My Mother’s China

My mama died just over a year ago. Born in 1950, she was a child of the Baby Boom. As children, she and her sister were given a sterling silver teaspoon, fork or knife for Christmas, birthdays, and other occasions from a couple of well-meaning aunts. When they were both young ladies of marriageable age they each had a full service of silver for their hope chests.

Hope chests were a thing back then. A young woman or girl would have a cedar chest or something similar where she would keep her silver service, embroidered linens, crocheted bedspreads, and handmade lace for her wedding gown. All the women in her family would help her to fill it so she could take it to her new life with her husband, a replacement for the even more archaic concept of a dowry.

As a Gen X-er I had no such thing. The women’s lib movement freed me from the burden of hope that I might be married and settled as soon as possible. There wasn’t an expectation on me to subjugate myself and make a home and family when I got out of school. I did not marry at eighteen like my mother. I was thirty-four and already had a household of my own when my husband and I joined forces.

I have inherited a lot of stuff from my mother: a Bavarian china service for twelve, etched water goblets, various pieces of Belleek, and other bits of china. I am in possession of her sterling flatware set and a Victorian-era Prussian chocolate set. They are all beautiful and represent my mother in ways that warm my heart. Every time I look at them I can feel how much she prided herself in them, how they meant something to her.

From her generation and generations before her, things like china and silver and crystal were a status symbol. They were objects that lifted them above the poverty of their ancestors, stating that they had arrived enough in the middle class to be able to afford and keep such costly and beautiful things meant only for special occasions. She treasured these, and the things she had inherited from women before her. 

Now the second hand of time is sweeping faster and attitudes are changing. I married, yes, but I chose not to have children (which is a whole other messy topic). It does make me sad at times to recognize I shall not have anyone to whom I can pass the good fortunes of my life, my mother’s life,  and her mother’s before her. The collection of status symbols from generations past that I now own are as antiquated as the millstone I have tied to my neck.

That’s right. I don’t want them. I might be saturated with guilt about it, but I cannot deny I will never use them. I don’t throw lavish dinner parties or hen parties that require these ornamental items now gathering dust in my house. Am I to be bound to these things until I die? Shall I shunt them from house to house, packing and unpacking them? It would be the only time I ever handle them or even think about them.

I thought of selling them online. I browsed through listings and found a glut of the very pieces I own. Two things became apparent: first, I do not have a china cabinet full of valuable rarities. Secondly, I am not the only woman my age who feels laden with the responsibility of her mother’s china. In most instances the pieces are being sold at rock-bottom prices which further adds to my suspicion that the kind of buyer for this type of item is vanishing. There is no one left who craves to possess the hand-painted luncheon set, the hob-nailed glass dessert plates, or the leaded crystal lemonade pitchers with matching glasses.

In the next few months I am going to be moving from a house of 1450 square feet to a condominium of 900 square feet. My husband and I are purging the excess possessions of our life together to make ourselves fit. There is a certain liberation in bringing bags of clothing and boxes of books to the Goodwill. It makes me lighter, exhilarated. Don’t mistake me–I love and cherish my books but there are many that I shall never read again and would love to pass on to someone who can enjoy them.

But the china and the crystal and the silver: they aren’t as easy to dump at the Goodwill. For one thing, someone in the past spent a great deal of hard-earned money on them. They were chosen with care and kept safe behind the glass of a china cabinet, some for a hundred years or more. I am having a hard time finding my way free of them without shattering my heart like fine porcelain. I know I don’t have the room to take it all with me. And yet I don’t want to send them off into the world without knowing that someone will take care of them, love them, wash them by hand and protect them from dust.

It is only pure guilt that keeps me from parting with them. But in another way I feel like I am giving away a piece of me, a little shard of my heart, my heritage, my identity. I wonder what Mama would say if she could read this. It gives me a thrill of dread to think about it. She was the sweetest, gentlest soul I had the privilege to know, but she was fierce about her stuff.

For instance, when Hurricane Irma was bearing down upon Naples (we scored a direct hit–the eye of the storm passed over our house) my parents came to stay with us. Mom wanted to bring a “few things” with her because they didn’t have hurricane shutters for the place where  they were living. “A few things” turned into four boxes of books and all her scrapbooking supplies. My poor father nearly stroked out moving it all. (If I had known what he was doing would I have helped him, or scolded my mother for being so materialistic? Probably the former. Mom had a lot of health problems and it was tough to say no to her on anything.)

I know this is a first world problem. It’s about stuff that I don’t need or want. But when an object is a piece of your past, all tangled in your heartstrings and guts, it’s still a painful conundrum. I am grateful for all I have. I want to live with less. It’s an awkward spot, to be moving towards the excitement of the future and progress for women and be clamped by the ankle to the weight of something as ridiculous as dinnerware. I recognize the dichotomy completely and see myself almost a fool for caring so much. And yet, my mother was one of my best friends and I want to honor her. I don’t want to dispose of everything she held dear with a flippant drop-off at the local thrift store. It would be tantamount to dumping her ashes on the curb. See ya, Mom. Hope someone will take care of you.

I don’t see men with this problem either. Why is it that women are so much more fixated on keeping mementos from the past? When my father and I went through my mother’s things she had dozens of envelopes of ephemera she meant to use in scrapbooking but never had the chance. My father requires very little by way of possessions. It was my mother who really hung onto everything like she would drown without it.

In the meantime, all that stuff is now drowning me.

There is no easy answer to this question. I need to find a way to release my guilt over my mother’s things. I must decide something quickly or start renting a storage space. They are popping up all over the place in my town: a testament that the middle class can’t let go of their shit. I am on the tipping point. 

Please let me fall soon.

New Year, New Me?

It’s the second week of the new year and I was hoping for some magical transformation. Like I would suddenly be satisfied with my job and editors would start sending me acceptances for the short fiction pieces I’ve written and submitted in the past few months. Life would lighten and I would be able to breathe and look forward to the future.

In short, I was looking for a miracle.

It seems like so long since anything has gone right in my life that I am despairing a little that I will never catch a break. My mother has been gone for seven months now and Christmas was a bugger to get through. I did, and am relieved it is over. The day itself wasn’t as bad as the lead up to it. Everywhere I looked and saw the decorations and heard the music I would think of her and how much she loved it.

There are good things to look forward to. We will be moving into the condo we own at the end of March. That is going to save us a significant amount of money a year in rent. We’ll be able to pay off debt, and maybe even squeeze in a trip to Greece this September.

We are currently downsizing, as we are lopping off 550 square feet to our living space. Many books, furniture, old clothes and other odds and ends are going away. I am starting to feel lighter with the purging we have already done. Come March I want our place to be positively Spartan so when we move we will fit. That feels good.

But I feel like my writing career is dead. I’ve tried so hard, worked tirelessly, and it seems that the world doesn’t want to read my stories. I’m weary with the sting of rejection. But I love writing. So what do I do? Just write for myself and not try to pawn my words on anyone? Perhaps, but that makes me feel like a failure.

So there are good things and bad things happening. I suppose that is life. I just feel like I’ve been down so long that there is no climbing out of this well. When will I catch a break? I’m putting it out there: I want transformation. I will work hard for it if I just had a hint that something good was coming. Because I’m getting tired. I’m losing faith that everything will turn out all right.

Sorry to be such a downer. Life has been kicking me in the teeth and I don’t have many left. Maybe dentures are in order? At least I’d have my smile back.

I Am a Dreamer

In a recent conversation, I was told that I am a dreamer. The context of the conversation put a negative spin on that statement. The unsaid words that would have followed might have been, “no one takes a dreamer seriously,” or “being practical is much better.” In other words, dreamers just get in the way of getting shit done.

And it stung, let me tell you. I have been ruminating on this for a couple of weeks now and I admit I let it get to me. I don’t like being seen as unreliable, or impractical. I believe I am neither of those things.

But I mentioned this to several people and got a very different reaction. My friend Tammy said, “I see that as a compliment!” My husband metaphorically kicked my ass over it. He said, “Do you want to be a person with no imagination?”

And I realized they were right.

I want to be known as someone who creates, someone who dreams up amazing ideas, someone who writes marvelous stories. We need dreamers in this world. Without them we are all just sliding around in the mud.

So I am going to accept, “you are a dreamer,” as a form of praise, regardless of the context in which it was given. I am going to wear it as a badge and never again see it as a disadvantage. Dreamers do not get in the way of getting shit done. This dreamer has written three novels. This dreamer makes beautiful mosaics. This dreamer will always be looking for ways to bring more beauty to the world.

And if you can’t see that, then I guess you have no imagination.

Maneuvering around disappointment

I’m not talking about little disappointments here, like Starbucks just sold the last lemon cake right out from under you or you killed yourself at the gym and the scale doesn’t reflect that. I mean the big ones, like you didn’t get the job you were going for or your best friend is moving across the country. How does one maneuver around a boulder that has been plopped down in the road? There are a few things I find that help that aren’t totally self-destructive.

(Note I am reminding myself of these because I just recently had a big disappointment that I am trying to get over and need some motivation. I hope it helps you too.)

  1. Allow yourself a “fuck it all” attitude for a few days. This is perfectly reasonable when you’ve had a big disappointment. Wallow in it, swim, until your fingers get all pruney, but for the love of God, don’t unpack there and set up house. You do have to regroup and move on, but allow yourself a few days indulgence to be immature.
  2. Do something nice for yourself. For me it’s getting a manicure or allowing extra time on the couch to read something and ignoring the laundry. Again, find something that is indulgent without being destructive, like not eating that gallon of ice cream and watching a guilty pleasure movie instead. For me, that would be something like Clueless or The Craft. Although I think a little ice cream is okay too. Especially mocha java chip, if you’re offering.
  3. Exercise. Okay, you can tell me to get bent on this one if you want, I understand. But when you’re frustrated, there is something very cathartic about wearing yourself out at the gym. I put some crunching rock on my playlist and give it everything I’ve got. This, by the way, also helps you sleep at night instead of lying there in bed and going over what you could have done to prevent the disappointment from happening. (Ask me how I know.)

And through it all, tell yourself to keep going. Giving up is an option, of course, but it isn’t a very fulfilling one. Getting used to disappointment just leaves you settling for less, and that’s never a good place to be. Doing the nice things for yourself helps you turn around your attitude and get you back on track. Because that is the ultimate goal after all. There are shitty parts to life. The trick is to deal with them in a constructive way to get back to where you need to be.

But (a little) ice cream doesn’t hurt.

Bullet Journal Bonanza

I think I have mentioned how much I love office supplies. I did a whole post here on my Pilot Metropolitan fountain pens. But that is really only half the story. What I write on is the other half of my nerdy little obsession.

I am a bullet journaler.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, a bullet journal is a free-form datebook that also has lists, information, pretty much anything you would jot down in your day to day life. The seminal bullet journal site is here but the beauty of a bullet journal is that it can be any format that works best for you.

leuchturm-1917First, the notebooks. I looked around at a lot of different types and the one I found that is the best quality, hands down, is the Leuchturm 1917. The paper quality is outstanding, bleed through is almost non-existent. They also are sewn together and lay flat no matter what page. And you can get them with lined pages, dots or blank, so you can customize how you wish.

And I do.

january-2017At the end of November I buy two spanking new Leuchturm notebooks in complementary colors. One is dotted and will be my bullet journal, the other lined and my regular journal where I record thoughts and events. Then, for the month of December, I spend my time getting my calendar pages drawn in. I love having a calendar I can customize to suit my fancy and I really do slave over the pages. I usually make a photocopy of the two page spread first and then sketch it out in pencil before I start inking in the pages in the book. I told you I was a nerd.

But the result? Pure, unadulterated, geek heaven.

january-weekly-page

Not exactly jumping on the water and exercise, am I?

After the calendar pages I also put in other things. I have been doing daily gratitude for over two years now. Every day I write down one good thing that happened. I also keep track of blog posts, author interviews, addresses, books read, and to do lists for each month. It’s very satisfying to have it all neatly tucked into a candy-colored book that fits in my purse. It’s lovely to have a row of them on my bookshelf at home as a record of my life.

Do you bullet journal? What do you keep in yours?

My Kosta

Konstantine-George  Athanasios Karras

Konstantine-George Athanasios Karras

 

Twelve years ago this morning I met the guy above. It was my first day of work at the Naples Branch Library and my supervisor David introduced me to Kosta right by the CD racks. I still remember he wore a red-checked shirt and was very nice and funny.

Did I think immediately I was going to end up married to him? Good heavens, no.

But after about six months of working together we discovered we had things in common: we had both studied archaeology, we both loved to write, we both loved history and art and travel. When he suggested we go out for a beer to talk about writing some more I agreed. We went to McCabe’s and had a beer and talked and talked and talked. We were friends.

After that we went out once a week as friends. We laughed and drank beer and ate burgers and had a great time. We did this for about six months before I was brave enough to take things to the next level. So on January 6, 2006 I invited him over to my place for a home-cooked meal. I made spaghetti and garlic bread and he brought the wine. We watched The Thing from 1951 with James Arness as the monster. I don’t really remember anything about the movie at all because I was so nervous. When the credits rolled I leaned over and kissed him.

He didn’t run screaming, which I took as a good sign. It took him a while to figure out his mind though. At the time he was 49 years old and had pretty much decided he was going to be a permanent bachelor. He was concerned that there were eighteen years between us. But by President’s Day that year he had committed and we never looked back.

Now we write together. We talk about history and art. We travel as much as we can afford. We laugh every day. And yes, there are eighteen years between us but it doesn’t make one whit of difference. We are best friends and that is that.

The only thing I would change about my relationship with my husband would be that I had met him sooner.  I love you, honey. You’re the one for me.

It’s Wednesday, it must be the beach.

unnamedMy husband and I have one car. This usually isn’t an issue since we work at the same place and have almost the same schedule. But on Wednesdays I work 10-7 and he works 8-5. Since our library is six blocks from the beach, I have started a tradition of beach and coffee on those mornings.

I drop him off at the library at 8 and then drive to a secret place where the beach is relatively uncrowded. I dress in shorts and a t-shirt and take my towel. Then I walk down the beach a little ways, kick off my shoes and go wade in the water for a few minutes. Then I return to my towel and meditate.

Mediation is something I have been working on for a while. It is the most simple thing in the world, and yet one of the hardest things to achieve. You don’t need anything to do it, just a quiet place and some uninterrupted time. I love the beach because it is naturally conducive to meditating. The waves are soothing, the sand is cool under my feet, and the breeze is usually refreshing.

Anyone who has ever meditated before knows that it is an ongoing practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Which is true to a point. I’ve been meditating pretty regularly for about a year now, and while I see an progress I know I still have an ocean’s breadth of improvement I could make.

Some days it is so sublime. I will sit, drop out of my head and sit in empty presence while the waves lull me into a state of peace. And some days (most days) it is a constant struggle with my head to get it to shut the hell up. I’ve always been an over thinker, a “monkey mind” and getting the brain train to slow down is sometimes nearly impossible.

But I show up every week and I try again. And I always feel better, calmer, more peaceful after I have meditated, whether I felt it was successful or not.

After meditating I pick up my towel and drive to The Brick, a coffee shop on the swanky Fifth Avenue of Naples, Florida. I get coffee, set up my computer, and write for an hour before I have to be at work.

Usually it is a good place to work. I can tune out most people chatting around me, but I can’t tune out TV. They do have two TVs in The Brick, but they are tuned to news stations and muted. Except for last Wednesday. Someone had put one TV on low volume but had it turned to the local Fox station. Did you know Jerry Springer is still on TV? Still doing the same damn shtick that got him started nearly thirty years ago? Well he is and I found it very hard to focus with all the screaming and fist fights.

Other than this last week’s anomaly I find it very easy to slip into my story and write. I usually find it hard to stop and pack up at the end of the hour. But I do, and its off to work I go. I love Wednesday mornings because they bring me peace and joy. It is “me time” and I savor each minute.

My Writing Process Part 2

I have been furiously writing my new novel. It’s historical YA fiction with a fantastical twist. And that’s all I’m going to tell you right now. But I do want to talk a little about how I write.

I told you about my basic writing process long ago here. In it I talked about my “cowbell list.” It is the list of things I need to tweak or change or amp up in subsequent drafts.  I usually put it on a dry erase board in my office. This summer in Nuremberg I bought a real cowbell which I have now hung in my office.

But the cowbell has become intertwined in my writing ritual in other ways. That ritual is what I want to share with you today. I don’t always write at home, but when I do, you can bet I am doing this:

I go into my office and light candles. I love the soft light from them and I usually don’t have any other lights on in the room, except my computer screen. I have a couple of stinky candles my husband hates, but I love.

The second thing I do after lighting those candles is to ring the cowbell. It seems a little silly, I know, and at first I felt silly doing it. But now I have grown to love that noise. It is a signal to the rest of the house not to disturb me because I am about to write. Every time my husband hears it he calls, “Oh boy!” from the other room.

Sometimes I close my office door. That’s if the cats are being their usual rambunctious selves and are chasing each other all over the house. It’s awful to have them tear into my space and interrupt the lovely peace I have created. The husband I don’t worry so much about. He wants me to write as much as I want to and generally leaves me alone unless he comes to ply me with beverages and snacks.

And then, I sit in my IKEA Poang chair, put my feet up, and plop my computer in my lap and write. This little ritual has been working well for me. It’s like I’ve opened a beautiful little portal from my creative self and it just comes pouring out. Usually.

driving-car-nightE.L Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You have a destination in mind (most of the time) but you can only see as far as the end of your headlights. So you write to the end of your headlights and then drive a little further. I find this analogy extremely apt. I know where I am headed, but I can only write to a certain point to where I have to think again.

I don’t listen to music while I write. I can’t–it’s too distracting. But I do like to have a soundtrack for whatever I am working on. This time my husband, the classical music freak, collated a playlist for me. It’s very dark, atmospheric and moody: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, the first movement from Schubert’s Symphony #8, Prayer of St. Gregory by Hovhaness, and others.

So when the time comes that I’ve gotten to the end of my headlights, I pull out that soundtrack, plug in my headphones, and think of the story while I listen. This is when I can really get mileage out of the music. It inspires me, it helps me to see further into the story. Then I can go back and write more.

That’s how it plays out: write, listen to my playlist, think, and then write again. It’s a pleasing little cycle that really works well for me.

However, please don’t think that everything has been easy in the writing of this novel. Parts of it have really flowed, yes, but there are parts where I get stuck. One portion of thirty pages I had to rewrite three times so I was going in the right direction. It was frustrating, but entirely necessary. I had to find the ways that didn’t work before I hit upon the one that did. That’s just how it goes sometimes.

I also sometimes tend to meander between big scenes. Like I got off the main road and took a few scenic routes on my way to the next big thing. I know when I go back to it in the second or third draft I may have to reroute myself, or trim the route so it more directly segues and flows better.

First drafts are a paradox of making the magic of telling a story along with the detritus of a brain dump. The second draft is all about winnowing out the chaff so you can find the real story inside of it, and the third and all following drafts is about tweaking and tightening so the story is smooth as a river pebble. I’ve heard some authors say they dread the second draft but I find it to be where the interesting work really begins.

I raise my glass to all you writers out there who are working on projects now. What is your process and how do you work best?

The Joyful Artist

As I’ve been writing the first draft of my new novel I have been having a ridiculously good time. It is so much fun to set my characters up in a world and then throw things at them and see what they do. I have a daily goal for writing: 2000 words a day. For the most part I have kept to that goal. I started writing this book on September 8 and I am maybe now two thirds of the way through. Plot twists! Murder! Romance! Intrigue!

big-magicThis year the most influential book I read was Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In it she talks about what it is to be an artist (of any kind, really) and how to get around what is blocking you and create without fear. It is an amazing book. What’s more, she does a podcast called Magic Lessons where she talks to ordinary people about their creative process and helps them get around their fears. It is really interesting and much of it I can apply directly to me.

 
Towards the end of the book she writes a lot about trusting your creativity, and the topic of the Tormented Artist came up. Gilbert believes that suffering does not make on a true artist.  She says, “…I do not deny the reality of suffering–not yours, not mine, not humanity’s in general. It is simply that I refuse to fetishize it. I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity.”

I used to romanticize the idea of the Tormented Artist when I was younger. I thought that pain could produce something achingly beautiful. Thank God for therapy! Because today I have to tell you that writing and creating in general is one of the biggest joys in my life. I still have to work a full-time job, yes, but I live for the time I carve out for myself where I can create without interruptions. It is as vital to me now as breathing.

Some attribute the following quote to Ernest Hemingway: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” But I wish to remind everyone that yes, he is respected as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, but he also committed suicide. I posit that it is entirely possible to be happy and still produce great work.

Elizabeth Gilbert also reminds us in Big Magic of a quote from Wendell Berry: “To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come to close to desiring and cultivating pain.” And in the same breath I quote Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. ” I know you just read that in his voice, didn’t you? But more importantly, why would you suffer unnecessarily? Because you think you are supposed to?

 
I’m not saying I refuse to suffer pain for the rest of my life. I know there will be times that will be more difficult than others. But I do not have to welcome that pain into my center of creativity. It can visit, but I will not allow it to unpack and make itself at home. Writing is my joy and I will not let it be corrupted.

amplified

 

Be Kind. Always.

be kindSomething happened at the Reference Desk yesterday that won’t get out of my head. Shortly after opening at 9 am a man approached the desk and asked if he could use the phone. It’s our policy to say no, but he said he had lost his debit card and needed to report it, so I allowed him. I should have been mad when he made a second call, but when I heard the desperation in his voice I bit my tongue.

He was making calls to find a drug rehab facility that would take him that day.

It wasn’t busy, so I stepped away for a little bit to give him his privacy, since he was having to answer extremely personal questions. But when I came back fifteen minutes later he was still at it, searching for a place that would be able to accept him. When he finally found a place in Ft. Myers I felt relief wash over me. Not because he would be getting off the phone, but because he was tugging at my heart. He was trying so hard to be brave and find help that I realized I had been silently praying for him. When he was done I offered him a bottle of water and he nearly burst into tears.

Like I said, his story has been sticking with me since it happened. He left shortly thereafter, and I hope he found his way to the clinic. We’ve all had desperate times and I am so glad I didn’t refuse him the phone. It reminds me that we all need to remember to be kind to others, because you never quite know the struggles others are facing. Even a stupid bottle of water or letting someone use the phone is enough to make a difference in a desperate situation.