on the elevator/another reason to be barefoot

photo of fire

fire, transform me

It does not escape my attention that, while on my way to a workshop to continue my memoir about the house that burned down, I meet, on the hotel elevator, a mother and child whose house just burned down.

They are staying at this hotel because their house burned down.

The mother tells me her child is barefoot because their house just burned down (and she doesn’t have shoes, now).

(When the mother began the sentence, almost an apology, “My daughter’s barefoot because—” I filled in, in my head, some friendly chatter: “Oh, my daughter loves being barefoot!” but then the mother finished her sentence, about the fire. I didn’t talk about my daughter. The conversation was going elsewhere. I simply tried to hold space for her trauma, while she was still in the crisis of it.)

The child, barefoot, gleefully tells me what burned, “even my birth certificate!” Later, she shows me her cartwheels. (Oddly, years ago, I had a dream about the workshop leader, that he was showing me cartwheels.)

I tell the mother I’m glad they made it out. That she has a very resilient child. That I’ll be thinking about them. I don’t say what’s on my mind, because it’s all still occurring to me—that the child will lead them through the brambles of trauma.

Because that’s one gift of the child, of being a child.

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Brightwood, by Tania Unsworth (Author interview)

Brightwood, by Tania Unsworth

Read this wonderful book!

A couple years ago, when my daughter chose an advance reading copy of Tania Unsworth’s Brightwood at the library (a prize for the reading program), I had no idea we were in for such a treat. The cover looked a bit scary, so I decided to read it to her. (You can read the Kirkus review here.) It is a little scary. It’s also a lot beautiful and interestingly complicated: a tribute to Ms. Unsworth’s belief in the capacity and imagination of the child.

My daughter and I both fell in love with the book. I wrote a fan letter to Ms. Unsworth, and she replied, which began an imaginative and generous correspondence with me as writer-mother, and my daughter as reader.

As the paperback release was approaching, I asked Ms. Unsworth if she would mind my daughter asking some interview questions, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for the blog.

Merida and I hope you enjoy the interview. And of course we recommend you buy the book!

**

Merida:

Describe Frank’s background.

Tania:

Frank is not the main character in BRIGHTWOOD, although she probably thinks she is. She arrives at Brightwood Hall when Daisy (who is the main character), is in desperate need of help. Frank isn’t a ghost, although she does appear in black and white. She’s more like an imaginary friend – a very bossy and delusional one. She’s an explorer from a different time and place, and for the whole of the book (set in an English stately home) she believes she’s actually in the Amazonian jungle, pitting her wits against a rival explorer. But she has an odd way of getting to the truth, and her advice is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. She was my favorite character to write, and even though I finished the book some time ago, I’m not certain she got the memo. It’s possible she’s still out there, having all kinds of adventures without me.

Merida:

What was your inspiration for writing Brightwood?

Tania:

I loved the idea of writing about someone who has never once been outside their home. Daisy doesn’t know what lies beyond the gates of Brightwood Hall, and so she’s made the beautiful old house into a whole world. A kind of magical kingdom. When Daisy’s world – and her life – is threatened, she’s forced to confront reality. I felt that situation had the potential for a powerful story.

Merida:

How did you get the idea for the non-human characters?

Tania:

My best ideas come out of problems. The biggest problem I had when I sat down to write the book, was how to tell the story with only two characters. There was Daisy, all alone in the house, and there was James Gritting, the mysterious relative who turns up a little way into the story. Daisy’s mother is mostly not in the action at all. It is very hard to make things happen in a story without interaction between characters, dialogue, the exchange of information, and all that good stuff. Simply describing the thoughts in one person’s head makes for very dull reading! So I knew that Daisy had to have people (or a rat!) to talk to, even if they weren’t – strictly speaking – real. She would need to have an extraordinary imagination to do that. By creating non-human characters, I solved my problem of how to move the action along, and I also gained an insight into the character of Daisy herself. Two birds with one stone!

Merida:

How long have you been a writer?

Tania:

I’ve always been writing, even when I was quite a little child. I got my first book published when I was about 35.

Merida:

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Tania:

My dad was a novelist, and my mum wrote poetry, and I grew up thinking that writing was the best way to spend your life. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, although for a long time I told myself the opposite. I was frightened of failing at it. I thought because I found it hard, that meant I was no good at it. It took me a while to realize that writing is hard whether you’re good at it or not. And being frightened of failure doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It just means you’re frightened. And you can write while frightened. You can write while frightened, and while finding it hard. So that’s what I do!

Merida:

What were your favorite books when you were a child?

Tania:

I liked fairy stories, and Greek and Norse mythology, and historical novels about Vikings, and the Narnia books, and stories about animals like The Call of the Wild, and anything to do with adventure. Or ponies. Also, school stories, and comics, and poetry…I guess the answer is I liked everything!

**

To read more about Tania Unsworth, please visit her website.

Seeing and being seen (part 2)

Bronze female figure, Late Minoan I, ca. 1600-1450 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Bronze female figure, Late Minoan I, ca. 1600-1450 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

I’m thrilled to finally spill a secret I’ve been keeping for months: I was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award! (And I’m thrilled to see some friends on the list, too. Congratulations to everyone!)

This feels really big for me. Big because while I’ve published more and more pieces & stories recently, I don’t (yet) have a book out; big because the award is for creative nonfiction, rather than fiction, which means that as I’ve ventured into writing my own stories, my work is being appreciated, and seen.

So many people I know (& love) work and work and still feel invisible. Feel like it’s pointless. Publishing can be fickle and hard and depressing, and the importance of recognition is huge, yet it can be so rare, and can feel like it’s never going to happen. (There’s a great book called Necessary Dreams, by Anna Fels, that deals with the importance of recognition, for women especially.)

Years ago, I wrote about seeing and being seen, its importance to humanity. I think about this a lot…when I talk to people, when I feel how busy everyone seems to be, often too busy to really connect (myself included). When I hear how invisible people feel. How broken we are. How part of the mending is to stop and see each other. Sometimes being seen takes the form of Big & Public (like an award), but sometimes it’s simply looking someone in the eye, with intention: I see you. You are not invisible.

(“how to care for the injured body”) From Claudia Rankine, Citizen

citizen

I’ve long been meaning to post about the award-winning and beautiful lyric, Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

I read it several years ago, and listened to the audiobook again a couple months ago as I drove back and forth to Dayton where I’m teaching. The living inside these pages (or on the discs, if you are old school like me, and listen to the CD) makes me know I have only just started to understand what it is to be living, in this country, at this time, as a person of color. And despite what I would like to believe about myself, I have only begun to understand. There are many ways of beginning to understand. This book is one of them. I recommend you read or listen, no matter what color your skin.

Something that resonates for me is a passage from “Some years there exists a wanting to escape…” on page 143. (Here’s a part, stripped of context, because the nature of this book is that it’s a lyric & a whole cloth, but this is haunting me today, for which I’m grateful, and I wanted to share it. You can read more of this passage at the Poetry Foundation.)

(And please read the book, too.)

How to care for the injured body,

the kind of body that can’t hold
the content it is living?

And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?

Didion’s correct priorities

Joan Didion and Griffin Dunne

Joan Didion and Griffin Dunne

Great moment from the great film, The Center Will Not Hold, about the life of Joan Didion:

(Griffin Dunne checks on his aunt Joan Didion, recently widowed.)

Griffin Dunne (looking into her refrigerator): Look how much soup you have. Who makes all this soup for you?

Joan Didion: What soup?

Griffin Dunne: All this (pointing), is that soup?

Joan Didion: No, that’s ice cream.

 

So so good for breakfast

Bob's Red Mill flaked coconut

(You never know where you’ll find inspiration.)

If I’m counting correctly, this is my third ever post about what I had for breakfast. Today’s creation was so good, I had to crow about it. I wish I had taken a photo, but I’ll just do the product placement for Bob’s Red Mill coconut flakes instead.

This requires a high powered blender, though it would probably work in a normal blender if you chop things up small first. (My friend Sally moved to Australia last summer and I miss her like crazy, every day. The only thing good about her departure is that she sold me her Vitamix before she left.) I have made this without the coconut flakes, but today when I saw them, they called to me. I thought it would either be really good, or terrible. It was really good. So good, I want to make another one right now.

This recipe is approximate. My husband liked it, but I didn’t even try it on the child, because I know her by now. Maybe when she’s older.

Put in blender:

  • 1 medium apple
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 2 small carrots
  • 1 clove garlic
  • about an inch or so of ginger root
  • dash cayenne (don’t be shy!)
  • small handful of coconut flakes
  • 6-8 ice cubes, and enough water to blend (add more if needed)

Blend till it’s smooth.

Drink it down.

Notice the sensation: that feeling you might actually survive the day.

#MeToo and Antioch College SOPP

 

keep calm and have boundaries

 

When I lived in Seattle in the 1990s, my partner was a student at the Antioch University campus there. The Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP) at Antioch College stood on its wobbly new legs. The SOPP manifested on the adult campus in Seattle (redolent with west coast, touchy-feely hugging culture) thusly: Please ask before hugging someone. To wit:

     “Do you want a hug?”

     (If no, no means no hug! Simple. An exercise in thoughtful boundaries.)

Fast forward to now, #metoo, and how we might build a culture of consent…The Antioch SOPP is back in the news. I think it’s great that collectively, we’ve finally caught up to Antioch, and consent is no longer simply fodder for sketch comedy.

Slowly, through creaks and bumps, we humans can make progress, right?

The inner critic is everywhere! But that won’t stop us, no!

IMG_20180405_101038871.jpgRecently I had the pleasure of teaching at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop‘s Dive Into Your Story: Where do you get your ideas?We dealt with the inner critic and how to renegotiate the relationship, moving aside the noise so we can get to getting ideas, and writing.

You who read this blog know I write & think about the inner critic all the time, so it was very fun to share those practices (inspired by Gayle BrandeisLynda Barry, Bonni Goldberg, Amy Cuddy, and others) with the humans at the workshop.

After the workshop, I got an email from one of the participants, Fredrick Marion. I’m always thrilled when the inner critic takes visual form, gets post office box, and becomes capable of receiving a Dear Inner Critic letter. Kudos to the writers who make that happen. Here’s Fredrick’s letter…Enjoy!

p.s. You might also want to subscribe to Fredrick’s awesome newsletter.

p.p.s. To engage with your inner critic, here’s a place to start.

IMG_20180405_100933660.jpg

 

Everything reminds you of what happened

multi-color fabric partial quilt front, shape of face and moons, etc.

detail from a quilt I made in college, never finished

(That thing that happens when something is consuming you, how you see it everywhere. My memoir is everywhere, apparently. Here’s one place I saw it the other day.)

Question
by May Swenson

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

Letter to Senator Portman

Senator Rob Portman
37 West Broad Street
Room 300
Columbus, OH 43215

February 16, 2018

Dear Senator Portman,

I understand that over your career, you have benefitted from more than three million dollars worth of support* from the National Rifle Association. That is a lot of money. And I also understand that political careers require a lot of money.

But now, after yet another horrifying school shooting, I am begging you: Take a bird’s eye view for a moment. Pause and think about the sanctity of human life. Think about those families whose innocent children were murdered this week. And think about the entire community of Parkland, their shock, grief, loss.

Think about all the other communities that have lost children due to senseless gun violence.

Think about the child-shaped holes in the lives of these families, friends, and communities.

I am the mother of a ten year old girl. She is vibrant and amazing and beloved, and when she goes to school, I believe she should be free to learn and grow. When I start to imagine how those grieving parents must feel, and will feel forever…

Senator Portman, you are in a unique and powerful position to lead one of the most humanitarian missions of our time. On your watch, Senator, what will you do to protect innocent lives?

At what point will you step forward and lead our nation by rejecting money attached to the organization which, directly or indirectly, is responsible for these innocent lives?

What will it take? Will it take you losing someone who is close to you? (I hope not, because I do not wish that grief on anyone.)

How many tragedies are too many? When do you say ENOUGH?

Please, please use your position of power for good: Stand up to the gun lobby and say no. Tell them you will find other ways to sustain your career.

Respectfully,

Rebecca Kuder

*(source: NYTimes, 10/4/17, “Thoughts and Prayers and NRA Funding”)