Monday, April 18, 2011

The Clenched Mind

When I was a kid I tended to take things quite literally -- I guess most kids do.
My mother told me that a young girl we knew had broken her leg; my mind took off on a gruesome voyage to her hospital bed, where I was convinced her leg looked like a fat salami which had been sheared in half. I could count the speckles, globules of fat and spices in that salami, and for a very long time, I was afraid of cold cuts. Seriously.

Then, much later, I read in the bible that Moses had to hold his arms up whenever the Israelites, led by Joshua, clashed with another group in war. If he did this, Joshua's army would win, but if his arms faltered, if he tired, they'd lose.

Somehow, that particular image got stuck in my brain. Sometimes I am riding in the passenger seat of a car, and I find myself mentally attempting to brake just a second or two ahead of the driver. See, if I don't do this, we'll crash.

Whether voluntary, or not, I always feel that so long as I root for the underdog, pray for the unfortunate, stay tuned to disasters, it'll prove I care, that I am not selfishly absorbed in my own corner of the world. Maybe, because I am watching, praying and rooting for a better outcome, things won't be so bad.

I was tuned to the TV early in the morning EST when the tsunami struck Japan. Actually, it gathered momentum before striking, then came rolling in with an inexorable finality. I was sitting on the couch and I literally lifted both my legs and pushed my heels against a wall of air, pushing and pushing vainly again, desperate to stop its advance. And then the enormity of what I was witnessing and the incredulity of it brought my struggles to a halt. I just sat there, staring, captivated, infused with adrenaline that was both horrible and exciting.

These kinds of calamities seem to occur in slow motion. Almost as though seconds stretch themselves into hour-long minutes. It was the same thing when I saw the Twin Towers collapsing one floor onto the next.

At any rate, when I witness horrible events live, I become involved in the anxiety and human drama. I tell myself I can't look away, can't stop wondering and caring about pelicans mired in oil, people fleeing water and nuclear contamination.
If I tune these things out, this will mean I am heartless, selfish, cold.

But just how many ways can you spell guilt?

It's no damn good. Unless I am sending a hefty cheque to the International Red Cross or running a country, or working with Doctors without Borders, or volunteering to distribute food, or applying for my own personal seat on the UN Security Council, it's no damn good.

While on one hand, the world's great calamities provide fodder for the creative writer -- and don't kid yourself, they do -- they also suck you dry.

I've never been successful at compartmentalizing my life -- probably my biggest failing. Have a husband, have a lover, have a sick child, go to work anyhow, be like Rose Kennedy and smile when your kids get killed, never go to bed angry because arguments are one thing, and sleep is another...So not me.
More's the pity, I think.

And, so, we arrive at the state I refer to as the clenched mind. Now, the clenched mind is no good to anyone -- you may as well have a stroke and get it over with. You certainly can't write with a clenched mind because any and all creative ideas become petrified in stone, moribund, as cold and dead as Charlton Heston's hands.

Normally I am an anxious person. And, to varying degrees, I want to control events in my personal life. As an infant, I was a placid thing, but I think someone dropped me on my head and after that, all bets were off.
So when I find myself following the news of myriad disasters -- and in all fairness, I didn't pay one moment's notice to OJ Simpson and his trial -- I am talking major disasters here -- I do get embroiled. As a former news person, I understand it. As a novelist, I have to sidestep it. I have to avoid the clenched mind.

What this really means is nobody is going to kill me because I want to write a story. Nobody is going to put my heels to the fire because I need to turn my back on the world's disasters for a few hours every day. I have something vital to do. I have to write a book. And even though my own brethren died by the millions in gas chambers while others danced to the strains of Glenn Miller and his orchestra, it doesn't mean those happy people were guilty of murder. Okay, so maybe some were... all boils down to useless guilt, a misguided sense of trying to fend off impending doom, and most abhorrent of all, the clenched mind.

People who train themselves to parcel up their hours into units of thinking, working, and feeling are not evil and cold-hearted. They are wise. They know that disasters inevitably end and life goes on. Artists, in particular, need to be "selfish" because if they weren't, there would be nothing of comfort and grace left to enjoy once nature's wrath recedes.
I don't think it's any coincidence that in learning to train the mind that way, one also acquires the ability to focus completely. In my case, the act of putting aside exterior intrusions means I've given my mind permission to play. It means I can concentrate. It means I am able to create without guilt because I have unclenched my mind.

Susan Hayward said, "I'll cry tomorrow." Scarlett O'Hara said, "I'll think about that tomorrow." And I am saying, "let the games begin."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Looking on the Bright Side

In the writer's world, nothing goes to waste -- or, it shouldn't.

Even if minds change or projects get cancelled, there is still the work itself, and the way it makes us feel as we approach new ideas, and different ways to express ourselves. We learn from our writing experiences and I count all of them -- good and bad -- as a chance to view my work as the proverbial glass. It it half empty or half full? I always look carefully because I know there is something to take away from it, something I may well use later on. Inevitably, then, the glass is half full, waiting for me to sip. Oddly enough, the more I sip, the fuller the glass becomes.

One of my projects -- Lessons I Learned From My Mother, an anthology of essays, was to be co-written and co-produced...well, it's been cancelled.

If you were one of the many contributors who generously offered your time and essays, I thank you most sincerely, and wish you the best of luck with all your current projects.
And, please feel free to post your essay on this blog.

I thought I'd serve up one of mine because it touches on not only who I am as a writer but how this came to be.

“So shut your eyes while mother sings
   Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
   As you rock in the misty sea”
                               -- Eugene Field, (Wynken, Blynken and Nod)

In The Beginning Was The Word….
          For me there was no sweeter gift, no greater warmth or comfort than the sound of my mother’s voice reading aloud to me. A thousand kisses paled beneath this joy because they quickly evaporated into memory. But her musical words and phrases remained firmly in my head where they reverberate to this day.
          Mummy began her nightly reading ritual when I was three years old. We had come into possession of the well-reputed children’s anthology, My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller. Ours was the twelve-volume ‘rainbow’ edition and one of the last in a series of reprints that included literary works later considered either obsolete or politically incorrect. In 1953, however, such restrictions did not exist and I was able to enjoy the beauty of stories like Little Black Sambo  who was dressed in his ‘fine suit of clothes and purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings.’
          Mummy would sit on a simple wooden chair and read to my sister and me for a long time as we were a most demanding audience who quickly developed an addiction to this entertainment as some do with alcohol. One story was far too many and a thousand not nearly enough.
           She began at the beginning, which is to say, with Mother Goose and Walter de la Mare, and quickly progressed to folk tales, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. She read as a seasoned actor in impeccable voice with a flair for both drama and humour, and even supplied sound effects. Stories and rhymes paraded into my brain with simple images of a cat frightening a little mouse under a Queen’s chair, or with deeper, more foreboding pictures of Rapunzel’s mother craving a dish of rampion that grew in a forbidden garden surrounded by thorns and nettles.
          When she read, my little corner of the world – an upstairs bedroom with twin beds and pale green walls – shrank to the size of a mouse hole where nothing stirred; sheets never rustled in boredom. Two daughters held still, eyes fixed on the book on my mother’s lap. With bated breath we waited to learn if the lion was going to eat Androcles after he removed a thorn from its paw. Would Sleeping Beauty ever be rescued, was Snow White really dead, and would the goblins really get us if we didn’t watch out?  
          I treasured the stories – even the very sad ones. I also favoured stories that mentioned food and there were hundreds of those. Tom, the Piper’s son, must have been very hungry because he stole a pig and was beaten for it. Jack Spratt and his wife ate fat and lean; in later years I envied them because they had worked out a perfect marriage. Then there was the Queen of Hearts who saw her tarts ripped off by the Knave! It seemed people the world over were eating bread and honey, roasting meats on spits, selling pies, and pulling plums out of them. And how amazing that Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga stories included a Village of Cream Puffs. Had I been a resident, I know I would have consumed the entire town.
          My mother’s tastes in literature were as broad and eclectic as Ms. Miller’s; happily she read almost every selection from the anthology. There were great American and international writers, assorted fables from the near and far east, Indian folklore, biblical verses, Greek myths – a feast of  magical adventures and whimsical ditties.
          Progress on the books was steady, and as Mummy made her way through Book Four, both my sister and I were right there with her, our comprehension sharp, our eagerness the very catalyst she required. After all, she gave a grand performance every night, and even provided matinées. As her repertoire increased so did the demand for repeat performances. Wynken, Blynken and Nod, The Nutcracker and Sugardolly, The Owl and the Pussycat and The Selfish Giant were as popular in our bedroom as butterscotch lollipops. (We tended to avoid Chicken Little. Chicken Little was as unwelcome as licorice.)
          After a year of this listening, I had absorbed and retained a wealth of knowledge that would stand me in good stead when it came to studying the literary arts. But what mattered then were the stories and books alive with various drawings and pictures.
          And then, something changed.
          It was by now, a summer filled with sunny days and my sister, being two years older than I, had permission to stay outdoors longer while I was still sent early packing to the land of Nod. Mummy, however, continued her reading – and she decided to do something radical. She picked up James M. Barrie’s novel, Peter Pan, and announced her intention to take me to Neverland.
          “But, Mummy, there are no pictures,” I complained.
          “You won’t need any, I promise. Just lie back and listen like you always do.”
          And so the journey began. At first I balked when she read about hidden kisses lurking on the side of Mrs. Darling’s mouth. I began to squirm at references to stocks and shares and Mr. Darling’s concerns about the cost of having children. And then suddenly, Peter Pan’s shadow made its entrance and soon after my mother read the word “perambulator” and I shot straight up.
          “What’s a perambulator?”
          “A very fancy baby carriage.”
          “What is Kensington Garden like?”
          “It has a large fountain and green leafy trees in summer just like now and the flowers are white and purple and pink. There even is a statue of Peter Pan in the garden.”
          “Can I see it?”
          “Yes. When you go to London, you’ll see it.”
          The reading continued. I squeezed my eyes shut and smelled lilacs; I heard Mummy reading that the Lost Boys fell out of their perambulators. I heard Wendy ask if there were girls in Neverland, and Peter said: “Oh, no; girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams.”
          I was captivated by a boy who could teach you to fly, a naughty, jealous faerie named Tinker Bell, and the entire notion that anyone could follow Peter to Neverland.
          The secret to getting there lay in the book. But my mother closed it for the evening and promised to continue the next night.
          She kissed me goodnight and encouraged me to lie back once more, gaze out the window beside my bed and see if I could find the evening star. As dusk was scarcely upon us, I did as she suggested and watched the light fade gradually until I saw a twinkling in the sky.
          I fell asleep on a cloud of lilac and honeysuckle and the sweet damp odour of grass filtering into the bedroom.
I had entered a new realm – that of a real imagination which was as much in me as it was in Mummy and James Barrie. Surely there was a Peter Pan. After all, his statue was in a London park.
          If only I could read the book myself! If only! I could go away with Peter and Wendy and Michael and John and…and…oh, if only!
          My mother could not have known she had just sown the writing seeds of my future. Nor could she have realized how far reaching they’d be. Perhaps she had an inkling that I would come to regard reading as breathing itself, and a haven for the mind when one’s own reality is dreadful.
          I, of course, had no idea that the reason for all this literary entertainment was because she was living one of the darkest chapters in her life and escaping it by leaping into books.
          How ironic that what was brightest in my childhood – her gift of magic and the power of an imagination – came from such misery.
          My father was a handsome itinerate salesman, gone for weeks on end without a word. We were living in a remote corner of the country, far from family and home in Montreal. There was not enough money for food or coal in the furnace. Our future in doubt, Mummy was frightened and lonely. She never hinted at it.
          I missed Daddy, too, but this fell away completely when Mummy sat on a chair and opened a book.
          “Tonight,” she announced, “we’re going to meet Tiger Lily who lives in a lagoon.”
          “What’s a lagoon?”
          I rolled the delicious word over my tongue in the dark.
          She was right. I didn’t need to see pictures, I could imagine them without any more help. And very soon, I would read for myself and write my own words, too. I would never feel alone as long as a book stood nearby. And I would never feel as alive as I do right now when writing.