Category Archives: theme

red

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The last place my Mom and Dad lived in before he died was out in the country, near Lake Fork, Texas. There was a big plate-glass window in front of which Dad had hung bird feeders. Among the many birds who winged in were cardinals, crimson feathers startling, vivid, unforgettable. Whenever I see cardinals, real or otherwise, I think of Dad, I think of that place, a home place for him, a vision he’d worked toward all his life. And I think of my mother, too, acquiescing to him, sharing his dream. What was hers?

In Pier One yesterday, caught like a magpie by all the Christmas glitter and glow, I saw LED candles with tiny red cardinals on them. I had to stop and touch the glass. My throat got tight as I thought of my father, but also of my mother, 13 years down with Alzheimer’s, bedridden, incontinent, unable to turn over or ask for what she wants, able only to croak sounds and smile her occasional but still lovely smile. I didn’t buy the candle. I bought five small, red clip-on cardinals, glitter on their tails and shaken like salt in among their color. Foolish, I thought as I checked out. She won’t see them.

But today I go to place them in her room, among the bits of holiday tinsel I put up even though she doesn’t know. My heart hurts, my throat is tight. I think I summoning Dad to bring her on home.

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goodbye

index-002To three who caught my inner eye in Mom’s world this past year at an Alzheimer’s unit. [I moved my mother a few days ago to skilled nursing.]

Goodbye, Ruth, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, pacing the circle the halls make, eternally looking for your husband. He’s late, darn him. I’ll give him a piece of my mind when I see him, you bet ya. Have you seen my husband? Where is that stinker? From somewhere up north in the center of the U.S., a schoolteacher I think I remember her saying. Quiet. Dogged. Determined.

Goodbye, Peggy, once an interior designer, mannered and southern to your core, kind and thin and nervous as a whippet, dressed beautifully, but more and more showing the ravage, dark lipstick spilling over outlines of lip, roots showing in dyed hair. Talking full sentences which make absolutely no sense. Well, the beans didn’t come in. They were red, you know. We tried. Did you see him? I told him it wouldn’t work. Lovely. Loquacious. Flailing.

Goodbye, Kay, whom I think of as my ghost. Vampire pale, clothes always mussed, a limp, standing in place marching or out everywhere endlessly walking with that uneven pace, latching onto people with your hand, following me, taking my arm and bumpily gliding along with me, in silence, never, ever speaking. Sometimes a fleeting smile. Eerie. Odd. Lost.

The last sight of my three is Kay draped as she is when she isn’t walking, foot forever shaking, across a couch and beyond her, Ruth and Peggy, hand in hand, tentatively heading to the lunchroom, Peggy pushing at any opening that resembles a door.

My ghost, my whippet, my schoolteacher from the extraordinary madhouse that is Alzheimer’s.

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buzz

640px-Carpenter_bee copyThe garden is keeping me sane right now while I struggle with the middle of this book. What I’m really struggling with is not knowing. I have a vague plot, but nothing precise because the way I write, character has to lead to the next action. So I have to feel right in the character before I feel right in the action. Whine. Whine. Wine. Please.

640px-Carpenter_bee copyI feel like the carpenter bees that love the cedar of my garage. They drill precise holes and burrow in and out to forage. But the return is never easy. They hover clumsily before the hole they’ve made, can float for hours before they enter. They remind me of landing craft whose pilot can’t make a decision.

So I can’t get in my hole of a story again easily once I leave it. To distract myself from the fear that this time I may not pull a novel together, I garden. I’m in the clean up, prune, unglamorous stage. Sweating. Hauling. But I have focus and a plan. I can see what needs to be done, and I do it. Done. Finished. Finito. New task. Next, please. Straightforward. Right there in front of me. Unmistakeable.

640px-Carpenter_bee copyIf I look back over this blog, I see my whines about my last novel, Before Versailles. As the Duchess always says, Nothing changes and everything does.

Sigh.

old soldier

flOne of my first posts on this blog, begun several years ago…….

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 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.

flThe 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.

sister

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I think I’ll plant daffodils around their headstone. I was in Arkansas this weekend at the small country cemetery where my mother and father’s ashes will one day be buried. Dad was born around here; a sister of mine lived down the road. Daffodils were blooming everywhere, covering yards in thick clusters, and that sister, now gone, was much on my mind. We all planted dozens of bulbs in her yard for her during her last autumn, a few months before she left us forever. Days before she was taken to the hospital—a place from which we all knew she would not return alive—I walked with my daughter to look at the green daffodil stalks in my sister’s yard. They represented love for her. In those months before her dying, we would have done anything for her, bought her anything she wanted, taken her anywhere she wanted to go. There were parts of her that were the best of us.

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My daughter was in her 20s; my sister’s daughters were 11 and 5. I remember realizing that she would never do this simple thing I was doing—walking with a grown daughter. The pain around that was sharp like a honed blade and achy dull at the same time.

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She didn’t live to see her daffodils or her daughters bloom. When I see those flowers in this place near where she had her home and family, she lives again in me; her final, bittersweet leaving is daffodil fragrant inside.  Mom and Dad will like having them nodding their yellow heads around their grave, I think. I think my sister will like it, too.

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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.

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name game

Marquee was a word that came up at the Historical Novel Society Conference I attended in June. Should the main character be a marquee character or not….in other words, someone historically famous? Yes, seemed to be the consensus of New York (as in agents and editors). Philippa Gregory‘s best selling Tudor novels are the source of this.

I had just written a marquee novel, but not on purpose. I wrote it because it was what had to be written in the unfolding saga of the Tamworth family, this family who lives so strongly in my imagination, Barbara and Alice and Richard and Tony and others. Even though no Tamworths were in my marquee novel (there was a slight reference in the draft that was part of a larger scene I ended up cutting), Louis XIV had been brooding way in the background, waiting for me. Somehow, it had to do with this family, with the huge outside forces in their lives.

And now, as I walk carefully around the nesting egg of the next novel, it won’t have a marquee character carrying the story, though likely Louis* and Athenais and Louise will have their places in it. It will likely be similar to Dark Angels, fictional characters reacting to or intimate with actual historical figures. (I adored Charles Stuart and his wayward family. It was great fun to write about them all.)

I just believe in story. The story within drives me. What do you believe in? What makes a good story? A story you want to read? Should the main character be a name, if it’s historical? Why?

*More from my new favorite film Le Roi Danse….I love the actor who plays Louis…. 

human

I’ve spent the week being an 11-year old boy wandering through Shanghai separated from my parents as the Japanese invade and World War II begins in the Pacific. I’ve seen events no child should see, but often does, and I’ve retained a skewed innocence and sense of wonder in a world closed in and bearing its teeth to survive. There’s nothing like a really good book, is there? I picked up J.G. Ballard‘s Empire of the Sun, which had been sitting around for years on a shelf, and finally opened it. And there I was, so gripped by his story (mainly his own) and his writing style that all week long I had another place to live in my mind. It wasn’t a pretty place; people on the edge of survival and dealing with inhuman behavior don’t behave in heroic ways….though, again, some do. His story was so intense that I would have to pause between chapters and take a deep breath. And, of course, I’ve been mulling it over since I finished it, the way connoisseurs breathe in fine wine or brandy, thinking about war, about savagery, about what we will do to survive, about what I might do in a world gone mad, about why we say inhuman for cruel, unimaginable behavior when the behavior seems indeed a part of being human….and then going to walk outside to see two tiny rose blossoms opening in the soft, safe world in which I really reside….

(A little audio of the book by the delicious Jeremy Irons…..)

my work

I’ve been spiffing up the notebook I present as part of the basics-of-the-novel class I teach for continuing studies at Rice. Certain words, advice, sayings leap off the page to peck at me as I hunch over the computer redoing…..such as these words by poet Mary Oliver. They’re all writing is about….they’re all life is about, actually…..

My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird -equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…………..

tuesdays

It’s our usual day. She dozes on the couch most of the morning. I dress her for our outing. She’s as fragile as cracked glass, gasping and moaning at the putting on of socks, befuddled at the pulling up of pants, completely lost at the pulling over of a shirt. She can still tie her shoes.

We go out for lunch. It’s what we do on the Tuesdays when I visit her. It’s also become one of the ways I most see her decline: the inability to choose a utensil, know what a straw is, cut her own food anymore. She jabs at what’s on the plate and then opens her mouth, and it is a gamble that the food gets there. She has no preferences about what to eat, though she won’t eat what she doesn’t like. She couldn’t tell me if she did have a preference. It’s been a year or more since she’s collected enough words together to make meaning.

She still laughs. She still smiles. She is still more beautiful than any woman her age. She is willing to do what I ask if she understands it. That’s where I fall down so often, thinking she’ll understand. I’m always exhausted by my lack of acceptance as to what has happened and is happening to her and by my expectations, always too high.

Later, I make dinner, keep an eye on her as she does her rounds, from hall to dining room to den and around again. She walks carefully, so carefully, often reaching out to the wall or a chair. She runs her foot along the creases of the joined tiles. She doesn’t step, she shuffles.

I put her in pjs early, sit in a rocking chair, emotionally battered by our day, by what I see. I always try to prepare myself. I remind myself of her decline, but I am never, never ready for it. And so my mood dips in the afternoon. I hate myself for its dipping.

Are you tired, I say, more to make conversation than anything else. So often there is silence between us. She can’t talk, and I seldom chatter, but chatter is what is needed these days, a light ongoing constant from the only one of us who can do so, but I’m bad at it. She looks at me. She answers with stunning clarity: You’ll never know how tired I am.

It’s the first sentence I’ve heard in over a year. And before I can even respond, she’s back to her shuffle through the hall, the dining room, the den.

I sit where I am in shock. Yes, everything is hard for her, isn’t it? Moving, dressing, eating, getting up and down from a chair, walking, recalling, associating, living. All hard now.

I must remember this, I tell myself. But I won’t. I’ll be as surprised and upset next week as I am this week. Later, I think of the poet Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

The family of things….her place in it and mine, her despair and mine, her love and mine…………….