Sparked by Words

Vision

The brain for all its complexity has no imagination. Only the soul has imagination, the link from the stars to the earth, from God to the future. Quicken the malaise from my thoughts. Divulge the possibilities to come. Remove me from this cramped perch and straighten me. Shove me against the wind and permit my spine to bend. Quell my heart and start it again with a new beat and fresh blood. Each moment about which I write, launch another to witness. Wipe the grit from my eyes.

Ah, vision. Imagine what I can do now.

 

Just a Thought, 3

 

 

Painting Roses by P. S. Kroyer,  1893

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

 

Perhaps to Dream

 

Sometimes being in a corner feels like you’re trapped in a locked box. Sometimes the road buckles on the way to nowhere and the signs to return home are obscured by curves behind which you can’t identify the landmarks. Sometimes the darkness is so dense that sunlight doesn’t lift the pitch enough for you to see. I’ve been there for the past twelve months or so, maybe even two or three years, getting deeper and deeper into a funk. I can’t write because I’m too tired and overwhelmed by responsibilities over which I have little control and less chance of escaping. The life of another person depends upon me but my own life also demands attention, and there’s only so much of me to spread, to give, to take care of it all.

I haven’t had time to write. Or maybe I haven’t taken time to write, certainly not the amount of time I need to direct to my books. Writing means so much to me, and I still think and dream writing. I scribble my brilliant ideas on scraps of trash paper, and my genius insights snare my attention from the daily tasks at hand. But dawn comes before the sun rises, and dusk finds me anxious and headachy most days. Sleep is illusive and not long enough, and healthy exercise is something other people accomplish.

On the surface this must look like depression but I know it’s not. It’s Life 101 catching me at my heels, surrounding me with the reality check that it isn’t going to end soon, and when it does, it will only be because someone I love has passed. The fanged wolf waits at my door; I don’t know when he’ll lunge. He will though, I know he will.

Someone I love has Alzheimer’s disease. She needs everything an infant needs, except that she continues to regress and to subsume me. Because she cannot speak on her own behalf or assist with her care, the disease having destroyed every essential facet of her executive function. I must act for her, choose for her. I do not fear death, hers or mine, though I fear a vacant life, a lingering death.

I wonder how she can live with no ability to remember anything she once loved, to plan an activity, to anticipate the next day’s events or even the next hour’s. I fear how long this fractured existence might continue because she is old and I am aging. I’m weary. I’m frightened by what I witness of this illness as it destroys so many others with a long, slow crumbling of the brain and body that can only be described as a harrowing existence. Someplace between dark and blank. Barely what we recognize as human – yet they are, and she is.

Alzheimer’s disease demands a waiting room. We wait and we know what we’re waiting for. Regular life is suspended between the what-nows and the emergencies and the bills that still must get paid. The clock stops in the interim between the earlier life where things moved along with occasional crises and temporary high points, and the ordinary moments that filled most days.

Now it’s a steady decline to an end mark I will know by its certainty but still don’t know anything about at all. The interruptions happen, always when I’m unprepared because that’s the job description of interruption: a trip to the hospital, a UTI, a violent outburst, a more precipitous mental decline than the day before. The unexpected events that inhabit well-planned days now doused in chaos and fear.

Yet the hours progress and the calendar page changes. When can I start to live again, to plan around my needs and desires? To write my books and engage in their publication process?

So the New Year’s Resolution I wrote six months ago, End, Begin, Again, the commitment to write as best I could, seems a lazy attempt at humor. It was a snapshot of my giddiness at facing another year with less accomplished than the previous year, and so much that I might do in this new one. I want to write, all excuses aside. I want to paint, to travel, to take classes and learn about some of the many subjects that interest me.

I want more time with my family – my husband and sons, my daughters-in-law, and my beautiful grandchildren, especially the youngest of this special brood as they live 350 miles north of us. We see them rarely, they can’t grasp who we are.

I want to write for my blog and work on my books, then embark on the tough road of submitting queries to agents, and probably of prepping my books for self-publication. Because as I worry and wonder when I can squeeze in a few paragraphs, I hear the clock’s persistent tick and know I must get ready for the next day. It will come and I must be prepared, especially for the unplanned. There is not enough time to write.

 

Except. It’s time for me to get serious about what I can do, to focus on what I must do. Stated here:  Begin again. I will write, no longer wait for endings to grace me the time to get on with my life. I’ll continue as I have for eight years to be at my mother’s side with love to assure her she isn’t alone, making choices to keep her comfortable, being vigilant to keep her safe. It’s what I do and will do loyally to the end but it can’t be the excuse for inaction.

Perhaps to dream I will write.

Watch me write.

I am writing.

 

 

 

Clock and book image courtesy Google images, Pixabay

Man in a boat image courtesy Google images, Pixabay

Sunrise image courtesy Google images, Pixabay

 

 

We Stand

Unless a person has lived completely alone in a cave from the moment of birth, no one is a “self-made” person. We stand on each other’s shoulders and by each other’s sides. We follow often and occasionally we lead. Great leaders push those behind them to the front and thank them for the privilege. Great followers listen attentively and contribute selflessly, providing the scaffolds from which others soar. We all weep when one falls, triumph when one succeeds. Eons back and generations forward, we are less unique than we are connected.

So here is me speaking to each of you, and there are thousands upon thousands of you, who have given me a chance to do, teach, question, paint, examine, think, repair, learn, share, imagine, correct, love, be, stand. And write.

Thank you, strangers, friends, and family.

 

 

Just a thought, 2.

 

 

Painting: A Young Girl Reading a Letter with an Old Man Reading Over her Shoulder by Joseph Wright of Derby, circa 1768.

United States public domain tag: any work first published without copyright notice prior to 1978.


 

 

 

 

 

I must admit I lied, an act of exclusion not intention. Of necessity for restraint not extravagance. These are not my favorite twenty-six books I’ve ever read – only the favorite for each letter of the alphabet. Even that was a miserable choice for nearly every letter. I had to leave out so many incredible books screaming, “Pick me. Me! You know you love me best.” Look at the possible choices just for the letter A:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
The Alexandria Quartet (4 novels) by Lawrence Durrell
All Other Nights by Dara Horn
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (This was the book I selected.)
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
Atonement by Eon McEwan

How could I write about All the Light We Cannot See but leave out All Other Nights, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Atonement or the other eight books? Only by wringing my hands and making promises in the dark, sometimes picking petals off the daisy, did I come to conclusions. In some cases, I had to choose a favorite book for a particular letter though I really adore another book more than the one for the letter for which I was writing. Anointing a single child. Medieval torture. The aching limitations of the series. The books left out cry to me in my dreams, “How could you do this to me?” Love is a fickle entity. I had to choose one, only one book for each letter, but still, I love all of you equally.

How did I even come to have a selection of titles from which to choose?

About ten years ago I began to keep a list of books I’d read, sometimes writing a very brief review. I’ve added titles read long ago as I remember them. The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, a pseudonym for a group of writers, is the very first book I ever read by myself when I was five, but this book only recently got onto my list. Close to a thousand mostly fiction books read since 1953, the earliest date I can remember reading books for pleasure or elucidation. It remains an organizational mess – not in alphabetical order by title or author, not even organized by the year read. Kids’ books are mixed in as well as non-fiction which I chose not to include for possible review, nor biography or autobiography, philosophy, religious exegeses, history, science, technology, poetry, short story collections, or Shakespeare’s plays, almost none of which are even on the list. I’ve not included all the books read in support of my career as an art teacher: how to teach, how to teach art, and art history, production methods, materials, and techniques, and commentary. Also not on the list are the dozens (hundreds?) of textbooks pored over for college, and any books I still don’t remember. (OK, Captain Obvious, go away now.) This year I got a bit smarter and created a page just for 2017. I’m not a marathon reader by any means, and the list of books I’d like to read is at least another thousand.

So, picking a favorite for each letter posed a challenge. I didn’t want more than one book per author, nor to lean too heavily on any one genre, or select more female than male writers. Nor should only the classics or only recent books be considered. I selected the entire series before I began to write about Doerr’s book in order to keep my pen out of those quagmires. Didn’t mean I didn’t change my mind – I did that too, for about every letter as its publication date approached.

My original idea was only to choose adult books but if you’ve followed the series, you know I didn’t stick with that plan. Some children’s books are too exceptional and memorable to be ignored. Thus Max made his bow in Where the Wild Things Are, right after I’d sent my beloved copy to my youngest grandchildren in Northern California.

These are books that pulled me between their covers and held on to my heart and mind, sometimes making me laugh out loud in awkward places or leaving me in tears. Most of them I’ve read more than once, some as many as six times (imagine how long my list would be had I not done that) but many I haven’t read within the last year or so. Which meant I had to skim the book, most of them fortunately still on my shelves. But I’m not a speed reader and that’s why there are gaps of more than a week between some of the posts. I read “out loud in my head,” usually in voices, and that takes time.

As I worked through the alphabet my focus changed. From writing reviews of great books I wanted people to read, I wrote personal stories about why each book meant so much to me. They influenced other book choices, or how I write, or what I think about the world, or compelled me to dream bigger, try harder, research deeper, write more. There are hundreds of thousands of reviews on the Internet but my series reveals at least twenty-six gherkins of information about me.

I gave up quoting my favorite line because that became another nearly impossible choice. Most of my books are flagged with dozens of sticky notes, indicating a passage I wanted to remember. When I started copying ten or twelve sentences, I got close to crossing the acceptable legal line of limited exposure of another writer’s work. I stopped including them at all.

Toward the end of the alphabet I got creative, as you’ve probably noted. Consider X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember – that one was a mighty undertaking, demanding a return to my earliest childhood memories, but it might be the post in this series for which I’m most proud.

You, my readers, have graciously offered your own favorite titles for various letters, and I’m so thankful for your interest and recommendations. I hope you’ll consider a book or two from my list for something to read over the next year. When you open to the first page, tell them their old friend Shari sent you.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for A to Z:
Perhaps another 300 books I couldn’t write about, my other favorite favorites.

 

Painting “Interesting Story” by Laura Muntz Lyall, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Anniversary to Ink Flare, four years old this week. July 13 to be exact. No cake nor candles, just a big puff of gratitude. My thanks to all of you who read my blog and an extra big thanks to those who comment. You’ve shared your thoughts and your hearts, asked questions (always respectfully, thank you) and offered wonderful solutions to my conundrums.  In a world busier than bee hives in the Hundred Acre Wood, everyone has something else calling their attention. I’m grateful to those of you who are regulars, those who stop by occasionally, and those who read but choose not to comment.

Writing a blog is a solo experience – I usually work early in the morning, like before I’ve gone to bed the night before. The second wind syndrome for me. Hubby is asleep – smart (lonely?) guy – and the owls sometimes alert me to gaze through the windows at the moon. Posting is a crowd affair. You live all over the world and your clocks may tell a different timeline than mine, the seasons perhaps topsy-turvy from mine. Still, the early morning yawn and stretch for most of you.

Blogging is group oriented, more even than books, which tack to particular genres. I read travel, cooking, personal motivation, art, health, spiritual, poetry, political, humor, entertainment, music, science, family oriented, history, cultural, photography, and craft blogs, as do you. And many writing blogs of course. Some of the writers are so young I think they’re blogging instead of doing homework. Lots of us blog instead of doing housework. And many folks blog because they no longer work.

Like any blogger I smile biggest when you talk to and inspire me.

So let me rephrase the opening: Thank you for Ink Flare’s fourth anniversary. I couldn’t have made it without you.

 

 

Basque Celebration, Dario do Regoyos, circa 1890

 

Like several books on this A to Z list, I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis while in college, though it wasn’t for a class. A bunch of friends were reading the book (I think some for a college course,) and I read it so I could participate in the exciting conversations. This was during the early 1970’s. When you’re young, in college, in love (or you wish/think you are,) maybe a bit inebriated (sometimes, only sometimes,) out of your parents’ house (finally,) full of vigor, fueled with passion, inspired by the radical and classic ideas that have made the world spin, and free to experiment (‘cause, you know, you’re out of your parents’ house,) Zorba is the most exciting background music you can imagine. It remains one of the most iconic books of all time, but today’s college kids might be rallied by some other title. (Would love you to tell me.)

Zorba the man is as much a swashbuckling figure as Captain Jack Sparrow (though I find Zorba fully dimensional and Sparrow a brittle prop for outlandish makeup.) And that’s what we talked about, sitting on the floor of someone’s apartment (none of us had furniture, but we had energy) and arguing about what the book meant to us and how or if we should emulate Zorba’s attitude about life. Such zest the man had, and knowing Kazantzakis had based his character on a true-life friend made the book that much more appealing. Because frankly, despite our youthful dreams and noble ambitions, none of us had yet made anything of our lives, and we felt like the world was passing us by without hearing our squeaks and pitches. But we all had tests the next day and papers due at the end of the week. Young women or young men, we wanted to be like Zorba, grabbing life by the fistful, singing, dancing, drinking (and having sex) till we dropped, obligations be damned.

The story is narrated by a younger man, a reserved scholar out to mine for lignite on Crete in 1915 or so. Zorba hires on to be the manager, cook, and occasional musician. We never learn the name of the narrator. While many have suggested it is Kazantzakis himself, I think he represents the staid, unheralded Everyman, the backbone of society who works hard to pay the bills and feed the kids. Boring perhaps but dependable. Except that this narrator is so aloof about life that there’s no family at all, just a man who reads, thinks, contemplates religion and philosophy (the Buddhist void,) and decides to manage a lignite mine in order to promote the right of the workers. The polar opposite of Zorba who dances, drinks, labors, sings, ruts like a bull, and advises against getting close to the miners. And submerges his past with flamboyant braggadocio or the plaintive strings of his santuri.

Adventure after adventure, Zorba and the narrator engage in this partnership with each other and with the citizens of Crete. What the narrator cannot learn from his books, he learns from Zorba, often an antagonistic view. At the end is the inevitable: the deaths of the most charismatic people. Only the music endures.

Zorba was the perfect model for students in the seventies. We were the free love generation, the ones who protested the Vietnam War. We argued the value of everything, and we sampled drugs (some kids) the way you might try appetizers. Seen through the lens of my friends, Zorba’s lifestyle was the zenith of exuberance. Yet all of us were students, most working our way through college, many actively and frequently protesting the war. Deciding my life was my responsibility, that my choices had to be my own, I’d already left home. I realized it was egregiously unjust to draft boys not old enough to vote, most of them too poor to be excused for service by attending college. (Young men like the one I would shortly begin a relationship with, eventually to marry.) So I gave up a semester of college to campaign to pass the twenty-sixth amendment which lowered the voting age to eighteen, giving the youngest draftees a chance to vote.

At a time when eating twice a day was all I could afford, it was not insignificant to give up that semester, extending my work at minimum wage jobs and delaying my graduation. I lived full throttle the way Zorba did, the way many of my friends did, but we were also like the young and idealistic narrator. We studied hard, we worked for social justice and democracy, we weighed options, we believed in peace, and we protested for the common man, for civil rights, and for ideals of conscience.

Charismatic, mesmerizing, towering, magnetic, alluring, tragic, life lived fully and in the moment. Or life lived with poetry on one’s tongue, cerebral and distant, the scholar in the ivory tower. The ancient conundrum, the great paradox: individual versus community, instinct versus intellect.

Ah, youth. Ah, Zorba the Greek.

I look forward to learning about your favorite Z fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for Z:

The Zigzag Kid by David Grossman

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon and Schuster

 

Y is for The Yearling

 

*Draw back the curtain, dusty and threadbare, to my childhood, and you’ll see a kid propped with a book as often as anything else. We had the first color TV in our neighborhood, a modern wonder that everyone came to watch, me gloating over the regal status of our family. A tiny in-ground swimming pool in our backyard cooled us each afternoon while everyone else traipsed to community pools to escape New Jersey’s blistering summers. I threatened all my limbs racing a bike over the uneven landscape of sidewalk slates erupted by the roots of saplings planted fifty years earlier, now grown to jungle size. My childhood also included an excess of torment, from events I won’t describe or attribute.

At night when my jelly jar beamed with lightning bugs signaling for release, when the attic creaked its rotted beams and Jack Parr entertained adult viewers with his suave, nasal humor on late night TV, I lay in bed with a book and entered worlds more fierce and tragic, heroic and dangerous, romantic and exotic than my own. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Borrowers, Heidi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twenty-One Balloons, A Little Princess, The Swiss Family Robinson, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Railway Children – all these and more captivated me and kept me up hours past bedtime. They gave me insight to the difficult lives of others. They gave me courage, come morning, to tackle another day. One book was so special I bought a copy for my grandson years before he could read it.

The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is about Jody, a youngster who lives in the Florida back country with his parents and his orphaned pet fawn, Flag. Life is harsh and hard scrabble shortly after the end of the Civil War. Every grain of corn is a hedge between mere hunger and flat out starvation, every encounter with nature a potential threat to existence, every neighbor an adversary with their own desperate circumstances to overcome. Jody adores his indulgent pa, his remote ma, his sensitive, crippled friend, and Flag. Flag grows up to become a healthy, ravenous buck and a threat to the family’s tenuous grasp on sufficient sustenance for the following year, forcing Jody to make an unthinkable decision. He must sacrifice the thing he loves most to save his family, his first act of manhood.

The Yearling clutched at my heart like no other book. It was first of all much longer than anything I’d read by at least a hundred pages. Rawlings believed I could read a book this long, that I had the stamina to maintain attention for a sustained period. She trusted that I had the intelligence to keep tabs on a large cast of characters, some so ingratiating I still love them, some despicable, all of them original and unforgettable. She engaged me with a complex plot and a sense of language so identifiable that I learned to speak nineteenth century Floridian with the best of the swamp dwellers.

More than that, Rawlings threw me a life raft. All the stories I’d read and loved told tales of people, usually children, surviving unlikely odds, but The Yearling treated me like an adult. (In fact, she wrote a book. It has come to be considered a young adult book.) Her dollar words and profound ideas made me think about the issues that motivate people to endure the impossible. The story gave me insight into how to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes violent swamp of my childhood. It showed me a way to identify the currents beneath my own strange family issues and swim to the surface. I couldn’t understand Jody’s ma, and I couldn’t understand my own mother. And the book made me want to write like Rawlings.

What did a New Jersey kid know about the wilds of the Louisiana or Florida swamps, the vastness of the American prairie, or even the poverty of the downtown Trenton Black neighborhoods? Not much. Didn’t stop me from writing about them. My stories became populated with folks who had Southern drawls or Western twangs and lived in foul places built more of imagination than any reference to real locales. What did an eleven-year-old know about restrictive social impositions on the other side of town that made it impossible for a man to care for his family or for a woman to walk downtown proudly? Hardly a thing. Didn’t stop me from creating them. My characters faced unjust tribulations and resolved them with courage and invention even if the events were outrageous and the outcomes impossible. I didn’t even flinch from occasionally letting a protagonist die. Melodrama was my forte.

My teachers encouraged me, if only because I used lots of adverbs and adjectives and fashioned strange names for my characters. I won a few school awards and fleeting acknowledgement. My parents applauded my effort though I’m pretty sure they never read anything I wrote.

No matter. In the far dark corner of my room sat the spirit of a little woman with a stern face who waited patiently while I put down my stories in longhand. My hero, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, prodded me to write. Decades ago and long interrupted in my adulthood but now restarted, I wrote stories. I wrote first for children, stories about overcoming injustice and facing down heartache. Now I write for adults, stories about the complex relationships between people against the background of momentous historical events. They’re about people who confront savage or mysterious circumstances and overcome personal failure to find a way to triumph. It’s what happened to Jody. I try to engage readers as much as Rawlings engaged me. I hope that people find solace in my stories for what can’t be described or attributed in their lives.

The Yearling won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

What childhood book stays with you?

I look forward to learning about your favorite Y fiction books.

*Note: This article was first published (with slight differences) on Ink Flare in 2013. Though I intended to assign a different book review to Y, The Yearling has had such major impact on my life as a person and a writer, that I realized this is the only book that would reflect my passion for storytelling.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for Y:

The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (series) by Rebecca Wells

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

 

Book cover image courtesy Google images and Charles Scribner’s Sons