When I was growing up in Iowa, May Day was the best.
You made up little baskets filled with candy and goodies, then sneaked them over to your friends’ houses. You left them on the porch or hung them on the door knob. Back then, in the Midwest, everyone did it. Judging by what I see on Pinterest and parenting blogs, I’m excited to see this tradition is coming back.
I thought it was the coolest thing in the world: surprising someone with a goodie. I practically giggled to myself as I imagined my friends finding the treats.
I loved the element of stealth. So did my mom.
This holiday was absolutely my mom’s thing. She loved surprising people with something fun, just because it would make them happy. To imagine the look on a friend’s face. One day, before my mom’s dementia got really bad, she was sitting at the kitchen table with a mysterious look on her face. I asked her what she was thinking about. She told me she wanted to sew a toaster cover for Lori, her neighbor, because “she really needed one.”She was figuring out how she’d make it and how she’d get it to fit without Lori knowing.
Today I celebrate May Day. And my mom, and her love of sneak attacking people with fun little things.
Let’s keep bringing it back.
Margaret “Sue” Vierk April 8, 1935 – April 22, 2019
There is a famous quote about writing:Write drunk, edit sober.
Though it’s been attributed to Hemingway (whose name lends gravitas to quite a few things), Hemingway never said it. We probably attribute it to him because of his tough, whiskey swilling image. Those who have researched this say that the quote actually came from humorist Peter de Vries.
The career of writing tends to pick up more “image” language than most other profession. Writers are hard drinking and mentally unstable. Out there living life brazenly and defiantly, like Jack Kerouac, drinking, driving and womanizing alongside Neal Cassady.
The fact is, most writers I know are hardworking rather than hard drinking. They work day jobs, persevere through MFA programs and take care of young children. They squeeze their writing into precise, regular pockets of time. While carefully curating their social media platforms in their spare time.
They persist through rejection, sickness and financial pressures like a protagonist fighting her way through the rising action of a novel.
You can’t do this drunk. Let alone edit with a hangover the next day.
Here’s my take on it. This quote lives because there is some truth in it. As writers, we wear many hats. When you write a first draft, you need to ditch the inhibitions. Let the words flow. Follow the dark, twisting paths of your imagination, and don’t stop to censor or rewrite. Then when you do go back to edit, look at what you’ve written as a critic.
After you’ve had your coffee: Does that awesome metaphor you wrote about relationships even make sense to you this morning?
In a way, this quote is a metaphor. Write without inhibition. Edit with common sense.
Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I saw this year’s reel of Oscar-nominated shorts.
I love animation. It brings out the kid in me, the one who used to get up way before my parents to watch Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo, in pre-cable days. Animation is the medium of whimsy, wonder and the joy of the impossible. The narrative is limited only by your ability to draw/digitize it.
When I teach creative writing to kids, I use Pixar shorts. These tiny stories have a beginning, middle and end. And they’re especially good at something that every writer honing their craft needs to learn: showing and not telling.
This year’s nominated shorts included Pixar’s “Bao,” the story of a traditional Chinese mother whose “dumpling” grows up and finds his own way in the world, to her dismay. She takes the disturbing step of devouring him before he can run off with his blonde girlfriend. It’s a startling image.
You see the despair of this mother, desperate to keep her child “safe” from his own (non-traditional) choices at all costs. No words here, only the fears of a empty nest mother and her son’s fierce desire for independence.
“Late Afternoon,” from Irish animator Louise Bagnall, starts off with an old woman named Emily drinking her tea, helped by someone who looks like her caregiver. When her biscuit falls into the tea, she follows it, transformed into the little girl at the beach with her dad. She falls into other wells of memory when the caregiver (who we learn is her daughter) brings her some old books and pictures. Scenes from her life are shown amid bursts of bright colors that fade as she grows older.
At one point, Emily returns from an old memory and stares at her wrinkled hands, shocked that she could be so old now. I remember my mother, who has dementia, doing the same thing. It’s a beautiful, seamless way to tie the sea of memories back to Emily’s present self.
Watching these reminded me that words are flexible and wonderful tools to tell stories. You can use them to simply tell what happens or you can invite the reader in deeper. I’ll show you something – What do you think is going on?
You’re crediting the reader with intelligence. The reader’s takeaway is greater. They will be more invested in the story, since they were part of the revelation.
I’m inspired now to revisit what I’ve written on this current book, to see how I can envision and write my scenes as an animator or filmmaker would.
2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts is playing for at least the next two weeks (up to Oscar Sunday).
What happened when I decided to read a book by my mother’s literary love
My mother was the source of all stories for me. She told me stories. She read me books. When she got bored of reading me my favorites, she’d add silly details, mix the story up, and get me to laugh hysterically.
I love stories because of her. Reading them and writing them.
At 83, my mother still hangs on, three years after she was first put on hospice and given ten days to live. In the last stages of vascular dementia, she is confined to a hospital bed in the family room. She sometimes smiles, but usually I barely see her eyes behind her eyelids. She speaks only a few words, which have all the right sounds and inflections, but make no sense.
I reach for her hand, because then she turns her head to me. I tell her about my students and what we’re reading. I am a high school English teacher now, like she used to be years ago. I want to share these things with her. I don’t know if she hears or understands anything I say.
This month I made it my mission to read a book by her favorite author, William Faulkner. Maybe it’s because I can’t know what’s in her head now. I want to understand what she thought about, what used to be important to her.
Years ago, with a look in her eyes of distant remembrance, she told me: Nobody writes like Faulkner.
This month I got my hands on a copy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.A book that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, for its complexity and the way it breaks the rules. Not an easy read. Some sentences are just strings of adjectives. The narrative often switches abruptly to a part of the story mentioned earlier.
To understand everything, I had to read chapter summaries in Spark Notes. And look up the meanings of words I’d never heard before. Suppuration, anybody? (It means the fluid produced by an inflammation.)
I’m a quick reader, but it took me a week to forge my way through the muddy wilds of Absalom Absalom.
My mom is not a southerner like Faulkner, but she loved the way he told a story.Absalom is told in an unconventional way:by multiple narrators, most of whom can’t be trusted. Like an impressionist painter, Faulkner paints layer upon layer, filling in the outlines of events again and again, making the picture deeper and sadder each time.
The book reads like a mystery, even though the first chapter tells the novel’s entire plot. Thomas Sutpen—a man who grew up poor in Virginia—comes back to the south from Haiti in the 1840s to build a mansion on a hundred acres of mud in Mississippi. He gets rid of his Haitian wife, along with his first son, when he finds out she is part African. He marries the daughter of a local merchant, to get some instant middle class respectability. It’s all part of The Design, the plan he set in motion when he left rural Virginia.
The man’s sins and his broken children come back to destroy his family. In the same way slavery and racism came back to destroy the pre-Civil War way of life and made the south an apartheid for the next century and a half. Absalom turns into a pretty depressing story for all involved (And I read it the week before Christmas!)
The mystery that drives the story is, we find out years later that there’s something hidden in Thomas Sutpen’s house. It’s evil, it’s scary. But what is it?
Several years ago I was in a class with a writer who grew up in the south. I remember teasing him that he had an advantage over the rest of us. “You have all the eccentric relatives and complicated history.”
I’ll need to read more of him to judge, but I don’t think Faulkner’s work was good just because he had rich material on his home turf. He dug into why all human beings make the choices they do, how people living through the same events interpret them so differently.
And how a person’s actions inevitably ripple down the generations. Like a father passing racism down to his son. Or my mom giving me her love for stories and good writing.
Almost a week later, the poetic cadences of Faulkner’s writing are still echoing in my head. As a writer, I want to capture some of his style (though maybe not the long sentences).
Many images from the book stick with me, especially one in particular. Faulkner describes the women of the south as “ghosts” after the civil war. I picture southern belles and tough old matriarchs, wandering the dusty streets of Jefferson, Mississippi, in their faded ball gowns, powerless and poor ghosts, far from what they used to be.
As I sit with my mom, whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly between open and closed, it’s hard not to think of her as one of those. ♥
I have ventured into the mall to get “just one more thing.”
Everyone seems to be here, cycling up and down the aisles in an endless search, Roomba vacuums narrowly avoiding hitting shelves or each other.
I am grouchy. Lines are long. Cars move slowly through the Moebius-strip like parking lot circuit.I want to tap on the horn to speed them up, but I know it wouldn’t do any good. I wonder about the legal trouble I’d get into if I drove directly over the grass berm to the street.
Why did I come here? I had most of my gifts purchased early and conveniently delivered via Amazon. But last night I had a haunting vision of that one, poor family member, sitting amid the colorful litter of everyone’s unwrapped gifts, lower lip trembling. Does my family even love me?
Target is a sad and desolate place today, its employees tired and its shelves and racks depleted. Except for an odd selection of things:weirdly abbreviated women’s sweaters, manly flasks, and…..bath bombs. There are lots of bath bombs. If they actually exploded, that would make for an interesting gift. Alas, they do not.
I continue searching for something, anything, for a present. My thoughts go toward condemning our country’s consumerism, embedded in us so deeply that we don’t feel good unless we’re buying things. I think of how Jesus himself would see this. Would he, who was born in the poorest of circumstances, approve of this scene? Would he replay the biblical scene in the temple in Jerusalem, by kicking over the Santa and Rudolph plushies, mad that they were an affront to the seriousness of his birth? Would he overthrow the displays of green and red bath bombs?
I believe God is able to be sad about the need-to-buy desperation, while deeply loving the people caught up in it.
Jesus would be looking at the people pushing the carts. The ones who are here because it’s the first day they could drop their kids off with a relative so they could go buy them gifts. Jesus would be looking at the employees, working one of the three jobs they need to work in order to afford to rent a room in Silicon Valley. Jesus would look at my grouchy heart, sad that I am making unnecessary stress for myself this morning (Finally nailed that gift for Aunt Flo—and it was on sale!) when sitting down and listening to Aunt Flo would be less tangible but a more memorable gift.
When my freshman English class read Fahrenheit 451 this year, we learned that a dystopia starts with a good intention. One that is thoughtful and fair. Then it gets twisted out of proportion. In the Christmas shopping scenario, our desire is to show our family and friends that we value them. We want to see their faces light up when they open a gift. We have family friends who excel at giving joy-inducing gifts to one another, and it’s a beautiful thing. But I don’t feel great when I buy something just to give somebody something to unwrap with my name on it. I want to think differently next year.
As I hang out with my family today, the grouch in me is receding. Rain has started here, just enough to give us some seasonal ambiance here in California. From the kitchen, there’s the smell of freshly baked bread. In the other room, I hear sounds of bumping, crinkling and giggling that accompanies gift wrapping. I am happy. I don’t need much else.
To all of you, your family and friends–best wishes for a Merry Christmas and/or happy holiday!
This year, with political firestorms and the tragic, actual firestorms throughout my state, I’m craving the comfort of Christmas songs.
I want to hear the familiar carols, the goofy songs (“I’m Mr. Heat Miser”) and the smooth retro feel of classics from the 1950s and ’60s, that golden age of Christmas songs. Don’t get me started with the Christmas movies featuring those songs.
White Christmas isn’t a great movie. It’s the music that makes it. I watch it to sing along with Rosemary Clooney on “Sisters.” And hear Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing the melancholy “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin, who was actually Jewish.
I’m dreaming of a white christmas/Just like the ones I used to know…
The song captures so well the longing for a time that never really happened. Christmas is invested with all that we dream of and realistically know the new year won’t bring us. But in the bleak days of winter, it makes us so happy to sing about it.
The highlight of my Christmas song memories has to be when I attended a multicultural church in San Francisco. I was in a 150-person choir, an incredibly diverse group of people. We did a funky version of “Winter Wonderland,” which I couldn’t get out of my head for years afterwards. After we sang the Hallelujah Chorus at practice, the choir director said, “Hey, guys, look around you. This is what heaven will look like.”
Last year, my sisters and I watched the movie musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, with my mom, who is bedridden, nonverbal and in the last stages of dementia. When the songs started up, she smiled and sang along, carrying the tune pretty closely but garbling the words. It was mind boggling. It made us cry.
A dementia expert once told me that a small part of the brain remains unaffected by mental deterioration. Things like songs and often repeated prayers live there. That’s where these Christmas songs will stay, locked deep within the lead-lined safes in our minds. We won’t be able to get away from them.
What are your Christmas and holiday favorites?What songs do you love? And love to hate?
Here’s my list. Feel free to dispute my choices.
My Seven Best Christmas Songs Ever
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah
O Holy Night
Do You Hear What I Hear? (fondly remembering the movie Gremlins)
My Seven Worst Christmas Songs Ever
Wonderful Christmastime(Paul McCartney)
Little Drummer Boy*
Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Secretly resent it because it took me years to nail the chord changes)
Deck the Halls (Fa la la la la…It’s like they ran out of words)
*Exception:1982 David Bowie and Bing Crosby duet. This is sweet and cheesy, and I love David Bowie so much, I could watch it again and again.
Nine days after the start of the most destructive fire in California history, the Bay Area is filled with smoke. When you walk out of your house, you smell it. There’s ash on your car in the morning. The parks, normally filled with kids, are eerily empty. Our air quality index has been between 160-180. Unhealthy.
In our western part of Silicon Valley, you can barely make out the hills a couple miles down the street. The scenery around us is grayed out, like an unavailable option on a computer screen.
We’re staying at home. Inside.
I’m trying to write for NaNoWriMo, so this has worked pretty well for me. When I get antsy, my go-to is usually a hike. Since I can’t do that, I write. I research. I dip into that stack of unread books spawned by my serious book buying addiction. More than usual, I’m getting stuff done.
In the evenings, we’re watching movies and playing games. My youngest is obsessed with 1980s movies, which is amusing to me, since these are the movies of my youth and young adulthood. She’s obsessed with the Back to the Future series, which has made for lots of deep discussions. The kind that you hope for and don’t easily get. What events in your life caused you to be who you are today? What if things had happened differently? And, more importantly, was Biff Tannen really modeled after Donald Trump? (Yes—confirmed by screenwriter Bob Gale in a 2015 Rolling Stone Interview).
And we’ve played board games, one of my husband’s favorite things to do. As an introvert, he socializes more easily when he’s doing something. And occasionally, I do win a game.
Our bad air quality is expected to last through Tuesday (four days from now).
Indoor life has been less frustrating than I thought, a reprieve from busy Silicon Valley life. The sad thing is to go outside, smell the air and think of the cause of all this. Two hundred miles away, people’s lives are going up in smoke. I have nothing to complain about. I have my family around me and a house to be indoors in. The people in and around the town of Paradise, California do not. And their situation is heartbreaking.
The jet lag has worn off, but two weeks ago I got back from a wonderful trip to England.
I walked through London in the footsteps of my favorite writers. I ate lunch at the pub in Oxford where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis met on Tuesdays. I got to see the hangouts and graves of the classic writers who gave me my love for the English language. The weather and the people could not have been more congenial.
London was busy and energetic, full of so many people under 30 that I felt pretty damn ancient. As Harry Potter fans, our first stop in the city had to be Platform 9-3/4 in King’s Cross Station.
We saw Westminster Abbey, on a tour led by a bossy, hilarious verger who rolled his eyes at the new, abstract David Hockey stained glass window. I got to see Poets Corner, and the grave of my literary crush, Samuel Johnson. As a Californian, the history awed me. The site has been a religious gathering place since 960 AD.
It was a relief to get away from US politics, but we did catch a brief glimpse of British Brexit drama, when streets were shut down for the Wooferendum, a protest in which dogs and their owners marched against the travel quarantine that their dogs will have to endure when they vacation in the EU after Brexit.
In Oxford we ate at The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Tolkein and friends) met. Our friend Ruth then took us over to the Bodleiean Library where we saw an exhibit of Tolkein’s drawings and heard recordings of him speaking the languages he invented for Middle Earth.
Ruth drove us (very fast, on incredibly narrow, twisting country roads) up to the Cotswolds for a roadside picnic.
After leaving our gracious hostess, we headed for Stratford-upon-Avon, a tourist town but in a good way. Shakespeare’s birthplace and the associated sites are well kept up and the tour guides are knowledgeable. The town had even more meaning for me since I’ve been teaching Shakespeare and watching the hilarious BBC show, “The Upstart Crow,” a comedic version of Shakespeare’s life as a struggling playwright.
We finished off our trip in Bath. I love this city! A beautiful abbey, the Roman Baths, the site where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and the Jane Austen Centre. We ate Sally Lunns, Bath Buns and many, many scones with clotted cream. I drank Samuel Johnson’s favorite tea.
I’m still feeling a pleasant buzz from the scenery, the history, and the friendliness and dry wit of the British people.
As I corral myself into my daily routine for NaNoWriMo, I’m dreaming of my next trip.
The door closes. There is that beautiful sound: silence.
The sound I’ve longed to hear, through years of being a mom to three children. No video game boss battles. Nobody banging away at musical instruments (which I admit I enjoy). No requests for food or money.
I’ve made up my to-do list. All I will do with this time. Clean the bathroom, read that new magical realism novel I downloaded. Pay a bill. Write my book.
With the house to myself, with no interruptions, I should be able to write literally THOUSANDS of words. I should be able to sit at my desk and nail down the scene that’s been coalescing in my head.
The characters in my book—the young police detective, the unhappy wife, and the grieving family of the murdered ex-Nazi—are breathing sighs of relief and exchanging grateful glances. Finally, she’s alone! Now we get to do something.
It’s our time. Our time down here, my book’s cast of characters chant as they launch into Sean Astin’s speech from The Goonies. They can get on with their investigations, conversations and illegal/sketch activities! At least they are motivated.
I have my special coffee mug and hot water in my French press. I have a healthy, Whole30 compliant snack. I turn on the MacBook, open Scrivener and I sit.
A phone call interrupts my thoughts and now I’m out of my seat. I remember I haven’t watched the latest episode of The Great British Baking Show. And oh, my God, it’s Cakes! If I watch it, fold the clothes from the dryer and maybe think about that scene some more—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? At least I’d be getting somethingdone.
And so the rationalization begins. If I do sit back down and write, my time is short and full of distractions.
After a few of these frustrating sessions, I decided to work with myself and my distractible tendencies. Just as I would with students I teach or one of my kids. Let’s strike a deal here, make this work.
My thought process went something like this:
Realization #1 I don’t get much time to myself. I am alone-time deprived.
Realization #2 My self discipline fails me when I feel deprived, whether it’s a diet or schedule I’m trying to adhere to. (If you’re an enneagram person, I am a Self Preservation 4, which means I’m a creative type with a high priority for self care.)
Brilliant hypothesis! If I indulge myself for a set period of time, I will get rid of those feelings of deprivation.
My latest tactic:For an hour, I allow myself to relax and enjoy the quiet house. Watch that Great British Baking Show episode. Prepare myself something that tastes really good. Maybe put on a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs.
Then I sit down in front of my computer. I have fully savored my alone-ness, given in to any desire to dance around like Tom Cruise in his underwear in Risky Business. I am ready now.
And so I write.
Thankfully, this is working pretty well for me so far.
If you’re a parent or spouse who doesn’t get much time by yourself—how do you stay focused when you get your alone time?
The kind of people who stomped off to their bedrooms when they started losing a game. I remember Monopoly games so intense that objects were thrown. Issues came up that had nothing to do with the placement of little green houses on Park Place.
Soon the winner (often my mom) was gloating, losers were dredging up past grievances and I was ducking into the nearest closet to hide.
But my engineer/gamer husband grew up playing games for entertainment. His dad is a card shark, who’s played in poker tournaments in Vegas. His mom and siblings love games. My husband goes to regular board game nights. The other days of the week, he is secretly plotting the acquisition of his next game—if not actually going down to Game Kastle to get it.
Since games haven’t been a happy part of my past, it’s taken me a long time to want to share that interest. My husband constantly looks for games that might lure me to play: “Honey, this one’s about art. I bet you’ll really like it!”
But in my mind, board games = angry confrontation. Or just boredom. Learning a set of rules to follow, and patiently taking turns at following them, seemed pointless to me. That’s supposed to be fun? Seriously?
But as I observed my husband, I started to see that it’s not about the game. It’s about the interactions of the players. My intelligent, introverted husband takes games to parties because it gives him a context for being social in a sea of small talk. He can explain the rules of the game he’s introducing (something he’s great at). Then the rules of the game are the boundaries for the discussions. He doesn’t have to work at coming up with things to say.
A game-playing friend of mine says she loves the interactions that happen while you’re playing a game. “You see how people react when things get competitive. You see what they’re really like under pressure. It’s a microcosm of life.” I saw that big time when I was growing up. But playing a game is kind of like going on a virtual adventure with people. You enter into this thing together. Afterwards, you recount your adventures, you talk about what made you win or lose, the close calls, and what you could have done differently.
If the game is really epic? You’ll talk about it for years.
Are there some games that you’ve enjoyed playing with your significant other or family?
Games you might want to try with your SO or family:
Century (Golem Edition) My husband found this on the discount shelf at a game store. We were immediately addicted and ended up hooking other friends. The goal is to collect colored gems, which are used to buy golem cards of different point totals. The art in this game is beautiful and the transparent gems are incredibly alluring. It’s a very easy game to learn.
Dominion This game has made me something I’d never thought I’d be: competitive. You play different cards in strategic combinations to get money and victory points. The unlimited card combinations make each game different. For some reason, the variety levels the field, and no one player, even an uber gamer, has an advantage over time. I can win this one.
Apples to Apples A social game, great family game. Many gamers won’t consider it worthy of attention. You play an adjective—e.g., “Evil, Pretty,”—and players play a card with a celebrity or cultural reference they think fits the word. Each person takes a turn as a “judge,” to pick the one they like the best. Goal is figuring out how to play to the judge so your card will get picked.
Goa A game based on colonizing the Indian island of Goa. The idea is to set up spice plantations and colonies, and win victory points. The game is a favorite of my game-playing women friends. It pairs well with an evening of food and wine, probably because you’re constantly thinking about acquiring cinnamon, clove, pepper and ginger.