Chapter One: In the Bakery

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The Pyne girls sat on a bench in their family’s bakery with cinnamon and cardamom wafting around them. Fennec’s head rested on Fairfax’s shoulder and tears dripped down her nose and cheeks, leaving dark spots on her sister’s pale blue sweater.

Raw night air drifted in through the open door and a carriage horse clip-clopped on the cobblestone street. Usually, hungry patrons crowded the bakery, buying wheat loaves and warm croissants, gossiping and sipping tea, soaking in the warmth and light that effused through the shop. But now the three siblings were alone in the bakery, and the absence of movement and sound was glaring.  

Greyson stood and began pacing the red brick. Fairfax watched her elder brother, noting his restless hands and the contrived aspect of a boy holding back tears. They met eyes, which forced Greyson to pause and then turn behind the tall counter. He began shifting hefty bags of sugar, waiting for the rhythmic physical action to dull the blood pounding in his ears.

Fennec sniffed, and Fairfax wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She sought for comforting words, but her mind wouldn’t cooperate. She closed her eyes, but then she had to immediately open them again to avoid the creeping vertigo of distress.

She kissed the crown of Fennec’s dark head and stood up too, walking toward a stack of wooden bowls. Grabbing the nearest, she began mechanically filling it with ingredients. When a rough batter formed, she turned it onto a floured board and rolled the round out flat with a long, thin pin. Then she reached for the biscuit cutter. With each swift push and twist of the cutter through the puffy dough, Fairfax felt her breath slow and the feeling return to her hands.

The biscuits browned and she took them from the stone oven while Fennec found peach jam and Greyson brought out churned butter in a porcelain dish. The siblings gathered around a table in the corner, slicing into the steaming hunks and spreading butter like icing with a silver knife.

“He shouldn’t have gone north,” said Fennec.

“If father didn’t survey our lands every year, they’d be lost, Fen,” said Greyson.

“I know,” said Fennec. “But he could’ve sent Hempley instead of going himself. The river is dangerous for noxie nobles. Someone did something to him, I bloody know it. Our father didn’t just slip on a wet deck and fall overboard.”

Greyson had been trying not to imagine his father sprawled and thrown like a doll by pitching waves. He wasn’t satisfied with the explanation the officer had given them, either.

“Let’s not draw conclusions until we know more,” Greyson rationalized aloud. “Perhaps the commander will give Mother news.”

Fairfax twisted strands of cheesecloth between her fingers. She had begun to overcome the initial shock, and some of the fear had drained away, but she didn’t know how to grieve yet.

“I wonder if Mother expected us to close up the shop and is waiting at home already?” Greyson asked.

“You’re right, we should go,” said Fairfax, “but I’ll leave a note on the counter in case she comes here first,” she added, pulling pen and ink from the rummage drawer.

Fairfax folded the remaining biscuits into a kerchief to take home to their Mother and Maggie, and then the siblings extinguished lamps and threw smoldering coals from the stone oven into the alley slop. But before Greyson could lock the shop’s front door, a heavy step approached.

The man who strode through the bakery doorway had piercing blue eyes and a browned face that contrasted sharply with his crisp shirt collar. He wasn’t naturally dark-skinned like the affluent noxie class in Dover, but fair, with a rough tan that could only result from a continual cycle of burns and heals in the harsh sun. Fairfax was reminded of a painting in the Dover museum that featured a famous Mainland duke who was the first to sail to Istleguard and back.

“May we help you?” Greyson asked.

“My name is Kipling,” said the man. “Are you Tennys Turner?”

“No. I’m Greyson Pyne. Who’s Tennys Turner?”

The man shifted his weight and glanced around the room as if testing for something. Fairfax thought she even heard him sniff the air.

“He’s an escaped convict,” said the man, “whom I’ve been tasked with finding and returning to jail, where he belongs.”

“Then that’s certainly not me,” said Greyson.

Kipling narrowed his eyes. “Well, you could be his twin. You say you aren’t him, but how do I know?”

“I have identification papers, but not here.”

“Then I’ll come with you to get them.”

Greyson glanced sideways at Fairfax. “Sir, my sisters and I were just told that our father was killed in a riverboat accident. We were about to return home to be with our mother. Surely this can wait until tomorrow?”

Kipling didn’t move or speak.

“I’ll meet you at the courthouse with my papers first thing in the morning,” Greyson offered.

The bounty hunter expressed a low, slow breath. “Very well,” he relented. “But I don’t usually make exceptions, especially for grimskins. If you fail to show, I won’t make them again.”

Kipling scraped his heels on the brick, shoved through the shop door, and disappeared into the night. His insult hung behind him in the air, provoking the Pynes.

“A word isn’t worth blood,” said Greyson, looking between his sisters, whose hands and jaws were clenched.

“But it’s not right,” argued Fennec.

“Do you want to chase after that fellow into the night, then? Just forget it and let’s go home to Mother.”

Fennec’s black eyes flashed, but she relented and gathered her things. The Pynes left through the alley door and walked east through the dark Dover streets.

 

When Greyson went to confirm his identity at the courthouse the following morning, the bounty hunter seemed highly dubious – until he saw the stamp of the family crest on Greyson’s papers. Then he regarded Greyson differently, shook his hand wordlessly, and walked away.   

For a moment, Greyson stood alone in the solemn hall, wondering about the person whose face resembled his own so closely. Then he decided he had more immediate concerns than outlaw doppelgangers. He put it from his mind and left the dark courthouse for the morning-bright street.

 

*

 

It was Friday, the day of the funeral, and Fairfax woke to muted pattering on her window. She pulled the curtain back, watching raindrops slide down the glass. Miniature copies of the world were reflected, upside-down, in each clear orb. She felt that the weather was mocking her with predictable, storybook insincerity.

The sisters helped each other into their mourning attire. Getting fitted for a dress to wear to her father’s burial ceremony had been a surreal, melancholy experience for Fairfax. She sighed, remembering the tailor’s exaggerated pity as he asked her to choose between practically identical selections of black lace.

During the requiem, she looked around at the faces in the crowd that had come to pay respect. There were more people than she had expected. And quantity wasn’t the only surprise; the quality of the crowd was reinforced by dignitaries and minor royalty dotting the multitude. Fairfax had always known the Pyne name – the Pyne silver, she reminded herself – commanded high esteem in Dover. But now, she wondered at her father’s influence.

The eulogy became incomprehensible to her, so Fairfax gazed into the caverns of the church steeple high above. She couldn’t see the giant, solemn faces of the bells because they were hidden in the shadows, but she knew they were there. She imagined how the bells would sound if they were to break from their moorings and crash down the stone tower onto the horror-stricken crowd helpless in pews below.

She didn’t want to, but Fairfax listened to her mother weep. It was hoarse and soft, and yet the sound filled the room completely, like far-away cannon that can barely be heard, though every ear is trained toward them. Fennec’s hand clutched hers tightly and the blood pulsed warm and quick beneath gauzy skin. Fairfax squeezed and a flush of empathy passed between the two girls.

The sun crept out and shafts of light filtered down through the stained glass windows, illuminating a prismatic kaleidoscope in front of Fairfax on the tile floor. The priest intoned a final prayer and directed the mourners toward the graveyard. They stood and walked in a silent procession through iron gates and into the open air.

Then the sun filled every corner and tiny diamonds flashed on early spring petals. The Pyne plots were overlaid in red roses, and as she passed by, Fairfax reached out to pluck one and roll its velvet tenderness between her fingertips.

Her father’s wooden coffin sank into the black earth. A sylvan, rusty scent suffused from the fresh-turned loam, and Fairfax breathed it in deeply, finally succumbing to the emptiness. For a few moments, she was so numb she wondered if she had disappeared. Then she experienced an unfamiliar, far-off perception of herself, seeing her life as an outsider might. She felt that she, like those around her, was watching and waiting as events unfolded to see how she herself would react. Her life was spent on stage; the world existed to watch.

Society often indulges self-importance in the wealthy or famous, or in youth on the cusp of adulthood, and this sort of solipsism is especially justifiable in Fairfax’s case, it being benign and magnified by her grief. Most people, however, only imagine their relative importance to history. Fairfax Pyne wasn’t imagining hers.  

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“What does it feel like?”

You’ve likely heard the question before.

Someone discovers an unusual or interesting experience in your life, and their response is, “I can’t imagine what that must feel like!”

I heard these words after my dad died suddenly when I was in seventh grade, and I heard them when an unplanned teenage pregnancy compelled me to place my firstborn for adoption. Heard similar questions again when my husband of two years had an emergency quintuple bypass at age 35. Raising two children with him feels like the most extraordinary of all these experiences, though it’s the most common by other standards. And yet I’ve been asked what natural childbirth “felt like”. These moments of feeling were essential, developmental, and often joyful despite the pain, though within them I was mostly a reactant, barely an instigator, involved in the action generally by the whim of fate more than my own personal animus.   

Recently, I self-published a young adult action adventure set in the Victorian era, the story of three siblings escaping racial prejudice and embarking on a dangerous immigration journey to a new land. Friends, family and readers all ask, “what does it feel like”, to hold that book in your hands?

This is what it feels like: exposure and release, hope and hatred, jealousy and need. Mostly terror, because I shouldn’t be allowed to have such emotions, because I’m so completely immersed in the story, because I’m certain everyone will either love it or hate it and I’m in agony to see which. I feel a powerful inclination to shut myself back in that writing closet with my keyboard, to return to those pathways in my heart where characters wait patiently for resolution, to fully flesh this body I’ve built. I’ve been inhabiting an inner space, living with these souls that are my progeny in a sense that defies labels. Watching their story come alive to readers is such a novel experience. My audience’s participation feels nearly intrusive. You’ve stepped into a sectioned-off portion of my brain that’s been voluntarily opened up for detailed analysis.

I’m embracing the crazy artist stereotype.

But deeper than these varied emotions, I recognize that, for once, I’m the primary catalyst of an experience. I more than asked for this; I required it; I forced it; I forged it, pulling it into being from nothingness, and without my constant and self-imposed efforts, it would not exist. Even my children don’t have this quality, because the moment of their catalysis into existence was comparatively short, and the time since then has been spent essentially just controlling the chaos that naturally ensued. But my book, this story, is different. The process of it coming into being requires giant and daily creation effort.

As I get closer to mid-thirties and am forced to admit that yes, I suppose, I am officially an adult now, I begin to admit other things to myself. My flaws are less easy to dismiss as transitory accidents of character; I can see now they are a permanent part of my makeup, and I must learn to live with them, as everyone must. The strengths are more apparent as well however, thankfully, and I’ve noticed that one of my strongest strengths is noticing things.

I wanted to write a book using every sense, to craft visual scenes that felt complete – the way they might look on screen – yet more immersive still, since screens can’t provide taste, smell or a sense of imbalance. But if a reader commits enough, words become something new in that inner space, like they were in the author’s own own heart and mind. Then you can taste the salt and smell the gunpowder and fear you might slide off the deck of the rocking ship beneath you. These feelings are why books – I’ll maintain this to my grave – still play a feature role in a modern landscape blooming with attractive media options.

Actual reader response to The Pynes Embark seems to suggest that I’ve, at least in part, accomplished my sensory writing goals:  

Details about people and places are so expertly woven into the narrative you hardly realize you are reading descriptions. The Pynes Embark is an engaging and expertly told story, with characters you wish would join you at the table so that you might share a scone and some excellent conversation. The only disappointment to be found in this novel is when you have reached the last word and must wait to continue on the journey with the Pynes.”

“Believable and enthralling characters, profound political and philosophical themes, and imaginatively descriptive settings await you in this timeless tale of adventure and coming of age.“

“Now I am impatiently waiting for the next book in the series.

What does it feel like to hear these reviews, to imagine what comes next, to throw myself into the wild, blissful, torturous field of modern authorship?

In a word?

Promise.

 

first signing

The first time I signed a copy.

avocado

“An orchard on the north lee provided a constant supply of kumquats, peaches, avocados, oranges, bergamot and cherries.”

“For his middle daughter, the King reallocated a small island off the coast of his kingdom just for the princess’s garden. He imported breeds of bloom from every corner of the globe so she could enjoy them all year. Thyme, lavender and rosemary sprouted in rows stretching to the sea, and an orchard on the north lee provided a constant supply of kumquats, peaches, avocados, oranges, bergamot and cherries. Cottages dotted the landscape, where the middle daughter could stay with a few maidens on a weekend or bring her children when they were born, to play among the colors.”

– Chapter 3, page 26

bloodied kerchief

“The cloth was full of blood.”

“All three siblings rushed to Aella. Greyson scooped her into his arms. His concern immediately doubled when he realized that she weighed practically nothing. Fennec ran to get a glass of water and Fairfax sent Hempley for the doctor. Greyson carried his mother upstairs and laid her gingerly on the bed. A handkerchief she had been clutching fell from her grasp – Greyson retrieved it and felt his own breath stop short. The cloth was full of blood.”

– Chapter 5, page 51

medicine

“Calendula, agrimony, and ‘for swelling’.”

“I don’t care who started it, you know how I feel about violence,” she said, opening a small hutch near the back door and pulling down several small jars. They had labels like calendula and agrimony and for swelling. Aella pulled a few folded linens from a drawer, sprinkled them with drops from the different jars, and then cleaned and dressed the wounds. Greyson and Fennec submitted to her ministrations without quarrel.

– Chapter 2, page 14

champagne

“The stars brightened above them like actualized champagne bubbles bursting into heavenly existence.”

They finished eating, and Tennys produced a glass bottle from beneath his coat.

“It’s called champagne,” he said.

When Tennys thumbed the cork, it flew from the bottle and a sudsy spray cascaded down the sides. He took a deep pull and passed it to Greyson, who shrugged at his sisters and followed suit.

Greyson handed her the bottle and Fairfax sipped, feeling the bubbles tickle and leap on her tongue. It was a pleasant burn, like tight skin under a kiss of sun. The nectar was lightly sweet and sufficiently tart, and mountain-spring cool. She held the bottle so it came between her eye and the sunset, and through the dark green glass she could see tiny beads of air in the liquid trickling up in neat lines. Fennec took it from her and had a long draught as well.

They talked together while the orange glow faded, passing the bottle back and forth until it was gone. Then they fell silent as the stars brightened above them like actualized champagne bubbles bursting into heavenly existence, and each of the four warm hearts felt ineffably alive.

– Chapter 16, page 181

locket

“I keep a locket with a picture of my mother and wife side by side…”

“I pity you and I don’t want to hurt you,” Murian offered, slowing, his fists softening. “More than that, I can prove my words…” he began digging in his coat pocket… “sixteen years ago, I married the daughter of two castle slaves. My own children are romisco, which should tell you how I feel about fairs. I keep a locket with a picture of my mother and my wife side by side to remind me why I hated one and love the other…”

Murian searched his pants pockets, but they were empty as well. He realized that the locket was missing, and doubt clouded his dark noxie eyes.

– Prologue, page xii

tomato pickles

“Sarah had laid the Pyne table with antipasto: slices of smoke-cured venison and wild boar that Aella bought from a local huntsman, pickled vegetables cut in delicate slivers, roasted hazelnuts crusted with pink salt, a medley of olives lined up neatly in rows, and fat wedges of sheep’s milk cheese fresh from the dairy.”

– Chapter 4, page 34

The Haircut

I’m not that vain. Well, maybe sometimes. Like most girls, I enjoy dressing well when the occasion demands and I won’t turn down a compliment. Let’s be honest though; yoga pants and I have always been friends. And occasionally I go days without makeup. But since Jon Chao cut my hair last week, I might have to redefine myself as a narcissist; I can’t step away from the mirror.

Soon after elementary school, I adopted the ponytail as my official style. My hair has natural body and wave, which is good, but I’ve never been able to beat that demon Frizz. At a certain dew point, my hair poofs inches away from my head in a spiderwebby mess that rivals Einstein’s. Ponytails were easy and dependable. However, as I’ve aged into my thirties, I realize that daily ponytails are painful, boring, not aesthetically ideal, and immature besides. I want to look like a smart, sexy artist, not a teenager on her way to cheerleading practice. IMAG0804

I’ve had my hair cut before by “professionals.” I always leave disappointed, having wished for dramatic, effortless change and gotten decidedly less than that.

So I typed “best women’s haircut in Houston” and Google served up cutLoose, a montrose boutique that caters to discerning clientele. Glancing down the reviews on Yelp (ignoring the incoherent and bizarre), I found quite a few customers praising one stylist in particular, though his methods seemed… unorthodox. But lately, and perhaps this is what they mean when they say older and wiser, I’ve started trusting my intuition more. So I called to set an appointment.

The shop was easy to find and chic and the women at the front were prompt and pleasant. Jon came around the corner right away and introduced himself and we threaded back through a maze of niches toward a little nook with a classy chair and a full length mirror. As Jon began moving his hands through my hair, he asked me questions about my styling history and routine and made suggestions about how I could improve them. His ideas were well-researched, well-said and intuitive, and I basked in the general sense of competence effusing from him.

He explained how he had developed his own unique method of dry-cutting hair to maximize natural curl. As Jon took calculated snips and a pile of locks gradually grew below me, he suggested ways that I could reduce product use while increasing flexibility, malleability, shine and elasticity. Our conversation, like the effortless reshaping of my mane, was pleasurable and stimulating. At one point, we were discussing childhood experiences and Jon described the ten years of karate he’d taken in Taiwan, comparing those to the six months of kung fu under an American master. He adeptly demonstrated a few movements in the snake style and I got the impression I was getting my hair cut by Bruce Lee. It was an apt comparison, because Jon is – and I don’t say this lightly – a guru of hair.

This story describes an awesome haircut, and that’s nice to hear about, but it might not be that relevant to you. What I’m about to say, however, is. The world needs more innovators and craftsmen in every field. Emalee black and white 2013People who can dedicate themselves wholly to work that is necessary and beneficial to the world, that they enjoy and look forward to, and that they yearn to perfect. It doesn’t matter whether the work itself is composing an opera or fixing a toilet; the important thing is that you enjoy it and you do it well. Jon Chao is a master. I’m celebrating him not just because I have fabulous hair now, but because I appreciate excellence when I see it.

The Rawfully Organic Experience

roc morningI have to tell you about an experience I had last weekend. First, some context: I’m a thirty year-old mother of two children under 26 months (daughter Sophie and son Bennett). I tutor teenage students, assisting them with writing skills and reading comprehension, a business that keeps us (barely) in the black, so my husband runs the household. Alan left the corporate dungeon he was occupying to raise our kids so we wouldn’t have the unfortunate experience of paying someone else to do fun, pleasurable things with our happy, easy-going babies. Life is just too short to sell out sunbaths in the garden and spontaneous dancing on the rug and coloring competitions in exchange for a new car every other year and a pension. We’ve been intentional about our children’s experience of the world, balancing freedom with responsibility, health with pleasure, self advancement with care for others, and consumption with valuable participation. We want Sophie and Bennett to be very aware, as we are, of the potential impact a single human can have on its environment.

This means feeding our children quality content. Trendy books, quirky movies, classic rock, avant-garde news… they may not understand it all, but at least they’re exposed. In addition to stuffing their minds full of fabulous ideas and images, we also try to present them with truly beneficial food options. Can’t develop the brain if the body is lacking. We wanted to feed them organic fruits and veg, but budgeting for the expense has been hard, especially when quality isn’t always guaranteed. We explored obvious avenues like Whole Foods, and although I appreciate the interim solution it has provided, I’ve been disappointed that our society continues to maintain the “big grocery” industry. It doesn’t provide much in the way of connection to your food, and the ratio of plastic to edible components is pathetic. We tried buying straight from a local farm, and while that’s a blast for the kids, it requires an objectionable time commitment.

We were resigned to making sacrifices where we could, but then a few months ago, Alan the Google ace found Houston’s own Rawfully Organic Co-Op (ROC) online. He got on a mailing list and joined the Facebook page, and eventually pulled me into our office to introduce me to the concept. I read about ROC founder Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram, who wanted to provide a way for families like mine to obtain food that’s healthy, safe and environmentally efficient. Thus, ROC was conceived. Here’s how the Co-op works: a “share” is a flat box full of delicious produce, all organic, all ripe and clean, and mostly all from local or near-local farmers. It’s all in peak season too. You can purchase a share online (or in person, though pre-purchase is easier) in several sizes (fruit only or fruit + veg). When you pick up your box (they now offer several locations and days during the week), you can exchange some items and also add others from a free-standing cart. It seemed like a good idea right away, so we purchased our first share online and picked it up in a neighborhood park off Memorial one Wednesday afternoon. Our first experience was good but not perfect; one banana was bad and the romaine was housing a small family of lettuce-munching caterpillars, but we told ourselves this was excusable since the produce was pesticide-free. The ripeness, freshness and overall quality of every single other item in the box was outstanding. Also, when we added up the cost of the items we received and matched the prices with other options (like organic choices in HEB, Whole Foods or local farm), ROC outdid them all.

In the following month, life gnawed on us a bit (as it will occasionally do), and we could barely make it to the grocery store and back. At last the stars aligned and we were able to do our second ROC pickup this past weekend. The boxes would be available in a parking lot near Rice village at noon. We arrived at 12:15 and a line had already formed; couples and small families were all waiting to get under the shade of the white temporary tents protecting the boxes and volunteers. The sun was hot, but it only took about ten minutes to get into the tent, and the fifteen degree cooler, divine fruit-scented air was immediately worth it. A light breeze even gusted occasionally, trying to convince us we weren’t in Houston. Kristina was welcoming veg enthusiasts at the tent entrance, hugging each person in line as they entered, giving off a general impression of well-being and joy. Kristina’s website uses the actual adjective “goddess” to describe her, a choice mitigated by the fact that it’s true. She is polished and pleasant, a billboard for modern healthy living right down to the vibrams on her feet, with long shining hair, glowing skin, and a friendly, optimistic attitude. According to her stylish website, she’s been 100% raw vegan for almost seven years. It shows.

We had purchased a share online the night before, so we picked out the one we wanted and I sat down on the pavement with Sophie and Bennett, my idea being to keep an eye on fruit and babies while the Hub acquired a few extra items. Sophie picked up a gorgeous apple and bit in, while I enjoyed Ginger Snap, a sunburst juice made hours earlier from fresh pineapple, apple, orange and ginger. Despite the sweat dripping down my back, I felt content with baby in wrap and toddler in lap, just hoping I wasn’t in the way of people searching through boxes nearby. After a few moments, a woman in a black graphic patterned sundress came over and bent towards us, and with her hands on her knees she smiled kindly and gushed compliments over me and my children. This might sound strange, but her most memorable words had to do with my control over the situation. Any mom who braves public places with small children understands the fear of losing control, so I really savored this particular acclaim. She offered to take a picture of us with my phone and I let her; she asked if she could help me in any way and I said my husband was nearby, but thanked her for the offer. I guessed she was a volunteer with ROC, but that didn’t diminish my sense of pride and appreciation. All parents experience doubt; any encouragement, even from a complete stranger, fills in the tiny cracks of uncertainty and exhaustion that plague us. It didn’t take any extra effort on her part; just forty-five seconds and a few stray words, but it palpably lifted me.

We packed into the truck and while Alan drove, Sophie and I ate candy stripe figs and crisp grapes in the backseat, juice dripping down our faces, while listening to the Moth radio hour on NPR. We stopped to play in the park and then went home to unpack our fruit share. I felt fed in all ways: spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically.

What a strange, compelling, alarming time to be alive. Crumbling global politics, climate concerns, failure in education and medical systems, disillusionment and shifting values all conspire to cripple and possibly eliminate humanity. At least once a day I ask myself questions like, “Why haven’t we solved world hunger? Will we ever eliminate inequality?” The answers elude me. But I do know that small things like providing fairly-priced, quality organic food, or like giving a stranger compliments that heal their heart and reinforce their sense of worth, will tip the balance toward the success of mankind and life et al. We must cease being strangers and treat each other like family, because we are.

As long as I live in Houston, every dollar I spend on organic fruit and veg will go to ROC, and yours should too.

Reasons to write

I’ve always been a writer. I was steeped in story as a child and I suppose at some point it all began oozing back out of me.
For awhile in my middle years I was distracted by other school subjects, but I still read voraciously off the required reading lists and kept intermittent journals. Then in my late twenties I remembered my calling and took up the pen.
When I reveal to friends and family that I’ve decided to jump my career car onto an adjacent track, they all say the same thing: you should write, but don’t do it for the money. And for a long time, I swallowed that sentiment politely, mostly because I thought I agreed with them. After all, there’s something tragically appealing about writing for your own pleasure and then just lucking in to a publishing contract.
But I’ve been more honest with myself lately (a dangerous trend, I know), and recognize now that I patently disagree with the idea that a good writer eschews adoration in the form of appreciative coinage.
As children, we are barraged by adults asking the familiar “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, and we answer according to our heart’s most honest desire. As we age, it’s a tragedy how quickly that question becomes a litmus test for our potential as successful people. Childhood dreams are often sacrificed on the altar of God Money.
If I love to write, and am relatively good at it, and desire a career as an author, why shouldn’t I hope to support myself thusly? Are my friends and family making commentary on my talents, or do they fear the field is saturated and unyielding?
Whatever their intentions, I’ve stopped listening. It’s possible to have more than one catalyst on the front end of a reaction; both love for the craft and a desire for solid returns are driving my instinct to write.

The emotion connoisseur

Sentimentality annoys me. I should clarify; over-sentimentality annoys me. This is a little ironic, since I’m one of the more emotional people alive today. You can see it in my well-oiled tear ducts and tendency toward hyperbole. Yet, despite my own habits and constitution, I still think affectation in others is worse than nails on a chalkboard. If you’re going to let the sap flow, so to speak, at least temper it with a well-reasoned grain of truth at the heart of the outpouring.

This mini-rant was inspired by three things: pregnancy, death and books.

1) Pregnant women are given lots of room, figuratively and literally. I don’t resent that; I often take advantage, actually. And we should take advantage; there is no other human experience that boils together love, pain, fear and joy in such measures and with such ferocity. My pregnant Inauthentic Emotion Detector is hyper-sensitive. I walk out of the room when marketers leer at me through the television screen, using mother-child interactions to force me toward their jewelry store display cases. I sigh in desperation when film directors play my heartstrings like rosy-cheeked cherubim on holiday with their harps. Give me a sensationally-paced, artfully-crafted march, just outside the boundaries of my awareness, and I will give you my eternal gratitude. And a bucket full of tears. (Watch this trailer for a good example of my expectations.)

2) Death, as a subject of thought or discussion, is a bit banal. One sees evidence and threats of it everywhere. Isn’t it strange that we don’t collapse under the pressure of that finality looming in the not-so-removed distance. On (thankfully) rare occasions, however, the reality comes in for a close-up and we’re caught in the trap, contemplating our very palpable mortality. This occurred for me recently, when a cousin lost his eight-week old son to SIDS. The disease was once an unfortunate but insubstantial, almost fictitious experience, and the parents who knew it personally were not known by me. But now, it is a terrifying entity, hovering on the edges of my thoughts daily. Our modern, civilized selves aren’t acquainted with the death of the young. We don’t mind it so much as it silently removes grandmothers and great-uncles from view… but when it dares to threaten new life, the scales we generally use to measure suffering are no longer adequate.

When death inspires a tear, I hesitate to designate that drop of salty commiseration as the hallmark of an overly-sentimental nature. There is a fine line, however, between confronting the beautiful tragedy of death with appropriate respect and succumbing to contant emotional breakdown.

3) Finally, I admit that I can think of nothing worse than a saccarine, sloppy, romantically-tinged sorrowful story. I’m a book whore and a genuine fan of film; my tastes range wide, although I’m getting pickier as I age. The first sign of gratuitous emotion gives me pause and if it continues, I quickly abandon the plot. I can dominate my dislike momentarily in hopes the offending emotional excess is a slip-up, but I’m likely to give up fast.

Are you like me?

I can’t even kill things I hate.

If you’re like me and any other human with tear ducts, there’s a soft spot on your soul imprinted by the Pixar logo. I don’t have to rhapsodize about the quality of storytelling or the enduring, relatable characters then, since you already know. But let’s focus on one of those minor characters for a moment.

Remember the cockroach in WALL*E? He had the cutest squeaky voice and an honest, helpful spirit and made that adorable ping noise as he jumped from trash pile to dusty trail. I nearly fainted for fear when WALL*E rolled over him–I held my breath until his tiny, flattened body re-inflated and with a ping, he was off again. 

Examine this interesting phenomenon: you completely commiserated with me above, perhaps even feeling a quiver of sympathy or joy. But what if I had described the live-action cockroach that flew across my living room last night, intent on some nefarious mission until my husband’s ruthless shoe ended its disease-ridden life? I can bet your instinct to draw your feet up onto the couch and scream in terror or throw something heavy is just as strong as your instinct to protect WALL*E’s only friend. 

What’s the difference? To answer that question, we must explore the reason we hate cockroaches to begin with. It’s the same justification for the disgust and enmity we feel towards the spider, snake and rat: evolutionary history. In the past, humans were easily killed by the viruses, bacteria and toxins carried by these animals. We developed a natural and logical aversion to organisms that imperil our health. 

Then why am I not bothered by that evolutionary impulse while watching the magic of Pixar? Because Remy in Ratatouille didn’t disgust me either… in fact, I’m certain Pixar could make a movie about a slime mold with a golden heart and I would adore it. At first, I excused this paradox with a classic defense (and a fabulous vocabulary word): anthropomorphization. The cockroaches and rats on the screen have human characteristics, so I identify with them. Same reason I identify with a garbage-collecting machine or a green tennis ball with one huge eye and Billy Crystal’s incomparable sense of humor. 

But lately, I’ve noticed something. The more I ingest these stories, and the further I ride the wave of motherhood, the more that line between screen and reality seems to blur. When I raise my sandal to smash the brains out of a helpless insect, I can’t stop myself from envisioning a little family of babies under a rock somewhere, waiting hopefully for Mommy to come home with a few grains of crust from yesterday’s ham sandwich.

Call me a sentimental fool–perhaps it’s an apt label–but it’s getting harder to end life, even life that appears much less important than mine.  

An unusual review for an unusual movie: Cloud Atlas

Warning: this review seeks to explore two ideas: tradition and change. Plenty of people will talk about the technical aspects of the film (acting, direction, design, script, plot and such), but I’m more fascinated by what this movie does to the viewer, and not so much how.

Cloud Atlas the movie (and I assume the book too—though I haven’t had the pleasure yet, I can guess it will have a similar effect) forces any audience member with some modicum of soul to search that enigmatic artifact mercilessly. What am I? Your soul begs. Where do I exist? Are there others like me? Do I have a beginning or an end? These are, of course, ancient and (somewhat) unanswerable questions. But Cloud Atlas asks them with compelling, stunning, visual simplicity. It does this by presenting almost endless moments of juxtaposition between those two ideas I mentioned at the outset—tradition and change—in a light where you must decide which is good and which is bad.

Tradition (the struggle to maintain) has always clashed with change (the instinct to progress). The two aspects are inseparable from the human condition; they are a balance beam made of the blood and sweat of generations past that future men will creep across, instinctively. We can’t help ourselves. At times, tradition seems to hold the keys to the universe. And then change comes along with revelatory wisdom, with old concepts presented in new lights, and we are inexorably drawn to it. Then tradition re-establishes itself over time, using the alluring temptations of stability and continuity as structural support. But change lurks in the corners and wriggles back in to our communal hearts again.

I’ve thought about tradition and change a fair amount, and before seeing Cloud Atlas, I had a pretty clear idea that they were equally good and bad concepts, depending on where you sat in history and how you’ve been treated by fellow men. But although I’m going to have to get about a dozen iterations before I really know for sure, I have this feeling that Cloud Atlas is making an argument for one over the other. I won’t tell you which; you will know when you see it. And if you agree, then you will love the movie; if you disagree, it won’t matter.

How to enjoy poetry

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First, you must be willing to give up. A mind obsessed with meticulous details or box-checking will never quite grasp the intentions of the poet (even though there are many felicitous similarities between the minds of mathematician and bard). As you read the delicious verses, relinquish command of your thoughts to the lines invading your brain. Allow them to float across the inner eye, worm into your ears and trickle down your spine… invite the words to take up residence inside you.

Then, once you’ve been inhabited by every syllable and sound, go away. Leave the page on your desk and walk outside. Observe a dramatic sunrise while watching a new mother push her baby carriage down the path. Look up through the flashing, blinking leaves that sway with palpable cadence. Allow butterflies to land on your shoulders and listen to the meadowlark’s trill echoing over the marsh. All the while, the poet’s words will be marinating in the juices of your soul.

Once you’ve completely forgotten why you went out to begin with, make lunch. Converse with an old friend on an issue you just gathered the courage to discuss. Play that time-worn piece on the piano. Do your grocery shopping and marvel at advances of technology and culture everywhere. Allow stark and satisfying juxtapositions to blossom–uninvited yet welcome–in your heart.

As the day begins to disappear, you might happen to enter your study to turn off the light. There, lying innocently beneath a cold cup of coffee, you will find the words of the poet, patiently waiting for your return. Grasp the train of thought where it was abandoned, and you will find substance you hoped for but didn’t dare assume. Vistas of significance and whole landscapes full off connotation will lay themselves down before you, and you will be a new man.

Here’s a good place to start:

Take Something Like a Star

by Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

O Star (the fairest one in sight)

We grant your loftiness the right

To some obscurity of cloud –

It will not do to say of night,

Since dark is what brings out your light.

Some mystery becomes the proud.

But to be wholly taciturn

In your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us that we can learn

By heart and when alone repeat.

Say something! And it says, “I burn.”

But say with what degree of heat?

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.

Use language we can comprehend.

Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid,

But does tell something in the end.

And steadfast as Keats’s Eremite,

Not even stooping from its sphere,

It asks a little of us here:

It asks of us a certain height.

So when at times the mob is swayed

To carry praise or blame too far,

We may take something like a star

To stay our minds on and be staid.

Inception: More than a movie

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Most of us sat transfixed, watching the confusing, immersive, fantastic plot unfold. We groaned with frustration when (spoiler alert) the camera blacked out on a maddeningly still-spinning totem. Some went home and carried on with their usual lives, occasionally remembering dream sequence scenes as they drifted off to sleep. But others–including me–spent hours nosing through dialogue and its implications, the way a hound might sniff for a trail. We wondered to ourselves, as Mr. Nolan clearly wanted, where DO ideas come from?

You may have found the source of ideas (if so, please share with the rest of us). I myself have only predictions and possibilites, based on a random collection of well-word paths of thought. I think that true inception is a gift from a greater mind. Perhaps you will call this greater mind “God,” and the moniker wouldn’t be misplaced, but I like to use less common (and less encumbered) words to describe the Mind. World religions have their concepts of what this Mind looks like, acts like, wishes of us… but I remain purposefully vague when adopting definitions. I like to think of this great Mind as fully Unknowable, so fitting It into a prescribed box seems counterintuitive–and futile–to me.

However you choose to define It, I believe this Mind happily endows us with creative thought. It gives us these thoughts without reserve, if only we have the gumption to ask politely. Sometimes, too, I feel It provides creative thought when I am least prepared, without preamble, crashing over my heart and mind with an unruly fury. Whether asked-for or deserved, the thoughts are ours to do with as we like. We are allowed to run amok, so to speak, with the developments and consequences of our thoughts… like a five-year-old with a strawberry popsicle, dripping red all over your cream-colored carpet.

I’ve rolled my gifts of creative thought between the fingers of my heart, shaping and molding them into new forms. My novel, Paragonia Pynes, is a prime example of the type of thought that crashes and burns as it rips through the frail human mind. In a moment of exhaustion and terror, I had asked (asked!) for an epic story to occupy my tempestuous mind, to still my soul. The Mind handed me this story of three siblings and a fantastic adventure; but it became more. Paragonia Pynes became a way to tell an even larger, more important and enduring Story.

And no matter the outcome of this gorgeous creative experience, I will hold that moment of inception close, a shining jewel in the memory box of my life.