Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why I March in the Women's March

I am going to the Women's March in DC this Saturday

because this election and the upcoming administration feels like an assault on everything I believe.

I wanted to make a protest sign to articulate all of my thoughts, all of my reasons for protesting.

I say

No-- to a man who boasts about grabbing women and girls by their private parts, who views women and girls as objects to rate and denigrate, who thinks it's disgusting when women breastfeed or have to go to the bathroom, who jokes about dating his own daughter, who calls women he doesn't like pigs, who parades into dressing rooms of underage girls and thinks that's funny and his right because he was born wealthy

No-- to a man who mocks people who have disabilities

No-- to a man who disparages people of color and people who are Muslim and people from other countries and people who are refugees and immigrants

No-- to a man who encourages his supporters to look at others with suspicion, to harm others, to bully others

No-- to a man who calls veterans losers and insults the parents of war heroes who gave their lives for this country and shows disdain for soldiers who suffer from PTSD

No-- to a man who threatens journalists, who wants to silence his critics

No-- to a man who shows contempt for Science, who doesn't believe in Climate Change

No-- to a man who tweets insults and bullies citizens who disagree with him

No-- to a man who surrounds himself with white supremacists, who takes advice from billionaires and Oligarchs and Russian leaders

No-- to a man who mocks the poor

No-- to a man who misleads his supporters, who makes promises he can't possibly keep, who wants to make America great again but can't explain what that means or WHEN that means and refuses to level with his supporters that it is impossible to go back to a mythical time when everything was "great" because everything WASN'T great for everyone.

No-- to a narcissist who can't empathize with anyone but himself, who has done real damage to most of the people he has come in contact with-- black people who he denied apartments to, women he sexually assaulted, workers he refused to pay, students he misled in his fake university, and all of us he has lied to-- about his status as a billionaire, about who he owes money to, about his multiple bankruptcies, about his many scams, about his entanglements with Russia--

But, all of that wouldn't fit on my sign.

So I just wrote this:

When I return from the March, the real work begins. That is when I will say Yes to actively working against him and every monstrous thing he stands for.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Take Two

I wrote a book in November.

Correction: I wrote the first draft of a book in November.

Okay, it wasn't a "book" exactly. More like 65,000 words molded into a book-like shape. Characters. Scenes. Pieces and chunks of scenes. A possible beginning. A foggy middle. A glimmer of an ending.

This is a typical first draft for me, my way of exploring a couple of ideas and watching, waiting for those seemingly unrelated strands to come together, wondering the whole while if they WILL come together and then marveling when they inevitably do. It's the bizarre and magical aspect of writing a story and I don't even pretend to understand how it works.

What I do know is that if I go In each day, write my words, trust the process, follow the characters and the story strands-- something will eventually spark and catch fire, and if I keep going with it, if I keep showing up on the page, pushing, while at the same time letting go and not pushing at all--

I will find myself at the end of the process with this Thing that I did not have at the beginning,

a first draft.

By definition it is a mess.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird calls them "shitty first drafts" and the first time I read that I loved Anne Lamott. The first draft, she says, shitty as it may be, is perfect, because it is finished. Because you made it to the end of it and now you have something to work with, something to revise.

Which is where I am now, at the beginning of the Take Two leg of this novel-writing marathon.

I'm okay with that. Even a little excited. I have methods that have worked for me in the past. Strategies.

*Put the first draft away for a while.

*Print it off in a different font from the font that you wrote it in.

*Read it. Which is always a challenge. It's hard to face this thing you wrote-- see the actual words written on the page vs the beautiful complex amazing brilliant story you had floating around in your head, and then come to grips with all of the work you're going to have to do to get the draft on the page closer to what you envision.

I take notes as I read. I write questions to myself. I make a list:

What I have/What I need

So far my list sounds like this:
What I have: characters, a voice, a back story
What I need: a plot

A few months ago I was at a party and an aspiring writer asked my opinion about revision. "I bet you don't revise as much anymore," she said, "now that you're more experienced."

I shook my head. "No," I said. "I revise even more now."

She looked at me quizzically. I could tell she didn't quite believe me. Some beginning writers assume that it gets easier. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't.)

I can't remember where I read this, but a student asks a teacher:

Do good writers revise?

And the teacher answers: Only good writers revise.

Every writer has their secrets. 

Lately, I've been thinking of revision as a kind of puzzle. I empty the pieces onto the table. I turn them over and study them. I group them by color, by shape. I click together the obvious ones, assemble the larger chunks, maybe stop every now and then to string the border, identify the corners, trying not to get overwhelmed by the pieces that don't seem to fit, all of those empty spaces that will have to be filled in eventually.

And then there's nothing to do but start writing.

Take two.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

I Read Harder This Year...

specifically, I pushed myself to complete the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

It was fun at first, searching out books to fill the categories, checking off the items on the list. A horror book, a book over 500 pages, a book of essays, a book published in the decade I was born. But then I let the project lapse for a while, going off on several book-reading tangents.

I read Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, thinking it could be my horror book, and was so enamored by her voice and her writing (Shirley Jackson, if you need a reminder, is the author of the brilliant short story "The Lottery") that I ended up reading Raising Demons, a set of stories about Jackson's life in a big old drafty house in Vermont with her serious professor husband and their four kids and various pets and zany adventures.

But there's all this other stuff going on under the surface: What it was like to be a working woman writer in the repressive/misogynistic 1950's, to be the faculty wife of an academic, to be a bohemian outsider in a Madmen world. (I just discovered this write up of a new biography of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life. And oh YIKES, I now know what book will be on my 2017 list!)

I heard the South African memoirist Alexandra Fuller speak last winter and immediately read two of her books about growing up in a weird white colonialist family. Neither of these books fit anywhere on my Book Riot list, but they did set me off on a memoir kick:

*Paula McClain (the author The Paris Wife) Like Family, about growing up in foster homes.
*My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer, about life in America with a Muslim husband.
*A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas about taking care of her husband after he is permanently brain damaged.

I got serious about the Book Originally Published in the Decade You Were Born category, Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, but that book almost killed me, all of the pointlessness and futility, the cruelty of humans toward each other--and all of that packed up in a 500 page book with no plot and over thirty characters. I had no choice but to go off on another tangent:

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne. (insert blushing emoticon face here)
And pure fluff--
Good Grief by Lolly Winston

Back on track again with a Book Riot-approved novel, (a book by an author from Southeast Asia) Jhumpa Lahiri's Lowland, set in India-- which I then learned is NOT in Southeast Asia, but I kept reading anyway because I love everything by Jhumpa Lahiri and realized with a bit of fudging of the categories I could stick that book in the Read a Book about Religion slot.

Then, more memoirs:
*Lahiri's In Other Words about immersing herself in Italian, and I toyed with the idea of learning Italian.
*Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert because I wanted to recharge my creative self.
*The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg because I felt like a big fat writing failure.
*All I Did Was Ask, a collection of interviews with creative people by Terry Gross. And I felt better.

It was summer and the Book Riot list was hanging over me and the spaces were only half filled in and I recommitted myself to the challenge.

Some stand outs:

*The Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell  (a food memoir) but actually about so much more. Early feminism and academic life in the 1930's and 40's (not at ALL what I envisioned. Let's just say the pre-War/post-War academics were more hedonistic than I had realized).
*Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag (book of historical fiction set before 1900) about the pioneers settling the prairie, and holy moly was there a lot of cold and death and post partum depression on that prairie.
*Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (a book under 100 pages) and one of THE most perfect characterization/plot set-ups I have ever read. Honestly, don't know how I as an English major and English teacher missed this book along the way.

Off track to read several YA books for a book panel I was asked to moderate. Best of this bunch by far: Mindy McGinnis's The Female of the Species, a powerful, thought-provoking novel about the effects of rape culture on a small town.

Another tangent to read manuscripts written by writer friends.
*A picture book by my lovely friend Donna Koppelman, which I ended up using in my Read a Book Aloud category, because I literally read the book aloud to her like, ten times. It's SO good and will likely snag a book deal soon.
*Two manuscripts by my prolific and brilliant critique partner Natalie Richards. (One Was Lost on book shelves everywhere now. And a psychological horror, out in the fall, that I call the Haunted Bridge book--inspired by our haunted retreat weekend in Marietta.

The last book I read to fill out my chart was Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann. (category: listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award.) I cheated a little for this one, beginning the book by reading it because I wasn't sure I'd have time to listen over the holidays with my house filled with guests.

A few years ago I heard Colum McCann speak, and the things he said about the power of story and the need for radical empathy in our broken world stayed with me...and then drifted away.

But a few days ago, his words came back. I had to drive somewhere alone and I popped the CD into my car CD player and out came this beautiful soft low Irish accented voice. Colum McCann's voice, reading to me.

The book is a collection of stories, some written before Colum McCann was assaulted on a city street and seriously injured, and some written after the assault. He'd spoken about this event in his talk several years ago, how the assault had tested his faith in humanity, forcing him to question all of his beliefs about forgiveness and kindness winning out over bitterness and fear and hatred.

The book is beautiful, and more beautiful in the listening.

The last week of the old year, when I drove alone to the grocery store, to the post office, to the library, Colum McCann read to me in his soft, sure voice.

"For all of its imagined moments," he said, "literature works in unimaginable ways."

I got to wherever I was going, and I knew he was right.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why I unfriended you on Facebook

because I am a coward

and I couldn't tell you in real life how I felt or what I was thinking and it was so easy to click Unfriend.

It was a spur of the moment decision, not planned ahead of time or calculated, just a momentary surge of outrage and sadness and disappointment in you, in the country, in humanity

in myself too, for thinking that clicking a button on a social media site would make me feel better.

The truth is it made me feel worse.

Because I want to get along and go along and not make a big deal out of everything, not make waves or stir up drama. Because I want to be a nice person, a good hostess, a caring friend.

Because you are my family, my friend, my neighbor and I already knew that you had different opinions from me so why should knowing your opinion, today, matter?

But it made me angry when you showed yourself to be ignoranthatefulracistbigotedmisogynistic and I know you or thought I did and anyway, don't we have to draw the line somewhere? At the denigration of Muslims and Mexicans and people of color and anyone who is not white, or the mockery of gay marriage or the joking about sexually assaulting women and girls?

Except who cares about social media anyway?

I mean, ten years ago we lived just fine without it and who would even know if you thought it was funny to compare the First Lady to an animal or had an irrational fear of a transgender person using a public restroom or were cool with flying the confederate flag?

But I do know. And now that I know, I can't unknow.

Why do we see the world so differently? Why are we so broken and hurting and terrified and angry and quick to judge others and constantly outraged

and human?

Can we have the courage of our convictions? Can we bridge the gaps between us? Can we forgive?

Is it even possible to be friends?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Memories of Christmases Past

~Christmas in 1979? Maybe 1980? The American hostages had been held in Iran for a long time and we were told to pray for their safety and I did, even though I had no understanding of why they were taken hostage or even where Iran was, but that Christmas Eve there was a story on the news about how people should go outside and light a candle for the hostages' safe return, and my family dutifully tromped out of the house holding candles.

We stood there in the cold and watched people gathering outside their houses, the flames of their candles flickering in the darkness.

~The first Christmas with my husband and we didn't have much money for presents and he bought me a book from a used bookstore about the history of football and I made a joke about it. I had no interest in football and the book seemed kind of shabby for a gift.

Years later he told me how hurt he was, that he'd just wanted to share his interest with me, and now I wish I could go back in time and shake some sense and kindness into my snotty twenty-four year old self.

~A few months after my father died, my mother was an overwhelmed mom with three little kids who still believed in Santa. In the morning we were opening presents and my mother was running around getting a dinner ready to host our relatives and I noticed her stocking was empty and it hit me, at age seven, that it was a pretty crappy thing for Santa to have overlooked my mother.

Outraged, I asked her about it and she said that it was okay, she didn't need any presents, but then she started talking about how she had no black olives to set out for our guests and how upset she was and what was she going to do without a can of black olives?? She went over to her stocking and would you believe it? There was a can of black olives inside!! She was so happy and I was so happy for her and I believed in Santa for another year.

~My husband and I moved to a new state and hardly knew anyone and one day after mass at church where we knew no one, I was holding my newborn baby girl and a man pulled me aside and asked me if my husband and I would be the Holy Family at the service on Christmas Eve and I said yes even though I had no idea what that entailed, and then I forgot to tell my husband about it until we were driving to Christmas Eve mass. The church was packed and my husband, who was not Catholic, and I and our baby were taken into a back room and dressed in costumes and given our lines to speak.

I could see my husband glaring at me, mortified, holding his wooden staff and wearing his Joseph costume as he said his lines about there being no room at the inn. We walked down the aisle of the crowded church together, a holy family in the midst of strangers, holding our baby, up to the altar, where the priest took our baby and held her over his head and said, "This is why we are here today."

~The last Christmas my father was alive, and I was six years old and we were visiting my aunt who lived close by. Christmas Eve, up way past my bedtime and almost sick with anticipation of the next day and Santa coming. When the party was over, we walked home in the dark and my father said, Look! He picked me up and pointed at the black sky, the misty night, the sparks of stars.

Listen, he said. Do you hear it? The bells. The bells on Santa's sleigh.

I looked. I listened. I saw the lights flashing. And I swear heard the bells, clear as any sound in the world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Terror in the Driveway: A Horror Story by Jody Casella

Last week was kind of stressful.

My husband's car died when he was on the interstate and he had to get it--and himself--towed home. The next day the furnace started making a weird clanking sound and when I called a technician out to look at it, he immediately shut the gas off and told me he couldn't in good conscience walk out of the house without condemning the furnace.

Oh, he said, your air conditioning unit is leaking and your water heater is just about rusted through.

What else can break? my husband asked me that night.

Shhhh!! I said. You NEVER EVER ask that question out loud to the Universe.

A whole troop of furnace/air-conditioner/water-heater guys came the next day and the dog had a mini nervous breakdown and the temperature in the house went lower and lower until it settled at a crisp 52 degrees.

But I had a fire going in the fireplace and blankets wrapped around me and a warm dog shaking on my lap. The troop of men finished their work and I gasped at the sight of the price tag and jacked up the newly installed heat and repeated the mantra of my wise friend Deb: Any problem that can be solved by money isn't a problem. Any problem that can be solved by money isn't a problem until I felt better.

In the morning it was 5 degrees outside, but we were toasty inside and my husband left the house for work and returned quickly to say that the doors of our daughter's truck had frozen shut. He knew I was taking her to a doctor's appointment later and he'd forced the driver's side door open but now he couldn't get it closed. So he'd started the truck and told me to keep it warming up in the driveway.

Off he went to work (taking my car) and I looked out the window at the truck idling in the frigid driveway. After a while, I decided to go out and try to close the door myself.

I bundled up and got into the truck and closed the door.

I turned off the truck and tried to open the door and I couldn't. I sat there for a few seconds and tried again. It wouldn't budge. I tried the passenger door. That wouldn't budge either. I turned the truck back on and let the hot air blow in my face. I climbed into the backseat and tried both back doors.

They were also frozen.

Sweating in my bundled up clothes, I climbed back into the front seat. I tried to open the door again. I jiggled the handle. I locked and unlocked it. I kicked the door. I took off my hat and loosened my coat, full blown hot flashing.

I realized I didn't have my phone with me.

How long could I sit out there? Stuck. In a truck. In a frigid driveway? before anyone saw me? Would my daughter, when she woke up for her doctor's appointment, think to look for me out here? Would the thought even cross her mind that her ding dong mother was trapped in the truck in the driveway?

I wondered if I should drive somewhere. Around the block in an attempt to warm up the frozen doors? To my husband's office? If I beeped the horn, would anyone hear me?

This was funny. Silly. I looked out the icy window and tried not to panic. It's not like I was going to die out here. I had heat. I had a vehicle for crying out loud. I could go somewhere. Not that I would be able to get out when I got there but...

Because I am a writer I started spinning out possible story arcs. The truck runs out of gas and the woman, kicking and screaming, loses hope, her fists bruised from pounding on the icy windows, her cries unheard. Flash to a scene indoors, a girl sleeping in her warm bed. Flash to the empty houses in the neighborhood. Flash back to the woman trapped in the truck, one hand sliding down the glass, a single tear, frozen on her cheek--

Suddenly I saw my neighbor walking down her front walk on the way to put something in the trash bin. I banged on the window and she looked over and waved.

I banged on the window again. She could get me help! Use her phone to call my husband! I was saved!

I yelled to her. Would she be able to hear me through the closed window? She came closer, smiling, her head tilted quizzically, not quite catching what I was saying. Maybe I could... open the window? Not sure why I hadn't thought of that, but I pushed the button and Boo Yah, the window rolled down.

"I'm locked in!" I said breathlessly. "The doors are all frozen shut! Can you call--"

My neighbor tried the door, opening it so easily that I nearly toppled out of the truck.

Oh! We both said. And then we laughed. I caught her up on what had just happened and she shook her head, thinking probably, Jody, you ding dong, but too nice to say it.

We said our goodbyes and I went into my toasty house where my daughter was still sleeping.

All told, probably only like five minutes had gone by.

The end.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Searching for Duckies in the Ball Pool

Every year my husband and I volunteer to help out at a community center holiday party for underprivileged kids.

We show up early on a Saturday morning and help organize the gifts, which always ends up being an overly complicated endeavor, lining up gift bags on tables and checking off similar sounding names. And then we go into another room and help set up the games and goodie trays and craft tables and take our places at our assigned station for the party.

This year we were in charge of the Fishpond Game.

Basically, this game is an inflatable kiddie pool filled with plastic balls. To play you dip your hands under the plastic balls and fish out the hidden plastic duck toys. The end.

It's supposed to be for the very littlest of the little kids, something to occupy the toddlers while their older siblings make glitter crafts or play mini golf or tattoo themselves with holiday-themed tattoos.

My husband and I sat across from each other on the floor and were immediately stressed out playing the Fishpond Game.

I was worried about the germy germ aspect of all of those plastic balls. The runny noses and drooling and dropped wet cookie chunks splattering. My husband was anxious about the kids who were clearly taller than the height restriction sign, but yet kept trying to jump into the ball pool. And then there were all of the kids who thought it was fun to throw the balls, so that within minutes of the holiday party starting, plastic balls were bouncing and rolling all over the room.

A toddler toddled up, a little boy, maybe age two or three and very serious-looking. He refused to climb into the ball pool. He was hesitant about even putting his hands in, not that I blamed him, what with all the germy germs. I showed him one of the toy duckies, and he was curious, but kinda meh about it, not that I blamed him there either.

All of the other kids were having a blast. My husband and I pointed out the plastic ducks and wiped runny noses and tied little sneakers. We gave up enforcing the height rule and let the older kids flop and roll in the ball pool. We praised a helpful kid who brought back a thrown ball and soon we had a bunch of helpful kids running around the room chasing and collecting.

Another volunteer came by with a camera and asked all the kids around the ball pool to smile. The serious little boy just looked up at her blandly.

Come on, she said. Gimme a smile. And she reached down to touch his face.

I started thinking about this children's picture book author I heard speak at a writers' conference a few years ago. He said that most people have this very nostalgic view of childhood. They remember it as all glowy and happy and carefree, and they forget the reality. How so much of your little life is out of your own control and at the mercy of adults.

You're sitting on the floor playing a game and having a grand old time, and BOOM, some large person comes into the room and swoops you up and carries you off to bed.

You're constantly being monitored and told what to do and what not to do. What to eat. What clothes to wear.

And that's just the kids with the good, loving parents.

What about the children with parents who aren't all that good or loving, the author reminded us. The children who are neglected or abused. Imagine how unpredictable and scary and dark the world is for children like that.

The photographer volunteer wandered off to take pictures of the kids at the glitter table. The party went on. The holiday music blared and the balls bounced around the room. The cookie crumbs and drooly doughnut chunks kept dropping into the ball pool. The older kids flopped and buried each other. They darted off and got tattoos on their cheeks and made glitter pictures and then darted back to show my husband and me what they made.

During a rare quiet moment of an unoccupied ball pool, the serious little boy climbed in and sat down. He dug his hands under the plastic balls and found a couple of toy duckies. After a while, he leaned back, sliding his small body under.

Are you a giant duckie? I asked him.

He didn't say anything, but he smiled up at the ceiling.

Santa Ho-Ho-Ho-ed into the room, and it was time for presents and everyone trooped off to go get them. The little boy climbed out of the ball pool and toddled off to catch up with his older siblings.

If there is a word for the opposite of nostalgia, I am that word.

But I understand why we do it, paint our childhoods under a glowy haze. Why we want children to smile. Why we imagine them playing happily, their parents swooping them off to bed each night with gentleness and love.