing,
Great fiction, we very much fear, abounds in what makes for confusion; it generates it, being on a scale which copies life, which it confronts. It is very seldom neat, is given to sprawling and escaping from bounds, is capable of contradicting itself, and is not impervious to humor. There is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer. Humanity itself seems to matter more to the novelist than what humanity thinks it can prove....

The first act of insight is to throw away the labels. In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about—these become our characters, and go to make our plots. Characters in fiction are conceived from within, and they have, accordingly, their own interior life; they are individuals every time. The character we care about in a novel we may not approve of or agree with—that's beside the point. But he has got to seem alive. Then and only then, when we read, we experience or surmise things about life itself that are deeper and more lasting and less destructive to understanding than approval or disapproval.
My writing takes me to the trepidatious (yes, new word) border land of my own family: giving them voice, actions, habits and attitudes according to my flawed perceptions, murky memories, shames and joys.

It helps me to remember that even while I write about real people, they are also characters within the scope of my narrative. I'll let you know how it all goes! Monday: library, four hours without Internet. And so it begins....

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Best I Ever Had

I never post song lyrics and embedded YouTubes as I usually skip all YouTubes on other people's blogs (unless they include Bono or Obama). Within the last couple weeks, though, I've been listening a lot to Vertical Horizon's "Everything that You Want" CD. I went for a run earlier, hooked up to my iPod, and I loved this song today. Longing, love, emotional angst... the mid-twenties male vocalist. :)

This particular YouTube includes some really expressive photos so that's what made me post it here.

I've included the lyrics below.

So you sailed away
Into a grey sky morning
Now I'm here to stay
Love can be so boring

Nothing's quite the same now
I just say your name now

But it's not so bad
You're only the best I ever had
You don't want me back
You're just the best I ever had

So you stole my world
Now I'm just a phony
Remembering the girl
Leaves me down and lonely

Send it in a letter
Make yourself feel better

But it's not so bad
You're only the best I ever had
You don't need me back
You're just the best I ever had

And it may take some time to
Patch me up inside
But I can't take it so I
Run away and hide
And I may find in time that
You were always right
You're always right

So you sailed away
Into a grey sky morning
Now I'm here to stay
Love can be so boring

What was it you wanted
Could it be I'm haunted

But it's not so bad
You're only the best I ever had
I don't want you back
You're just the best I ever had
The best I ever had
The best I ever

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Johannah

As Johannah wraps up her first year at OSU, she called last night to announce to us that she was voted the new President of the Ohio State Chapter of Amnesty International for next year! This photo was taken on her trip out to DC for the national conference of college kids who volunteer for Amnesty.

Yeah, freaking proud mom here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Hill-Dog raises spectre of assassination

It's not talked about above a whisper, but since Obama chose to run for office, those who love him and even those who don't, share one common unvoiced anxiety on his behalf: that the "lone gunman" will find him and take him out.

So today, when Hillary Clinton explained why she will stay in the nomination race through June, jaws dropped across America (fans and foes both):
"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it," she said, dismissing calls to drop out.
Uh, so we are supposed to believe that the common thread in this comment is June! She's not trying to chase uncommitted superdelegates to her camp through fear?

She back pedaled once she drew immediate criticism:
Clinton criticized an "urgency" to end the campaign prematurely, saying, "Historically, that makes no sense."

She later issued an apology for the remark.

"I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation and in particular the Kennedy family was in any way offensive. I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever," the former first lady said.
Hmmm. No apology to the Obamas. Or his campaign.

DKos points out that if this had been the only time Clinton had made this remark, a generous reading of her comment could allow for mis-speaking. However, she made the same remark in March. There's a calculation to her comments that leaves many of us breathless.

One other point. If anything (God forbid) did happen to Obama between now and the convention, whether or not Hillary campaigns through June would not change the likelihood of her taking his place as the nominee.

Somehow, it feels as though she's hopeful that some event (even an unthinkable, horrific crime) might occur as long as it secures the nomination for her. It's just wrong!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Obama in Portland Oregon

where clearly is he is loved.

Check out these photos (the entry from DKos has some gratuitous shots at the end for male sports fans - but the Obama photos are stunning!)

Here's what the NYTimes says about that event (75,000 in Oregon!).
An estimated 75,000 gathered on the banks of the Willamette River in Portland on Sunday to see Barack Obama.

“Wow! Wow! Wow!” were his first words, as he surveyed the multitude, which included people in kayaks and small pleasure craft on the river.

He's going to win... everything.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

With permission via the DailyKos

This about says it all: So popular, they ran out of the REAL bumper stickers.

You're looking at your Democratic Presumptive Nominee: Barack Obama.

Happy Mother's Day to you and me

Some days I'm overcome with how lucky I am to be a mother. Today was one of them.

It's like these people, all big and gangly, with long arms and facial hair, glasses and opinions, senses of humor and ideas you never taught them, suddenly surround you to give you gifts and say they love you. And the whole time I'm caught between remembering Liam's soft curly red hair that I used to tuck under my chin when I'd rock him in the rocker and the very real presence of the now 13 year old boy who went to see Tegan and Sarah, his favorite band, on Friday night at the local club called, I kid you not, Bogart's!

I can see why grandparents spend so much time with tears in their eyes. It's hard to take it all in!

We have a Mother's Day ritual. We go to this wonderful little restaurant called, "The Grand Finale." It's in a classically old Cincinnati house in a quaint suburb. The atmosphere is a little crowded, with old wood tables and rickety chairs, flowered wallpaper that has that 1930s feel and big windows with panes and pansies in little boxes.

GF is known for its delicious food (most of it French style cuisine - my fave): little quiches, spinach crepes, chicken livers (I know - most people hate them but I love them), mushrooms, artichoke hearts with eggs on top and hollandaise, fresh fruit salad, bread pudding with hard tack sauce... that kind of thing. Jon tried to order mimosas and was reminded again of how retro Ohio is... no alcohol served before 1 p.m. on Sundays. :)

Jon and Liam got up early to stake out a place in line as there are no reservations, and waited two hours in the rain to secure a table in the first seating! Talk about love.

I picked up Noah from downtown. It poured dangerous rain the whole way on the freeway, and I swear I thought I might die today - almost swerved off the road a couple times, had a car nearly lose control in front of me, and finally came up far too quickly on stopped traffic to a fallen tree that crossed four lanes! Noah and I had a great chat about linguistics, the Swedish prog metal band called "Plan of Salvation" and his girlfriend. He's an awesome person. Never a shortage of good stuff to talk about with Noah.

We all arrived at the restaurant in three cars: Jon and Liam went ahead, Caitrin and Jacob came next, and then Noah and I. With the price of gas, you'd think we could manage to drive together. :)

Johannah was missed but we sent her text pix with messages and she texted back. She's in NYC with the humanities scholars and they are doing it all, like going to the Met and seeing Phantom on Broadway.

Gifts were of the jewelry variety this year: Liam gave me adorable cardinal bird earrings - one male and one female. Caitrin and Jacob each gave me sterling silver bracelets (one says mere mother madre and the other has little discs that say things like luck, health, wealth, love, joy etc. with the Chinese character on the back). Jon added to my bracelet of troll beads. Johannah had sent ahead a calendar from Amnesty Int'l. and Noah brought himself, which is about all he can afford, I have a hunch. :)

The kids did most of the talking, bantering back and forth, inside jokes, shared interests, news I hadn't heard, playful teasing. I moved into that happy "sit back and enjoy" mode which I so cherish now. E. M. Forster once wrote in A Room with a View that Mr. Emerson always thought it a treat when other people could meet his son. I felt that way today... only it was I who was being treated to the pleasure of their company!

And I reflected: this is the pay-off for all those years of juggling little ones, chasing toddlers and nagging middlers to use their forks and not their hands.

One of those days I feel so good about... so glad to have great kids and a happy family. That's what I've always wanted.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Midlife Physical for Life Insurance

Besides all this crazy internal growth, apparently my forties are my chance to catch up to my female peers.

I grew half an inch this year... in height! I'm now a towering 5'3".

I gained a cup size. Victoria's Secret, here I come.

My feet shrunk a half size: from a 7 to a 6 and a 1/2.


I knew I was a late bloomer, but this is ridiculous.

Whoever said the forties were the second adolescence got it right.

Monday, May 05, 2008


When I finally got to Watsonville, where my mom lives, I let down. The anxiety of LA, the press of mid-life issues faded. I had time to myself. One of my rituals when I'm in California is to get alone, just me and a beach.

So my second morning at my mom's, I borrowed her old stick shift and drove to Manresa State Beach. I flipped on 1970s rock on the radio, rolled down the driver's side window, and drove like I used to when I was 16: down windy roads, steering easily, shifting confidently. It was unbelievably wonderful to drive like that. "Freebird" was playing and I laughed about it. Such an old standard that I usually would turn off. I didn't that day.

I switched stations as I swung into my parking space and Linkin Park sang: "And the shadow of the day, will embrace the world in grey... and the sun will set for you."

And because Linkin Park sang it, it was so: overcast and cold (which is just how I like the coastline sometimes when it fits my mood). I wore a brown sweater over a light blue turtleneck. I parked in the lot that overlooked the ocean. I strolled down the ramp to the wet sand below and stopped to watch the dozens of sand piper babies and their mothers scatter across the shore.

But I had come to the beach with a purpose so I set out to make it happen.

Several years ago, Claire, an online friend, gave me a pack of cigarettes as a joke sort of. Being one of the most drug resistant teens to ever have walked the face of the earth, cigarettes were never on my radar for experimentation. But midlife peer pressure exerted itself on me. Her gift became this taunt, this tease. Will you ever smoke me? the cigarettes nagged. And somehow, that invitation became a fantasy: I imagined myself smoking on the beach all alone some day in the future. Living in Ohio, that opportunity never came. And to be honest, I don't think I had the internal nerve to carry it out anyway.

But as I packed my clothes for the trip, my hand accidentally knocked against the little red and brown pack in my underwear drawer. On a whim, I tossed it into my suitcase with a book of matches... just in case.

By the time I got to Watsonville, I knew I had to, wanted to smoke, even though I wasn't quite sure why.

I can hardly express how weird it is that I would want to smoke, to light up, to put a cigarette to my mouth. I've been such a non-smoker, don't like how it smells on clothes or people's breath, always want the non-smoking section in a restaurant, saw smoking as something rebels or weak people did, etc.

But this was different.

It felt like one of those Sue Monk Kidd moments. She's the one who wrote Dance of the Dissident Daughter and is all about feminist spirituality. She cobbled together a spirituality of touch stone events and rituals that are personally meaningful to her using items like seashells, statuettes of the goddess Nike, candles and driftwood. I haven't related to that at all as I'm such a pragmatist at heart (not contemplative).

But I swear - that day - smoking on the beach was my spiritual act—a claiming of me for me—a refusal to allow conventions and fear to dictate my life. I smoked so that I could stare down the pride of non-smoking and the anxiety that goes with smoking. I smoked because it seemed like it might feel good to do it. I smoked because no one would expect me to. I smoked so I could simply have the experience and write about it authentically. I smoked because, dammit, I wanted to.

So of course, the lofty intention of smoking was immediately humbled when the first cigarette broke in two between my fingers. Six matches flared and went out before I even got them near a cigarette; my fumbling fingers knocked the book of matches to a wet sandy floor, nearly ruining their ability to ignite. It took me repeated attempts to protect the little match flame from the strong breeze that came from the north across my back before it singed the tobacco at the end. I tried to inhale but couldn't coordinate the flame, my cupped hand and my breathing over the course of the next three matches.

Persistence paid off, however, and I finally managed to draw the flame into the end of my very first cigarette and it lit—a soft orange glow. I turned around on the driftwood log to face the enormous grey-green ocean, rolling softly with waves. I sucked in the smoke; didn't inhale for a bit. I just got used to dragging smoke into my mouth, holding it, and blowing it out (like a pipe smoker might). I watched the ocean and then I'd watch my exhaled smoke float away in curlicues. My mouth felt tingly and tarry.

Exhilarating. I liked it. I crossed my arms, let the cigarette hang off my fingers like I'd been chain smoking for twenty years and took in the whole world. I could see the distant horizon as I blew smoke at it.

The next drag, I drew smoke into my lungs and that burned a bit and felt suffocating. So I went back to just sucking the smoke into my mouth, then holding it a moment and finally blowing it out. I loved to watch it float away.

My whole body unwound. The tension, drained. I rested, for the first time all week. I sat, staring, relaxing, thinking private thoughts and being unaccountably happy... while I smoked. I felt a quiet power—a secret I shared with myself... a breaking with the little legalisms of my past. I did not die.

Once I finished my cigarette, I took a really long walk and watched the sand pipers run up and down the shore. I passed two hot 20-something surfers, zipped up in wetsuits. The iceplant on the hills popped with yellow-orange and light purple flowers glowing against the green. The surf didn't roar, but raced quietly on and off the shore in a low hiss. The clouds burst into a shower so I worked my way back toward where my car was parked, not caring that I was getting wet. I lit a second cigarette, easily this time, and smoked it slowly all the way back. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale... wisps wafting away in the rain.

I have now officially smoked two cigarettes by myself on the beach. Unforgettable, matched only by the strange, emotional week. Seemed to be the right symbol of who I am about now. For the rest of the day, any time my fingers were near my face, I could smell the lingering tobacco scent and it made me smile.

Bruce Springsteen says that sometimes we need to break our own narrative to find out what would happen, to surprise ourselves. That is exactly what smoking represented for me - a break with the good girl, the predictable, transparent, orderly Julie. I don't plan to smoke as a habit. But I needed to that day, for whatever reason, to make a mess of me. And it was good. I may smoke again; I may not. Who knows?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

When yin and yang are whack

Once I kissed my father good-bye, I hopped in the car for one of my favorite activities in the world: driving up the 101 ("Ventura Highway" of America fame). The ocean erupts on your left as you hit Oxnard and north. The beaches on the way to Santa Barbara are almost close enough to reach out the driver's side window to run your fingers through the surf.

Because California loves me, the sun shone and the clouds skipped town.

I made a quick phone call to my best friend from high school whose home I would stay in that night to give her my ETA. Dana answered, on her way to drinking mimosas with a friend who needed help preparing papers for a custody battle—midlife mess erupting on the phone.

"Aren't you glad your marriage and family life are sane?" I sighed.

Dana paused. "My life is not sane, Julie. We'll talk when you get here."


I clicked "end" on my cell, preparing myself for news I immediately knew and didn't want to know.

A little historical context would be helpful right about now. When I was 16, Dana slept over the night my parents announced that my dad would move out. She and I were laughing and talking in my bedroom when my mom called me to the kitchen.

In the too-brightly-lit space, my brother and sister draped themselves over a couple of orange chairs and my mom fiddled with the pink saucepan she'd been given for a wedding gift 17 years earlier. My dad stood awkwardly in front of the sliding glass door, which showed me his back. He made a simple statement: he'd gotten one of those awful apartments with the incessant fruit fly problem over near the Topanga mall. He'd move out in the morning.

No conversation. No discussion. I walked back to my bedroom, a different person than when I'd left it: child of separation. Dana and I didn't laugh. The night was wrecked.

Of all the people in my life today, only a handful knew my parents as a married couple. Dana is one of them. She watched my family, so good, so wholesome, so together, completely fall apart. Her own mother picked up the pieces of my emotional life by serving me plates of the best spaghetti ever made and letting me drink big glasses of wine, even though I was only 16. Dana likes to tell me, "I've never forgiven your parents."

So there I was heading north aware that Dana's news would be of the particularly awful kind. Her daughters in high school and college were facing the very unforgivables I had lived already, at the same ages. And all I could do for any of them was show up, pour wine, and tell Dana that I wouldn't ever forgive her husband for what he'd done to her, either.

In the strange universe of yin and yang, we'd swapped places. Midlife takes no prisoners, apparently.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Divorce Generation Grows Up

I found this Newsweek article about adult children of divorce through a backtracking link to my Forgiveness post.

What struck me in the first paragraph: this writer is speaking about the San Fernando Valley in California, where I grew up. Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett? They lived up the hill from me while they were married. So did Steve Garvey, and Dennis Weaver was a few cul-de-sacs away. Sarah Vaughn and David Gates both had daughters in my class at Calabasas High. We were the class of 1979, though, not '82 like the article writer. And yes, equally raised on "The Brady Bunch."

Meanwhile, some of the most promising candidates for longterm happy family life in my neck-of-the-stucco-home-woods fell prey to the divorce-epidemic which did seem to start in southern California in the mid-1970s.
It's been more than a quarter century since the Grant High class of '82 donned tuxes and taffeta and danced to Styx's "Come Sail Away" at the senior prom, and nearly four decades have passed since no-fault divorce laws began spreading across the country. In our parents' generation, marriage was still the most powerful social force. In ours, it was divorce. My 44-year-old classmates and I have watched divorce morph from something shocking, even shameful, into a routine fact of American life.

But while it may be a common occurrence, divorce remains a profound experience for those who've lived through it. Researchers have churned out all sorts of depressing statistics about the impact of divorce. Each year, about 1 million children watch their parents split, triple the number in the '50s. These children are twice as likely as their peers to get divorced themselves and more likely to have mental-health problems, studies show. While divorce rates have been dropping—off from their 1981 peak to just 3.6 per 1,000 people in 2006—marriage has also declined sharply, falling to 7.3 per 1,000 people in 2006 from 10.6 in 1970. Sociologists decry a growing "marriage gap" in which the well educated and better paid are staying married, while the poor are still getting divorced (people with college degrees are half as likely to be divorced or separated as their less-educated peers). And the younger you marry, the more likely you are to get divorced.

Yet all these statistics fail to show the very personal impact of divorce on the individual, or how those effects can change over a lifetime as children of divorce start families of their own. (my bold) When we were growing up, divorce loomed as the ultimate threat to innocence, but what were my peers' feelings about it now that they were adults? What I wanted to know was how divorce had affected our class president and Miss Congeniality, the stoners and the valedictorian. Did it leave them with emotional scars that never healed, or did they go on to lead "normal" lives? Did they wind up in divorce court, or did they achieve the domestic bliss their parents had sought in suburbia? I decided to open my yearbook, pick up the phone and find out. These are their stories—or at least their side of their stories, since each breakup is perceived so differently by every family member.
As I read the article, it struck me that David's curiosity is also mine: what happened to those of us who come from messed up families? I've begun with myself because that's the easiest source material. If you have a similar experience, I'd love to know how it's turning out for you. Please post your "adult child of divorce" reflections in the comments section, if you are so inclined.

What a powerful discussion topic this is turning out to be.

I do know one thing: My sister and I were both so traumatized by our parents' divorce, we've made every effort to stay married for our kids... we don't want them to suffer what we went through. I wonder if growing up with divorce leads some of us to be better married partners... cautionary tale and all of that.

Another excerpt:
Despite the dire predictions, a surprising number of Grant alums wound up in solid marriages. My buddy Chris made good on his high-school promise to let me be best man at his wedding—I gave him my "Fat Albert" lunchbox as a wedding present—and 15 years later he's still happily married, and living with his wife and two daughters near Houston, where he works for a company that conducts pharmaceutical clinical trials. "My life since my parents' divorce has been shaped to a tremendous degree by the goal of avoiding divorce as an adult at all costs," says Chris, whose parents both died of cancer within months of one another in 2001.

In many ways, the urge to stay married is stronger in my classmates' generation than the urge to get divorced was in my parents'. Perhaps this was a backlash to divorce; maybe it was the result of reaching marrying age just as President Reagan's New Conservatism was shaping the social order. Whatever the cause, my married classmates seem more clear-eyed than their '50s forebears.
I would agree with the statement about the Reagan era's social conservatism. Many of us were reacting to what felt like the chaotic moral fall-out of the 1960's that manifested in full color in the 1970's. That's about the only explanation I have for why so many of us have become such hardened conservatives in our forties.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Happy May Day!

We planted three trees yesterday: two pines and one fir... insurance against nuclear winter 2009. Last summer's drought left me bereft of green from January to March. No more! Today, I plan to drape the tiny Christmas-looking tree outside my office window with streamers of hot pink, cerulean and chartreuse while doing a dance in a circle, half-clad, worshiping a goddess of my own making. (And she shall be called, "la Déesse de Cabernet Sauvignon, chin chin.")

My midlife series is still in progress with the next post in mid-edit, which means that it's currently over-written, self-indulgent, obvious and tedious. When I thwack it with my editing machete, I'll put it up for your reading pleasure or pain - whichever gets you off. :)

Until then, drink to the goddess within!

Update: Would you even believe that this morning, as I'm working on a product for Brave Writer, I came across these marvelous, appropriate words for my Maypole Dance in the book Mossflower:
Free has a sound, it rings around,
A lovely way to be.
So dance or sing, do anything,
You’re free free free free freeeeeeeeeeeee!