To Reach The Green Light At The End Of The Pier
Saturday, May 31, 2008
28 days, and the final seven, beginning Monday, will require strength and energy -- more than we have now. Sunday must then be a time of meditation, as we prepare for those end-days.
Eleanor is already prepared. Rehab somehow amuses her, and we need to find out why.
But her biographer desperately needs sleep again.
Our next posting (Sunday? Monday?) will set the course. Stay with us as we run this last lap, and discover what comes next.
The withdrawal from the words for a few hours, in order to get back to the words, will be a weird and crazy sense of being, but necessary, to reach the finish line intact and with a path then chosen to proceed, mind clear, and that focus that's so integral.
"We need you," Eleanor says. Eleanor is very sleepy at this point, too. We could sleep for days, and yet, we do not have that luxury.
We will put our hands around what is real and good, and hang on for dear life.
Come Monday, this world of ours -- may never be the same again.
"Sometimes you need to make a choice between what you want and what you know. The best possible scenario is when the two make that tricky balancing act, and wanting and knowing become the same thing. At that moment, you can be anyone, do anything – meet your dreams head on and say, 'I’m here. I’m ready. Let’s begin.'"
-- Eleanor Spain, age 44, looking back on her youth.
Today, Eleanor -- at age 17 -- whispers to her biographer, "Is Monday really the start of week four? It's the most important week, isn't it -- to get everything down, I mean. I can speak even faster, if you can keep up with me."
Her biographer smiles. "I can keep up. Just please don't stop talking."
"I won't," Eleanor says. "You know I won't. Even after these 28 days are finished, I'll still be talking. But I'll talk your ear off next week, I promise."
Jay Spain, writing a fairy tale for his daughter, Eleanor:
Once upon a time, there was a girl called Eloise, who was young and beautiful. And Eloise had this voice that could knock you off your feet, it was that sweet, like birds singing or music you want to hear over and over until it's as familiar as breathing, you want to make it that much a part of your life, it's so sweet. This was Eloise's voice. One word from her lips could put a grown man down and out for the count.
The people in the land put her up on a pedestal. Nothing she did was considered imperfect. She tried telling them, of course. She tried telling them no one can do all the things you say I can do, but the people would not listen because people will always be people, and people naturally needed someone to make larger than life. If it wasn't Eloise, it would be someone else, but in fact there was no one else quite like Eloise. So she began to accept what they said, and for a while, that worked out just fine. She was a Princess in a land where there weren't any Princesses to be found.
Eventually, though, Eloise felt so overwhelmed by the people's adulation that she could hardly get out of bed in the morning. Her body felt like a ton of dead weight. She didn't know what was happening to her. When she tried to move her legs, the bed would only shake a little. She was helpless. She couldn't eat anymore and her body began to waste away. And because she wasn't getting the proper nutrition, her beautiful hair was falling out. The best doctors in the land couldn't prescribe a proper medicine. The people of course suspected the evil witch's hand in poor, sweet Eloise's sickness. So the strongest of the young men Eloise's age left the village to search out and kill the evil witch so that their beloved Eloise would return to them the way she was, the way they needed her to be or else life wouldn't be the same ever again.
After a while, there were no more young men Eloise's age left. Not one of them returned from seeking out the witch.
Meanwhile, Eloise's condition had stabilized. She did not get better but she did not get worse. She did not die. When she slept, the doctors forced nutrition into her veins.
Soon it was winter, and it was a particularly harsh winter, the harshest winter in memory. Without the men around, the women began to change. They were so very bitter that the evil witch had brought this curse down upon them. Those women who once had beauty saw it slip away, and everyone knew - though nobody was saying so - that without the men, there would not be children, that eventually their civilization was doomed.
But Eloise went on existing. She didn't know what was happening in the village. She could hear the wind howl, noises like the wind, but the doctors, who were also decreasing in number, sheltered her. They told her lies so she would not worry. They could not bring themselves to tell Eloise that while most of the people in the village had survived the worst winter in memory, they were beginning to melt away from loneliness. Nobody had much of a will anymore to live.
Instead, these lies - the stories - the doctors told Eloise were such wonderful fables that they actually gave her strength. She would awaken each day hoping to hear another story.
Eloise began to take her nutrition when she was awake. One day she took a short walk around her room. When she asked to look out the window, because the doctors had not opened the blinds all winter long, she was told it would not be such a good idea. Eloise was insistent, however, and it was easy to push past the doctors, who were weak like the rest of the people.
Where are all of the people? she asked the doctors. The doctors only shook their heads. Finally, one of the doctors told Eloise the truth, that the men had gone off to find a cure for the curse which had befallen poor sweet Eloise. The men went off to kill the evil witch who had placed the curse on Eloise.
The evil witch didn't put a curse on me, Eloise insisted.
Nobody has much of an interest in living without their loved ones, the doctors said.
But I didn't do it on purpose! Eloise cried.
Get back into bed, they said. We'll feed you some soup. You shouldn't try to conquer the world in one day.
It wasn't my fault! Eloise said, and she kept on crying, even after they were all dead, and although she wanted it desperately, death would not come for her. She only grew stronger and stronger until one day she was so strong, she left her room and went out on her own into the world. It had never occurred to her how lonely the world was without people. It had never occurred to her how much people need other people. Because who else do you have to turn to when the going gets rough, or, even -- when you're happy?
The greatest miracle you can see is right before your eyes, but it isn't me, Eloise said. It's the person standing next to you. It's your little boy or girl who's sitting at home in front of the television set. It's your next door neighbor. It is us, all of us. The miracle is not you or me, but us -- together.
But nobody was left to listen to her because she waited too long to recognize the truth -- the truth that nobody had the courage enough to tell her. She had waited too long, had depended too long on the thoughts and the decisions of others. She finally realized that she had, indeed, become the Princess they all wanted, and as a Princess, she had begun acting like a Princess, and that felt good, until it made her sick, of course.
When Jay Spain told the fairy tale to Eleanor, she would understand. She always understood his stories. She was such a bright girl. She was still asleep, but soon, she would be awake, and he would tell her all about Eloise. He would say, "It is us, all of us." Jay Spain wished he knew how his own mind worked when he wrote such stories, but it didn't really matter. Eleanor seemed to like them so very much. And she beamed when she could analyze them.
These stories were as much like food to them as bread and butter. Sometimes, Jay Spain felt they could live simply off of the stories they told one another -- because Eleanor had her stories too, the ones that she made up, and shared, in return, with him.
Friday, May 30, 2008
“Child Selling Plastic Orchids at Night, NYC, 1963” (Diane Arbus photograph)
by Geoff Schutt
I was the writer, so I suppose Grace had to be something else. It wasn’t a competition, but I had my creative outlet, even if I was doing hack work for a living. One day, Grace made what was for her an extravagant purchase. If it’d been me spending so much money, she might have had a fit, but I was actually happier that she spent so much money than what she actually spent it on. Like having a trump card for some mistake of my own later on, I could remind her, hey look at what you spent on that camera. This was before everything went digital, was computerized. Hell, even a kid with his cell phone could take a decent photo of something, and if the light was right and the subject was there, it could be a piece of art.
Grace said she was going to take classes and learn how to develop her own prints, and that she wanted to take photographs in black and white to capture all of the shadows that a colorful life misses. As she was talking, and showing me her new camera – well, for that moment, we were speaking the same language. Especially about the shadows, because I knew those shadowy places well, and it was about damn good time somebody snapped a picture of me and got me the hell of out there, said, Look, there he’s been hiding – or – Who would have guessed he’d end up in that spot, see, next to the building, you can hardly make him out but it’s a man standing there, and he looks so sad, as if life has beaten him down. Yes, yes, right there in the shadow of that alley, look closer and you’ll see him.
Anyway, that was me.
I wasn’t even paying attention to what kind of camera Grace had purchased, because I was already jumping across streams and rivers in my head. This is how a gambler thinks when he’s trying to get money for his next fix, but for me right then, I went from having something to hold over Grace’s head – her expensive acquisition, and especially for herself, because she rarely spent this kind of money on herself – to Grace finally being able to see me, to discover me. To save me, I guess. Maybe all I needed was someone to recognize me in those black-and-white shadows and speak loudly enough so I’d hear, and probably eventually scream at me so I’d hear – to shake me out of my stupor and stupidity, and have me take that one big step from the picture back into the kind of life everybody else seemed to be able to enjoy without the disease I had. They didn’t have to gamble on anything to get a high. They could get a high from their kids, and their spouses, and their work, and everyday kinds of things. And this used to be me, but I’d forgotten how to do it, how to feel it, and you know what? This was even early on.
This was so early on – well, it was a good six months or so before Grace started noticing money missing. I lived my second life that well. But my kind always do, at least for a while.
I was so encouraging of Grace. I wanted her to have already taken the classes and start photographing me right away. And just listen to how I’m saying it, recalling it, because this is exactly how I was thinking at the time, so selfishly: photographing ME. Selfish or a survival instinct kicking in and seeing this as one way out, but I needed Grace to do the work for me and I’d be magically all well again, back to normal, back to the way I was when she fell in love with me. I know I never really lost that part of me, but I’d stuffed it so far away, still in my body but so damn far away that I’d forgotten where I put it, just that it was probably all intact and all still there, or why else would I know what was missing, right?
Grace and I enjoyed a dinner together. The kids were asleep, and we were eating late. Grace was so happy. I didn’t want to speak. I didn’t want to ruin a second of this. The camera sat on the table like a third person had been invited to dinner. And I’ll tell you, sure as I can remember all of the bad times, this was a good time. Every expression Grace made, every single word she said, every bite of food – I could start at the beginning and bore you to tears by recounting all of it, but as long as you know that I can remember the good with the bad, it’s enough. It’s enough to tell you – to repeat – those seemingly simple words I just used a moment ago, just three words that stick in my head as if I’d used cement to secure them. They were sweet words, and also heavy words, a weight in my head, but one that I was and that I am only too glad to carry. Most people will talk about carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. I tend to carry it inside my skull, until it’s wrapped around the insides so tightly I get headaches, migraines sometimes, and cannot sleep because of the pressure.
“Grace was happy.”
Now that’s a piece of graffitied cement I was grateful for. Really grateful for. I had way too many chunks of cement with words like Grace is angry, Grace doesn’t love me anymore, Grace is disappointed in me, Grace hates me. And all of these on the inside of my head. Those are just the chunks of cement that put Grace in charge of the action. She does this or thinks this or doesn’t do this. I have plenty of pieces of cement where I’m the one doing bad things, and I honestly don’t know which is worse, to be thinking that my wife hates me versus thinking that I have spent this month’s mortgage payment in a 15-minute binge at the track, and wanting to spend next month’s mortgage payment too, if I can get my hands on it, which I will of course try to do. That’s all me. But Grace hating me – boy, that’s a hard one to swallow.
The day after Grace brought home her new camera, and we had what was probably the last good dinner, just the two of us, that I can remember, and also what was probably the last night that we made love with the kind of passion we married for, and hoped we’d keep burning like this for the rest of our lives, until we were too old to even stand up straight on our own, or take care of ourselves – and even then, I digress, even then we might still have the same passion, evolved during the years of course, but the same passion and expressed in whatever way we could – well, the day after Grace brought home her new camera, the day after the night that has its own block of cement in my skull filled with all of that emotion, that feeling – the day after, I found myself at a bookstore looking at books on photography. I wanted to bring Grace home a gift, even before she started taking her classes and learning what she really wanted to take pictures of, except that she said, she wanted them in black and white, and I sure hope she wouldn’t change her mind about this.
I must have looked at two dozen or more books of photographs. Not the how-to books, because that’s what classes would be for, but books of photographs by people who did this for a living and made art of their pictures. I kept returning to one book. It was one of those coffee table books, as many of these types of books were, given the subject matter. You need space to show a picture. You need the gloss to make it sparkle and come off the page and grab at your heart.
Anyhow, it was a collection of photographs by Diane Arbus. And at the beginning, it had a quote from Arbus. The words spoke so clearly to me that I committed them on the spot to memory: “What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s... That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.” And I was thinking, Yes! Yes! This lady understands me! And if I give the book to Grace, Grace will understand me, too!
There were a lot of strange photographs in the book. Or rather, the photographs themselves weren’t strange, just what Diane Arbus took as her subject matter. It was like going to the circus, but being able to bring home all of the characters with you – and have all of these freakish people stay with you, live with you, become part of your family. But I was thinking as I turned the pages that there had to be a picture of somebody like me. Not freakish in appearance, but with his insides hanging out, and hanging out in such a way that you couldn’t see that with the naked eye, but maybe you could see it with a camera, if the camera was fast enough.
Well, I didn’t find myself. But I did find one picture that just broke my heart to pieces. It was a photograph of a young girl selling fake flowers on the streets on New York City, and she’s just staring at the camera, or I suppose at Diane Arbus, just staring, like what are you doing, besides not buying one of my fake flowers. Like, why are you looking at me that way?
I knew the feeling. Take all of these normal things but put them together in such a way that something just isn’t right. There’s the back story you don’t know, but you can guess it is probably not a happy one, or at the very least, there’s some tragedy in the story, quite a lot of sadness. A little girl, a pretty little girl, with long, dark hair. Some plastic flowers. A big city. And she’s alone. And I’m thinking, who is she selling the flowers for? Is it her family? And I’m thinking, where did she get the flowers to sell? And I’m even thinking, how much do they cost, because I’ll buy one – I’ll buy all of them.
The picture is decades old by the time I’m staring at it in a book, and the girl in the picture, if she is still alive, is an adult now, and who knows what has happened to her between then and now.
In the photograph, though, one thing really struck me. If you took away everything else, and everything you could imagine about the girl’s back story, you had the face of an angel. And the face of an angel comes with innocence still intact.
I felt guilty for closing the book, because that meant I was also closing the page on the little girl and her fake flowers. And I did not purchase it for Grace. I left the store without anything. If I had bought the book and if Grace loved the pictures inside, how could I explain to her what they meant to me, seeing all of these people who reminded me – who reminded me of me? And if Grace hated the pictures, what would that say?
I had the money in my wallet that I was going to spend on a photography book, and I took the money to the racetrack, and blew it all in one wager, on a horse whose name I forget, except that he was running in the seventh race at Belmont Park and went off as the third favorite, 9-2 odds. He came in sixth, after taking the lead briefly at the quarter pole. I wasn’t upset, or angry that I’d lost the money. I watched the simulcast television screen for as long as it replayed the race, which was a couple of times, and I neatly folded my Win ticket in half, and in half again, and dropped it gently in the trash, and walked out.
There were very few times I would walk away from the track after just one race. I could probably count them on one hand, or one hand and part of my other hand. Not many. But that day, I saw the horse I chose fight briefly for the lead and then fade, and it was somehow beautiful in the futility of it all. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. My horse would win his next race, or the race after. The futility of running so hard for nothing – that’s what got me, you know. It was the same as the young girl in the book of photographs, the girl whose face I would never forget.
One night, many months later, after weeks and weeks of not being able to sleep for more than four hours at a time, and forget dreaming, though the doctors will tell you that everybody dreams, even if they forget or don’t realize it – one night, that little girl showed up, as an angel would. And I slept for I don’t know how many hours, but through the darkness I slept, and I had dreams, too, and in my dreams I was outside of myself – so far away from myself that when I woke up, I had to think for a moment what my name was, and where I was, and I felt so refreshed by that, and renewed – renewed is a good word for it. Renewed. The angel had visited me, and she brought me a plastic flower, and in my dream, I placed the flower in a vase, and filled the vase with water, even though the flower was plastic. I was afraid I’d kill it if I didn’t put it into water. I know it doesn’t make sense. But I was becoming good at killing things – destroying things. This flower was precious.
The angel didn’t speak, kept her mouth closed, just as she did in the photograph, but for one extraordinary second, as she handed me the flower, both of our fingers were touching it, and it felt so warm and good. All the pain was gone – for her as well, I hoped – for the girl who was really an angel but had to walk the streets of a big city and stand still while somebody took her picture.
... for R, somewhere out West, who just received an email from me, in which I tried to express a lot of what's in this little story. -- Geoff
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I kind of got off track there. I was really originally just going to say "Hello" and "Thank you for visiting," and "I hope you come back" -- especially in the next 10 days, but after that too. We have a lot of words to get through, that's for sure. There, I guess I said what I needed to. Now I'll go back to the whispering. -- Eleanor
Now, in the middle of the night, I feel the slate has been wiped clean yet once again. Day 18 is fresh and new. The air outside The Little Room is cool, and quiet except perhaps for a passing train in the night, heard in the distance. Inside, it's a different place, a place of make-believe and healing, of great power of the imagination and also humility, as I listen to the angels, and my muses.
Not sure if I have described The Little Room properly on this page. At least, what it was before I transformed it. This is an old dressing room, off of a second bedroom upstairs, in a house built in 1919. I am told the "dressing room" was an add-on, but nobody seems to know when it was last used as anything but a big closet. There's a long wooden dresser built into the wall that faces the morning and afternoon sun. Above the dresser is a mirror, which I now have mostly covered with photos. There's enough reflective glass left to cast the odd shadows of light -- the green light, and the colored lights from a small, artificial Christmas Tree, 24 inches high, with tiny decorations. The tree is always turned on. (I believe in the spirit of Santa Claus year-round. I can remember my profound disappointment as a child when I realized that Santa Claus was indeed in the "spirit form," and not the physical, but I've also grown to adjust and embrace this spirit of giving, and learning how to receive -- just as important.)
In my imagination, I like to believe the dressing room came as the house was built, and this was one of the early houses that have lasted on this particular street. On either side were once empty lots, and the big main road that runs parallel to this street was still dirt when the house was built, with a streetcar that took residents from one neighborhood to the next.
1919 -- so right before the 1920s, and yet still post-World War I. Prosperity was right around the corner. At least for the decade of the 1920s. The house survived another World War and many other military conflicts. It has been here through most of the Presidents of the 20th century, and before, through and after most of the trendy technologies. (We still use the radio, and we still send postcards. That much is the same. And we still read!)
There used to be more working fireplaces, long since taken out. There was a coal-burning furnace in the basement at one point. There's still a sprinkling of coal dust that sticks to the basement ceiling.
And the topography of this area -- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania -- means that I walk out the front door and I see the basements of the neighbors' houses across the street, while if I go down two levels to the basement and out the back door, I see those neighbors' rooftops.
In my imagination, I take The Little Room back to the 1920s, and I think of nightly rituals of getting ready to go out to the latest Gatsby-esque party -- even thought this is a working class neighborhood, so there probably weren't too many of those kinds of parties. It was a steel town and coal town -- a city of industry (and one that welcomed many immigrant workers for those industries) that's now turned into a city of research and development, still redefining itself -- a rebirth under a different nickname perhaps that no one's come up with yet. Half of the population since 1950 or so has left, but the houses and many of the buildings remain.
This house remains.
That all said, and returning to my Gatsby-esque fantasy, I can imagine the transformation of person or persons within the walls of this room, which has no windows, and just an overhead light, and a light above the mirror that doesn't work anymore. (The other lights I've brought inside.) I want to imagine the expectations of the evening, and the memories of the night before -- recalled the morning after.
Sometimes, when it's quiet, in the middle of the night, at a time close to now, I can hear music. Probably I think I can hear music, faint, and in the distance, but coming from inside. But then I also imagine the spirits, the ghosts, that still live with me in this house, and in The Little Room. They must be friendly ghosts, because I don't feel frightened in the least. It feels more like -- as though they are watching me, with some amusement, to see what I will do next.
The Little Room is a sanctuary. It's a cleansing place, as well as a creative place. The Little Room helps me to find the roads I need to travel -- those winding, curvy roads from the inside out. These are real journeys, and from this sanctuary, I grow a better person.
I will leave my mark here. The energy of who I am, and who I was. I think we all leave such trails of positive energy as we go through life. I focus on the positive, because this is where I can make the improbable occur, where I can turn pain in a kind of beauty, or beauty into something tangible, that we can place our hands around and actually hold. This is where nothing seems past the realm of possibility, nor should it.
It's a good place, this Little Room. It is indeed one version of This Side of Paradise.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Everything comes crashing in, doesn’t it?
Just to get yourself through, you sometimes have to just make it happen, have to create the implosion. Have to almost kill yourself just to see daylight, and then it’s good again. You know?
You’ve got to make it good again. Because, like you’ve told yourself a million times already, in a million different circumstances, you have to be selfish, to have to be this way – no good to anyone, including yourself, but also to anybody else, so you can get through the tunnel. And it’s a dark tunnel. Dark as night. Dark as dying.
But on the other side is the light. You can almost see it. You need to trust that it's there.
Then –- then it was quite an odd thing, and I don’t know if I was imagining this or if it really happened. It wasn’t the monsters, that much I did know. Perhaps it was love speaking, through that beating heart. I watched her lips move, and the voice I heard was hers, but it didn’t resonate from her lips. It was crisp and clear, in my ears, like a ventriloquist would sling a voice from one spot to the next.
“You must do something of consequence,” the voice said.
Sweetly – so sweetly did the words sound, and so lush, despite the directive that carried with it such absoluteness.
“I will,” I replied, not knowing how or where to begin, but using these two words to hold back the monsters. And it's true -- the monsters retreated. I now had strength and resolve.
(Flower for St. Therese, and in honor of "The Mango Kiss" and "The Mango Hug."
Photo courtesy Will Amante.)
Was it worth it the first time I saw you.
Nod your head to the beat as if you’re nodding “Yes.”
Was it worth it.
"Yes, yes! It was worth it."
Everything that happened afterward just increased the worth, made you more valuable, made us more valuable. Made us something of consequence, by just being alive and together.
See, you are smiling now, aren’t you?
It’s that beat you’ve got going. It’s the beat that rocks this story right on home. Right on back home, to where you belong.
Like life – our lives are filled with deleted scenes. They can be beautiful or destructive, happy or sad. Somehow they don’t fit our particular narrative.
Me, I want my deleted scenes, because I want to know what isn’t there, but what once was. It’s as real as a finished film, or a finished life. But unless you take the time to watch, it remains hidden. Almost like invisible. I care a great deal about what already has happened, and why I don’t remember so clearly, and especially why? – this is my big question, or my big problem or both.
I really need to know why my scenes were deleted, and then I want to know – was I was the one who deleted them, and, then -- what was I protecting in doing so. The scenes, like those kept for the DVD version of "me," still exist ... somewhere out there.
a novel by Geoff Schutt
If a family is to be and remain a family they should love each other and forgive each other's faults and they should be unconditional with their affection. If a family is to survive, the parents must love their children as hard as they can, as much as they are able to, and their children must be very aware of this love. That it exists and is as real as the trees or dirt or sky or automobiles or firecrackers or television shows. And in return the child's parents will receive the most wonderful, passionate gift of all, which is love in return, the kind of unconditional love a human being is born with. That a child is born with. We don't learn to love, it is said, only to hate, or to become disinterested, or to lose our way. We learn how to not listen. We learn how to not respond. If a family is to be a family, the family must stay together, no matter what. No matter what. Not matter how hard that is to do. If something bad happens, the little girl, their daughter, she'll understand. She will. And if they have a son, their son will understand too. All of their children will understand. The wife will understand. The father will understand. And they will support each other, yes. They will support each other like there is no one else left on earth. Because a family is a family that cannot be broken.
-- "Eleanor's Manifesto On The Family, Age 17"
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
a novel by Geoff Schutt
Eleanor knew that her character was filled with contradictions. But she wondered if she really was full of any more contradictions in character than other girls her age, or other women, or other people in general. She thought, if only she could get her contradictions straight, she could use them wisely. The sort of, be one kind of person for this situation, and another for that situation. No, that wasn’t true. She wanted to get her contradictions straight so they wouldn’t haunt her so much. She was haunted by the person she wanted to be, when she was just that person yesterday, and might be that person again tomorrow, but not today. That's how it worked with her contradictions, she decided. They were out of alignment. Her entire character was out of alignment. If she didn't think every thought and action carefully through, she might mess something up -- be the wrong person for the right situation, for example. She wondered if anybody else ever felt like this.
-- John Updike
Updike's words speak to me, and not just because, like many artists, I am compulsive.
I used to carry around with me the words, "Passion equals strength." I'm not sure anymore whether this was said or written by anyone famous, and if not said by someone else, how I came to put those three words together, and believe in them with such fervor (the word "fever" would also work here, too, I think!).
Our passions, our compulsions -- they can lead us into risky territory.
If we're just talking self, it's how deep we go inside to find our art, and then -- how much of that we're willing to share. Yes, sharing is risky business. My fiction is heavily layered (at least I think so) ... so layered that the truth, my truth, is buried somewhere within several characters. I will admit that, readily.
Eleanor, as a female counterpart to my own self, allows me to say things that might be too risky for a male character to say, as in, too close to home. ("How much of your fiction is autobiographical?" the interviewer asks. "Well," you respond, "none of it -- it's a story for gosh sakes. It's made up. Fantasy. Not my life, but somebody else's. You interviewers all ask the silliest questions!")
Eleanor is helping me find my truth, this I will also readily admit -- along with the other characters in her story, her life. But it's a combined activity of characters and the words that carry them.
And to what lengths will I risk myself in this effort? I have to risk everything. Have to. And then I can turn it around and put those layers on, like frosting a cake.
Therapy is tough going, especially when you need to be honest with yourself first, then taking it one step further and trying to tell a compelling story that the reader can take ownership of. You, now reading these words, are the therapist I cannot see. In the end, I have to answer to myself, though -- however far I am willing to follow those compulsions -- which is, of course, the risky business of art.
The thing is -- this risky business saves us.
For Updike, artistic merit might be the reward, at least in context of those words. For me, the reward is that "strength" that I used to imagine came from passion, in some past life. Maybe it still does, the passion part, but I must look at it through a different name.
"Words are so cool," Eleanor is telling me, "because you can twist them around any way you want, for good or for bad."
Well, I need it to be for the good. (Whatever "good" means.)
"I have to believe that something really incredible is going to happen during the next two weeks," Eleanor says.
(She should be sleeping, but she wanted to see what the beginning of Day 15 looked like.)
"My task... is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see. That -- and no more -- and it is everything."
-- Joseph Conrad
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Pick any number you choose, but tomorrow, Monday, March 26, 2008, begins the important "second half" of putting the words back into their proper and right order, of building and keeping up a daily discipline of writing, and most of all, of bringing all of the parts of Eleanor's story into a narrative that makes "sense." And a narrative that is, somehow -- "better than good."
Day 15 (or Day One of Part Two) may start out slowly, so be sure to check in at least later in the day -- I promise there will be words, about something. Or I'll have Eleanor do the talking. She likes it when the posting is all hers.
Once more, sleep is grabbing at me, and I'm trying to shake it off, telling it things, as in, I don't have time for sleep -- but in fact, I do, and I need the sleep, and the dreams that will entertain me, and the same dreams that will then wipe my mind clear of built-up stress and transform the brain cells into blank slates ready for the chalk -- ready for creativity.
"Missions Accomplished" Since Saturday:
1. Saw the sun, and took that walk
2. Traveled to Cleveland, and placed my hand around the sculpted baseball in Bob Feller's wind-up
3. Regained some balance and perspective -- it's going to be okay, as long as I stick to the task, and to the plan (stick to the plan, he cries!) (had to emphasize this to myself)
The Little Room is just as I left it, and is enveloping me like a baby blanket.
These are still baby steps, after all. Learning to walk again -- figuratively at least, and walking in the way I want to walk -- man, it's tough. Others have it much more difficult, yes, no doubt, but each of our journeys is different for exactly that reason. We need to be able to help one another along the way.
So, I'll throw my arm around you, and together we'll help up that person on the ground over there -- another artist has (almost) bit the dust; we can see, even from this distance, that there's still a breath in him.
Where there's breathing, there is also the necessary hope to continue.
Remember that, and you'll be fine, too.
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I STOOD on the bridge at midnight,
As the clocks were striking the hour,
And the moon rose o'er the city,
Behind the dark church-tower.
I saw her bright reflection
In the waters under me,
Like a golden goblet falling
And sinking into the sea.
And far in the hazy distance
Of that lovely night in June,
The blaze of the gleaming furnace
Gleamed redder than the moon.
Among the long, black rafters
The wavering shadows lay,
And the current that came from the ocean
Seemed to lift and bear them away.
As, sweeping and eddying through them
Rose the belated tide,
And, streaming into the moonlight,
The seaweed floated wide.
And like those waters rushing
Among the wooden piers,
A flood of thoughts came o'er me
That filled my eyes with tears.
How often, oh how often,
In the days that had gone by,
I had stood on that bridge at midnight
And gazed on that wave and sky!
How often oh how often,
I had wished that the ebbing tide
Would bear me away on its bosom
O'er the ocean wild and wide!
For my heart was hot and restless,
And my life was full of care,
And the burden laid upon me
Seemed greater than I could bear.
But now it has fallen from me,
It is buried in the sea;
And only the sorrow of others
Throws its shadow over me.
Yet whenever I cross the river
On its bridge with wooden piers,
Like the odor of brine from the ocean
Comes the thought of other years.
And I think how many thousands
Of care-encumbered men,
Each bearing his burden of sorrow,
Have crossed the bridge since then.
I see the long procession
Still passing to and fro,
The young heart hot and restless,
And the old subdued and slow!
And forever and forever,
As long as the river flows,
As long as the heart has passions,
As long as life has woes;
The moon and its broken reflection
And its shadows shall appear,
As the symbol of love in heaven,
And its wavering image here.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
-- J. B. Priestly
by Cher Bibler
Today the list of things that makes me sad
is so long you can't turn
around without stumbling over an item.
Things that don't normally make me sad.
Ordinary things like
string and televisions,
bottles of cheap wine
all have memories attached,
heavy memories I can't bear to hold,
like ghosts pressing up too close
and I am breathing their
Like old men in elevators
who smell of sour booze and
you can't bear to be near them and
you back away against the wall.
Old ladies in nursing homes who want
to hold your hand,
their skin too soft, too flaccid.
Is there nowhere safe?
Beam me up, Scotty, cause
I've had way more of this life than I can take!
Are you there?
Friday, May 23, 2008
Today's fortune reads: "Happiness will bring you good luck."
Eleanor is next to me and she recognizes the house where she was created (see left-side column), and she remembers the Catholic church that was just across the street, and how in the mornings, when we got up early to write, sometimes the lights were turned on and we could see the stained glass windows glowing brighter than any full moon we'd ever seen, and with all of those colors.
"Am I Catholic?" Eleanor says.
I'm not sure what to tell her. As much as I like my Saints (and I was not brought up Catholic, but I once was perhaps 10 feet from the Pope in Vatican City and did feel a strong spiritual presence; call it what you will) -- I am not sure if Eleanor has a religion. In my mind, at least initially, the first response is, "No." And then, "It's not that you don't believe in God, it's that you're not sure what God means."
"What about St. Therese and the flowers you picked for her?" Eleanor asks. "Doesn't that make you part Catholic, and then I am part Catholic too?"
"I like the story of St. Therese," I say. "And I like the flowers. The idea of flowers. The actual flowers themselves."
"Well, I like flowers, too," Eleanor says. "So am I Catholic now?"
"That's not exactly how it works," I respond. But then I'm curious. "Do you want to be Catholic? Do you want to be religious as I write your story?"
Eleanor is sitting silently, thinking about this. It's one thing to ask the question, and another to have it asked back at you.
"Maybe I can pick a flower for St. Therese, and we can start with that?" she says.
I smile. "That would be a fine thing."
"But I do believe in God, don't I?" she says. "I mean, I can be confused and everything, but I have to believe in something, don't I?"
She does. I can't deny her a belief.
"How about this," I say to Eleanor. "You go and find that flower for St. Therese, and you believe in that flower, and you believe in St. Therese -- as a person first. If you still believe in her as a Saint, then we can talk some more."
Eleanor giggled. "How come I'm always telling you things like this?"
"Like directions to go with my story," she says.
"Because that's who you are, Eleanor," I say, and I say it with emphasis. "You will always surprise me, and that's okay. That's what makes this process interesting."
"Well, I want it to be exciting," she says. "And extraordinary. And amazing. And beautiful. And I want my story to be unexpected. And I want people to like me, even if they don't like me at first. I would rather them hate me, and then like me later. Could you write me like that? I want to scream, like I'm on a roller-coaster. So, I can just scream at the people who hate me. And then when the ride's over, they can like me. When they get to know me, who I really am, I mean."
She turns her fortune over. On the back is the Chinese translation for the word, "Helicopter."
"Look," Eleanor says -- "Happiness isn't just good luck. It can make you fly, too!"
"You're supposed to be my biographer," she said.
"I am," I replied.
"Well, then, here's my thought for the day," she said. But she pressed her lips together and didn't say another word.
"Well?" I said.
"Well," she said, "if you're my biographer, you should already know what I'm thinking. Do I need to tell you everything?"
It's going to be one of those days. Welcome to Day 12.
-- Carl Jung
Every quote you come across like the one above is taken out of context. Or, I suppose, the context could be the quote itself, with words surrounding it to support its meaning. This said, I would love to accept Carl Jung's words as they stand. Not change a thing. I like the idea of -- and this is my interpretation -- the "artist" needing to create, even while not knowing what he or she is going to create to some completion.
It's part divine intervention, part determinism -- and part "this is who I am, so I must keep on the path that's been chosen for me." Of course, that last line being neither divine intervention nor determinism, except by the person saying the words. How many times have you come across a person who says, "I'm going to live in my car, because I am an artist, and that's what artists do." As in, we need to starve first, or be homeless, or whatever. A variation on the idea.
Some people would use Jung's words as an excuse for "not creating" -- because the "supreme purpose" has yet to be realized. Check their watches, and look up and say, "Nope, hasn't arrived yet. Isn't time yet. And I just had this watch checked yesterday, so I know it's precise right down to the second."
Okay, it's a little before 4 a.m. ET, and I'm waxing all philosophical about a basically philosophical quote.
But this is what I will accept -- in accepting Carl Jung's words. I will accept that each of us is an artist. It's just that some people do the creating, and others do the inspiring. Sometimes we trade places, too. Everything is collaborative.
It's the writer who sits next to an old man on the bus and listens to the man's story, and then goes back to a version of The Little Room and sets it all down on paper, and adds some plot, takes some away, throws in a couple more characters, and voila, it's a creative work, a finished piece, good or bad. Yet the supreme purpose has been realized.
The story would have never happened without that old man on the bus. So isn't he as much of an artist as the artist who claims the title?
We need each other. And we shouldn't feel ashamed or bad or guilty about "feeding" off of one another. That is, listening, observing -- utilizing all of our senses to take in what will become the raw materials for the "something" we don't know yet.
Right now there's a bird's nest perched on the eaves next door, and yesterday I spent time watching the nest and the mother bird as she protected it. When I tried to take a picture with my cell phone, she attempted to distract me by moving away from the nest and chattering at me with chirps that I'm sure were dire warnings in bird talk. There's a story there somewhere.
Actually, the story really got going when the woman who lives in the house came outside in her house dress and asked me if something was wrong with her roof. So we talked about birds, and their nests, and then we talked about flowers, and how the cats next door to her on the other side like her flowerbed better than the dirt in their own yard because it's "softer." I'm not sure how this all fits together, and maybe it's three or four or a dozen stories, yet to be told, in due time.
And I just love it when people talk in loud voices so I can listen in. Sometimes I just like listening period. And then taking this all back the The Little Room and making my own sense of it in a way that can entertain, or, if I am very lucky that day, and if the supreme purpose has shot itself through my veins like a bolt of lightning (being in the "zone," so to speak), come out of the act of creation with something that can make another person feel.
That's a gift on both sides, from me -- and for me.
It would have never happened, though, if I hadn't felt something first. Been open to feeling, or listening, that is. From one of those other artists out there, I mean -- the woman next door in her house dress ... or the man on the bus, for example.
Eleanor insisted that we post the poems immediately, especially knowing how they've traveled so many miles to reach us.
Cher, as I've mentioned previously, is now living in Mexico, where she is writing novels, composing songs -- and, of course, creating these incredible poems. Each of the three below tells a different story, and each is just as compelling as the other.
All are posted with permission of the author, for which we are most grateful. Thanks, Cher, for providing "the first words that matter" of the day ... this, Day 12. -- Geoff
which we used to measure and
(I still have the chart)
has grown too high to catch,
too wild to hold.
Sometimes I'm nostalgic for the
days when I knew where we stood,
could label it exactly.
Now I have to balance with
my eyes closed and believe,
just know that it will catch me if I fall.
You could be here with me now,
you would love it, I think.
You could be exploring the shops,
moaning about what you can't get here,
smuggling in decent sheets and towels.
You could meet all sorts of new people,
have a house with a swimming pool
and sit drinking margaritas or whatever.
you had to go and die, stupid old aids;
leaving me here alone to muddle through.
What was that all about?
My fingers are sore from playing guitar,
like a secret glow
I can feel the calluses where the strings hit.
A couple songs were magic and I
was transported to that better world,
the other place, where my muse lives.
She's invited me many times,
but I can seldom find my way.
Now I'm existing in the afterglow, half here, half there,
tired and happy.
Everything I do will be somehow charged,
I trail sparks of energy,
tinkerbell's magic dust.
I will do better because I've seen I can,
because I touched it,
and as long as I remember
(it won't last long, alas)
I'll be able to spark the magic again
here in the ordinary world.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
(please see related postings below)
Even from inside my Little Room, I am imagining people of all walks of life taking time out to head to the grocery store or fresh market and pick up a mango or two, or even a basket filled with them.
What a sight that would be -- people ... strangers, passing one another on the street, carrying their mangoes, and saying "Hello" to each other, no less! The "Hello" is most important, as is the meeting of the eyes, Eleanor would say.
("I would say that, yes," Eleanor says, looking over my shoulder as I write these words.)
And indeed, the writing has been sort of like that, today. Eleanor is getting ready for a long weekend of words. (She tends to speak very quickly, and I just try to keep up -- per William Faulkner at the end of this posting.)
We've stocked up on supplies -- incense for meditation, an extra green light bulb just in case one of the green lights burns out, energy drinks, and even a bottle of Evan Williams fine Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Candles stand at the ready, to add that additional glow and indirect light, and music, too -- we have our Leonard Cohen and our Tom Waits (sung by Tom himself, and also covers by Holly Cole), and even a very cool mix CD that our good friend and fellow writer Erin O'Brien sent us.
If we get enough decent-looking words down, there's a bottle of our favorite bubbly, and inexpensive, too: Cook's Grand Reserve California Champagne. (Yes -- the horror -- "Champagne" from California, not France! But at less than $6 a bottle, it's the food of many a starving writer.)
Coffee is always on the menu in The Little Room -- a special proprietary blend of beans called, understandably, "The Eleanor Blend."
What about food? you might ask. Well, we still have some mangoes left in our own basket, given to us by Will Amante.
And for some probably very good reason now, I have the old Boomtown Rats song, "Up All Night," stuck in my head.
"I think that I shall never see,
such an overuse of boldface type
in one Thog posting again."
No -- that did not rhyme, with respect to Joyce Kilmer and the trees.
(Sleep deprivation already?)
Be good to yourself, and get that mango before they're all gone.
And please do Believe in "words that come from the heart," as we approach Day 12.
"It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does. "
-- William Faulkner
Yesterday was a busy one on This Side of Paradise, from early to late. The words on the page are coming easier (or they seem to be, at least, as each day progresses), though now I need to get back to focus. Or, not get back to focus.
Perhaps I just need to write as many words as possible, and then be a sculptor, cutting them down into their core of meaning.
First cup of coffee, still half-full in the cup, but one Red Bull already consumed.
Yes, I'm mixing my drinks, this early, on Day 11.