Sparked by Words

Harvest

May you find your life as abundant as the stars in heaven, may you share your wealth with others, may others invite you into their embrace, and may all of us reap the bounty of a plentiful harvest of health, hope, happiness, and hearth.

 

Just a thought 17

 

Image courtesy Pixabay.com

 

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Thanksgiving 2017

We live in the eucalyptus woods of Lake Forest in Orange County, California, solidly middle class and a place we could not afford at today’s prices. We locked in to this gracious neighborhood of family focus, great schools, varied public and private services, and healthy businesses more than 30 years ago. This past two months we cleaned the house, packed up anything worth donating, threw out barrels of useless stuff that we wondered why we’d saved. We fixed and painted, scrubbed and polished. Organized in its new beauty, showing off its books, photos, and knickknacks, the house glows. We’re ready for the holidays, for our out of town guests. This will be the first in about 15 years that both our sons and their families will be together for Thanksgiving along with extended family and friends. The bright and shining face of comfort, we’re ready to celebrate our bounty.

Nearly 200 homeless people, many of them family groups, live around the Plaza of the Flags in downtown Santa Ana, our county seat. The area bridges the Orange County Superior Court building and the public law library. Nearby is the main branch of the distinguished Santa Ana Public Library and Santa Ana City Hall. None of the campers really want to live here but they can’t afford the high county rent. The encampment is an embarrassment, a haven for filth and disease, used syringes and empty bottles and cans. For discarded and broken toys, torn sweatshirts and trash. For vermin. For excrement. It’s a dirty, scary place to walk past as I did last year on my way to serve jury duty. It’s a failure of individual responsibility and self control, of inability to delay gratification or accept consequences, of unwillingness to apply oneself to education and work ethic. It’s a total failure of parenting skills. And it’s  not the image of public pride we’d like to project but the face of policy failure we can’t seem to resolve.

Some but not all of the adults work for low paying wages at jobs with inconsistent schedules. And yes, some are drug addicts, alcoholics, lowlifes and criminals – but not the children. The children are innocent and active, yearning for play, hoping for education. Like our four grandchildren. Like yours. Orange County officials are trying to clean up the encampment but if they deal with this problem by forcing these people out with no place else to go, then they simply foist the problem onto some other community. Resolution is not barricading Civic Center. It’s building temporary safe houses and long term opportunity. It’s people remembering their childhood goals and deciding to change themselves.

My family is eating lots of healthy food over this week of Thanksgiving. Everything traditional you can think of (most homemade by our many family cooks and bakers,) also sushi, pizza, and a variety of ethnic foods (most from local restaurants.) We love it all and we pick at the leftovers whenever we want a snack. Every year as part of my temple’s outreach program we collect hundreds of cans and boxes of food items to donate, along with grocery gift certificates, to help 200 low income families. Thanksgiving is one of about a dozen times during the year that we mount a formal collection – school supplies in September, clothing, books, eyeglasses, personal hygiene items, toys. Throughout the year we donate food and more food, because a meal eaten today doesn’t feed a person tomorrow. We write checks to service organizations whose mission is to help those who are ill, hungry, without homes. These low income people don’t live a few counties over. They live here in Orange County. They’re my neighbors. And yours.

We aren’t rich. We do without vacations, expensive hair care, manicures, gardeners, maid service, updates on the house, sometimes even without needed repairs. Remodeling our house is a daydream. Tickets to live theater or sporting events are out of the question. Until two months ago I drove a nineteen-year-old car but when it became dangerous, we purchased a newer used one. I don’t have to get around on a bicycle or on public transportation, and if I walk, it’s to enhance my health, not because there’s no other way. We do without luxuries, things by their definition no one needs. Our personal situation was built of hard work and bonuses of good luck. We have everything necessary for a decent life. We are rich in family, friends, and opportunities.

On Thursday when we sit with our two sons and two daughters-in-law, with our four grandchildren, and our extended family around a table graced with candles and goblets, we will say thanks for this bounty. But I will remember those whose lives are less secure, whose meal was cooked over a camp stove or eaten from greasy paper sheets while they hunkered on a cement slab in Civic Center. The crime is not that I can’t fix the problem. It’s  a crime if I don’t recognize their humanity, if I call them “other,” “other” being a designation of less worth. Yesterday I donated food. Today I wrote a check. Tomorrow I will give clothing. Next month I will donate toys. What we have is not extravagant. What we have is immensely extravagant bounty. I am deeply grateful.

May you always celebrate in joy and health with your family and loved ones. One day may everyone.

 

 

 

 

Image of homeless girl courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

 

Daydream, Writer

I wonder what you remember of being a kid in school. What was the most common remark you heard from your teachers? It might have been anything of the myriad activities that engage young children at the perimeter of studies. Don’t write on the desk. Stop running in the hall. Sit up straight. Throw out your gum. Turn to the right page. Stop talking to Sally (Henry, Willis, Coralee.) Sharpen your pencil before class. That’s not a word we use in school. We heard all those comments directed at kids who needed reminding about the purpose of school: practicing times tables, practicing spelling words, practicing cursive writing, practicing reading, practicing memorizing. School instruction was not interesting so much as required. School instruction was not creative at all. It was practice for something else.

None of those comments were directed at me, however. I heard another order – often – from every teacher through the elementary grades. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” Because there I’d be, my head turned toward the huge windows along the back wall, staring out at the gray and yellow skies, the bare limbs of the trees, the steeple of the church across the street. Caught daydreaming again about all the possibilities of life outside our classroom, wondering what it would be like if. My teachers thought I was wasting time but I was imagining a different world. I turned back to the current lesson though not for long. I’d be daydreaming again before the end of the day.

I recently read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. The first chapter was about Albert Einstein and the fact that he spent a year doing nothing but daydreaming. Einstein’s daydreams led him to conceptualize some of the most revolutionary ideas about the nature of physics and the role of light, energy, and matter in the origin of the universe. After that daydream year he had a creative explosion that resulted in him writing four important papers that identified the connective nature of just about everything in the cosmos. Eventually he won the Noble Prize.

Everyone should daydream. Children should daydream, inventors should daydream, lovers, the aged, politicians, priests, and travelers should daydream. It isn’t enough to do the ordinary and expected, to take notes and photos, to make lists and plans. We writers should daydream. Inside the daydream is the inception of wonder, the place where everything begins.

Writers need a break from ordinary routine. We put too much emphasis into the strategy we think should result in brilliant writing. It’s like buying the most expensive computer system, adding an outstanding writing program, lining up research files, and then drawing a creative blank. The novel doesn’t emerge.  Great story writing doesn’t come from elaborate equipment. It comes from slow and careful observation about the world, thinking about the human experience until the artist has insight about life.

Once we start to write, we should not try to write well. We should just write. Let the words flow and don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. That’s not for us to judge anyway – that’s for readers to judge. And maybe what we should be doing is not writing at all for a while but continue the daydream until writing organically enters our stage.

Everybody knows Einstein did poorly in school, that he appeared to do nothing for a while. But it isn’t true that he didn’t do anything – he observed, he thought, he let ideas flourish in his brain. He wondered. That year of daydreaming was the catalyst for the extraordinary and continuing bursts of brilliance that allowed him to cultivate his curiosity and resulted in the synthesis of his ideas. That led him to develop one of the pillars of modern physics, the theory of relativity.

Maybe we don’t have everything yet.  Maybe we need time spent looking around the world, observing, thinking, wondering, the way Einstein spent that year looking at the universe. Because if we don’t find the world enchanting – the way the clouds gather around the moon, the way we can talk to a stranger who doesn’t speak our language, the way the horizon stretches to infinity yet never really exists at all – we might as well stick with writing shopping lists.

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 This article was adapted from a letter sent to a friend.

Photograph of Albert Einstein courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

Sand or Honey

 

Even the most momentous creation – a whale or a love affair – begins with a tiny drop of something elemental – sand or honey – and is complete only when the final bit – a fluke or a splinter – slips into the right place.

 

 

Just a Thought 16

 

 

Image of sandcastle courtesy Commons.Wikimedia.org

 

Name, Please

 

Not much weighs less than a name. Still –

Names connote more than letters on a birth certificate. They are the blessings of our parents and the identity for our national placement. They are the curse of our enemies and the honor of those who love us. They may boost our aspirations or cost our freedom. They are our paycheck and our entry check to class reunions, our marriage bond and our legal rights, a memory of our failures and a trophy for our successes.

Think of Dwight David Eisenhower and you think of a brilliant commander. Think of Albert Einstein and you think of a brilliant physicist. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a gifted African American writer, his name as unique as he is. And who doesn’t know Madonna? Not the blue-robed statue in church – the barely robed one on the stage. Princess Diana will always be remembered, her name associated with compassion, royalty, and a horrible death. Or Buddha, his calm figure seated in a temple, his singular name easy to recall. Mahatma Gandhi is always thought of as a man of peaceful civil disobedience, and Sun Tzu always as a man of war. Mother Teresa recalls a kindly nun bringing hope to the poor and disenfranchised. Think of Hannibal and you will also think of the Alps, maybe a bit of history. If you like history, you might remember Betsy Ross and the first American flag, or of Florence Nightingale who raised the profession of nursing. And who could ever forget Malala, the face of courage in the face of terror? Or Abraham Lincoln and the brief speech that makes us value the cost of freedom? Or Anne Frank whose teenage diary makes us remember the cost of bigotry?

There are more ordinary folks also, whose names carry weight for them. Renee is called Naynay because her younger sister couldn’t say the letter R. Samantha hates her name and demanded to be Manda until her friends convinced her Sammie was way better. Howard is Howie even as an adult though it’s a bit babyish now, and Leonardo was always better known as Leo, which fit well as a child and an adult. Carol and Leslie are twins, male twins, and though their names are unisex, they chose less androgynous monikers. Call them George and Arnold today, their given middle names, no mistaking them in person or print. Neither Sherry nor Brandy has a taste for alcohol, given their mum and da were drunks, so soon as they could, they chose less addictive names.

Dano’s real name is Rupert Daniel, but God forgive anyone who calls him by that first tag assigned him by his insistent great-grandfather. Since he couldn’t pronounce his own name at two, he became Dano – the way he said it, and better all around. Bertha Agnes Froog was visited at nineteen, a week after she left her parents’ home for good, by a dream spirit who divined her true name: Indigo Wave. Seriously, were I named something as awful as Bertha Agnes Froog, I’d also have run from it. Well, maybe not to Indigo Wave.

Given names (was Hero an honor or a joke played on the baby?) Inherited names (how many James Smith does the world need? OK for James Smith Jr., or the III, even the IV, maybe the V, but the VI – now we’re bored and the exclusivity has worn off.) Family names (no one on earth wants to be known as a Hitler or a Torquemada, even if the first name is Juliet or Aiden.) Baby names (don’t call anyone Pootie Pie if they are older than two.) Pseudonyms (are you hiding or running away?) Nom des plumes (so past acquaintances can’t catch up to you, or because someone else has made your real name famous, Marilyn Monroe?) Nicknames (Stinky, Button, and Ladybug were fine back in the day, but it’s no longer back in the day.)

Authors have much fun making up names. My favorites are those who create unpronounceable letter combinations but get angry when we say them incorrectly. Why shouldn’t I say Jacob if someone writes Jkb? If they want me to say it as Ickbo, it should be spelled that way, no matter that Jkb is a creature from the planet Zxqkn. That’s Zisqueen to me but Ekshozsa to the writer – they intended the final n to be silent. And if anyone chooses #*^^)(@% as a name, I will pronounce it Joe or Sue, depending on gender – if I’m able to determine gender – they may choose.

Favorite book characters include Cordelia, Ebenezer Scrooge, Holden Caulfield, Lolita, Huckleberry Finn, Kunta Kinte, Ayla, Atticus Finch, Jane Eyre, Jay Gatsby, Scarlet O’Hara, Ifemelu and Obinze, Tess, Sherlock Holmes, Sethe, Amir and Hassan, Anna Karenina, Wonder Woman and Superman, Okonkwo, Heathcliff, Hester Prynne, Celie and Shug, Inigo Montoya and Buttercup, and Hamlet – because I must begin and end with Shakespeare. You know these characters if you’ve read the books, though the titles are absent here.

I’ve chosen names for my stories according to the decade and country where a person was born. And to my whim. Elaine is an American character I like, though she is deeply flawed, Harvey is an unlikable jerk. John is strong and protective, and Junko is Japanese and wise. Rivka is a hero in the same story as Janusz, while Egon is a brute, and his name means the edge of a sword. Gittle, meaning good, is a sweet if naïve woman while Mendel’s name is changed several times.  Jocelyn, called Joey, links together generations and continents. In another story, Mama has no other name but her daughter, Kimberly, is called by different names depending upon who is talking to her. Dr. Michael Saginor pays homage to my OB-GYN, though the name is a bit different from the real physician.

So now for my own name: I was born Sharon Lynne Bonin. I found it an awkward  mouthful for a kid who liked pink ruffles and wanted to be a flower girl more than anything in the world. My last name was changed to Pratt when I married, and friends call me Shari though there’s nothing documented to show it as a legal attribute. Look up a number of combinations on Google and you’ll find more than one Sharon Pratt or Shari Pratt. But there is only one Sharon Bonin-Pratt. Me. And this is my chosen nom de plume.

Names lug meaning and history along with the letters. Noble, debased, inventive, ethnic, silly, dependable, criminal, undependable, powerful, romantic. Reputations tip the scale. Not much weighs less than a name. Or more. Choose carefully.

 

 

 

Painting A Young Man Reading at Candlelight by Matthias Stom, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A Writer’s Currency

 

Sixth grade. One (first) plane trip, two states, three schools, four languages if you count Pidgin English. (Also Yiddish and French class.) One border of the country to the other, from the American edge of the Atlantic to the middle of the Pacific, and a cultural shift of unfathomable dimension.

Saddle shoes to bare feet, blizzards to tropical breezes, bobby pins to leis, oak trees to plumeria, chicken stew to saimin soup, social inclusion to misfit. The threat of hurricanes, the threat of tsunamis, the crash of waves in Atlantic City, the gentle surf of Honolulu.

Tears, joy, loss, promises, farewell, aloha. All in a day, all in a very long day and into the dark and fragrant night.

That ought to make you unsteady on your feet. It sure as hell did me.

No paradise for me but currency for a writer.

Remembered about the years 1959 – 1960 of moving from New Jersey to Hawaii.

 

 

Just a Thought 15

 

Painting: Tiger in a Tropical Storm, Henri Rousseau, 1891, courtesy Wikipedia.org

 

Five Across, Four Down

That which we encounter everyday should be that which we celebrate. That which we celebrate can be that which teaches us how better to do what we love. And that which we love can inspire us to write, even when we think our inspiration took off with the last Mongol invasion of Central Asia.

Crossword puzzles occupy a lot of my time, especially true in the last eight years. I don’t have an obsessive love of crosswords, but my mom always did. A pop-in visit to see my folks was as likely to be met with the urgently asked, “What’s a seven letter word for something important?” (gravity) as a heartfelt, “Glad you came by.” Right there, the beginning of a story for NaNoWriMo. Whose mom wants the right puzzle word more than a visit from her progeny? Yours, course. (Well, mine, but you know what I mean.) You thought you were empty headed, completely bereft of words to fill a book, and yet right in front of you, there they are: words a-plenty. Just have to pluck them from her puzzle and plop them into your 50,000 word story.

After my father’s death, crossword puzzles became a link between mom and me, one of the essential strategies for keeping her Alzheimer’s diseased brain as highly functioning as possible. We work them together, and I’m still amazed that she often knows answers I don’t. (Clue: Precedes while. “Erst,” she said. Oh yeah, erstwhile. Now I get it.) These clever word games have taught me a lot in eight years, skills I didn’t know I needed but now seek to augment as much as possible. The more I sit beside my mom, helping her focus on crossword clues and answers, the more I learn about writing. There’s another NaNoWriMo story waiting for a keyboard, should I want to use it: cross word puzzling through mom’s illness. Sort of a mental travelogue.

Patience, spelling prowess, trivia knowledge, peculiar humor, vocabulary building, archaic words, unusual context, flash fiction, courage, tenacity, personal relationships – all these are benefits of doing crosswords. All are applicable skills for writing.

I’ve developed the patience to work at solving a puzzle even when I know the answer is in the back of the book. There’s a certain satisfaction when mom and I complete an entire puzzle and we haven’t cheated once. She contributes about one tenth of the answers, an amazing fact given her condition. The rest is up to me and I’m often stumped. I lean over the book, staring at clues and wondering what could have possibly been on the puzzle creator’s mind to have written such an obscure clue. Kiln: oast. She knew the answer and spelled it correctly. I didn’t. (By the way, beer lovers, did you know that the hops were dried in an oast? What interesting trivia we gather in puzzles.) By the time we’ve finally completed the challenge, I’m thoroughly pleased for having stuck it out. Mom beams. I write a personal note across the top of each puzzle to its creator: Harry, can’t you find any modern words, or, You’ve got a sense of humor, Martha, a wicked one, but humor all the same. Mom loves reading the notes later in the week so I make sure to write one every time. My silly comments make her smile.  My writing has an appreciative audience. I value whatever readers I have.

Puzzle solving teaches about unexpected humor. Most crosswords incorporate several clues related to the title. “Rare Gems” clues included 20 across: Unpolished. No spaces between words, no hint about how many words needed, and the answer: diamondintherough. The clue for 30 across: Had an appetite for Lillian Russell: DiamondJimBrady. The last clue in the gem category, 40 across: Faceted field: baseballdiamond. I groaned that it wasn’t a fair clue, but mom reminded me, “It’s just crosswords.” I grinned. She was right, and it was funny to think about diamonds in so many ways. Rare gems indeed.

A writer needs a broad vocabulary, an internal thesaurus stuffed with words to suit every occasion. Especially useful for me was the reminder that rectos are “right hand pages” (the answer to 14 down,) and then I remembered that left hand pages are verso, which brought me to recall that a leaf is paper with two sides. Yes, all paper has front and back, but a leaf has writing on both sides. Now I’m on to leaf with all its meanings and applications. Every tot learns to gather leaves as soon as she can toddle outside, but leafing through a book has more to do with recto and verso than biology. Leaf sounds poetic to my ear while bract is emphatic, frond drifts in the breeze, pad sunbathes, and petiole and stipule put me back in seventh grade science class. The puzzle proved a useful meandering through related words as a leaf is a major player in one of my books. At my next revision, I’ll check for variety and intent of its synonymous words.  At the moment, mom wants to know what clue I’m reading, and we move on. Alzheimer’s doesn’t make her want to wait for me.

The puzzle entitled “Cut Me a Deal” provided a mini course in flash fiction. The answers included (I’m making it easy on you by separating the words, though the puzzle didn’t) Shuffle the deck, Shuffle off to Buffalo, Stacking the deck, and Deal me in. That’s a pretty generous prompt for writing flash fiction. The story is nearly there; all you need is a main character. So, Ronald Rucinski, you thought you were just a puzzle crafter, cribbed in your corner with naught but the computer light fending the darkness of the room. Now you’re also a high stakes player in a grimy casino off the main drag in Las Vegas, trying to bolster your flagging bank account with a poker faced attempt at betting the bank, working the room, and raking it in. “Deal me in,” Ronald Rucinski said, sliding his toothpick between the amber ivories in his mouth and narrowing his eyes as the dealer shuffled the deck. He hoped the slick bastard didn’t stack the deck like the last chiseler. As a story, it needs work, but all work needs more work. Still, it’s a start, and all stories must start someplace. “Cut Me a Deal” is even a decent working title.

Mom and I exhibit courage when doing puzzles. We write in pen. Pencils dull too fast and I have the courage of my convictions, though evidence suggests I’m often wrong. A writer must be courageous as she faces that blank page each day, grasping at flitting words and forcing them to her tome. Commit to the pen and you’re halfway there. OK, maybe a hundredth of the way there, a thousandth, but still, have pen, will write, and there you are, off on your book’s journey, wherever it may take you, down the occasional false path, but writing all the time. Writing quickly, as NaNoWriMo demands, because 50,000 words can be wrought from crossword books, but you still have to arrange them in a story order of some kind.

The more I’ve worked crosswords with my mom, the more I’ve learned about life. The more I learn about life, the better I write. It’s been an odd place to glean an education and a peculiar way of building a relationship with an ill person. Thank you, Mom, for all you’ve given me, 50,000 words and more. May God protect you and keep you as long as possible from the worst ravages of your disease.

 

 

Crossword puzzle image courtesy: Wikimedia.Commons