Sparked by Words

Archive for April, 2016

Bread

 

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Candles and celebration

Laughter of intimacy

Testament of rites

Crucible of wedding

 

Bread and festival

Yeast of endearment

Kitchen and hearth

Banquet of home

 

Spices and mystery

Day routine then eve

Crusts on the floor

Shards of family

 

Disdain and accusation

Secrecy of deceit

Lies, pleas, revelation

Cleft of the home

 

Confession and shame

Betrayal of pledge

Dough falls, bitter mold

Ruin of marriage

 

Regret and apology

Renewal of vows

Rises then a new loaf

Gathering of the clan

 

 

 

Poem in honor of National Poetry Month

Bread image courtesy of Commons.wikimedia.org

 

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Dumpster Diving

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Decades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then expounded about why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we adhered to his rules. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins, my go-to I’m bored activity. The papers were creased with the sweat of my hands as I’d written, the ink smudged by the nervous energy of trying to listen attentively, to commit every significant comment to the notebook. For future reference, for guidance in my efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually his very first words, were that he’d like to see far fewer faces at the next lecture because we were not the students he wanted to teach. Without reading a single sentence from any of us, he declared we were dull, uninspired, unworthy to write.

At the end of his first class, I walked out with my head reeling, a sense of nausea brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of forty or so upper level students, I was unqualified to ever attempt to write a story, so ignorant that I couldn’t function within the narrow corridor of competence as he’d described. I couldn’t live by his rules because I was already a total failure. He spoke to all of us but I took it personally. He spoke to me.

The dizzying buzz in my brain assured me I was as incompetent as he’d expected. His initial evaluation after calling my name from the attendance record confirmed his suspicion that I would never live up to anyone’s expectations of becoming a successful writer – or a successful anything. Perhaps dumpster diving might suit me. At least then I had the potential of dredging up something useful from the bottom of the bin, something practical for the life of a loser.  That’s what he expected of all of us, of me. Dumpster divers, nothing more.

It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and rejection letters (I’d been warned I should expect them for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejection being the norm for new writers) that convinced me I didn’t have the right stuff. That I didn’t have the write stuff to be a writer. With only this final semester of college before I could graduate, my credits hovering on the maybe-not-enough-units line, and a bank account that couldn’t support one more semester to make up a failed attempt, I dropped his class. I couldn’t risk a failing grade. I couldn’t risk trying to pass a class the professor had already warned I wouldn’t. After frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. Post college I did little to pursue writing as a career but eventually constructed a measure of success in another field.

How many of us who wanted to become someone – a ballerina, a rocket scientist, an inventor, an ambassador on behalf of our country – found ourselves waylaid by the doubt of stepping outside the hallowed halls of university and encountering the real world of looming bills, demanding employers, and sewers to be cleaned? Detoured  by a threatening professor? I wasn’t the first, the only, the last. It took me decades to understand that the famous professor’s clever manipulation of an apprehensive young woman produced exactly what he wanted me to become: someone whose papers he didn’t have to read or grade. I was what he’d nurtured: a drop out and a failure. I was also what I’d nurtured: a fool cowering at the bottom of a dumpster.

But what the famous professor didn’t count on was that I would scrabble from the dumpster and gather myself as a person of merit. He didn’t consider I’d have something more than his rigid rules to measure success. I’m passionate about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crap load of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make myself a person out of the aura of the insecure student. I’d never been a brilliant prodigy but I’ve always been resilient. And I’d always been passionate about who I was, what I might become.

Fifteen years ago I resurrected my desire to write. I wrote with frenzy, stimulated by current needs to change who I was and dormant longing to do what I felt I should have done with my life. Late at night the computer glowed and hummed, helping me craft and hoard my novels. When I wasn’t near the boxy beast, I thought writing and kept penned notes about what to revise, what to write next. The excitement of my childhood, of my early college years when I envisioned becoming the next great Dickens or Virginia Woolf invigorated me. Like most of us I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life, but nothing can stop me writing now.

I finally learned what a wiser student would have learned in that ominous writing class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. Rules may assist or impede, but if I write with passion, ain’t nothing gonna get in my way, baby. Put that in your cup and stir it up, drink it down, and get outta my way. I am a writer. That took a very long breath and a voice from deep within my psyche, but  there, I’ve said it: I am a writer.

And here’s the coup de grace: I can no longer remember the name of that famous college professor.

Dumpster photo courtesy of Edward, wikimedia.org

U is for Uniquely Unusual

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Five-year-old Danny Modoc stomped downstairs, the look of a champion on his face. His parents had asked him to change into something to wear to the school’s Open House evening, the year-end event where every kid gets to show off his best stuff for an hour while family and friends walk from science fair exhibits to band performances to the art show. Danny took their instructions seriously, and if I didn’t laugh, it was because I was too stunned and his parents too wise.

Stapled to every part of his white tee shirt was a baseball card. Dozens and dozens of baseball cards.

See, Danny was in tee ball, the pre-baseball sport for wee athletes where the ball isn’t pitched but knocked off a standing tee by a kid with a two-foot bat and a loose swing. Think beginning beginners. Kids love it and so does everyone who has a pumping lung because it is just so darned cute to watch the little guys swing with all their bitty might and run their hearts out down the baseline. And he collected baseball cards, nearly a requirement that year.

There he stood, happy to be supporting his school and Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson and anyone else who took the game to the edge until the next player surpassed him and set the bar higher yet. Danny was covered in baseball cards, shoulder to shoulder, neck to hem, front to back, and maybe even up inside his shirt. Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Rod Carew, Ted Williams, Jo DiMaggio, Cy Young, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams. Just ‘cause I didn’t name your hero doesn’t mean Danny didn’t wear the player’s card. The kid beamed, his eyes sparkling from a shiny clean face, his posture as noble as a king’s. I can imagine the discomfort of the staple points prickling his bare skin, but like any athlete who goes the distance for his sport, he didn’t flinch.

Danny was ready to go to Open House.

Smart parents, his. They said not one word of discredit but followed their little boy out the door, proud of his imagination and pluck and individuality.

That evening happened 35 years ago. I’m not a huge baseball fan. When I attend a game, I’m more interested in the popcorn and hot dogs, the seventh inning stretch, and the people watching, who I watch, than the game. Don’t have a favorite team or one I despise, don’t know who’s hottest at home plate this year or balancing their mitt on their nose and do not care. But I like Danny and I’ve never forgotten his iconic stance.

So much so that Danny is in one of my books. He’s a character in The Tree House Mother.  Now he’s a pre-school-aged girl named Haley, on her way to attend the formal fiftieth wedding anniversary for her great-grandparents at a chichi restaurant in the high end district. Her own parents, while not willing to offend the venerable generation twice before them, are also unwilling to curtail their daughter’s confidence. Haley has an intuitive sense of the honor the occasion demands. She’s taken the package of sparkly pink cardboard tiaras purchased for her fifth birthday party the next week and is wearing one on her head. Also one on each wrist, and she’s stapled the other five to the hem of her dress, making it extra special. Toothache sweet pink. Shiny with rhinestones and sparkles. Fancy with feathers. Extra special.

When she walks into the banquet hall, everyone turns to look. Stops talking. Wonders what the hell is wrong with her parents, who are, by the way, dressed absolutely appropriately in ball gown and dark suit. For letting the kid show up dressed in glitz and trash. The temperature of the room cools two degrees as everyone sucks in and heats up five degrees as they all exhale. How dare the kid’s parents?

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No one says the words but everyone knows the script.

 

But then, Haley is just so darned cute, and she is only four-going-on-five. Guests try to clip their grins, but really.

And then, Haley does something even more special. She walks right up to Great-Grandma Essa, takes the tiara from her own wrist, and puts it on Essa’s elegantly styled silver hair. It detracts from the diamond and pearl necklace at her throat and takes attention away from the off-white silk suit. And brings the first genuine smile to the old lady’s face that evening. First smile that month. See, Essa’s oldest son died of cancer a month before the party, and she just hadn’t felt up to celebrating. But the arrangements had long been made, the money couldn’t be returned, and everyone else in the family decided that Great-Grandma Essa needed this party to take her mind off her sorrow. Insisted she attend.

They were all wrong.

They were all right.

No one could bring a pinprick of joy to an old woman who had just buried her son. Except for the little kid who knew GG Essa was sad but didn’t understand why, who knew that what GG Essa needed was a pink tiara to feel really special.

And now you know how I write. I steal. I watch the people around me, I take what I witness, and turn it into story. Be careful what stuff you staple to your clothes. You might make an appearance in my next book.

 

Baseball card image courtesy Pixabay.com

Tiara image courtesy easyfreeclipart.com

 

Plum Tree

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Once a plum tree in spring, roseate petals toed on bare limbs, opens to sun,

Moth limps wet from its brittle cocoon into moonlight and raw leaf excess,

Onion swells from its torn dry shell, each layer transparent, unfurling,

Pungent odor stinging nose, swelling eyes, slimy sap burning cuts on flesh

 

Once a chick pecks sharp at marquise shell, totters hungry in noon warmth,

Trout slurps surface of jadeite pond, then glides through secret current,

Silent rainbow glitters after storm, melted gem colors, netted by clouds

Elusive, moves away from capture, away from certainty, to somber dark

 

Once evening’s sultry wind, morning’s dewy breath, vague languor

Honey from the hive, dripping sweet and gravid, orange, sage, tupelo,

Sting of the bee, startled, angry, defensive, only a brief defense,

Threat of more, to frighten, to ache, to paralyze, enough to kill

 

Once risen lovers, heated hearts, desperate for passion, fight and dance

Surety of souls meant to find each other, anywhere, everywhere, forever

Wisdom of warriors, aged, battered, gasping, marching on one leg, you and

I, winter now, crusted tears, tenuous, plum petals fallen from our fingers

 

In honor of National Poetry Month

Plum Tree image courtesy publicdomain.com

Light My Fire

It would be nice to know that creative people, whether working in the fields of art, film, dance, or even medical or technical research, wake each morning with a new inspiration bursting from their core, propelling them to their métier. I’d like to believe that. A good night’s sleep, a hearty breakfast, and off to paint, direct, twirl, or find the wonder cure to ills and ailments.

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No one past the age of six believes that absurdity. Even little kids know how tough it is to come up with a marketable, er, gradable project. After all the skills-building lessons struggled with in first grade, by the time that six-year-old is promoted to second grade, he understands it’s going to be another long year of practicing the same exercises over and over, trying to get it right. Whatever was mastered in first grade is just not good enough for second, and the kid knows it when the first homework assignment in early September is posted on the board. Practice addition facts. Practice for the spelling test. Read for 15 minutes. Bring lunch money. In other words, the lesson we all learned: it don’t come easy – pay your dues.

When I tell people I write, a few standard comments follow. “What have you written?” Nothing you would have read because I’m not yet published. “I always wanted to write a book.” So did I and then I did – three of them completed so far. “Where do you get your ideas?” From the supermarket, just like you. Maybe my internal thoughts are a bit smart-alecky, but my verbal remarks are polite because I love to talk about my books as much as I love to write them. On lucky days my fan club becomes a friend with common interests, and questions become a conversation.

I write because I always thought I would. It seemed a part of my personal constellation by the time I was six, a splatter of stars cast into my imagination, emerging as new worlds (for a six-year-old,) earning me endless reproval from my teachers. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” I wasn’t daydreaming – I was writing in my head. I could read better than most of the other kids, and my childhood stories were rich with adjectives and heroic characters. The little girls were prettier than I and bore envious names  – Tammy, Edwina. The little boys behaved more politely than the ones on our playground, even if they didn’t have as much fun. Their antics were resolved in a few paragraphs without adult intervention. (Who needed grownups? I always loved an unsupervised scenario.) Boring and pedantic as my early stories were, the books I read transported me to wild places and dangerous adventures – Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson, Black Beauty. Eventually it registered that risk, temptation, suspense, and dicey events made for much more exciting escapades and were more likely to compel a reader to finish a story – or for my teacher to give me a better grade. Add a main character who didn’t act like an everyday super hero and a bad guy who did – even better.

That was good strategy for elementary through high school, but college courses proved I didn’t quite have what it took to be a real writer. The spark flickered more than burned, and I realized some writers had great story to tell but no gift for putting it to pen. Others made words flow like the Mississippi all the way to the delta but nothing happened along the way. Only a few had the chops to write a damn good story in a damn impressive style. I just wasn’t one of them – yet.

The little spark that keeps me up at night (and sleepy during the day) – where do I find that tinder? Lots of events trigger my creative impulses but the ones that incite my writing are problems that irritate me for months. They are “what if” questions that bug the hell out of me until I finally begin to think about how I might resolve their suggested conundrums. Other activities (revealing the perfect word, rewriting till my hands swell) advance my efforts at continuing the writing process, but the initial work springs from something that niggles me to death.

I’d chewed cud for many years on the idea of writing about a family during subsequent Passover seders. Every four or eight or sixteen years, (four is a significant number at Passover) I would check in on them, see how the kids grew up, follow the old folks as they coped with dimming dreams, note how the new world affected everyone’s pursuits and beliefs. I also studied the Holocaust, a subject that harrowed me.

Eventually I faced a devastating employment situation that forced a major change in my life. Deeply distraught over circumstances I couldn’t have foreseen nor changed had I known, I realized the only way out of my personal morass was to create something. My usual go to creative process was to paint, but I’d been an artist and art teacher more than 25 years by then. It wasn’t going to bring me the relief or new direction I needed. So I turned to my childhood dream of writing Something Important. I combined a woman with everything and nothing, Passover, and the Holocaust into a book. Over two weeks I wrote 60 pages, most of which have remained intact. The result is a novel called The Inlaid Table, and it worked its way to the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest and made the General Fiction Quarter-finalist level. I was thrilled, and I had a new enterprise to give my life purpose.

The book is not published though I haven’t given up. I’ve written two other books since, also not yet published, and at least three more ideas are scribbled on computer queue. I slow sometimes, stumble often, but the spark remains. I pay my dues. I keep writing.

What lights your writing muse?

 

Match Photo courtesy Clip Art

T is for True to Character

Why did bespectacled Clark Kent slip into a telephone booth, change his business suit to the caped Superman onesie, and then fly to rescue the damsel gripped in the clutches of a criminal megalomaniac? To his ordinary fellow journalists at the Daily Planet, mushy mouthed Kent couldn’t save a mouse from its shadow, but to us fans, Superman could save the world. His humble Earth parents imbued him with moral urgency, and otherworld Krypton filled his core and gave him the ability to fly. Superman always had the incentive and power to challenge evil.

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In your newest novel, a burning building might propel your character Bumble Butt to rush in to try to save the screaming kid trapped inside, but the guy wouldn’t otherwise put himself out to interfere with the kid’s mom making him eat mush for breakfast. Radical circumstances force radical behavior but rash change doesn’t come from nowhere. And it’s unbelievable in a story. The internal compass only changes direction because of a violent eclipse to the magnetism that otherwise points north. Maybe pseudo-science can explain it, maybe a real PhD doesn’t recognize the concept, but we readers must believe it’s possible.

Malcolm’s position as the safety engineer at commercial building sites marks him as a fussy stickler for correct head gear, accurate weight and structural measurements, and pre-tested physics standards applied to real life situations. An entire chapter was devoted to his obsessive work safety concerns in the book our writer’s critique group read for KM, one of our members. I love KM’s story, and I respect him as a person. However, when Malcolm allowed his twelve-year-old daughter to drive the car late at night down a busy highway, he acted out of character. It just wasn’t in his nature to act with such reckless disregard of law and safety, especially with his child. I asked KM if Malcolm had been affected by a drug that had impacted a few other characters in the story. KM said no, he’d thought about his own father letting him drive under similar circumstances.

I don’t know anything about KM’s dad, if the guy was an irresponsible fool, or a drunk who made bad decisions under the influence of alcohol, or was simply trying to gain favor with his kid in the middle of a nasty conflict with KM’s mom. My husband taught our underage sons to drive in the empty parking lot of a school, hubby in the passenger seat. My dad let my kid brother drive the truck on our rural property, dad in the passenger seat. A midge of danger in both cases, but no other vehicles and no one else was around in either instance. Whatever terrible lack of judgment KM’s dad exhibited, it didn’t align with rule-stickler Malcolm. One factual out of context real world incident doesn’t make for a fun jaunt in a story if the genetic material doesn’t mesh with the character’s behavior. Otherwise known as not being believable. Yes, story is story, and KM gets to write his as he chooses. I have no idea whether he’ll make adjustments based on my observations or if he’ll dump me and my crit in the trash can. I suspect I won’t be the only reader to find this scenario suspect if left as originally written.

The characters I write are birthed in my imagination, as are yours. Besides the partly formed personality you read in my pages is a fully dimensional individual residing in my notes. If Kate, star of my book Kate, starts to spin like Super Whirligig, it’s up to me to have presented her previously as having top-like interests in getting dizzy and steel pointed toes that can pierce anything. Otherwise you’re just not going to believe she can drill right down through the earth to find the lode of golden ore at the bottom of a pit.

Superman can fly, Kate can spin, but I’m not sure Malcolm thumbs his nose in the face of safety. He’s a safety engineer, for crying out loud. A safety engineer lives safety first, last, and always. Or prove me wrong, Super Writer.

 

Superhero image courtesy of Clip Art, public domain

Story to Tell

My grandparents were born in Europe in the late eighteen hundreds, and like many who came to America in the early part of the twentieth century, their stories were tossed overboard to the seas over which they sailed in ships laden with immigrants. People driven to leave the countries of their birth often choose to keep secret the conditions that harrowed them till they took the chance that might lead to a better life. Beginner’s luck had much to do with how their new lives played out but blind luck on this side of the pond offered much better chances than the old countries with their royal, clannish, and violent systems of social injustice.

 

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As a second generation American child firstborn on both my mother’s and father’s sides of our family, all my grandparents and two of my great-grandparents were alive at my birth. A fortunate child. I’d love to say they vouchsafed their stories to me but that would be a stretch. Of the six, two spoke English well, one passably, the other three spoke it poorly though they probably understood a fair to commendable amount. An uncommon language wasn’t the only barrier. They were all used to keeping secrets, believing themselves and their children safer from the armies and conditions that drove them to New York’s harbor if their stories remained hidden. A rare open mouth ready to disclose a fact got hushed by an aunt flapping her arms or a spouse’s cough or a second thought that silence still was best. Their memories were their safest vaults.

By the time I was three, a grandmother had died; by seven, the last of the greats had also passed. Shortly after I turned eleven our family moved from the most eastern seaboard of the country to the most western port. The tropical paradisean melting pot of Hawaii had beckoned my parents. Though paradise lay submerged in the ocean around the islands more than hula-ed on its shores, we never returned to New Jersey’s frozen winters and humid summers. Melting pot, no way, but placid weather is its own tourism, so after a few years when we gave up Hawaii’s false promises, we moved to California. The dreams here were more honest in the garish blaze of neon lights, the weather still benign compared to Jersey’s blizzards. Yeah, even with earthquakes threatening to calf our most western cliffs into the Pacific and fires ravaging every place else in the state, it’s true. The weather here is better.

What I know of the truth and circumstances of the lives of the older generations came to me in snippets overheard at family dinners, in an occasional whisper tucked into my ear with orders never to repeat, or in the gossip we cousins shared with each other in backyards and playrooms. Some tales were told in Yiddish, a language I knew only by swear words, vulgarities, and curses, insufficient fluency to comprehend substance. Struggling with anger or frustration, my mother imbued me with the most tidbits of family lore, verbal explosions of the conditions that informed and inflamed her. By the time I was in my thirties, with my own young family and my own personal history, I’d learned all I ever would about the people who’d made me lucky enough to born in Philadelphia, land of brotherly love even if it wasn’t. Still, a much better option than the lives of every distant family member who remained in Europe but didn’t survive its hatred and torches. However harsh the weather in any part of the world, nothing imposes devastation like madmen with power and guns.

Ashes and secrets, the nexus of my generation, the kernel of my family, the lodestone of my DNA. All things Family Rosen and Bonin curled in a tight volute. My father and most of his generation have gone to grave, and the few who are left can no longer remember. They had a story to tell but only I can tell it, and even then, it’s a porous tale, riven by their fears and my childish lack of attention to the few times anyone wanted to share a bit with me, my lack of insight to know when to memorize better and press for more information. Compelling, even horrifying bits, not enough for history or biography, but sufficient for the genesis of a book.

Here then is the heart of my newest story, The Milkman’s Horse, and heart is a perfect way to describe it. Cloistered behind flesh, bone, and muscle pumps the lifeblood of those who birthed me and my generation. I’ve interrupted my fourth novel to write the fifth, one founded on the tales of my family. I don’t know enough to tell the whole truth and nothing but, so I’m writing a group of short stories linked by rumor, innuendo, gossip, and imagination. At the core of each tale is a singular fact told me by someone, though “fact” is another way of stating I don’t know exactly what I’m writing about.

Usually a pantser, slopping thoughts onto my computer and organizing chapters later, I’ve started this book with an outline of places and events, a list of real people and the characters who will play their parts, and a slim, broken history trooping its way through as a connective lifeline. I’m asking other family members of my generation what they know, gathering facts about how things used to be, researching old maps and history books, collecting hard evidence like birth certificates and census lists, and investigating American life fifty to one hundred years ago.

I’m excited by this new venture, a way of saying thank you to my terrified, courageous family, a means of resurrecting the lives of those who came before, and honoring those still here whose memories have suffered. Now you know why my blog posts have been unevenly posted of late. I’m occupied, friends, and you know what the Do Not Disturb sign means when posted outside my door. I’m writing. For a writer, that’s not a good thing.

That’s a great thing.

 

Family Image courtesy Laura Grace Weldon, Pixabay.com, public domain