Month: August 2013

“Nikita,” an excerpt from my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

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I have longed to be the title character in the film La Femme Nikita.   She  decides one day that from that minute forward, she has no past.  She refuses to discuss it.  Ever again. 

One afternoon, she stops at a local grocery store.  The man at the check-out counter makes a shy attempt  to engage her in conversation.  She can see a genuine kindness in him, a fundamental openness.  She invites him to her apartment and they prepare dinner together.  He never leaves.  They love one another passionately and devotedly.  He yearns to know more about her, about her past.   The yearning shows as an expression of worried expectation on his face when she is not looking.  But he knows he can never ask her, that she will never tell him.

This seems like the best possible solution to me, every part of it.    I go to five different grocery stores in the area, including two supermarkets, a warehouse club and two small neighborhood stores, at all hours of the day and night, needing only one or two things at a time but full of hopeful possibility.  If ever the line between reality and fiction were clear, believe me, it’s in the difference between Nikita’s paramour and the real people manning the check-out lines in suburban American grocery stores. 

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Nikita resolves to start a whole new life, and she does.  A life with no past.

There’s a man on my block, around my age.   He moved in to an apartment down the street when he left his wife of nearly thirty years.  He has a whole new life.  A younger, long-legged, smiling inamorata whom I see driving his car around, or I see the two of them getting out of the car with bags of groceries for the evening’s meal.  Just like Nikita.  They are always smiling at one another, and though there is somewhat of the tentativeness and gentleness of a new love, there is also the ease. 

 “Is it really so easy?  Is it  as easy as you make it look?  This business of having a whole new life?”  I am dying to ask him this.  But I don’t.

Sometimes I study him.  The way he bounds out of his apartment when he is running late.  The way he balances his brief case, gripping it confidently and tightly in one hand while swinging the other arm briskly back and forth, back and forth.  I study his movements, his gestures, as if I am a student of method acting.  As if I believe that perfectly adopting every nuance of his behavior will hold the secret, will open up my own doorway to a whole new life.

That the next time those glass and silver doors at one of the five grocery stores whooshes open to welcome me, and I stroll in, confidently gripping my purse in one hand while the other arms swings briskly back and forth, that it will happen.  There he will be at the check-out.  He will make a shy attempt at conversation, and I will see his kindness.  We will make dinner with the fresh groceries I have just purchased, and he will never leave.

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This is what I am thinking: that maybe one day I can be Nikita.  Maybe if I go back once more, just once more.  If I can put it all in order.  This is what I need you for, to go there with me, to be my witness. 

I read something recently.  It said that the hardest part, the most arduous hurdle, is not learning how to trust a man again.  It is learning how to trust yourself.  And I thought: yes, that’s it.  That’s exactly it.  How can I be sure there was not something that I missed.  Something that I failed to see, failed to understand.    Maybe early on, maybe even right from the beginning.  Maybe not even from the beginning of my marriage, but from the beginning of my very life.

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“Pushing the River” excerpt

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From where we left off with Sierra…

             No one knew quite what to make of her when she first arrived that summer – whether they should talk to her just the same as always or treat her like the entirely different creature that she looked to be.  But other than spending sizeable amounts of time trying to straighten out and generally tame her long mane, she proved very much the same.

            At least that’s what everybody thought at first.

            She spent pretty near all day sitting on the sofa watching hour after hour of TV about movie stars.  Once in a while, she’d walk to the store a few blocks away to get herself a cold drink, or a packet of gummy bears.  Her favorite color was orange, followed by red, then yellow then green.  My lady always teased her, saying that they didn’t have different flavors at all, just different colors.  Then Sierra would make my Lady test her by giving her different colors with her eyes closed, which she could always make out, and then say Ha Ha, so there.

            It seemed like every time she’d walk to the store, she’d come back home and spend a whole lot more time on her phone.  She would sort of curl herself around it, like it was some precious, secret thing she was trying to protect,  her eyes just a couple of inches from the little screen, thumbs flying, and her lips moving every so often.

            The whole clan ended up living here that summer – my Lady, of course, the Little One, the Boy, his wife Marie, and her baby sister Sierra – before everyone except my Lady was set to scatter to the four winds come the end of August.  My Lady loves nothing so much as a house full of kin,  and she drinks up their very presence like a hungry cat with a bowl of fresh warm cream.  The place was a damn mess, what with the Boy setting up a bike fix-it shop right in the middle of the living room, and Marie cooking all sorts of the most infernal-smelling substances at all hours of the day and night, and the TV going non-stop with Sierra’s movie star channels, and the Girl practicing her fiddle.  Dear Lord, I went for an entire summer without hearing those things I look forward to all the rest of the long year – the chirp of a cricket, the breezes ruffling the leaves on the ripe trees, the sounds of little ones playing long into the evening, giving you the sense that life does go on, no matter how old and broke-down some of us may be getting.

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            My Lady acted for all the world like every wrench set strewn across the living room floor, every pile of pots and pans, every gummy bear candy wrapper stuffed between couch cushions was a buried treasure.  She got into the habit of doing everybody’s laundry, insisting that it was just as easy to toss theirs in as long as she was doing it, and way more efficient to do full loads, besides.

            One afternoon, my Lady is taking things out of the dryer, sorting, and folding, and humming a medley of tunes from West Side Story, when she screams out, “Marie!  Marie, come here!  Marie!!

            Well, Marie cannot even imagine what catastrophe has come to pass, but she hightails it down the stairs and into the laundry room, where my Lady holds a pair of black lace panties in her hand like it was a dead rat who carried the plague.

            “Are these yours?”

            Marie laughs.  “No.  Definitely not.”

            “They aren’t Kate’s.  I buy all of her underwear, so I can tell you this for a fact.”

            Marie takes them in her hand and flips them over, revealing that the back side of the panties is laced up, top to bottom, with a shocking pink ribbon.

            “Shit.”  Says Marie.

            “Marie, we gotta get that kid on birth control.”

            “Shit.”

            “NOW.  Right now, we have to.”

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“Pushing the River” excerpt…

 

…in which Madeline tries to get a pregnant teen (Sierra) to eat…

 

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            “Hey, are you hungry?  I already ate, but what about you?  Are you starving?”

            “Um, I don’t know.”

            “Come on, sure you do.  You know if you’re hungry or not.”

            “Are you hungry, MadMad?  I guess I could eat, but only if you’re gonna eat.”

              “When was the last time you ate?”

              “Um, I don’t know.”

              “You don’t remember the last time you ate?  OK, seriously, that has never happened to me.  Not ever.  Tell me what you’ve had to eat today.”

              “Um, some cereal.  I think.  Wait.  Maybe that was yesterday.  I had some leftover macaroni and cheese.  Definitely.”

              “Is that all?  Aren’t you starving?”

              “Well, I’ll eat if you eat.”

              “OK, OK.  Tell me what you’d like to eat.”

              “I don’t know.”

              “Well, think about it.  What do you feel like eating.  Make some little pictures of food come into your head and then tell me what those pictures are.”

              “Just surprise me.  Anywhere is fine.”

              “OK, tell you what.  We’re gonna pass every single food place that there is between here and my house, so the minute you see something that looks good to you, just let me know, and we’ll pull in.”

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              “Surprise me.  You pick.  I want to be surprised.”

              “OK, there’s a McDonald’s.  Let’s just pull in there.”

              “I don’t really want anything from McDonald’s”

              “What?”

              “They don’t have anything I feel like eating.”

              “Ok, so what do you feel like eating?”

              “I don’t know.   Surprise me.”

              “I think we just tried that.”

              “I know, I know.  I’m sorry!  I won’t do it again.  Anywhere is fine.”

              “Let me just name some of the places we’re gonna pass – see if any of them strike your fancy.  Of course, there’s McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, every different grocery store there is in the Midwest – we can always buy a bunch of stuff to take home — Pizza Hut, 31 Flavors…hey, you know those frozen things they have at Dairy Queen?  Do you know what I mean?

              “Do you mean a Blizzard?”

              “Yeah, yeah, a Blizzard.  Do you know that I’ve never had one?  I think I’m the only person in the United States of America who’s never had one.  I don’t have a policy against them, or anything, just haven’t had one.”

              “I can’t believe you’ve never had one.”

              “Do you know if we’re gonna pass a Dairy Queen on the way?  Do you want to go there?”

              “No, no, I don’t want to go there.  I just can’t believe you’ve never had one.”

              “OK, look, here’s a Subway coming up – good, healthy stuff.  You wanted me to decide and surprise you; here I go.  Subway it is.  We’ll park and go in so you can look at everything.  Let’s go.”

              “I can’t believe you’ve never had a Blizzard.”

              —

              “What?”

              —

              “Sierra, do you want to go to Dairy Queen?”

              —

              “I’m just saying.”

              —

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Again and Again (with apologies to Rilke)

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I have remarked/confessed previously in this blog about my need to grapple (publicly!) with my own dark, tortured feelings regarding writing, when assailed, as I was at first, with so many other blogs possessing titles such as The Joy of the Word (and we’re not talking jesus here, people), The Ecstacy of Writing, etc., etc.  Many wrote to thank me for speaking about this, kindred souls who also experience writing as an agonizing, if ultimately rewarding, creative endeavor.   A good friend even gave me his copy of John McPhee’s article “Draft No. 4” from the April 29 issue of The New Yorker (which is largely wonderful, if exhaustively long, because it’s The New Yorker) in which McPhee says:

           ” If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it  and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

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So, I am not alone!

I felt it.  A community of linked creative spirits, all besieged and beleaguered  by the Demon Word, by the profoundly felt need to Get It Right.

Well, I felt it for a while.  At least until I started following fellow writers who were, and are, cranking out Steven King-like numbers of pages that get sent to me on a virtually daily basis, while I have heretofore been feeling pretty good about one completed page, or even one completed paragraph.

Sigh.

And, looking deeper into the text of my erstwhile soul brother John McPhee, I see that he was describing his experience with getting a first draft onto the page – which partly due to the enormity of the torture, he does as quickly as he possibly can.  Like all those damn, I mean prolific, bloggers and writers that I am now [stuck] following.

Then, it is time for me to re-learn a lesson that I have learned over and over again.  And that is – the way that I write is completely unique to me.  The process is mine, just as the end result is mine.  Perhaps it is because I started out my “serious” writing as a poet (an excruciatingly bad one, I must say once again) that I write everything –every first draft, every email, the article on early childhood development that I am writing today, everything – by going over every sentence, every word, again and again.  I read it aloud.  And then I read it aloud again.  I look up an astonishing number of words in a thesaurus – not to find a fancier word, but rather a simpler one.  In other words,  nearly everything that McPhee describes doing in subsequent drafts, I do in my first draft.    It takes a long, long time to write a page.   Also, and again perhaps because I started out as a poet, I value telling a story with an utter economy of words.  My second novel was narrated by a 15-year-old who is a living run-on sentence in search of a topic; yet she tells her overall story quite succinctly.

Yes, there are common, shared experiences among all creative people and their processes; and yet, we are also each unique, individual, one of a kind.  My advice would be this: listen to everyone you can who may have any gem, however small, about your writing or your art.  Then, find your own way.

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A Little Birdie Told me (excerpt)

Just because it feels like time, here is an excerpt from my second novel.  The narrator is not quite sixteen years old.

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May 26, 1972

            I can’t remember how old I was when I first started thinking that I had been born into a family of aliens, but I know that I was pretty young.  For some reason, this feeling was always most pronounced when we were sitting around the dining room table, eating our nightly dinners together.  Mom at one end of the table, Dad at the other, and Lizzy and I sitting directly across from one another.  Every so often Mom would rearrange the dining room and face the table in the opposite direction, exactly perpendicular to where it had been before.  She did this regularly, at random intervals and without warning, so it’s hard to get a clear picture in my mind when I try to think of this scene. 

             I guess I feel like Emily in “Our Town,” you know, after she dies, and she’s up in heaven or whatever exactly it is, and she’s horrified, simply horrified at how everyone just seems to be going through the motions of life, unaware of everything, and she begs and begs to be allowed to go back, and everyone tells her this is a terrible awful idea, but still she begs, and so she’s allowed to return, for one day.  But she finds out that everyone is right.  She goes back,  she runs around, she’s frantic, she wants to let everyone know how much they’re missing, how precious every single thing is, how fragile, and full, and fleeting is every second, but they just go on. Moving through their lives in blind slow motion.  In the end it’s too much for her, too painful.  She begs to go back, to take her chair among the dead.

            So there we sit at the dinner table, night after night. 

            It just feels like there aren’t the same things going on inside of these people, like they exist on some kind of a different plane.   I want to wave my hand in front of their faces half the time.  Or snap my fingers in front of their eyes to see if they’d really blink.  But really, I wish I was there with them.  On their plane, I mean.  I really do.  Their world seems simple, and purposeful, like they fit right into the world like a hand in a soft fuzzy glove. 

            When I was little I would follow Mom around the house while she did all of her chores – changed the sheets, started the wash.  I would sit and watch her, just watch her, as she fed the bed sheets through the giant, hot, steaming “mangle” we used to have that ironed them.  She pressed the pedal with her knee, and moved her hands and arms back and forth, barely missing the burning metal plate, as she offered the sheets like a gift into the presser.  A smile on her face the entire time.  Pearls at her throat.  A dreamy and resolute expression like she knew exactly who she was and what she was meant to do. 

            I thought if I followed her around, watched her movements, studied them, copied them, strained to commit them to memory, that I could be the same, that I, too, could fit right into my life like she could, like Lizzie can.

            But the truth is, inside of me, I felt more like Captain Ahab.  When he’s talking to the blacksmith, and he says to him, “Thou should’st go mad…Why dost thou not go mad?”

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            OK, I’m starting to sound like a total dork.  I don’t want you to think that I’m one of those people who goes around quoting from books all the time, dear God save me, or that I don’t have any of my own ideas.   That I’m one of those people who swallows everything whole and then regurgitates on cue. Maybe I am a little dorky, though.  I mean, I was the only person in my entire class that actually liked Moby Dick.  Even the teacher looked at me a little funny when I would get excited about a particular passage that we were supposedly discussing.  But the truth is, I loved it, every word, every obsessive detail.

            OK, I also just realized that I’ve been comparing myself to totally fictional characters.  People that are invented, not real.  Weird.  But I guess that just proves my point that I feel like an alien.  Like I know exactly what Ahab meant.  Like sometimes when I do something so simple, so everyday, like brushing my teeth at night.  Sometimes I go into the bathroom, and I take my toothbrush –a nice new one every six months when we go the dentist as per ADA standard recommendation — and I open the mirrored cabinet that hides the Crest – you know, the fresh, minty green paste that sports that wonderfully comforting and pretentious and official, medical sounding paragraph: “Crest can be an effective, cavity-preventing dentifrice when used in combination with a program of twice-daily brushing and regular professional care.”  Wow.  I hope they paid their ad agency millions and millions for that one – and I squeeze my line of preventive dentifrice on to my brush, I know just what Ahab meant  I close that mirrored-cabinet door, and I see my face staring back at myself, and it’s like I suddenly get a picture, like a million mirror images, or how many times in my mere fifteen years I have stood right in this spot, and done this exact same thing, and then I get a picture of a million more times, way way into the future, doing this thing, this teeth bushing thing.  And I freeze; I just simply freeze.  I momentarily forget how to go on.  How to do anything.

            Dear lord, I can just imagine trying to explain this to Lizzie or Mom.  Especially since this is the exact kind of thing that makes them feel all warm and toasty inside.  Routine.  Repetition.  Detail.             

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“Pushing the River” excerpt introduces Auggie and Bess

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“Now, exactly what is our role here, Madeline?”  Auggie was barely able to contain his delight.  “What do you need from us?”

            After the walk with Ellie, Madeline’s renewed burst of enthusiasm for the prospect of Living in the Moment manifest in the form of shooting off a text to Dan: “Hey, no idea what you’re up to this evening, but having some friends over for dinner.  Join us later if you’re free.  I made pie.”  8069027891_3e0726af21_bHe had texted back that he’d love to come by, but didn’t want to infringe on her time with good friends.  He suggested he stop by around eight.

            “Auggie, you’re being weird,” Madeline said.

            “No, no.  I’m serious.  We want to be there for you. We just need to know what our role is.”  Auggie radiated a decidedly boyish quality, in the best sense.  And in his unbridled enthusiasm for the task at hand, he was adorable.  Bess nearly always found him adorable, and made this obvious in frequent, glowingly loving glances at him.  Across the dinner table from Madeline, the two of them radiated exuberance, good will and love.  It delighted Madeline, and made her misty, and wistful, and, as her son would have said when he was a little boy, sickenated.

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            Auggie continued: “I mean, are we chaperones here?  Do you want us to stick around until after he leaves?  We would love to do that for you.”  He put his arm around Bess, and pulled her head over to lean against his own.  “Wouldn’t we, babe?  Chaperones!”  He caught Bess mid-sip with her wine, and as she gurgled an assent into her glass, he said, “Or wait.  Do I have the wrong idea here?  Maybe you want us to leave right away!  Maybe you’re dying to be alone with him! Maybe the whole ‘why don’t you come over while I have friends here thing’ is just a ruse to make it seem innocent.”  Bess could barely get her wine glass safely onto the table, she was laughing so hard.

            “Auggie, seriously, don’t do anything one bit differently than if Dan wasn’t here.  Really.  Stay as long as you want to stay.   Leave when you want to leave!  Like always!! ”

            “What about a sign?  Maybe we should come up with a sign – two signs – one if you think it’s going well, and you want us to leave so the two of you can be alone; one if it’s not going so well, and you want us to stay.”

            “It really doesn’t matter what I say, does it?  You’re deep into your own thing here.”

            “F I N E,” Auggie said.  “Mission aborted.”

            “More pie, Auggie?”

            “You betcha.”

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A Little Birdie Told Me

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Dear Friends and Blog Followers,

My 2nd novel,  A Little Birdie Told Me, is available today and tomorrow (Aug. 11 and 12) for FREE download on Amazon/Kindle at the following link.

If you have already read it, please spread the word to any interested readers you know.  And remember, I would be honored if you would consider posting a review on Amazon.

THANKS for your continued interest and support of my writing!  My regular Monday blog will be posted tomorrow.

–Barbara

P.S. The photo is of me and daughter Molly at my nephew’s wedding.  Cute, huh?

And remember, you do NOT need a Kindle device to download ANY reading material via the Kindle program.