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A Memoir in Four Words

If you were to ask me to write a memoir describing the past three-and-a-half years since I returned to my hometown, its title alone would be sufficient to describe the experience. There isn’t much to add; the details are, quite honestly, completely mundane.

Suffice it to say that it hasn’t been much of a homecoming. Not so much a return to the familiar but an exploration of oblivion. A history with fuzzy edges cascades into the present, but I am no longer part of its story. I watch as it flows toward and beyond me without so much as a nod of its head, as the long-exposure image of a waterfall: beautiful in its veiled softness, but with no beginning and no end; nothing firm for me to grasp. And I, the stolid rock, wait to be something more than passed over by the beating floods of water, but I wait (at least, so far) in vain. A city, and its people, moving forward, with no use for one of its historic relics. Especially not for one that raises it no capital, or that has produced for it no heirs.

And so, you ask, what would I name it? A memoir in four words:

Forgotten, but not gone

Forgotten, but not gone

What would be the title of your memoir? What would its contents say? And do you find any truth in the maxim: “You can never go home“? 

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in Creativity, Memoir, Photography, Writing

 

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Your Turn: What is The Story Behind the Photo?

Wheeling Pair of Pairs 1a-small

I posted a picture here a couple of days ago and described what I thought was the untold story behind the image–that of a dead bird left at my doorstep. Now I’m inviting you to do the same, using the photo here as your prompt.

I snapped this candid photo at a park last summer. I’ve visited this park many times, one adorned with gardens of flowers intermixed with a number of bronze statues. Only recently did this sculpture of a man and his wheelchair-bound wife appear. I’ve always thought it was a touching tribute to a couple who had dedicated a piece of themselves to this beautiful park.

When I happened to see this real-life couple appear to pay homage to the statue–their roles reversed from that of the permanent fixture–I couldn’t help but grab my camera and memorialize the special moment. I’ve imagined what tales this couple could tell, and now I’d love to know what you think is the story behind the photo.

What brought them here? Are they locals, or did they make a special pilgrimage to this sacred spot? What are they saying? Did they know the couple whose likeness the statues bear?

If you’d like, please share your thoughts here. Or keep the photo in mind for the next short story you create. If you decide to publish your story, please post a link to it here–I’d love to read it!

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Creativity, Literature, Photography, Writing

 

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What Do You See? Uncovering Stories in the Everyday

What Do You See? Uncovering Stories in the Everyday

What first came to mind when you saw this photo? Disgust? Curiosity? A sense of loss? Maybe a hint of sadness?

What analysis did you perform when studying the photo’s subject? Perhaps you thought, “Oh my! A dead bird!” Perhaps you then took a closer look and tried to identify it, asking yourself, “Is it a sparrow? No, wait…a finch! A female finch!”

Death at my Doorstep 1a-small

Perhaps that’s as far as you went before moving on. Perhaps you thought it too mundane or grotesque to contemplate further.

Or perhaps, like me, you wondered about its story.

Perhaps you wondered how the bird arrived, dead, at my back doorstep. Did it fly into the door? Hmm…Maybe. But birds fly into that door every day evading hawks and other predators, and they usually live to tell about it. Me? I think someone placed there.

I think it was an offering.

Ewww! What kind of cretin would do such a terrible thing, placing a dead bird on my doorstep in order to shock and disgust me on my next excursion outside?

Or maybe it wasn’t a cretin at all. Maybe it was meant to appease, rather than to disgust, its human discoverer. And my list of “suspects” has been narrowed down to one: This female tabby cat.

This kitty has recently starting hanging out in our yard, where she munches on catnip, hunts birds, and courts the Tomcats of the block.

This kitty has recently starting hanging out in our yard, where she munches on catnip, hunts birds, and courts the Tomcats of the block.

She is a relatively new visitor to my backyard. We usually see an increase in the number of feral cats during the winter: We have nooks that serve as perfect feline hiding places, away from the cold. We lack dogs. We have a catnip patch by our fence. And, perhaps, most importantly (for this story, anyway), we are a haven for tasty birds. We feed them every day, and every day we have hundreds of doves, sparrows, finches, blackbirds, juncos, and other wild birds come and feast in our yard. They, in turn, become a feast for the neighborhood cats.

This was actually the second such offering left in this exact spot in less than a week. I dismissed the first as an accidental demise, but the second appearance pretty much proved that there was purpose behind these temporary graves. And both times, by the next day, the little carcass was gone.

She was probably hungry when she caught the birds, but left them where we’d find them so that we could have first dibs, only returning to eat the prey after she was assured that we hadn’t accepted the gift. Why would she do this? Maybe because she knows it’s our territory, and she’s hunting on it; a sort of “thank you” for letting her borrow from (what I’m sure in her mind) is our happy hunting ground.

But over the years we’ve had dozens of cats catch birds in our yard, yet leave us nothing but feathers and bloody bird legs. Why would this case be different?

Perhaps it is because we are more to her than mere rulers of cat paradise. Perhaps this isn’t our first encounter, and she is connected to us in ways that surpass mere territory.

In other words, the story behind the bird left at our doorstep may not be finished yet.

About a year-and-a-half ago, a kitten followed us during one of our evening walks. She mewed at us from across the street, and ran over to catch up to us. There were other walkers out in the mild weather, but for some reason she saw something unique in us. Did we smell like cats? Did we have the look of suckers? I don’t know. But it was clear she’d made up her mind: We were going to be her people.

Here is the kitten we briefly fostered. She was about four months at the time. Doesn't she look like the kitty who now visits our yard?

Here is the kitten we briefly fostered. She was about four months at the time. Doesn’t she look like the kitty who now visits our yard?

We brought her home. I checked for lost kitten postings that matched her description; there were none. I brought her in to the vet to make sure she was healthy. (She was given a clean bill, but I and three of my cats ended up with ringworm a couple of weeks later. I suspect she was the culprit!) We allowed her to integrate with our cats, and surprisingly, they all got along. She would cuddle with them when they allowed it, but she was also independent enough to play or sleep alone. She demanded very little; she was the easiest kitten I have ever taken care of. There was no doubt that she thought she’d found Home.

We fostered her until we could bring her in to be adopted by someone else. We already had four cats, and there simply wasn’t room for another. (One of the four has chronic health problems as it is, and he requires a lot of extra TLC.) I bravely accepted the fact that I could not give into temptation and keep her, and I thought I was doing well until I took her to the adoption center one Saturday.

She had behaved beautifully in the car on the way to the vet, and tolerated the needles and prodding very well. I hadn’t anticipated that the ride to the adoption center would be completely different. She fought from the minute I put her in the carrying case. She even bit my finger and drew blood. She bit one of the attendants at the adoption center, and was able to wriggle herself free before being put in her assigned cage. Despite my attempts to steel myself against any attachments, I began crying like a sniveling baby in the middle of the adoption center.

The kitten clearly knew what was happening: I wasn’t going to be her forever home after all. And I was leaving her open to the vagaries of chance to see who would take her to their house—this time against her will. That I had violated the connection we had shared was too great for either of us to bear without a surrender to our fear and sadness.

She found a new “home” that day. I never saw her again. I never knew who had adopted her. I wished I did, and there are plenty of days I wished it were me.

Now, more than a year later, this young but fully-grown cat starts visiting our yard and leaving us presents. I can’t say for sure, but I’d say the resemblance is too striking to ignore. I’d say that the kitten who followed us home one night has followed us back home—somehow—again. Only this time the arrangement is tentative. She honors us with first dibs on her catch, but she’ll never let us catch her again. When I try to go outside to greet her, she turns and runs at top speed.

She trusted us once; she won’t make that mistake again.

Do you see stories lurking behind the everyday? Does your imagination take flight when you sense a mystery behind something that others might pass by without a second thought—or, in this case, recoiling from in uncomfortable avoidance? I’d love to hear about your experience crafting a story from a momentary encounter such as this one.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2013 in Anecdote, Memoir, Photography, Writing

 

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In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK, Jr QuoteDo you agree with the quote? Do you have anything you would like to add or modify?

I have seen a lot of quotes today attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but this one struck me the most out of all of them. It seems we still live in a time where religion and science are considered to be in conflict, and I’d love to know what you think. Are the two complementary, as King has stated here? Or are they doomed to be forever at odds?

For reference, here is the entire paragraph from which the excerpt is taken:

This has also led to a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists, but not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.

The above is from the book, Strength to Love.

 

 
 

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Wishing You all Peace and Joy!

Palo Duro Rock Gardens 1--Yuletide Greetings 2a-small

May everyone who reads this message be filled with peace and joy. May the season bring with it rest, and upon awakening, may your spirit be filled with renewed eagerness for life and for discovering new adventures.

May all your projects be fruitful, and all your writing inspired. May you find those with common souls to share faithfully the sacred thoughts of your mind and heart.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2012 in Photography, Writing

 

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Bully Pulpit: We really need to talk. Now.

I apologize in advance. I know I said this blog was for writing-related posts. But I need to say something. It’s too important to keep silent about.

This post is primarily aimed at my American compatriots. Because it’s with them I need to have this talk. And we’re going to start it now, and we are going to continue to talk about this and talk about this until we are serious about turning talk into action.

I’ve heard it often said that in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, it’s “too soon” to address the underlying problems; that we should let the “bodies cool” first before speaking of solutions. But if we don’t talk about it now, then when? After we’ve let our collective attention deficit disorder distract our minds back to football or Christmas shopping? When our emotions have cooled and we are again blighted by a false sense of security that this can’t possibly happen to us?

Conversation

It does happen to us. My cousin was there. He attended the elementary school where twenty young lives were felled. He’s a teacher now in the high school down the street. He spent hours locked down with his terrified students as the bodies of dead children were counted a short distance away.

As he reflected last night after he was safely at home with his own family, he understood that these are twenty kids he will never have the opportunity to teach, who will never fill the empty seats of those high school classrooms. Who will never have the chance to build families of their own and give back to the community that promised to raise and nurture them.

The problem here is mental illness–and our piss poor attempt at curtailing it and easing the minds of those who suffer from it. The problem is that we find it acceptable to spend billions—if not trillions—of dollars to “protect” us from foreign threats but somehow don’t have anything left to protect us from threats that exist next door. That we think the solution is to spend an additional billions of dollars to punish the perpetrators when tragic acts are unleashed upon our families and communities, but spend almost nothing to prevent their occurrence in the first place.

We don’t regularly screen for signs of mental illness among our youth. We don’t have good enough support systems for kids being “raised” (if you can it that) in homes or institutions ill-equipped to offer them nutrition for their bodies—much less for their minds. We blame an individual for “not knowing better,” when they have never been given the educational and emotional tools to even know what the better options are. We think that the threat of imprisonment is a deterrent to those already living in mental imprisonment far worse than a physical one. We don’t have ways of intervening on the behalf of those troubled with mental illness until they’ve already committed depraved acts. (Or have at least voiced their intent to do so to someone with the power to detain them; and even then holding them—if beds are even available—is hindered by mountains of bureaucratic red tape.)

The bottom line is, we don’t have enough people trained to recognize trouble while it is still latent. And for those who are recognized to be in danger from their mental illnesses, we don’t make available the counselors, treatment facilities, and drugs that could help keep them free from the terror of a mind plagued by emotional demons.

We call the actors “evil” but refuse to acknowledge that perhaps the seed of that evil lies within the very fabric of our society and its willful ignorance about the true nature of these evil acts. And the ease with which we turn our focus away from those who suffer back to the wonderland world of our televisions, movies, and books. Because we think it’s got nothing to do with us. It’s far easier to blame an individual and his failings than to look in the mirror and see that the failings start with us.

Come on, America! It’s time we start looking at our own reflection. It’s time we start looking ourselves in the eyes and acknowledge that we’re failing to protect our kids. Not only from the bullets of deranged individuals, but from the ravages of mental illness and drug addiction. Our science about the chemicals in the brains and the genetic markers that can lead to these problems is being refined by the day; we are building the tools right here in the US to potentially fix the problems before they even begin.

But we aren’t using these tools in time. We’re not willing to see those with these problems are sick, just like someone with strep throat or cancer. We aren’t willing to pony up and help provide the resources for those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them. We’re not even willing to put ourselves in their shoes and suffer alongside them so we can understand what it will ultimately take to end their suffering.

But until we do, we will also suffer. We won’t end the suffering of the innocents until we are willing to stop the suffering of those who would harm the innocents in the first place.

After all, they were also innocent once.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2012 in Writing

 

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Starting a Journey at the End

As those of you who have been following along know, I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo this month. I decided only the day before the month began, on Halloween, to participate. Why would I do such a crazy thing, if I failed so miserably the two times I’ve tried it before?

Because I finally know how my novel ends.

Time is relative. We know that now, thanks to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. How quickly we travel through space, relative to the speed of light, determines time’s rhythm. The slower we move spatially, the faster time passes, and vice versa. For a photon traveling at the speed of light—the theoretic “speed limit” of the universe—time freezes. *

When you realize this, you start to question time’s arrow; you start to question whether time is really “real” at all. And if you’re writing a novel, you start to wonder if you’re right in the head by trying to rein your current work-in-progress in by composing it in “chronological” order. Ha! Is there really such a thing after all?

For more than a year, my novel has been limping along. What started out as an epic adventure across Aspiring Author Ocean had become a zombie’s slog through Dead Story Graveyard. I couldn’t figure out the purpose to any of my ideas. What bearing did the scene I was writing have on the novel as a whole? Was there a dynamic between characters I couldn’t see because I didn’t know how it would develop? What changes were my main characters really going through?

I tried to see writing it out as an opportunity. An excavation of an archaeological site based only on a single bone protruding above the surface, not knowing whether the creature below was a millions-year-old dinosaur or just a deer who had perished in that spot the previous autumn. I tried to follow the advice of many writers: Just let the story tell itself and discover what the skeletal foundation of the novel is as part of the writing journey. Just sit down and write.

But it wasn’t working. I realized that this novel needed an ending before I could progress further. The story was taking me on a journey that began at the end and opened up toward the infinite possibilities of its beginning; the arrow of time was really pointing backwards.

For three years I’ve been building the foundation on which my novel will eventually rest. I’ve been researching any topic I think will add value or authenticity to the novel. I’ve been writing out scenes and chapters as they interest me (but not in any particular order). I’ve been doing background work such as outlines, theme building, character sketches, and other material I hope will carry the novel toward a satisfying completion.

It seemed the process was leading somewhere important, that all the stops and starts were moving me closer to answering, “What is this novel really about anyway? What’s the point?” But it was taking a frustratingly long time to get there. I was beginning to wonder if it was time to abandon ship—after a journey that’s lasted more than sixteen years in total—and refocus my writing weapons on a beast that was more within my skill level to tame than this monster opus.

But then something happened. About three weeks ago, I had an epiphany that smacked me while taking a shower. (Where I usually get assaulted by my best ideas.) I finally could see how everything I’d been working on came together. Most importantly, I finally knew where my main character would end up emotionally (and philosophically). I’d known what the events were, I just hadn’t known exactly how it’d affect her. Now I did. And suddenly all of my previous efforts—all of the conversations I’d envisioned between characters, all of the main ideas I’d been trying to become an armchair “expert” on—seemed to have a purpose after all. They all seemed to be converging on that singularity known as “The End.” Such an ecstatically beautiful vision that was! The inchoate novel with infinite potential.

And I knew that it was there—at the very end—that I had to begin.

So on the first day of NaNoWriMo, I started writing the last scene. (Technically, it’s a letter, not a scene, but you get the idea.) I’m not composing the novel in strict reverse-chronological order, but I’m moving more or less backwards. And so far, it’s been working. When I sit down to write, I actually write, instead of suffering blocks so severe I find anything else to do except working on my novel. These blocks which have kept my inner novel writer bound most days over the past eighteen months.

Needless to say, I’m creating no precedence by writing the ending first. Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” writes about how the process of composing his most famous poem, “The Raven.” He describes at first how he determined the backdrop of the poem, including the mood, the story behind the poem (a “lover lamenting his deceased mistress”), and the answering raven who repeats only one word: “Nevermore.” Once this was complete, Poe began to write the poem itself:

Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning — at the end, where all works of art should begin — for it was here, at this point of my preconsiderations, that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.
                                         ”Quoth the raven — “Nevermore.”

While this may not be the true end of the poem, it is close to the final stanza (third from the end), and it represents the work’s climax. If his account is true, then Poe already knew where the poem was headed before he ever put pen to paper.

Poe’s advice seems appropriate for me as well, at least for this novel I’m currently writing. By understanding where my main character ends up, I am now better equipped to know how to get her (and the other players) started in the first place.

What process has worked best for you? Do you find that you’re most successful having every detail known ahead of time, perhaps even writing from a detailed outline or story board? Have you ever composed a piece by writing the ending first? Or do you find your writing most effective when it is set free to develop on its own, starting with the opening scene and learning how it ends only once you’ve written it down?

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*Yeah, I know. Gravity also affects time. Trying to keep it (slightly) less complicated, you know? See here for more on that.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Literature, Memoir, Writing

 

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