Now you've got the chance
You might as well just dance
Go skies and thrones and wings
And poetry and things.
--Neil Halstead

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Just Like Starting Over

Exhibit A: If you've ever loom knitted, you know it's a
ridiculously easy craft. You can loom a hat in an evening.
Or, if you forget about your blanket project for a few months
at a time, you can loom a blanket in approximately 2 years.
The 2 years part is a projection based off of my current rate
of "do 5 rows, get bored, and put it away for a week or ten."
So, after reaching 108 days of continuous writing practice, I skipped a day. I got the journal back out, started up the next day, and then...skipped five days. The sixes-and-sevens poems have been hit-or-miss for a month. And I'm okay with all of that, happens, and it gives me the opportunity to be kind to myself, which is a skill we all need.

I get a LOT of opportunities to be kind to myself. It's one of the side effects of having a teeny tiny attention span.

I blame Buddha.

So, I read a book about 15 years ago called, "The Zen of Eating." I was curious about Buddhism, and one of our trainers said, "If you want to understand Buddhism, read this book." It's a diet book, but it applies the Eightfold Path of Buddhism to eating...making the very abstract concepts of Zen extremely practical...and thus very easy to understand for those with a teeny tiny attention span.

Exhibit B: The jewelry repairs box. It's been there a long time.
Some of these are easy repairs. Some are failed projects or
partly finished projects or things that I kind of like but
have no idea what to do with. Every once in a while,
I go in and fish out a project and do something with it.
Most of the time, I pull each item out, go, "Wow! I
forgot that was in there!" and then put it right back.
One of the key takeaways I got from that book was not to be so hard on myself (which, frankly, may be a recurring life lesson)...that every day, every moment even, is a new opportunity to make better choices. In the context of the book, when you have a crappy day at work and eat a pint of Hagen Daz with a chaser of M&Ms, if you follow that with guilt and recriminations, your diet is going to fail because in a way, you're building your identity around that failure.  You become "a person who failed" rather than "a person who made a bad choice." One of those two is mired in identity; the other has a chance at self-improvement. The goal is to say, "My, that was a bad choice. But tomorrow, when I can once again look at food, I can choose better." Then, as you get more mindful about your choices, as long as you believe you can choose better in any given moment, eventually your choices align with your beliefs.

That practice has become a foundation of my identity: the ability to detach from present failures and acknowledge what went wrong without judging myself paired with a commitment to better future behaviors. So, when I realized I'd skipped a day of journaling, I didn't waste time berating myself for snapping a writing streak. I thought, "Okay, well then. That sucks. Guess I'll start a new streak tomorrow." And when the new streak lasted ten days, I shrugged that one off, too. I enjoy writing in the mornings; I have every confidence I'll do it again.
Highly recommended, even for non-Buddhists and non-dieters. Find it here.
Oddly enough, I've been mesmerized throughout October by watching somebody else's daily routine. I follow Shelby Abrahamsen (Little Coffee Fox), and in October she did a watercolor journal page a day, posting them on her YouTube channel, sped up so that you can watch her create a watercolor journal page in about two minutes. It is mesmerizing, particularly since I have limited artistic ability and it is therefore a bit like magic: watching lines evolve into shapes, colors layer, in surprising ways shadows deepen, highlights crackle on the surface...every day, my routine became watching her routine (which may, in hindsight, have led to me getting sidetracked from my routine, in one of those call-Alanis-Morrisette-THIS-is-what-irony-actually-is realizations).

It gives me a true appreciation for how much complexity is involved in art, which may not seem like it should be that much of a revelation to you, but you don't realize that the main thing I remember from sixth grade art class was getting pops from a coach because I drew a permanent line on the art work of an annoying table mate named Taco. I learned several things from sixth grade art, none of them about color, shading, or perspective.*

At any rate, when your artistic education ended with a loud thwack! approximately mumble-mumble years ago, the basics of watercolors can seem pretty magical. The whole time, you're like, "No, Shelby! Mushed pea green? There? On her face??? Wait. Whoa--that's beautiful! I never would've thought of doing that...which is why I should get out the loom and do another five rows on the 2021 blanket!"

Exhibit C: For someone who's been waiting anxiously at the ol' inbox for 2-3 months for her developmental edits, it sure did take me a long time (3 weeks) to actually open up the redline edits and go through them. Then it took me another 3 days to admit to anyone I'd actually finished. 

So, I'm okay with my lapses from journaling and acknowledge that I have the potential to make new good choices in the future. However, I do have that teeny tiny attention span, so I think that I want to give myself a shiny new challenge or two. I like the idea of building an image library and doing creative free writing based on images. I want to keep the poems and the Tarot, but give myself more flexibility in alternating those. The possibilities are endless; all I need is a brand new day to start over again. And a pint of Hagen Daz.

*Things I learned in sixth grade art: (1) Being a coach affords many opportunities to perfect the art of swinging wooden objects. (2) Sharpies are not an instrument of social justice. (3) "Because he's always annoying me" isn't an acceptable defense for vandalism.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Wearing No Masks

2007, Fairy version 2.0 with a fidgety (yet adorable) monkey.
Yesterday, of course, was Halloween--or, as we like to refer to it around here, five days till Eleanor's birthday (which, to bring it full circle, is known as The Day to Get Rid of Excess Halloween fact, if you were to ask her what to serve at her birthday party, the first thing she'd say is, "Halloween Candy").

When the kids were younger, we went with more traditional, store-bought costumes. Eleanor was a fairy for four years straight, Bruce was once a pumpkin, Betty a bumblebee. I wore jeans and sneakers and accompanied them on their trip down Sugar Street.

All that changed a few years back. First, they all got big enough that store-bought costumes became exceedingly pricey. Second, Molly, their bonus mom, and I were separately in agreement that homemade is more fun. Third, I rediscovered the joy of dressing up.

And thus, the fruit fly was born. Note that
I am proudly carrying my Mini Max and
have a fruit necklace. 
It was 2011, and, in a move that should surprise no one who follows state government, our agency had decided to cut back on janitorial services and implement personal responsibility for trash at the same time. We were all issued a small plastic recycle bin with a mini trash container that hooked onto the side. I think this was supposed to encourage us to create less trash and recycle more. However, people still eat at their desks, and some of them even eat healthy things like fruit. If you have a little bitty trash can right there, you throw your peach pits in it, and then it may sit for a few days because we're saving all this money on housekeeping. And that is how you get fruit flies. This led management to send out stern letters about fruit flies and the need to empty your Mini Max regularly and perhaps not throw food waste into it. I believe it was suggested that we get up and walk to the break room to throw away our food trash. This was not a popular concept, and I rode that groundswell of bitterness to a 2nd place in the Annual Costume Contest. (Note: I do not remotely feel robbed of the title, because 1st place went to our CFO, who dressed as a pirate, and the depth of irony in that is a thing of great beauty.)

From there, the costumes got more creative. In 2013, Eleanor was a kitty cat and Betty a bee. Molly made Bruce a robot costume, starting a two-year trend where Bruce wanted a costume with a mask, only to insist on taking the mask off within the first few houses.
I was Incognito. All night, every time someone said, "Mom!" I'd say, "I don't know who you're talking about. You don't know me."  Or, "SHHHH! I'm in the witness protection program!" Or, in an accent, "Whoo izz zist Mom you speak of?"

In 2015, Eleanor was Teen Wolf, with knitted ears and a poofy yarn tail. Bruce was a ninja, and Betty was a cheetah. Cats are a recurring theme with Betty. She has stated on many occasions over the years that her life goal is to be a Crazy Cat Lady, and the number of her future cats has varied from 10 to 300. We've tried to explain zoning laws to her, but this has merely strengthened her desire to live in an unincorporated area. Which would be helpful, because she also wants goats.
I was Bad Mommy. I wore pajama pants and fuzzy slippers, a bathrobe, hair rollers, and a shower cap. I had a fake cigarette and some very dark eyeliner circles under my eyes. All night, Bruce would tell people, "This is a costume. She's really not like this! She's a good mom!" And I'd be like, "What are you talking about? I'm not wearing a costume!"
Last year, Betty found a yellow dress at the thrift store, paired it with yellow tights and a yellow boa and a Chica mask and became her favorite video game character. Bruce and I made a Pokemon trainer costume out of a thrift store t-shirt/cap and some duck tape. Eleanor found and ripped up an old plaid shirt at the thrift store (there's a trend is well understood in the family that Macklemore & Lewis's "Thrift Shop" could've been written for me) and sprayed it with fake blood. (Ripped jean shorts, however, are all the style, so she didn't actually have to doctor those.)

I was Medusa. I painted my own snake on crepe paper and attached plastic snakes to my headband. I borrowed the snakes from Betty. I'm not sure how she came to have technicolor plastic snakes. And I'm not entirely sure what happened to them after Halloween. With Betty, you never know. They could reappear anytime, probably in the toilet.
This year, we were very resourceful. Betty wanted to be a llamacorn (which, to the uninitiated, is a unicorn-llama hybrid, that evidently has self-esteem issues because it hates unicorns). We found some colorful leg warmers, which Amazon, mysteriously, described as "club wear." I had sort of assumed that was some sort of Chinese translation error, because I really couldn't fathom anyone over age 9 wearing them, but my friend works near UT and says that, no, the college girls really are wearing them, even at 2 p.m. in broad daylight, and we are just both getting old.
Those leg warmers make me so confused. And a little despairing of the future of America. But mostly old.
I was a Precious Little Snowflake, Just Like Everyone Else. I overachieved by making quilled snowflake earrings (which promptly dissolved in the rain) and a woven snowflake necklace.
Yes, Bruce and I got our shirts from the thrift store, why do you ask?

Anyway, I made her a rainbow yarn tail, and we found a unicorn horn on Amazon, and she was set. Bruce wanted to be the Candy Bandit. Since he has started Theater Arts, he takes character development extremely seriously, so the Candy Bandit wasn't merely a costume--he was a character. A complex character, with a backstory that was revealed gradually over the course of the evening.

The Candy Bandit, you see, is the spirit of a 17th century Portuguese pirate who is possessing the body of a sixth grader for one night. This is an obvious plot hole in the backstory, because nobody, ever, would willingly possess an 11-year-old, but I didn't point that out. The Candy Bandit's goal is to use Bruce's body to steal candy from people in the greater Fern Bluff neighborhood, and he uses his arsenal of a trick plastic knife and an arrowless bow (he thought the crossbow was a bit too intense, so he took off the cross piece with a screwdriver) to liberate candy from people. On the way back home, Bruce began to reappear, dazed and vaguely amnesiac, claiming to not remember the events of the last few hours, almost as though he had been possessed by a rather underachieving 17th century pirate who prefers Skittles to gold.

Eleanor, however, wins for the Most Overly Complicated Costume Concept. In order to understand her concept, you have to have watched The Little Mermaid as many times as Eleanor has (approximately 862). For those of you who haven't (I'm assuming that's pretty much everybody), the sea witch Ursula steals Ariel's voice and keeps it in a sea shell. She then transforms into a beautiful human named Vanessa, and bewitches the Prince so that he thinks Vanessa (rather than Ariel) is is true love. Eleanor wanted to be Vanessa for Halloween. Teenagers are so complicated. And edgy.

So we found a tank top, and I made her a skirt out of a pair of $20 faux silk curtains that my mother has already claimed for her room, although Eleanor sent me a text today, "DONT UNWRAVEL THE DRESS YET I NEED IT FOR RENAISSANCE," which is teenager for, "Please remember that I was planning to wear that dress to the Renaissance Festival, so, if you would be so kind, please don't take out the stitching and give it to Nana just yet, Mother dear!" Although, if you read the last post about Eleanor being a Scorpio, you'd know that it was more likely Eleanor for, "IF MY REN FEST DRESS GETS TURNED INTO CURTAINS I WILL IMPALE YOU WITH THE CURTAIN ROD. Kk? Luv U! Thx." Eleanor spent Sunday painting a shell gold, and borrowed Nana's shiny shoes to complete the look, which would have been a spot-on reference, if anybody had actually known who Vanessa was without being told.

Already, some of us have ideas for 2018. Betty, for one, is going minimalist. She wants to be a PJ party, so she can wear PJs and flip flops with a party hat. Bruce has suggested that I embody the pun, "Mummy," and do some sort of Mom-mummy hybrid. We'll just have to see what strange new characters possess us next year.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Signs and Serial Killers

Betty, age 4, perfectly capturing the moment.
No pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin lattes,
pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin potato chips
(Okay, I probably made that WAIT, I
googled it. It exists. NOOOOOOO!)
It's been a while, right? October hit with the force of a thousand pumpkins flung by an industrial grade catapult, which is one of the main things pumpkins are good for, except the roasted seeds.

But I digress.

It has been a busy few weeks. Choir, orchestra, volleyball, school dances and football games, long division...and yes, getting ready for Halloween.

One of the small things that's given me some laughs during all the craziness is a little Internet meme I came across based on astrology. I've always been skeptical of astrology, mainly because I never wanted to be a Virgo. They seem so fussy, so particular, so...uptight. I am not detail oriented, I boring! At which point, a friend gently reminded me of the surgical precision with which I dissect other people's writing as an editor at work. Okay, fine, I said, but I don't enjoy it. And then the next day caught myself spending an hour researching the correct use of punctuation in legal citations. Oops.

There are some less boring aspects of being a Virgo, though. Idealism, creativity, integrity, poetry...and the ability to beat the crud out of a serial killer (after an initial freak out period). Here's the meme:
Now, this is hilarious, because it is pretty much dead on (I know, bad pun). I shared it with Eleanor, and she immediately started cracking up, as did one of my closest friends, because any major thing that happens, I legitimately lose my mind for anywhere from 5 minutes to 24 hours...then promptly settle down and get to business and solve whatever the problem is. In fact, these days I can recognize the early onset hysteria and tell myself, "Wow. That even sounds irrational to me, and I'm the one thinking it. Okay, self. I'm giving you 30 minutes to write about how horrible this is and how it might actually result in the end of life as we know it, and then we're going to bed so we can be back to normal in the morning." And that pretty much works.

It is also pretty accurate for the rest of the household. Bruce and Betty are Sagittariuses, and they would talk to anyone and try to sympathize with them and understand their point of view. Eleanor is a Scorpio, and all of us, including Eleanor, agree she is most likely to kill the killer. In fact, if there is ever a zombie apocalypse, I highly recommend tracking down Eleanor and getting into her group. It would totally increase your survival chances, at least until you become sick, injured, or any sort of liability, at which time she will immediately cut off your leg and leave you for bait so the rest of the group can escape. Don't be that way---you know it needs to happen.

So this is how I'd imagine this going down:

Serial killer brandishes knife.

Me: Ohshitohshitohshitohshit.

Eleanor: O.M.G.!!! <exasperated sigh> Which one of you IDIOTS let in the serial killer?

Nobody says anything. We all look at Betty, and Betty looks down guiltily, because we all know she was the most likely culprit. He probably looked lonely.

Eleanor: Fine. I guess I'll have to take care of this, LIKE I DO EVERYTHING. <Stomps off.>

Serial killer: You're all gonna die.

Me: Okay, I got this. <starts looking around for weapon> Nobody panic!
Adorable, cheerful, and very clearly comfortable embracing
their inner crazies....yep, they are so ready to be accomplices!

Betty: That's a cool knife, Mr. Serial Killer. I like the blade. It sparkles. Wanna see my fidget spinner? It sparkles, too.

Bruce: I'm taking fencing lessons. You want me to show you the stance? Here, it's like this.

Bruce goes over and gives the serial killer pointers on knife movements. Betty borrows his blade and slashes the sofa cushions, then wanders off to get a sock so she can make a sock puppet with all of the fluff from the pillows.

Eleanor <returns>: SERIOUSLY? What is WRONG with you people?

In fact, if the serial killer gets anywhere within
two feet, he gets impaled with the bow.
Look at that face.
Serial Killer <somewhat disoriented, takes pillow fluff out of his hair and grabs his knife back from Bruce>: Um...I'm gonna kill you? I think?

Eleanor pulls out a gun.

Bruce: No, Eleanor! He's just misunderstood!

Betty: I am opposed to hurting people. Or chickens or pigs. Except for bacon.

Bruce: He's got feelings!

Eleanor <shoots serial killer>: And now he's feeling dead. I am NOT cleaning this up. I got rid of the serial killer; you people clean up the corpse.

Bruce and Betty: BUT, BUT...

Eleanor <puts up hand>: Nope. We're done here.*** I'm gonna go watch Netflix.

At which point I immediately begin organizing clean-up and corpse disposal, notify the necessary authorities, and bake cookies to comfort Bruce and Betty for the loss of their new friend, while Googling how to get bloodstains out of sofa cushions and trying to find the cats. Because, you know, I'm a Virgo...and that's what we do.

***Eleanor is known in the family as the Arbiter of Done. At some point in any conversation, it will cross some arbitrary line, and Eleanor will declare, "Okay, we're done here." My boss wants to hire her to follow him to meetings and declare them done, reckoning it would be a huge time saver. I think she has an excellent future in organizational consulting.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Constellation of Low-Grade Anxieties

I've been thinking lately about anxiety, and all of its different manifestations, and how seldom any of the things we worry about, usually between the hours of 2:30 and 3:45 a.m., actually manifest in the bright light of day. (Planet X, I'm talking to you.)

If we're unlucky, I'll get tongue tied,
then manage to say something so
incredibly awkward that the other
passengers will attempt to throw
themselves down the elevator shaft
to escape the noxious cloud of
I have no trouble reading deeply personal poetry into a microphone, or delivering a presentation to a hundred people (thanks, no doubt, to a career that has frequently required me to babble at length in public settings about subjects on which I am at best marginally well informed). However, ask me to make small talk to people on an elevator and, if we are all very lucky, I'll be tongue tied.

Bruce is anxious about nuclear war, North Korea, being left without adult supervision for more than 30 minutes, and where he and his sisters will live as grown ups that will meet their individual preferences while still being close enough to not be a hardship for me to visit them. Yet, on the fourth day of his first year in junior high, he got up in front of a class of fellow sixth graders and acted his little heart out for the first time, displaying emotions and facial expressions that had the class laughing and clapping. He likes to play his viola for me, but he worries if I am ten minutes late in the driveway.

Number of times I've heard her sing: 1
She tells me this is because Alto 2 is really
boring and all she does is hold a single note
for a really long time so there's nothing to hear.
This is called lying.
Eleanor doesn't worry about international politics or war, but every choir competition or performance sends her to the bathroom for a ten-minute panic attack.

Betty can make friends with the new kid in class and deliberately change seats every single day so she can sit with as many new kids as possible, but attempts to hide behind me at family gatherings.

I have a friend whose anxiety sometimes won't let her leave the house, but is brave enough to share her struggles on social media and even begin a memoir about them.

So anxiety is something we all have, but in strange and subtle ways, like a fingerprint whose swirls and ripples tells the story of our emotional lives.

I've been embarking on a sort of challenge here lately, inspired by <I apologize for the banality of this in advance> Pinterest. I know, right?

Okay, it's 15 minutes before
6:00 a.m. But still. Until this
summer, I was pretty sure
all times before 6:00 a.m.
were part of some sort of
alternate and particularly
sketchy dimension.
So, this challenge is in addition to all of the other challenges I keep giving myself. First, there was the Continuous Practice challenge, inspired by a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook. That challenge was to do something creative every day as an act of mindful creation. Now, the actual challenge, I never could figure out how to join on Facebook. But, never fear, I blended it with the Morning Pages challenge from one of my favorite bloggers, Little Coffee Fox. (Her motto is "Inspiration Through Organization," and I promise you, I feel the irony, and it burns.). So, my "something creative every day" became "to write morning pages." I even, and this should call for some form of electroshock therapy, have been getting up before 6:00 a.m. to meet these challenges. And because that wasn't challenging enough, I decided to make one of my three morning pages devoted to a challenge from one of my other favorite bloggers, Brigit Esselmont of Biddy Tarot (since college I've used tarot cards as a tool to help me examine my thoughts, question my motivations, and generally find new ways to think about what's going on in my life). And when you're already doing three writing challenges a day, what's one more? I intended to go to a poetry critique group one Saturday with the prompt of writing a seven-line poem. I didn't actually go, because Hurricane Harvey came through and I wasn't sure if I'd need to go into the office or not. Never fear, though, because I really got into the prompt and began writing a six- or seven-line poem every evening.

So, of course, when you're already doing four overlapping writing challenges a day, what you obviously need (besides to stop following so many bloggers) is to go on Pinterest and find inspiration for a fifth writing challenge. And, oh, my friends, Pinterest will provide!

*Also interesting? How the truth journaling
aspects of my morning pages manifestation
of my continuous practice is reflected in my
tarot draws and expressed in my daily poems.
Because I am a multi-tasking beast, people!
(For those who don't tarot, the reversed
ten of swords, very appropriately, suggests
cutting through the lies you tell yourself.)
Anyway, Writing Challenge #5 is something called "truth journaling." The idea is to pour out what psychology folk call the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) on paper, and then methodically cross-examine those and debunk them. I like me pretty well as a person and am reasonably content with my life, but I do have some very deep anxieties about my exterior. The interesting part of the truth journaling aspect of my morning pages manifestation of my continuous practice* is how, when I really reflect on each little thing I don't like about my appearance, it really traces back to some bit of social anxiety from my youth. I'm too tall? Comes from years of kids asking me how the weather is up here, hordes of well-meaning adults asking if I played basketball, and decades of frustration in department stores trying to find sweaters whose sleeves reach the wrist. My feet are too big? Comes from the horror of needing black shoes for marching band and having to buy granny shoes at SAS. All minor, low-grade anxieties that linger like the after-effects of a pot of sauerkraut, polluting the air long after the ridiculousness of teen angst has passed. Examined in that light, they were as outdated as the granny shoes and much easier to put in the dumpster.

I highly recommend any one (or more!) of the challenges above. Since July 16, 2017, I have written 267 pages, 74 continuous practice sets of morning pages, reflected on 88 tarot cards, and written 36 six- or seven-line poems. I've gotten some great insights into myself and others, and I've gotten at least a bit more comfortable with looking in the mirror. All of which may, possibly, just maybe, be worth getting up at 5:45 for.
The journal my kids got me for Christmas. I started writing in July and it's half full. This will make them happy because it will give them something concrete to shop for next Christmas.
Also, Sharpie pens are awesome.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

French Lessons

Hair: Personal adornment or personal
curtain? Eleanor is partial to what I
call the "Cousin It" look.
Eleanor, my eldest child, is a high school freshman in her first semester of French I. Learning a foreign language is challenging for the shy, because teachers insist on making you practice, which requires you to actually speak out loud in class. (I know, right? As any true book nerd could tell you, the whole purpose of learning a foreign language is so that you can correctly pronounce foreign words in your head when the characters in that book you're reading use them.)

So, French is a struggle for her, not academically but socially, and she is a little bit intimidated by this whole talking thing. I empathize with her completely--I took four years of high school French, followed by two years of college French, stayed with a French family for a week my junior year of high school and spent six weeks studying in Paris in college...and I was still intimidated by the thought of actually applying that knowledge by talking to real people.

So I told her the story of the shining moment I learned to really speak French, fluently and with confidence.

It was 1992, and I was studying abroad in Paris in my final summer in college. Overachiever that I was, that would put me at the ripe old age of 20.
Le sigh. Eleanor is closer to 20 than I am. So are Bruce and Betty.
Actually, so is Bob Cat. Damn. I need wine.

Anyway, I mostly hung out with two girls named Rachel and Leslie. The three of us were independent and adventurous, but of the three of us, I was the only one who spoke French.

We were encouraged to explore the city;
however, we were strictly forbidden to
go to Pigalle, the shady red-light district
of Paris. I swear, us getting off the Metro
at the one place in Paris we were forbidden
to get off the Metro was a complete
accident, but the fact that we stopped for
photos before getting back on probably
speaks volumes and may explain the
anecdote that follows.
We decided one weekend to take a trip to Mont St. Michel, on the northern coast of France. Mont St. Michel is a monastery perched on a picturesquely remote island. So, being the designated French speaker, I was in charge of purchasing our train tickets.

Me: We would like 3 tickets to Mont St. Michel.

Train Ticket Guy: There's a train that leaves at midnight, stops at Caen, and then arrives at Mont St. Michel.

Me: Is that midnight Friday or midnight Saturday?

Train Ticket Guy: Midnight Friday.

Me: Perfect!

So, we three young ladies in our backpacks show up at midnight Saturday, which is of course, the time after 11:59 PM on Friday night. You may be able to see where this is going, in which case you're ahead of us.

A train actually arrives at midnight, quelling my last lingering fears about how that conversation with the Train Ticket Guy went. We make it to Caen and look for our connection. It is not until 2 p.m.


As it turns out, every night at midnight there is a train from Paris to Caen. But the immediate connection to Mont St. Michel only happens on weekdays, i.e., right after the 11:59 PM that happens on Thursday. Thankfully, no one was too mad at me, realizing that it was pure madness for any civilized country to schedule a train departure for midnight. Had any parent or responsible adult known our predicament, they would have suggested a hostel or hotel; however, as mentioned, we were young, independent, and adventurous and felt that that would be a poor use of money that could otherwise go to wine.

Speaking of peeing in the park, this is one
of my favorite statues (at Fontainbleu).
I love the dogs' expressions. Diana the
Huntress is all power and energy and
doing the Queen of the Hunt thing, while
the dogs are like, Meh, I gotta go.
So we decided to spend the night in the train station, obviously. You meet all kinds of people at a deserted train station after midnight; fortunately, none of them killed us. We met a young couple going to "meet the parents." There was a large, loud, drunk group of creepy guys who kept trying to hit on us. That was amusing for a while, but eventually we went back to the waiting room and slept on the train station floor. If I told you this was the only public waiting area I slept in on this particular trip, I'd be a liar. It wasn't the cleanest, either.

You don't exactly sleep in, when you're sleeping in a train station, so we got up at 6 and wandered around Caen. This happened to be the day of the local celebration honoring the Normandy invasion in World War II (it was June 6). The thing I remember most from Caen was at the festival, when a young mom suddenly stopped, pulled down her 2-year-old's pants, and swung him in the air so he could pee in the park.

Anyway, some hot cocoa and sightseeing later, we got back on the train and finally made it to Pomtorson, the town closest to Mont St. Michel, at which point, as the designated French speaker, it was my job to call the hostel and ask them to come pick us up. And it was the hostel's job to tell me that we were too far out of town and they weren't going to and we couldn't make them and we might as well just stay in town.

It was at this moment that six years of French finally paid off. I was tired. I had slept in a train station, gotten lost in a strange town I hadn't intended to visit. I had a very bad cold. I had had enough. So I let the desk clerk have it. I argued, vehemently, eloquently, rapidly, occasionally profanely, and above all fluently in French for an entire five-minute phone card. It was the culmination of my French education, which almost made up for the fact that I lost.

It probably goes without saying that we did not give up at this point. We did manage to find lodging in town, and had pizza at a restaurant that sold pizza with fried eggs on it, although none of us ordered that (the limits of our adventurousness didn't go quite that far).

In the morning, we walked to the depot to rent bicycles to ride to Mont St. Michel, a distance of some 7 km or so. Unfortunately, the bike rental place wasn't going to open for another 5 hours. So, naturally, we hitchhiked. After walking a couple of kilometers, we got picked up by an empty tour bus and the driver lectured us about the dangers of hitchhiking all the way to Mont St. Michel.
Mont St. Michel. For some reason, other people had no problem reaching it in much less dramatic ways, as evidenced by the fact that we ran into one of the other people from our group there. Also, as evidenced by the fact that Sunday mass was super crowded, and it is probably safe to assume that none of those people had to hitchhike on an empty tour bus.
In hindsight, I was like the worst tour guide EVER.

So, as much as I might hope that Eleanor gets over her shyness and becomes fluent in French...I have to say, I hope she becomes fluent in a more traditional manner, by speaking in the safe, well-lit, climate controlled classroom environment and that she never, ever takes a train leaving at midnight.

Me, on the left at Chateau de Azay-le-Rideau.
Ah, 1989!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Domovoi in the Oven

I read an amazing book last weekend, The Bear and the Nightengale, by Katherine Arden. And I mean 'amazing' not in the sense of 'really great' or 'awesome sauce,' as we use it today, but in the original, medieval sense"overwhelm or confound with sudden surprise or wonder." 

The surprise and wonder come from the fairy tale story, with its beautiful setting and magical creatures. The best of fairy tales, and this is one, evoke those feelings.

The confounding and dreamlike confusion comes from being thrust into the completely foreign world of medieval Russia, in the far north, at a time when Christianity was new and the same people went to church on Sunday and left crumbs for household spirits.
Reading the book feels like you're sitting around the fire with Vasilisa, the herione, listening to her nurse's fabulous tales of the Winter King, being amazed while the winter wind howls outside. Under Arden's telling, you can feel the winter wind and the struggle to survive, where the lives of the whole community lie on the knife's edge between survival and starvation. 

There are many things to love about this book. One is the very human complexity of the relationships. The wicked step-mother is no caricatured Disney villain. She is ripped from relative luxury in the Kremlin and sent to marry an older man in the wild and freezing north and her 'madness' comes, in an odd sort of way, from the best of intentions. Her daughter, Vasilisa's step-sister, is beautiful but kind, in a way that fairy tale step-sisters seldom are, and she loves both her mother and Vasilisa sincerely. In general, each member of the extended family is trying, in their own way, to do what is best and to take care of each other--but, as in real life, intentions and actions get horribly muddled. It is a complex, nuanced characterization of family. The plot is well crafted and suspenseful as well.

But the true protagonist of the novel, and the reason it amazed me so, was the landscape. In an interview with Krista Tippett of On Being, Irish philosopher John O'Donohue, speaking of his own landscape of Western Ireland, said, "landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape — landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time."

That is the the amazing part of The Bear and the Nightengale, the part that draws you in. The setting, the characters, the plot: all of these are shaped by and interact with the landscape. The people exist in a way that requires them to have transactions with the landscape, to negotiate the materials of safety and life, to watch it closely to see whether it is giving or taking away life. Thus, it is not surprising that the people believe in more concrete manifestations of the landscape, like the domovoi (household guardian) who lives in the oven and, for an offering of crumbs, will help with the mending and housework and guard the door. (The domovoi was my favorite of the supernatural creatures...I totally want one, but I don't think our oven is big enough. Maybe they come in a modern teacup size? I'm with the step-mother on the bannik issue--guardian or not, having a spirit watching you take a bath would be a little creepy.)

The domovoi. Vladimir Chernikov
See what I mean? It would be awesome to have a domovoi. He could help with the dishes, make sure I didn't burn anything, and he could totally play with the cat and keep Bob from breaking stuff all the time. Although, maybe we already have a domovoi and that's why Bob breaks stuff at night, because he was chasing the domovoi. Maybe it isn't Bob stealing all the bread, it's just a hungry domovoi. Now I want to get a nightvision camera in my kitchen.

Per Mr. O'Donohue, "it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you go towards it with an open heart and a real, watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you." 

Rusalka, found here.
Wouldn't she make an awesome friend? She's
a great swimming coach, has a sweet comb,
and will mostly try not to eat people,
if you ask nicely and hang out sometimes. 
This sense of "real and watchful reverence" pervades the characters of Pyotr Vladimirovich's household, most of all in his daughter Vasilisa. As a child, she befriends a rusalka, a sort of succubus-like figure who entices and drowns young men, a friendship made of promises and gifts--in other words, a relationship. These spirits, these manifestations of the landscape, become her friends, alive and interdependent. It is a strange and beautiful thing to read about--in short, amazing.

The Bear and the Nightengale is an excellent tale that surpasses the standard of the genre by creating complex, nuanced characters and puts them in a landscape that has truly come to life. The culture of this period of history was fascinating and mostly unknown to me before I read it (pro tip: there's a glossary, which I didn't find until the end of the book and which would've been helpful sooner). I highly recommend it, particularly here in Texas when a hint of arctic air is most welcome.

For fun, here's a poem I wrote on topic a year or so ago. It is said that the rusalka was once a jilted lover, which explains her vengeance upon young men.


My eyes once were full of stars,
  My heart hooked to the rising moon,
Before he cast me into the river
  With his rough farmer’s hands,
Eyes dead like winter.

Red hair twined among the reeds
   While his face faded above
And the cold water claimed me.
   Madness here, beneath the river;
Time slithers in the silt.

Dark thoughts nibble at my toes.
   All I can remember is my hate.
I am waiting     waiting      waiting,
   Swirling vengeance in the current:
When you come to fish.

Come on, wade in:      closer.      There:
    Red hair twined among your ankles,
Pulling you in, dragging you to my bed.
   Men keep fishing, and I’ll keep catching--
Until one of them is him.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Strangeness of Safety

Mother was on the phone yesterday, talking to a cousin who was calling to check on us from California, and she told him essentially that we were worried for our Houston and San Antonio family and friends, but sad for the Corpus Christi area because that was our second home.

Me and Snoopy, a lovable mutt who liked chasing cars a bit too zealously, at Bird Island (by Padre Island) in 1979.
Technically, that's true for her, but not quite for me. For me, Corpus Christi was my first home; we moved there from when I was an infant and my memories of Houston come from when we returned in 1981. It's that part of the state that gives me the warm feeling of home whenever I pass through it--when I reach that point where the land flattens out  and the fields of summer wheat and cotton fan outwards in perfect strips of bronze or green toward the coast, the gulls circle overhead, and you can feel the salt hanging in the air. That, to me, is home. It was there that we rode out Hurricane Allen, as I recounted in April.

Me in the summer wheat on our property outside Sinton, 30 miles west of Corpus Christi.
Of course, my time in South Texas was longer than Mother's because I came back every summer (and for shorter visits in college and after) to visit my father, who continued to live in the area after Mother and I moved back to Houston. It is also more recent, because the kids and I visited Port Aransas and Mustang Island just last month, their first trip to the beaches where I grew up.

Betty on the beach in Port Aransas, July 2017
For several years, Dad lived in our old house outside Sinton. Dad worked first as a welder at his shop in Corpus Christ's north side, near the refineries, welding everything from water tanks to custom bolts to the above-ground pool at our old house in Corpus. My poem about spending days in the shop watching him work appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Illya's Honey.

Later, he got a job as a carpenter for Villers Seafood Company, which operated a fleet of shrimp boats out of Aransas Pass in the summers (and Ft. Meyer's Beach, FL in the winters). I became familiar with the docks in Aransas Pass, the VillCo boats chugging in and out, Dad's tiny tool shop, the sluices where the shrimp boats emptied the catch out of their holds for rinsing. I wrote about the Brown Bag #2, Dad's favorite watering hole, on my friend Susan Rooke's blog last September.
Dad on the docks where he worked.
Usually once a summer we went to Rockport, the next town up the coast from Aransas Pass, for a special dinner at the legendary Charlotte Plummer's Seafare, although by the last few years of his life, Dad had gotten extremely picky about his seafood (after years of getting it fresh off the boat) and just cooked it himself. I remember the beach shops in Rockport, painted brightly, using pocket money to buy sea shells, then feeling fancy, sitting down to eat at Charlotte Plummer's, picture windows and cloth napkins, iced tea and fried seafood.

I remember, too, crossing to Port Aransas on the ferry, hoping for dolphins. One time we got there early and I saw on the deserted beach thousands of living sand dollars, green and fuzzy, scattered on the beach, so many it was overwhelming.

I remember, too, helping my dad build a pair of houses in Aransas Pass. On wall-raising day, his shrimper friends no-showed (not unexpected; it was a Saturday, when most shrimpers are hung over) and he and I raised the walls ourselves, just the two of us. He pulled his van under the house, which was just stilts and a slatted floor, then hoisted the first wall onto the roof of the van. I climbed up the van and onto the 2x4's, balancing carefully, trying not to look down through the slats). He pushed the wall up and I (a 19-year-old English major with no upper body strength) had to balance, 12' off the ground, holding the wall in place while he anchored it to the base of the structure.

Of course, many of you who've never been to South Texas now know these places, too--Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, Rockport, Aransas Pass--from watching the news this week of Hurricane Harvey, which took aim at them all (punched them in the nose, to paraphrase Rockport's mayor), shredding the coastal towns with violent wind, rain, and storm surge.

After moving to Houston, Mom and I went through Hurricane Alicia, and my friends and I waded through drowned intersections and peered over into the drainage ditches. As an adult, I experienced Rita and Ike. I've been in Austin now for eight years, and it still feels strange to see a hurricane coming for Texas. I have a deep need to react, to prepare. My mental checklist gets activated and it makes me a little anxious, like the primitive part of my brain, the instinct that knows hurricanes and how you prepare for them, is at war with the rational part that knows a hurricane in Austin is really mostly just wind and rain, that we live on a hilltop in a sturdy house, that this one isn't my battle to fight. It's hard, though, because the presence of a hurricane makes me restless and itchy to do something, even when there's nothing to do.

"I need to gas up the car!" screams the primitive brain. "Okay, fine," soothes the rational brain with a hint of exasperation. "You'll need gas next week anyway. We'll get gas."

"Grocery store!" whines the primitive brain. "Sigh. Okay, but we're just shopping for Monday and Tuesday dinner here. NO STOCKPILING NON-PERISHABLE ITEMS," retorts the rational brain sternly. The primitive part sneaks a few staples into the cart.

"Secure the back yard," pleads the primitive brain. "Really?" the rational brain snickers, "For what? But, whatever. Pick up the wind chimes and the hammock and go inside, dammit!" The primitive part stacks the chairs neatly under the patio and tucks the potted plants against the wall and, mysteriously, curls up the garden hose and tucks it behind a bush.

So we stayed inside (minus a Saturday lunchtime fried chicken run, which felt absolutely scandalous to the primitive brain, which was still irrationally worried about unboarded windows) and watched the news and felt helpless, worried about the people we love and the places we've called home. I've Googled locations, but of course the odds are low that I'll find a post-Harvey picture of Bird Island, or the summer wheat fields outside Sinton, or the Brown Bag, or the docks, or the house at A-1 Hill Road.

I hope they're all still there, or will be again. I hope that the many other people who love those places and call them home are alive and safe and that they will return someday and make the Gulf Coast once again the place that lives in my memories, in my heart. In the meantime, I'll be here, strangely safe, the primitive part of me irrationally amazed that I have electricity, that our fence is up and our patio cover securely attached and the continuous (yet mostly gentle) rainfall is running safely downhill to Brushy Creek.

Love and blessings to all of you on the coast, and those in Houston whose ordeal is just beginning.

A poem from my newest poetry project:

Aransas summers spent dawdling suntanned on Villers' docks,
watching Dad nurse shrimp boats, welding and fiberglass,
binding barnacled hulls to secure rough men for rough work:
machinery buzz, seagull holler sounds; dead fish salt smells.

Rockport, a rare treat, more refined: crisp lawns, painted shops,
white houses, solid St. Augustine: manicured, mannered charm.

While the Gulf silently nibbled at bulkheads, feigning tameness.