Monday, September 01, 2014


A couple of years ago, a friend gave me some writing prompts - just words, phrases, something to ponder and build on for my writing. I was neglecting the wanted words in my head. I make my 9-5 living with words. Needed words. Not words that drive my personal passions, but those that keep a roof over my head. I am proud when those needed words help create success or progress for people and projects at the office. But there are words and stories that bounce around in my brain that do not put groceries in my fridge. Still, those wordsthe wanted wordsneed to come out. I dream of making the wanted and needed the same thing, but that truly is simply a dream at this point. Honestly, I don't know if anyone else wants the same words I have in my noggin. People might give me a wider berth on the street if they knew what ideas rolled around in my skull.

We shall see.

I spend most of my time writing nonfiction, both for work and for myself. But as a child I wrote fiction all the time. Somewhere along the way, I shifted. The unicorns and feisty girl rebels and space pirates faded away, and I turned toward the absurdities of real life. God knows, there's plenty there to write about there.

There is a 36" wide bookshelf next to my drafting table. One entire level of that beech IKEA Billy is filled with notebooks, each stuffed with unfinished fiction going back as far as 1989.

1989, people. Jeez louise. That's vintage Moscow-era stuff. Much of it probably pretty awful, too.

Part of me wants to have a little bonfire and just torch all the unfinished work. It's like a pile of little spiral-bound paper anchors holding me down, keeping me from moving forward with new work. Yet, I keep it, thinking someday I'll complete those stories or cannibalize them for something new and better.

What would you do?

I'm not the same person I was in 1989.  I don't write the same way.  I don't see the world the same way. There is no way I could finish these stories as I would have then.

Before the Berlin Wall came down.

Before the Soviet Union fell, in glorious up-close Technicolor.

Before I moved to DC.

Before I worked for Gopher.

Before I logged a zillion miles traveling solo through Mother Russia and Central Asia.

Yurt cafe!

Master Blaster say, "Come on down to Yurt-ville Bartertown!" All the Sprite and Snickers and laghman you can stuff in the trunk of your car for a terrifying ice-slicked ride through the Tien Shan Mountains. Just don't look down at the burning bus that just fell off the road ahead of us! (Yes, really happened.)

Before my mom died.

Before all the ridiculous car accidents that squished my spine like a cartoon coyote under a ton of Acme evil.

Before I lost part of my vision and became a semi-pro cyclops.

Before so many things happened, positive and negative—aka, just lifeI can't keep track anymore.


For now, I'll keep the notebooks. Maybe something will happen with them eventually. For now, they soak up dust very nicely.

I'll keep the writing prompts, too. Those, though, I will act on, for certain. I did write a piece based on one of them already. Of course, that was a couple of years ago now. I am a shameful slug. That old prompt was the phrase "turf toe"—an injury that sometimes befalls football players. Somehow, I turned those two words into a story about a demon who is sent to recruit terminally ill people to become demonic recruiters themselves. Join the dark side! The demon—a flatulent, Oreo-eating Scrabble player—spends hours engaged in conversation with a dying woman, finding a measure of his hidden humanity and the strength to be someone better, someone free.

Only three people have seen that story: my friend who wrote the prompt, a screenwriter friend in Los Angeles, and another word-loving writer friend in the UK. It will probably never go anywhere else, but the fact that I took a deep breath and handed it out to trusted souls was an important step. Fiction, I fear, is not my gift, but as a very wise man said to me recently, you don't know if you don't try. Yoda might have some issues with that concept, but I'm good with it.

So, I'm gathering together the scattered pages from at least four different notebooks to piece together the story I started (and stopped, and started again) from another of my friend's prompts. That one was simply the word "flamingo." 

So, let's see if my gray matter will pink up with some renewed energy. Pink. See? I made a flamingo joke.

I'm not a comedy writer. So, sue me.

Don't look at the hair! It will turn you to stone!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Clockwise Spiral


I moved.

It was not a planned move. It came fraught with emotion, disruption of the flow of life, and the divestiture of many belongings. It was therapeutic and traumatic, good and bad, and came at the same time I managed to badly tear the rotator cuff in my left shoulder putting a lightweight lawn chair into my car.

When the tear happened, I heard what sounded like someone tearing a chicken leg off a carcass. If felt that way, too. Generally, it was pretty unpleasant.

I saw stars, wanted to pass out, felt like throwing up, discovered new limitations, made new adaptations, and had to move forward despite the pain. It was, on a whole, a fairly apt metaphor for the entire process of rearranging my life in a new space.

In the midst of the chaos, I was blessed with the help of friends and family, some of whom traveled great distances to assist in the move. I am very fortunate, and I know it.

My new place still does not feel like home, despite me having been here for over a month now. Funny and yet perhaps not so odd for someone who used to bounce from place to place (and horrible hotel to horrible hotel) on the planet to have trouble settling in somewhere again. The new place is a top floor unit with a sunny balcony for plants - and an umbrella for my pale flesh. It's very nice to no longer have to hear people tromping around above me. Even my petite former upstairs neighbors sounded like they were running a Benihana's in the kitchen. From what I could hear, the husband had killer knife skills.

A new neighbor is moving in downstairs from me today - a 19-year-old guy with mom and dad footing the bill (they are discussing many matters on the balcony, hence I have learned this). We'll see how sound travels up from below.

The kitchen in my new place is open, so I've lost a wall and loads of storage space, but I've been creative about finding a place for everything, including a plastic shoe rack on the back of the kitchen door for all my cooking doodads. Ingenious, no?

It's hotter up here. The little balcony has no shade, and the heat seeps in through the windows and doors. When I lost power in a storm a week ago, the temperature climbed to 95 in short order. But I have fans. Everywhere. Towers, room air circulators, you name it.They do their job, and generally I don't mind the higher heat that much, until I've climbed the three stories up from the laundry room. Then, I'm a giant sweatball, more than willing to stick my head in the freezer (which has an icemaker, for the recorda first world thing of beauty).

But one of the tradeoffs for the temperature is that visitors swing by the plants outside my window, including this little guy below who just zipped by right now for a quick nip at the plants.

Hummingbird! Cooooool!
I know the new place is home and it will feel like home... eventually. After 19 years with my stuff anchored to the same place, it takes time to readjust. I'm just not very patient with myself. Damn first world immediate gratification gene.

Side note: I just realized my new downstairs neighbor was born the year I moved into the old apartment. Holy crap. To quote They Might Be Giants, "You're older than you've ever been, and now you're even older..."

Suddenly, I need a very strong Irish coffee. Where's my Jameson's?

In the big picture, this move is good and I will get my head wrapped around everything at some point. Just don't ask me where my iron is. I have no idea. I've put some things away that had adorned my walls for almost two decades, rediscovered things long forgotten on back shelves, and embraced styles and elements that I've loved since I was a kid. Life is short and uncertain, I have come to acknowledge. Hang the art you like.

My Gibson Girl debutante is watching over my shoulder as I type.

I'm not the only person I know experiencing change. Some of my friends are undergoing truly major transitions right now. Jobs, relationships, births, deaths... some I know, including a couple I love more than life itself, are looking at very high walls, heartache, and new paths, and I need to find ways to be helpful to them without being a pain in the ass. While I've never been a mother (although some might say I *am* a "real mutha" when they cross me), the mothering gene is there, and I feel it in my gut and heart when friends are suffering or lost. I want nothing more than to hold them in a fear-crushing hug and tell them all again and again that things will be okay.

Things will be all right. It all takes time.

Truth is, every single time I think this or write this or say this, it's not just for my friends. It's for me, too. Things will be all right.

Sometimes I feel like the clock that measures the whole of our lives doesn't just turn on a dial, but starts to spiral and spin out of control. We need to reach out and still the hands and reset the clock. And in that moment, that quiet moment, consider where we want to go when the hands turn again.

Right now, I'm trying to stop my clockwise spiral for a brief moment and decide what I need to do, what I want to do, before setting things in motion again. And if you need to do that, too, then go ahead. Still your hands for a second. The world can wait for you.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Welcome to new friends from The Listserve!

This is not hyperbole: I am touched, amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed (in a good way) to have received such lovely messages from folks who read my email via The Listserve. Over 200 individuals have reached out and shared their stories with me so far today, and I am grateful for the honesty and openness of each and every one. There is something really remarkable and transformative about being able to reach out to so many people around the planet in the blink of an eye, and find we have so much in common. The details may be different, but we all have a story to tell, challenges to overcome, changes to make, adventures to begin.

Here is my jumping off point. What comes next?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Come see me and my monkey at InterventionCon!

Hello, 2.5 loyal readers! I vanished for a couple of months there, eh? Funny thing happened: I moved. It was not by my choice. No, I was not evicted, but the owners of the condo where I'd lived for 19 (!!) years informed me of their plans to move into their unit as they downsized. Short story: I now live in the unit above my old home - quiet, mellow, hummingbirds checking out the Home Depot plants my bro and bro-in-law got for me. I am closer to the surface of the sun (by one story), so it's hotter up here, even with the A/C.

But all of that is a story for my next post, which has been perking in draft purgatory for a few weeks. It will come.

For now, I want to share with you that the Sasquatch (aka James Quigley, the letterpress craftsman/owner of Model Citizen Press) and I will be in the vendor room at InterventionCon in Rockville, Maryland this coming weekend, selling gorgeous handmade letterpress cards and prints with James' lovely work:

His little birds that will grab your heartstrings...

Wonderful old inventions...

 Funky vintage typewriters...

Even a little pop culture homage... (if you know it, you know it!)

He's got all sorts of cool stuff. Some of the cards even feature art by me! You want zombie sock monkeys?

We got zombie sock monkeys!

I even put my Russian culture education to use. We have cards with matryoshki for weddings for straight, gay, and lesbian couples. 

There are new baby cards, too, with diverse families, too. (We also have a cat matryoshki card. "Katryoshki.") 


James made cards from my mermaid drawings...

And my zaftig cherubs -- which I hand-colored with water color pencils.
If I get my ass in gear and a signing pencil in my hand, there will be some limited edition prints of my funky peacock, too. ("Funky peacock" is not a euphemism, for the record. It's a bird.)

James makes all these good things on a vintage Vandercook Proof Press at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring, which is a very cool place to learn how to make art of all sorts.

So, come back soon to read the saga of the 14-step apartment move and the epic quest for my security deposit (all battled one-handed with a torn rotator cuff, huzzah!) For now, if you're in the area, come and see us and buy some Model Citizen Press cards. Once you go letterpress, you're never going back to drug store greeting cards! (And hey—if you can't come to Rockville, you can check out the cards on the Etsy store site.)
Be there, aloha.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Peak Bloom

The cherry blossoms are here. The brick and stone and steel that line our streets are softened by white and pale pink blooms that lure tourists and jam our rush hour roads. I admit I prefer the elegant flowers of our magnolias, painted in bolder pinks, rich lavender, and deep purple petals, but they get less play in a cherry blossom-obsessed town. (It's alright, sweet magnolias. The tourists don't know what they're missing.)

We are at peak bloom for the cherry trees right now, which will come to an end in the blink of an eye. Rain is forecast for tomorrow, so people thronged the Tidal Basin today, wreaking havoc on the evening rush, and rendering me a profane mess behind the wheel. The pastel mania made the drive of a few blocks feel like a panicked apocalyptic escape from the capital.

Ah, yes. Hello, peak bloom. Here and gone.

As soon as the word "peak" was uttered, the cherry blossoms started to come apart and flutter down to the pavement. The city is already awash in white dots that speckle the streets, tossed along at ground level through busy traffic. Tiny silken tumbleweeds, chaotic yet graceful, they stick to your tires and the soles of your shoes. Fragile as porcelain, utterly ephemeral, and soon to be crushed into the cement. They are lovely, and they are fleeting.

For now, the blossoms float in the breeze like confetti, thrown in gracious handfuls by Mother Nature to celebrate the arrival of victorious spring. Every street is a parade route for the conquering hero who has slain grim winter—a season dispatched to memory and soon to be forgotten in a swell of rising heat. For now, summer waits at the window while the parade rolls by. In just a few days, the blush will be gone, and the city will return to brick, and stone, and metal, unadorned by flowering branches. The temperature will start to soar, and we will wonder where winter went.

And the wait begins again.

Monday, March 10, 2014

One Thousand Characters

I'm applying for the Amtrak Residency for Writers program. I realize I have a snowball's chance in Hell to succeed, considering that the program will have 24 slots for the thousands of hopeful writer-journeyers. But I am not the only snowball in Hell, and all of us melting lumps are furiously churning out short essays to express our desire to ride the rails and pour out our words and dreams from a sleeper car rolling across America.

Why do you want a residency? 

How would a residency benefit you?

Both answers limited to 1,000 characters, please, including spaces.

Holy crap. I never met a word I didn't like. That much is clear in my general need for an editor. Finding a way to express my desires and needs in pithy blocks of text is challenging. I should acknowledge that my tendency to ramble on paper reflects a general picture of me. Kinder people might call that "limitless." Less kind people would simply call it "undisciplined." I suppose I'm somewhere in between. The rambling also reflects my personal inability to stop. To stop worrying, stop fearing, stop holding myself back, stop comparing my life to others and seeing only a mirror of my perceived failure.  

Stop. Just stop.

I need to edit myself. The words? That will be the easy part. The person? Harder. But I will do it.

Right now, I have 1,171 characters on why I want to board a train and sail the tracks to the West Coast and back. I'm sure there are 171 characters that can go keep my insecurities company in the dark place to which they should be banished.

1,000 characters on why this would benefit me? Oh, a million thoughts are circling. I will drink some tea and consider the 999,000 thoughts to set aside. There is time, and I will consider my answers carefully, but like a locomotive, life moves fast, and I need to maintain my passion, hold onto my rails, and choose a destination before I miss my station.

Friday, March 07, 2014

What Is Remembered and What is Lost

About eight years ago, a strange and disconcerting thing started happening to me. At random moments, I suddenly smelled cigarette smoke all around me. The first time it happened, I was at work, and my head jerked up as the pungent stink of smoke hit my nose. I immediately jumped up  and went to the door to see what idiot had lit up in my vicinity.

But there was no one there.

This happened on and off for months before I finally typed the words "I smell cigarette smoke" into Google and the experiences of dozens and dozens of people popped up on websites all over creation. I'm sure that was the tip of the iceberg. Phantosmia, parosmia... phantom smells, olfactory hallucinations... all ailments and symptoms that can indicate a much more serious condition. Or, in many cases, it means you have a pretty screwed up sinus situation. A lifetime of sinus infections, and now I have the gift of "mystery stink" hitting my schnoz at odd times. While some of the odors can be exotic or comforting, most of the time it remains the harsh and overwhelming smell of cigarettes. It reminds me of a trip I took to the Yucatan with my late sister, where her chain smoking turned our hotel room into a toxic zone of rank, blue haze.

Once in a while this phenomenon presents fairly pleasant offerings, though. Sometimes I smell a plate of chicken and dumplings from Bishop's Buffet, a shopping mall restaurant in my hometown—it's salty, chicken-y,  and I swear I can smell the dough. Other times, it's incense from a Thai temple that reminds me of trips to Bangkok back in the day. It's a powerful thing and most of the time I want my sinuses fixed and the hallucinations to stop. But when it takes me somewhere good, somewhere pleasant, where good memories are formed, I am reluctant to have it end.

A couple of days ago, the smell that hit me was of a coffee shop and the fragrance of freshly roasted beans. This pleased me. See, I've been sick with some sort of sinus ailment since Valentine's Day, when I fled my apartment and whatever "celebrations" might come from the angry, drunken neighbors on the other side of my thin wall. I checked into a nearly empty hotel up the road, looking forward to using the pool and gym and thick-walled silence. It was lovely. A swirling snow storm provided the perfect setting to shelter from the world for a couple of days, and lounging alone in the hotel whirlpool next to a large window reminded me of weekends at the embassy dacha in Moscow—sauna and snow and a bright-starred sky.

It really was lovely.

Until I got sick. 

Feverish sick. Hacking and coughing sick. Lost voice sick. I returned home and found myself taking sick day after sick day, sweating out the fever on my sofa and drinking huge bottles of water to replace my burnt out fluids. And through it all, I was smacked in head with the smell of cigarettes to the point of nausea. 

But now, as I'm getting better, the smell of coffee fills my nose. It is intoxicating and heady. But the scent doesn't take me to a memory of my own. It takes me to a memory I could not have because it happened 20 years before my birth. It is a fragment of a memory from when my family lived in Seattle shortly after World War II ended. My parents had Swedish neighbors there, and Mom used to tell me the same little story about them again and again as she brewed coffee for my father in the morning in an old percolator at the house in Moline. 

The Swedes, she said, had a coffee urn that remained on all day and all night for family and friends who might drop by. The coffee was very strong, and the smell from the simmering urn permeated the whole neighborhood. Mom always said the urn was never cleaned until the coffee remaining had turned into a heavy sludge at the bottom of the pot. My older self wonders if the sludge might have packed the punch of Turkish coffee, like a shot of caffeinated jet fuel.

I know nothing more about the Swedish neighbors beyond their coffee urn. Were they immigrants? Were there a lot of Swedes in Seattle after the war? Before the war? What did the neighbors do? Did my coffee-averse mother ever try a hot cup from the urn?

I have no idea. I only have the urn. A fragment, and I never took the time to ask more questions. So many stories I have of my family are equally fragmented. I'm not entirely sure if all my siblings have the same fragments I do. What scattered pieces are triggered in them when they smell something or hear something? Are their stories, like mine, ones that happened decades before they were born?

I know about the relative who had a sick pony that was horribly bloated after gorging on tall grass. The pony had to be relieved of the gas, and a hollow tube was inserted into its gut to release the gas that had rendered the pony into a shaggy, earthbound balloon. Unfortunately, the relative handling the tube insertion was smoking at the time.

Did you know ponies can explode?

That's the lesson I learned from that vignette. Ponies can explode. It's the awesome power of chemistry, kids. 

But what more do I know about that relative? Do I have a picture of him somewhere in the boxes of photos in my closet? I regret deeply not asking more questions when my parents were alive. I regret all the history I've lost and will never be able to retrieve, except as details in genealogical records. There are likely no exploding ponies there. Nor are there urns of coffee and Swedish neighbors.

The coffee scent has left my head now. The urn is shelved and the Marlboro Man is riding the range in my sinuses again. I sit here and think about what scraps of information and memory I can still gather from my older siblings and stitch together to fill the holes in our story. 

Take time to listen and learn. Record what you can. I actively strive to hear my mother's voice in my head these days, so I don't forget it. I can hear her leaving me voicemail when, yet again, I wasn't home for her call on a Sunday night.

"Hi, Lissa. It's Mom. I'm sure you're out somewhere. Just wanted to call and say hi."

It gets harder to hear her voice in my head, but the Swedish coffee urn remains. Dammit.

Remember, remember. What is lost is lost. What we gain is heartache and memory and the need to create something joyful from what we cobble together through time. I have never been a good cobbler, but in this second half of my life, I'd best learn.