Ah, those famous words that greet the first sight of gray hair, facial lines (doesn’t that sound evah-so much nicer than wrinkles?), butt or boob drop, a thickening waist … oh, heck, add to the list on your own. We all have our demons. (That goes for you men as well; I’m not just talking about women here, although that’s what I’ll focus on since I am one…or was the last time I checked.)
Can’t say I’m bothered by graying hair, although the first truly black strand that came out during a shower made me do a double-take. I’ve been blonde of one shade or another all my life. (I say it that way not because I’ve dyed my hair–I haven’t–but because I was born a tow-head, but my hair has decidedly darkened over time. Funny old world. When I was a kid, I badly wanted to be brunette like my mother and sisters–I thought it would be a way to fit in.)
See? Big difference.
Maybe I’m not bothered by the gray because there’s not that much of it (or so says the woman that cuts my hair). At this point, I’ve no intention of coloring it, and I rather hope that I’ll wind up with a great mane of silver or white hair. Guess we’ll see.
As for wrinkles (oops! ‘scuse me, facial lines) I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have them. Sure, I likely didn’t as a child, but by my teenage years (and all that angst) I certainly did. Mom was forever telling me to stop frowning. “I’m not,” I’d say. “I’m concentrating.” It was all the same to her. But, yeah, it left me with two permanent upright marks between my eyebrows that she constantly tried to smooth out with the ball of her thumb. (Really, Ma?) Rough times of one sort and another bestowed the horizontal lines across my forehead that ain’t nevah gonna go ‘way now, sugah. Whatever. I’ve spent nearly 63 years living in my face. It’s bound to show it. And, anyway, I rather like the look of a lived-in face, mine as well as other people’s. There are stories in those lines, and stories are what make people interesting.
(Case in point: Take my former Coast Guard cadets–adoptees all into our household–now grown and experienced officers. Seasoned. Aged. They’re no longer the fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds we first met, scared and uncertain by the road they’d chosen to pursue. Now they’re approaching middle-age. They’ve braved bad seas, drug busts, and those much scarier rites of passage called matrimony, divorce, and parenthood. I loved their young adult faces, but the ones they carry now–ah! Those speak of Life, and I mean it with a capital “L” and emphasis.)
Butt and boob drop? Well, I’ve never had much in the way of breasts. (Boob is such a stupid word; I bet some man coined it first.) Always been small, something I regretted before I wised up and stopped buying into the societal party line. (A friend’s boyfriend once derided me for being “concave.” I’ve also received such endearments as “You’d have a perfect shape if only your breasts were bigger” (that one from my mother, if you can believe it) and “You’d be so much more attractive if only your breasts were bigger.”) News flash, folks–my breasts aren’t anyone’s frigging business.
As for the butt, well, suffice to say that I caught a sideways view of myself in the bathroom mirror after a shower and only one thought that arrowed through my brain: “Oh, my God, I have Mom’s ass.”
Again, whatever. You get the gist.
Here’s the thing. see. I grew up knowing I wasn’t beautiful, wasn’t even pretty. It was said to me often enough, pointed out by family, that even if I hadn’t believed it at first, I certainly came to. (A guy I spent way too much time with years ago told me, “You’re not the best looking girl in the world, but you have a good heart.” Another–who’d actually expressed a desire to date me, said, “There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be fixed with braces and contact lenses.” Gee. Thanks. I am overwhelmed.)
I wasn’t taught to think well of myself, and so I didn’t. And I was mistrustful of the rare individual who suggested I might, actually, not be all that hideous. What was wrong with them that they couldn’t see it? What did they really want from me?
I remember the day I decided I actually sort of like my face, that it’s not a bad old fizzog. Talk about a cocktail of epiphany and relief. Because if you can find peace in your own skin, what the rest of the world thinks and says in its arrogance and thoughtless stupidity (or rancor and general meanness), doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. Don’t let it matter.
T’other day, it were pourin’ down when the turkeys came from the woods–single-file, bunched, single-file, bunched–like one of them wire slink toys kids like to make march down the stairs. It were a miserable rain, what the olders call a “wet rain,” and by that they ain’t bein’ stupid or smarty-pants sarcastic. What they mean is rain that does more than wet you on the outside; it gets you from the inside, too. How’s rain make wet on the inside something that’s already pretty sloppy once you cut past the skin bag that holds us together? Why, it’s the chill. That chill, it don’t sink into you, it digs into you, like fingers. It burrows in like chiggers. It chews its way deep inside and wraps around your bones until you can’t get warm for nothin’.
I wondered if the turkeys felt the same chill as me. They don’t have the luxury of a home fire when the outdoors is cemetery cold. Oh, they can roost, but roostin’ don’t fill an empty belly and they’re all about belly-fillin’ which suits me just fine. They rake the forest duff, all those fallen leaves and twigs and whatnot, spyin’ out bugs, worms, ticks, and whatever else they call food. It’s a hard life, bein’ outdoors in all seasons. They’re welcome to whatever they can find, most ‘specially them ticks.
So it’s rainin’ steady, sometimes gentle, what we call a “soaker,” but more often drumming down in lines so thick you can see ’em, but not past ’em, like a curtain of gray wet, what I’ve heard call a “goat-drowner,” and here come the turkeys. I’d like to say I can tell ’em apart, but that’d be a lie. They’re pretty much of a size until spring when the toms do their Thanksgiving impression and puff out all plump and gorgeous like they know it, bronzy-green, tails erect and fan-spread, chest feathers fluffed, wings rattled half-open to display the white bars, naked heads flushed scarlet and blue. Gobble-gobble-gobble! If you never heard it, you should. It’s one of them sounds everyone should hear at least once in their life.
In between spates of Biblical flooding, they spreads out across the yard, each to its own, hunting-pecking. Then the rain comes, flash-flood quick. They freeze, bodies hunched and bunched, each like a single fist of feathers. Water subdues their colors ’til you half expect to see it run down their legs and puddle on the ground. There’s a line of lighter feathers that runs up their backs from tail to neck, splitting them in half. It’s murky in the wet half-light, like cream with a bit of mud mixed in.
Meleagris gallopavo silvestris. I only know that because I looked it up. Makes me wish I’d named the biggest male “Silvester” or “Pavo,” but he’s been “Barry White” ever since I first heard his sultry, deep-throated, come-hither call last spring. This boy, he’s all about one thing. But today I learned a big mistake. I thought the flock was him and eight hens, but I’m wrong. How wrong will depend on my ability to count next time they come through. I’ve been wondering about these spiny-hairy beards that hang down a turkey’s chest and it turns out only the males have them, which means a good portion of Barry’s harem is made up of other males. Not only that, but I read that males and females mostly travel separately except when it comes time to breed. Now I understand why we didn’t see any poults (chicks) taggin’ along last spring.
I also understand that what I really know about turkeys could be stuffed in a sack the size of a walnut and have space left over. That’s okay. With luck, I got time to learn.
I don’t know where the old tin came from. Maybe it held cookies once upon a time, a gift to my parents. I suspect it was found in the old house when they first moved in. (A lot of things were left behind by the previous owner(s), much of it junk, but a few treasures like the full-sized pedestal mirror I still have, a handful of antique clothes irons (the sort that needs to be heated on the stove before using), a quilting frame, and old ice skates that tied on to one’s boots.)
My mom was a great one for keeping tins and reusing them; it was the Yankee in her. In our home, the adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a rule to live by. An old toffee tin held bobby pins and those plastic picks to secure curlers. A large rectangular cookie tin held the curlers themselves. There was one for paperclips, one for rubber bands, one for spare bobbins for her sewing machine.
And one for my crayons.
I started drawing at an early age, and Mom encouraged it; partly for the artistic aspect, I suppose, but mostly because it kept me quiet and out of her hair. Give me enough paper and that collection of crayons and I would entertain myself for hours, and I became a purist early on. It must be Crayolas! None of those cheap crayons with their anemic colors, thank you very much! I wanted vibrancy! Ardor! Passion!
Back then, color names were sensible and understandable, none of today’s “Macaroni and Cheese,” “Neon Carrot,” “Inch Worm,” and “Timberwolf.” Instead, we had “Turquoise Blue,” “Violet,” “Melon,” and “Red Orange.” And, heck, we didn’t need names, we knew what they were, and what we wanted when we drew.
“We” here means me and my bestie, David Micklas, who I recently reconnected with (and wrote about) after something like 50 years apart. Dave and I mostly made Christmas cards together, four-square folded 8 1/2 x 11 paper drawn with reindeer, holly, snowmen, candy canes, fireplaces with stockings, trees…whatever images personified Christmas for us. I remember he also drew a lot of cars, which didn’t particular interest me, and I drew far too many horses, which likely didn’t interest him, but what was important was the act of creation and the fact that we were doing it together, often in silence, but also punctuated by bits of the sort of conversation experienced by only the very best of friends.
One year, Mom brought home a Christmas-themed coloring book, and I was over the moon! There was something special about that book – the line drawings inside were intricate, not childish, and I spent hours pouring over it, coloring in each one just so, endeavoring to stay within the lines, to create on the page what I imagined in my head. I loved that book and was sad when I’d filled it with color cover to cover. Mom hung on to it for years afterward, but it eventually went into the trash when she and Dad moved house. In fairness, she did ask if I wanted it, but I said no. I wish now I hadn’t.
Though I no longer have that much-loved book, I do still have the tin of crayons. A few are more modern, bits of color purchased for my nephews, now grown, who used the tin after I’d left my parents house. But some of the crayons are from when I was a kid. Like me, they’re a bit old and battered, their paper torn, some of them worn away to a nub. “Salmon.” “Yellow Green.” “Gray.” The coveted “Silver” and “Gold” we saved for Christmas. And precious few reds and greens, those having been sacrificed long ago to the holiday.
Every so often, I take the tin down from the shelf in my office where it lives just to lift the lid, bend down, and inhale that unique, heady odor; a big breath of the past.
I don’t listen to music while I write, mostly because it distracts me. Let a song come on that I know and like, and my head veers away from the work like a train shunted onto a different track. I prefer things quiet, the only sounds the drumbeat of rain on the roof, birdsong (including the gurgling gobble of Barry White and the Turkettes), or the whispered voice of the wind.
It’s a different story when I lack … not inspiration, per se, but the OOMPH to set things in motion; those days when that traitorous voice inside says things like “Hey, loser, why are you even attempting this? You don’t have the talent or the skill, and we both know it. Give up, give up, give up…”
I ran into that voice quite a bit while working on ELEPHANT SPEAK. Several times, reduced to tears, I nearly gave up. Who was I trying to fool? What made me think I had what it takes to finish a book like this, let alone see it all the way to publication. That inner voice told me I was spot-on, that continuing was ridiculous. Pack it in. Not only that, pack in all my other writing as well, donate my reference books, get rid of the computer.
Fortunately, that other little voice in my head spoke up. It reminded me of my successes, gave me confidence, and imparted the means to turn my insecurity around and give me the energy and drive to put my butt in the chair and do my time.
It gave me Gloria Estefan.
Obviously, I’ve known about Gloria for a long time. We’re contemporaries (she’s six months younger than me), and while I was slogging through the tail-end of high school, she was making music with Miami Sound Machine. If I’d realized back then that we were the same age, I’d’ve shot myself in despair of ever doing anything with my life. (Overly-dramatic, you say? Me? Well, yes, sometimes, and I was a teenager after all. If that isn’t the time in your life for a hefty dose of sturm topped with a dollop of drang, when is?)
Gloria’s hovered at the back of my mind all these years, occasionally eliciting a bit of finger-tapping and singalong in the car, and that was about it until the direst of writing days. That’s when I rediscovered “Get On Your Feet.”
See what I mean? (And if you didn’t watch the link, go back and do so.) I defy anyone to not be energized by that vitality. It’s more than the words of the song, it’s the emotion behind her voice: Gloria believes you can do what you set out to do. And I realized so did I.
So I did.
I don’t know about you guys, but I have a difficult time with forgiveness and the compassion that goes with it. Maybe that’s because it’s a problem for me to forgive myself for transgressions, even teeny-tiny ones, let alone find the largeness of spirit to forgive others. I was raised to embrace guilt (the gift that keeps on giving) and it’s a tentacled monster that doesn’t want to let go.
Some days I manage better than others.
It took a long time for me to understand the notion that forgiveness toward another person is not the same thing as condoning what they’ve done. If someone hurt me deeply, why should I forgive them and let them blithely walk away, all innocent and smug? But that’s not the point. The point is to remove from your own shoulders the burden of maintaining that anger or rage or hurt so you don’t have to live with it every day for the rest of your life.
I’m working on it.
There are a few people on my “hard to forgive” list; some friends, some family, a few people I barely know. I’ll think I’ve done a pretty good job expunging their black mark from my life, but then some trigger sets me off again. All the old hurts and resentments coming pouring out, tainted with as much bitterness as before, if not more. In some cases, I don’t want to forgive them. I don’t want to carry around the bad emotions, no, but I don’t want to set them free.
And that’s the thing, the mystery as to why I don’t want to turn them loose, why I feel the need to hang on to the pain. Often, I’ll take steps to back away from the person, inject some distance in our relationship. Yet there’s something that just … won’t … let … go.
It’s annoying as hell.
Because there must be something I get out of it, but what? Of what possible use is retaining those sorts of emotions unless <and here’s a bit of the proverbial light bulb> hanging onto them keeps me from seeing something else I ought to deal with.
It wasn’t my intention to be absent from this blog for so long, but I was waylaid by a vestibular migraine, something I’ve experienced most of my life, but was actually diagnosed last April. For those who don’t know (and who would, unless they had them?), vestibular migraines (in my case at least) present with no headache pain, but with debilitating vertigo and motion sensitivity, as well as sensitivity to bright light and sound.
Fun times, no? Decidedly no.
The after effect is bone-deep exhaustion, making it difficult to do much of anything for several days. Again, no fun.
But I’m back on the horse, as they say, and although I’m having some residual minor side-effects, overall I feel pretty well. Well enough, anyway, to announce that yesterday was amazing.
How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
First came the news that ELEPHANT SPEAK received a wonderful review in Publisher’s Weekly! If you’d like to read it, click here, but be aware that there are spoilers. (And one teensy error. Where “Crandall” shows up about half-way through, substitute “Henneous.”) I’m honored that they felt my book merited a review.
The second bit of news is that I’ve been chosen to be a guest at the Newburyport Literary Festival in Newburyport, MA on April 24-25, 2020. I’m a huge fan of Newburyport and have been visiting there, and on Plum Island, for decades, so I’m really looking forward to spending time in one of my all time favorite places, put in some hours on the beach, and get to know lots of writers and readers. Plus, Newburyport is home to Jabberwocky Books, and they don’t get much better than that. Oh, and let’s not forget the infamous Pink House on Plum Island, long may it stand, and at least one meal at Bob Lobster. (Best fried clams ever.) This is a great honor, and I’m so appreciative.
Spring is shaping up to be busy, but a lot of fun. Stay tuned.
I’m a firm believer in asking for what you want.
That wasn’t the case when I was a child. Experience had taught me that to ask for anything was pretty much a guarantee of failure, and that one had to take what Life threw at you because you could not influence the world around you.
How screwed up is that?
It took me a long, long time to break free of that early training. Now I subscribe to the attitude expressed so well in writer Hilary Mantel’s book Wolf Hall – “Don’t ask, don’t get.” The worst anyone can say is “no,” right? Embracing this ideal has earned me any number of rejections, but I’ve also had breakfast with science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp and his wife Catherine Crook de Camp (a shout-out to Larry Tetewsky for being the one brave enough at the time to ask them to join us; a lesson I took to heart), and dinner with writer Harlan Ellison. That willingness to ask questions (“If I were willing to do an entire manuscript re-write, would you be willing to look at it?”) put my foot in the door at Ooligan Press, and look where that’s landed me: ELEPHANT SPEAK debuts on March 3!
So it’s worth asking the universe for things and then, when you can, putting into motion actions of your own to get what you want.
A week ago, I posted about the house I grew up in, and mentioned my first best friend, David Micklas. Writing about him prompted a desire to find him. What I found was his mother’s recent obituary, which mentioned the town in which he lived. So I looked him up on line, wrote a letter including my email address, mailed it, and crossed my fingers.
This morning, I woke to an email from David. In it, he mentions driving past our old property whenever he and his wife would visit the area, and that he always would remind his wife about his “first best friend who lived there” and how much he regretted letting a group of new-to-the-neighborhood boys influence him into dropping our friendship because he shouldn’t be playing with a girl.
He wrote: “I was young, stupid and really wish I could have been strong enough to not be influenced by their teasing. I missed playing with the plastic farm animals, making home made greeting cards and selling them to neighbors (glitter and glue was our secret seller). Riding our bikes down Plant Rd. to visit that horse (was it Prince?) I don’t remember. Visiting Mr. Plant and eating raw onions from his garden. I recall playing “Scare Crow,” that was on The Wonderful World of Disney. Do you remember that or did I dream this? Lol. Anyway, thanks to you, it really helped me develop using imagination and creativity that has come in handy for so many years. For all of that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart [and] felt compelled to make sure you understood how important you were to me, way back then and how your friendship will never be forgotten.”
Who says you can’t go home again?
Today I got pulled over for speeding. Fifty-seven in a forty-five mile zone. I saw the cop too late, but he saw me in plenty of time, flashed his lights, and pointed to the side of the road. I nodded and pulled over…right in front of a fire hydrant! I quickly moved past it, parked, and turned off the car. By the time the police officer reached my door, I had my license out, ready to hand it to him.
“You know why I pulled you over, don’t you?”
He nodded. “You were speeding a bit.”
“I know. I got distracted.”
He took my paperwork and returned to his patrol car. And while I waited, I noticed something extraordinary: I wasn’t upset. Or embarrassed. Or angry. It was what it was, and what it was, was fine.
I sat quietly, hands in my lap, breathing slowly, and dropped into the moment. A dog barking inside a house. Bird song. The pooling of sunlight between winter-barren branches. The sound of tires as other cars passed me, their drivers no doubt relieved that it wasn’t them who’d been pulled over. I breathed, and listened, and paused my life in that moment. Calm. Relaxed.
When the policeman returned, he handed over my license and registration…and a warning, nothing more. He explained what my fine would have been (over $100), and cautioned me to pay more attention. “Understand?”
Oh, yes, sir. I do. Loud and clear. More than you’ll ever know.
Especially when you wrote it!
Just had to share the smiling faces of my friends at Ooligan Press when they unboxed copies of ELEPHANT SPEAK the other day.
I can’t speak more highly of their great team. We are exactly five weeks out from launch, and I’m so excited. As a bit of surprise to myself, I’m not all that nervous. I guess I expended all that getting ready for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in October. Now I’m ready to send my baby out into the world with these, my loyal midwives.
Isn’t this pretty? Many, many thanks to Linda Reifschneider and Janie Chodosh for the pull quotes.