The Writer’s Path

Willow

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. …

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It’s the streaming reason for living.

To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing,

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to cherish the oddities,

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to let nothing go down the drain,

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to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

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Infamy in a Small Town

In a small town there may be one (at most two) people who are impressed with you because you’ve written NOVELS. Fair enough. Why should they be impressed? After all you did get the Donkey Basketball  fundraiser cancelled when you wrote that thoughtful letter to the school superintendent questioning the idea of people humiliating donkeys who probably would rather not be laughed at and kicked up and down a slippery gym floor. You think it a bit much that the teacher who organized the event called you a bitch to her high school class (she doesn’t even know you and your step-daughter was in the classroom at the time and almost died), but you forgive the teacher–the event in past years made a lot of money and it was her claim to fame.

No one cares if you’re a writer when you are the second wife of a Navy man in a small town because the first wife is a native daughter with a, let’s say, talkative way about her and a talent for spinning sad stories of her own. At the bank they called you “the second wife” in derisive whispers, but they’ve warmed up to you a little since they see how often you make banking mistakes.

025And they all know about the time you were in a hurry to attend a parent/teacher meeting, swung into a parking spot and barely touched the car next to yours (a teacher’s car). You panicked, went home to bring a child back to ask this child if he saw any marks on the teacher’s car, went home again to get cleaning fluid, came back to leave a note, took away the note and never even considered just going into the school to tell what happened. A few days later the school called and you gave a tearful apology. Luckily there really was no damage to either car, but still, things like that–and the fact that you drive a white minivan with a CUBS license plate–stick with people.

Your husband counts down the years until his almost grown children will no longer sing in school chorus programs, but you quite enjoy the band and some of the songs (though not the theme songs from Disney movies). The Navy guy always sits way in the back of the auditorium so he doesn’t have to see his ex-wife. On this night you have along with you a lovely though fragile foster kid. She’s excited. She wants to feel grown-up and sits a few seats down. When the auditorium gets crowded and a student on stage asks for quiet you whisper to the girl to move closer. She pretends  not to hear you so you whisper louder and more imploringly. This triggers a secret horrible memory of her abusive mother who had a fondness for electrical tape. The girl whispers your name with big eyes and confesses she’s scared. Before you can do a thing and as the first nervous notes of a student soloist hit the air the foster girl screams your name–at least three times as you head for the door.

The show is stopped. The room is silent. Everyone recovers their senses. The show begins again, but you’re outside trying to calm the kid down. She’s having none of it and runs away. The Navy guy says let her run or she’ll keep stealing the show. It gets dark. The concert ends, and we’ve been searching for over an hour–with the police. Each car that leaves the show is stopped to be shown a picture of the little girl. The drivers glance over to see the Navy man answering questions about the girl in the squad car. What must they think? Someone says what they think: I saw that girl being kidnapped from the concert!

037You drive towards home but turn around thinking she couldn’t have made it this far. You turn around again because you really have no idea what to do and 8 miles from the school, nearly at your front door you see a small girl running in the distance with a coat over her head for safety. She’s run in flip flops along a highway and made it over a narrow unlit bridge spanning the Hudson. It boggles the mind. The cops are notified and everyone is relieved–or embarrassed. The Navy kids’ phones are blowing up with chatter and sympathy. Some EMS workers are a little disappointed they didn’t get to do a full-scale search through the fields surrounding the town.

You thought junking the minivan and buying a black SUV would allow you some anonymity, but no. Your name though hardly known for a novel you wrote will live in infamy at the school auditorium.

PS~I actually love my small town life and the people I meet, most of whom would give the shirts off their backs to help in times of trouble. I found the entire run away episode really funny–especially since unlike me my husband is a very private soul. Seeing him in the squad car will be a priceless memory for our family, and once the little girl was found we all laughed a lot. BTW, the policemen were wonderfully supportive, too!

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Robert Todd Lincoln: Airing Dirty Laundry

110What does one say about a son who commits his mother into an insane asylum? With images of dark and dank cellars and mistreatment of patients we tend to tsk-tsk yet Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of Abraham and Mary had money to put his mother up in a posh asylum. Still, Mary seething with hidden anger, pretending at tranquility, spent every waking hour at the asylum planning her escape.

How could a successful son of the famous Lincoln  despite his best efforts at distancing himself from his father’s name throw his poor mother away–and humiliate her? The public of the time and historians for a long while were in the dark and what they knew only made young Robert (in his thirties when he had his mother committed) seem callous.

Robert complained sometimes that his success no matter how he tried to avoid it was fueled by his name. Yes, he was a talented businessman and occasional government worker, but people wanted his name attached to their pursuits. No matter that Robert believed thoroughly he was a jinx. On hand for far too many tragedies Robert in later life avoided attending anything presidential for fear of bringing death upon the commander in chief.

059When in the 1970’s Robert’s sprawling summer estate, HILDENE, fallen into disrepair and ready for demolition was saved by a devoted group of Manchester, Vermont people a safe was found in Robert’s room. With money from his many successful endeavors–one being a part of the famous Pullman rail car company, Robert had built the summer retreat to escape his many cares.

I imagine though he admitted to never being close to his ambitious father who traveled and was killed, that so much death in the family and the responsibility of taking care of what some historians now say was a very narcissistic Mary Todd Lincoln felt like a millstone around his neck. After only a very short time  having Mary live with his wife and young family in Chicago, his wife moved out briefly. Caring for Mary sucked the oxygen from the once happy home.

077Some say Mary having seen so much death and felt so much sorrow suffered not from narcissism, but post traumatic stress disorder. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Suddenly become angry or irritable.
  • Have a hard time sleeping.
  • Have trouble concentrating.
  • Fear for your safety and always feel on guard.
  • Be very startled when someone surprises you.
  • Physical symptoms for no reason you can think of (called somatic complaints).
  • Feelings of shame, despair, or hopelessness.
  • Difficulty controlling your emotions.
  • Problems with family or friends.
  • Impulsive or self-destructive behavior.
  • Changed beliefs or changed personality traits.

For years Robert was seen as an unfeeling son by many until the safe was opened at Hildene and the true anguish of a son was revealed. Without daytime television or confessional blogging Robert and his wife quietly withstood the whispered remarks about throwing his mother away (she was released 4 months into her stay at BELLVIEW PLACE–where the rich went to regain their minds). The files revealed a different side of Robert. A young man only ten years after his father’s assassination watching his mother become more erratic, more impulsive, more dangerous to herself and others.

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As I live with a child suffering from PTSD I’m horrified at the random impulsiveness, the drinking of detergent, the many, many triggers that contribute to the brain’s unraveling. Robert’s young family must have watched on too with growing fear and concern. Even if Mary was only a narcissist Robert had a mess on his hands and  knew it. He cared deeply for his mother. He cared deeply for his wife and children. He set Mary up in the best possible health program he could find, but it wasn’t enough.

065Mary never forgave her son. Robert never set out on a public relations campaign to retrieve his reputation. Only years after his death the grief this private man felt was revealed. Behind the big cars and palatial estates was a man with ghosts in his closet.

A Desk Of One’s Own

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Little reminders of your cluttered soul perched atop your very own place. Not a whole room, just a spot.

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Sheaffer Skrip Ink given a comfy home in an old jar and the well-worn nib wait for snowy days when all there is to do is write.

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For quick notes jotted when time is short inky pens do the trick.

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Coffee, the trusted stimulator.

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Tucked away notes.

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And the words of others sitting close by.

These things and the sounds outside the door–a rooster crowing, a dog scratching its ear and impatient for a walk and the muffled talk of family making music of their own–these things make books.

http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-house-on-tenafly-road/

“Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, When I give I give myself.” Walt Whitman

The miserable days of yore . . .

The miserable days of yore . . .

We seem to imagine every last woman of the past in forlorn servitude to a carefree man. But what if things weren’t so simple? What if being human was tough and wonderful at the same time? What if the reason we often feel so at odds with the other sex is because we are selfish? (both man and woman)

Even in a corset she looks joyful.

Even in a corset she looks joyful.

Maybe we laugh about it sometimes. Maybe we grudgingly admit that in every generation there are men and women who smile and make do. These people stay when it’s tough to stay. They play cards with children when they’d rather sail to China.

Aw, c'mon! One more hand.

Aw, c’mon! One more hand.

Some people don’t like to hear it these days but there was a time when men and women thought God, not their partner fulfilled the BIG needs. Our partners strain under the weight of being false gods. They can’t make us what our selfish selves want to be. A partner may take lovely photographs of us on our best days, but despairingly hold up the mirror on those ugly days of anger at having not gotten what we wanted.

A real god sends these partners not as a torture, but as a lesson in humility we should try our best not to run away from. Unhappy partners are often happy five years later if they stick it out–so say the studies. So says the dusty family Bible you save because grandma said to. Things in there are read out of context sometimes. There’s this thing about submitting to a husband I don’t like, but then there’s this thing about laying down your life for your wife. No one gets off easy– even today– but there’s something to the secret of SELFLESSNESS. I admit that this seems absurd and alien.

As I said, life can be tough and unfair, but some people smile and play the cards they’re dealt. They roll up their sleeves looking tough and beautiful.

Give me the lemons and I'll make lemonade.

Give me the lemons and I’ll make lemonade.

Images courtesy Chapman Historical Museum

WHAT IT REALLY MEANS:

Provocative Bible Verses: Wives Submit To Your Husbands

Capturing Soul

Once they were there.

Once they were there.

There was a family and once they were here. Present. Full of possibilities. Serious young men echoing each other in pose. Attuned to the remarkable ability of the camera to capture soul–sort of. It captures a static moment when boys just before manhood take themselves and the world seriously. One boy dapper and the other more rugged but each self-assured.

The girl, still in little girl clothes, wavers, just a little blurry about her place in this family and the universe. And there are others who flit about like fairies. Their ancient souls refusing to be captured and put on glass for some future beings who wouldn’t understand them no matter how they tried.

Boys stand heroes for the ages. Girls say life is but an instant, catch me if you can.

And then we were six

And then we were six

Strange little marks like worms in graves. And then there were six, and five, and four and finally one just barely remembering the smiling time on the porch in the summer. Yes, we smiled back then and moved too much, so full of the blood of life pulsing our veins, pushing us forward and eventually away from the womb-like porch and our mother–looking so heart-achingly young in this photo.

Photography and its deep silences, the things it doesn’t explain or show! Soul shows itself and hides at the same time. Who were they? What were they like?  Did their laughter last long?

The only answer: Once they were there.

The Nanny Diaries 19th Century Style

black nannies

One of my best friends was  a nanny. Minding the children was the easy part. Living in the family’s basement (though it was a nice basement) with no car, no legal rights (she over stayed her visa) and no windows was kind of bleak. Thank God she had me to take her drinking in Hoboken every Friday night. I remember how attached the children got to her and how upset they were when she left. My friend always grew to resent the parents of these children–annoyed that they had so little time for their own kids.8679708b43595b144c4a073d9f95e458 She worked in a very prosperous part of New Jersey and the parents felt my friend was lucky to have the opportunity to mingle with  the cultural elite. I enjoyed it, but I could leave at any time.

I wonder what these women thought. Some of them may have been slaves but others definitely were hired on. Some photos are from the US, but some were taken in other parts of the world. Obviously no one thought there was anything shameful about having a nanny or a nurse as they were usually called in the 19th century. If you look carefully at the first picture it appears that this nanny (with the nicest eyes I’ve seen in a long time) was married. Men sometimes make you smile like she does–or maybe her employers loved her and she loved them.

Playing horsey in Brazil.

Playing horsey in Brazil.

Now sometimes when parenting or minding children we find ourselves in weird positions we wouldn’t like to share with the world but seem fun at the time. If this was just a snapshot it might not seem so odd but . . .

A relative of mine adopted a Korean child and pretty much treated her like a house servant. I wonder how my relatives rationalized it. The girl had a brief rebellion, took a job at a fast food joint and if I remember correctly started dating bad boys for a while. What blurred lines there are in life!

My mother’s friend had a 98-year-old mother who needed home care assistance (the old lady disagreed and would often get up extra early to do her own bath and fix her hair before the lady from Trinidad arrived. The helper soon became a dear friend to everyone in the family and remains so long after the feisty old woman’s death.

What do we make of imaginary boundaries? What should we make of color boundaries? If we saw white nannies in these pictures would we think it quaint? Home health care aides do the work none of us want to do, but work that is so very important to the poor person too sick or weak to do for themselves.5140655625_2604153e48

I love the girl in this picture. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying her job. She looks like a very modern teenager. She’s probably already annoyed with changing diapers. The mother’s body language almost suggests a tug of war for baby though the teenager could care less.

My mother who pretty much raised herself often wondered why people had children if they didn’t want to raise them. My grandmother liked men and sex, but I’m not so sure she loved the responsibilities of child-rearing. I wonder if these women sometimes felt as my friend did–a mix of sadness and possessiveness towards the children being raised by hired help.

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GI Joe And Barbie Pondering The Meaning Of Life and Death/ Muses

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From the feminist perspective Barbie Dolls have been an easy example of unrealistic body image expectations, but as a writer I credit Barbie with the first real story lines I ever had. My young aunt went off to college and Europe, married a wimpy guy and half-forgot about her original Barbie collection so when my grandmother decided to move into our basement after my grandfather died (bad idea) she threw a lot of stuff out. She sent my aunt’s beloved cat to the pound and kicked the massive Barbie collection to the curb. We kids scooped up as much of it as we could. Home-made couches, an actual home-made house with lights that worked and ceramic plates along with trunks full of retro, extremely well-made clothes for the stiff-legged early model Barbies and the “wig-lady” Barbie who came with three 1960’s style wigs!

Our version of play went like this:

1. Line up the dolls and take turns picking your favorites.

2. Pile every bit of furniture, clothing, accessories into a heap, shout 1-2-3 and then grab as much as you can as quickly as you can. This method added to the economic drama of the game. The cute boy doll had to live with his poor family under the rocking chair, but all the rich girls loved him.

3. Spend around two days setting up house, quietly scheming the twists and turns of the actual game. Once my sister and I made the original Ken doll (we called him Peter Parker) be in a hipster band. We recorded his music into our cassette player and had him perform it once our friends got back from vacation one summer. It was a smashing success. Once we took the Marie Osmond doll we had, painted her green and made her a witch.

4. Play the game. The playing of the game never really competed for fun with the grabbing and setting up part. The process of building worlds and plotting lives held us captivated for hours and days–sometimes with breaks for meals and sleep the only time away from the imaginings. One year we made thousands of Play Dough pieces of food for the Barbies–watermelon, hamburgers and hot dogs. That took days.

My brother wasn’t allowed to bring friends into the house after a few near misses breaking my father’s stereo system, so he set fire and blew his army men up in the yard (his friends were banished from the yard then).

So this weekend when we visited The New York State Military Museum and Veterans’ Research Center in Saratoga Springs I was surprised to find this weird set of displays based on real events yet strangely similar to our childhood imaginings. This game is a little more intense.

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I was so mesmerized I didn’t even notice the stands holding the GI Joes up when I took the picture.

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http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/about.htm

So You Thought I Only Liked Weak Women? Not So Fast!

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Frida Kahlo

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Pistol Packin’ Mail Carrier Stage Coach Mary Fields–Here’s one woman who could drink, cuss and fight with the best of them while babysitting and building schools for the Indians. I could go on but this article says it all: http://www.badassoftheweek.com/fields.html

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courtesy Google UK

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courtesy fearnoarts.com

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courtesy commonswikimedia.org

Laura Bullion, female outlaw & member of the Wild Bunch gang, which also included gang leader Butch Cassidy, Elzy Lay, the Sundance Kid, Tall Texan, News Carver, Camila Hanks, Flat-Nose Curry, Kid Curry and Bob Meeks. 1893

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courtesy http://www.pinterest.com/kschetter/women-guns-that-s-what-i-m-talking-about/

It’s funny how guns even the playing field. There was a very brief time during my university years when I dreamed of a gun-free society, but then I read this book. When a bunch of Harvard Law professors rave about a book asking us to re-think gun control I take notice. This book is filled with eye-opening statistics and is thoroughly readable at the same time. I dare you to read this book! And we all love a good dare, don’t we?

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