Not Your Typical News Story

Ten years ago, on July 7th, 9:15 am Greenwich Mean time, I was on the tube in London, heading to Liverpool Street Station with my children, when our train was halted at Ealing South. We had just got off a nine-hour flight with an eight-hour time difference, so it was the middle of our night, and the children succumbed to the overly warm, overly full carriage and nodded off in their seats, legs draped over their luggage as pseudo-protection for their gear. We waited, and waited, and waited, the sound system periodically buzzing to life as a nasal voice, heavy on the static, told us again and again that this train could not progress forward due to a “major security alert.” Sitting there, I remember thinking that it was probably a bomb scare. Growing up in England in the 1970s, bomb scares were just something we lived with. After twenty minutes of silent patience within the carriage, the loud speaker buzzed again and everyone on the train was instructed to get off now and leave the station immediately.

I stared blearily at the sign on the platform again: Ealing South. Did I know where that was in relation to Liverpool Street Station? I didn’t think so. I’d lived in the London area as a student but I didn’t remember ever taking the tube to Ealing South. I nudged the kids. We lifted our bags and with weary sighs followed everyone out of the station. Once outside, on a street I was not familiar with, I turned to see iron gates being closed and locked at the entrance to the station. They really meant this.

We spent the next few hours climbing on and off buses, explaining to the drivers that we wanted to go to Liverpool Street Station only to be asked, “Why don’t you take underground?” None of them knew that the underground had been closed or why their buses were suddenly so full or how to get to Liverpool Street Station from Ealing South. But if we took the number 9 bus to the number 24 and then changed for the number 6 bus, we could get to Hammersmith Bus Terminal where we would undoubtedly find a bus to Liverpool Street Station. While we were on one of these many buses, surrounded by people who had also been thrown off the tube, somebody finally received a call on their mobile phone and we could hear, from her end of the conversation, that it was, indeed, a bomb. A series of bombs, in different locations, across the London Underground. We arrived at Hammersmith Bus Terminal, glad to be seeing the end to the mayhem we had landed in, only to be told by one of the many emergency workers in orange and white striped jackets that not only was I not going to Liverpool Street Station that day, but that if I were him, I’d get my children out of the bus terminal too because another bomb had just gone off on a bus.

Now what was I going to do? I sat my children – 14 and 10 – on a bench and told them not to move. Then I went in search of a pay phone. I found one and tried to call my brother who worked in the City of London but the phone lines were down. I tried to call my brother-in-law who worked in South London but those lines were down too. I finally got a line out to my father, in Southend, where I had been headed with my children, and he was baffled that I couldn’t reach my brother. “I just spoke with him,” he said.
“I’m in London, dad. The phones are down inside the city.”
There was a long pause and he finally said, a catch in his voice, “I just want you to get where you’ll be safe.”

It never really occurred to me that we weren’t safe. Trapped, yes. Hungry, very. Tired, beyond words. But the panic the media seems so able to convey in these situations hadn’t reached me. Or anybody else around me that I could tell. We were all just dealing with it. I finally resorted to a London taxi-cab to get us out of the jam and had the driver drop us at a pub in Putney, south of the River Thames, on the understanding that my brother-in-law would come and pick us up from there. The publican showed us to a back room, where I could sit with the children, and since there was no food to be had because the cooks were trapped inside London, the kids laid down on the wooden benches and fell asleep. And then I did the smartest thing I’d done all day. I walked down the street to another payphone and woke up my husband. “You need to hear this from me,” I told him, “before you hear it on the news.”

The thing is, as messy as that whole situation was, what I remember most from being in the midst of it were the stories my sister told when she came home from work the next day. We ended up at her house in Kent, after my brother-in-law rescued us from the pub, and the children and I promptly slept for almost 24 hours. We woke up to my sister sharing the talk from the teachers’ lounge. One of the stories she told was about the husband of one of her coworkers, who was on his usual bus in north London, heading to work the day of the bombings, when a man sat down next to him and started fidgeting so agitatedly with a package inside his backpack, the husband got off the bus. And as it pulled away, the bus exploded. He must have been sitting next to the bomber and didn’t know it.

What I took away from that was the following: there’s a great chance it won’t be us. Or if it is us, there’s a great chance that we won’t know it. I think often about the men on Flight 93, the fourth plane to go down on 9/11. I picture them saying to each other, maybe wordlessly, we’re going down, so we may as well go down fighting. Isn’t that what we should all be saying? If we’re going down, may as well go down doing the things we want to do with our lives. So my vote is, if you want to go to Paris, go. Chances are great you’ll just have a wonderful time.

Paris 2

The Dark Subject

One of the greatest challenges I have in my writing is drawing characters that are likable and yet can turn on a penny and become brutes. Some readers want to be able to see the danger foreshadowed in the personalities of these characters, because they just don’t want to believe that nice guys can do such harm. But if you have ever spent any time around someone prone to domestic violence, you know that it’s not visible from the outside and it does come out of nowhere.

I never had any intention of using my childhood in my writing but then one day, I was driving along the freeway, listening to Steve Scher interview a domestic violence survivor on National Public Radio, and for some reason I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this was what I had grown up with, and it wasn’t as if I’d never spoken of it. So why this agitation? This uneasy twisting deep in my core, like a trapped animal pacing inside a cage.

I was so upset I wanted to pull off the freeway and find a pay phone to call into the show, but I knew that if I called in, I would have to say something more than just, “Stop it! You’re upsetting me!!” I would have to ask a question. And I didn’t have a question to ask, so I kept on driving. It wasn’t until I reached my destination, after the show was over, and got out of my car that it came to me. “You keep giving out a 1-800 number for women that find themselves in this situation,” I wanted to say, “but what about a number for the children that have to grow up watching it? Don’t you know what it does to our brains to watch someone we love very much hurting someone else that we love very much?”

Of course I would never have asked that question if I had thought of it in time because it would only have elicited pity – and I didn’t want pity. I wanted answers. Instead, I went home and penned a play, From Me, To You, which had my teenage self as a character. The play was not intended to be about the darker aspects of my childhood, and it wasn’t. It was a love story, set in the 70s, between two teenagers writing letters across the Atlantic. Once I knew that the girl was in England, writing letters in a bedroom filled with pop music, I knew she had to be me. And if it was me, I had to be true to what was happening in the background at my house.

Even though the violence was peripheral to my story, when the play opened, my heart beat hard in my chest with the fear that audience members would point fingers at me afterwards and say, “No wonder you’re so messed up.” But they didn’t. They bopped their heads to the music, laughed and sighed and listened and watched, and afterwards, they came up to me, smiling, and told me how it reminded them of their own teenage years. Then they came back with their children and watched it again. And I felt a little door close on the pain in one part of my brain.

When I heard on the radio that the stepfather of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School killer had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him, prohibiting him from buying the gun used in that shooting, I knew immediately that the killer had grown up seeing that an acceptable response to anger was violence. And while many probably heard that news report and thought about lax gun control laws, I thought about domestic violence. Because I know that as a result of growing up with domestic violence, the real trigger the Marysville-Pilchuck killer was holding was in his brain. And it’s a trigger that can go off at any time, for no apparent reason. I know this because I had that trigger in my brain too. I believe – although I haven’t asked too many others who grew up in a household like mine – but I truly believe, you cannot spend your formative years around that kind of behavior and not get the trigger in your brain. Fortunately I also had a powerful override button that I think I earned through education and distance. And the day I stumbled into forgiving my father—through a comedy I wrote, in which he was the main character – was the day that trigger went away. Pouf! Like a mental magic trick. Which makes me a huge advocate of forgiveness, as you can imagine.

The thing is that trigger gets sewn into the brains of ordinary, likable people. People that grow up to be successful, charming, kind in many ways. They don’t have to be substance abusers, they don’t have to be of a particular skin tone; they are admired community members and, yes, the popular kid at school. When I was a child I used to wish people could see what my father was really like behind the white goatee and pot belly but all they saw was someone who looked like Father Christmas and had the cheery disposition to match. So when I read the lines, “We fail to spot shooter after shooter because they look so much like us and they are like us. They are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members,” in Mark Manson’s article, How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings, I couldn’t help but connect it with my private take on the Marysville-Pilchuck killer. And it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t keep it private any longer.

Not that my being open will necessarily help us “spot” the shooters, as Manson puts it, but it might shine a light on one part of the equation that we still don’t tend to discuss – domestic violence. It’s a dark subject, I get that. I can still remember how, as a young adult, I would try to tell certain people about the things I’d seen as a child, and I’d watch them close down. Now, after all these years, I get that too. I didn’t like seeing it – what in the world made me think people would want to hear about it? Fortunately I had my writing where I could use it as a “theme” as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing. A theme that I took from personal experience and turned around and over on the page, trying to explain why, even though my dad’s actions had embedded a trigger in my head, I was grateful to him for all the good things he did for me. And I loved him. And each time people told me that they couldn’t quite picture a man like the one in Lesson 5 of my novel, doing what he did in Lesson 10, I went back and reworked it. I knew he could do it, because I’d seen it happen – but I had to find a way to make it believable to others. Because there’s a chance that if they can believe it in fiction, they will be able to believe it more readily in reality.

Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets that domestic violence became a theme in some of my writing because it is The Dark Subject; but a bigger part of me knows I had to write about it because I survived it. And it’s the survival part that makes it a story. My reward for sticking with it was watching audience after audience sit, with their eyes fixed on the stage, through a scene of more ‘real’ (less ‘Hollywood’) domestic violence in my play, Carried by the Current. When that happened, I knew I had found a way to tell it. And when people came up to me afterwards and pointed at the stage behind me, asking, “How did you know…?” I knew I had found a way to share.

Writing letters helped me escape what was happening in my house as a teenager, and stepping on stage to act, as a 17-year old, saved my life. Those, and where they led me, together with love – the one thing I was sure I never wanted to let into my life because of what was hiding in my brain – those were my 1-800 number. I think about how little is spent on teaching our children creative endeavors in the public schools and I wonder how some of them are ever going to find their 1-800 number.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; for everyone who now fears sending our children to school, it’s time we started talking about The Dark Subject.

DVAM_graphic

Men are from Venus

One of our friends reached out recently to let us know that after 63 years of living in a woman’s body and feeling like a guy, he’s decided the time has come for him to actually become that guy. Cancer robbed him of his female organs long since so the change won’t involve any surgeries; just a slight difference in his name and some hormone therapy. He was very open about the whole thing and encouraged us to ask any questions we might have since he’s comfortable talking about all aspects of the procedure. I thought about it for a while, pondering the physical, mental and emotional aspects of such a change, and realized the only thing I was truly curious about was how his wife of 33 years was going to feel when she realized she was now sharing a bed with someone who farts?

Because, come on, I don’t know about your husbands, but mine tosses and turns and grunts and groans and snorts and snores and emits all sorts of noises and aromas when he’s in bed. Of course, he tells me that I do the same thing, which I disagree with; but if it’s true, it may actually prove my point. Because just recently I read a fascinating article in Scientific American about a breakthrough study describing the discovery of new cells – some of which include the Y chromosome – in the brains of mothers after pregnancy. Not just cells from their child in their bloodstreams, which has been known for a while, but actually in their brains. Which would totally explain any male pattern behavior from me in bed, right? (Read the article here. It’s truly fascinating). But I don’t think I would have actually known this kind of sleep pattern was typical of guys without recently paying a visit to my mother, where I happened to share a bed with a female friend. I knew this was going to be the case before I got there and I’d been wondering how I was going to react when my friend was gassy or noisy or tumbled over onto my side of the bed or robbed me of the blankets – all the stuff that I was used to – so I was amazed to discover that she just lay down on her side of the bed every night and slept. Soundly. Not a peep out of her. All night long.

Which begs the question – how is someone who’s been used to such an unobtrusive slumber companion going to respond to the guy’s way of sleeping? Or, for that matter, respond to the disconnect that happens between a man’s mind and his tongue, leaving him to say whatever the hell he wants whenever the hell he wants to? Or the stuff with the remote – you know, that he can’t even let it be on one program for two seconds before he’s gotta, gotta, gotta see what else is on offer? I even remember my (new) guy friend telling me, back when he was a woman, that he got a chuckle out of watching the young granddaughters in his family coming to terms with the fact that boys could be irritating – like horseflies. And now he’s going to become one of them?! What about his wife?

Then I remembered one of my favorite moments on screen. It was in “Prelude to a Kiss,” based on the stage play of the same name by Craig Lucas, where a young bride (Meg Ryan) lets her spirit change places with that of an elderly man (Sydney Walker). The bride’s new husband (Alec Baldwin) spends a lot of the film trying to work out why his wife doesn’t seem like the young woman he fell in love with until finally, he tracks down her spirit in the body of this old man. Overcome with emotion at having found her, he takes the old man in his arms and kisses him. I found that beautiful. It was such a statement of love transcending the physical. Given how much our bodies change over time, that’s a lovely thing to contemplate. Especially as we creep towards old age, where health issues could transform us completely. To think that we might be with someone who can see beyond those changes, into the spirit of the person they’ve loved for so long, is pretty special.
Prelude to a kiss

So the truth is, I don’t really have to ask my friend this question about how his wife of 33 years is going to react to the man in bed next to her because inside that man is the woman she fell in love with. Plus she’ll probably love him all the more for finding a way to be completely at ease with his true identity.

That said, all bets are off if he starts in with the ‘pull my finger’ stuff.

When You’re Not in the Mood.

I’ve never experienced writers’ block – except that I’m blocked by the reality of not having enough time to write all the things I want to write – but I do have moments when it feels like I’m not in the mood to write. Or maybe not in the mood to write certain things that I feel like I should be writing. Like this blog for example; I’m getting little reminders from the Stats fairies that it’s been “three months since you’ve written a new post” and even though I’ve had three different subjects I’ve wanted to write about in my blog, every time I go to do it, I get that little whine inside me that says, “But I don’t feel like it.”

Maybe it’s because I got distracted by turning one of my plays into a screenplay – a process that I loved. I mean absolutely loved. At first, when someone encouraged me to do that I thought – “No, really? Take on another format that I’m not familiar with? Pu-lease!” But then once I got into it, and discovered that I could describe settings/movement/actions in a screenplay in a way that I can’t in a stage play (directors want to figure that out and not have it imposed on them by the playwright), I decided I really liked screenplay as a format. It felt like it was part-way between a stage play and a novel and since I’ve learned a lot about the descriptive process through writing my novel and my mysteries, I was right at home in that middle zone. Characters, dialogue and one line descriptions of what they’re doing and where – right up my alley.

But I finished that sojourn down screenplay writing lane in the middle of May and found my blog calling to me, reminding me of subjects I thought worth a short interlude (along with the statisticians reminding me of how long it had been), yet still I didn’t find myself in the mood. Of course, writing the screenplay had taught me what was lacking in the stage play so that was pulling at me, telling me – ‘No, do me!’ Although I haven’t yet. I’ve been resisting because I have so many projects in front of that. Like a five-way conversation in the latest chapter of my new novel. I set the conversation up because I thought it would be amusing but it’s been weighing on me, like an unsolved riddle, stealing my mental energy because I can’t quite figure out if I have to include a speech tag for every line of dialogue, to clarify who’s saying what and when, or if I should just throw it all down between inverted commas and let the reader figure it out. I know I should add the speech tags but they bog down the rhythm of the dialogue – not to mention, force me to wonder how many different ways I can say “said” without sounding pompous. So I find myself fussing with this conversation and not moving forward.

And if living with a potter for so many years has taught me anything, it’s that fussing over something you’re creating isn’t necessarily worth it. I’ve heard him tell young artists again and again to “make it and let go,” mostly because when working in clay, the finished product can turn out so unlike anything they’d imagined, that trying to make it perfect before it goes in the kiln isn’t worth the time. Growth, in clay as an art form, is all in the repetition. Which struck me as valid when it came to writing too. We all know that things can get reworded ad nauseam, so write it and let go sounds like good advice. But then, if I’m aware of that, why am I allowing this five-way conversation to stall me and keep me from being in the mood to write other things?

The truth is, that’s not the hold up. I know this because often just the act of writing – something, anything – puts me in the mood to write other things. Like putting on a fetching piece of lingerie. (Well come on, I had to mention that at some point because I know that’s what got some of you reading this post. You thought it was going to be some other kind of mood. In fact, I bet if I’d had a photo of something small, lacy and black, with this title, my statistics would have gone through the roof. But then my husband would have been scratching his head, wondering what in the world I was writing about now!)

So, avoiding the lacy item, here’s a photo of what has really been holding back my writing. My deskThe state of my desk. And my question is, do other writers feel they’re not in the mood when they see a mess like this on their desk? And if so, do they creep downstairs with their laptops and sit opposite the cat, sleeping on the couch, trying to ignore the mound of paperwork calling to them while they allow themselves to focus on their writing? And does it work?

Footnote: While writing this post, I looked up dialogue tags and chanced upon a wonderful little article explaining when and how to use them. Thus proving the old adage that it pays to write something.

The Happy Heart

After an evening of performance back in December, I came down from the stage and was greeted by Wizard, our local Peace Crier. He doesn’t ring a bell and call out, “Oyez! Oyez!” but he does walk up and down the highway around here, carrying a sign that reads, PEACE. “How are you, Wizard?” I asked after he told me how much he enjoyed the show. He graced me with his usual, beatific smile, and declared, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” And just like that, I suddenly felt happier too.

It was such an uplifting thing to hear that I immediately found myself wanting to share it with others, to give them the same kind of feel-good sense that Wizard had given me. But I couldn’t quite let go of the words, fearing that somehow, they implied that I haven’t been as happy at other times in my life. And yet I have. But I’m also very happy now. So which is greater – those past joys or today’s contentment? I couldn’t decide, so I let the words sit on my tongue while I reflected on them, as if Wizard had given me a piece of candy, a sugared almond, that I was rolling around in my mouth, sucking on its sweetness, waiting for the kernel of truth at the center to emerge.

As I did so, I happened upon an article entitled “Forty Portraits in Forty Years” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a piece about a photographer who took a photograph of four sisters in Rhode Island back in 1975 and then went on to take their photograph in a similar pose every year for forty years. I find this kind of thing fascinating, not because I’m so interested in the physical changes in a person but I am interested in the changes I can see in their eyes, their smiles, their body language. Age takes from all of us physically but, if we’re lucky, while it’s taking from the strength of our outer core, it’s nourishing our hearts, growing a garden of colorful, sweet smelling memories deep inside us. And as time goes by, those memories begin to reveal themselves through our eyes, presenting us with flowers that we can share with the people around us. This is what I saw in the four sisters over time; bouquets of deep-rooted, well-tended flowers held out to be enjoyed by all.

Coincidentally, a friend came to dinner at our house just after I read this article and snapped a photograph of me in our kitchen. I looked at it and remembered a similar shot of me in a kitchen in NYC, 30 years ago. I dug that photo out and studied it, wondering if I could spy the same changes in myself that I saw in the four sisters. I was still savoring the sweetness of Wizard’s statement and looked for the telltale signs of past and present happiness in myself.

Nicola '85, NYC

NYC, 1985.

Nicola

Sauk Mountain, 2015

Could I see, for example, in the older me, the sweet bliss I felt when I held my newborn babies in my arms? The sense of euphoria I got when I figured out how to restructure one of my plays to make it more compelling? And the big one – the huge one – the incredible, overwhelming contentment I experienced when I forgave my dad? I went around for months after that one, feeling warmth radiating through every ounce of my being, as if someone had planted a ray of sunshine in the pit of my stomach. I always thought that forgiveness had to do with letting the other person off the hook, but I was wrong. It had to do with me. And, dang, did it feel good! I wasn’t sure exactly why it felt so good. I thought, in my case, it had something to do with the fact that it was unexpected. I wasn’t looking to forgive my dad nor did I even know I had to – I just stumbled into it through my writing. And like the card says over my desk, given to me by a friend on my 25th wedding anniversary, “Often when we make an effort to find the bigger, grander things in life, we are wonderfully surprised by the discovery of other, equally significant things along the way.” But Wizard’s statement caused me reflect on the why all over again and I came to the conclusion that forgiving someone you think has wronged you, sets your soul free. You are you and nobody else. And like a mother feeling the quickening of her baby inside her, you feel your soul swimming unfettered and exultant inside you. And it feels incredible.

But then how could I ever beat that feeling by making a definitive statement about my level of happiness today? I pondered this as I looked at the photos of the sisters again, then the photos of me in the two kitchens, and the last of the sweetness coating Wizard’s statement dissolved, allowing me bite down on the truth. The flowers in my heart are perennials, not annuals. Which means that my happiness today is the accumulation of all the moments of happiness from my past and something that I should not be shy to share openly, freely with others.

So yes, I’m older, heavier, my hair is turning grey and my fingers don’t always work as easily in the mornings as they used to, but—I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

Wizard

Wizard

Rules of Engagement

A few years ago we were sitting around the dinner table, hearing “school news,” when our then teenage son told us the story of his science teacher accidentally hitting a student in the eye with a cork out of a popgun. Apparently this teacher kept this ‘toy’ gun in his desk and when students weren’t paying attention, he shot the cork across the room at their faces, to ‘sting’ them into alert-mode. And sometimes he would use the gun without the cork in it, to give a student a wake up call with a puff of air to the face. On the day our son was telling us about, the teacher meant to ‘air puff’ a student but had forgotten the cork was still in the gun and ended up giving the student a black (and bleeding) eye with his popgun.

While our son was telling us this story I could see pressure steaming out from between my husband’s teeth as well as from his ears, nose and the top of his head. In our house there are rules associated with gun ownership, strong rules, starting with never point a gun – even a toy gun – at another living entity unless you’re planning to take its life (when hunting, for example). Those rules were bent when the kids played with squirt guns but my husband never wanted them to lose sight of the fact that guns are serious business.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Paris, just days after the massacre at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, and I’ve found myself thinking about rules associated with writing as a result. Especially since I managed to procure a copy of the Charlie Hebdo Journal that came out immediately following the attack, on the back of which there is a series of drawings entitled (my translation), “Front Covers That You Missed.” One of them is a cartoon of a shooter, leaping into the air holding an assault weapon, while an oversized pencil is being speared into his groin. The caption reads (again, my translation), “Our pencils will always be sharper than your balls.”

I liked this because firstly, it suggests that it takes more courage to write than it does to gun down people for expressing themselves. Which is true. Writers have to be courageous. They can’t stand on the edge of life observing; they have to get in the huddle and pick a side. And there are bound to be people who disagree with the side that they picked. Secondly, the cartoon alludes to the power of the pen which, when well honed (or sharpened), can really hit its mark. This is also true, but, for me, this is where things get tricky. I’m all for freedom of expression but if expressing myself hurts someone that I care about, then is it okay? Alf Wight, who wrote the books about being a vet in Yorkshire, England, under the pseudonym James Herriot, was mortified to learn that he had hurt his partner and friend, Don Sinclair (Siegfried in the books) with his depiction of that character. Fortunately his partner, after threats of legal action, moved on to forgive Wight this injury from his pen and I will always be grateful to the friend who gently walked me through some changes to the manuscript of my novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons (inspired by the Herriot books), so as to avoid that very same situation.

Not everyone is so forgiving, however, especially when they think certain words are aimed at them, and I’m sure many writers have found themselves on the outside of a circle they used to be welcome in as a result of their writing. I know I have. As a result, I have some rules that play in my head when I’m writing. They are:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never talk down to children
  3. If you’re going to write to relatives, try to avoid hitting their soft spots.

I don’t think these really take from my freedom of expression; they just modify its sting. And unlike the teacher in my son’s high school, I’d rather not sting my audience into paying attention. I’d rather engage them instead. So I hear these rules and try to stay within their confines, no matter how quickly and easily my pen is moving.

None of which excuses what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which was an horrific affront to the right to free speech, as millions around the world agreed. Another great cartoon on the back of the Charlie Hebdo journal published after the killings was a drawing of the attackers, up in the clouds, asking, “So where are the 70 virgins?” and a voice answering, “With the staff of Charlie, you losers.” Nicely put.

In case you’re wondering, that teacher that our son told us about, he’s no longer teaching. Nothing happened to him after the incident with the popgun, which shocked us no end, especially since other staff members were aware of the gun and how he used it. But a year after our son graduated from high school, he received a call from an investigator working on behalf of the Office of Public Instruction. Apparently they were looking to gather evidence against this teacher. Boy, did our son have a story for them.

Pop gun

Mothers Who Write.

A frequently asked question by audience members at my book events is when do I write? Usually followed by—early in the morning? some other time during the day? do I write every day? and, do I stick to a schedule? For some writers there might be an easy answer to these questions but I’m a mother. Mothers write, I want to tell them, whenever they can. How many times have I scribbled a good line down on a shopping list when stopped at a traffic light (only to throw the list away once I got home without re-reading the line!)? Or dashed upstairs to my computer mid-dinner preparations to work on a paragraph that came clear to me when scrubbing spuds or slicing onions? The up side to this is that I don’t have time to dither when I write and, as many of us know, dithering can be the curse on a writer. I have never forgotten an article I read as a teenager in England, in my mother’s Woman’s Weekly Magazine, about a writer who said she’d lived in Kenya for many years, with servants to take care of her, but she wasn’t nearly as prolific as when she moved back to England and had three children to raise while writing.

And as a mother with a job—selling my husband’s pottery—I struggle quite a bit with ‘hold that thought’ syndrome when interrupted by customers, which gets exacerbated by ‘oh, now that you’re not at your computer anymore . . .’ syndrome once I’ve finished with the customer. I see other writers with their lovely studios that shut out the rest of the world and I wince with envy. But I also know that life is the stuff of writing and my desk in the middle of the mayhem can often give me that zing of inspiration I need for my next piece.

So the short answer to ‘when do I write?’ is late at night, when everyone else is in bed and the house is quiet. But here’s an excerpt from the longer answer (from ‘A Day in the Life of’ letter I wrote to a friend) and, of course, it’s much more involved.

11:30 pm: I’m at my computer, working on rewrites to my play, “The Blue Light Zone.” when my eyelids begin to drop. I shake myself awake and realize that I’m really too tired to work anymore. That’s okay, I tell myself, tomorrow I don’t have to drive the boys to school in Burlington so I’ll be here all day. Plus my daughter, Annie, has rehearsal after school for the Missoula Children’s Theatre production of “Hansel and Gretel” until early evening and my son, Reed, is staying down after school to play in the band at a basketball game and attend a movie/pizza party in the band room beforehand. I have dough ready in the fridge for bread and I need to do about three loads of laundry, but that will still give me time to work on these rewrites and maybe even get my desk cleaned up.
With that in mind, I go to bed.
4:39 am: I’m awoken out of a sound sleep by Annie, shining a flashlight in my face. “I’m sorry to wake you, mummy, but I’ve thrown up in my bed.” I put her in my bed and go and change all the sheets on her bed, realizing that my loads of laundry for the day have just increased exponentially. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t look like Annie will be going to school or rehearsal.
5:00 am: I climb back into bed and sleep until I hear Annie throwing up again about twenty minutes later.
5:45 am: The alarm goes off in our room. “Don’t get Annie up,” I tell my husband and I lie, listening to the radio for five minutes, before getting myself up. I make Reed’s lunch and his breakfast and notice that he is walking around looking glum and holding his stomach a little. I think he’s seeking a day off, so he can hang around the house like his sister, and I tell him to buck up and eat his breakfast.
6:43 am: Two minutes before Reed and I are to head out and meet his ride for the day, he jumps up amid a full-on projectile vomiting attack, throws up all over the kitchen table, then manages to get into the bathroom and regurgitate the rest in and around the toilet.
6:45 am: My husband picks up the vomit covered tablecloth, as I pack Reed off to bed, and throws it in the washing machine. When he comes out of the bathroom I head back in with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge to clean up the mess and start the first load of laundry.
6:50 am: I emerge from the bathroom feeling sorry for myself and sit down on the wood box opposite my husband. He looks up from his book and asks, “So what’s on your plate for the day?”

And just like that, I heard my first murder mystery.
BarkingDogCover_Final

Art and your Destiny

Do you have a piece of art in your life that has stayed with you, inhabited you, maybe even guided you towards your destiny? So when you see it, or even a variation of it, you get a sense of coming home? It turns out that I do, although I can’t say that I truly knew it until I read a few pages towards the end of Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch. In these pages, she has the character of Hobie discussing art as a beacon for our destiny. “And the painting, above his head, was still the point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.” I ate those pages up, feasting on their foresight, because the truth of what was being said was so intrinsic to me. It was as if the author were writing my story.

To backtrack a little I grew up in England and, as a young woman, three things were true about me; I wanted to be an actress, I wanted no part of marriage and I knew nothing about pottery. In fact, at that time, I found myself drawn to fine china when I went to the fancy department stores in London and even though fine china falls under the same ceramic’s umbrella as pottery, it’s about as far removed from it as an RV is from a tent. So then how did I end up married to a wood-firing potter, 100 miles from the closest, professional theatrical hub and 6,000 miles from where I grew up? And more importantly, how did this life, which appeared nowhere in my young adult daydreams, end up being my bliss? So much so that I even made it the basis for my novel.

Well apparently it was there all along, as Hobie suggests, secreted in art that captivated my interest. Even though I didn’t know pottery when I met my husband I do remember going to David Greig’s Grocery Shop as a little girl with my mother, and while she was looking at the cuts of meat at the butcher’s counter I was staring at the tiles on the wall. There was something eminently fascinating to me about art in this earthy format. I was drawn to the symmetry of the lines, the lines within the lines, the fact that the colored squares could make a pattern within the white background that would form a word. Words.

David Greig mosaic

And I remember thinking how clever it was that they could use tiles of a different color to frame patterns, making them look like paintings hanging on the wall. Tiles 3

So when my husband and I made a tile sign to hang outside our pottery shop something stirred deep inside me but I don’t think I made the connection back to David Greig’s at that time.

Sign tiles 2

And then there were the decorative pieces at the grocer’s shop. A sheep, a bull and David Greig’s signature piece – the thistle – which would have me standing, staring, completely lost in the image until I felt my mother tugging at the shoulder of my coat, telling me it was time to leave.

Tiles 4

Tiles 5

David Greig's thistle

When I installed my husband’s own decorative tile pieces in our home and shop, the fish he loves to draw, the wildflowers indicative of the area in which we live, I did become that little girl again, staring in fascination at the art that could be created out of tiles.

Flower tiles Stove tiles

And when we decided to use glaze test tiles on the floor, interspersed with production tiles, I could see the patterning again on the walls and counters of David Greig’s (which you may not be able to see clearly in this black and white photograph but if you look at the front of the display case it’s covered in white tiles with a repetitive, blue, thistle pattern in them).

Floor tiles

Our shop floor tiles

David Greig's inside

Inside David Greig’s

But it wasn’t until we made the sign for our business that stands out by the highway that it all fell into place. As soon as my husband laid the finished tiles out on the floor of his studio I was captivated. The dark blue of the letters, the lines of the tiles dissecting but not distracting, the webbing of the glaze on the surface of some of the tiles, and the delectable spread of color. I didn’t even care that a migration of red (from atmospheric conditions inside the kiln) had splashed across the top of the sign, making it a little hard to read. It was art. My kind of art

.Sign laid out

I took great pleasure handling each of the tiles and gluing them on the wood frame for the sign. And when I finished and stood back, I knew I was home.Sign

Of course it never occurred to me that these tiles were an indicator of my destiny. Not until I read the words that made the different parts of my life slot perfectly into place, like a dovetail joint in carpentry. “And isn’t that the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?” (from The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, p.757)

Maybe your destiny lies in a piece of music, a plot of land, a photograph – maybe even in something you created. A friend of mine told me she was asked to draw her ideal place to live in an art class once and, years later, she found her drawing, looked out the window and realized she was living in the place she had drawn. But that’s the monumental magic trick of destiny; it’s happening while you don’t know it. Unless you have a fondness for art.

Thank Goodness for Nieces.

The best thing about a personal exercise regime is you don’t have to be accountable to anyone; the worst thing about a personal exercise regime is—you don’t have to be accountable to anyone. Which often means that the lazy bugs in your brain can wreck havoc on all your good intentions. Or maybe I should say the lazy bugs in MY brain often want to wreck havoc on all MY good intentions.
Split leg pose
I don’t really have this problem with my daily walk because I’ve been doing it for so long I’ve silenced the will not to do it, but I also go to Bikram yoga once a week. Bikram yoga consists of 26 poses, each one performed twice, in a room heated to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. My stepdaughter told me about it and said that she thought I would like it. And she was right. I like the fact that we do the same thing each time because I can switch my brain off and do them in a semi-meditative state; I like the heat because it makes me sweat; and I like the fact that yoga is a non-judgmental, non-competitive form of exercise.

But – it’s hard. So often not only do I have to will myself to actually make it into the yoga studio, I really have to will myself to push when I’m in there. Fortunately I have my nieces in my head – my yogini nieces – inspiring me, encouraging me, commending me and cajoling me in their own special ways to keep pushing. They don’t know they’re in there with me but every time I come out of the yoga studio, knowing that one more time I did it, I thank them.

The first to accompany me was my niece, Jessica.

Jessica

Jessica

Jessica is a rock-star speech pathologist who lives in Houston, TX, and for a while there, she was going to hot yoga 3 times a week. Okay, so one more time; she lives in Houston, TX, and 3 times a week would go from the oppressively hot, sticky climate outside into a room heated to over 105 degrees…..to twist her way through 26 mind-defying poses in 90 minutes.26 poses How could I not find that inspiring? How could I not, when lying face down on my mat in a heated studio in the much more temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest, being asked to lift all parts of my anatomy, except my midriff, up – backwards! – and whining in my head, “Do I have to? Can’t you see how heavy some parts of me are?” – how could I not think of Jessica and tell myself that if she can do this 3 times a week – in Houston of all places – then I can at least try harder the once a week I do it. Just thinking that has helped me over and over again to heft my legs up into the air behind me and attempt to make a rocking horse of my body.

The Heavy Lifting Poses

The Heavy Lifting Poses

Then I have a niece, Sarah, who works as a lactation counselor and registered obstetrics nurse in New York, and who actually teaches yoga.

Sarah

Sarah

She also writes a blog about yoga, which I read. http://blissbabyyogi.com. She wrote one post about overcoming fear (you can read it here) where she describes using the mantra, “I am strong, I am strong enough” to achieve what you want to achieve. I can’t tell you how many times, since reading that post, I have found myself in balancing stick pose,

Balancing Stick Pose

Balancing Stick Pose

or eagle pose,

Eagle Pose

Eagle Pose

begging the teacher in my mind to count faster before I topple over, when I’ve heard Sarah whispering, “I am strong; I am strong enough” into my ear, helping me make it to the end of the pose without losing my balance.

For almost 3 years I had these two, inspiring young women in my mind when I went once a week to Bikram Yoga and then, sadly, the studio that I practiced in, closed. The months rolled by without me finding another studio, and my back started twinging too often and my knees reminded me for the first time ever that I wasn’t that young anymore. So I was pleased when I discovered, just before going back to England for my nephew’s wedding, that another yoga studio within a tolerable driving distance was offering Bikram. Well maybe pleased isn’t the right word because as soon as I learned this, I began that should I/shouldn’t I, sucking air through my teeth debate that we get into when we know we want something but we know the challenges of that thing it is that we want. Fortunately I sat next to my beautiful niece, Gemma, at the wedding reception.

Gemma

Gemma

Gemma is an archaeologist in Scotland and we got talking yoga (she enjoys it when she does it too) and I confessed my dichotomy of wanting to go back to it but not wanting to because what if I weren’t in good enough shape anymore (which in itself should have been all the reason I needed to start up again) and Gemma said, in her lilting English accent, “Oh, go on, Auntie Nicola, you can do it.”

And because she told me I could, I did. Because who wouldn’t be inspired by a niece that encourages you to do what’s good for you? And then, because she told me I could, I found myself trying to go further in my practice. Like with standing bow pose.

Standing Bow Pose

Standing Bow Pose

Ever since I started Bikram, I’ve found myself getting to a certain place in this pose and then….just…hanging out. Because….well….I’ve got my foot in the air, haven’t I?! But now, now I have Gemma in my head, saying, “Go on, Auntie Nicola, you can do it,” so recently, when I heard the teacher say, “Kick, kick, kick up,” I found myself trying it with my right leg and the next thing I knew, muscles in my left buttock that had been dormant for years said, he-llo, and sprang into action. And do you know what? It felt great.

I have other nieces, all of whom inspire me to keep reaching in different ways.

Meaghan 3

Meaghan

Emily 2

Emily

Jacqueline

Jacqueline

Rebecca

Rebecca

But the thing is, and this is the cherry on top, it’s not just the physical benefits that make me go back to Bikram again and again; it’s the wonderful feeling of calm and peace and contentment I get, a feeling that lets me float for hours, sometimes days, after going. Every time I feel that soul-sustaining serenity, I think to myself – thank goodness for nieces.

Balancing stick pose

‘No yoga, no peace; know yoga, know peace.’

Disclaimer: this is not me in any of the above photos. Just so you don’t get any illusions that I’m actually good at any of this.

Four Funerals and a Wedding.

I’m a happy ending kind of person. I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. So it was fitting that after having to don my black dress for no fewer than four funerals in the last six months, I got to slip on my dance shoes and attend a wedding. And in the space of a car journey (actually in our case, multiple plane journeys and then a car journey), the revolving door of life transported me from the solemnity of letting go to the promise of a future. And it did it in Downton Abbey!

Down Hall Country Hotel

Down Hall Country Hotel

Okay so it wasn’t really Downton Abbey, of course, but it certainly looked like it. Long, wide, carpeted corridors,
Corridors
chandeliered reception areas,
Reception
family portraiture and tapestries adorning the walls
Family portraiture
Tapestries
and hotel staff dressed to look like footmen.
Footmen
Even the name was similar – Down Hall – but instead of being the residence of a peer of the realm, it was a country hotel and plebs like me could stay there without having to cook puff pastry or help someone get dressed for our keep.

I roamed the corridors, amazed that I could actually be in such a place, while imagining all the changes this country manor had witnessed since it was built in 1550. And it wasn’t just the writer in me, picturing scenarios, that made me think about these things; it was the family member who had just come away from a funeral and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to our lives now that this participant in our story was gone.

Because the Buddhists believe our karma is connected to that of our family. Or families if we tie the knot. Which is mind boggling when you consider that we don’t all share the same interest in improving our karmic standing. Or just improving ourselves. Add to that the fact that most of us seem to stumble into personal growth rather than being able to will it, and family turns into something akin to a Broadway dance number before the choreographer gets a hold of it. People moving in every which direction, tapping the wrong rhythm, spinning the wrong way. And just when we’re beginning to get a sense of how to move together, someone goes and dies leaving us with the possibility that we may never get it right.

But maybe the beauty in life is in our not getting it right and our job, instead of trying to correct imperfections, is to embrace them. One of my favorite stories is from The Unknown Craftsman by Sóetsu Yanagi. The author is talking about Japanese tea bowls and how they’re not supposed to be perfect because that teaches us we have something to learn. He goes on to tell the story of a visit he made to a Korean wood turning studio, where he watched an artisan make a bowl out of a block of wet pine. “The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin.” Yanagi was shocked that the wood turner would use such wood, knowing the bowl would crack as it dried. But, when asked, the artisan just smiled and said he would “mend the crack.” And when he did, the mended bowl was even more beautiful than the original.

The hole left in a family by death may not be so easily mended of course but the way certain family members step into the place vacated by the deceased and fill it with their own special gifts can be quite beautiful. What worried me, however, as I wandered up and down the corridors of Down Hall was how do we mend the cracks in a family left around that hole? Because cracks in families tend to linger, and settle, unless they’re filled with forgiveness and not everybody is into forgiveness. So to come back to the question of karma, if we’re all connected and we don’t help each other understand how to fill those cracks, then where does that leave us?

Fortunately the wedding started before I could get lost in this interminable loop and as I watched the bride and groom look tenderly on one another I realized that the happy part of our family dance was the introduction of new partners. New partners with moves that might soften even the crustiest of hearts among us and set us on a path to filling those cracks. But then, like I said before, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.
James and Samantha