Determined Fig

Sometimes my husband goes a little crazy purchasing plants for our yard. He can be a bit over-zealous shopping at the nursery. When he brings plants home, he has a habit of setting them at the side of the house, between our house and the neighbor’s privacy fence. Sometimes he forgets about them. 

Several years ago, he bought a small fig tree. The tree was maybe a foot tall, and came in a plastic disposable planter. You know the kind. He set it by the fence and left it there. This fig tree was ignored. It was not watered. That is to say, we did not water it; we did nothing to care for it. It sat in its little pot and waited.

It waited until it became tired of waiting and finally took responsibility for its own well-being. The fig tree began to grow. The roots, determined and strong, broke through the plastic planter bottom and dug into the earth beneath. The fig tree branched out reaching for the sun, its leaves wide and green and healthy. It grew against the fence, such was its strength, it nearly knocked the fence over. Before that could happen, because we were not interested in building a new fence, my husband chopped down the tree, right down to the plastic pot.

Guess what: it grew back. Again, right through the pot. Not only did it grow back, but it withstood our infamous winter storm that took so many other trees and plants in our yard. Once again, our determined fig grows thick and healthy and strong. Nothing can stop this tree! It wants to live. The pot still encircles it.

Over the years I have had to restart my writing life over and over again. I have always been a writer. In my head. Due to a myriad of circumstances, I have gone through periods of not writing, but I never considered myself to be anything other than a writer. The thing is, a writer is always writing even if it’s just in our heads. It’s what we do. It’s a way of viewing the world. My writing life has been “chopped down” in so many ways. Earning a living, raising a child, caring for family—all legitimate and positive reasons for not writing. I embrace all of those things, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade my life experiences for the world. In fact, without them there would be nothing to write about.

The biggest “chop down” for any writer I think, is getting past the events in life that serve as triggers. Some stuff is really hard to write about and those are the things that most need to be written down. The hard stuff. So often, I used to get to the hard stuff and just quit. Going deep is scary. Downright frightening. But when you push through, like the fig tree, you grow. You push those roots down and reach for the sky, you write through the hard stuff and suddenly you find you have become a better person but you have also produced better writing! Those things go hand-in-hand. 

Sometimes we all have to be like that fig tree and soldier through. Life will cut you down. No one is going to water you. You’ve got to do it yourself. To grow you’ve got to do your own hard work.

Fiction Vs. Memoir

While I don’t know how common this is among other memoir writers, I have recently begun to question whether what I am writing should be a memoir at all or if I should be writing it as a novel.

FICTION

Perhaps I can be more honest if I write it as fiction. As fiction, I can elaborate certain ideas in a way I could never as memoir. In fiction, I can tell the truth without the facts getting in the way. I can also make up storylines that better illustrate the purpose of the book.

While fiction is not factual, it does tell the truth. Fiction can shed light in ways that nonfiction cannot. Instead of using factual events to reveal common experiences, made-up stories can make the experience more visible. It also brings distance for the writer to view circumstances from afar, thus able to be more objective. As a novel, I do not have to rely on memory; I can invent situations that might better illustrate the story’s theme or purpose. Fiction might be more freeing in that I don’t have to worry about hurting feelings or offending family members or other key personalities. While they may recognize themselves, it’s still fiction. A novel also frees me to write from multiple viewpoints, lending understanding to other perspectives.

In some ways, fiction can be more believable than fact. So much of real-life falls under the column of “you can’t make this shit up.” Many real events would have to be toned down in order for them to be used in a novel.

MEMOIR

On the other hand, through memoir I can connect with and help others; that is a big reason for writing this particular story. Fear of abandonment is all too real and more common than we realize. If we are able to talk, read, write about it, we can overcome it. Nonfiction accentuates the commonplace repetition of abandonment across generations. If I can find and fit the pieces together of family history, the common thread will be clear and obvious. I hope.

Another purpose for writing this particular story, is so that I can explore the things that happened to me and my family and that is the very definition of memoir. Sticking with the facts as I experienced them will reveal the answers I am looking for. Untangling this web of experience, I hope, will prevent another generation from repeating the cycle.

Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir paraphrases Don DeLillo, “a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”  As I start with events, the meaning becomes clearer. Perhaps this act of questioning my story’s format is just one more manifestation of procrastination. Memoir writing consists of hills and valleys. Many answers to the memoirist’s questions are hard pills to swallow. For me, that’s where procrastination or diversion comes in. When it starts to hurt, I will find other squirrels to chase. At least for a while, because I am determined to face my past head on. Karr describes memoir writing as nothing less than “a major-league shit-eating contest. Anytime you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved.”

JUST DO IT

I guess what I am trying to say here is that I have a memoir to write and I better stop chasing other squirrels and get to it, no matter how much it might hurt.

Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir: Harper Collins, 2015.

Lara, Adair. 10 Ways to Tell if Your Story Should be a Memoir or a Novel, Writers Digest: January 23, 2012. https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/10-ways-to-tell-if-your-story-should-be-a-memoir-or-a-novel

Journey

“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, pave another one.” -Dolly Parton

I did what I had to do. My daughter says I have a habit of making short-term decisions; that I lack the ability to see the long view. Perhaps. Throughout my life I have put one foot in front of the other, looking down so as not to trip, rather than watching for what lays ahead. Somehow it has gotten me here. I have a tendency to panic, a fear of falling.

LEFT BEHIND

At 19 when my parents sold the house and moved on to their 32-foot sailboat to travel around the world, I panicked and married my prom date. We stuck with it for about ten years when I suddenly found myself alone and pregnant.

ALONE

After some struggles and job-hopping, I decided I could buy myself some time by returning to school and become a teacher. This gave me more time with my toddler.  Being a mom, a good mom, was important to me. If I didn’t have a sitter, she would go to class with me. If she was sick, missing a class was so much easier than missing an entire day of work. After two years, I returned to work but at a school, so our hours were pretty much the same and I had holidays and summers off.  Even with a large cut in pay, I always felt this was a good decision for us, her and I.

In spite of me being really bad at managing finances, we got along pretty well. She went to school every day and I went to work as a teacher. On Sundays we attended church. In our free time we went swimming or cuddled on the sofa and watched movies. Sometimes we would spend a long weekend at the beach. She was good company and always made me laugh. We could’ve gone on like that; we were a good little family, her and I.

THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE WHITE PICKET FENCE

The problem is, I bought into the myth that we were not a complete family. To be complete we needed a house, a husband, a father-figure. You know, the white picket fence. As soon as I had the chance I remarried. That was a mistake. From the very beginning, I knew it was a misstep. This was not a slow recognition of miscalculation, rather from the beginning I tried to convince myself of something I knew deep down to be untrue. I tried to tell myself that he would learn to love me and to love my child; that I would learn to love him and his children. I tried. Really, I did. What was not there was not there. Each day became more miserable than the one before. Until one day, I just couldn’t live the lie anymore.

LEAVING

I didn’t know how to leave; I was not the abandoner. He was the one person who needed to leave and he wouldn’t. So, I did it wrong; I left wrong. I left and that was good, but I left in a messy way which was not so good.

RECOVERY

That’s when I ran. I ran until I could run no more. Then I spiraled. It was ugly and it nearly ruined me. But the important thing is, I got up and climbed out of the hole. Every day since has been a step toward improvement. That is my story.

The Unexpected Runner

Gruene5K

Not quite a mile into my first 5K in over twenty years, I began to doubt myself. My muscles felt strong, but breathing was beginning to be a struggle. I looked around at my fellow runners and determination overcame uncertainty. There was the woman around my age running barefooted, another woman was a good 8 months pregnant and running at a steady clip, and the 80-year-old man with the long white beard embodied possibility. I was running in a crowd of people that consisted of all ages, ability and we each had our own reasons to run. I fell behind a man who wore a t-shirt that read, “I am over 60 and diabetic; ask me how I am ahead of you.” Every single person in that race, as far as I am concerned, is an inspiration. We each have a story. Even me. I decided that I was perfectly capable of continuing and finishing this race.

I told myself to focus on form and breathing. “I can do this!” said the good little voice in my head. The little guy sitting on my other shoulder, the one with the horns, could go back where he came from; from here on out I would listen to the little angel voice instead. I made it to the water station, threw my paper cup on the ground and picked up the pace. Just before 3 miles, I wanted to stop and take a little break, but I did not. I slowed to a walk for about a half a city block and moved up to a jog again. When I saw Inferno’s Pizza, I knew I was almost home free, so I ran faster! That’s when I heard my name and saw my husband, who finished about 10 minutes ahead. He was cheering me on with my trainer from the gym who had come out to watch. I am so fortunate to have people who support and encourage me to achieve my goals. That is another blog post. I finished the race in 32 and a half minutes, in my age group, I was 2nd out of 26. Pretty good, I figure, considering my goal was simply to finish. Now I could recover with sausage wraps and Shiner beer; we were at Gruene Hall, after all, the oldest dance hall in Texas and rich in Texas-German history.

Years ago, in my thirties, jogging and the occasional Fun Run was a healthy outlet for me but then I quit. For many years, I was sedentary and had myself convinced that I was too old, too clumsy, too busy, too whatever to work out or run or do anything too active. And I was. But now I’m not. I am younger than I used to be (it’s true) and through training at the gym, paddle boarding and running, I have built up enough stamina and enough muscle so that I can live an active lifestyle. It feels good. My body feels better, and I feel better in the head. I am a better person all around.

I have registered for three more 5K runs in the next several months and I am so excited about it! I even believe now that I can work my way up to a 10K and that is my new goal! I am fully aware of the hard work, sweat and time it will require, and I am perfectly happy to accept that. It feels so good to believe in myself.

Workout Queen

My most athletic moment until now happened during the first week of junior high. Much to the frustration of the gym teacher and my teammates, I was the scrawny girl who ducked when the volleyball came my way. I was the last to be picked for a team and also the last to care.  So, imagine my reaction the day the school librarian came to the gym in search of a girl to volunteer to be the student library helper. Not only was this a chance to avoid the torture of PE class and the humiliation of the locker room, but to get to spend time in my favorite place at school! Ah! Such an opportunity. I stood up faster than you could say “foul ball.” I raised both hands and waved them about. I am sure some shouting was involved, maybe some pushing and shoving too. That year for the first and last time in my life, my report card showed straight A’s in PE since officially that is the class I was in.

After that, physical activity for me came and went in phases. In high school I bravely took ice skating lessons. I was the gangly string bean on the rink trying her best to look graceful. In college, I donned leg warmers and attended aerobics class on campus—always in the back row where my inability to keep a beat might not be noticed as Marvin Gaye belted out his song about dancing on the ceiling. After my daughter was born, I began to run and participated in 5K’s for a while. I really enjoyed that, but life got busy and I allowed my body to depreciate.

Finally, at 55 I wanted to get in shape. I wanted to get in shape because my husband gave me a paddle board for Christmas and I wanted to feel confident when I used it. To get in shape, I purchased a DVD for a “12-minute work-out.” For a while, every day I got up extra early and did my quicky workout that was supposed to be a miracle. “Get the body you want and your life back,” the DVD cover said. The trainer on the video instructed the viewer while three athletes of varying ability modeled the moves. However, I quickly became bored and resentful of the buff man telling me what to do. But more than that, I was never sure if I was holding a position correctly and I would sometimes hurt myself.

I had to try something different. My husband had recently joined the gym and gotten a trainer. He was not only losing weight but was becoming muscular and had more energy. I joined the gym and signed up with a trainer which is something I never imagined myself doing.  The cost for a trainer is absurdly high and far beyond my budget but I did it anyway.

All the time I was thinking that I would learn from the trainer for three or six months until I got the hang of it and then go it on my own. But then, I began to see dramatic changes, not only in my body, but in my confidence, my self-esteem. My posture improved. I became less clumsy and more coordinated (I have always been one of those people who trip over their own feet and break things). I lost no weight, but I was able to fit in clothes again that had become too snug. I was gaining muscle weight and loosing fat. I became aware of my body in new ways. I learned about diet and exercise and anatomy. I learned what to do for a pulled muscle or an injury. I learned to make mistakes and not care what I looked like at the gym.

That is when I realized that I was capable of being a truly active person and that I actually enjoy working out. By working out, I can do more every day. I am more focused, and I am happier. My trainer works me hard. She pushes me beyond anything I ever imagined, using kettle bells, ropes, machinery and doing things I thought was only for athletes. She also has a sense of humor which is so important to me. Sometimes it seems like laughter is intended as part of the workout! She smiles a lot and acts like she is proud of my progress. That makes me feel good and makes me want to work harder.

I committed to another 6 months. On any given day, you are likely to find me at the gym with my trainer, paddle-boarding or kayaking and jogging. My lifestyle has changed dramatically. I am eating healthier and drinking less. I am busy. When I workout now I feel like I am better at everything I do; I am a better me.

While I know I cannot go on forever paying for a trainer, I have changed the pattern of my life and exercise has become second nature for me; something I will always do now. Without one on one time with a trainer, none of this would have happened.  It really is possible to change your lifestyle. I highly recommend joining a gym and finding a trainer.  And, by the way, paddle boarding is great fun!

Chasing Squirrels

 

Sometimes I think writing this historical book is a trick I am playing on myself, a sleight of hand that isn’t working. It’s a distraction from what I am really supposed to be writing—something close and personal and oh so painful, a raw story that reaches to the very bone of my existence.

In high school speech class, we were asked to choose a poem or speech to recite to the class. Others chose the obvious such as MLK’s dream speech. It was supposed to reflect something about our identity. As painfully shy and insecure as I was, I was terrified to reveal anything about myself—that is what my teacher later told me, and he was right. I chose a poem from my favorite book of all time which, I guess, is revealing in itself, but the poem was literally nonsense. I chose “Jabberwocky” from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. My teacher felt I was hiding behind it and he encouraged me to express myself, to search myself but that is something, even now I tend to avoid.

When I try to write about the events in my life, both my own mistakes as well as things I may have had no control over, I freeze up. I don’t want to face it. Sometimes even the good parts (and there are many) are difficult for me. Why am I still so afraid? Afraid of myself? Afraid of what’s inside of me? I doubt my own goodness, that is why.  I feel deep down that I am not a good person; but why? The crippling effects of self-doubt prevent me from accomplishing what is most important to me—self-expression. That mean voice tells me, “no one wants to hear this self-loathing, self-absorbed blabber. Stop whining.”  But sometimes I think the world needs to hear it, at least some people. Sometimes I think that by sharing what is deeply personal, I might be able to help others get through life more easily.

And then I think that might just be an excuse. I convince myself that I am lazy. That if I worked harder I could get into the minds of my characters and they would guide me through this novel. These characters, like me, refuse to reveal themselves. We all wear masks.

My first memory of writing was the age of seven. I was given a little white and pink diary with a tiny gold key. I loved that thing and I wrote every day. I have been writing ever since. That is not entirely true; I have been writing in fits and starts ever since. The excuse is that life always gets in the way. That, and the fact that I am forever seeing squirrels. I am an idea person. I’ve got lists of amazing ideas for novels, for a memoir, short stories too. Year after year, I flit from one idea to another, never settling on one project to focus on. I have tried, am trying. All my writing will be devoted to this one amazing novel. No, too overwhelming. I will start it as a short story and move on from there. But then I chase rabbits, I see squirrels and I am off on something else.

Then I wonder if perhaps I am meant to blend these personal experiences into my novel. Maybe there is some sort of connection. Perhaps the character is me but in another time? The story is there in my head but the events occur now in the 20th/21st centuries but the setting is in the 19th century on an island in the Mississippi sound.

Hey look, a squirrel!

ChasingSquirrels

AirB&B

 

bayou

Recently, I learned an astonishing thing. My grandmother’s house where I spent my childhood summers has been made into an AirB&B. Who’d a thunk it! Helen’s house is a simple yellow brick ranch home. To the passer by it is nothing special. The house is a small three-bedroom, two bath that sits atop a small hill overlooking the bayou and the woods. The screened in back porch was perfect for picking shrimp or eating watermelon. The kitchen was tiny but so was Helen; it was easy for her to get around and reach for things. The dining room table sat in front of the large sliding glass window with a panoramic view. In those days, that table was perhaps the most important part of the house. It is where we would gather for dinner every afternoon and say the blessing. Sweet tea and fried chicken.  My brother and I would pour Kraft French Dressing on green beans and mashed , mixing the potatoes to make a white and orange swirl. At supper it was hamburgers or gumbo with Ritz crackers.

The house was quickly built after Hurricane Camille wiped out my grandparents’ Biloxi beachfront home.  It was worlds’ apart from the Biloxi house which had hardwood floors, mahogany furniture and proper Limoge china. The Biloxi house, surrounded by mighty oaks and magnolia trees, looked across Highway 90 to the beach and Deer Island. Early in the morning, my brother and I would sit on the front porch and look for Cuban refugees drifting ashore in bathtubs. He had me convinced but we never spotted any.

But it was the Ocean Springs house I loved! I was a little older and have more memories there. But it wasn’t just that; the house on the bayou was relaxed, less formal and we really lived there. Every summer, I was eager to get to Helen and Deda’s house where we would roam the woods, play on the bayou and sail in the bay. We had so much freedom. Everyday was a new adventure building forts, picking blackberries, riding bikes into town or sailing to Deer Island. We had the ease of going where we pleased and the knowledge that we were safe, and that dinner would be waiting.  People knew us. They knew who our parents and grandparents were and because of that we were expected to behave and show respect. Are small southern towns still like that?

Deda liked to spend his time in the shed, a carpenter’s dream of a shop equipped with every kind of tool. It was hidden in the woods just below the house. It was the original “man cave;” his escape from domestic life. The scent of fresh cut wood and the sound of Deda whistling or singing a song. He was a carpenter and an inventor and there was no one else in the world like him. He loved to feed the birds, rabbits and turtles. He would name each rabbit and turtle that came into the yard as if he could tell them apart. He could whistle the song of any kind of bird. I wonder if the shed is still there. My guess is that Katrina took it, or the current owners tore it down.

I hope the visitors to the AirB&B can sense the specialness of the place. I hope they appreciate it.

Return

Perhaps returning to my blog will create a higher level of commitment, some structure and purpose to my writing.  So many ideas and so little time overwhelm me. The thing is, I have much more time than I am willing to admit. I waste it because I simply never know where to begin. I suffer from attention deficit, this I know. Everything interests me, so I constantly become distracted by the proverbial squirrel.

Also, the writing here does not have to be perfect. I must tell myself this or I will never put anything out there at all. So, apologies in advance for imperfections.

My blog, I have decided, can be that place where I write about anything and everything as it flits through my little mind. My list of novels that need to be written, the memoir that I feel a compulsion to write, my opinions and simple observations—all of these can be placed in this junk drawer blog. Weekly or monthly something can be placed here. Eventually, I will reach out to a larger public and see what happens. People will be interested or not. It doesn’t matter a lot if I am writing. Because, if I am writing in this way, I will write what matters to me which is the above-mentioned novels, short stories and memoir. In addition to writing about them, I will write them. One at a time.

Why would any of this matter to anyone else? Well, because I have been through some stuff and I know others suffer in the ways that I have suffered and maybe what I share will be helpful to someone else.

I am going to keep the name. It’s bad luck to change a boat’s name and this is my little ship of life. Besides, My Little Cabin holds a special place in my heart. I lived there during a very important time in my life. That cabin changed me. I am a better for having lived there. I am myself for having spent so much time alone up on that little hill. Place matters. Places are like people; our relationships with them shapes us and the places we love, we love like the way we love the people we love. They fill our hearts. They complete our souls. So, the name stays.

I will write about writing; the importance of reading and books; bookstores; library adventures; dogs; my writing and research journey; drinking; motherhood; running; gardening; kayaking and paddle boarding; nature; kindness; life; book reviews; geography. In other words, anything goes.

My hope is that this will lead to structure, practice and accomplishments.

Rubber Band

The smell of dust, body odor and overly sweet air freshener permeated the air within the stuffy cab. Cabs always made her want to bathe after even a short ride. The driver watched the road. He didn’t speak. His disinterest in the passenger precluded him from noticing her profound sadness that brought her close but not quite to tears. She sat completely alone and empty in spite of her swollen belly. She was not capable of a simple smile, much less her usual small talk toward a stranger. Any mention even of the weather would cause her to break down uncontrollably. So she sat silently and watched the city pass her by. She observed her immediate surroundings of the cab’s interior—the dark-skinned man at the wheel, the dusty plastic seats, a photograph, perhaps the driver’s daughter, clipped to the sun visor. Also on the visor was a large bunch of scraps of paper, receipts perhaps or licenses, held together with twenty or so rubber bands. Maybe he was an avid reader of the daily paper, she thought, and each morning when he unwrapped the rubber band from the paper he would wrap it on the visor from habit. She watched pedestrians cross at a red light. She thought about her husband whom she just left. She thought of him returning to their empty apartment, alone without his pregnant wife. She wondered if he would bring his girlfriend there while she was away. Would he cook for her? Play her records on the stereo? Her face went red and burned at the thought of that. As she stared through the front windshield one of the rubber bands, old and rotting, suddenly cracked, broke from the papers and shot into her face. She was startled. The driver didn’t see. They drove on.

Brigadoon

sunsetcabinbrigadoon

My little cabin makes me think of Brigadoon, a place where time stands still. Every hundred years the portal of time opens up and you can stay, frozen in an idyllic time and place, or you can go and live in the world where nothing slows down. I’ve got a strong feeling the time is coming when I’ll have to make that choice. I know full well what I’ll choose. I am not one to stand still for long, no matter how beautiful the days may be. When the time comes, I’ll step out, gingerly at first, then run. I have photographs, words, and memories. I’ve always had a strong sense of place. This little hill has become a part of me and I will always find it in my heart when I need a comforting place of solitude and peace.

While I’m still here, I’ll cherish the moments—the noisy birds and silly lizards, the deer and the breeze. I’m trying not to be in a hurry. I’m also trying not to be too sedentary. This place has seen me through a very rough time. The events that led me here, though constantly on my mind, are still too painful to write about. I am looking for a bit of distance, perspective, so that I can make sense of it. It’s about love and friendship and feeling the rawness of life. It’s about feeling so raw and living so much that it very nearly kills you. It’s about making sacrifices. It’s about sacrificing yourself, and love, and very nearly sacrificing life itself.