COVID, fires, smoke and moving—just some of the many excuses I have for not blogging or writing. To be fair to myself, we moved from Northern California, after selling our house, to Southern California and the process of putting a house on the market one weekend before COVID shutdown, prepping for sanitized prospective buyers, packing, negotiating with inspectors and buyers. loading up The Really Big Truck and then shoehorning the contents into a Much Too Small storage unit, took a lot of my writing time. And, since I was no longer in Northern California, I had to give up my column at California’s oldest newspaper as well as all the articles and reviews I do freelance. So, I don’t have any deadlines or assignments, both of which move my writing muscle.
Instead, as we are temporarily vagabonds living at our daughter’s house, writing has taken a back seat—way, way back—to Frisbee mornings with the dog, cleaning our daughter’s house and doing her yard work, feeding everyone, helping with schoolwork, house hunting (lots of that), and keeping the dog from chasing anyone who leaves the living room to use the bathroom or go upstairs. And finding things. Things we packed and now we don’t know where the box is; things we unpacked and put somewhere in the house and since it’s not our house, we don’t have an internal map of where things might be hiding and so backtracking to remember where you put them is sometimes beyond us.
No houses to hunt today, dog is Frisbeed out, house is within acceptable hygiene standards, grandchildren are in virtual school, and I am free to write. It feels like something I get to do, instead of something I’m supposed to do. It feels quiet and productive and non-fattening—almost as good as a long soak in a hot bath with a good book. I am the good book today.
Oh, it’s been a looong time since I’ve posted. In the interim between the last post and this one, we got a puppy and our son died. That last sentence is baldly factual, but the emotions, experiences and changes that crowd those two facts are immense, more than can be encompassed in words. Isn’t that the gist of what writers try to do—either flesh out the facts with emotion and experiences that change the characters or distill their characters’ emotions, experiences and changes into words?
Some things forever change you. Most things can, if you allow it, but some things change you without your permission. You’re never not changed by death. Whether it is a person you hardly knew, an elderly family member whose death is expected or a child whose death blindsides you, you are forever changed. You see just a little differently, think just a little deeper, become aware of things you couldn’t imagine. If you’ve never done it, could you imagine how it feels to drop a rose onto a casket? Could you imagine the combination of peace, love and sorrow you can feel watching a hospice patient transition? Could you imagine you would be giving someone morphine, adjusting their cannula, applying lip balm to lips that aren’t your own? Deciding what goes on the headstone and choosing a casket?
Not the things you dream of doing, but the things you do because you have to. And they change you. I think that some changes, not necessarily bad changes
, can come about no other way than through catastrophe or death—you have to go through it--not read about it or hear about it, but blunder through it in all its messiness and anxiety. I didn’t want to be changed by death, but it has happened, in ways both subtle and obvious. And now, in writing my own character, it’s up to me to decide what changes I’ll keep and which changes I will eventually transform into something else.
“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
There are no words for some things. The part of your brain that produces words shuts down at the death of your child or your partner or the trauma of facing your own mortality, dropping you into a vast pool of emotion where the landscape is indescribable, unfamiliar, and all pervading. And you are lost.
People ask you questions: Are you OK? Do you need anything? They say they are so sorry and hug you with all the love they can impart. But, lost in this place of no words, you can manage only a nod or shake of your head.
Waves of anger, pain, sorrow, come upon you at unexpected moments—not the moments you set aside because now you’re finally alone and can let loose. No, they overcome you when you find a piece of clothing behind the furniture, at the mortuary when you’re trying to decide whether you want an oval or a rectangular photo on the funeral remembrance card, when one of their favorite songs comes on the radio; when you pick up fast food and remember how much he loved going through the drive through to pick up a single cheeseburger; when you find the hot sauce he bought you in Cayugas in the refrigerator.
Hard to navigate this place of no words and its landscape of pain. Grief is a stationary point in time—there is no going forward with your loved one and the present is a void, so only brief moments of the past remain, frozen in time. No opportunity to hear their voice again, to make plans for a barbecue or to watch them go through life. It’s just…stopped.
And maybe that’s where grief really begins. When you realize that you’ll never hear their ring tone or receive a text from them again, when you find yourself at the checkout stand with the perfect waffle weave shirt with blue sky and clouds and remember you have no one to give it to anymore. When Thanksgiving and Christmas will always have an empty place at the table and you no longer have to make brownies without nuts.
There are no words and use them to help us shrink what is huge and intangible into something familiar and predictable--neat little bundles strung together to describe the indescribable.
There are no words, and yet, sometimes those useless words are the only things that offer a lifeline out of the swamp of emotion, keeping us from being completely submerged.One word at a time, we reach out, take one step and then another--out of pain and into life. The more words are used and the more people who hear them, the stronger the tenuous bridge from the place of no words to the day-to-day world and the more space opens up within us.
Is the world of words any better than the place of no words? I don’t know, but, it can be the choice between living or drowning. It is worth making the attempt to put what can only be understood with the heart into words to be understood with the mind.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Write what you know—it’s the advice freely handed out when you indicate a wish to write. It’s not followed by teachers giving creative writing assignments or even college professors who want a 10 page paper by Monday. While I think it’s helpful to start out with what you know, if everyone adhered to this advice, the number of fiction books would dwindle greatly—especially the fantasy, sci-fi- and paranormal genres. The murder mystery genre would fade and the books that remained might have you questioning whether you really wanted to stand close enough to have the author sign your book.
My writing today is all about being cold and stuck, two subjects that I know well as my last three weeks have been spent indoors, trapped by snow and black ice. The lack of movement and the relentless weather is also causing a stuckness in my emotional state. Not going anywhere, not doing anything, not even aware of what I would want to do if I weren’t stuck.
So I’m rolling what I know into what I write, hoping that I can write both my character and myself into, and then out of, Stuck. It’s working for Barry, the main character in my novel, Road of Polished Stones. Barry’s leads and his funds have run out; it’s almost Christmas; it’s raining and cold; and he is alone. Without a guiding clue, all the roads seem the same--they could be anywhere in the world and go anywhere for all the use they are to Barry. His mind is fixed on its singular quest to find his father and now that he has fruitlessly explored all the possibilities in this place, he is really and truly stuck.
Barry will have options—I will write a few for him and he will take one of them, because that’s what you can do when you write fiction. Barry won’t be stuck anymore; he will go on to have more adventures, meet other people, experience conflict and drama. As for myself, I’m not as facile with creating options and then acting on one of them, delivering myself out of Stuck and into the movement of the world. But, I keep writing and one of these days, I will write myself right out of Stuck.
Tomorrow is the first official day of Fall—my favorite season. I love the vivid change of colors, the change in the air from hot to cool, from sweaty to invigorating. I like change; like to mix it up. But, there’s change and then there is CHANGE. Change is usually easier when it’s your idea. CHANGE is hardly ever your idea—it’s the tumultuous stuff that throws your world into a tailspin, forces you to rethink who you are and puts all the things you thought were stable and predictable into a maelstrom.
Humans are changeable beings. Some of us fight change, fearing chaos. But change is who we are. Fighting it goes against our nature and becomes exhausting in time. We should be good at something that is so much a part of us, but when CHANGE comes, it’s like we’ve never experienced it before. I hold the view that ultimately, change/CHANGE is good, but when there is a lot of CHANGE all at once, it’s hard to keep that view in focus.
The hardest thing for me with CHANGE is knowing when to surrender resistance. I’m not built that way and neither are most people. First, you push back against CHANGE, stand your ground. Eventually, I realize that my resistance is making things worse and I formally surrender. I don’t give up—there’s a difference. Surrendering is a way of coping, a deliberate choice: I will allow this CHANGE; I surrender myself to it and allow it to work in my life. Then comes the hard part: standing still while it happens. Waiting for the pieces to stop falling and then looking around to see where you are. Only then, can you see a path; a way out of the chaos and into something…else.
And that’s when you really have to focus on seeing CHANGE as a vehicle for something good to come in. Because we can’t see it; we don’t know where the path leads. This something else is unknown and maybe, we think, we won’t like it. We liked the old way, the way that has vanished. But, when the path is gone, you can choose to stand still forever or move forward, trusting that a new path will appear. All of the main characters in my books share the desire to move forward despite not knowing where they will end up. Maybe I’m using my characters to teach myself the lessons I need to learn; maybe all writers do.
Megan Markle’s dad needs to stop talking to the media; Trump needs to stop tweeting and talking and some of the characters in my books need to talk less and do more. At least fictional characters can be controlled, mostly, and their monologues eliminated or reduced, but real-life narcissists are relentless.
If MM was a fictional character, her father’s whining to the media about being only a footnote in his daughter’s wedding and not having an address to write to or a phone he can call to reach her, would be a source of conflict quickly resolved by dispatching him in some dramatically tragic fashion. Either that or he’d become a more flamboyant character with an army of freaks at his beck and call who would threaten the galaxy and we’d have some real conflict on our hands.
If Trump was a fictional character…wait, he is a fictional character. I’m pretty sure he is because no real person could function with such small-minded vindictiveness and flagrant disregard for accuracy and truth or proudly display such stupidity in areas of diplomacy, geography, history, science, personal relationships and loyalty. No, I guess he must be real because truth is stranger than fiction and if anyone wrote a character this awful, critics and readers would rip them apart.
Back now to rewriting my fictional characters with less exposition and more demonstration.
Changing your name can indicate a change in life, in marital status or perhaps a statement about who you truly are. In my second novel, “Flight of the Red Dragonfly,” Mary-Kate Hosanna Watling/ Paulette Faulkner Chapman’s name changes reflect all of the above.
As Mary-Kate Watling, she is a credulous child who believes in angels and worships her preacher father; as Hosanna, she is a nine year-old faith healer working with the angels; as Paulette Faulkner she is determinedly self-reliant-- rejecting all belief in anyone or anything but herself as the architect of her life. And, as forty-two year old Polly Faulkner Chapman, facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, she wants to resolve the conflict between her evangelical childhood and the life she created as an adult.
If you changed your name every time your life pivoted in a new direction, how many names would you have?
Cambodia! The airport is small and feels like home. Our hotel is in a residential area near the Mae Kock River. The Shinta Mani Resort is a shock to us with its small colorful, flower-filled and lemon-grass scented lobby. The colors, except for accents and flowers, are black and white—black hallways and walls, black and white striped sun umbrellas, plant pots, lounge chairs, room décor. Sp much smaller than the huge Pan Pacific in Hanoi and the Saigon Prince, but we love it and the people who work there immediately.
As soon as the bags are in our room, we return to the lobby and ask for a tuk-tuk. And that is how we meet Mrs. Kim. She takes us to the Open Market in her motorbike-driven carriage. I do souvie shopping while she waits for us. After our purchases, Bob offers to up her $2 fee to $5 if she will spend a little time showing us around.
Kim takes us up and down the river where 50-foot canoes are being raced in preparation for the big Krathong Loy Water Festival held on the first full moon in November, only a few days away. She jumps on and off her motorbike to explain things, take pictures with our cameras and manuevers us safely through traffic. She drives us to a pagoda on the seedy side of town and then to the King's park and palace, stopping under a tree in the park to mime sleeping--pointing to the thousands of bats roosting up in the tree. She flies past the famous Raffles Hotel and stops at the corner where people are saying their daily prayers at a shrine. She is lively and fun and we make an appointment to see her the next day after Angor Wat. Every house, every business here has a spirit house.
Our guide at Angor Wat has an unpronounceable name. He spent 15 years in a refugee camp during Pol Pot's regime, which is why he knows English and also Japanese. He has strong nationalistic feelings, a flair for dramatic photography and a wonderful knowledge of his country's history. Angor Wat is huge and ornate, on a scale that boggles the mind. Our guide has a habit of commandeering my cell phone to take pictures of Bob and I in sepia tone, as if we were archeologists from the 1800s. He knows all the cool places to photograph and how to show things to the best advantage. He tells us Mrs. Kim is the only female tuktuk driver out of 6,000. He is slightly disapproving because he says she isn't married and she has children.
The next day we go to Ta Prohm. Our guide calls it Tomb Raider because it was featured in that movie. It is delightfully silent, creepy and wonderful. I love the way the trees have become part of it, winding through it, towering above it. Faces of gods peer out from between roots and I feel I could stay here forever.
Mrs. Kim is waiting for us after dinner and as darkness falls, she takes us to Pub Street, downtown,all the way out to the locals' night market which much different from the Night Market in town where the tourists go. There are carnival rides at this market and the goods are all Western-style clothing and local produce. Mrs. Kim tells us she used to be married, but one of her sons is deaf and her husband was mortified, so he left. She lived in Phenom Penh which has schools for the deaf, but she didn't like it. She is happy in Siem Reap and we are happy that we met her.
Our guide in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) says his Catholic family moved here from Northern Vietnam in 1954. His father was killed in 1973. We don’t ask how. After the war, the family didn’t move back. Living in a small communal village is good, he says because everyone helps each other, everyone shares what they have, but…there are always murmurs behind you.
Saigon is huge, with wide streets. Women wear shorts and T-shirts in addition to skirts. There’s more diversity of appearance and attitude than in Hanoi. Our guide says the young people in Ho Chi Minh City are heavily influenced by Korean celebrities and fashion while Hanoi is influenced more by China. Our hotel is on one of the long sides of a huge open rectangle with the Sai Gon River at one end of the rectangle and the Hotel de Ville at the other end.
There are no signaled intersections despite the thousands of scooters and cars and buses. We want to cross the street to get to the river, but the hordes of scooters are intimidating. A young Viet girl next to us steps out into the road and we follow her like hungry baby ducks. She puts her hands out to the side, as if she could hold the mass back. Miraculously, the horde does slow, it maneuvers around us as we walk quickly to the river. Our crossing guard disappears before we can thank her. Later, we watch as teenagers escort groups of tourists across the road, collecting a toll fee tip from the grateful survivors.
The Sai Gon River here is filled with ships and garbage. Not much to see on this side of the street so we prepare to cross back. We wait until we see an older Viet man preparing to cross and we scoot over behind him. He doesn’t acknowledge us exactly, but he does motion Bob to move back from the traffic. Then he launches out into the street, holding out his arms and motioning for motorists to slow. Another traffic miracle occurs. We dog our unknown guide’s heels. When we reach the curb in safety, he lopes away—perhaps it was a deed of merit for Buddha.
We drive to the Cu Chi Tunnel complex to visit the remains of some of the extensive tunnels used by villagers and North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Termite hills disguise air vents, the jungle looks sparser than I expect. All the debris left by US troops seems to have been turned into useful items—tires into sandals, bomb fragments into knives or tools. There is a display of traps used by the villagers, adapted for use against American soldiers. I can’t imagine how an American soldier of 18 or so would feel on patrol, knowing that traps and snipers could be anywhere, unable to tell friend from foe or trust what anyone in a village is saying to you and with everything seeming to want to kill you.
We hear a succession of gunshots—is there a reenactment of combat? No, this complex also boasts a modern swimming pool and a gun range right across from one of the gift shops. It’s a multi-use park.
Our guide takes us to the Post Office in Saigon later. We don’t know why we are going to a Post Office, but when we go inside the yellow stucco building, we are greeted by an enormous portrait of Uncle Ho at one end of the cavernous building. Wooden phone booths from a by-gone era line the walls with clocks giving the time for various parts of the world hanging above them. The booths no longer have phones in them; instead they are festooned with advertisements for electronics. Across from the Post Office is Notre Dame Catholic Church, currently being remodeled, and right next door to the Post Office is a McDonalds.
In Hanoi, I didn’t see billboards of Uncle Ho and except for the mausoleum and the park, I didn’t see much of Ho Chi Minh. But in Saigon, there are billboards, and pictures of Uncle Ho everywhere. Guess they need the reminder. The “Hanoi Hilton” is now a venue for showing the cruelty of the French government and for displays of the Hilton’s most distinguished prisoner-Senator John McCain. In Saigon we visit the very modern-looking Presidential palace with its clever concrete louvers before each long, narrow window—for protection. We see the war maps. It’s nice to get outside where there are plants and trees.