Letters from Al, 1966-67 ~ February 22, 2017

Dear Alsie,

The box of your letters home from ‘Nam sits on the closet floor between storage boxes of yarn on the right and oil painting materials on the left. Remember your tackle box, the mustard gold one with double stacked trays where you kept fishing lures, worm threaders, nail clippers — the essentials of casting and catching? That box holds tubes of oil paint, has done for these 28 years (29 in November) since that damned blood clot dropped you.

I kept that box of letters at the foot of the bed for several months after I stopped writing to you, telling myself I would continue, I would complete the project I’d set for myself, I would answer them all — from the now — from these decades of what was once our future. On some level, I wanted to prove you wrong. I wanted to show you I could go the distance, not leave a work short of what it could be. You were, to my way of thinking, absolutely on the money 90% of the time. And I appreciated your honesty. (So easy to write — but did I?) (Being the ghost that you are, you’ve probably noted the long pause before the words began spilling again.)

Here’s the thing: This letter is not in response to one of yours. This letter is to share the news with you that one of my efforts has been published. This letter is to let you know that a publisher believed I had gone the distance, not left the work short.

I’m full of misgivings. Can’t stop wondering what you would think, what you would say. I did so love your straightforward, pragmatic, left brain way of looking at things — so opposite from me. I miss you, you lovely, lovely man.

Ok. So after another longish pause and getting my eyes dry and refocusing, what do I hear? I hear you doing your Donald Duck impression, spraying my misgivings with saliva, making me smile.

xo,
lynnsie

p.s. The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights is the name of the book, published by Waterstreet Press. I add this just in case the afterlife has a library.

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750words March 20, 2015 ~ Words and Heroines

It’s been a good month for words and falling in love with the people they build—again. I forget how charming and willful, stubborn and ugly they sometimes tend to be, then they come knocking, rising up from the page one by one, dusting the dirt from their knees, and I think, Hey! I know you. You’re the gal I gave the same hairstyle as my friend Sooz.

I’m talking about Irene’s crew of family and friends. Irene is the title character of a first novel (by me) due out in July 2015. Irene’s grand-niece is the one I gave the hairstyle of my dear friend, Sooz; her nephew (Buddy) is the one I gave characteristics of another friend’s cousin; the elderly detective who failed, in 1930, to solve the mystery of Irene’s early demise owns all the curmudgeonly charm of my favorite uncle. This month I found them again, these characters wrought from the real world I occupy into the fictional story-scape of vaudeville, circus, farm and city. Like best buddies from grade school or cousins from out of state, folks I haven’t seen or talked to in years, possibly decades, they warm this old heart when I hear their voice on the line.

A laugh escapes across the miles of telephone line and, just like that, their face is before me, a smile remembered, a cheesecake shared on a bench under a tree outside Riverside’s Mission Inn, a hike from the end of the road to the river bottom and, crossing the Santa Ana, the abandoned Power House on the river’s far side, flats of cardboard used as sleds to slide the steep and long-dry concrete slipway, wild rides perched in the back of a rusting blue pick-up truck through corn fields … oh, and all the crawdads caught in the irrigation canals running the perimeter of pastures and alfalfa fields … It’s like that, this reconnect to ginger-haired Irene who bruised and healed and bruised again, yet stood her ground with undaunted willfulness.

Words built my Irene, gave her freckles and a family which, for the most part, didn’t know how to handle the girl, much less the woman. Words constructed her worlds. From the Williamsport, Pennsylvania farm and the platform she dove from to slice into Loyalsock Creek as a girl to the Poseidon Park, Coney Island stage where she climbed into a cannon to be shot over the heads of paying spectators below—words gave these venues walls and windows, fields, ponds, farm houses and brownstones, kitchens, wall-papered bedrooms, railroad tracks and circus trains.

Reading and revising The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights for (what promises to be) the final draft, I came to the end and found myself already missing these fictional folks I’d brought into the world the way I miss my children and grandchildren when they visit—here for five days or a week—and gone, as if they’d only just arrived and their stay was too short. As if there were more conversations to explore, more Valentines to build with white glue, paper and glitter, more places to investigate, secrets to share, friends to introduce them to and shells to collect from the ocean’s shore.

So it is with Irene and her crew. They’ve been such a long time coming, growing into their environment … give me a sec while I figure out how to explain changes that have occurred, characters gone missing, scenes/settings which, at one time, filled pages …

You know how it is when you live in a neighborhood and gradually make the acquaintance of those who live around you, perhaps sharing cuttings and starts from your garden or recipes or cocktails at the 4 o’clock hour or coffee in the morning? Maybe you get to know more than you want (or need) to know about the nephew of this neighbor or the ex-husband/wife of that one, or the comings and goings of the mailman or too much about the personal life of the pastor at your local church or the manager of the Little League team your son or granddaughter or whoever plays on.

It’s like that—Irene introduced me to too many neighboring characters. I couldn’t leave them alone.

Regardless of how far afield they might lead me or how little they had to offer “Irene”—I wanted more and more of their personal stories. I let the novel’s neighborhood chatter take over, left Irene in a wobbly lawn chair on the periphery of the patio! (For those of you who find it difficult to follow my writing style, the gist of this is: I had to shush! the crowd. When this didn’t work, I had to ask some to leave.)

Yesterday, reaching the end of Irene’s rewrites, I wondered, “Where’s Ricky? What happened to Ricky Towne?” I found him today—day-dreaming about the bicycle shop he’d have if the world would just give him an effin’ break. A character of pimply-faced wonder, Ricky Towne was found in an early chapter on a file buried within a flashdrive at the back of a seldom used desk drawer. What a mouth that young man had, “F” words all over the place, and a bad attitude for a chair pusher on Atlantic City’s boardwalk. No surprise Ricky never earned much by way of tips on the boardwalk, or found his way into The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights final draft.

[He may, however, find his way into a short story. I do hate to think Ricky’s dream of a bicycle shop ended on my account … but—he’ll have to clean up his language before he finds space on my page.]

750words Feb 12 2015 ~ Ellen Bass & Me & Two Odes

Because I’m stuck I’m writing words not mine to establish a pattern of sound and rhythm. The initial words belong to Ellen Bass, the poem is:

Ode to the God of Atheists

The god of atheists won’t burn you at the stake
or pry off your fingernails. Nor will it make you
bow or beg, rake your skin with thorns,
or buy gold leaf or stained-glass windows.
It won’t insist you fast or twist
the shape of your sexual hunger.
There are no wars fought for it, no women stoned for it.
You don’t have to veil your face for it
or bloody your knees.
You don’t have to sing.

The plums bloom extravagantly,
the dolphins stitch sky to sea.
Each pebble and fern, pond and fish
is yours whether or not you believe.

When fog is ripped away
just as a rust-red shadow slides across the moon,
the god of atheists isn’t rewarding you
for waking in the middle of the night
and shivering barefoot in the field.

This god is not moved by the musk
of incense or bowls of oranges,
the mask brushed with cochineal,
polished rib of the lion.
Eat the macerated leaves
of the sacred plant. Dance
till the stars blur to a spangly river.
Rain, if it comes, will come.
This god loves the virus as much as the child.

*

So, the above is the Ellen Bass poem. Now to come up with an appropriate subject other than the god of atheists … and not a god. I think I’ll run with a house. The house of (what?) … The house of love? The house of death? The house of loneliness? The house of happiness?

The House of Happiness

The house of happiness will make your face ache
and drum songs on your sternum. It’s not like the house
of sad, of lonely, of broken,
or wooded with coffins satin-lined.
It makes no promises nor expects
cartoon hearts to float from your eyes.
There are no window curtains, no locks on its doors.
You don’t have to knock your knuckles raw
or ring bloody bells.
You do need to step in.

The rooms are organza,
the decor is vanilla ice cream.
Each sofa and lamp, bed and bowl
is an apple or bon-bon treat.

When day becomes evening,
when lavender spokes wheel the dome of sky,
the house of happiness won’t begrudge you
for walking the shores of midnight, or returning
with sand-glittered feet.

This house welcomes what falls away,
the silica shine of journeys,
the nacre-blushed debris,
totems of chocolate.
Sleep the dreamed sleep
of lambs curled against ewes. Laugh
till stones burble songs down high mountains.
Tears, if they come, will spring.
This house welcomes you, welcomes every lost one.

*

Ok. It’s done. Unedited, but done for the moment–these words replacing a master poet’s words. Ellen Bass is fantastic. Not to be trifled with, not to be matched. Ode to the God of Atheists is a poem found in Like a Beggar — a book full of exquisite work. An apology seems in order:

Dear Ellen,
Forgive me for trespassing, wandering onto your property, taking the paths you’ve created and redecorating your lovely garden of words with different bouquets. Without permission or invitation, I’ve spent time with a blanket thrown down in your forest. Will it help if I mention Prayer, the poem gracing the back cover of Like a Beggar? The opening line: “Once I wore a dress liquid as vodka.” (Who can resist wanting more?) Will it help if I encourage every reader of this flimsy blog of mine to buy Like a Beggar? Such a feast, this book. Such a feast.

I have no excuse for my actions here, other than a desire to improve my skills as a wordsmith. Who better to follow than you? (Yes, Mary Oliver … but her books are not within reach at the moment.)

Respectfully, lynn

*

It’s a thing I do, this imitation of other writers. I’m never certain about the right or wrong of my efforts. I don’t want or mean to plagiarize. I try not to directly repeat the words of others. It’s the rhythm, the sounds, the abrupt change of directions, the use of similes and metaphors, adjectives, adverbs, etc. that I go for–or the absence of same. It’s the syllables, the beat, the simplicity or complexity of syntax, the story arc, the movement from A to B to C, the assonance, alliteration, the esses and efs and hisses, the magic of words a maestra has spellbound me with–and I just can’t seem to stop reaching for that.

Who Would’ve Thought (revisited 1/2015)

Who would’ve thought a celeb like Sherwood would be felled by a bit of toothpick or that I would find Winesburg, Ohio bookmarked with a napkin embossed with white bells and May 7, 1966, the date Al said “I do” to me, marking the place I left off? Or that I would stumble across a quote from Heart of Darkness by Joe Conrad: “We live, as we dream, alone.”

Slick paperbacks pass through my hands. Cloth bounds and leather bounds. Brushed-velveteen covers pass through my hands to the shelf, back again, to the table next to my bed, to my lap, the shelf, the chair arm. I roll on my side in the night and wake in the morning with an indented line running like half an X, temple to chin, from the hard edge of a book.

Who would’ve thought I would dream as I live? C.S. Lewis would’ve. Would’ve said to me, if he knew me and could, “We read to know we are not alone.” I would’ve read less, loved more. I would’ve, if I had known.

[After reading an article on The Poetess in America by Annie Finch]

750words.com & me

Eighteen days ago, more or less, I signed on with 750words.com and began a daily mind dump of words and more words to the blank screen. Like stretching exercises before a run, the flexing of fingers and imagination without a gallery of onlookers (most particularly without the presence of my self-editing coach) enhances the chances I’ll succeed with the writing project I’ve set for myself on a given day. A paragraph or a chapter, a scene or a segue between scenes–whatever the writing task–the hurdles are easier after a 750words warm-up.

Today’s stretching exercise resulted in a stream of words about words with advice, in the end, to me. I seldom take my own advice; perhaps posting what seemed like wisdom minutes ago will seem like balderdash tomorrow. Or maybe, when revisited, will remind me to flag the self-editing coach. Penalty: interference.

750words, March 2, 2014

There’s a dash of dove’s wing on the sky outside. Cloud? Maybe or sky before the painter comes to freshen the ash from yesterday’s burn off of rain. There’s a green box with pink dragonflies on the bed. Treasure chest? Maybe. Or coffin containing dust of what once was. There’s a fat book on the shelf in a stack of thin and thick books–third or fourth from the top–communication manual. Words. Words, yes. Words to describe field, tree, curtain, shelf, button, box, folder, map, printer, shoe, boot, flower, mirror, glass, stick, stopper, lamp, purse, bamboo, basket, yarn, valise, tackle.

Words to propel feet like run, walk, skip, dance, shuffle, stagger, trip. Words to make use of hands such as type, hold, finger, feel, fondle, hit, stroke, steal. Other words to describe how one runs, walks, skips, dances as in blindly, joyously, blithely, lethargically, lightly, heavily. Or how one uses their hands as in deftly, surely, clumsily, eagerly, softly, skillfully. Marcelo used his hands skillfully. Marcelo massaged. Marcelo is missed. Other words qualify how a book looks, or a shoe or a mirror, bird, leaf. Green bird, gray leaf, yellow shoe, black mirror. If the words are the wrong words then the image is false for the reader of the words sewn in a chain and meant to portray a woman, a man, dog, cat, landscape, seascape, sky, mood, situation.

A yellow shoe with red fleece lining is what? The slipper of a royal elf or fairy? A Barbie Doll accessory? A whim of imagination. A black mirror is what? The result of a woman or man’s unhappy visage of their image and resultant can of black spray paint? Or the effect of a fire which sooted the reflective surface? Words create meaning whether true to reality or without a whisker of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude requires a full beard of details. Even then the full beard may not reflect a genuine honest to goodness world but a world manufactured from thin air. The trick is to manufacture a world into which a reader of words will continue along its interior aisles, its exterior paths and byways, heedless of thorns, content to make detours if taking the detour carries them to further discoveries.

The writer may not be on a quest, but the reader is, when fed crumbs of interesting facts and details to keep them bending to examine a crumb and gingerly pick it up, sometimes pocketing what’s been left and other times plopping the crumb on their tongue and swallowing what’s been offered. Of the crumb–it may be bitter or sweet. It may have the power to put the reader to sleep or energize him or her to go on and on, neglecting sleep.

Take the artist. She stares at a blank canvas she’s pulled from a closet. An idea lethargically moves, shuffles from one side of her thinking to the other. The blank canvas is broken with lines, quadrants, and the ideas find their places one by one like children entering a grade school classroom. The artist, teacher of this metaphoric classroom, finds there’s too much chatter with Susie in the front row across from Kathy so she moves Kathy to the back of the row of desks. The boys in the back–Bob and Jerry–throw spit wads at Kathy so the teacher/artist sends them to stand in the hall. After much rearranging of seating for her ideas, the artist squeezes out paint and begins. Days or months later she tilts her head and looks at her creation and wonders what her early ideas were because what she’s created doesn’t have the chatter and energy of the creation she’d intended. There’s no tension, no conflict, without the naughty boys (Bob and Jerry) she sent to the hall all those brushstrokes ago. She decides they can re-enter the class. They hobble in at her command. Old men now, they’ve lost most of their marbles; neither can remember what a spit wad looks like, much less how to make one.

And what has this writer come away with by examining an artist/teacher concocted from thin air and words? Perhaps there is waste in sending paragraphs and thoughts to the hall for simply being what they are; for being lively and full of mischief. Self edits too soon may result in what was fresh growing stale and moldy and dumb with neglect and age. When Kathy and Susie were separated, the background chatter of subplots, the hum of genuine situations faded. Don’t self edit too early, writer. Let dancing elves wear yellow shoes lined in red fleece. Let blue bears samba on the face of the moon.

20 October 2008 and Irene in White Tights at the Green Gate

The enclosure around my patio, the patio with turquoise green fence and gate on one end too high to see over, also includes a two story stucco wall the color of green olives, a one story stucco wall that is white, and the back wall of mi casita with its iron barred door on steel wheels with a lock and its sliding glass door that opposes every effort to slide for every inch it is slid.  I mention this to give readers a sense of where it is that I pace between paragraphs added to Irene’s saga.  I have sixteen feet more or less to walk up and down with the olive wall on my right, then my left, alternately going towards the turquoise gate or the one-story white.  After a while, I duck back inside through the sliding glass door opening, an opening seldom closed for the reasons mentioned above, and sit again at my chunky table in my chunky chair and add more chunky moments to the threads of moments I have tried to weave around the body of Irene. 

For more than two years I have tried to clothe that girl, that woman.  She is, no fault of her own, a difficult woman to dress in time and circumstance.   I no sooner force her head through a neckline of needs she never asked for and does not like, than she’s stripped them clean off and run naked into the surf.  Like any good, or halfway good caretaker should do, I pick up her discards, shake them out, fold them neatly and wait for her dripping return. 

While waiting, I pace those sixteen back and forth feet between the green gate and the white wall.  Sometimes, as now, I open a bottled cerveza to ease my tattered patience, help me recall a tender fondness of this woman/child/dare-devil/heroine of a time and place as distant from Rosarito, Baja in 2008 as Jupiter is from the moon.  It is good, this cerveza.  And the paces I take.  And, every now and again, the words chunked together begin to hold a little shape.

Chunky table and chunky chairs with roses from Carol and Trevor

Chunky table and chunky chairs with roses from Carol and Trevor