The Inevitable Triumvirate

Death, taxes, change-the inevitable triumvirate. They make us shudder but we cannot escape them, nor the adages about them. They are linked uncomfortably, wedging between the people we love, the things we’re trying to do, the places we want to go. The stories I write now are different from what I wrote half a lifetime ago, but my sense of what’s worthy was impressed on me before I finished college and has changed little in the decades since.

Words and stories engaged me from a very young age. I wasn’t one of those precocious scholars who learned to read at two or three but certainly by the time I was six stories had become my other, better world. I read them, I wrote them, they enriched me, they saved me. I could recite several from memory and make up others on the spot. None was complete without a crayon sketch.  There I was, seven, nine, twelve-years-old, writer, illustrator, and occasional prize winner. As a child, I could ignore discussions of taxes and pursue my childish dreams. My parents paid the taxes to keep a middle class home, a middle class life.

Change ricocheted through my life. Born in Philly, I’ve lived in New Jersey, Hawaii (twice), Alabama, Michigan, and California. The prejudice I witnessed in New Jersey against Blacks was different from that which snared me in Hawaii against Haoles, in Alabama against Jews, in Michigan against the poor, in California against Mexicans. It shaped my perspective. Hatred, blame, and name calling were lobbed with Eastern accents, Pidgin English, a Southern drawl. Landscapes changed but prejudice was ugly everywhere. It taught me that people should be fair and kind, learn to speak another language, be sympathetic to those who are other. My ideas about justice showed up in my earliest stories, permeating my voice even if they weren’t part of the plot.

Death had already touched me. Great-grandparents and an adoring grandmother died before I finished elementary school, leaving spaces filled with memories. The beginnings of stories, even if I didn’t know it yet.

High school and college compositions and stories assured me I could write, that is, I could competently express ideas in standard written format. Other people read my work, nodded their heads and made exaggerated faces that expressed surprise I could do anything, given my general level of incompetence for nearly everything that folks found important. I wasn’t good at anything practical or negotiable for survival.  More loss, of two cousins whose genetic material made sweet but grievously ill children. I wrote about them in a college story that my professor praised. Before turning 18, I’d paid the first of my own taxes, probably not more than $20 for a year of working retail.

I graduated from college, married, moved several times. We had two sons. The changes of adulthood imposed a rigid adherence to schedules. We paid our taxes on time. A few more deaths, now of friends whose tragic exits warned me of my own fragility. I wrote my first full length book by sharing child care with a friend. She shopped while I minded her kids. I wrote long hand and then typed my story on a library typewriter while she watched mine. Immersed as I was in the world of kids, it was a children’s story. Kids’ issues I understood, though it was a story about children facing prejudice.

Deserved agent rejections shamed me into seeking other creative diversions. Raising kids and paying bills demanded I find a lucrative job. My ideas of being a great writer dissolved in the steam of running to school conferences, grocery stores, medical appointments, and playgroups between the hours when my job ended one day and began early the next. The following decades, I moved up and down the career/job spectrum, making little headway in writing.

We moved to a bigger house and bigger bills. I worked as a commercial artist and when I’d had my fill of studio humiliation, I turned those skills into an art teaching career. It was a huge change in focus, one I loved, but I wrote on the sly–articles about art history and production. The taxes went up with the income. A few more deaths but I was able to take these in stride. I’d learned that singular lives were subject to the compulsory demise of flesh but I could endure the loss of friends, bereaved though I felt.

About twelve years ago, two huge events forced the biggest changes. I lost the teaching job I’d loved the most because of school politics. My rage at such unfairness nearly destroyed me. I had to change if I was going to survive. Plunging myself into painting usually fulfilled me but I’d been doing that for years. It had to be a new pursuit. I began to write again, adult historical fiction about the Holocaust. Only a few weeks into the book, my husband was nearly killed in a terrible motorcycle accident. Worry about his health, several surgeries, and the long healing process took a toll on me. I needed an escape and the book developed along with my new life. Less income, fewer taxes, more stress. I started a second book, about the dissolution of a family, and began to think of myself as a writer.

Three years ago my beloved father died, and my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, became my responsibility. My third book, nearly complete, is a funhouse reflection of her life in a residence for Alzheimer’s victims. Cosmic injustice stomps through the story.

We’re still paying our share of taxes, and sometimes I think we must be paying someone else’s as well. I don’t know what I’ll be writing next year or in ten years, but the changes that describe the borders of my life will also inform my stories. I hope readers find merit in my creations. I want to leave a worthy legacy. That’s why I write.

Be well, friend.


The Lingering Romance of Time and Distance

When I was 17, my family and I moved from California to Wisconsin, where I would be starting college. Though part of me felt at the time that my mom, step-dad, and siblings were following me across the country for the obnoxious reason of keeping tabs on me, I begrudgingly acknowledged another, more reasonable, purpose for their move. My mom had grown up in Milwaukee, and just as I was beginning a new chapter in my life (college, dorm living, new friends), she was returning to her roots for the support and the closeness of her family.

We drove cross-country with two cars and two babies: my sister was nearing three years old, and my brother was not yet one. It was not a quick cross-country drive. Our pace was set, in part, by the needs of the babies, and the interior mood of the car was determined by their crying, sleeping, eating, and fidgeting.

For me, at 17, all of it was torture. Since my mom was driving, I had to be navigator and babysitter. I kept an eye on the map, and I fed, played with, and tended to my siblings. What I wanted was to be left alone to read (The Mists of Avalon) and to journal. That summer, before leaving California, I had met a boy who I was desperately in love with. I was sure, against all sense and logic, that I had found the person I would be with for the rest of my life. And this move, though I wanted it, though I looked forward to college, was tearing us, literally and figuratively, apart. My heart was breaking with each additional mile. And this is what I wrote about.

Time and distance were my themes. The distance became a character; it had substance—it was malicious.  Being pulled and stretched were common images that appeared in my journals of that time. I wrote poetry, I wrote prose, I wrote creative nonfiction (and yes, it was creative, since I re-imagined the relationship I had just had—all two weeks of it—and turned the both of us mythical, iconic.) Everything that took place within the space of that car, during that drive, served as backdrop for my own sadness. I really got into metaphors and similes. The features of the landscape filtered into my writing. Desert and greenery meant more alongside my moods. When the babies cried, it was because they sensed my own suffering; when they laughed, they mocked it. When my mom and I fought, I felt determined in my love. The splintered relationship, as I saw it, between my mom and me only served to clarify how deep and strong this other relationship was. I could handle the bickering, the crying babies, the interminable miles cast against the hyperbolic idea of my great love.

After we reached Milwaukee, and I started my first semester, I would sit in my classes, watch the clock tick sluggishly, and will the hours to pass. Time was heavy. I felt mired in it. It was like breathing, walking, talking through molasses. I was sluggish. I remember in one of my communication classes, I was writing a poem about time—something about rope and knots and pulling—and my tablemate reached out and grabbed my notebook, demanding to know what I was writing. She began to read, and I pulled the page out of her eyesight. I made some comment about it being a poem, and not ready to be seen by others. That was partly true. The other part was, at that moment, I believed myself to be the only one who could understand this heartache and the way time was working for me. I remember distinctly her mannish hands as she tugged the notebook, and her tightly cinched ponytail—both somehow further indicating that she could not possibly understand my mood. Or, for that matter, the depth of what I was writing.

Now, at 34, I find that time and distance are still things I write about. I think because of that big move at 17, and because of other moves from childhood onward, distance is something I think about a lot. The way time changes with distance and new sights is also something I think about. Self-imposed distance, in particular, is interesting to me. I chose to move to Milwaukee at 17. I chose that distance. I chose to wait a full year before visiting California again, that boy I loved having moved on by then. And since then I have made other choices that have inserted a physical distance between myself and familiar things. I moved to South Korea for a year, for example. There is a certain tension that comes from this, a certain challenge. Life just can’t be boring inside that challenge. That’s something I learned at 17. My emotions were taut, exposed, hyper-charged, and within that there was so much to write about. So, maybe that’s why I move so much—not just for the challenge and the thrill, but for the material. I imagine that when I’m 68, double my age now, I’ll still write about time and distance. Those themes will be just as fresh, most likely because I’ll have moved again and have a new distance to contemplate and pine over.

The anti-rant declarative challenge

Sleep deprived. Again. Past deadline. Again. I’m quite grateful my editors don’t fire me. Of course, they’re probably struggling with the same situation, if for different reasons. Anyway, I work for free.

Even so. It’s frustrating, aggravating, irritating, exacerbating. (Drat. I’m out of –atings.) It’s so very writerly, isn’t it? And I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the cliché of missed deadlines and sinks full of dishes and the piles of dirty laundry that keeps growing and the pile of clean laundry that keep shrinking. And I’m sick of the rant, the pure rantiness that day after busy day brings on. And so are you. But don’t stop reading. This is not a rant post. In no way shall we allow this to be a rant post. This is an anti-cliched-writer post. Or maybe an inverse-cliched-writer post. I tend to get that mixed up. Back to the point. It’s summer, it’s time for a change – bring on the sun!  (In other words, let’s lighten things up.)

So here’s what we do: take that rant and declare the inverse. Contort it, convolute it. Just don’t break it. Don’t make an un-true declaration.  This is not a self-affirming moment, where we pep talk ourselves that “I will write today” when the reality of the day suggests…well, the day is just snickering at me.  No un-true declarations.  Make a true un-rant declaration.  Clear as mud, right? Here I go:

I don’t have time to write. I’ll write my opus when I retire. Today I’m busy. I’ll write a line of random dialogue. And a grocery list.
I can’t write interesting characters. I’ll eat an apple as I drive to the grocery store and ponder how both interesting and uninteresting characters eat apples the same way.
Where did all my great ideas go? As I put away groceries, I discover that this is one of the most boring chores ever – second only to folding laundry – and it would be hell to write a scene around it. I’m tempted to try.

Your turn.