The Scary One With That Power Tool Might Be an Angel

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It’s like a little horror story that reveals a deep underlying niceness, I think drowsily. I slept little the night before and now I am looking up at a golden orb of light seen darkly through goggles, my body very still, lips stretched into the sort of grotesque shape a mime would create to depict a scream. I cannot make a sound. I’ve been this way a long time, or maybe a little; it’s difficult to discern actual minutes. Industrious hums and grinding noises intrude on my consciousness. I think of the chair I am pressed into–it’s a cool, smooth Granny Smith apple green. A shadow falls on my face and water droplets trickle across my neck and chest. My jaw may crack apart at some point but my tongue already fell asleep long ago in the dry gulch that is my mouth. I want desperately to swallow, so do.

“Doing alright, yes?” Dr. K. asks sweetly.

I nod, then she bears down upon the front tooth again.

There have been occasions when such an innocuous question was my cue to consider putting a halt to business and bolting from the tiny room. But, no, I’ve made a long drive from my home. I will stay the duration. I am willing to put myself into her hands despite the costs of being plied with treatments that often can bring pain. Dr. K., my dentist, was found again after I endured a few months with her old team. They gave me enough trouble.

Saved, I think, despite discomfort. It’s not as big a deal as it could be. In fact, it’s downright pleasant when I consider the alternatives. No one is thrilled to see the dentist but if we can any way afford to have even routine care, we go and endure, sometimes with the aid of drugs to prep us. I have experienced dentist appointments in many ways; my history is chock full of them. But fear of dentists was not natural to me as a child.

Dr. Smith was the first to take care of my teeth. That was back when they were still whiter, neat little gems that encouraged my wide smile to grow wider. His office was on the corner of our street, a small brick square overhung with maple trees. From the patient chair I could watch branches sway in the breeze, see birds hopping about, the weather change; the window was large.

He always greeted people with a glamorous grin (Was it really white back then, before whitening was a requirement? No, likely just charming). His black hair was shiny, wavy, precise. He shook my hand, asked me about my family, then school and activities, then how my teeth had been behaving, as if they were unruly things that he would set right. He didn’t have puppets about or cartoon characters on the walls. Dr. Smith was just friendly in a quiet way. Simply hearing his voice made me feel like I was a member of an appreciated group. Comfortable. He was a handsome man, and I imagined he was a potential movie star who decided to take on dentistry at the last minute.

I was glad to be there, no matter possibility of pain. That was a good thing, as I visited him often enough that his waiting room started to feel like another living room. Despite fluoride in our water in my hometown, good insurance, diligent parents, decent habits and healthy meals, my teeth were trouble. He never once indicated he thought so.

“I’ll take care of this,” he’d say. “I’ll fix you right up in a jiffy.”

He’d tell me, “If it hurts, raise your finger and point right at me. But it shouldn’t hurt; I’ve tried to take care of that for you. We’ll be done in no time.”

He had given me a shot? I had barely felt the prick of the needle because he was talking to me about his garden and kids. Afterwards, because I had managed to sit still and let him do good work, I got to pick a small toy from his reward box.

The years passed; I began to grow up some but still visited Dr. Smith often. Between the two of us, I was managing to keep complete ruin of my perilous teeth at bay. In fact they looked and felt pretty good so far.

A few years later when my mother told me Dr. Smith had drowned on a boating trip I burst into tears. Terrible way to die. Horrible that he would never be there again, that he wouldn’t smile at me and pat my shoulder, shape up my defiant teeth and send me home with a greeting for my folks. I couldn’t imagine how things would be managed and knew his family was heartbroken.

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You can see why I was shocked when I got older and visited other dentists. They were too silent or brusque. Many seemed less than happy about their work (many are, I later learned, enough for the profession to have a high suicide rate). Their offices smelled stringent and were a little frightening with their chic colored walls and accoutrements. Who were they kidding? And I hated paying a fortune for the big or small miseries I suspected awaited me. Because my teeth had not stuck to a good course. They had surprises for me like decay, fractures, moving about and coming out. Sometimes they made me ill. I had not inherited good dental genes and worse, I had health issues that added challenges. And my insurance was sometimes not very good. Or it was gone.  Who can afford the cost of surgery, crowns and root canals when you have five children and their teeth are more critically important?

By the time I was in my late-thirties I was aware that my smile was not so lovely. I was a smoker and a coffee and tea drinker. Toss in some rum and whiskey instead of food at times. Chronic illness. I knew my history was apparent.

One time a quirky new employer, my manager, told me she remembered people by their teeth; she was studying mine as she spoke. I was so embarrassed that I talked very carefully with her and smiled infrequently. After that I learned to smile in public with mouth closed, lips curling up at the edges. If you knew me, you would have seen it as fake from the start. I am a laugh-out-loud person, a gabber, someone who likes to say hello with a big smile when taking walks or shopping. In fact, I love to laugh and smile so it was tough to not do so more readily.

But I didn’t have much success finding competent–never mind excellent–dentists. One let a dental tool slip down into my throat, and I had a death-defying moment of gagging until he managed to grasp and remove the item. Another gave me a local injection for a procedure that had epinephrine in it, which I cannot take due to bouts of tachycardia, that is, sudden onset of rapid heartbeat (120-140+ beats per minute). It was coded in red on my chart. Sure enough, in seconds my heart nearly thumped out of my chest. It took 45 minutes for it to settle down. I left shaken up and exhausted. The dentist was appalled by the error, yes, but I was done at that office.

There was the dentist who told terrible jokes, even off-color and sexist. I was captive in the patient chair, unable to even protest as he worked merrily away on my teeth. I complained to the office manager but he was still there the next time so that was that for me.

A life changer occurred when a practitioner didn’t take my emergency phone call seriously enough, instructing me to wait over a week-end. An abscess worsened, causing me to become systemically ill. In bed with severe dental pain and high fever, I finally recovered in two weeks after family intervention and a more potent antibiotic. Following this, I started to have strange heart palpitations with dizziness. I dismissed it as a left over from the infection. Years later I would be informed the infection may have caused my early onset coronary artery disease.

Dentistry! I often told dentists that they should save me the misery and pull them all out. Dentures would look great, too.

All this due to those less conscientious than Dr. Smith, I thought. So when I first met Dr. K. I tried to be hopeful once more. I had just left another dental office due to billing issues that lingered for over a year. There were no more expectations of a satisfactory visit but there was yet another crisis. Dr. K. entered the cubicle, small, quick-moving, soft of voice with an Indian accent so thick I tried hard to figure out what she was saying. She repeated herself. I attuned my ear shortly. Dr. K. explained everything before she did it, answered each question as if it mattered, not as if I was demanding too much. Then I received the best dental care I’ve had in decades. In a couple more visits, we chatted easily.

I apologized for my teeth–occasionally dentists look in my mouth and sigh–but she reassured me.

“No, not such a problem. Don’t say take them out. Good to keep them very long. Many are still quite strong. You are beautiful lady. So good you give counseling to people. I enjoy music and art, too. But really, you must smile more, okay?”

She left after six months to develop her fledgling practice. It was forty-five minutes from my neighborhood. I thought that too far to drive. That was before I experienced “dry socket” effect ( a first; may you never get this) following an extraction done by another dentist in the office. I got on the internet and found her office number.

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So here I am in one of her green chairs; it is a favorite color of hers. The orange color used to upholster a few others is her son’s chosen color. I know this because she is telling me, that musical lilt to sentences that are clearer to me now, her voice confident, gentle.

“Do you like my new place? Had to do it, Cynthia. It is so close to my home and I have a family, you know. How are your grandchildren doing? Tell me when I am done.”

She works away, explaining what is necessary now and later. She is conservative in her approach, cares to do her very best for each patient, she explains. I know this. I have no fear here.

Afterwards, she tells me this:

“Cynthia, I was just thinking of you right before you called. I had made a small mistake one time, remember? It so upset me. I still wake up at night, think of those things. I wondered how you are doing. I miss my old patients. I now tell you this, how I did think of you. Then you just called my office and I happen to answer. How wonderful you find me again. I will do good work. I hope you come back though it is far.”

I can barely recall the incidenty she referred to but I wanted to hug her. I felt one within her as well. She’d spontaneously embraced me the last time I’d an appointment at the old office. It was right before Christmas; we wished each other happy holidays.

She had said, “You are a beautiful lady, a lovely person, God go with you.” My old teeth demanded I give her a big smile.

But now she had other patients waiting. It was clear she was doing well.

“It’s very good to see you again,” I said. “Thank you.”

Dr. K. stood with hands clasped in front of her as usual when her hands aren’t maneuvering drills and sharp things. She nodded, then attended to the next person.

You can see this isn’t so much a story about teeth or dentists as it is about human nature. How we do better with kindness. How I admit I worry about things like how teeth look even as the world has so much suffering going on. The little horror story part is that I have had a time of it with dentists but the nice surprise is it depends on the actual dentist. Dr. K. seemed so familiar to me that as I wrote this it struck me: she is very like Dr. Smith. Thorough and accomplished. Someone who cares first about people, second about an impressive career. I have been a very fortunate recipient of both their talents.

And I’m still working on this, but expect a full-on smile if our paths ever cross. This one is for the incomparable Dr. Smith, may you rest in peace. I will always be thankful for such careful assistance.

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, non-fiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ava’s Running Late

 

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The years had breezed by but it wasn’t long enough. Ava came because Aunt Lou had called, her voice husky with cigarette smoke. She agreed they had seen one another in Chicago three years ago but she wanted her niece to visit “before I head out to the store and never return”. It was their private joke that Aunt Lou would likely drop dead when walking home with two bags of groceries, nothing dignified. Milk and prune juice spilled everywhere. She was down-to-earth, her only close aunt. Before the joke had made Ava laugh. This time the bronzed skin on her forearms prickled. Aunt Lou was aging faster than Ava.

“Your ten-year high school reunion will be going on. You have to come!”

Ava, in fact, had taken her name off the Middleton High School Alumni notification list six months ago. She didn’t care to be reminded she was from Garver with its clusters of uniform trees and rows of square houses. Her life there had begun to fade the day she left town. Once Ava’s mother, trying to keep her abreast of news, had sent her a news clipping of Ava’s oldest, best friend. He was the same man, yet so different in a Navy uniform. Ava had left it on the dining room table several days, trying hard to discern the person she had once known, then she had thrown it away. But the image remained, a mark on her memory that refused to be erased.

The day Ava arrived a  passing thunderstorm had spread a sheen on Garver. The worn-out town sparkled like a wallflower dressed up for a summer party. Its familiar simplicity gave rise to a rush of nostalgia as she drove down Mallard Street. It frightened her a bit. She saw ancient Mrs. Jesson at a window of Jesson’s Hardware. The woman stopped polishing the glass and eyed the yellow Miata that Ava drove. She crept along; this week-end the cops would be prowling. The pavement steamed in the heat. Ava put her window up and cranked the air conditioner. 

Aunt  Lou’s house was painted teal now instead of tan. It looked good enough to eat with flower baskets hanging from the porch and two rockers set out, the same ones they all had enjoyed before but brick red. Her throat felt as if it was closing up. She gulped chill air, then parked and got out.

“Ava, Ava Lillian Huntley!” Aunt Lou called as she rushed to her niece. They collided in an embrace. “I can’t believe you’ve come home, at long last!”

Their skin stuck to each other’s as they linked arms, the sweat releasing Lou’s natural sweetness, something Ava hadn’t noticed from anyone else. On the porch Uncle Travis waved from his wheelchair. She bent down to embrace him.

“Ava,” he said, “you’re ever punctual. Still, this day is overdue. But you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“Uncle, you were always gracious. You thankfully haven’t changed.”

“You must be exhausted! Wash up, Ava, and then come sit. I’ll fetch drinks and start dinner as we gab.”

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The next day, the air held a promise of cooler temperatures. Even the birds were energized as they trilled and flitted here to there. Aunt Lou gave Ava a short list and sent her off.

“Don’t hurry! I’m sure you’ll want to look around. Call some friends, dear, get a coffee.”

It was one thing to have a family tree whose branches are sturdy and bear pretty good fruit, but another to wander among the others. She felt a need to sneak about. Ava had little desire to attend the reunion though it seemed a foregone conclusion.

She posted some bills for Aunt Lou at the post office when a woman with pimply cheeks and ash blond hair rushed up.

“Ava? That you? My gosh, you look even better than you did at eighteen! I’m Fran Cullin, now Ritter–oh, you remember? You’re coming tonight, of course, dinner and dance at Embers Lodge?”

With a wave, Ava shifted into first and headed to the grocery. Without being further waylaid, she made it to a parking spot, then sat looking about.

Someone let loose a flirtatious whistle. Ava clenched the steering wheel.

“Fancy car! A little small for my taste but cute.”

A voluminous man held out a broad paw and helped her out, then re-settled his baseball cap. “You remember me, right? Tom Duluth? I was a friend of–”

Ava kept moving as she glanced at him. “Yes, I do know you! ” She smiled as though pleased. “Nice to see you. I’m doing some errands…”

“Sorry your mother passed.”

He took off his cap and folded it in his hands. His courtesy stopped her.

“I read about it. We all knew she moved to Farwell after you left. Tough, the cancer.”

“Yes, thank you.” Ava felt perspiration pause halfway down her back and wished she had worn the linen top, not a dress. The sun was unforgiving despite the cool start of day. She wiped her brow. “That was five years ago, yes, she’s long gone.” She smiled wider, teeth bared just enough. “I’m so sorry, Tom, I have stuff to do for my aunt but perhaps later.”

“Lou and Travis, good people. Okay. See you tonight then. I hope.” His gaze burrowed into her chest, then he shifted his bulky frame and lumbered off.

On the way back she idled at a stop sign. Her eye was drawn to shadowy patterns on the park grass, a glint of river beyond. She loved water, lived on the lakeshore in Chicago. She wanted to sit at a picnic table and breathe small town air, really more rural than town. She hesitated, wondering about nearby Bathwell House, but felt it must have been torn down by now. After seeing new wooden benches she parked and sat close to Keep’s River. Listened to it tripping and twirling over rocks.

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For some, the soundtrack of their youth was made of a certain band or hit song they’d saved up to purchase. For Ava it was the river. They had lived on a quarter acre by Keep’s River in a bungalow her mother inherited from her grandparents. It made their lives easier since Cass Huntley was a single mom. But it was the river that made the difference to Ava. She had spent much of her childhood and youth at its banks, exploring the woods, making friends of birds and rabbits, turtles and frogs.

It struck her as it often did what a peculiar twist of fate had made her a junior executive in the fragrance business. Knee-deep in muck and rocky waters she had been happy. Now she was financially secure and, if not happy, at least felt good about her future, pleased with her independence.

Ava scrutinized a muddy pathway, then got up and walked at its edges toward Bathwell House. Despite her anxiety, she’d wanted to see it ever since she’d arrived. Find out if it was even there or if they had built a concrete block apartment complex in its place or a new house. If so, what a relief. She’d take a peek, then go.

The muddy spots slowed her but she came upon it so fast she thought it couldn’t be the same place. It had been a long walk as a kid. It had stood on a quiet corner with pride even as it began to corrode from neglect. The town mayor’s home in the early twentieth century, it had been abandoned by the family when he was ousted and sent off to jail for bribery. No one wanted it then.

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Now it looked as though someone had tried to destroy it but was just short of failing. As if years of hard weather had worked its terrible magic on it, only to miserably hang on, crumbling amid weeds. Ava walked around the corner to see the rest. Her chest tightened; breathing quickened. Maybe it wouldn’t be intact, just obscured by time and rot. She would leave Garver without any more thought of it.

A rock rolled down the side gravel road and she startled. There was no one afoot, only a car pulling out of the road. She could see two stories better here. The pitch of roof was irrevocably damaged as the roof itself threatened a descent. Moss clung to shingles. Windows were bleak holes. Doors had no doorways. Ava looked up at a second story window. There was something, a flash of movement as it fell into darkness. A bird, she decided.

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And then she saw the barest path to the sign.

Steven and she had been there ten years earlier, after the graduation party. The empty house had long hosted keggers and make out sessions. There had been three other couples but one by one they left. Steven and Ava sat in a glassless window and scanned the sky. There was a slice of moon bright as a smile, and the Big Dipper spilled more star-studded darkness. They imagined Orion’s strength and decided a shooting star was really an S.O.S. They talked of nothing and anything. Steven and she had been friends since they were eight.

“I wondered if you’ll still call me.” He sounded odd. Uncertain.

Ava laughed and pushed her shoulder into his. “Of course. How else will I deal with all the grueling work and snooty clicks?”

Steven nudged her back. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m the one with dyslexia. Ill need to lay off weed. Want a hit?”

Ava shook her head. She wanted to etch the night onto her mind. One more week and they would be gone, in pursuit of something else. They’d write, talk, meet up on holidays–how could they not after all these years?

She laid her head on his shoulder. He smelled of tangy sweat and a hint of Zest soap (“Really, why Zest? No one buys Zest!” she’d told him but he’d shrugged) and green things. Dirt. Nothing mattered but that moment, the peace they shared, immersed in rudimentary astronomy. Ava felt as if she was passing into a timeless zone where she and Steven moved among stars. She knew she had to hold it close. Nothing would be the same when they left. It hurt her to know it.

And then Steven turned her face to his, grasped her shoulders and kissed her so hard her teeth started to ache.

Ava fell backwards and hit her shoulder first, then her chin as she rolled. His hand was pressing her back, then her hip as he leaned over her.

“Ava, are you okay? Man, I didn’t think a kiss would do that! But I felt it, too….”

She sat up. “What? No, of course I’m not okay! What do you think you’re doing? Since when do you try that on me? Aren’t we best friends?”

He bent down and helped her up, then enfolded her in his arms.

“Ava, please–it’s me here, Steven!”

He held her too tightly, her round breasts flattened against his damp, broad chest, her legs half-tangled in his. His lips grazed her neck, nose, forehead.

Ava planted her hands on his chest and pushed with all her might. He resisted, then loosened his grip. She tore away, stood several feet from him, hands clenched at her sides.

“What, Ava? Huh?” he asked. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you know?”

She shook her head over and over. He then saw her become very still then, a statue that could have been a ghost. It unnerved him. Her face disappeared in the dark but he knew it was crimson.

“Really? You, of all people! Haven’t I had to fight too many off? You, the person I trust more than anyone! That’s why we’re best friends, Steven. We know each other, care about each other.”

“Exactly! Ava, please.”

She emitted a low growl of anger and frustration. “Then why did you have to screw everything up? You’re scaring me, Steven…”

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And before she completely lost it and yelled and cried, she ran down the sagging, creaking stairs, out the door, and into the road.

It was a bitter night with no sleep. And in the morning she did not answer his calls. Not the next day or week. She packed for college. But before she left she listened to his last message on her phone.

“Go to the spot where there’s that piece of wood that was a sign, nailed to the tree. Please do that much. Miss you. Forever.”

But there was no time. She never saw the sign. They hadn’t spoken since.

Now she parted weeds, walked around poison oak and laden blackberry bushes until she came to the place where she thought the sign must have been, might be now. And it was there. Ava’s hands crossed her chest, then she folded her arms about her and despite her intentions, despite time passing and success and losses huge and insignificant and things learned the hardest ways, her heart pulsed hard, then folded into a deep ache she didn’t know was still there.

“I’m sry” the sign read in his truncated sentence.

“I am stupidly, completely sorry, too,” she cried out, then ran back to the park, got in her car and drove fast down the streets, vision blurred, not caring in the least that a siren wailed behind her, the police car flashing its lights as if she was some fugitive, a woman running for her life. Ava hated being late, especially ten long years late. She was going to make this right.

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Posted in prose, short fiction, short fiction about love and loss, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing: Getting My Money’s Worth

 

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It was clear what I was going to write about today–friendship, perhaps a specific friend, current or past. First I shopped at Goodwill with a daughter, then got a few groceries. I worried a bit about having the afternoon free to tackle my subject. Once home, however, I realized laundry needed to be done. After I got that going, I was hungry so took my time eating yogurt and some trail mix for a late lunch. Then I tidied up and that led to lingering over several childhood pictures I’d left on my desk when searching for my passport. Then I stared at the stacks of books and wondered which ones should go into a “Still to Read This Summer” pile. I was able to resist the urge to go through them that moment. Things could wait; I needed to write.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t put one word on the page. How many more ways could writing be avoided? Not many more; I write something every day. Besides, I am committed to writing two prose pieces (one fiction, one non-fiction) and two short poems weekly for my blogs.

I have many topics for non-fiction. I don’t maintain a list but they gather and file themselves in my mind. From the moment I awaken cogitation about writing begins and today was no exception.

But one topic kept nagging me: how does one continue being a writer despite those dreaded black times when a project or piece seems to be going nowhere, few who know you even care, those who have authority deem your work less than worthy or worse, and your toil and effort seem wasted even to yourself?

I recently decided to pay a well-known editor to assess the first one hundred pages of my first completed novel, the one that I began in 1999 (perhaps before). I had deferred it a long while; it’s an expensive service. I had researched editors off and on, so when I finally found someone I respected, had met before and appreciated and who was willing to look at my work sooner rather than later, I dug up the money. Yes, you read it right: I cannot afford to pay for editing of over five hundred pages of my novel. It made sense that the opening chapters would provide enough material for J. to deeply scrutinize themes, some basic character development, voice, plot development and dramatic arcs, mechanics, and so on. I would take her evaluation and use it to improve things. Or not.

I had felt for the last decade that it lacked what it needed. I had gone through over the entire five hundred pages with a fine-toothed comb at least seven times; smaller cuts and alterations occurred sometimes daily. When sharing it in writing groups, I received mixed responses, much helpful feedback. Around five years ago I stopped revising and mulling it over. I was sick and tired of it, despite the devotion pledged to it. I was busy working on other projects, sending out other manuscripts. But my first novel, Other Than Words, sat untouched until I found J. I had to know if having had an excerpt published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize was a strong enough indicator that the novel could succeed, or if it needed to be rewritten. Or even trashed.

After two weeks J. got back to me with a six page summary and painstaking notations. Somehow, before I opened the email and documents, I knew to steel myself. Afterall, I’d been unhappy with it long before hiring her.

Essentially, she stated the pages fail in critical ways. They don’t move fast enough, offer enough dramatic hooks, are too interior, need more of a traditional plot structure than what I aimed to accomplish. Not only that, the female protagonist of this two-part novel was “unlikable and tiresome by page 100.” That was a bit miserable to hear although the character was supposed to be difficult at the start. She evolves over the course of the story and is even admirable, I think, and loveable–much later. But point taken. The reader has to empathize and be intrigued by charcters to even continue to read. How could I have missed that elementary truth?

I finished the summary of insights and suggestions. It was clear she had put in a lot of effort and given me clear indicators of strengths (there were a few of those) and weaknesses (more than I’d hoped). Her words carried the authority she has in the business. She also noted I have talent, that the concept is fascinating and she appreciated themes noted in the synopsis. I saw those words the second time I read her summary and it helped.

It needs a thorough re-write and I got what I paid for and more. J. gave it acute attention. The novel can only benefit. I started to consider other corrective actions I could make, ways I could re-write the story so it is no longer two parts, change the characters to better reflect the themes and, of course, add more surefire action. The editor’s feedback was crucial in clarifying where it stands, what it needs to deliver the goods and how I might hit the target when submitting to an agent one day.

Book by Pat Walsh

Book by Pat Walsh

I may not do a thing to it. A first novel is just that–an amateur’s attempt at writing a story that is predominantly autobiographical despite attempts to clothe it otherwise. If the basic premise is good and the storyline intriguing it has life in it. Yet how much more time and sweat do I have left for this?

And there are other parts to this story. That blasted tightness in the chest when reading J.’s words. The hope that the editing suggestions would get easier and perhaps gentler the longer I read. The realization that despite her stated appreciation of my ability, she was telling me it was not at all good enough. After read-through of the writing itself with edits, I felt first intrigued, then tired out. Then I felt the deep and irritating discontent seep into me, then the sense of doom that comes from fearing ultimate failure, and the thought blinding my mind in neon caps that no matter how hard I work, there will always be something that needs fixing.

And that overarching question came to the fore. Why bother writing at all? If it does not pass muster despite talent and hard work, if someone I so respect informs me it is not great quality, what then? More toil the next five years? Is there any guarantee it will be good enough then to snag an agent, perhaps be published? Since the fourth grade (when I garnered an award for writing and discovered writing’s intoxicating effects) I’ve spent my life working on the craft of writing. Sometimes submitting work and occasionally being published, reading my work at public readings, attending writers conferences and workshops, talking to other writers about their processes, reading books on writing and publishing. Tearing up countless attempts at mastery.

There is absolutely no guarantee any one will want to publish my writing or anyone else’s who is not already well-known.

I attended a couple of lectures at yet another writers conference this week. On the blackboard was: “Agents are our friends.” But they told us what I had already heard. Whose work is selected from a slush pile is random in that they never know what will stoke their curiosity, what will be deemed original and exceptional, what will be seen as marketable enough. Well, unless someone referred you to them or your work has been in literary journals of real note. There are just too many people sending manuscripts to them and limited time and staff.

Yes, they mean to support us in our quest for greater readership–it is to their advantage, as well. But who in that audience might be taken under their wings was a mystery. We all can name books that are published though poorly written or boring, then make a lot of money–and books that are excellent, make little and disappear. And millions of writers worldwide who strive to hone their craft yet don’t ever see a thing in print. It’s enough to stop anyone from wanting to be a writer.

Not writing doesn’t interest me, however. Habit alone dictates it after writing for well over fifty years. I didn’t find enough time or energy to intensely pursue publishing when raising five children and working, struggling as a single mother off and on. Now perhaps I do. All I know is that writing makes my blood run well. It sparks circuits of energy in my brain. It nourishes serenity and fulfillment. The work of writing opens up access to information about people, place, the very nature of creativity and the presence of God.  The actions of idea to hand to paper unveil new ways to experience the universe and our place in it.Writing is alchemy of a sort so potent that words have been able to change the course of history, heal, enlighten, entertain, educate, provoke, liberate. To be able to write and to read is revolutionary. I want always to be a part of it.

That heavy cloud settled a few days, then thinned. It has nearly vanished. When the discouragement creeps in I have to take a break from myself and pay attention to the bigger picture. My money was well-spent on J.’s expertise. I learned more than I expected. Now questions proliferate what I need and want to do now with my writing hours. I may revive Other Than Words once more–my unlikable female protagonist who was struck by tragedy still has good things to say. I might, instead begin a new novel–a title that popped into my head already has me plotting away. In the end I may stick other genres.

While I am at it, it might serve me well to re-read some of the best writing books I’ve accumulated. A few have stayed unopened; it’s possible within those pages I will gain more useful tips. But giving up has never been an option. Stories still arrive and allow me to tell them. This is why writers write, after all.

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(Thanks to brilliant as well as good-hearted J.M.)

Posted in Creative non-fiction, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Case for a Little Madness

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“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”

“Yes, do.”

“Enough is enough.”

“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”

I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.

She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.

Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.

“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”

Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.

“Pssst!”

I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?

“Meredith? What do you think?”

I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.

“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”

“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”

“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”

“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”

Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.

He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.

Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.

He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.

Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.

Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.

“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”

Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.

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It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.

“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”

Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.

After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”

“You mean, with you or in general?”

She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.

“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”

“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.

“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”

Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”

I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.

The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.

**********

“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.

Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.

“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”

“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”

They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.

There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.

“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.

We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.

It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.

“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”

“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”

“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”

“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”

Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.

When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.

“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”

That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.

“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”

Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.

“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”

Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.

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“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”

“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”

Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.

“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.

“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”

Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”

He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.

And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.

Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”

“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”

I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.

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(My photographs are of a Greek Revival mansion built in 1911. The White House is a beautiful historic bed and breakfast inn, located in Portland, OR.)

 

 

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short fiction about family relationships, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer Play: Olly Olly In Free!

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I find myself yearning to play putt-putt golf and Frisbee and know they’ll happen before fall. But, even more, I’ve been thinking alot about “Kick the Can”. It’s summertime and children periodically flood sidewalks and streets around here. Released from regulations and many constraints, they’re eager to skin knees, acquire grass-stains and tans, to race, dive and leap. They want to play, whether six or sixteen, an impromptu tag around the house or rigorous basketball on a court. I know that feeling, still.

Games of many kinds have always drawn me. The more inventive games captivate my intellect though simple ones can be just as exciting, particularly when played with others who share my enthusiasm. I’m not a serious card player (rummy is my speed but we like Yahtzee and Uno, too). Many in our family appreciate board games. Grandchildren have had no choice but to learn Scrabble, Parcheesi, Checkers (regular and Chinese) and Balderdash. Games teach cooperation, encourage friendly competition, enhance independent problem solving. But mostly, they’re fun.

Earlier in the summer two of my grandchildren and I were shopping when they spied a bag of cats’ eye marbles. Since they are nine (grandson) and twelve (granddaughter), I resisted the urge to cry out and jump up and down. Marbles! I hadn’t seen a decent bag of such beauties in far too long. The grandkids enjoy playing various games and they also found the marbles curiously attractive. They’d seen them before but didn’t recall having played a game. How could I have not exposed them to the fabulosity of marbles? I promptly put them into the cart.

Once home I dumped out all the shooters and mibs (the target marbles), then arranged them on the carpet. I noted I had owned a few steelies in my well-rounded collection. The action was about to happen when I got stuck in the process. This was one game I hadn’t played since sixth or seventh grade. We looked up rules and game variations, then played several simpler rounds. They bumped and jumped the mibs but kept all in good order. I wondered at their restraint, remembering how fierce and strategic good marble players were. It was a happy couple of hours though I informed them it would be more engaging if we had a big hard patch of dirt or large cement expanse on which to attack the mibs. Living in an apartment now, we have few outdoor spaces for children.

Being outside calls me to different undertakings. I recall all the games I still enjoy as well as those I once played. Born before electronic devices dominated peoples’ every waking hour, I was part of a generation entertained by free or cheap entertainment that easily included neighborhood friends.

“Kick the Can” was a favorite warm weather activity we undertook in the freedom of the outdoors. A cross between tag, hide and seek and capture the flag, it can be played nearly anywhere outside. My favorite place was down the block at the Hensons’ huge side and back yards. One of my best friends, Bruce, and at least a half dozen others converged around dusk. As the sun went down, we revved up even more. The evening was punctuated by easy laughter, occasional squabbles that ended in an altercation we took care of on our own, and the metallic bashes of a tin can being kicked high by tennis-shoed, sandaled or even bare feet. We played until our breath was ragged, sweat flowed in rivulets down our backs, and muscles tired. Or until we got hungry or were called home one by one.

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Kick the Can goes like this. Any empty can (or one with a rock in it for more noise) is set up in the middle of an open area. The person who is “It” counts as the others hide, then looks for them while keeping an eye on that can. “It” spies someone, calls out their name and they both race to the can to see who kicks it first. If the hider kicks it first, he or she gets to hide again. If the “It’ person kicks it first, the hider is sent to a designated area called “jail.” Any hider may risk being caught and race to the can to kick it–this can free those jailed. When successful, the runner calls out “Olly Olly In Free” and the jailed mates run out into the yard.

I have heard the proclamation originates from “All Ye, All Ye, Out and Free” way back in the late 1800s, but we never called that out. There are several interpretations, such as “Olly Olly Oxen Free” which also is likely a garbled version of the original. I always felt the phrase we shouted was a vital part of the magic, words that sprung the prisoners and got us going for a new game.

We were attached to the game and each other. During the school year we might not cross paths as often; some might be a couple years ahead, others could run in different crowds. But from June through August, the neighborhood was our kingdom. We made alliances, realigned, made pacts, promises and teams that could alter night by night, only to re-group for another time, another year together. It was being at home in our small world. It was being an integral, impactful part of a familiar whole.

My father loved games, even designed and crafted a few. Two sisters, two brothers and I–and sometimes my mother–joined in. There was always something to do when my friends came over. After snows melted and thunderstorms abated, we hung around in the back yard. It was not as vast as the Hensons’, yet seemed big enough for most things. Hanging from an overarching maple was a wooden seated swing dad had hung when I was a toddler. A basketball hoop on the garage was worn out by us all. A small cherry tree bloomed in the middle of the lower yard; we tramped a path that circled the pretty tree just playing tag. The back of the yard was bordered by tall evergreens and bushes good for hiding.

We couldn’t play baseball or kickball well unless we crossed our property line and entered the tree nursery grounds into a meadow. We did play horseshoes, croquet, badminton, dodgeball, red rover, tag, red light green light, waterballons, bean bag toss, ring toss, Mother may I, horseshoes, hopscotch and held hula hoop contests–to name a few. And played marbles on the sidewalk that led to the garage and yard or on a bricked area where we later set a round table for summer barbeques.

Bored? I don’t recall the feeling much. If I was and bravely voiced it, there was no sympathy.

“Find something to do,” my parents said. “Use your brain and get busy.”

So I did.

If I close my eyes, I can smell the fresh-cut grass and stirred up dirt, hear the susurration of leafy branches overhead as shadows striped the yards. Shadows creep across the Hensons’ lush lawn. Grown-ups call out as they check on us from doorways and porches. My siblings or friends rush past, reach out to tag me, call my name. We conspire to save our buddies from the jail, furtive hand signals allowed only. We each live in the cooling, egalitarian shimmer of summertime, inside the present moment. All for fun, for the shared cause of a game.

All for one, one for all: “Olly Olly In Free!”

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Posted in Creative non-fiction, memoir, non-fiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments