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.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

When we last saw our hero...

...she was doing some navel gazing and kicking of her own butt to get motivated again.

I am a little humbled and very grateful for the response to my most recent blog entry. Supportive feedback came from friends (although one might say it's in their "friend contracts" to be supportive). A very kind mention on DCBlogs described me as "one of the most talented writers around." I will gladly buy a coffee for the individual responsible for that text. I will not lie: it was an invigorating compliment (and yes, wee ego boost) that has encouraged me to continue on the "Back from the Dead" creative path.

I've committed myself to doing at least one creative thing every day. Some are things I just do for myself that may or may not see the light of day beyond my desk, some are in the form of drawings that sometimes show up on Facebook (to torture my friends), and some are words that will either show up here or in short stories I'm going to try to finish. I have a bookshelf of half-finished stories, but I don't know that fiction is my gift. We shall see.

A while back, my friend the Sasquatch fell in love with letterpress after taking classes at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring. The end result of this is that the Sasquatch has made some very cool cards on a vintage letterpress and sells them online through his business, Model Citizen Press, on Etsy and at funky art and craft fairs in the DC area. While my style of "art" might best be described as "early onset Grandma Moses primitive" (aka, "you draw like a child"), some of my drawings have translated well into handcrafted cards sold by Model Citizen Press.

 In an homage to my background in Russian culture, I've drawn a series of matryoshki images (the classic Russian nesting dolls) for the Sasquatch, representing families, wedding parties, heck, even a little steampunk action and - the heart of the Internet - cats. Some of the wedding and family cards represent "traditional" straight families, and others celebrate gay and lesbian families like "Ellen and Portia" here.

"Ellen and Portia," the blushing brides gettin' hitched

I considered sending one to the Russian embassy to congratulate their government on being so tolerant and accepting. As I recently made the decision to never return to my erstwhile home, I don't think pissing off the people who process visas to Mother Russia is much of a big deal for me. However, that would have been a waste of a nifty card, lovingly handmade by the Sasquatch himself.

So, I have sketched matryoshki, zombie sock monkeys, zafitg angels and devious devils, and sea-green mermaids, all scratched out in pen and pencil and handed off to the Sasquatch. It's been a blast to see my scrawls translated into things that are sent and exchanged as tokens of love and affection (and, in a few cases, just tokens of utter strangeness). The zombie sock monkey started as a joke, but he has become a bit of a thing for me. I feel great affection for him, and I find myself drawing him in different situations all the time - some of them definitely not ready for prime time and exclusively for the amusement of the Sasquatch and myself. But these little steps, and the appreciative reception from folks who have bought cards with my drawings, have made me want to continue. I am evaluating all sorts of ideas, but while I do that cautiously and with the thoughtfulness of someone with shallow pockets, I keep drawing. I keep making things.

I bought a $5 sketching app for my tablet, and I have been a menace drawing random things in the past couple of weeks. I appreciate the tolerance of my Facebook friends who see all that stuff popping up on my timeline. My thought is this: good, bad, ugly, if I put my stuff out there, I can't hide it. I get feedback, I get criticism, I see my flaws and errors and strive to do better. 

Sakura, one of my little tablet sketches.

It's the same with my words. I think I lost some faith in my writing in recent months after getting a string of rejections over a short story I tried submitting to a number of magazines. One low level reviewer bounced it back to me with the notation that it was utterly juvenile writing. There's part of me that wanted to embrace that at 48 and say, "Awesome, how youthful of me!"

Just kidding. It was a cringeworthy moment. 

But if I don't try, if I don't share my words, how will I improve? How will I know what strikes a chord with people? I am under no illusion that I will become a best-selling author. I realize that is a pipe dream of thousands. But I would like to write things that grab people and make them think or simply resonate somewhere within a reader - their heart, head, or gut.

I have been working on starting a storytelling podcast for a while now. I want to create a community of people who can use the podcast as a hub to share their own work, while also sharing my own. I was ready to embark on this project last summer, but just as I was preparing to push the button, I was hit in another car accident. Yep, Ms. Auto Injury was walloped by a minivan full of teenagers who tried to defy the laws of physics. I lost my whole summer to pain, hammer-to-the-skull headaches, and physical therapy. My car survived - don't ask me how - and it looked pretty spiffy for an old station wagon when I got it back from the body shop. And boy, was I happy to see it, as Enterprise had rented me a vehicle that reeked like a corpse was riding in the trunk.

At least they didn't give me a stinkmobile in September when I was hit again.

Again. Yes, again. 

At least this time, I was hit by a New York Times "Notable Author" and former Clinton West Winger. I have to wonder which of President Bartlett's staff members was based on Mr. Audi A7-I'm-in-a-Hurry. Amusingly, I got rear-ended by him just as the sun was setting on Yom Kippur, and I can only imagine he was in a rush to get home. At least hitting my car gave him something to atone for, right?

More physical therapy, more time lost from work. The depression that had settled on my head after the July accident was pulled down like a hood after September. And the desire to be creative (or much of anything, frankly) vacated me. It's been a series of tentative steps and stumbles since then. The podcast is on hold, but I hope to return to the idea. Storytelling seems to be a hot button concept this year, and I may already be so far behind the curve that I can't catch up. Until I figure out what I want to do, I'll keep taking baby steps, writing here, drawing there. Eventually people on Facebook will get tired of my little tablet sketches and readers will want more than me just yapping about getting my act together. 

That will come. Until then, the Zombie Sock Monkey and I will muddle through, one undead day at a time.
Zombie Sock Monkey is my co-pilot

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Fresh Snow

It smells like snow. I can’t describe it, really. If you’ve grown up in an area that gets a good amount of snow in the winter, you know it. It’s crisp, distinctive. I learned the smell early in life in the Midwest, as it crept in, sometimes hours in advance of a storm. In Moscow, the smell was often masked by the dirty air of the city, but it was still there. I don't smell it very often here in Maryland, so when it happens, it feels so good. If I know snow is coming, I close my eyes and breathe deeply. The familiar scent floods my nose, my head. When I fill my lungs with that air, I feel better. Calm. Peaceful. I can briefly fool myself that the air is cleaner and healthier when snow is the fragrant note. 

Last night, I breathed in, hoping to catch snow on the breeze, but there was none yet. Tonight, it’s here. I have my windows open, as the mild temperature of the day drops and the light rain outside hovers above freezing, on the verge of laying down a sheet of thin ice that will be cloaked in white overnight. I need to close the windows soon, before the snow air I love begins to sting my nose and lungs, still aching from the cold that will not quite leave me. My lungs offer up a quiet rasp only I can hear in my chest and head. It's time to heat some water for tea and turn off the overhead lights that seem too strong now.

I have white twinkle lights in my living room and a red paper star in my kitchen window, never taken down from Christmas. I’ve decided the star isn’t a cheap holiday light, but simply something warm and welcoming for the dark space of my solitary nights. It makes me feel a little less alone. Especially now. So it stays. I don’t know how much life there is in a ten dollar light cord wrapped in a glossy cardboard shell, but I intend to embrace every last lumen it offers. 

Save for someone in their final hour on death row, we don’t know when our last lumen will burn out. I feel l have wasted so much of my own light, as dim as it might be, and I am 48 years into my life now. I have made so many commitments to myself over the years—in creativity, health, a search for love and partnership—that I have let fade away. I need a reason to want to succeed, to thrive, to want something.

When I was a teenager, my father belittled me. It was painful, and I was not mature enough to understand his own bitterness about his life then. Not sure I am mature enough now, honestly. Back then, I had an elaborate set of imaginary worlds in my head where I could retreat from reality while hiding in my corner bedroom, sitting at my drawing table with my pencils and notebooks, and my radio. I am sitting at that same drawing table right now. The pencils and notebooks are here with me, as is a radio. The only difference is the addition of technology and the older, sadder, less agile body. So many years later, the memories of my father’s outbursts are here with me too. “It’s a good thing she’s smart, Jerry,” I can hear him say snidely to my mother. “She doesn’t have a damn thing to offer a man.” I was seventeen, and I was in the next room. My father was a very smart man. He really didn’t like me, but he was a very smart man. And I hate that my life has demonstrated him to be right about me in many ways.  

Hard words to write, but honest words. And I so want to prove him wrong about me in many ways. Sitting here tonight, surrounded by half-finished stories and half-assed drawings, breathing in the smell of coming snow, I realize I have to get my shit together and be whatever I still can be in this life. I need to finish things I start. I need to be stronger for myself and be a little selfish—another thing that’s hard to write, as I was accused of being a selfish person so often as a child. But for many years now, I’ve felt more invested in the success and happiness of other people than in myself because I did not think I was supposed to be successful or happy. I’ve been told I shouldn’t expect more. I am ugly. Unlovable. Unworthy. Instead of my own love or success, I have sought approval. I have been cheerleader, supporter, stage manager behind the curtain, the “I’m so happy for you” girl, and sometimes the person who is used for information and then passed over in favor of others—more vibrant, more interesting, more beautiful, more influential, smarter…

So, what do I do? Where do I start? I’m not even sure which things to try to finish first, or which things to jettison as unrealistic at 48. But if I just continue to spend all my time thinking and not doing, the clock will wind down, and my own bulb will dim and sputter without really throwing any good light.

So, I wait for the snow, now heavier on the air and mixed with the incense of wood fire from the house next door. I wait for the cold to be too much for me to take, sitting by the open window. I wait for my mind to settle on what to do next. 

And then, I have to stop waiting. I need to start being happy. 

I hope to see a field of fresh white when I wake up tomorrow. And I’ll make my own mark in the snow and choose my own path to leave in the fresh white. 

Most probably, that path will initially just be to my car in the parking lot, dragging a shovel and scraper in my wake. 

But it's somewhere. It's a start.