Plague Diaries #12

It isn’t really a tale of the plague, this entry. This story goes back much farther than that. A year, in fact.

In March of 2019 we moved from a 1400 square foot duplex into a 900 square foot condo. We did A LOT of downsizing. We had to practically get all new furniture. I spent weeks assembling flat pack tables, dressers, night stands and bookcases. (A weird side note: I adore assembling furniture. It’s like a really neat puzzle that you put together and then you end up with something useful. My husband thinks I’m bonkers.)

Before we moved I had a lot of space of my own. I had my own office with all my own books in my own cases and odds and ends littered about. In the garage I had my mosaic studio where I would spend Saturdays piecing together glass treasures. I had candles, and pictures, and figurines, lots and lots of rocks (been collecting them since I was a kid) and for over a  year now, they have sat packed away in boxes. Because there was no place to put them out. My mosaic tools are trapped in our outdoor storage space. My knitting supplies are crammed in under-bed boxes.

We have two bedrooms in our tiny new place. One of them is obviously the bedroom. The other is the library where most of my husband’s books and things are. (Greek helmets, a bust of Brahms and one of Homer, Greek vases and all of his fountain pens.) He has his computer on the desk in there, and the blue recliner where he reads and does crossword puzzles.

Since he’s retired and I have the car all day it seems only fitting that he should have the space as his own. He spends more time in the condo than anyone else. Over the past year, when I’ve wanted to relax, I’ve mostly spent the time in bed watching stuff on my iPad or reading.

These past two weeks off have been a breakthrough. One of the things I did as a therapeutic act for myself was dig out my knitting. I hadn’t really done any knitting since my Mom died, since that was ALL I did in the hospital. I got rid of a lot of my yarn stash when I moved, but still have all my grandmother’s knitting needles and quite a bit of yarn. I told my dear friend who is treating me with acupuncture that I would knit her a pair of socks and she was delighted. And then I came up with a brilliant idea: Frankensocks.

In all my years knitting (and it’s been over fifteen) I’ve knitted dozens of pairs of socks. It is a truth universally known that Floridians don’t need scarves, hats or mittens, but there are a few months out of the year when a pair of hand-knit socks are a most supreme pleasure. With every pair I’ve knit I’ve had leftover yarn which I have put in its own separate Ziplock (to keep them from mating like Christmas lights) and shoved in a canvas bag that I keep in my closet.

As I was considering what color socks to knit my friend, I came across that canvas bag of remnants and the idea hit me: what if I knit ALL THE COLORS? What if I knit an inch or two off each little ball I had remaining, switching them up and sort of patch them together? And the Frankensocks were born.

Frankensocks

I had real joy in knitting them. Each stripe represents a pair previously made socks and I remember each pair and who they were for. You might think that a little bonkers but knitting a pair of socks is an investment of time and they don’t just fall off the needles in a couple of hours. You get intimate with the yarn and think a lot about the person you are knitting them for as you are creating them.

As I was knitting these socks I was also looking around our apartment. The walls are still bare because we haven’t hung any pictures. Most of them are sitting in the bathtub in the second bathroom. And I decided that it was damn time we did something about it. So we hung pictures, we hung a clock, we hung mosaics I had made. We’re not done yet, but every day we do something more around here that makes the condo seem more like home.

As these two things sort of came together I started to realize something. All of my things (my candles and pictures and figurines and rocks) were still packed away in boxes and I was staggered all at once with how much I missed them. A wise friend said that when you are home and don’t see yourself reflected in it, it isn’t really home. There are things my husband and I have together, but my things, MY THINGS, were missing.

So I made a plan. We have an empty corner of our bedroom and I am getting (Lord, help me) one more IKEA bookcase (which will make seven). It will house the books I use for writing and research, and it will hold my bowl of rocks, my statue of Kuan Yin, picture frames and candles. It will be my space reflected back at me. I will truly be home.

And I wonder if this whole meltdown I had didn’t have something to do with these things. I am sure they were a part of it.  Yes, the pandemic has scared the bejesus out of me, but I have to go one with life. I will take all the precautions I can and let it be. But I will no longer be a stranger in my own house. I am going to set up my mosaic station on our lanai. I am going to arrange my precious items and see them when I walk in the room.

Maybe, as I begin to carve out the creative life I used to have (piecing glass together in mosaics and knitting and journalling), things will shift back to where they used to be. I’m already on the way.

This wasn’t something I did in a punitive manner. I did not go about to make myself miserable by packing away my life and leaving it in a closet. But getting it back is like getting out of jail. The air is a little sweeter, the sun a little brighter.

And as I move forward I know that writing mojo is going to return. I just have to find a new space to do that. Before, I was going to a coffee shop in the evenings and writing. But now, maybe now with my stuff back out I will feel more comfortable writing at home.

It’s taken a year, and it shouldn’t have. But what are we as human beings if not constantly learning lessons?

Excuse me, I have to go knit something.

Summer Swelter

Here is how we coped with the heat for the next few days:

  1. We moved as little as possible. (After taking down the storm shutters on the patio and office window we sat outside, trying to catch an elusive curl of breeze. There was none to be had–the world was still as death. )
  2. Drank as much water as possible. (We couldn’t get still water before the storm so we stocked up on bubbly water. Bubbly water is not fun to drink when it’s warm. But you do because it is 2 in the afternoon and you haven’t peed all day.)
  3. Went to bed when the sun set. (It got dark about 8:30 and the heat from even tealights was too great to stand. And that bed we were dying for when lying on the floor of the shelter? It was now akin to lying in an oven like a roast chicken.)

Then one night we were sleeping and I rolled over and opened my eyes a crack. I nearly shit myself when I saw the light coming from the living room. My first thought was, “There’s someone in the house.” But then it dawned on me that it was the little lamp we had purposely left on so we would know then the power was back on. It was about 10 pm and we both bolted from bed and ran for the air conditioner. Sweet relief!

We got our power back earlier than most, and we were really lucky we only had to live a few days in that exhausting heat. Some people today, eleven days after the storm, are still living in the stifling and oppressive darkness. The power company says they will have all power restored by the 22nd, which is still two days away and I feel for the folks who are last on the list.

But even though we had the power back on things were far from normal. There was a boil water notice in effect which meant you could take a shower, but good grief don’t open your mouth. No washing dishes, rinsing food, or disinfecting hands.

And then the sewers started to back up.

Florida is FLAT. And when water goes into the sewage system it is sent along to the treatment plants by a series of pump stations. But if the pump stations have no power then all the water (and the STUFF in the water) sits there and builds up until it’s exploding out of manhole covers and backing up into people’s drains.

Ew.

Gas was scarce. There were only a few stations with generators that had fuel and the lines were hours long. We waited in line for 2 hours one night to get filled up and missed curfew by 20 minutes. I have vague recollections of the gas shortages in the 70’s and the lines where people would shut off their engines to wait. This was no different.

The world, for a few days, was a scary place. But the thing is, this is how life is like for many people on this earth. I am thinking about the folks in Mexico City today digging out from a far worse disaster than we could imagine here. What’s a little heat compared to being trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building?

Things are getting back to normal. More than 80% of the power in my county has been restored. Gas and water are readily available again. The curfew and boil water notices have been lifted. But this whole experience shows me just how thin the veneer of civilization is. The power goes out and you’re left in miserable conditions. People get angry, hot, tired, and thirsty. Fist fights break out over gas. You can’t flush your toilet every time you use it.

A disaster like a hurricane puts things in perspective. I know exactly how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, food on my table, and running water and electricity. I hope I never take them for granted again.

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?