Unblocking the Block

writers-blockI haven’t posted a scrap of writing here in almost a month. Quite a falling-off since the time I used to post daily, even IF some of the posts were musings about deodorant ads, or the Expire-By sign on a Tylenol bottle found in the back of my medicine cabinet (1989!), or the sight of lashed-together porta-potties sailing gaily down the highway on a flatbed truck.

I can’t account for this silence without boring everyone to death so I’m just going to begin again here, and by way of breaking this quiet streak, resolve to start each post with a “Today I…” and see how that goes. But as one famous scribbler once famously said, nothing interesting happens to most writers after childhood – bad news for us all – and since I am today paddling quietly through the waters of a lazy weekend, I’ll go back a few days in search of something.

So: Last Monday I could have (and should have) written this:

Today at the airport, a pig appeared at Security, inching along in line just like the rest of us. Though the pig was following all the rules and was connected by a conventional leash to a conventional-looking young woman, its porcine qualities uh, shall we say…stood out. It had a long skinny tail that it was wagging, a sleek body ending in a head on the scale of  Winston Churchill’s head if you think in terms of us humans….

pig10-2a

…And it was walking on tiptoes, as pigs do, given the anatomy of their feet. Of course it also had that one-of-a-kind piggy nose, a delicate flower of an organ that seemed to tremble minutely in reaction to the foreign smells surrounding it.

People were staring at this pig in utter astonishment, remarking to one another and pulling out their phones to capture a picture. It was as if Noah’s arkful of specimens had never settled crookedly on the peak of Mt. Ararat at all.

It’s true that a TSA person immediately hustled into the line and ushered the pair away but then didn’t both pig and person appear again? Yes they did: on the safe side of Security where I found myself sitting beside them as I pulled on my boots and the young woman pulled on her shoes. Since her pig  was already wearing the ‘toe shoes’ Nature gave it – the young woman and I had the chance for a few words.

“Is the little guy anxious?” I asked, noting the foam gathered around its mouth.

“Oh God no,” the young woman replied, adding almost wearily, “We do this all the time.”

And with that the two trotted off, leaving me to marvel yet again on the sometimes-damnable quiet of my own usual days. But silent no more I here vow! Henceforth I’m going to by-God look for fit musings whether about adventures large or small, and come back to report about them here.

shopping

 

 

 

 

 

Once as Alive as You or I

DCIM100GOPROOn the tour of a Norman castle I took last spring, I heard all about the moat and the boiling oil, the outer wall and the inner wall and the poor souls who got tossed over the latter, to fall screaming to their deaths below.

I listened as hard as I could, trying not to be distracted by the vista surrounding us.I found it that fascinating.

at-the-castle

But for all my listening I heard very little of what the daily life in that castle was like, which is what I most yearned to know about. I had to come back home and dig out my copy of T.H White’s The Once and Future King for that; because I had bought a paperback copy of this great tale of the Arthur Legend back when I was young and sure enough, there the tattered volume still stood, on the shelf where I had placed it. I flipped through the pages and there  was the passage I had remembered, outlined and waiting for me all these years later.

In it White describes the great walls surrounding a castle of this same era in England. Then he goes on on to say how things looked from the inside in those far-distant days, and what a spell he does cast with these words:

“So much for the outer defenses. Once you were inside the curtainwall, you find yourself in a kind of wide alleyway, probably full of frightened sheep, with another complete castle in front of you. This was the inner shell ‘keep’ with its eight  enormous round towers which still stand. It is lovely to climb the highest of them and to linger there looking toward the marshes from which all these old dangers came, with nothing but the sun above you and the little tourists trotting about below, quite regardless of boiling oil. 

“Think of how many centuries that unconquerable tower has withstood. It has changed hands by secession often, by siege once, by treachery twice, but never by assault . On this tower the lookout moved. From there, he kept the guard over the blue woods toward Wales. His clean old bones live beneath the floor of the chapel now, so you must keep it for him.

“If you look down and are not frightened of heights (the Society for the Preservation of This and That have put up some excellent railing to preserve you from tumbling over), you can see the whole anatomy of the inner court laid out beneath you like a map. You can see the chapel, now quite open to its God, and the windows of the Great Hall with the solar over it. You can see the shafts of the huge chimneys and how cunningly the little side flues were contrived to enter them, and the little private closets now public, and the enormous  kitchen. If you are a sensible person, you will spend days there, possibly weeks, working out for yourself by detection which were the stables, which the mews,  which were the cow byres, the armory, the lofts, the well, the smithy, the kennel, the soldiers’ quarters, the priest room, and my Lord and Lady’s chamber. Then it will all grow about you again. The little people – they were much smaller than we are and it would be a job for most of us to get inside the few bits of their armor and  gloves that remain – will hurry about in the sunshine, the sheep will baa as they always did, and perhaps from Wales there will come the ffff-putt of the triple-feathered arrow, which looks as if it had never moved.”

I have worked as a professional writer for over 35 years, penning essays and columns and autobiographical pieces and I just know that I would need another 35 years of study to even come close to the verbal artistry of this lonely and complicated man, who took a time 1400 years in the past and brought it to shining life.

 

 

I’ve Stopped

planning the prom at Somerville High School

A couple of weeks ago I stopped writing the column I have been producing every week since the fall of 1980.

This is what I looked like when I started. I’m the one in the puffed sleeves, I should say, the one with the post growing out of her head.

in  those 35+  years, I never once missed a deadline.

I leaned in, you might say.

I wrote it recovering from an early miscarriage and the fierce spinal headache that put me back in the hospital two days after the D & C.

Two years later, I wrote it as labor began and finished it in the hospital the morning after the birth of our third child.

That time, my husband took the copy home, typed in the final two paragraphs I had composed there in the hospital, photocopied it and put it in the mail to all my subscribing papers. (Transmitting a thing electronically to a newspaper was almost unheard of infancy then – heck,  faxing seemed to us all like a literal miracle – and for years there, filing the column meant quite mailing two fat handfuls of envelopes.)

But this past summer, for the first time ever, I did take a little time off, only because the media group who was my biggest customer needed to cut its freelance budget,  and knew for first time what it felt like to be on  vacation. I enjoyed the break, though I felt kind of floaty as week after week passed and I stayed silent.

But slowly, slowly over that time, I began to realize that for quite a while now, Change has been knocking at my own personal door. And so, a couple of weeks ago, I notified all my various editors to say that I was quitting.

The Winchester Star’s Melissa Russell who is among the most talented editors I have ever worked with, did this piece about my stepdown.

In the next little while I’ll come back to the topic of what it has felt like to stop doing a thing I have long been doing, and maybe I can ask you others what that experience has felt like to you.

No longer the girl in the puffed sleeves with the wannabe Farrah Fawcett hair  I am content to be  just Terry,  just another blogger, peeping away in that vast blogger meadow.

 

 

Unhitched

I wake these mornings without the daily dread of a deadline. Like the dog that sleeps in the bed with you, I sigh and turn onto one side for ten minutes to look out the window. Then I sigh again and turn to my other side. I think about Time. Then I shift to my back, take up my phone and read about the daily horrors as recounted on the various news sites. After that, I really sigh, and as antidote, read my book for ten minutes, which right now is The Boys in the Boat.

I read this book both because a young person to whom I am deeply committed recommended it and because as a lover of old things – see awesome photo – I delight in being transported back to a long-ago time like the 1930s, when the action in that true story occurs.

old house

You wonder who once sat on these porches of a summer night, with the dews descending and the fireflies winking.

Speaking of summer nights, this summer just ending has been a strange one for me, because for the first time since the years when gals wore poufy hair like this…

alexis-carrington-joan-collins-dynasty

…I have not been filing a weekly column. And as it stands I’m not going to be filing any, until October at the soonest.

I both chose this non-writing path and had it chosen for me in that the parent company that owns most of the papers I appear in announced in July it had no budget for freelancers at least until then. I know I could have done a Gandhi and kept writing for free but to do so would break solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the scribbling game. For about six hours after hearing the news though, I did feel I should go on sending a fresh column to the other papers that subscribe to me column and are not part of this giant chain. But then, sitting outside the dry cleaners at around 4 that afternoon, it dawned on me that this could be the universe sending me a message.

I asked the editors of these independent papers if they‘d mind my taking a break and they couldn’t have been nicer. “Take it!“ they said. “Take it by all means and we’ll be glad to have you back in October.”

And so I decided, I would take the time, and wouldn’t I have scads of it!

I didn’t have scads of it, of course. For one thing, our span of time is brief and swiftly passing no matter what we are doing. And for another, there were some family events, some joyful in the extreme and some that same degree of terrifying and to them I turned all my attention.

But over these weeks I did learn this, I did learn this: I learned that I feel at my happiest when I write, and that I feel most lost and somehow lonely when I don’t.

So, I’m back, ready to catch more small moments of Time in my little net and tell of them here.

Of course we writers never know who is reading what we write, if indeed anyone reads any more, but that’s fine. It’s the writing that counts, the saying what we saw. I have always felt my purpose in life was to do just that. Just as it says in that early-days Elton John song with its lyrics by the great Bernie Taupin, “My gift is my song and this one’s for you.”

 

 

Updike: Still the Best

DSC_0081I saw the thinly disguised remembrance of Updike’s mother in The Sandstone Farmhouse.

It appeared in The New Yorker shortly before my own mother died so suddenly. I wrote to him to offer my condolences and he wrote me right back, the nicest letter.

I always said I would go and find the story and offer a bit of it here, maybe on some quiet summer day.

It looks to me as though this is finally the day.

It’s just this passage partway through the tale.

His writing inspires me as much now as it did when I first read Rabbit Run, during Rest Hour the summer I was 13 and lying on my cot at summer camp.

Relatives and neighbors spoke to him with a soft gravity, as if he were fragile in grief. He knew he and his mother were regarded as having been unusually, perhaps unnaturally, close, whereas between themselves the fear was that they were not close enough. Why grieve? She was old and in pain, worn out, She was too frail in her last half-year to walk to the mailbox or lift a case of cat food or pull a clump of burdock. It was time; dying is the last favor we do for the world, the last tax we pay.

He cried only once, during the funeral, quite unexpectedly, having taken his seat at the head of his raggedly extended family, suddenly free for the moment, of arrangements and decisions. An arm’s reach away from him gleamed the cherry-wood casket he had picked put at the undertaker’s three days before. The lustrous well-joined wood, soon to be buried – the sumptuous waste of it. She was in there and in his mind there appeared a mother conceived out of his earliest memories, a young slim woman dressed in a navy-blue suit, with white at her throat, dressed to go off to her job at the downtown department store, hurrying to catch the trolley car. She had once reminisced, “Oh how you’d run, and if you missed it, there wouldn’t be another for twenty minutes and you wanted to cry.” She had laughed, remembering.

His tears kept coming, in a kind of triumph, a breakthrough, a torrent of empathy and pity for that lost young woman running past the Pennsylvania row houses, under the buttonwood trees, running to catch the trolley, the world of the 30s shabby and solid around her, the porches, the blue midsummer hydrangeas, this tiny well-dressed figure in her diminishing pocket of time, her future unknown, her death, her farm, far from her mind. This was the mother, apparently, that he had loved, the young woman living with him and others in a brick semi-detached house, a woman of the world, youthfully finding her way. During the war she worked in a parachute factory, wearing a bandanna on her head like the other women, plump like them by this time, merging with them and their chatter one lunch break when, he, somehow, had bicycled to the side entrance to see her. She was not like them, the tough other women, he knew, but for the moment had blended with them, did a job alongside them, and this too renewed his tears, his native pride in her then, when he was 10 or 11. She had tried to be a person, she had lived. There was something amazing, something immortal to him in the image of her running.

He remembered, from their first years on the farm, a crisis with the roof; it was being reshingled by a team of Amishmen and they had left it partially open to the weather on the night of the thunderstorm. Crashes, flashes. Joey’s parents and grandparents were all awake, and he, boy though he still was, was expected to help too; they rushed up and down the attic stairs with buckets, to save the plaster of the walls and ceilings below. There was a tarpaulin in the barn that might help; he found himself outdoors, in the downpour, and he had retained an image of running across the lawn in a flash of lightning that caught the white of her bare legs. She would not have been much over 40, and was still athletic; perhaps his father was included in this unsteady glimpse; there was a hilarity to it all, a violent health.

Working his way, after her death, through all the accumulated souvenirs of her life, Joey was fascinated by the college yearbooks that preserved girlish image. Group photographs showed his mother as part of the hockey team, hiking club. With a magnifying glass he studied her unsmiling competitive face, with her hair in two balls at her ears and a headband over her bangs. Her face seemed slightly larger than the other girls’, a childlike oval broadest at the brow, its defenses relatively unevolved. As he sat there beside the cherry casket crying, his former wives and adult children stealing nervous peeks at him, the young woman ran for the trolley car, her breath catching, her panting mixed with a sighing laughter at herself, and the image was potent, as fertile, as a classic advertisement, which endlessly taps something deep and needy within us. The image of her running down the street away from him trailed like a comet’s tail the maternal enactments of those misty years when he was a child crayoning with him on the living room floor, sewing him Halloween costumes in the shape of Disney creatures, having him lift what she called the ‘skirts’ of the bushes while she pushed the old reel mower under them – but from her point of view; he seemed to feel from within his mother’s head the situation, herself and this small son, this defenseless gurgling hatched creature, and the tentative motions of her mind and instincts as she, as new to the mothering as he was to being alive, explored the terrain between them. In the attic he had found a padded baby blue scrapbook, conscientiously maintained, containing his first words, the date of his first crawl, and his hospital birth certificate imprinted with his inky day-old feet. The baths. The cod liver oil. The calls to  the doctor, the subscriptions to children’s magazine, the sweaters she knit. Trying to do the right thing, the normal thing, running toward her farm, her death. In his vision of her running she was bright and quick and small, like an animal caught in a gunsight.

This was the mother he had loved, the mother before they moved, before she betrayed him with the farm and its sandstone house….

There is more of course but I will stop there. The mother in the story, like his own real mother, dropped dead in the kitchen of that sandstone farmhouse, lying there for a day or two before neighbors discovered her.

About ten years ago I flew to see my friend Bobbie in Swarthmore. One day during my visit, she and I drove to the tiny village of Plowville  to look for this sandstone house as well as the one ‘in town’ in the larger township of Shillington with its storefronts and trolley tracks. When we walked into the to Town Hall there to ask the address, a man who knew him happened to overhear us and told us so many details about him, mostly about his loyalty to the town and his perennial graciousness.

Four and a half years gone now but doesn’t he still live and move in my mind~ !

john updike bids us goodbye

Listen to This

It’s strange: I write something every day here and I find it easy. Yet when I decided last week I would give myself a break and take 5 days to just mention each of my 5 books it turned out to be… difficult. I feel uneasy going back to all that self-promotion. ‘Hi, wanna buy a book?’ ‘Hiiii! Here’s a funny book!’ It was such hard work and people are busy. Why should they stop and listen to me with my ambush book signing?

They even call those kinds of signings ‘ambush signings’ and I hated them. It finally got so if a bookstore said Come do a signing I would say Let me come give a talk instead. That

I could do. People would hear the laughing and come and sit down and there we’d all be, together, for the next 30 or 40 minutes: Instant community. Some of the people dearest to me now are people I met on the road this way. I’d get in my car and drive 8 hours and do the talk and think nothing of it. I was just happy for the chance to say how great it’s been for me all these years to be able to say out loud how the world looks to me each week.

So that’s what this fourth book is about: gaining the confidence to write your own stuff.

And just for fun I decided to record this book so it’s actually a book and two CDs. In both I just I tell a few of my own stories before offering the prompts designed to get listeners scribbling away themselves.

For example in the chapter titled “What Do You Like?” I describe six things I just plain love, then invite folks to do the same. In “Rules to Live By” I tell what my ‘ten commandments’ are, then ask them to set down theirs. ”The Wicked Elsewhere” gets people remembering back to the time they first heard where babies come from. Then, between every chapter, a fresh musical interlude helps people begin traveling down their own long-forgotten paths into the realm of memory, where everything we have ever experienced awaits us still. I picture the memories all resting at the bottom of a deep pool like so many bright leaves, waiting only for the waters to grow still enough to let us peer down and see them. This book simply provides tools both for seeingthose leaves and fetching them up into the light.

That person on the front cover is my big sister Nan who made my childhood so much fun. And that’s the old oak table that was my family’s back in the 1920s. There’s my grandmother’s blue and white ‘caddy’ for her pens and nibs and quills when she was a schoolgirl in the 1890s. That’s the old magnolia tree outside the window of the room I’ve spent my days in since we first moved here back when old Jimmy Carter was filling the airways with that strange Deep South accent.

He was a good man though and this is a good book and funny in parts because I used to teach and you know how teachers are, always trying to make you glad you came to class.

Here are some of the chapters:

  • Have Fun Decomposing
  • What Do YOU Like?
  • Rules to Live By
  • Who Is Around You
  • Fannytime
  • Fun with the Language
  • The Wicked Elsewhere (that’s the facts of life one)
  • The Little Cat
  • Kiss Me Goodbye
  • The Summer I Was Ten
  • If I Could’ve SEEN Myself!

The whole thing is just me telling a few stories and then giving you the ‘mic’ and offering to listen as you tell yours. Really it’s just the same thing all people do when they meet, at the supermarket say, or on Facebook. We can all tell our stories, and, I believe, we can all write.

Anyway here’s what it looks like, the back cover first and then the front with the actual graphics in place. Click on them to enlarge them, same as always. .

And if you’d like to learn more about it go here, then send a check for $19.95 to Ravenscroft Press at PO Box 270 Winchester MA 01890 and we’ll cover shipping. ( Sorry it’s more money than this one and this one and this one: it was the larger production costs, with the two media.)

The Best Book I Never Wrote

What’s nicer than helping other people feel that they can write? Encouraging them to, I mean? My chance to do this came the day an 85-year-old lady from my church called up to ask if I would teach a course to be called Writing from Personal Experience at the local Senior Center.

“We’ve all been talking,”  she said and we know you write for the paper each week.”  

They had all already decided it seemed that I would teach them once a month –  “on Mondays we thought, in the afternoon, since we  don’t like to go out at night.” I would prepare a lesson each time and assign a writing topic. Then,  at the next meeting, I would collect up all their pieces, take them home,  write comments on them and report on them at the next meeting at which time I would repeat the process…

“And oh!” she added cheerfully, “course we wouldn’t be paying you anything; that’s our policy here at the Center.

“What do you think?”

What did I think?! My palms had begun sweating at her first sentence. Why had I even picked up the phone? How could I POSSIBLY do this?  I’m too busy! What about all these kids in my kitchen every night!

Then I had one of those rare moments where I felt that someone way bigger than I am was nudging me forward.

I gave in to it. “OK,” I said meekly.

And so began a three-year odyssey that ended in a book whose title comes from a poem by Robert Frost  about the near-impossible task of raking leaves, something we all know a little bit about at this season for sure. 

We began each class saying something about the day itself and then we would start.

Once Bill Jeffery  read aloud a remembrance from childhood, his voice broke and he had to stop.

 “Let it out!” cried the lady across the table who had been in his First Grade Class some 70 years before.

“My wife says I’m emotionally unstable,” he joked before clearing his throat and going on.

But permission had been given: from that day on we were unashamed to show our feelings.

Looking back, I now realize there were tears at every session. We listened to one another’s memories and we cried. Because of this, class member Clarence, who wrote for most of his 96 years, called the classes my “séances.” (He once dropped me a note in his bold hand, “Lately I haven’t been well enough to get to too many of your séances…”)

Maybe he thought we were conjuring the dead in that basement room with the orange tulips painting the outside of our little window come spring.

Maybe he was right. 

Here is one of his poems now:

The Cat

 The Cat is a creature of infinite grace,

It spits on its forearms and sponges its face.

It licks and it sponges itself every place.

It licks and it sponges itself without haste,

It uses no soap no powders, no paste,

No cold-cream, no napkins, no towels to waste

Very efficient – but how does it taste?

 

Witty eh? But his best work – indeed everyone’s best work appeared when they looked back to the early decades of the last century – the meadow and the field, the bucket and soapstone sink – and to those long-gone ones who populated that world.

If you’d like to give this book to a friend download the same form I referred to in the last two posts. Again I’ll cover the shipping costs.

I’m smiling now just thinking of those stories: of ladylike Eleanor Matson taking off her coat in church – only to look down and see she had forgotten her skirt. Ah bless them all for having the courage to believe that harvest was anything but meager! The evidence is all right there.

This photo at the top is just me at a talk I gave on this and other books  for the Friends of the Abington Library, speaking of cool older people.

And underneath here is more about the book. Just click on it to make it easily readable.