Reliability

1.  There was a contest in my neighborhood. Guess which date all the leaves will simultaneously fall from the Ginko? My guess. Aunt Mildred’s birthday. 11/11/11.

2.  5minutesinatree wearing waterproof, purple coat, swirly scarf, and hat needing a band. Two birds, one spotted, vocalized a half dozen notes before a leaf blower, the most useless device I can imagine, aaaarrrrrred them away.

3.  Photo of blue glass, upright noodles, on my screen for one year. I titled it, then, bluettes.

4. The one comfortable stop on my son’s tour of the Catholic high school was the art department. A long-haired, heavy-set boy, not chosen as a tour guide, pressed lines into a sheet of copper with a wooden dowel. I made those when I was in school, I said. What did you make? A tree.

5.  Mother took us roaming a high school campus. Each small paper bag filled up with leaves. Mine were mostly yellow fans.

6.  How long I have loved trees? Since I hung upside down in our dogwood, my pigtails brushing the dirt, or maybe before then.

7.  The copper tooling moment made me think of bluets. For me, it’s trees. Not always green.

8.  Aunt Mildred’s picture, at 80, hangs on my refrigerator. I greet her most mornings.

9.  November 10, 2017 issue of Atlantic Magazine published, “The Great Gingko Leaf Dump is Here,” explaining that, unlike other deciduous trees, the Gingko prepares itself for winter by developing scars between the leaves and the stems. The scars simultaneous appearance means that come first frost, all leaves drop.

10.  Although a marginal painter, and the black sheep of his prominent Kentucky family, my father was good at drawing trees. I used his technique in copper tooling. He tacked my tree to a piece of walnut, and hung it on our family room wall. The carpet beneath was ugly green.

11.  I never fell from a tree and broke a bone. I did break one planting daffodils.

12.  Maggie Nelson makes a lot of sense about blue. I find the f-ing mixed in with all the lovely blue –unsatisfying.

13.  There is no time of year when a tree is past its peak.

On Death and Empathy

Twice, I’ve found dead birds on campus.  The first, a brown sparrow, cupped in my palm, was cold and still when I found it.  The groundsmen provided a shovel and muscle, and we buried it beneath a young tree under fresh mulch.  The second, a robin, I found warm on the sidewalk. I picked it up, cradled it in both hands, and imagined that he had experienced a great shock and might, if I kept it warm and snug, twitch, extend his spindly legs and fly.  I held to this image as I moved through campus, an eye out for the grounds crew.

A day both cool and sunny, I found steps leading to the basement of an old bricked building, and sat to read about empathy.  Our text explored concepts of listening and asking, of eye contact and tone.  As I read, I held the robin in my lap, still open to the possibility of movement.  The chapter ended, the medical student practiced empathy with a practicing patient, the robin shrank.  His black eyes sunk more deeply into their sockets.  My level of empathy would not make a difference, at least, not on a physical level.

I closed the book and placed him on the cover. The clouds opened space for the sun and the robin glowed.  I would not bury this bird, as I had done months ago with the sparrow.

My weeping beech tree was a cold cavern.  It would not cradle the robin.  At the tips of the branches, outside the canopy, the sun shone.  I snapped a photo on the empathy text, then left my tree to wander.

I am familiar with campus, and know a patch of Russian Sage.  Here, among the silvery boughs, the robin could rest, the sun warming his breast until night fell.  If he rose and flew, his wings would not be packed with earth.

I could try here to make a connection between the death of a fictional character and the experience with this robin.  But I will not.  I will leave the robin under the sage and let it be.  I will practice empathy in my stillness, with my fingers stroking the soft breast feathers.

I will practice empathy in the way I place the robin among the leaves, and part the branches so that sun and a drift of purple surround him.

I will imagine him flying from the sage.

 

Roots and Wings

I traveled to Europe for the first time in 21 years.  I returned with two scarves, a black leather jacket, a bounty of Murano glass jewelry and a pair of Italian designed boots.  But there was much more to bring home.  From the thrill of turquoise waters, manifested from a poster on my office wall, to the feeling of amazement as that same water swelled around my ankles and soaked the hems of my leggings.

We depended on youth from Nice and Eze to guide us to the proper bus route. And admired the aged women with trim, pink, spiked hair who rounded the corner wearing smart, leather shoes.  Men and women tied elegant scarves around their necks, and impromptu quartets played beside cathedral walls. Children’s gleeful laughter echoed through the square while small dogs filled their bellies at the water spouts.

Back home in the U.S., I am rooted in my life around the weeping beech tree. For this chapter of my life, the windowless office, the work that provides tasks but not heartswell, is a vehicle to test the imagination. In travel, I savored the sensual world of ancient stone built fortifications.  I tasted cappuccino and marmalade croissants from a bustling cafe counter.  I returned to spend five minutes in a tree trusting that both roots and wings are the gifts of the goddesses.

In Malta, I celebrated by 57th birthday.  I bought a fabulous scarf, I supped on pistachio gelato, while filming a solo oboist open his case against an ancient wall.   Gelato melted down my arm and dripped from my elbow into my sandal. The memories of childhood ice cream, of dreaming big, returned.

What joy this exploration of the senses did bring to my soul.  A joy, not dissimilar to the bliss of delving deeply into a fictional world.  As writers, we are given the tools to create a trip to the fish market in Venice.  We are gifted with the craft of transporting someone from a windowless world to a world where a weathered man plays Vivaldi on the armonica set up on a table constructed of a metal chest.

Writers have, perhaps, the most marvelous task in this world.  We are the transporters of lands, we are the creators of bliss.  We generate enthusiasm for that which we see only through our mind’s eye.  While curled into our comfortable chairs within the rooted life that is our present chapter, we engage and celebrate beyond the moment.  We propel the imagination and drift into the realm of wingless flight.

 

 

Unreliability — Seeing in the Dark

I am taking my heroine into Hades.  Urgency and fear propel her.  She is becoming a shadow of her former self.  The dimming corridor, the steps leading into the bowels of the hotel will cause her a painful yet necessary transformation.  She fumbles through the dark, exchanges a soiled dress for a mourning gown. Once the descent begins, she is a child at the top of a thin metal slide, greased without handrails. There is no turning back. She will slide into the depths. I will enjoy taking her there. She will look for herself and not find her. As a writer, it is my job to take the reader along and build momentum as we travel.

Descent

I have a guide as I take my character into the darkness.  The novel REBECCA by Daphne De Maurier was published in August, 1938.  In this year, leading up to WWII, readers may have searched for a lighter read.  They wouldn’t find it in REBECCA.

The world was a frightening place as REBECCA reached its first readers. Germany had invaded Austria. The Czech government had resigned. The English King had abdicated the throne before being crowned. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain placated Hitler. The United States held fast to its stance of neutrality. England’s surprise king stuttered through his speeches.

Like her country, the heroine of REBECCA entered into the darkness. Her dumb fumbling youthful innocence carried her and the reader into a fast-paced funnel swirling ceaselessly, it appeared, toward danger.  How we readers enjoy the quickening pace.  How we wish we could emulate this tension in our own work.

We, writers of today, can learn much from De Maurier.  Take a page where her heroine enters dark confusion and see how the imagery informs the mood. Take a paragraph and study the structure. Take a sentence and note the length. Take a word and then another to see how they are placed.

My current project, BECOMING GENEVIEVE, is set in 1938. Yet unlike students attending school in prewar England, coeds at the College of William and Mary are coddled within the historic walls. The women flirt, they dance the swing, they major in education and home economics. The war brewing in Europe is as distant to them as is Genevieve’s chance of earning a living through art. Yes, she interviewed the rebel O’Keeffe for the college paper, but she will not follow her footsteps. Not until she enters Hades and lives in the darkness and confusion.

As a writer, I am gifted with the examples of Daphne De Maurier, whose work lives on many years after her death.  Reading REBECCA provides a textbook example of how to build tension within the frame of an unreliable narrator.   Applying such learning to my own work, and seeing how quickly my character can descend into Hades is part of the fun!

Tree Breasts and Procrastination

My tree offers a limitless array of sensory experiences.  There are growths that mirror human orifices.  There are crevices and pockets where I place carrots and apple cores for the squirrels. I could write something about every one of these discoveries and never tire of the emerging details.

When I snapped this photo, I considered writing a blog consisting entirely of human body parts as depicted by the weeping beech.   I’d title it “orifices.” But upon looking up the word found “orifices” to be technically wrong.  Remembering a lecture during my MFA residency entitled le mot juste, I researched the origin of the French phrase for the right word, and listened, with pleasure, to the pronunciation of le mot juste by a computerized French Woman.

As writers, we must pay attention to details.  As closely as I pay attention to the sound of the leaves’ crisp edges brushing the sidewalk.  As closely as the sensation of coolness along the tree’s thick branches as I lie my chest against it, I must pay attention.

And yet, it is so easy to let the focus shift and shift and shift as I gather delicious details.  I can spend my writer’s life collecting sensory images and imagine how to capture them in words.  I can spend my writer’s life searching for similes between nature and a human life.  In creating a writer’s life of observation, I can be quite content and fully present to the moment.  There is nothing wrong with this choice.

However, if I want to spend my writer’s life completing a manuscript, regardless of length or genre, then I must allow the possibility that my fascination with the tree’s breasts is an act of procrastination.

Breasts are amazing details.  Orifices that resemble human sexual organs are worthy of notice.  And yet, I am certain that good writing requires probing beneath the surface. There is a reason that the breasts grew on the Weeping Beech.  As a writer, I will consider why.

Fear of Falling

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do. ”
– Georgia O’Keeffe

I’m high in the Beech tree. The highest I’ve let myself climb. I stand on the branch that I imagine myself scampering along if I was a squirrel. I envy the squirrels’ celebration of heights. If they are afraid of falling it never shows.  Do they waste time pondering whether or not they will fall from the tree?  I think not.  They simply leap.  I am witness to this courage.

Imagine a sidewalk running through the center of campus.  Imagine a fine, tall tree on either side.  Imagine that the squirrel will not cross the sidewalk to transport leaves from beneath one tree to the high branches of the other. The squirrel fills her mouth with oak leaves.  The brown bundle blocks her view. She climbs the trunk of the tree and scampers out to the thin branch.  She propels herself across space and catches hold of the slim branch of the nest tree.  The branch bends at her landing.  She darts along the pulsing branch to the trunk.  Up she climbs, mouth full of leaves to deposit them in her nest. She returns to the trunk, reverses her leap, runs down the trunk and onto the ground where she collects another mouthful.  She repeats this feat four times while I stand beneath her jumping point .

She is Georgia O’Keeffe without the terror.

I am not Georgia O’Keeffe. I am not a squirrel.

I am afraid to fall. Not from a tree, but from the expectations of myself as a writer. This fear has kept me upon lower branches. I have settled for the limited view. I do not trust my skill, my commitment, my sense that writing is a pursuit that requires climbing high and taking chances. How easily I climb the Weeping Beech, hoist myself into her branches. Not once do I fear falling as I let go of the branch to snap this photograph. I trust myself to balance.

And if the terror that Georgia O’Keeffe faced and overcame with so much working against her — society’s expectations about women, women artists as emotional outlets for sexuality, critics who defined her and her work by terms of her gender — than I, a woman of the 21st Century, can surely follow her example.

If I can climb a tree every day for a year and sit in its branches. If I can stand high in the tree and not feel fear of falling, I can sit down and trust myself to write a story.

Scars

There’s a magic to scars.  I think of the 2 3/4″ line that runs the underside of my wrist.  So many times I’ve shown the scar.  So many times I’ve seen another’s scar, like my own, shown without words.  A flip of the wrist.  A nod. I have felt the pain.

The surgery and recovery I know.

Listen to lyrics from song, through poetry, in fiction both imagined and real, and see the scars.  The stories do not say I am a scar given voice, but a close listen will whisper the length and breadth of the scar, tell whether the wearer still rolls the wrist to examine, or knows the scar without proving its existence. I know the scars on my body.  I need not list them to recall the wound that brought them forth.  The scars below the surface?  The ones that come forth in writing?  Perhaps they are the ones worth probing.

There are those who climb the beech tree to scar her.  Old scars and new ones, some hastily made, slips of the hand that take a new form a few inches down, or over.  Others, carefully constructed, with a verse that might feel poetic if it didn’t mar the beauty of the tree’s flesh.

 

New scars have appeared, perhaps carved by a group of young boys who leave bites of styrofoam beneath the boughs.  I spied the boys running to the tree one day as I made my way down the walk.  When I arrived they had taken their perches, the same, I discovered, as my favorites. That’s my spot, too, I said to a lanky boy with red shoes.  He looked at me as if I was kidding until I began talking about the tree in detail, with a familiarity that he couldn’t dismiss.   What about this branch, asked another, slender with feet he’d grow into in a few years.  Another good one.  A third boy, one without a spot, hugged the trunk from a lower branch, unbalanced, unable to claim his seat among the more confident climbers.  I said it was my tree, too and they’d have to share. They might love the tree too much to scar her.  Or scar her because of their love.

Echoes Choice

She takes the scars into her skin and swallows.  The letters run together, cracking into new forms, into meaningless marks that haven’t taught her a thing.  Is she stronger for her scars?

Are we?

Soul Work

Today I did the unthinkable.  I invited a man to my tree.  This was not a romantic encounter; the man was in his mid-20s chasing a toddler in a pink dress with crinoline and boy of three running into the quad, too close (from my vantage point) to the parked cars. Take them under the tree, I said,  It’s magical.

Can we? he asked, and I said, of course, and he ushered them down the slight hill, lifted one of the boughs and the trio ducked under.  Fearing that he might think me a stalker, or middle-aged divorcee eager for any liaison, I passed the tree and strode to the library, my rented copy of Forrest Gump in hand.

Until the moment I saw the man and his children, I was selfish with my tree.  I had no intention of inviting anyone, least of all “a stranger.” My son has climbed with me, and others know about it, thanks to this blog and my daily five minutes.  But to point someone to the tree? Unthinkable.  To share this experience seemed contrary to my work at concealment and camouflaged wardrobe. My discreet entries and exits did not invite others.  I was concerned with my own soul in the midst of chaos.  The souls of others? That was their business.

When I was a eight, my grandmother lived in a 100 year old white frame house with tall slender windows and wavy glass.  Through these windows  grew an enormous magnolia with thick dark leaves and leather underbellies.  In the summer, the massive flowers drew me face forward into the petals.  Below, the yard was an urban wonderland with bricked paths overgrown with moss and sheds with crocks in the corners, with dirt floors and wooden doors hanging on rusted hinges.

Magnolia Tree Star Pattern

The magnolia tree rose above roof level and I’d climb to a particular comfort spot and watch my aunt’s feral cat colony creep about below.  I recalled the tale of a woman relative who slit her throat while cutting flowers. The dexterity required for such a feat sent my imagination soaring  as I pictured her heartsick, or clumsy, or tripping with shears open. The mystery of a slender woman (of course she was slender) with a bloodied throat and white cotton gown lying on the grass was an image I never tired of exploring.  The magnolia was my tree.  My place to explore the world of imagination.  My safe, soulful place.

Now, I have a new tree.  Inviting the children and their father to the weeping beech tree was my soul at work.  I did not make a conscious choice.  My soul invited the children.  I was a but a bystander.

The children appeared.  The glorious tree in full spring concealment stood a few paces away.  They would have passed it.  The father did not see it.  But my soul, that found solace in a magnolia and now a weeping beech, opened itself to the children.  Go to the tree, I said.  It’s magical.

 

 

Late Bloomer

Weeping Beech Unfurls

My tree is the last to come into leaf.  Even the stately oak, well known for holding its brown leaves through the winter, leafed out before the weeping beech.  And in the final days of April, I was able to climb high and once again be completely concealed. These long months of barrenness while the squirrels ran the crosswalks and the cold wind swept the branches have passed.

The semester ends. I sit in the awakening tree with boughs celery green and students clustered at walnut tree tables preparing for finals. My final portfolio lays silent between the covers of my son’s yellow folder, a stack among other stacks on a desk crowded with papers that hold dreams and fears and all that a writer’s heart is poised to release. I’ve been on the grading side, sat in the instructor’s seat.  I never wanted to pin a grade to someone’s work. The writer’s life is hard enough without a sentence granted.  I am thankful not to grade another’s work, and yet I crave the high grade for myself.  Is our work not worthy unless the professor says A, the agent accepts us, the publisher finds a market for our characters?

I am middle aged.  Like my tree a late bloomer.  As a young writer, I might have searched the future to imagine a time when my confidence would be such that opinions mattered less.  I have not reached this age. Youth is a strange fantasy as is middle age. I have received recognition for my work and stood in first place with my certificates. I have won the cash prize.

And yet I have not yet found a home for my novels. My success is still tenuous. My heroine, Genevieve, graduates from William and Mary in May 1938. Georgia O’Keeffe speaks at her graduation. Genevieve boards the train destined for a life she does not want. O’Keeffe returns to New York. They will meet again on the coast of Maine at the Ogunquit School for Painting and Sculpture. O’Keeffe will teach her to drive. Freedom comes slowly.  I’ve written this novel for ten years.  I am late to bloom.

I do not mourn my middle-agedness. I am like the weeping beech still coming into leaf. There is hope in this assuredness. There is sanity in the beech’s process toward fullness. A middle aged writer is in no hurry.  Life spirals up.  I am caught among the leaves watching the wind touch new life.

Point of View Reversed

Pansy Backview

My son had a school project to photograph images for his language arts class. There was no requirement about what the images might be or that they connect in any way. Since his school is close to the university campus, he often walks to my office after the dismissal bell. Today, as he ventured across campus, heavy backpack in tow, he shot images for his class project. While uploading his pictures to his school email address I found the pansy reversed image. I say reversed because, in all of my views of a pansy (my favorite flower since age 6), I have never looked at the backside. The faces always drew my attention.

My son captured the pansy from another point of view.

In writing and in life, our point of view is often more fixed than we would believe. If questioned about a pansy, I could recite the color combinations, arrogantly explain that a petite pansy isn’t a pansy but a viola. I could tell you the bloom season, when they go dormant, and why leaving them throughout the summer expecting another bloom come fall may disappoint. I would not tell you that when you looked at the pansy from behind that you would find the green star, one of nature’s most abundant shapes (the pentagram) also found in a halved apple, a starfish, a morning glory. The list is exhaustive.

I’m entering the fourth radical revision to my novel of ten years, BECOMING GENEVIEVE. Here’s what I’ve learned by observing the backside of my son’s yellow pansy.

  • My view is only half (if that much) of the total image of a character or scene
  • Using a simple form of contrast — yellow and green backside compared to the glorious mix of colors on the frontside — might create a simplified focus that could benefit my novel
  • I might consider the inverse of any character’s motivation to better understand the complexities of the human spirit:
    • The inverse of the pansy allows the viewer to see the veins
    • Assessing the point of view from the front side of the pansy gives the viewer a splash of color, a happy face
    • Even though the veins are absolutely essential, unless I’m looking at the flipside I don’t see the veins or probe their true nature
    • The flipside may represent the 90% of a character that does not appear in the novel

As I return to my novel, I will keep the image of the pansy reverse view on my desktop to remind me to shift my point of view, expand it, and flip it over to find the soul of my characters.

Like the pansy’s sunny face the essence of my characters lies within the veins.