East-West Crazy

Below is an excerpt of the novel we’re working on. It’s fictionalized autobiography — fiction based on personal experience. I don’t seem to write straight-out autobiography. Until I get some distance from it, turning it into a story, it’s hard to have anything to say. It’s simply what happened. Once I start turning experience into story, I get that critical, objective distance that makes patterns and turns what was scary or tragic at the time into, very often, comedy. There is humor there, but I can’t see it if I’m too close to it — I need to back up until it’s clearer.

This is a story about growing up in a family where people are mentally ill. It’s about mental illness as an experience, not as a clinical diagnosis, or a “condition.” It’s about the adjustments people make in order to live in a situation that an outsider might find impossible. Human beings are flexible, and it’s surprising what they can manage to adapt to, especially kids.  And if some bits of that experience are sad, or frightening, there are others  that are funny.

It’s written from the point of view of Minerva, a precocious little girl who gets “mental crushes” on things — at the moment it’s food and recipe books. She knows she is “different” and is coming to see her family is really different, but she’s not so sure society is all that sane, either. I hope you enjoy this bit of “East-West Crazy.”

EAST-WEST CRAZY (excerpt)

I avoided looking at anyone, hunched over my desk, intent on my work, printing each letter and number with as much care as a monk illuminating a copy of the Bible. Show and Tell was forgotten, but the bottle, which I’d wanted to show to Laurel privately, was still in my pocket. When Mrs. Beauchamp told us to put our books and pencils away and fold our hands on our desks, I glanced at the clock, confused that the clock had marched so far around the day.

“Does anyone have anything for Show and Tell?” Mrs. Beauchamp asked with forced enthusiasm. She smiled stiffly through the procession of rocks, toys, and dilapidated bird nests which followed. When the stream seemed to have dried up, Mrs. Beauchamp looked around the room. “Anyone else?” I, bored, stuck my hand in my pocket, and winced. The little bottle was a lump on my hip. I silently debated taking it home without enduring the Show and Tell process, decided not to raise my hand. If there was one thing I didn’t feel like doing at that moment, it was calling attention to myself.

Mrs. Beauchamp surveyed the room, stopping on me. Something on my face drew her, and with the instinct of teachers everywhere, she spotted a reluctant pupil who needed nudging. “Minerva?”

I shook my head.

“Minerva,” Mrs. Beauchamp said with smiling force, “do you have something?” I’d once overheard her telling another teacher that little Minerva was, “an odd one, very bright, but positively leaden in social situations. Given her way, the girl would avoid speaking up at all. If someone doesn’t help her, she’s going to end up strange” Mrs. Beauchamp beckoned me to the front of the room.

I passed by Nancy’s desk, and although I avoided looking her way, could hear the little snort she gave whenever she wanted to make her contempt clear without being caught by adults.

Up at the front of the room, I stared at my shoes, hand clenched around the bottle in my pocket.

“Eyes up, Minerva,” Mrs. Beauchamp said, a hint of pleading in her voice. “Stand up straight.”

I nodded miserably, holding up my mandolin bottle. My first few words were lost in a choked whisper. Before Mrs. Beauchamp could prompt me, I took a deep breath, my voice coming out too loud as I focused my eyes on the bottle in my raised hand.

This is a bottle of wine,” I said.

Mrs. Beauchamp gasped.

I made it myself,” I continued proudly. “Wine is made from grape juice that has…” I paused, going slowly to pronounce the word correctly, “fer-men-ted. That means it’s started to rot, kind of. If it rots the wrong way, it gets moldy, but if it rots the right way, it turns into alcohol.” Several kids looked interested.

Nancy huffed, “It’s not real.”

“Sure it is.” I handed the bottle to Kevin, the first kid in the first row, and fixed my eyes on Laurel’s encouraging smile. “My Dad gave me the bottle. He got it on an airplane flight.”

Leaning toward April, Nancy hissed, “I bet she stole it.” April glanced quickly from me to Laurel, turned back to me, and laughed. My face, always red during presentations, felt ready to burst into flame. I glanced at Mrs. Beauchamp, waiting. This was the point where Mrs. Beauchamp would, with comforting predictability, smite the offender for interrupting. She would also land on Nancy for being rude, and lying. A simple phone call to my Mom would restore my honor, and Nancy might not see recess again for weeks. Stiff with humiliation, I waited for the justice I knew was coming.

The look Mrs. Beauchamp turned on Nancy held, at best, distracted annoyance.

Confused, I continued in a rush, “They give you all kinds of things to drink on airplanes, but I don’t know what all of them are, so I don’t know if the stuff I put in them looks right, except for wine.” The bottle passed from hand to hand, some pausing to sniff it. Mrs. Beauchamp’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly. I stumbled ahead, “I know what color wine is – it’s like grape juice. I didn’t mean to make wine – I just put grape juice in there so it would look right, but I know what it smells like, and after a few weeks…”

Mindy Shaw unscrewed the metal cap and took a careful sip. Her face screwed up. “Eeew!” Mrs. Beauchamp shook her head quickly, hand outstretched. She jumped to her feet. “That will be exactly enough!” Giggles escaped a few children before they got a good look at Mrs. Beauchamp’s face, but by the time she strode across the room to Mindy’s desk and held out her hand, no one seemed to be breathing, let alone laughing. Mindy surrendered the bottle meekly.

“I didn’t get to the part about where I put the bottle so it could…” I was confused, uncomfortable. Mrs. Beauchamp was clearly angry, but I couldn’t figure out why.

“I said,” Mrs. Beauchamp growled, “that is enough! I want you to go to the Principal’s office.” She wrote out a note, pencil moving in sharp, angry strokes, ripped the paper from the pad, the sound loud in the silent room. I stood where I’d been left, in front of the class, my face burning. Nancy smirked as I accepted the note and exited the room without comment.

I tried again and again to explain to Principal Turner, to Mrs. Beauchamp, as they stood over me, frowning. Someone else had put grape juice in the bottle and turned it into wine before me. The airline had put the bottle on the plane and given it to Dad. Dad had brought the bottle home. Dad had drained the contents and given the bottle to me. If it was okay for someone else to make wine, okay for the airline to give it to Dad, and okay for Dad to drink what was in it and give me the bottle, why was it wrong for me to put grape juice in the bottle again?

 

#WIP #wipwednesday #amwriting #writerwednesday #litfic #womensfiction #chicklit #chickswrite #writechicks #writerchicks

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Dragons, Stained Glass Flowers, Trolls and Me

Redbubble Create (a part of Redbubble.com) asked its artists to identify their favorite works … from their own portfolios. This is hard for me. I was brought up “not to get a big head,” which included not talking about my own accomplishments. I’m learning that not sharing or talking about my work deprives me of part of the enjoyment. It’s okay to look back with pride in what you’ve managed to do, whether it’s deal with a difficult situation at work, learn to prepare a new dish, or create a painting. It’s okay to enjoy your work, and yourself.

Lately I’m creating some work that I’m really happy with. Mark and I are working on a screenplay which deals with difficult subjects, and I’m enjoying polishing it to send it out. It’s really pretty good. I’m working on two books, one light, one dark, both funny, and feeling a lot of satisfaction in seeing them come together. We’re training a little puppy, and while she’s a handful, she’s responding and learning. I’m creating some new artwork that really makes me smile.

There are difficult things going on, too, but they don’t erase or negate the happiness I’m getting in other areas. In the Bible, one apostle talks about being “in the world” but “not of the world.” Another says that he’s learning to separate how he feels from how happy he is. A meditation teacher once told us that “pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional.” So  how I feel physically in that moment, or knowing that something in my life isn’t how I want it, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy anything or be happy at all.

Right now, work is a lot of fun (when I get to work between running the puppy out to pee — she’s new to housetraining). Here’s some of what I’ve been up to at

For when enough is more than enough.

Redbubble:

A young dragon takes a bath in the sacred pool before embarking on her first voyage.

The guardian of the night at work.

The feeling of a garden in full bloom.

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On Dust, Mirror Neurons, And Discrimination

We’re discriminating against ourselves.

When I started “Where It Starts,” I was fascinated by a science book by Judith Horstman. In it, she mentioned “mirror neurons.”  I did some reading on the subject and fell in love with the idea. Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain that fire up sympathetically. Let’s say you watch someone fall. As he topples over, he sticks his hands out to break his fall. When his hands hit the sidewalk, your own hands twitch in response. You may even flinch. You didn’t fall — so why do you have that reaction?

Mirror neurons allow you to place yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment. Other things can make them twitch, too. A story can get their attention. If I tell you about my trip through the mountains, about how it was night and snow started to fall, and my car skidded into a snow bank and the engine died and wouldn’t come back, but I saw the lights of a gas station so I got out and walked, slipping and skidding, the snow soaking my tennis shoes so that my feet were wet and numb… Neurons fire in your brain in areas that would fire up if you were actually having that experience with me. The more vivid the story, the more you feel it.

As I worked on this sculpture, I heard another bit of information that seemed to relate — the composition of dust. Of course, there are different kinds of dust, but in general, everything is shedding and flaking off tiny bits, and those tiny bits become dust, which swirls all over the world on the wind. This includes shed cells from other people. Many of these bits are too small to see with the naked eye, but we’re all breathing them in. So what?

So we are all taking in minuscule pieces of each other constantly. The closer you are to someone physically, of course, the more you take in, but the school bully and his victim are literally part of each other. People from all over the world are walking around inside of you right now, and that’s not touchy-feely new age philosophy… it’s scientific fact.  Plus, that dust is deposited everywhere, including the soil where our food grows. The guy who thinks he’s better than everyone else? He IS everyone else.

Those people who say “we are all one?”  They’re right.

The first time this sculpture was shown, I saw a woman and her daughter contemplating it. They noticed me and asked about it. When I explained it, the woman laughed and told her daughter, “You’d better be careful who you breathe around!” Then I explained that we are all part of each other, even the people we don’t like. She said, “It would be hard for anyone to bully anyone else if they understood that.” Her daughter shared that she had been bullied in school, and wished the person who had bullied her had understood that they were part of each other.”

Everyone walking around carries a part of the rest of the world within him. The people in this sculpture are talking, sharing their experiences, breathing each other in. Both will leave changed whether they realize it or not.

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What In The Word: Truth(ish)

It is what it is, unless it isn’t.

Truth:  Noun, from the Middle English “treuth.” A verified or verifiable, objective fact.  (“It’s a truth that the sun appears to rise each morning”). Actuality, accuracy. (“We’ve weighed that container several times and the truth is it contains only one pound of flour”). Fundamental reality apart from personal opinion or experience (“I know it feels as though that blanket is wet, but in truth, it’s simply cold”).

Related to the word “true,” which can mean, among other things: Calibrated correctly (“Both of us checked the scale and it weighs true”), or possessing honor and integrity (“She’s a good woman and true”).

Not to be confused with “truism.” More about that in a moment…

We talk about truth a lot, and claim it to support this position or that, but does it exist?  It does, but it suffers from the same ailment that afflicts other words representing important things, such as “love.” If you ask someone if he loves you, whatever he answers, you’d better ask more questions. The two of you may be staring at the same word but not agreeing on its meaning. You both think you know what it means, but if you go off acting on the assumption that you agree on that meaning without discussing it, you’re probably going to find out that you don’t.

So it is with “truth.”  There are two main sorts of truth and often we don’t distinguish between them. Like the difference between a house cat and a tiger, the details are likely to matter to you at the most inconvenient time.

There is the obvious meaning, “verifiable, objective fact.” Gravity, for example. As any kid can tell you who has jumped off the roof while believing for all he’s worth, gravity doesn’t yield to opinion. Neither does the ground. “I shot an arrow in the air. It fell to earth, I know not where.” But you do know it fell, somewhere. Enough things have been propelled upwards in Earth’s atmosphere for us to feel comfortable saying that they come down, eventually. We’ve measured, observed, experimented, and gravity is a fact.

The other sort of truth is true in a cloudier sense. I meditate, and follow a recorded meditation. Near the beginning, it calls on me to accept whatever I’m feeling as my “inner truth of the moment.” Note the important modifiers — “inner” and “of the moment.” Interior truth is more flexible than objective truth. Where objective truth demands evidence and proof, interior truth is a reflection of your own experience. It is true, for you. Not necessarily for everyone else.

This doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. In a very real way, your opinion is your life. Your life is made up of your experiences, and those are colored by your point of view. Two people can go through the same events and have different experiences.

If you heard my Dad recount an event you’d both been through, you weren’t likely to recognize it, even if you knew which event he was talking about. Listening to him regale someone with his version of the event, I’d sit there thinking, “That isn’t at all what happened! I was there!”  Useless to argue with him. He made his life bearable by editing it as he went so it all ended up in some form that he liked. Nobody could convince him that wasn’t the way it happened. For him, that was the way it happened.

It was his “inner truth of the moment.” Since he believed the story, that was the experience he had, so for him, it was the truth. That nobody else’s experience was close to that didn’t make it less true for him.

For a less-extreme version… let’s say that you don’t believe in gold. Stick with me here. You absolutely do not believe that gold exists, so of course it has no value — it’s not real. So even if there are gold nuggets lying around that you could pick up, you won’t, because you won’t look for them, because for you, they aren’t real, and even if there’s something on the ground, it can’t be gold, because gold doesn’t exist. No matter how much gold objective fact can prove is around you, in your world, there is no gold.

Inner truth is valuable — figuring out what your inner truth is can tell you a lot about yourself. Working on your inner truth can improve your personal experience, and thus the quality of your life. Your experience improves according to your interpretation.

But inner truth is not objective truth. Where we stumble is in trying to substitute one for the other — by claiming our own subjective, inner truths for objective, verifiable facts.  When you’re trying to, say, build a bridge or design a government program, objective truth is the material to use and as much of it as we can get — randomized scientific testing, measurements, etc. Inner truth is useful for deciding if we want to do something or how important we think it is, but not for actually designing the nuts and bolts of the program.

Inner truth and objective truth are both useful, for different things, but not interchangeable, any more than tweezers and a hammer would be. They’re both tools — but they aren’t the same.

Oh, and about “truism…”  Note the “ism” on the end. In general, “ism” is a suffix that indicates action on a belief, or the formation of a set of principles. In this case, truism doesn’t refer to a dedication to the truth. It refers to things that appear true and may or may not actually be true, such as cliches — things that have been repeated so much they feel true. “A watched pot never boils,” for example. Well, if you’re patient enough to watch a pot of water left on high enough heat for a long enough period of time, you’ll see it boil. So this isn’t objective truth. It talks about the frustration of waiting and how things you look for seem to take longer to arrive. Inner truth.

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Writer’s Gold

That’s what I call it, “writer’s gold,” when you meet someone who enjoys your writing. Writing is such a solitary art. It’s ceremonial. Writers have their traditions, habits and rituals. For me, it’s turning the lights low, getting a cup of tea, putting on some soft, quiet music, turning off the ringer on my phone, and surrendering to the gravitational force of the story. It pulls me in and I’m there, with those characters, seeing, hearing, smelling and experiencing what they do.  Mark says that you could light fire to my chair when I’m writing and I wouldn’t notice — and he’s not far off.

But you walk forward, struggling to capture the vision in your mind and describe it, not knowing if anyone will understand what you’re trying to say, or enjoy what you’re creating. It goes out and (hopefully) people read it, but you don’t sit there with them while they do (and good thing — when a writer watches someone read his work, it’s uncomfortable for both parties. The writer is hyper-focused on the reader and trying not to ask “What? Where are you?” at each sigh, laugh, gasp or facial expression, which is annoying for the reader and I’ve been there, but trust me, it’s almost impossible to resist).

So for the most part, a writer works in solitude, builds his paper boat, launches it onto the pond, and retreats to build another boat. That’s why it’s so great when someone has read something you wrote and really enjoyed it. I talked with someone the other day who read the opening of “Based On A True Story: Really (Almost) True Story,” and told me she enjoyed it a lot, it made her laugh, she recognized moments in it as moments like ones she’s had… She went on to talk about the scene with the cake and said she could see it in her mind and feel what was going on, laughing as she recounted it back to me… She also said that she was frustrated because she couldn’t keep reading and wants to buy the book!

What I hope is that the book will give the reader a bit of an escape. Life can be stressful and when it is, books have been my refuge. This person has a stressful job, and the idea that for a moment she left it behind while laughing over our book makes me happy. Hearing her enjoyment gives me heart to build more paper boats and launch them.

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