A Look in the Mirror

 

 

Many years ago, backstage at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, I was reading John Steinbeck’s Life in Letters and I came upon a letter written by a young writer, asking Steinbeck how he felt about writers using their friends and family members as characters in stories, outing family members as the human beings they are or worse exaggerating their flaws.  Steinbeck’s immediate response was to feel badly for the families of writers or artists of any kind and he confessed that writers were thieves who stole gestures and words from others. Then, he explained that family and friends are the writer’s material, raw material, from which stories of humanity are told.  And yes, the family and friends pay a heavy price for being so.

I have recently used a family member’s behavior to tell a story.  In my last blog I spoke of my sister failing to bring my walker to me in the hospital. I confess that I was so completely selfish at the time that I did not even consider what she might think, reading what I wrote and knowing others would.  And when she confronted me, I was surprised by her reaction, proof of my gross insensitivity.

I, who thought I was making an important point, didn’t consider who I was using to make that point and did serious damage to my relationship with my sister.  I am the comedian on stage who busts her sibling for the sake of the joke.  I can’t defend my behavior and it’s too late to take back my words.  The best I can do is come clean and accept the consequences.

I’m back

 

 

Wow, it has been forever since I wrote in my blog.

I am sitting in room 581 of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, waiting for my neurosurgeon to arrive and discharge me to Rehab for the next week.

That explains in part where I have been, suffering from sciatica that turned out to be a herniated disc that didn’t resolve after two surgeries, and worsened until I needed a spinal fusion.

After the upsetting election I considered writing down my thoughts and feelings.  I passed on that in favor of being one person who did not feel her reaction to the election was important for others to know.  I did do something that was important to me.

I let some folks who were supporters of Trump know that I wanted off their invite list.  I decided that I need not be mean or argumentative or a crybaby, but I did need my friends to know my criteria for friendship included respect for women and disabled people and old people and poor people and foreigners and gays and lesbians and dark skinned people and anyone who isn’t a fan of Mr. Trump.

And I went on the women’s march in January.

It was a boon to my head and heart but I paid a bodily price.

Compromised already by MS, I pushed myself a bit too far to make the walk and I  did injury to a degenerated vertebrae.

So here I am.  Today out of the pain killers deep fog and off to rehab.  I had an interesting exchange yesterday and today which I think is worth telling because it is funny in a way.

I called my sister yesterday to ask her to stop by my apartment and pick up my walker which I was going to need, already needed.  She asked what else I might want and I mentioned a few things:  a change of clothes and perhaps apples out of my refrigerator.  The apples I’m getting in the hospital are mushy.

She said she would do that and hours later wrote that she wanted to know the pass code for my garage entrance so she didn’t have to walk with my things.  It seemed a strange worry since there are elevators she could take to and from my apartment, so I called her and sensing she was less than enthusiastic about the errand I had given her, I told her it would be fine to let it go. The items weren’t a necessity.

Today I called a friend in my apartment building who I had done a favor for, and I asked her if she would bring my walker to my hospital room.  She assured me she would.

Hours passed and unexpectedly my sister arrived with a bag for me.  Not the walker.  Clothes and a few items from my refrigerator.  The thing I most needed was not forgotten or overlooked by accident.  My sister decided it was not as important and the clothes she could easily carry.

To my sister what she wore the week in rehab would be more important than how she got around.  After an accident that nearly killed her and with a titanium rod down one leg at 75 she still walks in high heels.  She brought me what she would want, not what I asked for.

I called my friend to catch her before she left the apartment to tell her to forget the clothing items I had asked for.  I only needed the walker.  My friend said she had been at the computer filling out a questionnaire that she had hours more to respond to and she didn’t know how to save it.  I jumped in saying  she should wait until that was done before running the errand for me.  “Oh, come when you finish,” I uttered.

Lesson:

Expect people to give me what they would want in my circumstances, not what I ask for.

Question:

Where is the one person who will get me my walker before the sun sets?

On the bright side:

I can stop worrying that my life is worthless, that I don’t serve any important purpose, writing stories.  I am that one person in all my relationships who would drop everything and hop to.

My doctor has just arrived and I am off to rehab to learn  how to walk and sit and carry things with a fused back.  No more climbing ladders or moving myself from one residence to another or walking without a walker.

But hours later, Rehab didn’t have a bed, so I am staying on the neurosurgery ward another night.

At 9 pm I hear a wee voice, female, calling out, “Help, help, help!”  I hit my buzzer and tell the nursing station what I am hearing and next I hear footsteps in the hall and then a nurse say something that I can’t make out  but the “help, help, help” stops.

Earlier I was walking the hall and saw a man in bed with his left hand covered in thick white foam rubber to protect it.  He couldn’t stop beating his hand against the bed and wall and everything within reach.

“Dear God,” I prayed.  “Let me know before something like this happens to me.  Give me a warning that I will know is from you.”

Maybe these poor souls are so lost they don’t know they are lost but their affect looks like they know.  They look terribly disturbed.  And the loved one who sits by them knows they are lost and lost to them.  And it is tragic.  There are all kinds of tragedies.  This is one I hope to avoid.

I Can’t Sleep

 

 

 

Alchemy show 019

When I close my eyes I see the caisson carrying John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  I see his brother Bobby lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor.  I see Martin Luther King crumble on the balcony.  When I close my eyes I see another Black man shot in the back.  I see the twin towers come down.  I see the dead bodies on the fields in Viet Nam.  I see the maimed come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  When I close my eyes I see the homeless family huddled over the grate for warmth.  I see the twelve-year-old girl sitting alone on a bench, waiting to have someone take the baby out of her that her daddy put there.  When I close my eyes I see the woman in the wheelchair being harrassed by a group of bored teenage boys.  I see the President-elect mimicking the disabled reporter.  When I close my eyes I see a lovely woman walking down a street in front of a construction sight where  men had paused from their work to whistle and call out what they would like to do her, and I hear our President-elect brag that women let him grab their pussies.  When I cose my eyes I see the child’s father carry bottled water up the stairs to his Flint home for his family but it’s too late for his child.  When I close my eyes I see people stranded on their roof tops in New Orleans and a body floating face down in flood water.  When I close my eyes I see the angry face of the President-elect.  I see his crowd raise their fists in the air shouting, “Lock her up!”  I see the the President-elect receiving too warm a welcome from the President.  When I close my eyes I see the caisson carrying John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Weeks away the President-elect becomes President and the towers fall and the dead bodies come home and the family huddles at the grate for warmth and the caisson rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue.

In sorrow and fear

 

Alchemy show 029

I, like half the country, woke yesterday feeling deep sorrow, feeling as I did the day John Kennedy was assassinated.  Frightened by the intensity of my sorrow, I reached for my bottle of xanax, a drug I take when needed to control one of the effects of MS: an exaggerated response to sound, movement, and stress.

And then I picked up the play I am working on and got to work. In my worst times, sick with MS and sick with the loss of my life partner, the only thing that steadied me was writng, letting loose my grip on myself to join the world and characters of a story I was writing, exchanging ego consciousness for character consciousness.  But I was editing the play inside the house and although the TV screen was dark, it had brought me the bad news.  I picked up my laptop and went outside to write.  At the same time, yesterday I was doing laundry and from time to time I had to go back in the house to transfer clothes from the washer to the drier.  The inside was not sunny like the outside,  not warm.  I stepped into shadows and the coolness of airconditioning and the sadness returned.  I worked quickly in the laundry room and ran out to the sun’s warmth and the heat rising from the deck around the small pool.

Today I woke well before dawn from a pleasant dream into a frightening reality.  Today I am thinking less about Hillary and more about Trump and I am scared.  I traded deep sadness for high anxiety.  Words and phrases flashed, like emergency lights on the road where a terrible car accident has occurred and in an instant changes the life of someone forever.  Today, again I took a xanax pill and have written emails to friends and am now here, sending words out into the ethers to anyone who might find friendship with what I say.

Why have I continued to write all these years when five books have had only modest success, not earning enough to support me?  It is because writing takes me out of time and myself to a world and people I have created from my imagination where some of us find peace of mind.  It is for me the quiet place where whispering voices or shouts of joy from others catch my attention and for a while I forget myself, my sorrows and my fears.

Perspective

 

c-lying-with-c

 

I have been painting again.  In the painting the subject’s hand in the foreground is large and her hand in the background is small.  This is a clue to the perspective of the painter.  She is low and close to her subject.

The very large hand reminds me of something Stella Adler used to impress upon us, her drama students, that in order to tell a story in two hours the characters on stage must be larger than life. Stella was not instructing us to exaggerate, to make the hand larger as in the painting.  She was challenging us to reveal more, to be naked on the stage, and give “it” all away, saving nothing for the self.  By “it” she meant the gift the actor presents to the audience through character.  It could be said that an actor releases a character to the audience completely, holding back nothing.  It can’t be done playing it safe.

The same must be done in writing.  The writer must draw her characters larger than life, holding back nothing.  In life too often our presentation is small.  We tend to be stingy, protecting ourselves from being known truly, completely.  This doesn’t work in a book or on stage.  The audience and readers don’t have a lifetime to get to know the characters.  In life we can slowly, very gradually reveal ourselves.  In art we run out of time or space, doing that.

Stella’s acting lessons were my writing lessons.  At the time that I was learning how to create character I had no idea I would one day apply those lessons to stories I would write.

Yesterday I completed a second revision of my play, After the Dance.  I will return to it in another day or two to see what is there and what is not and look to see if it is big enough, important.  It is not enough to tell a story that is engaging.  It must also be important.  It must say something that needs to be said, that increases awareness or understanding, and challenges the reader.  At the same time my story needs to show a character and circumstances that are unique, it must tell a universal truth.  And it must tell it in a new way.  That is art.

Time on my hands

Lil Me in the poolA few weeks back the pool thermometer broke and I found a replacement at the pool store that had a green rubber frog attached to the top.  The frog floated above the surface of the water as the thermometer circled the pool on the current created by the jets of water.
I watched the frog swing around the pool over and over again while I floated on my raft in the middle of the pool. During the day when I passed the French door to the poolI I looked out to see where the frog was and when I couldn’t find it I ran out to discover it in the far corner of the pool almost invisible in the shadow of the wall.  Gradually the frog and I became friends and It was time to give froggy a name.  I marveled at the frog’s sweet expression, nearly a smile, that remained constant despite a fate to travel the same water over and over again and almost always alone.  I developed a softness for the frog and on her next pass, I stopped her progress to look closely at the spots on her back and her chubby legs and round belly, and I was tickled, especially by her attitude, and I named her Lil Me.  She is a bit like me or I might be a bit like her when I am my best.  At any rate I identified with Lil Me and for a moment we were one and I had the purest feeling that I’ve had once or twice before, that I am one with everything in the world.  A moment when I can feel the heart beat of everything and we are singing the same song.  Those are the happiest moments of my life.
It is raining now, but an hour ago I was in the shallow pool standing on the bottom, my head well above the water and the sun pouring down on me and Lil Me.  I looked down through the water to the black bottom and saw a silhouette of my body.  I wiggled my arms and legs and made shadow figures like we did many decades ago to amuse ourselves.
I’ve been in that pool at least 600 times and never before saw the shadow figure of me.  And I couldn’t help but wonder what if all we are seeing on this physical plane is like the shadow figure and when we pass into the spirit world we see things in technicolor and three dimensions, not black and white and two dimensional.  It is a thought that flew from the bamboo tree overhead down to my shoulder and knocked on my skull.  It came to me because I don’t have a husband or wife or children or an in-law to take care of or a job or land to farm.  I have time on my hands to observe what is always present but I don’t always see and find meaning in the image and an application to my life.

What next when the book is done?

Linda's Room

It is always with mixed feelings I finish a book I have been working on for years.  Although the entire time I am writing I am eager to finish, when I do I feel nearly bereft.  I wander around my rooms for days and mope in the yard.  I miss the world I have inhabited for a long stretch of time and I miss the friends my characters have become.  And while I am not happy with time on my hands, I am reluctant to begin writing a new story.  And yet I miss not just the storyline and the characters but the WORK.

A few days ago when I announced Her Widow finished, I got out my paints and I fell in love again creating perspective on a flat surface and breathing in the smell of oil paint.  My rooms now smell like an artist’s studio and on my desktop in place of a stack of white sheets of paper is a 12″ X 9″ gesso board.

My Writing Life: Why I Write

 

 

 

Alchemy show 045

I have not written here lately.  I suppose because I have been depressed and unaware of that until yesterday.  I have been preoccupied with thoughts about my health and in particular my MS symptoms that have worsened recently.  I’ve been bogged down with calls to doctors and appointments and procedures.  And I have had difficulty sleeping, waking every hour and exhausted throughout the day.  One morning recently, sitting up in bed with a first cup of coffee of the day, I nodded off and fell out of bed crash landing on the small chest of drawers beside my bed.

Depression.  Clinical depression is not feeling down in the dumps or sad about something.  Depression is not feeling.  It is being detached to the extent that nothing moves us to do anything.

The question I wanted to answer when I wrote After the Dance, a novel that has become a play, was why some with chronic, progressive diseases pull their legs over to the edge of their beds and get up in the morning, and others do not.  Why don’t some, who know life is not going to improve, but become more difficult, why don’t they give up?

The answer that came to me and I believe is true for all of us is DESIRE. Desire keeps us going, desire  as simple as  a tunafish sandwich for lunch keeps us alive for lunch.

When I don’t write for days on end though writing is the one thing I can do when I can do nothing else, I have to ask myself why. Here from my memoir Her Widow, letters I wrote to Catherine, my partner, the year following her death, here is an early letter in which I say what writing means to me.

Dear Catherine, I was crying when I lay beside you in bed a week ago, imagining my first hour without you, the days that would follow that and the weeks and months and years.  I was 51 years old.  I might live thirty more years without you.  Twenty was certainly a possibility.  

You said something I thought was strange.  You asked me, “Why do you write?”  I didn’t want to talk about writing.  I needed words of comfort from you. “I don’t want to talk about that,” I said. 

Today, a week later, I  understand why you asked that question.  I write to feel connected to something, to be in the good company of my imaginary friends and someone or something I can’t name or explain who whispers  words to me now and again or shows me an image.  Whatever or whoever is guiding me in those times is also good company.  And I write when I don’t know what else to do, when I’m unable to read, watch television, or listen to music.  When I can’t fall asleep.  Writing is the one thing I can do when I can do nothing else. 

Standing in the pool dumbfounded yesterday feeling no desire for anything, not even to lay out on the water and float, I searched my mind for one small thing I desired. I want to finish a play I have been working on for some time. I need an obstruction for my character to overcome or not.  The drama needs a conflict.

I got out of the pool and went into the house to write.  And today I am able to add something to this blog.

My Writing Life: Rewriting

summer bathing

 

I have been away from my blog, working on my memoir, Her Widow.  A limited memoir, I call it, because rather than tell my life story, it tells what happen one year in my life.  One more pass, I tell myself each time I start another draft or rewrite of Her Widow.  Just one more pass, when I know very well after 35 years of wriing that it will be at least ten more drafts.   Every writer, student or professional, knows writing is rewriting.  If you don’t enjoy rewriting you aren’t a writer for long.

I am working on a full length play as well as my memoir.  Fifteen years ago After the Dance was a novel.  Ten years ago a play.  Last year a novel again.  And this year I am transforming it back into a play.  I have probably written six drafts of each transformation.

A piece of writing, be it nonfiction or fiction, story or play, can be looked at from two aspects:  from its Structure and from its Style.  Structure is everything having to do with plot and character development  Style is everything to do with language: syntax and diction, which might incorporate both exposition and dialog.  There are a million ways to say anything.  The English language in particular is designed for variety of word choice as well as phrase, clause, and sentence structure and order, and all that in service of the story.

There are many ways to structure a plot and develop a character also, which is to say there are a million ways to tell a story and draw a character and whenever there are a million ways to write something there is rewriting.  Choice leads to change and change is rewriting.

The First rule in creative writing is Show, don’t Tell.  The Second rule is anything that doesn’t serve the plot development or character development must come out.  Everything that lands in your story that perhaps is interesting or witty but does not move the plot along or does not show something about your character MUST be tossed.  You only have so many words and pages in which to tell your story.  Don’t clog it up with the unnecessary no matter how lovely the unnecessary seems.  Useful is the test.  Another way of putting that is Does it Work?  Don’t ever ask yourself if it is Good.  Good can’t be judged impartially.  Does it Work? can.

All right that is enough from me tonight.  I have put in a little time on my blog and now must hurry/speed up/ rush/run/ hasten/ press on over to Her Widow.  I am only on page 25 and have “miles to go before I sleep.”

 

My Writing Life: MeeeeeOwwwwww!

 waking up 2
Days ago, I lost the file of Her Widow that I was editing. l highlighted the file and dragged it to the back-up on my desktop, but instead of the file being saved, it was converted back to an earlier version and all the changes I had made were lost—gone into the ethers.
Apple could not find the file that was lost.  After an extensive, three hour search for it on my hard drive and in my back-up files, Apple pronounced it gone forever, permanently lost.  Nor could the computer geek I enlisted restore my work.  No one can explain why my MacBook Air, on command to save, erased the file and all previous versions, saving only an old version that did not have 40 hours of rewriting in it.  I’m not the first to lose an important file and feel sick.
I have started over, knowing a brush stroke can’t be duplicated any more than a batter can strike the ball again, exactly as he did when he hit the homer.  No moment in life with all its magic can be repeated.  It is disastrous to try to perform the ballet as danced when everything seemed to come together.  No concert is the same the second time around.  I mourn the loss but I must move on with confidence that I have the stuff to find new language, and, of course, I have learned the lesson.  I am printing out my corrections each day, not just saving the file and backing it up.