Category Archives: story and life

i keep saying good-bye

IMG_0277_2I’m straightening Mom’s room at the place which cares for her. She’s in year 10 of Alzheimer’s, healthy but unable to do a single thing for herself or communicate clearly. I’ve made her room pretty, but more and more I take things away and store them: the costume jewelry someone gave her to play with, the received cards she so loved to tear to pieces and then rearrange, clothes which are too difficult to put on her. If I bring a plant, she doesn’t notice it. I gaze at the things I’ve selected to comfort and define her. Without her zest and vitality, their definition is less and less clear. cameilla

merrychristmas

cropballChristmas is the time when we scurry home……actually or in memory.

And what is home? It’s where we come from, what we embrace or flee, what has shaped us. It can be safe, or it can be dysfunctional, but at Christmas, we’re drawn back. Why?

Is it yearning? Is it idealism? Is it instinctive, the way swallows return to Capistrano? Do we search for childhood innocence, for sweetness, for wonder? Do we find it?

I am growing to believe that what we find depends on what we’ve developed inside. It’s as deep as we are, as broad or as narrow, as hurt or as healed. Once upon a time, the tree with its bright, blinking lights was enough to soothe us. Promise was enough.

This season resurrects our lost child, and it seeks what was, but just as likely wasn’t. It seeks solace. It seeks affirmation. It seeks to be soothed. We want so to believe that promises do come true, that we are o.k., that we are worthy enough to receive love’s bright light.

May all your Christmases be white.

cropball

story

Last time I wrote about what was not true in my latest novel (or in other words, the fiction in the fiction), so here’s what is true in Before Versailles……when Louis XIV* was 22 years old, his mentor died, and he was brought face to face with the fact that someone else in the kingdom was quite powerful, perhaps more powerful than Louis himself. What he did with that fact is interesting even to this day. During that same time period, Louis had been married for one year to a Spanish princess, and for that year, he’d been faithful. But he began a friendship with his new sister-in-law, an English princess who had always lived in France, that quickly turned to flirtation, and maybe more. History becomes quite unclear on this point.

To me,  all of the above, from powerful men to painful decisions to powerful flirtation, is the stuff of drama, the stuff of story. And Louis’s only brother and heir was gay. And that brother’s best friend was also in love with the English princess. More drama. And Louis himself fell in love as he grappled with power and how much was truly his…..all of this in a period of four months in the summer air of the summer palace of Fontainebleau. And so I tried to make a story of that, of young people in extraordinary positions who were unfurling in all manner of ways. They were the Hollywood of their time, a real historical reality show. I thought for a long time the story belonged to the two key women in the excitement, but it didn’t; it belonged to Louis. And once I realized that, I had so much, passion, fear, ambition, treachery, love, betrayal, competition, tenderness; those emotions and qualities were really there, and it was my job to make them discernable again, to polish the tarnished silver of another century and show everyone its gleam……..

For me, it’s always about the people in the story….what do you think? What pleases you in fiction?

*A marvelous snippet from YouTube from Le Roi Danse that shows a young Louis XIV…enjoy…..

the wall

I added to my collage wall today. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. I’ve stepped into the last year of my ninth seven-year cycle….I move into the beginning of a new seven-year cycle next year. The base of this collage wall is a drawing made sometime in my forties, when my internal life resembled a trek in a fire-ravaged forest, no green visible anywhere. Atop that is life since then, anything that has attracted the magpie in me….pretty ribbon, words from friends, beautiful art cards or wrapping paper, a few photos. I can see it from where I work, and sometimes I’m amazed at all that’s pinned up there, amazed that I really no longer remember much of the fire.

I’m moving into an end game in this journey. I don’t write that to be dramatic, but to be soberly clear with myself. There may be less than one seven-year cycle left to me, or I may attain more. What do I want to do with this long or short season left? Health, for one thing, as I watch Alzheimer’s take my mother. A live Robert Earl Keen concert instead of just listening to the mix my son made for me, that’s another, but small. If it doesn’t happen, I won’t really care. I don’t long for foreign lands, but I do long for meaning.

Time for another bucket list, a deeper, gutsier one….what’s yours? What would make you say, today, today is a good day to die?

 

 

boundaries

The cats and Youngest Grandson have reached detente. There won’t be war, but relations remained strained and wary, at least on one side. When he was crawling, they could watch him from a distance if they were so inclined and then leisurely stroll off as he made his way toward them. Now, he walks.

The last time he came over, both were in their deep nap time. He’s so excited when he sees them, saying Cat! in a loud voice and often squealing, which neither cat is fond of. In fact, the squeal is usually when they disappear. But this time, neither moved as he approached slowly. I’m trying to show him how to go slow. I like it that they are more accepting of him, but I also know he has to be careful. I held his hand so that he could very softly pet one of them. It was almost more than he can bear. Cat! he said loudly, then there was the delighted squeal and a stomping of feet and a crow of laughter. The squeal sent one running, but the other didn’t budge, other than to open a green-hued eye. There was another stroke or two, then I distracted him to finding the other cat, which of course we didn’t. (Cat go bye-bye, he said to himself over and over.) I don’t want this to descend into scratches, though cats can be elegant in their boundary setting.

I have a memory of my older grandson. He was at the walking age. We were taking a walk, and there was a cat atop some front steps. The cat just watched as he exclaimed and walked up the steps. He was so excited and eager. Before I could move, something in his excitement went too far, and fast as summer lightning on a desert plain, the cat reached out and smacked him hard on the head, twice. No claws extended, just two very hard taps. Then she was gone.

He sat down in tears and wailed. I laughed as I comforted him…..What a velvet stop-it-now….the best I’d ever seen.

samurai

We’re giving a tea party for my niece. As I gather boughs with great, white clusters called snowballs from my sister’s shrubs to put into vases, my thoughts are far away, on bits and pieces of movies I’ve watched as I bid my time here, movies about warriors, movies about sports and young men, movies about God in unexpected guise and the demons in one’s self. In case you hadn’t noticed, says the coach in one of them, life ain’t fair and sometimes you get the short end of the stick. But how long you carry it is up to you. Movie samurai practice their swordplay in my thoughts, their solemn, intense, yet zen focus, the clean, hard discipline and code of honor bulwarking all, death no enemy, but an accepted piece of the life of a warrior, with an honorable way to die underpinning all. Texas high school seniors repeat their lines as I set out silver trays, football heros, who must deal with the last clear, clean drama most of them will have in life, winning state or not. Again, rules are there, even if not followed by all. Their play on the football field is a kind of war to them, requires them to grow in ways they don’t expect. Or I think about the real war-traumatized movie hero with God striding beside him; the moment when I realized his companion was God made me blink my eyes at the TV screen and weep from the sweet simplicity of it. What do you want from me, screams a soul-maimed warrior. What do you want from yourself is the reply.

As I arrange tea cups for the party to come, there’s a longing in me for clean purpose, for a code of conduct so precise that I have no questions, for an honorable way to die as clear as goal posts on a football field. Dialog from one of the movies echoes in my head: it’s a game you can’t win. It’s the playing of it. The dialog is about golf.  Life, I think, watching snowball petals drop lightly on a polished table top…..life.

Have you a code of conduct, a code of honor? What is it? And how is a woman a warrior, for I know we are. Yet, what are our battles? What are our swords?

awake


There was an article in an old Smithsonian Magazine about Agatha Christie. She kept to herself, didn’t do interviews, had this runaway, hideaway place of a second home, and once, she did run away….disappeared for a time. I’m feeling a little like running away. This is the time in a writer’s life when suddenly there is this exposure, as if you’d been sleeping peacefully and someone pulls back the covers and turns on the lights. My fourth book is about to be out. It debuts officially June 28, and here I am, blinking stupidly at the light’s glow of that. It’s as if I must wake up from a giant sleep and comb my hair and look presentable. I must announce my deed of writing a book. I must explain why I did what I did. Or I must read about someone else’s opinion on why I did what I did and whether I did it properly. The thing about writing fiction is, it’s such a private act. You write and someone else reads, but your paths never cross. There is silence in writing and silence in reading. I’m always whining to whoever will listen about the solitude of my work, but I realize as I must step out of that solitude for a few minutes, how comforting it is, how I love it. I really am a hermit dreaming a dream I write down. Plant dreaming deep….that’s the name of a memoir by the poet May Sarton…..the words resonate right now. Don’t want to unfurl and explain the dream.

for my son, whose middle name is edward*

*(This was among the first posts I wrote in this blog. I wrote it in 2008, and I think it bears repeating. Hope you agree……) 

I called an old soldier for Memorial Day. Elgin, I said, how are you? Karleen, he replied, it’s so good to hear from you.

Tell me about the war, I said. Oh, baby, he answered, I don’t like to talk about that. War is ugly, you know. And so we talked about his vegetables. In his mid-80s, hale and hearty, he’d just come in from the garden, which is full of squash and zucchini and tomatoes and onions and bell peppers.

He was stationed in the Philippines for two years in World War II. Old sepia-colored photographs show a lean, slouching, hawk-faced young man standing with a rifle slung over a shoulder near a pile of dead Japanese. A recent PBS documentary reminded that the battle for the Philippines was hard fought, often hand to hand, against a formidable and determined enemy who almost beat us.

I asked about Edward, his brother-in-law, whose old high-school, senior-year portrait, gently watercolored as was the style in those days, I have on my altar. Edward is handsome and young and smiling, seventeen, I think, in the portrait. He wears a suit and tie. His hair is neatly parted on one side. He too had been in the Philippines, but he was part of the three-month Battle of Bataan, which was lost. And he walked the long, hard, harsh, killing miles of the Bataan Death March, prosecuted as a war crime after the war ended. He survived and was on a unmarked prison ship on its way to Japan, when it was bombed by American forces. So he survived combat and a death march to die at sea. I think he was nineteen when he died. The baby of the family.

The news came to a little town in East Texas called Troupe. His mother lost her sanity for a time when the news came, and when she recovered she was never the same. That’s family legend anyway. Edward was my son’s great uncle. And Elgin is his grandfather………

My note this 5/29/11. Elgin, at 90, soldiers on. He lives by himself, drives himself around the little town in east Texas near which he lives, and tends his garden. He still won’t talk about the war. War scars and maims. Men who live on the brink of death bond in a way that is immediate and soul wrenching. Is there a war story in your family? How have the men in your family been impacted? How has that impact reverberated down? And what about the women?

motherlode

Like many woman, I’ve had many jobs. I’ve been a local magazine editor. I’ve run a small department within a university. I’ve done freelance writing. I’m a novelist. But there’s one job that gave me a satisfaction that went soul deep, and that was being a mother. When I was in the midst of it, I was harried, behind schedule, and just trying to keep my head above water managing my household and, at times, my job. Now that it’s over–not that I’m no longer a mother, but rearing young is over–I look back on it with a different perspective. What a sense of loss I felt for a long time. And why? Because it was really, really hard. Why would I miss that? Because it was so rich, too.

I’ve decided the loss was about my sense of purpose (unexpressed or even realized when I was in it). It was so clear and so grand. I had these young beings to keep alive, from bringing them food to getting them to birthday parties. It was nonstop, and it was difficult, and it was, well, grand. A purpose bright and clear, like knights in quest of the holy grail. I felt useful. I felt needed……A good mother rears her young in such a way that they fly off without too many backward looks while she prays their little wings will hold. And if the wings are strong, then a good mother sits alone and begins to understand the complexity that was once hers and makes new purpose, yes, but nothing with such a scale to it…..What about you? What’s your experience in this?

Hit this link and then hit LISTEN and hear a bit of that complexity……….

On another note, I’m not quite over media whiplash. The froth and frill of the royal wedding. Love, marriage, the gown, the kisses. Oh, hopeful fairytale. Then to wake up to Bin Laden’s face huge on the front page and the same endless media over how he died. Seals. Helicopters. Bullets. Burial at sea. What a contrast. It felt like more than my psyche could take in. Once upon a time, information took time to get to you and came in the form of someone telling you or your reading it. Now, it pounds around you like huge drums 24 hours a day…….I don’t know what I think about that. Is it just that I knew a world in which TV only had 3 channels and there weren’t computers, much less phones and i-things? Don’t we need some kind of refuge from the noise? I guess we must make one or become the pinball in a giant machine that propels us from one point to another with no purpose other than making certain we’re listening……….And I’m reminded that death is part of the world we live it. Perhaps that’s what really bothered me……….

kissing the frog

Princess Diana was there, the sob sisters and brothers of the media said, as they gently dabbed at eyes with hankies. The ring. The abbey in which her funeral had been held. A hymn or two. Bah. Humbug. I’ll tell you how Princess Diana was there. She was there by the fact of Camilla sitting front and center as Duchess of Cornwall. If Princess Diana hadn’t put up the fuss she had, Camilla would be somewhere discreetly in the crowd, and a married Diana and Charles would be grimly watching their eldest son carry on. If Diana hadn’t put up the fuss she did,

her son wouldn’t be marrying an commoner, a real first and almost a Cinderella story, but rather an aristocrat, as Diana herself was, Diana, the sacrificial lamb to the mores of time and centuries of tradition, but a lamb who grew claws.

Before Diana, a married princess bore her lot. Until the 20th century, she married because of political alliance (in Diana’s case, purity was the thing), she had to be virgin, her role was brood mare bearing sons, never mind that the sex gene came from the father because for hundreds of years no one knew that, and she mostly endured a life that might have privileges but very little joy.

There are all these fairy tales about princesses, but the lot of a princess was seldom a pretty one. Most often her husband didn’t love her. Quite often, he didn’t respect her. Whether he did love her or not, women were throwing lures all the time, and most husbands eventually succumbed. The princess had kissed the prince, but too often he really was a frog.

Princess Diana (and no one young can realize her impact; she was movie star gorgeous with real charisma, and she attracted attention and fame) should have quietly allowed Charles his affair with Camilla. That’s what every princess and/or queen before her had done. (And I’m not even going to go into poor Charles, having to marry a virginal aristocrat when his heart was taken. Someone else play that violin.) She kicked. She screamed. She had affairs of her own (risky conduct until 20th century;  George IV wouldn’t crown his wife queen because of her scandals–not that his own was any better, but he was male, after all). Diana  got a divorce. Jesus God!!! Those young can’t imagine how radical that was.

Because of that divorce, Camilla could sit respectably by Charles as his wife. Because of that divorce and all its fallout, Charles could marry the woman he loved and some day be king. His great uncle, King Edward, gave up the throne for the woman he loved.  (Wallis Simpson, who needs a better PR agent).

Three cheers for Diana, gorgeous, bulimic, neurotic, stubborn and media savvy. She cleared a path through centuries of royal male privilege as wide as the tornados that just struck the south. And frankly, it was the awful shock of her dying that did the most wind damage to traditions that put royal women in an unbearable box.

Are we out of the box? Yes and no. Maureen Dowd has insightful comments in the Sunday NY Times about modern Cinderella stories, and Lara Logan, a media princess, was on this week’s 60 Minutes speaking of her horrendous sexual assault and near death.

Too often, there are shards in the glass slipper. And Camilla, well, she wore a very big hat………………..