I love challenges with deadlines, if my three completed Nanowrimo events last year weren’t a strong indicator of such unfortunate tendencies. I often pick them up on a whim, generally for no better reason than that I get bored a little too easily.
Read 30 books in a year? Scandalously easy. Alter my diet to some crazy version that makes baking an egg in an avocado seem like a reasonable breakfast choice? Sure. No problem.
By the end of the challenge, I always walk away with some new insight. After Whole 30, I learned that I like salt a whole lot more than cheese. My week long Fitbit challenges with total strangers take me to strange lengths — and down strange streets — out of determination not to let an Internet stranger win. (And when they inevitably do, I just decide that they must be nurses. Or perhaps, Olympic level race walkers. There can be no other explanation.) And, well, Nanowrimo, repeated about a dozen times, finally taught me how to write a novel.
So on January 2nd, without any planning or much thought, I decided to do another 365 photography challenge. The goal is to take a single photo every day for a full year, which sounds really simple. The last time I tried, I gave up in May, after nearly a hundred photographs. What got me in 2013 was that, like most people, my daily environment doesn’t change all that much. I go to work in the same neighborhood that I’ve worked in for the past eleven years. I come home on the same train and walk the same blocks to go to the same house nearly every day. I lost my inspiration.
But what I love about the 365 photography challenge is that it changes your perspective. With photography in mind, I see things that I would normally ignore. The first photograph I took, on January 2nd, was of a building decorated by seahorses sporting unicorn horns. I had walked past that building nearly every day for years without ever noticing that wonderfully nutty detail, but armed with a photography deadline, I finally noticed what had been in front of my eyes all that time.
Even if the photographs fail, it forces me to look around me with the eyes of an artist. I love that. And I’ve rediscovered Flikr, which is a hotbed of amazing photographers doing wonderful things. I can’t even pretend that my pictures stand up to much of what I see there, but being involved in thinking and talking about photography every day can only improve my work.
And, of course, since we are only 60 photographs in to the year, I am still filled with hope and ambition for completing it this time. It’s been six years and so much has changed. I am different, but also, my eye is different.
January has passed in a haze of newness, as January is supposed to. Is there anything better than taking your mind off the bleakness of the low point of the year than to start new projects?
And so I have. I have been off figuring out the best way of revising the 656 page manuscript that I wrote (snip, snip). I printed it out so that I might carry it around everywhere until revisions are done. It’s intimidating enough that it also doubles as a security device, for if anyone tried to mug me, I could certainly swing it at their head and make my escape.
The print shop called me to tell me they were having some trouble finding a wide enough coil to bind it.
At the moment, I’m hoping to get through my first round of revisions by April, which is ambitious. But it’s nice to switch gears. I have always preferred revision to first draft writing because now is when the magic really begins to happen. I’m finding connections between my characters that weren’t obvious until I wrote the story to the end, so changing the text to bring those out to someplace useful is really fun.
And while I revise, I have a new companion and friend to keep my feet warm, which might be the best bit of all.
Sometime in the middle of the month, I wrote THE END on the first draft of my novel, THE MOZART GIRL.
It’s a biopic about Nannerl Mozart and yes, there is a tremendous amount of work to do yet, and I am getting ready to jump with both feet into the revisions now that Christmas has passed.
This is the first completed novel that I’ve written as an adult and it has been a long and meandering journey to do it. I’ve already learned so much about what to do next time, because it has taken me three times as long as it should have to complete what I have. I’ll be throwing out a lot of material, since it’s about twice as long as it ought to be, but I love that, because it means that what I keep will be improved for it.
It’s the time of year where we set our resolutions and intentions for the new year and there can only be one for me, which is to finish the damn novel already. I took my first steps in this story line four years ago, though the story that I began to write back then was a completely different story arc from the one I settled on. But I have been thinking about the Mozart family for half a decade now and I am, dare I say it, pleased with where the work has taken me.
This is a book that has been written in the margins of my life, in the crevices formed between other obligations, in the hours after bedtime and before the work day, in the minutes stolen between the endless march of all my other responsibilities. And it has been written in dribs and drabs, sometimes in little spurts of energy, and sometimes in long months of sustained effort that have required sacrificing personal relationships as I raced to a word count that was both arbitrary and exhausting.
2016 and 2017 were the years I researched my novel. 2018 was the year that I wrote it. 2019 is the year in which I remold it until it is fit to be shown to the world. And then, what will happen then? Will I finally believe that this is a thing that I can do?
I am writing to you-in-the-future, which, thanks to the wonder of being able to schedule when a blog post publishes, is something I generally do. But I’m not used to speaking to you from several weeks in the past and I find it a little nerve-wracking. There’s an election between now and when you are reading these words and perhaps the world has changed in ways that make these words seem trivial. It has always been an uncertain world out there, but we have been on such a trajectory over the last two years that it feels even more perilous to hope to chat to you about cheerful things two weeks from now.
Presuming that the world is still mostly in place and we can spend some time talking of dreams, then I will tell you that the me of today, of November 15th, 2018, is certainly a more exhausted and exhilarated soul than the one that actually typed these words.
That is to say, it is Nanowrimo time and 2018 has been, quite simply, the year that I write my novel. The November Nanowrimo event is my third Nanowrimo event of the year. I wrote 50,000 words for Camp Nanowrimo in April, then another 30,000 words in the July Camp Nanowrimo. And here I am, about to set off the journey of putting the final 50,000 words on the first draft of my manuscript, or, well, however many it takes me to get to THE END.
That’s hardly the end of the work, of course. Then there will be the months of heavy rewriting, revising the early chapters of the novel with what I know about the characters now — but I am looking forward to finally being able to get the bear of the first draft off my back. When I logged into the Nanowrimo site this year, I couldn’t help but notice my first attempt at conquering these characters was nearly four years ago.
I’m several versions down the road from there, because I struggled with the right way to tell this story, which is not really mine. But now I understand where I am and where I’m going with it, so I can only hope that by the time you read this, I will be nearly there. I’ve learned so much about writing a story of this length this year and I can’t wait to share the results with you all.
Until then, I hope you are well. We will have so much to tell each other in December.
I recently joined a zero waste community on Facebook, in a panic over the news that my neighborhood will likely be under water in another thirty years. It has definitely been an interesting experience — anthropological in part, but also educational. But, ignoring the anxiety of joining any public group with zillions of people who cannot be polite online, there was something bugging me about it all.
Well, two things.
The first was that in order to become more zero waste, I had to do a lot of purchasing, which naturally produces waste. Of course, if you don’t have reusable bags, you’re going to have to buy some. If you’re using Ziplocks, then you need to purchase the silicone replacements. And shampoo. Good luck finding zero waste shampoo unless you happen to have a Lush near you, where you can buy $12 shampoo bars in person and put them in your reusable bag. You’ll be wanting a $30 safety shave razor too, which will save you money in the long run. And don’t you have a compost set up in your yard, which naturally you own and control?
And voila, there it was. The guilt of every piece of plastic that I used was beginning to eat me up in the same way that I used to feel guilty for eating food at the height of the years when I constantly starved myself. My guilt over the waste my family produces has been eating me up for ages, but now I’d found a community of people that were feeding into my need to have some control — at any cost — over it. It was consuming me, making me feel like a bad person for needing to ever buy things for my family.
Try to explain to a 3 year old that you don’t need to buy her pants in her size because it’s going to create a box and a plastic bag. And the alternative is to zoom around to all the used goods places you can to find used clothes instead, which takes a huge amount of time. As a working parent, the very idea of having that much time seems so laughable and that’s if you ignore, for a moment, that thrift stores were set up to help people who cannot afford new clothes, so now you have well off people creating a competition for goods with people who don’t have the same choices.
I think about that because I was one of those kids growing up. Thrifting, as a middle-class activity, has always sat uncomfortably with me, because I remember well going to the Goodwill every Saturday to see what treasures might have turned up that we could actually afford.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle as much as you can. It’s just that it’s a more complicated problem than an individual can solve. But the zero waste movement sells this idea that you’re the problem, not the overarching systems put in place by our economic system and government policies. We should, absolutely, try to consume less and demand better choices. But driving yourself mad because it’s impossible to buy meat for your family without styrofoam and plastic isn’t helping. Do you use cereal and don’t have a bulk foods store nearby? Then it’ll be cardboard and plastic. Are you planning on ordering anything online ever again? Then it’s cardboard and plastic. And just forget eating in a restaurant ever again. Think! Think of all the boxes that their food came in!
The system is bad. I want to have hope that there’s change coming, but it’s hard to see from where I’m sitting. Here in Long Island, a single stream recycling company has recently announced they’re going out of business because what China is willing to pay is not enough to keep the plant open. The towns that rely on it are now scrambling to find a replacement, but it’s an industry problem. How many years did we think we could casually throw things in the recycling bin guilt-free before there was a reckoning?
In the meantime, there are folks in the zero waste community cutting down on showers and toilet paper in their need to waste less. And that’s an interesting choice, because all of those reusables require so much more washing than anything disposable, so if soap and water are a problem…
The religious education wing of the Unitarian congregation’s building is a spare thing, a square room with creamy partitioned walls that can be moved to accommodate the varying class sizes of the children. On the walls, large rectangles of paper list the birthdays of the children by months, for what is a community without celebration? Children’s art fills the other walls, which watch over a carpet ringed by black bed rest pillows, where the children sit in communion with one another every Sunday.
We joined the congregation when Baba was 10 months old and she is nearly 4 now, so this room is a familiar haven. She runs to it every week, jumping down the hallway in uncoordinated hops and skips that makes the aging congregation smile as they dodge out of the way of her slippery energy.
It is October and this is a Unitarian sanctuary, which means that Halloween is in full swing, with a costume parade and a party planned with food masquerading as various creepy and crawly things. And in my delight, I asked one of the teachers there, “Don’t you just love Halloween?”
And she said, “No…no, I actually hate this time of year.”
And then she explained to me how she, as the child of Holocaust survivors, was never allowed out on Halloween, because if you were Jewish and in Eastern Europe, this was one of the most dangerous times of the year for pogroms. And I thought to myself, for I have grown to really admire and love this woman, who has created such a sanctuary for a generation of children, that that was such a sad thing that she has missed out on a tradition that I love so much. Understandable, of course, that her parents would not have been able to let her go out to celebrate like so many American children do, but a sad thing. After all, this is America. We don’t have the same history of anti-Semitic riots that they do in Europe. Surely, surely, she would have been safe here.
We have done a lot of terrible things here, but at least we have not done that. Have we? (It turns out, yes, yes we have. In 1991. In a neighborhood that I travel through five days a week.)
I thanked her for explaining to me why so many people in New York ask you if you’re celebrating Halloween before they talk about it with your children, because I had not known.
And then, a few days later, a gunman walked into a synagogue and murdered 11 people, five days before Halloween. And I shivered, thinking about what she had told me, knowing that her parents were right. They were right to hide their children away from their neighbors, in the same way that I always kept my black cat indoors this entire week. Some risks are simply not worth taking.
On Sunday, I went to sanctuary, where many of the congregants are Jewish, in heritage, if not in practiced religion. And I looked at their faces and I thought about all the worries that I do not have, about how once again, evil is here, but, as it always does in this country, my appearance gives me a choice whether or not to care.
Unitarian services have a moment where you can speak the names of people that you wish to “lift up,” which is as close as Unitarians come to public prayer. Most weeks, the sanctuary is filled with the names of individuals, names spoken aloud, colliding and enmeshing with each other as multiple people speak the names of those they love at once. This week, the prayers were for groups; transgender people, Jewish people, the migrant caravan so desperate for safety that they are walking hundreds of miles towards a border where our government is right now placing armed troops to stop them.
Who are we, as a country? Are we truly this lost?
There are days where I look around and I barely recognize the country that I was raised in. And then there are the days where I wonder if I ever really knew it at all.
Lately, my Beloved and I have been binge watching Call the Midwife, which he is enjoying because of a personal connection to his family history and culture. I’m enjoying it because I love stories about women interacting with women. The midwives live in a convent, along with a small order of nuns, who organize the medical practice, and create a loving family of women. I desperately want to join the sisterhood. But it is the compassion of the nurses, who are young women that get involved in the lives of their patients, that carry the show along.
And it’s amazing how a story set so far away can resonate with us so closely. One night, the episode was about an elderly woman who had been separated from her five children when she entered a workhouse after she was widowed. She was never given the fate of her children, who all died of illnesses in the unsanitary conditions of the workhouse. She is tormented by this all of her life, until the midwife nurse charged with her care follows the parish records and finds the burial place of her youngest child.
In the final scene, the woman bends down and plants her body over the resting place of her child, at peace at last.
My Beloved turned to me to talk to me about the work houses, public houses that were established for the destitute of the parish to have a place to go. Families were separated from each other upon entry, kept in separate wings of the work houses with no contact. Conditions were poor and disease was rampant because of the crowding, although the workers were given a safe place to sleep at night.
And then we were silent, because the similarity to the news was obvious and painful. Here we are, nearly a century after the work houses were shut down in the U.K. for their inhumane conditions, living in a country that is currently taking children from their parents in order to disincentivize refugees from central and southern America.
One father, not understanding what had happened, killed himself. Other children have been lost, separated from their families and moved into an overwhelmed bureaucracy that is losing records and losing people. Guards have raped the children, who have been housed in chain cages, on floors without blankets.
Here, in America, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Here, we take refugee children and do the same thing that the Victorians did for their poor. Like in the workhouses, the children are not receiving an education. They have little in the way of legal representation. Their environment has been designed to demoralize them.
They have been taken from their families.
They have been taken from their families, to punish their parents for seeking our help.
The episode was a haunting episode, that has lingered with me since we watched it. And all I can think, as the midterms approach and I feel so helpless to create actual change, is that voting is harm reduction.
Voting is harm reduction.
Voting is harm reduction.
Voting is harm reduction.
This administration has actively sought — and continues to seek — to do harm, to the environment, to people fleeing violence and wars that we have instigated, to LGBTQ civil rights, to healthcare, to the rights of women. And all we seem to be able to do is to try to reduce the onslaught, to speak up and say, no, this is so very wrong. I have to place my desperate hope on the thought that there are enough people out there that we can make enough of a difference to slow down the harm.
I have been wrong too many times before. I envy the faith of the sisters in Call theMidwife, who reach for the humanity in every soul of the parish that they tend.
I’ve spent much of the summer not engaging with the Internet, which is only part of the reason why my last post was months ago. There is so much that the Internet brings to my life, but it also brings a world of distraction with it that gets in the way of writing.
And how I long to be the kind of writer that can pound out weekly blog posts and keep up her writing goals and also meet all of the demands of every day life. Do these writers have a potion that they drink to keep the words flowing? Where does the time come from? What is the problem always, but time, time, time?
I’ve thought of shutting down Ordinary Canary a dozen times over the summer. But every time I start taking the steps to do so, something in the back of my brain just won’t let me do it. It’s hardly a success, as far as blogs go. I have no sponsors. My regular readers number in the dozen and that’s only if you include all of the ones that are related to me.
And yet I have been writing journal entries on the Internet since 1997, since before there were fun little software packages like WordPress, before LiveJournal and Diary-X, when telling the world how I felt meant hand-coding the HTML for every entry. Updating links. Pirating pictures from a world wide web that was still a shadow of the information dump that it would soon become.
The Internet has grown up. So have I.
I have been hard at work all year on a novel that I’ve tried to write several times before, but this time I seem to actually be doing it. It’s a historical fiction biopic, based on someone that you might know about if you know your classical music history, but most people don’t. I don’t want to say much more than that, for I read some advice that the more time you spend talking about your project, the more energy you take away from actually working on it.
And working on it I have been. I’ve done two Camp Nanowrimos this year and fully plan to be writing the last chapters of my novel in the real Nanowrimo this November. I discovered a neat little tool that lets you run your own personal Nanowrimo all the other months of the year and track your statistics, and so for most of the other months, I’ve been doing that too.
That is to say, I write or edit nearly every day. I’ve passed 150,000 words and still have another part to go, which tells me a great deal about how much cutting and revising I will be doing. Perhaps this is because it is my first novel, but I am certainly not a very efficient writer. I never have been, which is part of what makes keeping to blogging deadlines so difficult for me. Writing takes time. It always comes back to time.
And so, Ordinary Canary has been put on the back burner for now, but for the absolute best reasons. For now, I just have to keep my head down and the words flowing. And when I raise my head again, finished draft in my hand, I can only hope that all of you will still be here.
Perhaps it is the middle of June, but out here on the island, the weather has finally just reminded us of what summer feels like. We’ve shed our jackets and dug out our shorts to swelter in the heat. I finally covered our porch in potted plants that I think might actually survive the night temperatures now. At last, the weather matches the long hours of sunlight that have been making bedtimes with Baba more than a little insane.
“It’s NOT bedtime, Mama,” she says every single night. “Look, it’s still daytime.”
“Alexa,” I ask our Internet overlord, “what time is it?”
“It’s seven o’clock,” Alexa says, backing me up with her calm and robotic voice, as though hours and minutes are a thing that Baba actually cares about.
“ALEXA!” Baba shouts. “IS IT DAYTIME?”
I feel this is a good time to mention that nothing in the baby books prepared me for parenting a three year old.
And yet, I’ve caught the itch too – it’s impossible to do all the sensible things that you know that you should when the world is glorious and filled with light. And it sure it hard to go to bed after spending far too many hours convincing your toddler that she really does need to lay down and go to sleep right now or…
There is no or. Although absolutely every neighbor and every book confirms that this is a sign of my inept parenting, the three year old is in charge, as it apparently illegal to actually staple her to her bed. Between bedtimes and potty training, my life has been consumed by her needs. By the time she finally gives in and accepts unpleasant states like lying down and closing your eyes, it is generally about half an hour before my normal bedtime, which is just not enough time to settle down and relax. And so I stay up far later than is wise, night after night after night.
I know they warned me, but this motherhood trip sure is intense in the first few years.
I was walking home from the train station the other night, enjoying the glory of the sun still out and about, when I suddenly thought about how I am now only a decade younger than my mom was when she died. She was absurdly young, but women in my family have a tendency towards overachievement, and racing to the finish line is no exception.
But then, the inevitable next thought always comes: But I have not yet done what I always knew that I should do with my life. I have published only one story. I have written the majority of several novels. One of them should even have a finished first draft by the end of the, dare I say it, by the end of the summer. But it’s hard to not to despair that it has taken me so long to get this far. What if the same thing happens to me and I leave all of that work incomplete?
My Beloved is approaching retirement in the next decade and so we are beginning to talk realistically about what that next stage of life will look like. How will we afford it? Can I retire anywhere near the same time? When I was younger, I thought that I would retire early – or at least semi-retire – because I wanted to travel. But travel in the way I had pictured has lost much of its appeal, as my life grows to make my home the place I really want to be.
So perhaps not that. Perhaps I will retire just to find a second career. I’m not certain. But I know that whatever I do, it will be arts based. That is who I have always wanted to be: someone who creates something that matters to other people.
But what does even that look like?
Like most fiction writers, I dream a lot about what would happen to my life if I managed to write that best-selling dream novel. Who does not? Isn’t it fun? Just one success and then your money worries go away for the rest of your life. Get optioned by Hollywood and then pay off your house. You’ll take the lump sum of your earnings that year and invest them in ways that keep turning the money into more money. Maybe you’ll take a part-time job, just to keep the brain cells flowing. Maybe you’ll work on writing your next ten novels without having to balance another full time job. Maybe you’ll spend your days just sitting in the garden, enjoying the kind of time you never used to have.
Creativity needs space and time. Executing the dream, the work of the doing, that takes time too.
At the end of the day, every dream I have is really about freedom, not money. It’s about being able to buy the time that I feel so starved of now, here, in my present life that sometimes feels like it’s lived entirely in service to the needs of others. How is it that I’m spending my days folding laundry and going grocery shopping and and not doing, doing, doing the creative things that would satisfy this longing?
This feeling is only temporary, I tell myself. It’s just a few more years before Baba can fold her own laundry and cook her own meals and won’t want me around. How I’ll long for her then, this sweet-skinned babyish form of hers that crawls into my bed and curls against me and says, “Mama, I just want to sleep on YOUR pillow,” as if that makes all the sense in the world.
And then I will miss this time, this hard, frustrating time that is filled with a thousand small moments like that one.
And so. So I carry on, scribbling when I can, as best I can, and trying to be gentle on myself for staying up too late, for forcing myself exhausted through the motions of each entirely forgettable day, for not doing the work that will satisfy my dreams.
This morning the news broke that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in a Paris hotel room. His death has been ruled a suicide, and although the details have yet to come out, it is inevitable that it must also be related to a mental health disorder. This is barely a breath after Kate Spade was found to have hanged herself off a doorknob in her Manhattan apartment, a result of a cheerfully hidden case of bipolar disorder. But her handbags were so playful!, said every single reporter, which tells me everything about what they understand about the manic part of manic-depression.
This has been a hard week for me.
I have no affinity to either Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain, though it is always sad to discover how desperately someone was struggling, but, thanks to their suicides, I am now surrounded by self-appointed experts on mental health. In the elevator, they talk in respectful and solemn tones about all the people that they’ve heard about–and it is clear from the careful tones that they use that it is a subject that they get to forget about most of the time. Creatives, they tell each other, truly creative people often suffer from depression. Look at Stephen Fry. Look at Robin Williams.
When you are the child of a bipolar parent, this is enraging, even though this is probably just the way normal people cope with bad news. It seems impossible that someone with so much wealth and fame should be so unhappy as to want to end it all, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to look at their lives and say, oh, if I had a few million in the bank, then I wouldn’t have the worries that I do. Money solves so very many problems. Just not biology.
Like Kate Spade, my mom also died at a young age, and, bizarrely, ended up on national news media when it happened. Her death was not a suicide, but without a doubt was influenced by her bipolar disorder. Self-care is hard when you’re struggling to survive.
But I also know that she would have chosen to live. Some days that knowledge is heavier to carry than others. Listening to strangers talk about how sad it is, but also how unsurprising it is, to see someone with bipolar order take their life…well, it hurts.
Likewise, every time another school shooting/suicide happens, the people who want to own guns shout about how the problem isn’t guns — it’s just those people with mental health problems. I always want to shout back, to remind them that if they understood what it was like to live with someone with bipolar disorder, then they would stop thinking about mental health as something that gets cured through a one-time talking cure. They’d know the three states:
1. On meds.
2. Off meds.
3. On meds, but the meds have stopped working.
My mom’s life was dedicated to the balance of those three, though it was generally a balance between states one and three. She spent her whole life just trying to feel normal, constantly working with her doctors to find a pharmaceutical and therapeutic balance that would allow her to keep functioning. She constantly chased activities and pursuits that she hoped would bring her to a state of calm happiness. My earliest childhood memory is going to stay with my father while my mom went to rehab after years of self-medicating. Most of the next ones were entertaining myself in therapy waiting rooms and A.A. meetings.
Given a choice, she would have lived. And that is profoundly painful to know — that she would have lived, but wasn’t given the chance.
Some days, my dead are harder to carry than others. This week they swirl around me, because there is nowhere to go to escape the many reminders of their lives.
And so. Anthony Bourdain. I actually know very little about him — he had some TV shows that I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I can’t pretend to know what was happening in his life. I certainly don’t judge him for it. Life is hard. But there are people whose passing creates ripples in the larger wave of humanity. His is one of them – and the waves have brought on more grief than I was prepared to handle this week. And so, I cannot help but be angry, because anger is so much more comforting than despair.