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New Year's Day. I change calendars, both wall ones and ones I use to keep track of "to-do's," from doctor appointments to submitting novels. I make resolutions. I didn't make good-luck black eyed peas because we're out of the yellow rice my son likes, but we go see "The Artist" and watch the Bulls home opener and he explains basketball terms like "pick and roll" to me, and the Bulls demolish the Memphis team. Symbolically, I write in notebooks and begin printing the novel I want to work on this year, and I play a scale on Red (my violin).
Brrr. A new year is started, which means the end of the holiday season that warmed me with Christmas red and green lights on trees despite dark streets, that almost made up for the lack of leaves and flowers and warm breezes. It's the same every year--I long for January and February to rush by quickly, on to March and spring and summer. I miss M., who loved winter and skiing; if she were alive, I'd probably volunteer at Ski for Light with her, although I'd be one of the volunteers who heated the hot chocolate; I wouldn't be on skis.
I read thirty-six books in 2011. Of course, some were short kids' books, others lightweight Perry Mason or Janet Evanovich mysteries. But that's OK--I only counted them because I was curious. I read for fun, not to compete, even with myself. I rebel against standard advice to read like a writer--no! I want to maintain the joy I felt as an eight-year-old discovering the Bobbsey Twins. And sometimes reading books with no literary value whatsoever is just what life calls for--perfect escapism that lets you mind-meld with a fictional person whose life is more interesting or endurable than yours.
Revision. I read a chapter about R. and her friends going to a White Sox game and not much happens--but I enjoy R's observations about the game, about the city's segregation that she notices on the train ride there, the camaraderie between R. and her buddies, Aunt K.'s no-nonsense refusal to buy junk food treats, the fun of the rain delay and playing hangman and tic tac toe while waiting for the game to start again, for the tarp to be pulled off the field. But there's no plot, no worry about what happens next. How can I add plot?
Ms. P. passed out sheets of paper.
"Quick. Write a page about what was most memorable about your summer vacation. If it was memorably lousy, write why it was memorably lousy. But make the lousiness interesting."
R. was glad she wasn't the only one groaning. A writing assignment on the first day? Was lousiness even a word? Should she write about loving art class or hating being on the softball team?
She glanced up at Ms. P. and thought she noticed a mischievous smile, as Ms. P. enjoyed making her students work. It was going to be a long year.
On Facebook, my sister's husband posts about Epiphany, its sacred meaning and family significance--in both his and his wife's family, he writes, it was always the tradition to take down the tree on Epiphany. Reality challenges illusions I love to embrace--I may call P. my sister, but she's really my half-sister; we didn't grow up together and we know different traditions. And yet, years ago, the father we share visited my son and me for Thanksgiving. My father helped my son and me put up the tree that evening, and since then, I always put up my tree on Thanksgiving.
Revision. Is it OK if the main character is low-key and not feisty? If she doesn't always solve her own problems, if her growth is slow? I think that makes my book more realistic, but fellow critique group members shake their heads (well, at least I imagine the head-shaking, as this is an online group). They say the protagonist has to actively solve her own problems or no one will want to read about her. But then R. won't be R.--she's still recuperating from being bullied, and from losing her mom, and from her dad's grief after her mom's death.
Every night, before I go to bed, I call A. We often only chat a couple of minutes--our conversation often consists of "how are you, can you believe the weather, have a good day tomorrow" talk. But she's like a mom to me, and sometimes, feeling lonely in dark evening, it helps to connect. If I don't call her, she asks me what happened.
Fourteen years ago, it would have been her daughter, J., my bestfriend, who I'd call evenings. That last night before her accident she called late, maybe midnight, waking me up, and I couldn't comprehend any words.
This year is the first time the word "old" whispered itself to me--the first time when a young girl got up so I could sit down and I actually felt I needed the seat. Health stuff--a viral infection affecting middle ear balance, where I couldn't walk a straight line; my knee going out as I stepped aboard a bus, excruciating pain so I hardly know how I wobbled home, straining the rest of my body; and two falls, hard, flat on knees. So now I walk on snowy streets, a footstep at a time. I look old. I hate it.
The HIMYM episode irked me. Marshall urges Lilly to tell her dad she's pregnant--so what he's never been there for her--"He's your dad." I think of a quote: "Having a baby makes you a mother the same way having a piano makes you a musician." Same goes for dads, right? Lilly calls her dad and predictably, he hears the news, says "Fine," and hangs up. Lilly talks about her feelings to Marshall, who justifiably feels that he put his foot in his mouth. But at the end, Lilly's dad shows up with a huge teddy bear. So cliche, so unreal.
I call A to chat, and she asks me to look in the newspaper's TV guide section--she wants to know when the Miss America pageant will be on TV--she heard it was to be on tonight but didn't know the time or channel. I'd never watch Miss America now, although I loved watching the pageant as a little girl, in my innocence not jealous at all of others' beauty and unaware of the program's inherent sexism and shallowness. A. and I are family more than friends--our tastes and opinions are so different--yet love is more important than tastes or opinions.
I enjoy re-reading Judy Bolton books from my childhood, and I see things in them I never saw when I was ten or eleven. I see Judy's feminism (although I'm sure she didn't know the word--did people even call themselves feminists in the 1930s and 1940s?); she wonders, when someone scolds her for interrupting Peter's work, if his work as a lawyer gets more respect because he gets paid, while her work as a detective, albeit acknowledged as brilliant, is unpaid. Yet I also see racist stereotypes--the caricature of the "Chinaman" and the exaggerated dialect of an African American servant.
It's hard to manage productive writing time. After working at home all day, I yearn to go outside and walk, and that clears my head for creativity--except there's dinner to make, cats to feed and medicate, and next thing you know, I'm sleepy and uncreative, all my metaphors so stale they've expired, and Frankenstein's monster more human than my characters. Of course, the only solution is to write more and more, and eventually my writing will improve. That's what happened when I went to CC and wrote 120 pages per semester. It's difficult logging a page count when rewriting, though.
I practice "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" on my violin--a piece that used to be easy, but now I hear screeches and wrong notes and pity the upstairs neighbors. Can I become a good violinist again? Of course, I've deserted my violin so many times, for so many years, focusing on writing, so I shouldn't be surprised--but it's frustrating to have my violin be so foreign to me. It's almost like walking has become--after my falls, I'm fearful and walk slowly, concentrating rather than enjoying sunshine and snowpeople and neighbors walking dogs. But I keep practicing, I keep walking.
After a childhood with a schizophrenic mother who'd scream at me for hours any time I'd visit a friend, usually just to do homework, I was hungry for life and wanted to experience everything possible. Too hungry, probably. I went to Cincinnati with a sorority sister instead of spending Thanksgiving with my then best friend and her family--I'd never been outside of Illinois and couldn't pass up the opportunity. Rather than helping the FM union drive all the way to the finish, I went to California as a summer program UFW volunteer, traveling with a guy I'd never met before.
I miss going to St. B's, kneeling in the before-Mass quiet, everything dim despite overhead lantern-style lights and sun rays pushing through stained glass window colors, the organist and maybe the violinist practicing, maybe not, the arching ceiling making me think of the immensity of the universe and of heaven, feeling awe, pondering the mysterious power and love of God. But I can't go to any Catholic church--not while one class of people (women) is shunted aside as unworthy of the priesthood. Brown vs. the Board of Education proved that separate but equal was a lie; it's still a lie.
Fear. I hate ice, but I made myself walk at least to the alley, which was totally frozen over, and then turned back. I feel disappointed in myself, unable to enjoy a walk on a sunshiny day. How I hate the fear that takes over my entire body at times like this. My son laughs, says I'm like Charlie Brown, who Lucy diagnoses as being "afraid of everything." But I'm not afraid to write my feelings and to share my writings with others. I wasn't afraid to go back to school in my fifties. Maybe I'm not afraid of everything.
I take a Sunday 7-11 walk, lured by sunshine and clear sidewalks, only tiny ice patches here and there.
As he rings up my coffee, the clerk and I chat about the cold. "I can't wait till March," I say. He says he came to this country on March 17, and March was beautiful. I laugh, saying this winter was NOT a typical Chicago weather, but he tells me how rough it is in Pakistan, total darkness for 6 hours every day, and so hot: "People here should walk around always happy."
But I think it's human nature to complain.
Am I an introvert or an extrovert? According to Time Magazine's quiz, I'm an introvert--but I wonder. Sometimes I consider myself a shy extrovert, because I do love being around people and having a houseful of friends--although, introvert-like, I do cherish time by myself. But would I relish that time to myself so much if I didn't feel compelled to write, which requires solitude? Also, not having friends for so many childhood years because of shyness and a dysfunctional home life probably conditioned me to appreciate solitude--when you're stuck in a situation, it helps to value what you can't change.
From now on, that's what I'm gong to do--carry a sketchpad or notebook or something to draw on. Not just when I'm gong to basketball games so I don't get bored--but so I can draw whenever kids give me a hard time. And even if I can't pull out a pencil in, like, gym class, I'll know the sketchpad is waiting for me, like a weapon against mean words. I can think of what I'll draw. I really don't want to tell on anybody--but maybe Dad's right--it wouldn't be tattling. The bullies are wrong. Not me.
Charles Dickens confided that his good characters were the way he believed people should be--but all the wicked ones personified his flaws--the evil he did and the good he didn't do. As a lover of his novels, I am shocked, trying to imagine a Dickens with the heartlessness of Ebenezer Scrooge, the cruelty of David Copperfield's stepfather, the cowardly dishonesty of Uriah Heep. But I feel heartened, too. I feel so ashamed of my own sins and would confess them to no one--yet maybe they can move me to be forgiving of others' wrongdoings, and maybe they can inform my writing.
I remember living on M. Street in the eighties. One evening, getting ready to go to an anti-U.S. involvement in El Salvador party, my uncle called--sole purpose to ask me to call my schizophrenic mom because she was bugging him. He didn't ask how I was doing--he didn't care. Or was he so shell-shocked from his own childhood with a mentally ill mother that he couldn't afford to care--he had his own precious children to safeguard. I went to the party and danced wildly with any guy I could dance with. Anything to ease the hurt. Or try to.
I took a sick day but couldn't sleep, instead drank cup after cup of tea and read a mystery and watched Downton Abbey episodes on Netflx. I still feel tired and not great and restless. Maybe that's why I believe in a soul--so often I feel at war with a body that isn't beautiful, that doesn't feel or behave the way I want it to--I must be more than my body. Yet some would say all those feelings and desires originate in my brain, which is part of my body and could not exist separate from the rest of it.
Does W. fit in R. and the Cousins? It makes sense that R. would like more than one boy, and that she sighs over W. from afar, never talking to him but awestruck by his beauty--perfectly proportioned facial features and chestnut hair and eyes that seem so much more thoughtful and serious than those of other sixth-grade boys. Still--does he fit in the novel? Does R's crush on W. make the novel too complex and needlessly so--shouldn't I just let her have a crush on B. and let that be it? Am I being untrue to R., tossing W. out?
After Martin Luther King was murdered, Georgia F., a fellow seventh grader, talked to me about him.
"My whole family is sad," and she quoted King's words, hoping that someday his little children would be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
I had never heard much about Martin Luther King except his name, and that on T.V. In my family we didn't discuss progressive politics--well, my grandmother talked of how England had wronged Ireland. My mother and grandmother were quicksand-like immersed in their own lives, unable to see the world.
I miss walking the way I used to walk, totally effortless exercise where I could let my mind drift from plot ideas to observations of people walking dogs or pushing strollers. But since those two falls in November, I keep expecting the pavement to rush up at me again, worrying that this time I won't be able to get up or I'll break something. Even when I'm able to banish the fear, my knee still hurts from the fall. A mile walk that used to be nothing has me limping by the end, so relieved to sink into a chair.
I remember Woolworth hippies. Back in 1967 and '68, when I was in seventh and eighth grades, we lived near Belmont and Broadway in Chicago, and outside the red-awning-ed Woolworth's on Broadway, hippies would gather, young men in blue jeans with long blonde hair, tangled, just hanging out. I was in awe of them--I was a totally uncool kid who read Louisa May Alcott books and wore skirts too long, partly because I didn't know what the style was, and partly from stubbornness--why did I have to dress the same as everybody else? Needless to say, I was mocked relentlessly.
Jeffrey Zazlow died, the Sun-Times columnist who started the "Zazz Bash," mammoth Navy Pier parties for singles; he'd brag about resulting marriages. One year I persuaded J. that we should go find our Prince Charmings. We arrived early and browsed tables set up by organizations like the Anti-Cruelty Society, and we strolled along the pier. But the Grand Ballroom party was like high school--girls one one side, guys on the other, only the cute ones chosen, No guy cared to look beyond J.'s wheelchair and my plain awkwardness. Still, we enjoyed screwdrivers and rum and I danced the macarena alone.
Whitney Houston, dead. I remember signing "How Will I Know" during work presentations to schools, trying to share the beauty of sign language, all the while thinking of TLP and wondering, well--how will I know if he really loves me? I listen to an audio clip posted by a FB friend and remember my much younger, much skinnier, but much naiver self--and know now, no, he didn't really love me but was, even while wooing me, still carrying on with an old girlfriend. He didn't "really love me." Bittersweet memories, but no regrets--the unwise marriage gifted me with my son.
I write every day, but I feel that my writing lacks focus and intensity. What would help? Deadlines? Yet sometimes when I give myself a deadline to finish a project, I feel chained to it, as though I can't write about anything else. Maybe the solution is to work first on my deadline project, and then, if I have time, work on whatever else I like. I have so many rough drafts waving at me: "Hey! Look at me! Don't forget me!"
I am glad I am playing the violin again; I think that may give me more writing inspiration.
My violin squeaks and shrieks as it never has before, as though to mock me: "Hah! This time you're serious, but look how you've neglected me for weeks, months, and sometimes years! And now you want me to sing sweetly to you--hah!" I practice and practice and still I can't get a beautiful sound.
"Did I sound OK?" I ask my son, praying he will lie and tell me I sound great. I need encouragement no matter how dishonest!
"Were you playing?" he asks, looking up from the basketball game he's watching. Well. At least the squeaks didn't disturb him!
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