Heart Restart

July 13, 2017 § 30 Comments

By Susanne Fletcher

On the cusp of 60 years old, I ran away to Baja California Sur, Mexico to let my heart bloom. I needed to escape–at least briefly–37 years of marriage, 35 years of office work, and 22 years of motherhood, to reclaim an old dream, so I signed on to a writing retreat, Writing Down the Baja. I intended to reframe my life in seven days. I hoped not to recognize myself when it was over.

I panicked on the plane. I restrained my arm with the opposite hand, jamming it into the armrest so I wouldn’t press the flight attendant call button. My head said relax. My heart threatened to bust out of my rib cage and plunge from the plane without a parachute. I wanted to yell “Turn the plane around and let me off. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’m not a writer!”

I arrived at Serendipity Bed and Breakfast on the fringe of Todos Santos as palm shadows stretched across the desert. Relieved, I sprawled on a warm plastic lounge chair facing the ocean and let my eyes absorb light and distance. My muscles lengthened and my sight lingered on the line dividing the Pacific Ocean and sky. Gradually the adrenalin surge of rushing through three airports and release from confinement in a spot as small as a honeycomb segment, and the sweat of self-doubt, settled.

The Pacific side of the Baja, a long hot finger of sand and cactus, felt cool and the wind off the ocean raised goosebumps. I saw a little white eruption against blue. I sat up, raised my hand over my eyes and stared. Again and again fountains burst out of the water. Whales.

Each morning, I chose a spot at the outdoor writing seminar table with intention, for inspiration and a view. While the teacher led us through morning writing exercises or we read aloud the previous day’s homework, the horizon pulled my attention to its edge, every gush in the water like a jolt on an electrocardiogram interrupting the gentle waves of my sister-writers’ discussions.

Afternoons I propped myself up on a lounge chair facing the breached blue and swaddled myself in a beach towel, knees up, blank page waiting, pen poised. Mostly I watched as a blooming cactus plant suckled hummingbirds as plentiful of marsh mosquitoes. I counted six, their long needles sipping nectar from funnel-shaped flowers and zinging to the next and next and next.

At the end of each day, I lounged under a palm tree, eyes to the horizon, book in hand, where I dozed and dreamt. An egret visited me once. Awakened by my book dropping in my lap, I looked up to see her a few strides away. White and slow, she picked up her chopstick legs, her toes opening and closing like a blown-out umbrella as she moved through the gravel with a soft tick, tick, tick. She stood forever and together we stared at the hummingbird cactus. Me, amazed. She? I don’t know, but I welcomed her stillness.

I attempted writing in a covered circular tower above my room–a Mexican garret–standing up this time. My pad of paper rested on a ledge. The wind ruffled the pages. I removed my glasses for short-sightedness to work in my favour–no more whale-gazing and daydreaming. What would I daydream about anyway? My heart reassured me I was where I wanted to be.

Head down, ink flowing onto the page, the lines filled as I pumped out prose like a gasoline nozzle–high octane, unleaded, intoxicating. Something darkened my peripheral vision. I looked up and, despite my blurred eyesight, recognized a hummingbird hovering at shoulder-height less than half a palm-frond away. I’d worn a coral-coloured t-shirt that day and undoubtedly she thought she’d found the biggest flower ever–the treasure of the Sierra Baja. Me immobilized and enchanted, she greedy and hungry, so close I heard her 80-wing-beats-per-second–or perhaps that was the rush of blood to my brain. I blinked. She buzzed away with a trrrtrrrt, a tiny defibrillator.

My heart shocked, I exhaled and wrote nothing familiar, something about jacaranda pods and penises and eyes the shade of scentless bougainvillea and Baja mutts the colour of sand. A different persona had appeared and I hardly recognized myself in my words. I was still me–wife, mother, office worker–but something else had emerged with a freshly started heart. A week at a writing retreat had pushed back the fear of claiming a new name for myself to add to the existing string–wife, mother, office worker, and writer.

 

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Susanne Fletcher writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Read more about her Baja retreat time and her work at her blog, Wuthering Bites.

 

Independence Day

July 4, 2017 § 7 Comments

Readers and writers. Experienced and first-timers. Poets dabbling in prose, novelists turning to nonfiction. Previously published or not. Old, young, in school, out of school, hated school and glad to be done, miss school and wish you were back, planning to go back to school. Native Americans and First Nations and Italians and Irish and Jews and Scandinavians and Afro-Caribbean and African-American and just call me Black and Slav and Hispanic and Nuyorican and White and Chinese and Sri Lankan and Indian and Thai and all the rest, every shape and size, writers with disabilities and disabled writers and Deaf and deaf and chronically ill and in the pink of health. Everyone with a story to tell. Everyone who wants to read a true story.

Welcome. We’re glad you’re here.

Thanks for being a part of Brevity, and have a safe and joyful Independence Day.

Let’s Be Bored!

June 22, 2017 § 21 Comments

The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.

I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”

As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.

On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:

Used payphones.

Bummed change for payphones.

Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.

Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.

Got lost.

Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.

Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.

Looked out the window.

Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.

Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.

Read ads and billboards and posters.

Figured out train and bus timetables.

Asked strangers for directions.

Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.

Whistled or waved for taxis.

In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.

I need to be bored.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She still plays Alphabet by herself on long drives.

 

Brevity Podcast #4: Brian Doyle

June 1, 2017 § 3 Comments

The Brevity Podcast returns with a special episode featuring our interview with Brian Doyle, originally recorded last year. We wrote on yesterday’s blog about Brian’s work in Brevity, and his legacy. Here he is in his own words.

 

Show Notes: Episode #4 People, Books and Places

 For many years, Brian edited Portland magazine at the University of Portland

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Allison K Williams is a writer and editor based in Dubai, and the host of the Brevity Podcast.

Brian Doyle’s Brevity

May 30, 2017 § 12 Comments

University of Portland - new faculty & staff photosWe were blessed to have Brian Doyle appear in the pages of Brevity seven times, stretching all the way back to issue four in 1999 and as recently as May 2015. His voice was like no other. His love of the world and everything in it seemingly boundless.

And God, was he funny. So blessedly funny.

Until the next sentence, when he made you cry.

We will miss him, greatly, and remember him, grandly. Thank goodness he left us his gorgeous, gracious words:

Mea Culpa I started paying attention. I started listening. I stopped sneering and snickering. I began to hear the pummel of blows rained down on people for merely being who they were.

Sachiel the Tailor What I am saying is that holes come and I make them go. I am in the business of closing holes. If all was well, if all things kept their composition, then I would have no work. But that is not the way of things.

Imagining Foxes We did not see a fox. I can assure you we did not see a fox. I could trot out my brother and sister today to testify that we did not see a fox.

A Child is Not Furniture But money is not the be all. If it was the be all then what is the point? The point is what you do without the money. The point is what you do with dash and brass. This is who you are. You are not what you can buy.

Ed You have but to meet Ed and you are Edified and Educated; the man is a force of nature, true to himself in every particular, forged by Russian Jewish parents, blessed by marriage to a Catholic girl from Idaho who once exploded a pie in a state baking contest, and graced finally by two children, male and female, who only grin when asked to explain their father, and it is this grin that seems to me a wonderfully summery thing, a flash of love in a world of pain, a warm pause in a cold year.

Pop Art They are cruel, and move in herds and gaggles and mobs, and woe unto the silent one, the one who looks funny, the one who speaks awkwardly, the fat one, for she will be shouldered aside, he will never get the ball, she will never be asked to jump rope, he will not be invited to the pool party, she will weep with confusion and rage, he will lash out with sharp small fists.

Her Numbers After a moment I realized that it was the number of the person who had inspected the new sandals my wife had worn that day, but for an arresting instant I thought I had found her secret number, her interior mathematical name, the parade of numerals that had worked its way to the surface of her skin after 30 years, and it sent me swimming into the sea of symbols that attempt to identify, quantify, specify her, to pin her down for a moment in her restless exuberant passage through time.

 

 

 

Of Writing, Biscuits, and Gratitude

May 25, 2017 § 22 Comments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Lynn G. Carlson

The resident dog at my vet’s office is named Beulah and she is clearly senile. Her black-lab muzzle is grizzled and her eyes are opaque gray.

She stands in the center of the waiting area on unsteady legs and makes eye contact with me, then moves her eyes to a blue ceramic jar on the counter marked Biscuits. Then she looks back at me.

When I look over at the jar, and back at Beulah, it sets her tail to wagging so hard she almost falls over.

Beulah looks at the jar, then at me. Over and over. Nothing breaks the trajectory of her gaze, not even when a german shepherd happens by on his way to the examining room and jams his nose into Beulah’s butt. A tabby-cat yowl coming from a crate not five inches away from her doesn’t even seem to register.

“Can I give Beulah a biscuit?” I ask the gal at the counter. “She looks hungry.”

“Nah. She’s already had four this morning. Thing is, as soon as she eats the biscuit, she begs for another. She does that all day long.” The woman leans over the counter and smiles down at the ancient dog. “Beulah never remembers that she just ate a biscuit, and I guess she never gets full.”

Something about this chills me. Something bothers me about that idea of being in a constant state of yearning.

Maybe because I recognize it in my own life. Maybe because I see a little of myself in Beulah’s fixation on more biscuit.

Like, for instance, the way I crave the feeling you get when you send out a “My writing got accepted!” email to friends and family.

How I yearn for the next infusion from the Muse. Words, gimme, gimme more words.

How easily I forget a good writing session and pine for another.

Yeah, Beulah, I feel your pain.

I can’t help this dog with her cravings and forgetting, although I do go over and give her a good head scratch.

But—and this is the thing—unlike Beulah, I can turn from my cravings. I can stop and say thanks to the Muse for guiding me in my garden-at-night poem, for helping me find the tendril of thought that strains towards what the poem is really trying to portray.

I can remember that I had a solid journaling session this morning, complete with the arrival of a memory about my college days in Gunnison, Colorado, when I had no car and walked everywhere. And because I was on foot and not in a car I noticed how the lines of snow on the mountains inched upward in May.

I can observe, and even admire, the way snippets and memories coalesce into a personal essay that explores why I am so obsessed with my elderly mother’s eating habits.

I can even appreciate a wobbly dog who pushes me to acknowledge the nourishment that writing gives to my life and helps me, for a moment at least, to feel full.
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Lynn G. Carlson is a writer who lives on the prairie outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming with a retired firefighter, a span-triever and plenty of gophers. She has published poetry and nonfiction in various literary magazines and has an essay in NPR’s This I Believe archives. In 2016 she served as editor for Watch My Rising, an anthology of stories and poems about recovery from addiction. Lynn blogs at www.writingwyoming.com.

In Their Shoes

May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments

No seriously, get in or we’ll be late for the next scene. (Photo: Nick Brocklebank/PhotoAcacia Ltd)

In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”

That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.

Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.

I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”

That was my dad talking.

That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.

Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.

That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.

There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?

Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

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