Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sculpting the Words

I am currently reading The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. The main character has been horribly burned and disfigured in a car accident. During his time in the hospital a mysterious sculptress named Marianne Engel appears and intimates that they have a past history together. That's the launching point for the book, but that's not what I want to write about. I want to write about writing and how that process is different and yet the same for all of us.

On one visit to the hospital Marianne is describing to the protagonist her process when she is ready to begin a sculpture of a gargoyle.

"When I'm about to work, I sleep on the stone," Marianne Engel began, with a deep breath, "for twelve hours at least, but usually more. It's preparation. When I lie on the stone, I can feel it. I can feel all of it, everything inside. It's... warm. My body sinks into the contours and then I feel weightless, like I'm floating. I sort of —lose the ability to move. But it's wonderful; it's the opposite of numbness. It's more like being so aware, so hyperaware, that I can't move because it's so overwhelming. I absorb the dreams of the stone, and the gargoyles inside tell me what I need to do to free them. They reveal their faces and show me what I must take away to make them whole."

This passage reminds me of what it's like for me before I begin writing something new or am stuck on a certain part of an ongoing project. I've heard other writers say and it is also true for me, that ninety percent of writing is in your head. That is the "sleeping on the stone" part. My non-writer friends have said to me that I seem distracted or they ask me if I'm upset with them when I'm in that writing in my head mode. My writer friends know exactly what's going on. I think for most writers the stone is the blank page and we have to sense, feel or intuit the words that will go on the page. And sometimes we add or take away the wrong word so we just keep chipping away at the stone/page and eventually the page begins to take shape. And then the process starts all over again for the next page.

I like the idea of "sleeping on the stone" and will probably conjure it up each time I'm preparing to write.

Rebekah for Poplar Grove Muse

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Memorial Day

I recently attended a visitation at a funeral home. Entering the building, I was struck by how little experience I have had with observances of death, and the degree to which I am ignorant of long-held communal rituals that used to be familiar to all. I felt at a loss, vaguely incompetent, somewhat ashamed at my uncertainty.

My parents, on the other hand, have lived for all but a ten-year hiatus in their ancestral home, a relatively small Midwestern city; they know everyone, and recently vowed to try to attend fewer funerals (a tall order, when so many who die have lived a full, small-town life, with more than a casual connection to my folks). They are all too acquainted with what is called for in bringing closure to a life.

I never imagined that I would move so far from my early community, or become so insulated from the natural cycle of death in life. In my mind, the Memorial Days of my childhood linger like a slowly-unfolding dream, stretching out before me in endless summer hours of dewy shade and sunny expanses of lawn. My maternal grandmother lived around the block from us, my grandfather having died when my mother was a young bride. The visits to the cemetery on Memorial Day and his birthday were part of family life, offering their own idiosyncratic highlights.

Preparations for the trip to Hills of Rest were orderly and understood: the gathering of a bright bouquet of cut flowers from the yard (peonies and lilacs being the favored blooms), a jug of water, and a few small gardening tools to clear the gravesite of any unwelcome growth. At a certain level, I think my siblings and I really felt this was a visit to our grandfather, spoken of as such a kind and generous man; it was as close as we were going to get to knowing him. The cemetery was beautiful, carefully tended by quiet men with shovels. The gravestones were mostly flat, brass rectangles flush with the ground, with ingenious urns that could be pulled out of the marker and upturned to serve as vases, chained to the site by brass links. Pulling out the urn, pouring in the water, setting the blooms, all were privileged tasks to be shared in.

The adults would stay for a bit and talk, while we kids would explore the surrounding area, looking in particular for the grave markers of children we had discovered over the years. The icons of Little Bo Peep and her sheep, and a boy with a sailboat, were the objects of our searching, the chilling thought of a lost child inspiring a welter of emotions in each of us.

The more distant rural cemetery, where the previous generation of Norwegian immigrants lies, was a more occasional destination. My overwhelming memory of that windswept site is the narrow alley of trees these settlers planted, first thing, to break the incessant prairie winds from disturbing the peace of the departed.

My husband and I know we are heading into years of increasing loss. His father died two years ago. Unbidden, greater acquaintance with the close of life is on its way.

What do you remember of Memorial Days past? Do you mark the day now, distant as you may be from family and familiar ground?

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, May 17, 2010

Packing Up

My house is a mess. Newspaper shreds flutter about and I can’t find anything. Three things I’ve already packed away (at the bottom of the box) are things I want today. Moving is tough stuff.

This move was not self-initiated. The mother ship decided I needed to be a West-coast girl. I decided I needed my job. And so the hubby and I uproot ourselves again. We’ll test the soil, water and light in a new habitat. It’s hard to yank myself out of ground I thought I would never leave.

Not all about the move is sad or unwelcome. We’ll be close to oceans and mountains and great mass transit. We dream new adventures. We let stuff go. We begin again.

I’d like to say that I balance this tension of excitement and loss. Some days I do. Some days I cry privately in 30-second bursts. I resist slipping away quietly and choose, instead, to say goodbye to friends. That hurts.

To get through, I do what I can. I’m more patient with the hubby (and myself). I tie up a few newspaper-wrapped teacups with ribbon. It will make me smile in a few weeks when I unpack the box and think about the people who drank tea with me.
~Stephanie W, for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Good Night

This print currently hangs in a tiny passage-way space on the second floor of the old victorian farmhouse where my folks live in Ohio. It used to hang on the wall of the room I slept in when I visited my grandparents at this very same house when I was a girl. The girl in the image was me. (Or so I imagined.) The dog was a dog I never had, but always wanted. A real gentle Lassie dog, loyal and watchful. The view out the window behind the sleeping girl shows bundled corn stalks in the nighttime field. All is in order and well in that victorian farm world. Super sentimental. But I loved it then and now it for all the comfort it gave me. As a kid, sleeping alone sometimes upstairs in that creakly old farmhouse, this image on the wall provided protection and assurance and I knew then it had hung over my mother's bed as a child and even her mother's bed a generation before that. The picture had a reputation for soothing nightmares and keeping the monsters away.

A consciousness of gentleness, of protection, and a well-ordered, good night's sleep is part of the legacy I'm grateful to have recieved from my fore-mothers. This quiet gift of grace is a given from mothers and fathers many places all over the globe. In other locations, it is not. I do not take the gift of my birth luck for granted. Tonight, in my now -familiar mid- life state of insommnia, I'm celebrating this aspect of motherhood. A toolbox of lullabyes, backrubs, poems before sleep and even pictures to fall asleep and wake up to that remind me that I'm watched over and all is well. Happy Belated Mother's Day!

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, May 3, 2010

Everyone Has a Story

My husband and I have a dear friend, an older gentleman, who loves to tell stories and recount his many adventures. He tells stories with a boyish charm and a twinkle in his eye, and I love to sit across the table from him and hear him talk. He could go long into the night and I could listen. He served in WW II in the Pacific. He is a farmer, an elected official and a world traveler. Our friend had four daughters and now has many grand and great grandchildren.

We had him over a few nights ago because back in the 70's he made three trips to China with farmers on a kind of agricultural exchange trip. This was shortly after China opened it's doors to the west. Once, the trip with farmers did not fill up, so he took a group of food writers to China instead. He took many pictures which were made into slides and brought them by to show us. We had recently taken a trip to China as well, so we were eager to compare notes between 1975 China and 2010 China.

Our friend had many slides of the people of China: school children, farmers, housewives, jade carvers, bicycle riders, old faces, young faces. His slides brought to life the beautiful people of China which he had also come to know so well. Our friend was totally taken with his photos of the people. He would watch them flash by and shake his head and say, "Look at all those beautiful people and every one of them has a story."

The lights were low in our living room and his aging face was lit only by the light of the slide projector. He had such love and passion in his voice. Our friend, the aging raconteur, fully embraced these people from so long ago and so far away. He remembered them and honored them, recognizing they each had a story to tell. I will always remember that night and whenever I see one of the 1.3 billion people of China, I will wonder what story he or she has to tell.
--Amy for the Poplar Grove Muse