Summer and Middlemarch

Here we are nearing the end of July…can it be?  Our California son and his family, who are headed to Ireland for two years, spent this last week with us. We enjoyed many fun days with our four granddaughters, our three adult off-spring and their spouses–plus four dogs! John and I have somehow expanded from a simple pair to a dozen individuals. Going out to eat now together requires a banquet-size table.

Summer twilight on the lake

Summer twilight on the lake

Our soon-to-be Irish family has gone on their way to begin a new adventure. So the house is quiet today and a certain let-down feeling has settled over me as I walk around picking up torn-out pages of coloring books, markers, dog toys, puzzle pieces, and plastic doll dishes. The freezer is full of all the ice cream bars that we didn’t manage to eat, and we have no lettuce. So tonight’s dinner will include an ice cream bar buffet!

Still I have lots to do: preparing for a week-long creative nonfiction workshop with Rebecca McClanahan at St.Olaf College, working on a family memoir, practicing the piano, and reading George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Now this in itself is a huge undertaking–probably only begun because one of my book groups chose it. But it is making me slow down, way down, as I absorb the details of life in the late 1820s in a small English town, called Middlemarch. I don’t remember reading this novel in my college days, so it is pleasure to dive, or sink, into it now and savor the amazing prose of George Eliot.IMG_7027

People just don’t write this way anymore. I’m not sure readers today would have the patience for the slow pace, the complex sentences, the intrusive narrator. Yet readers in 1871 waited anxiously for the next installation of Middlemarch, the way viewers today anticipate a new season of “Orange Is the New Black.”

I’m also reading  Rebecca Mead’s  My Life in Middlemarch, a perfect companion to the novel.  Mead intertwines her own life and personal history with that of George Eliot as well as with the characters and events of the novel. In doing so, she shows how a single book can illuminate our lives. How often do we immerse ourselves in a book, then return to it at different points in our lives, and then reflect on how it shaped our life or the way we see the world? Such is the power of great literature.

Towards the end of her book, Rebecca Mead spends some time hovering over the last sentence of George Eliot’s novel–a sentence that resonates in my life as I tackle the writing I want to do about my family and especially my mother, Ruth.

Here is the final sentence of Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being [Dorothea’s} on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 
― George EliotMiddlemarch

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(Non)Writing Idea: So it’s summer–those lazy days (really?) when we have time to read big books and write (or not). Take a few minutes to pause and look out a window. File what you see in your memory bank. Write if you wish–or not. No pressure. Nothing to do. No historic acts. As we faithfully live our hidden lives. As did those before us. It is all so simple.

One more quote from an essay by Eliot: “Love does not say ‘I ought to love’ –it loves. Pity does not say, ‘It is right to be pitiful’–it pities. Justice does not say, ‘I am bound to be just’–it feels justly.” No bright apothegms, George Eliot writes, they leave “little energy for simple emotion”–or for simple living, which summer (with all its comings and goings) is all about.  I hope you’re having a good one!

She loves: Granddaughters at the pool

She loves:
granddaughters at the pool.

 

 

The Size of My Life

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” (The New Yorker, March 10, 2014) begins:

My life was the size of my life
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose. . . .

Some days, I look out from my body and forget it is the age it is. I forget the size of my life. That is until days like last Sunday when my five-year-old granddaughter, Lucia, and I were making funny faces at each other on FaceTime. Now FaceTime is great, but unfortunately a tiny square at the bottom of the screen shows you exactly how you look to the other person. So you see yourself talk at the same time you’re trying to focus on what the other person is saying. Very distracting. Lucia is much less critical of her image than I am of mine. I’m thinking: Who is that woman with several chins, lots of wrinkles, and big age spots? Lucia doesn’t care: she is busy looking at her own teeth, eyes, hair–all of which we talk about in great detail!  For a few minutes, my life is the size of a small square on the bottom of an i-Phone. And there, surrounding it, is the beautiful face of Lucia.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell and Andy; Central Park, January, 2014. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.)

Roger Angell in his wonderful essay, “This Old Man”(The New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24, 2014), begins with a detailed description of his body at age 93. “Check me out,” he says. He then describes his arthritic hands, trying to find just the right metaphor to help us see them: “The top two knuckles of my left hand. . . if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.”

He goes on to catalogue a long list of what it is like to live in his ninety-three-year-old body. Besides the residual effects of arthritis, he writes about shingles, macular degeneration, arterial stints, shaky knees, herniated discs–not to mention the loss of his daughter and wife and many friends. Still he brings us the news that “the pains and insults are bearable” and that at the end of life he still longs for touch and love. “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. ” Yes, to deep attachment and love. Good that the size of our souls still has room for these–no matter our age.

Mary Junge

Mary Junge (photo by Joey McLeister)

When Carol Roan and I put together our anthology When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, we were amazed at the stories we heard: so many of us out there writing and writing, about our bodies, our loves, our lives, our past and futures. We’re all on this march together, so hearing news of the terrain ahead is a good thing.

My friend Mary Junge recently sent me a poem she wrote in response to Jane Hirshfield’s poem. Thank you, Mary. (For more of Mary’s poems, click here to visit her website: birdloverpoet.com.)

My Life at Sixty

It looked foreign suddenly, and small, inconsequential.
Yet, it was all too familiar. It was surely mine.
As light as a wisp or shadow, an exhale.
The untied silk scarf that slips to the floor without notice.
I thought of my mother long ago, asking
How I’d spent the gone money. Now it was I who
Wanted an account of the gone dawns and sunsets,
The dreamless and dream-filled nights of slumber,
The days wasted in too much sadness or too much frivolity.
The meals carefully (or carelessly) prepared and eaten,
The love given and received generously (or begrudgingly).
Injuries to the body, kindness given and received—even the days of
Cruel insults I wanted back now.
Was it true? Had I spent it so soon?
I thought of my grandfather,
Illiterate, poor speaking German immigrant farmer,
Who hid his radio in the barn during WWII. After his passing,
The shy list of farm equipment, animals, and all grain on hand.
So I thought of the shy list that will follow my passing:
Quilts, poems, photo books, stories. Somehow I had expected more,
Yet there it was, the small life undeniably mine.

–Mary Junge

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Writing Idea:  How would you size up your life? Take a careful look at yourself at whatever age you are, in whatever place you occupy, in all shapes and sizes, on any given day, from any perspective. “My Life at Seventy-One” or “My Life on an Island” or “My Life as an Ant”  or “My Life on March 21.” Try it in several versions. Try it in prose and/or poetry. Enjoy looking around at your life!

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“It was clear when I left the party/ That although I was over eighty I still had/ A beautiful body. . . .” (“When I Turned a Hundred” by Mark Strand. For an outstanding essay about Mark Strand, see “Mark Strand’s Luminous Nostalgia” by Willard Spiegelman, Kenyon Review, Winter 2014).

I Come From the Sea

Where do you come from? Our origins make all the difference in the stories we tell.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.

Thus begins Alice Munro’s story, “Dear Life,” the title story from her most recent collection. This autobiographical story and the three others which conclude Dear Life map out the contours of Alice Munro’s origins in rural Ontario where she grew up.

Here are a few responses from writers in the Sanibel workshop who wrote about origins:

I come from the sea...

I come from the sea…

I come from the sea.

Born beside the Atlantic on the west coast of Scotland.
I search for the sea.
Born on January 23rd, in the sign of Aquarius,
I look for the water.
Sand in my shoes a constant.
Pebbles and shells in my pockets, reminders of where I’ve been.

-Brenda Hunt

I come from a tiny state, a big Italian family, and a kitchen with wonderful smells.                                             -Arlene MacDonald

My two sisters and I were born in a small city, Utica, known as the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Seems romantic enough I know, but in truth it was a town cobbled together by Italian immigrants who settled here after building the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s. Yes, the city’s future on the cusp of recession in 1929 probably still looked good to my father and twin brother, Canadians eager to leave behind the prospect of socialized medicine for the greener fields of the U.S.  Not that they were money grubbers–far from it. They were lucky to be able to get through the University of Toronto compliments of their missionary great aunt (another story to tell) who was left a decent sum of money by her lumberman brother killed in a hotel fire on one of his properties.                       -Jill Dillon

I like the way each of these writers launches into story, poem, or memoir with confidence. We are ready to follow these voices anywhere they will take us.

Mahmoud Darwish, often spoken of as the Palestinian national poet, writes of exile and loss and home in his poems.

I Come From There

Marmoud DarwishI come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland…..

In contrast, listen to country singer Alan Jackson tell us of his origins:  “…where I come from it’s cornbread and chicken.” Click here to hear him sing and see the lyrics:  Alan Jackson “Where I Come From.” 

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The prompt we used in the Sanibel workshop is  from Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write, a book I recommend if you’re looking for “daily invitations to the writing life.”

Today write about your origins. Start with the phrase, “I come from.” Include words and sounds you remember hearing, smells, tastes, and sights. Write about all those things which, had you not known them, would have significantly altered who you are.

You could also adapt this prompt to apply to a fictional character you are creating in a novel or short story. Where do your characters come from and how does that shape their stories?

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“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

Daily Routines

My dad used to say about my mother’s art schedule, “Now if Ruth would just get up in the morning and start painting, she’d really get something done.” Then he would go off to work. Yet despite the lack of a clear schedule, my mother completed hundreds of paintings during her lifetime. e86eeccde64e0cc3271becfeae872c76

I’ve always thought that if I had a regular writing schedule or clearer goals, I could get more done. Or maybe if I could find out how other writers do it, I could tap into some magic formula.

Mason Currey has turned “Daily Routines,” the blog he has been writing for the last six years, into Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Alfred A. Knopf),  a most amazing collection of the routines of 161 composers, painters, architects, performers, writers, and other creative individuals.

So while I procrastinate, it’s enlightening to read how others managed to do what they do. The American composer, John Feldman, said that he had received the best advice from John Cage, who advised him to “write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas.” He also believed in practical things:  the right pen and a good chair. Jane Austen wrote in her family sitting room, “subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.” Gertrude Stein liked to write outdoors where she could look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. She was never able to write more than half an hour a day. “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day,” she said.41kaZ6C4clL._AA160_

We learn all sorts of other interesting details from Currey’s collection. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong insomniac, always took Swiss Kriss, a potent herbal laxative before falling to sleep, lulled by music. Joseph Cornell constructed his boxes at night at the kitchen table. Patricia Highsmith was a chain smoker, who loved her vodka. According to one of her acquaintances she “only ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day.” She was also inspired by snails. “They give me a sort of tranquility,” she said about the three hundred snails in her English garden.130411_dailyRituals_intro.jpg.CROP_.multipart2-medium

As for me, I find it impossible to write in the office I created to write in. Right now I’m sitting at the kitchen counter, surrounded by newspapers and a few dirty dishes. My Kindle is open beside me as I read Currey’s book. But the best part: I’m listening to Willie Nelson. “No, you don’t know me,” he sings. “You ain’t missing me. I let my chance go by.” Only a few steps away in the cupboard is my stash of Hershey chocolate bars. And in a few minutes, I can stop writing and take Sam, our dog, and his cousin, Myles, for a walk.  I’m always looking for reasons to take a break! And besides, Roger Miller is now singing “King of the Road”: “No phone, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes.” Is he trying to tell me something about his routine?

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Writing Jumpstart:

What’s your routine? Go for ten minutes. Or write about your ways to avoid writing. What about other artists you know? How do they work?

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Jumpstart Your Writing: Valentine’s Day Prompts

We’re headed into the third week of our “Jumpstart Your Writing” workshop here on Sanibel. It is going well. Nine of us are writing like crazy. For each class, I’ve created an envelope of “jumpstarts.” The first week the ten-minute prompts were adapted from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Faraway. I typed and printed out a couple of sheets of Natalie’s ten-minute writing prompts and then cut the paper into slips, which I placed in an envelope for each person. The idea is to draw one or two slips from the envelope and, without pausing to think too much, plunge in and write for at least ten-minutes. The second week’s envelope included prompts based on stories and people. The third week’s collection was from the prompts we each created during the first class meeting. Other strategies have included story-telling (comparing oral and written versions of the same story) and writing from photographs. We’re using In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction for inspiration and as models for our own writing. Next week we focus on words. We’ll each bring in a piece of writing that we love because of the words.

imagesSince tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, here are two poems: one by Tony Hoagland, one by Gertrude Stein (which I like because of the sound of the words.)

The prompt (Hoagland): Pick a simple object (like a windchime) and pair that object with a person you love or loved. (It doesn’t have to be romantic love. Any kind of love will do just fine.) Write for ten minutes.

The prompt (Stein): “Twinkling with delight…” Use this phrase as a start. Go for ten minutes. (Note: If you click on the high-lighted word burr in Stein’s poem, you will find a page that talks about Stein,Toklas, and this poem. You’ll also see that Stein’s poem was a kind of “note in a bottle.” I’ll say more about this in my next blog.)

Windchime

BY TONY HOAGLAND

She goes out to hang the windchime
in her nightie and her work boots.
It’s six-thirty in the morning
and she’s standing on the plastic ice chest
tiptoe to reach the crossbeam of the porch,
windchime in her left hand,
hammer in her right, the nail
gripped tight between her teeth
but nothing happens next because
she’s trying to figure out
how to switch #1 with #3.
She must have been standing in the kitchen,
coffee in her hand, asleep,
when she heard it—the wind blowing
through the sound the windchime
wasn’t making
because it wasn’t there.
No one, including me, especially anymore believes
till death do us part,
but I can see what I would miss in leaving—
the way her ankles go into the work boots
as she stands upon the ice chest;
the problem scrunched into her forehead;
the little kissable mouth
with the nail in it.

 

“Windchime” copyright © 2003 by Tony Hoagland. Reprinted from What Narcissism Means to Me with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org

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[The house was just twinkling in the moon light]

BY GERTRUDE STEIN

The house was just twinkling in the moon light,
And inside it twinkling with delight,
Is my baby bright.
Twinkling with delight in the house twinkling
with the moonlight,
Bless my baby bless my baby bright,
Bless my baby twinkling with delight,
In the house twinkling in the moon light,
Her hubby dear loves to cheer when he thinks
and he always thinks when he knows and he always
knows that his blessed baby wifey is all here and he
is all hers, and sticks to her like burrs, blessed baby

 

Gertrude Stein, “[The house was twinkling in the moon light]” from Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Gertrude Stein.

These poems (and thousands more) can be found on the Poetry Foundation website:  http://www.poetryfoundation.org.