Thursday, October 24, 2013
Hey, all y'all. I'm posting today with the awesome sisters of the Mojito Literary Society in The MLS Halloween Blog Tag. True (trust us) ghost stories, one a day, between here and All Hallows Eve. Bwahahaha. Now go read more scary stuff at the Society.
Of all the more colorful ghosts in my small West Virginia hometown—the woman who shot her mother, the man who killed one, or was it both, of his parents with an axe—my phantom, the one who came calling that night in Apple Alley, was merely the Postmaster. Unremarkable in life. Doggedly persistent in death. Vengeful to the depths of his sorry soul.
We should never assume that the unpretentious apparition is not the one to be reckoned with. A ghost is a ghost is a ghost.
The Postmaster lived with Mrs. Postmaster, who was also The Postmistress, in a pretty cottage on the main street of town. Whatever else might have gone awry in his life, the house must have been his refuge, his satisfaction, his place of pride. At some point he told someone—someone who remembered and entered it into the saga of the town—that he was NEVER going to leave that house.
Then he died. There was a funeral. There was a burial. After that, he headed on home. His wife was still there for company but then she died, too. And when they drove her over to the IOOF cemetery, she stayed where she was planted. The Postmaster had the house all to himself.
Then an enterprising young couple with two lovely children and a cat named Olive Jones converted it into a bed and breakfast. Now there were guests. Things got crowded. And that’s when we showed up—for a class reunion weekend—in the room at the top of the stairs under the peak of the single gable, in the old bed that “came with the house” courtesy of the man who still preferred to sleep there. Alone.
They told us about their ghost. I knew him by name, of course. Remembered his face and his wife’s, both of them staid and efficient, managing our mail. The young innkeepers were quite merry about how he was still around. He was good for business now. The frisson of dread was entertaining at breakfast.
3 o’clock in the morning? No.
I remember moonlight filtered through lace. The silence everywhere. City people forget how still the night world can be in a lightly inhabited town. Still, still, still. Except, of course, for the sound of footsteps on the stair. Slow. Heavy. Closer and closer, as I rifled my mind for a reasonable explanation. Here’s what I came up with: The Postmaster is now standing right outside the bedroom door.
I slipped out of bed, shivering in the sultry August dark. I stopped at the door. Now what? We were facing each other with two inches of old oak between us. I put my palm on the wood. He laid his on the other side. Palm to palm, me and The Postmaster’s ghost. I know this because my sweaty hand bonded to the door as flesh always does when it touches frozen iron. And I know because our minds froze together, too, and he showed me exactly what it was like to be dead.
It was not what I expected.
Ghosts are realer than you. Truer than a Monday. More forever than a Sunday afternoon.
And here. We are right here.
Posted by Annie at 9:04 AM
Monday, August 26, 2013
So Anne Lamott, among others, is an enthusiast of the Crappy First Draft. She says she writes only those. That all her first drafts are crappy or they are nothing at all. I myself secretly doubt this because I believe she's practically perfect in every way and merely trying to make the rest of us feel encouraged. That is so like her. I believe that Anne Lamott, kind and generous, wants the best for me. So I accept her CFD admonition as pure truth. I believe it. I do this for her. Out of devotion. And, okay, yeah, I do it for me, too.
To be perfectly honest, I derive an enormous amount of encouragement and solace from my crappy first drafts. They are the buffer between me and my inner judge who maintains a work schedule that I would find admirable if she weren't so darned annoying. She is always on the job. I have decided that she's the Anti-AnneLamott--the very devil in the hell of self-immolation.
When I start out all optimistic and some of the stuff sounds just brilliant and most of it has some speck of possibility, and I'm happy? The Anti-Anne is lurking."Well, that sucks." "Do you have any clue where you're going with this?""You were actually happy with that?" "Real writers suffer. Why are you smiling?"
My spirit sinks.
And then I say the magic words. "Crappy First Draft!" Balm for my soul. Encouragement for my heart. Guts for the muscles in my typing fingers which is where the words come from.
Typing-Finger Guts. The secret so few writers share.
But this morning I was not writing but pondering getting into the kayak. We have had the kayak since 2005 and I have never been in it. Before I got my knees fixed, it was too intimidating. After that I was getting back up to speed. After that I was probably somewhat scared. On a day in June when I was feeling optimistic and strong, I declared "This is the Summer of the Kayak."
I've been waiting for the perfect morning. The ideal confluence of weather, agility, and kayaking guts.
That moment of perfection may have been a morning sometime back in July. I believe it was the 15th. I have pictures.
So today I had a new thought, a corollary to the Anne Lamott Law of First Draft Crappiness: What if life could be lived as a crappy first draft? No disrespect to Life. And not in the sense of revision or do-over (both not necessarily available in the Life Arena.)
In the sense of "get thee behind me, Inner Judge! Shut. Up."
Clearly this is a day of not smooth enough water, of not warm enough temperature, of not actually brave enough me. But hey. Let's just do it. Let's give up all hope of optimum perfectibility. Let's just write a crappy first draft of this day, give it the very best we can, grab the oar (and the floating vest).
Posted by Annie at 12:54 PM
Sunday, July 28, 2013
From Wikipedia: "Flibbertigibbet is a Middle English word referring to a flighty or whimsical person…."
Flighty. Whimsical. The person who is unable to alight for any period of time, to settle into the moment, to savor … anything, to choose one … of anything ... and stay with it, to take the "one seat" and remain. To abide.
A flitterer. A fritterer.
This would be me. Unable on all counts.
I attribute this weakness partly to my position on the Timeline of Life. Once the years cross the yardarm of, oh, let's just say 50 for the fun of it. Anyway. The yardarm of mental competency or of the trustworthiness of anything. We know the one….
Once that yardarm gets crossed, it's natural to apply a very keen eye to recent behavior of any kind. Like not being able to stick to anything. To be constantly reining oneself in and bringing oneself back to whatever it was one was doing. Is that normal in some way? Or not normal in every damn way? Should I devote time to worrying about this? Sure. What could be more important?
So, what was that "whatever it was one was doing" thing I was doing in the paragraph above, exactly?
Let me digress: Ha!
I will throttle the next person who tells me he or she is having a senior moment. This is your mind people! IMHO you probably only get the one. Don't take its passing lightly. Hang onto it. Be fierce. Be grimly tenacious.
Or at least celebrate it as it goes. A mind is glorious thing to lose. As it peels away, savor the taste of each lovely segment. Send it up like a fire lantern into the night. Bless it as it goes. Hope it doesn't burn anything down.
Back to whatever.
I'm trying to separate the components of my attention span challenge into their categories so that I might be able to retake the driver's seat of this mind. [Is there a driver's seat? Was I ever in it? Was that an illusion of some kind?]
I'm older. Conceded, but let's let that one lie for now.
I'm no longer gainfully employed. Or at least I'm in a peculiar limbo in which I might actually be somewhat gainfully employed and not know it yet. It's like that damn cat of Schrödinger's. Is Fluffy dead or alive? Are any of my novels? For the sake of convenience let's say that I don't go to a job anymore and my days, with certain constraints, are my own to deploy in anyway I see fit.
But there are So. Many. Ways.
My priority now:
To let the novel that's in the world awaiting answers wait in peace. This requires nothing but an exercise of will.
And retrieve the most promising and challenging of my novels-in-stasis and rethink it. Make a fresh start.
However, to start fresh invokes the possibility of different methods and MANY QUESTIONS.
1) Should I read Truby, Corbett, or Wheat first, so as to not muddle unaware? Note to self: No, Yes, Yes. Read Corbett, read him now. Read Wheat, read her first. Choose. Augh!
Question: Is this need-to-read fetish merely a function of my "Keats Syndrome?" (I.e, what the critics said about "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" which was: "What the #%@!#, Keats? You're JUST NOW looking in there? Where have you been? What kind of education did you have anyway, kid? What a loser.”)
Is this something I need to address or forget about? I’m going to try to forget. Trying now.
2) Should I plan this novel more? Maybe. Am I a planner or a pantser? Pantser of course but should I try to overcome this or ride it on down?
3) Should I use Scrivener this time? I think so.
Note to self: Learn Scrivener. Do it today. Do it now. No wait. Read Scrivener For Dummies. Hurry.
4) Should I try to find that article I read about four months ago about how to write a first draft in 30 days? Don't know. Could be great. Could be useless. Could be impossible to find anyhow.
Note to self: Find it. Find it now. No. Wait. Read Wheat first. Or Corbett. Or For Dummies. Prioritize your confusions. Do it now.
5) I must promote my books [assuming I have books. It's that cat problem again.] online. I must have a platform, a brand, a website. Note to self. Read WordPress: The Missing Manual. Read it now. Review that webinar you took about how to build an author website in a day. Do it now. Do that first.
Plus, on the domestic front:
6) I have two weeks worth of CSA shares stored in three different fridges. Those veggies will distil themselves into a greenish goo in another 15 minutes. And fall out on me, all gooshie, the next time I open any door. Anywhere.
Note to self: Cook something with that. Do it now. What's for dinner anyway?
7) The garden! The weeds. The garden. The weeds! Note to self: Let winter solve this problem like she always does.
8) The Temptations -- not the group, the seductions: of email, FaceBook, Angry Birds, new, untried but terribly inventive, apps [for free, people, at no additional charge] TV, movies, (movies on the iPad) and books of course, endless, irresistible, and important for goodness sake. (See Keats, above.) I must read everything that pertains to anything and do it now. Or at least next. Plus I really want to read something totally trashy, something escapist….
I am frozen.
I am playing Solitaire.
I am losing. But soothed now.
Crooning "Every little thing's gonna be all right."
Watching the cards arrange themselves in order … red, black, red, black.
And rocking, slowly, from side to side.
Posted by Annie at 12:07 PM
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Seven years ago we moved from Shaker Heights to Collinwood. We’d lived in Shaker for decades. It’s one of those cities that when you tell people you live there, they nod sagely and say, “Oh, yes. Shaker Heights." Your stock goes up. And it probably should because Shaker Heights is a magnificent place to live—even if you don’t, as we didn’t, live in one of its storied mansions. Founded on principles of excellence in architecture and education, forged out of a commitment to housing equality—at a time when that was in way short supply—and, for the most part, manicured out the wazoo, Shaker is pretty darned breathtaking.
The perception that people—particularly Cleveland people and maybe particularly-particularly Shaker Heights people—have of Collinwood is not quite so stellar.
In the tumultuous years of the Great Migration when African Americans abandoned the South to seek safety and opportunity in cities like Cleveland, the working-class Eastern Europeans who’d migrated for much the same reasons and built the neighborhoods, succumbed to the impulse to fly white.
Drive through Collinwood today and you see a city that is still, at its roots, the same industrial town, built around a railroad yard, it was when it thrived. When steel turned rust, when populations jostled and moved out, when the economy got hard, towns such as this got hit very, very hard.
That’s Collinwood now. More black than white. More poor than rich. Beleaguered schools and parents. Crime. And despair sometimes. So how come I love Collinwood with a blind passion I never, ever felt for Shaker Heights?
A black, ex-CIA agent named John Pritchard showed me the truth about my new home town.
We moved here for the lake. It had been whispering to me—first softly calling, then hollering—ever since we arrived in Cleveland. According to MapQuest it’s 9.08 miles from our old address to our new one. When it comes to a body of water as big as Erie, that’s next door. Stormy nights up in Shaker, I could hear the thunder echoing out over big water. I could feel its tug. I longed for it like a woman who’s infatuated with a bad man. A wink and a nod (and a brave, supportive husband) hooked us up. Before I knew what hit me, I was driving down E 152nd past two blocks-worth of burned-out building and going “holy shit what have I done?” My mother in heaven was wringing her hands.
I cannot possibly defend the ridiculous impulse that made me think I could write a guy (a gender affiliation I know about only through close observation of a good one of those), a black guy whom I can access only by the most speciously ill-informed imagination … plus he’s a CIA guy? Really, Annie? Are you NUTS?
But there he was, talking to me, telling me about his wife, Norah, who’d died last year, his old boss Harry who was retired but not one bit out of The Company, his best friend Andy Corrigan who’d crashed his plane into Lake Erie under suspicious circumstances, and Andy’s widow Emily, still very much alive and in danger from who knew what. Plus very attractive, Emily. Very. Even if your good old best friend was dead out there somewhere in deep water and your own beloved spouse was also gone. Maybe especially if those things were true….
John Pritchard and I were both in over our heads in this story. Big time.
So whatever else John Pritchard might do for me now from the digital drawer in which I’ve laid Twice as Dead to rest, back then he showed me Collinwood. He and Andy grew up here—black kid/white kid— obsessed with the dreadful Collinwood School fire of 1908 which killed 172 children of a very small neighborhood. John and Andy swore their oath of loyalty on that tragedy: “I’d walk through the fire.” (That one still haunts John. I feel his shame.) They played—without parental consent, of course—out on the frozen lake with near-disastrous results that foreshadowed…. But that’s another tale.
Over the course of their story, John introduced me around. He showed me the old Commodore Theater. (It fell to the wrecking ball in 2008. John got me there just in time.) He took me, for the first time, to the amazing City of Cleveland Greenhouse. We had lunch at the Time Out with Emily’s annoying son John. (Yeah. Namesake. Too bad the kid was such an SOB.) He took me down 152nd Street in the back of a cab, and showed me an ancient abandoned building, still smoldering. Or maybe, that one, I showed him.
And the deeper I looked, the more I moved home to the heart of Cleveland. He took me on a stroll up an somewhat unmanicured street in my own neighborhood and showed me the flower boxes, the kids, the folks who are and are not me in the way that all we humans are and are not each other. He taught me to listen for the wail of trains up in the Collinwood Yards and to hear the bells of St. Jerome toll 172 times for the lost children of Collinwood.
Writing John Pritchard did this for me. Made me look deep. Showed me how rich life is in the places that don’t get mowed once a week, where neighbors sometimes cover up what’s not working with plywood. Kicked me in my arrogance, made me accept some hard truths. Writing John Pritchard may not have revealed me as an expert on black CIA agents, but it enriched my life.
Now, when I drive down 152nd and look at the progress that’s happening and the hard times that are still going on, I soak it all in. I understand now why Collinwood is fast becoming a major magnet for artists of all kinds. All you have to do is open your eyes and your heart. Art—beautiful, ugly, miraculous—is happening wherever you are.
A year after they tore down the Commodore, and about the time I decided I was either not enough or too much of a woman for John Pritchard, I was driving home from the McDonald’s up on Lakeshore and I heard a woman’s voice that was and was not my own saying, “You know you live in a rough neighborhood when someone honks at a blind man in the crosswalk.”
That’s how I met Allie Harper, protagonist of Somebody’s Bound to Wind Up Dead. But in my heart I know that she was introduced to me by a black retired CIA agent who lives in a digital drawer in my laptop and is still in love with Emily Corrigan.
Thanks, John Pritchard. For everything.
Photo of the bridges of Cleveland courtesy of John Hogsett
Posted by Annie at 5:24 PM
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
As I've mentioned before, the novel I wrote when we first moved here introduced me to a guy who grew up in my new neighborhood at a time when the memory of the fire was, if not fresh anymore, still very much alive. John Pritchard, retired black CIA guy, was my guide to Collinwood and in Twice As Dead he introduced me to my new home.
Writers will tell you that characters come alive, make their own decisions, get into their own scrapes, and tell you stuff you didn't know -- which is as unnerving as it is amazing and wonderful. John helped me write myself home in this new place and he helped me learn about the fire. It was a big theme in the story of his friendship with Andy Corrigan, who was his best friend for life -- even when Andy was, like, twice as dead.
Here's what John said:
"149th takes you past the new Memorial School. It’s “memorial” because of the first elementary school that stood on that site. Collinwood Lakeview was a name that struck terror into the hearts of educators, parents, and students for decades, because it was that school that burned down on Ash Wednesday1908. A fast-spreading fire exploded out of the basement, up through the wooden structure, feeding on dry wood joists and oiled floors. Over two hundred seventy children died, more than half of the school’s students, most of them crushed by panic into a vestibule by a first floor door.
I’d been horrified and fascinated by the fire when I was growing up here. It always seemed to me back then that, after that day, Collinwood must have been like Hamlin Town. So many of the children gone, the Pied Piper of death having called them away from school forever. The rest, the ones left behind, lost, mourning. Limping through life.
Andy and I had gone over and over all the facts we could find about the disaster. It was the thrilling tale of terror that cast its smoky midnight shadow on the walls when we slept over at each other’s houses. One piece of the story, the account of two best friends who both perished in the fire—one returning to the blazing building to find the other—was inspiration for a lot of youthful bravado. We swore we would both have gone back for the other. But, of course, in our scenario, the rescue was successful. We always found the better, smarter escape route and lived on as heroes forever. For years—until we got old enough to consider it silly—we swore our loyalty with the pledge, “I’d walk through the fire.”
A Memorial School had been built in 1910 next to the place where the burned school stood, and a Memorial Garden was made. That school had been torn down and the garden now occupied the corner of the schoolyard of the new, latest version, of Memorial School. They’d kept the original plaque which I remembered read something about a stunned nation in mourning and said, “a caring community remembers.” It didn’t mention anybody resting in peace, or the grace of God. Maybe they just didn’t have any heart for that. This newest school was a bright, modern building. It appeared that whatever else might go wrong here, fire shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe the ghosts could leave it to this new generation of children and go wherever ghosts go when the unfinished business is all done."
And when John's adventure was all done, he took me to the memorial service for the 100th anniversary of the fire. Election Day, 2008.
"March 4, 2008 was the centennial observation of the anniversary of the Collinwood Lakeview School fire. Appropriately, maybe, the weather was awful—cold rain getting on towards ice and snow. They had planned a little ceremony in the remnant of the memorial garden at the new school, and I went up there for it. After some cold standing around, making awkward small talk with a scattering of somber old guys, I was glad when they moved the service inside the school.
It was warm and cheery in there. All primary colors and nice artwork done by the children. They’d made round badges with the names of the lost students in kind of abstract designs—tasteful and nice. Not the nightmare drawings Andy and I might have made of the fire had we had the assignment at their age. I figured they’d had some thoughtful instruction. A handful of the kids were present for the program and they wore their pretty badges.
They stood almost under a stairway leading up to the second floor—the sprinkler system, painted a contrasting primary color, was pointed out by the principal as something positive that had come from the tragedy: a new standard for safety in schools all over the U.S. The children stayed mostly at attention, with some minor incidents of nudging and giggling. These were brown children, I noted, while the lost ones had all been white.
Some people said some things. A couple of congressmen—a white man, a black man—were there and shared the reading of a proclamation. As I was leaving, in the cold rain, someone began tolling the bell in the St. Jerome tower. It had been a hundred years ago, just about to the minute, that the janitor had rung the fire alarm to signal the end of so many worlds, including his own. Three of his children were there in school. Only one made it home. They were going to ring the bell a hundred and seventy-five times. Once for each child and one for each of the two teachers and the neighbor who perished, too.
The tolling of bells for the dead, like the playing of taps, the firing of guns, the flying of the missing man, is always solemn and majestic. It struck deep in my heart and I felt emotion, rising, clenching my throat, but the moment eased as the bell went on and on. I walked through the parking lot, listening. It was election day. With people coming and going around the school building. Casting their votes for a future that might be different from the past.
As I drove by the church, I still could hear the bell sounding, piercing the skin of the Jeep. So many.
One hundred years is surely an adequate span of the time that heals all wounds. The wrenching grief had faded as one by one the mourners had all died, too. The spirits had no cause to linger any more. Only a soulful pathos remained. A cold March morning with a heavy, overcast sky and the sound of bells. All in all, it was good to have been there. I was glad I had come."
So, I was there with John Pritchard on that day. I can tell you that the tolling of that bell took just about forever and was one of the saddest sounds I'd ever heard. But it was part of the process by which I came to feel rooted in my new home. "I was glad I had come."
Posted by Annie at 10:11 AM
Friday, December 7, 2012
One year I ran. I ran every weekday morning. When I made my vow to run every weekday morning, I also made up my Rules Of Exception. The only excuse not to run would be 1) a fever of over 100° 2) a storm, with actual lightning and thunder, and 3) a wind chill reading below some ungodly number I can’t remember. Let’s say 18 degrees.
As I recall it now, none of those things ever happened. They’d almost, but then it would be 19 degrees or a fever of 99.9 and I’d have to go. And I went. For a year. What really sticks with me is the shocking difference between the idea of running—the vow, the idea, the frickin’ fantasy—and The Running. The moving of one’s body with one’s feet. The dusky gray squares of the sidewalk. The slick, mossy places. The crossings with cars. The sound of thudding: my shoes on pavement, my own heart.
Cheryl Strayed at age 26, never having backpacked anywhere ever, vowed to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. And she did it. She walked more than 1,100 miles, carrying a pack that, when she started out, she literally could not pick up.
Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.
There were bears, snakes and leering strangers. There were steep drop-offs and slippery slopes. Strayed repaired her feet with duct tape. Her toenails fell off. She was hungry and couldn't afford a cheeseburger. She strained her drinking water from mud. She walked, with that impossible pack stripping the skin from her back, for 1,100 actual, real miles.
But, as you’d have to expect, these were also miles of the spirit. The Cheryl Strayed who began that improbable hike in the Mojave Desert, grieving and raging at the death of her mother, mourning the end of her marriage, spiraling with heroin and promiscuity, crossed the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon into Washington changed and empowered, with things to say that have made a difference to me and a lot of other people.
I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. … Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid.”
One morning, after my year was up, I fell and sprained my ankle, and that was it on running for me. The wrench, the nausea, the pain were so real, so memorable, I was never able to get past them. Never able to counteract them with a vow to run that I might keep. Never able to overcome my ingrained sense of self-protection that speaks in my mother’s voice, “You’ll get sick. You’ll get hurt. You’ll die.”
You can go to the bank with this: I will never hike the PCT. But because Cheryl Strayed is an extraordinary person who is also an extraordinary writer—fearless, generous, unapologetic, compassionate and really, really good—the truths she discovered upon the path are accessible to readers of this book, including readers who are sometimes weak, sometimes strong, and who sometimes fall short in the guts department.
Reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is no substitute for the PCT but it is a wise and powerful guide to the lessons of courage and the possibilities of life. I say read it. Gift it. Set it loose in your world.
Posted by Annie at 9:16 PM