Monthly Archives: December 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back

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I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be Janus, the ancient deity with two heads. Looking forward while looking back would be a useful skill to have especially at the end of the year. So, instead of making the same old New Year’s resolutions… which I usually ignore or forget… I am going to look back down the years at advice that will carry me into the future.

Much of the advice that came my way has been ignored or forgotten (along with the New Year resolutions), but some words have resonated, and these are the ones I’m after here. So, starting with the impressionable years of childhood, I begin with my father’s early caution: “Be sure to look both ways when you cross a street.”

Simple? Sure, but the advice is sound. In the coming year I will certainly come across situations that are unfamiliar and which require thought and caution. When that happens, I need to weigh pros and cons carefully—and look before I take the first step.

Next comes my Uncle Harry, who had quotes for every occasion. One of his favorites when he caught me dilly-dallying over something was, “Tomorrow, friend, tomorrow… and tomorrow never comes.” As usual, he was–is– right. In the year ahead I will do my best not to put off things that need doing now since procrastination spells trouble.

My mother brings another lesson. Sensible, down to earth and a friend to every creature that walked, flew, swam or crawled the earth, she felt that all living things had worth and should be treated with respect. Whenever I hear of cruelty toward helpless beings—human, animal, or endangered rain forest—I remember her example… and her heart.

Even this small tadpole

Is trying with all its might

To become a frog.

Teachers rank high in the advice column, of course. There was my high school English teacher who, after reading one of my short stories, advised me to write about things I knew and felt. “You need to find your voice,” he said, kindly. “You may have the words, but the voice isn’t there yet.” There was also the college prof who irritated me beyond bearing by snarling, “This is bad. Rubbish! Rework, rework, rework!” I was so furious at him that I did rewrite—and have rewritten and re-rewritten ever since.

Editors—well, there are editors and editors. Of the many I have worked with I best remember Barbara Bates, who insisted on throwing out the first chapter of A Boat To Nowhere. She did the same thing for its sequel, A Long Way From Home. A slow learner I might be, but I did catch on by the time she got to The Lake Is On Fire, so the first chapter survived the cut. Instead, Barbara tossed the last chapter. Advice for me to take to heart: begin at an interesting place and don’t bore the reader by dragging out the end.

Finally, there is the advice of children. Clear sighted and honest, they also are fearless when it comes to imagination. Young people live stories with me, and if they don’t enjoy the way my story ends, will invent one that they like. Their ideas, their art and music are fresh and full of unmatchable color and verve.

So… In 2012 I resolve to approach creative crossroads carefully but also to be as fearlessly imaginative as I can possibly be. I will do my best to write from the heart about things that matter, and to keep deadlines. And then after all that if I have to rework….

Wishing Everyone A Happy New Year!

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Time Of Light

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We have taken down the old tree from the attic. This small, four foot tree made of aluminum was purchased forty nine years ago in Bangkok, Thailand, where there were no Christmas trees to be had. Each year since we have assembled it vowing that next year we would get a real tree. We never will, of course, because this old tree is part of our history as a family.

All across the world families are bringing out parts of their history. Menorahs are lovingly polished, Kwanzaa candles set out, crèches are lifted carefully from storage boxes. Whatever name given to the occasion, it is a time for the gathering of family and friends.

It’s been said that this joyful, festive time is full of anticipation for children while for adults there is memory, so I suppose it’s natural to look back across the years. Flickering through the shadow box of Time, I can see myself small, eyes wide open at midnight, waiting, determined that this year I was going to see Santa slide down that chimney. But… how did he get past me to fill my stockings? And… now, the warm scents of a fireplace and the sound of my Dad attempting to sing a carol…

Memory is a wonderful time machine. It can transport me in a blink-flash of time from my own childhood to that of our boys. There they are, noses pressed to the window convinced that the marks out in the snow came from Santa’s sleigh. Seconds later, they are grown and married men, and our oldest son and our new daughter have surprised us by coming home on Christmas day! And then here is a baby, our first grandchild, trailing tinsel as he toddles about with a red ribbon in his hair…

Small, crumpled ribbon,

I remember who wore it

Many years ago!

Such memories are our most prized ornaments. There are others, equally precious but bittersweet.  At this time of year I most keenly miss the dear ones I have lost. I crave that hug, yearn to hear that familiar laughter. The hand I once held is no longer here, and though I smile to remember the happy times we shared, at the back of the mind is the thought that memories are now all I have. No wonder that this is not a joyful time for many who wait for news in hospital rooms, or wonder how to pay next month’s bills, or worry about loved ones in harm’s way far from home. Then, there is our world, our imperfect, damaged world where some nations struggle with debt and other nations are ravaged by war or famine or poverty. How to reconcile these realities with holiday songs of peace and good cheer?

Well, we do our level best, and sometimes we succeed. This year, I’ve heard of children saving their allowances to buy toys for other kids, of anonymous donors who pay off layaway items for families that have come upon hard times. The rest of us donate what we can in time and goods and money, take home hopeful slips tacked to ‘angel trees.’ We sing the remembered songs, open gifts, hold loved ones close as we light our candles.

For isn’t the blessing of this time really about light? The light of Hanukkah candles remembering oil that bravely burned in ancient lamps; the brilliance of a star shining over humble Bethlehem; the glow of Kwanzaa candles with their message of the seven principles.  Their light says that our hearts must lift and sing with this hope:  someday there will be healing and homecoming and joy for all, the world will truly be one family, and the lion can finally lie down with the lamb.

Law and Disorder

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Although I’m by nature a law abiding individual, there is one law that I’ve come to detest. I’m tired of the way it dogs my steps and trips me up whenever it can.

For instance, this morning when I took my walk, a small pebble found its way into my sneaker. Now, I had been walking on a nice, clean asphalt sidewalk with not a speck of gravel in sight. Yet that nasty little chip of rock—probably the only one of its ilk for miles around— had managed to work itself  under my foot.

Murphy’s law was at work. You know, the one that states, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  I’ve learned that it was originated by one, Captain Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on a project for the Air Force. Murphy apparently cursed a technician who had wrongly wired a transducer and declared, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it!” thereby opening the way for a sea of troubles.

It’s said that this pestiferous law’s origin far predates Captain Murphy, and I agree. I am sure that even in ancient times, mysterious foul ups plagued our ancestors. And they continue to this day. Why else would traffic lights always turn red when I am already twenty minutes late for an appointment and go to serene green when I have all the time in the world? Why else—and this has happened too often to be mere chance—would I deem something useless and toss it out only to discover the very next day that I desperately need that now-lost item? Why does the stove and dishwasher decide to go on the fritz  together when out-of-town guests are scheduled to arrive?  And then there is that business with the washing machine where only one sock—never a pair—goes missing.

I’m not happy with Murphy or his law. Neither, it seems, is the younger generation. “Why,” demands my grand daughter, “do kids always drop some food on their clothes when they have to take school photographs?” I have no answer, but Murphy undoubtedly does.

Things that can go wrong

Always seem to happen at

Worst possible times!

Arguably, Murphy’s law has uses. It works wonderfully well for comedies in which every possible disaster happens to the protagonist. Is the hero trying to woo his lovely co-worker? If he is preparing dinner for her, of course the candles will tip over and the table cloth will catch on fire. If a teen is trying to sneak back into the house after being where he shouldn’t have been, he’ll no doubt step on a roller skate (left by an absent minded sibling), collide with the family dog, and tip over Mom’s antique vase. This scene is too painful to relate, but it does wake up readers, not to mention Mom. And tragedies don’t escape Murphy, either. Think of poor Romeo and Juliet and of Richard III yelling for a horse!

But Murphy has no mercy on writers, either. Yesterday I carved out time to finish projects too long in the making: the second draft of a story and the completion of an art quilt. The house was still, gentle baroque music wafted through the air. I should have known that Murphy was getting ready to strike.

Sure enough, the sewing machine began to make strange noises, the thread clogged, the needle broke. And when with what I thought was admirable calm I turned to work on my story instead, the lights flickered and went out.

Honestly, I could do with a lot less of Murphy and his law!

A Rose By Any Other Name Could Be a Dandelion)

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What’s in a name? Let Shakespeare’s Juliet wax poetic on a name’s unimportance— I disagree.  Supposing Melville had started the iconic first line of Moby Dick by proclaiming, “Call me Fred”? or if Margaret Mitchell had kept the original name for her heroine and dubbed her ‘Pansy’ instead of Scarlett? Really, a lot depends on the names we hang on our characters.

Choosing a character’s name is akin to selecting the perfect fabric for that important tree in a new quilted project or the exact color with which to paint a sunset. The chosen fabric should meld with the art quilt in progress while at the same time proclaiming its individuality. The sunset hues should offer the viewer a sunset that will draw them into the painting. Color and fabric must fit just so… and just so should the name suit its character. Sounds simple, but getting to that point is another matter.

I admit freely that I have trouble naming the people about whom I write. Family members who have seen me at this stage of the game have loudly questioned my sanity as I dither and mutter to myself. Boys’ names are not bad because early on I discovered that the males I know don’t much care whether or not I wrote about their namesakes. But then there are the girls…

I have the awful habit of personalizing girls’ names, Should I call the mean girl Nancy? It fits fine, but there’s my good friend Nancy, and how can possibly I write nasty things about someone named after her? The same goes for Ruth and Maria and Carol. In desperation, I seize upon Davina. Nobody I know is called Davina, which is good, but unfortunately it absolutely does not fit the persona of my mean girl— which is bad. So I am back to square one—the muttering and dithering.

Names that I love are not always perfect, either, and have often to be ditched. Though I have longed to saddle some character with Murgatroyd, I haven’t yet done so. The same goes for whimsical monikers. Buttercup and Fairwynd might be perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan, but they just won’t do in modern fiction because the best sort of names are the sort that quickly become a part of the story and don’t jolt the reader every time they appear on the page.

Then there is the problem of inventing characters from different countries. Haunted by memories of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I try to keep unfamiliar names few, simple, and pronounceable. Thus, in A Boat To Nowhere there is a Mai and a Kien, and in Yuri’s Brush With Magic Tammy’s Japanese name is Tamako, Ken’s  Kenjiro. Melding West and East into the unfamiliar names, I hoped, would make them easier to remember.

I wonder if other writers have (or have had) my problem. Did Dickens sit up all night thinking up Ebenezer Scrooge? Did Harry Potter—a name so ordinary and pedestrian and yet so perfect—spring easily to mind? Was Winn Dixie (dog names are hard, too!) already thought of before the story came to be? And what of Lemony and … oh, yes, a big favorite from my childhood… Captain Blood? No muttering or dithering for those authors, I’d bet—no long hours glued to the book of a thousand names! But I have hope. Perhaps one day in the not so distant future I will be able to smile at the character of my choice and say clearly, “You are called Denise.” Er…hold on just a minute…

Naming characters

Is more difficult, I think,

Than naming children.

 

Lost… and (Sometimes) Found

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“Have you looked in your purse?  That’s the first place I’d look,” opines my spouse, watching from the doorway as I rifle through desk, drawers and shelves in a vain attempt to unearth the tickets. Not any tickets mind, but tickets to an event that is going to happen today!

These seemingly innocent objects are the last to fall victim to misplaced items syndrome—the law that says things which are so-carefully put away in ‘a safe place’ will never again see the light of day or the stars of night.

Yes, I have looked in my purse. I have looked in five purses. I have scoured the usual place where tickets are kept as well as my messy bookshelves, desk drawers, and even—in desperation—the refrigerator. Zip. Nada.

Losing things is not a new phenomenon for me. Along with my temper, my directions, and (occasionally) my sense of humor, I have mislaid umbrellas, books, letters, bills, and—of course—eye glasses. These last I buy by the dozen, but quantity, alas, never seems to help. I have also on a few hyperventilating occasions forgotten where I stored pieces of jewelry. No—this is no chuckling matter, dear friends. Imagine coming home from a trip and trying to remember in which safe place you have stashed the brooch Mother gave you and that pearl necklace, never mind the car keys which were hidden along with the loot. And what about the time I lost a bridal quilt only to find it  years later when I was making that same young woman a baby quilt?

That there are many unfortunates like me in the world isn’t much of a consolation, but it appears that I belong to a club with a large membership. Friends sigh over items they have put in a safe place somewhere … or recount horror stories of having nearly lost diamond rings, keys, or their new shoes. The plague is international, too. While I was living in Japan, I remember that there was an announcement from Osaka station’s lost and found stating that along with the umbrellas, hats, briefcases and cell phones left behind in the subway that day, someone had forgotten an urn holding his grandmother’s ashes.

Now, really.

I sometimes believe that inanimate objects are carrying on a war of nerves against us. How many times have we looked for ‘lost’ items only to have them pop up in a place which we have already dissected a hundred times?  How else can one explain the passports which were seemingly lost during a bicycle trip in Tuscany? The subsequent frenzied trip to Rome, the rush to get temporary passports, and the race to the airport is a story to curdle the soul of any traveler, but even worse is the re-appearance of those supposedly lost passports at journey’s end!

Whether by accident or design, most lost items do appear eventually, though most of them never come to light  until months after they are of any use whatsoever. As for my tickets, I have given up. Enough, I tell myself, is enough….which is when I accidentally knock my purse onto the ground, scattering its contents everywhere. And there on the floor…

Tickets shouldn’t be able to wink, but right now I am sure the beastly things are doing just that.

Just a theory,

But do objects just disappear

For the fun of it?