Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Zoom Calls Us To a 'Dark Winter' Of Despair

A rainy day, crows caw and a damp chill steeps the last Tuesday in October with dreariness. This weekend we push the clocks back an hour. A dark winter lies ahead. That's what we hear, anyway. Poets have written about winters of despair. In “Snowdrops” Louise Gluck writes:

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light

of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world. 


(Two weeks ago the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Louise Gluck. She received it “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”)



In “the raw wind of the new world" we're now living, a world none of us has ever before lived, the news media tells us one in four young adults has considered the possibility of suicide. A friend recently returned from visiting a loved one at the hospital where nurses say they have been overwhelmed by people incapacitated from drug and alcohol abuse. Still, I believe that with a purpose to our days, making the small moments count, we stay sane and healthy. The ordinary days infused with a touch, a smile, lunch with a friend ....



I appeared on a local author’s Zoom call organized by the library. It was the first time this year I had the chance to connect with my readers, other than through this blog, which is why I accepted the invitation. As I talked on Zoom to those little squares of faces listening to me share my thoughts about writing fiction and memoir, I noticed that my eyeglasses looked like headlights. They had caught the reflection from my dining room chandelier. I hadn't been prepared for my eyeglasses looking like headlights. Had it distracted my listeners, few as they were? Looking back, it was actually pretty funny. I’d show you a picture of me with the headlights for eyes but the librarian forgot to tape the interview, which is just as well.

Fire up the laptop. Hop on Zoom. Talk to your doctor and financial advisor on Zoom. (Unfortunately, Zoom spelled the ruination of legal analyst, author and journalist Jeffrey Toobin's career.)

The church I attend apparently received a grant to install audio equipment and cameras in the sanctuary to expand its Sunday Facebook audience. Maybe this is the way it will go now, I think. This is how we find God. Online. No one has to dress the kids for Sunday School. The memory returns ... him and me teaching Bible Study to preschoolers in a sunlit room with crayon-colored pictures of Jesus surrounded by children taped to the walls. At the church, Zoom is the preferred method to discuss the pressing issue of racism as it relates to our spiritual journey.

Writing allows us to make “individual existence universal.” It offers intimacy with others through sharing our stories. Our stories form a collective. We experience much the same. We are in this together.

The acknowledgement in Gluck's poem is that we all experience despair. It's what we do with that, what we learn from it and how we survive, despite it, that tells our story. When this is over, will we take the risk to 'open again'? Will we survive the 'raw wind of the new world' and find the intimacy that brings joy?

Monday, October 12, 2020

Memories of John and Writing As a Passionate Lover


Yellow roses in a Lenox vase that once belonged to my parents grace my kitchen table. Thirty-seven Octobers ago John brought me a dozen yellow roses when our son, Alex, was born. He entered my hospital room wearing turquoise-tinted aviator sunglasses. The world was ours. 

It was twenty-six years ago today, Columbus Day, that John died after his grueling and his inspiring battle with colon cancer. His bravery born out of soldiering at West Point serves as my template for honor and resilience. John gave all he had to give to me and the boys until he drew his last breath.

In his honor, I watched Casablanca, John’s favorite movie, last night. "As Time Goes By" was our wedding song. We danced as if there were no tomorrows. We danced with the abandon and the greed of true love, throwing all cares to the wind. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” as John used to say to me.

I write this in my office with its view of a maple tree slowly turning crimson. It evokes memories of years past. Its trunk spotted with gray and green age spots, the tree is no longer the scrawny sapling when John and I bought this house, thirty-two years ago.  I have lived without him now for twenty-six Octobers. As I wrote in my memoir, despite it all, I would journey with him again in a heartbeat. 

***

I love movies. Last week I watched Phantom of the Opera. A story of passionate love set in the Paris opera of the 19th century, its passion and grief expressed in moving melodies and lyrics remind us of what we all want and need—love and a creative life to hold close like a prayer. I took my sons, Alex and Daniel, when they were little boys to the Philadelphia Academy of Music to see Phantom. I still remember the glass chandelier swinging across the stage to the delighted screams of the audience, and while the boys grumbled at the time that they didn't want to go to the theater, they tell me their memory of that night remains with them to this day.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Christine falls against the Phantom. As his fingers linger over her throat and breast, she swoons with eyes closed, red rose tucked behind her ear. Together they sing “The Point of No Return. 

The games we've played are at an end.
Till now are at
An end...
Past all thought
Of "if" or "when" -
No use resisting:
Abandon thought
And let the dream
Descend...


Writing is a passionate lover. It demands. It exacts beyond the point of no return. Those of us who write, know this. We know there's no resisting it, that it's as necessary as breathing. It allows me to remember my childhood bedroom with its pale green walls and windchimes tied to window latches. It holds in its grasp intricate memories of the man who walked into my hospital room with the turquoise sunglasses and an armful of yellow roses, who I always knew would make a wonderful father, and who was. Writing's calming presence caresses me with reflection and dreams of new possibilities, a new journey … of John who still walks beside me, now as I write this.


Alex and me and John 


Say you'll share with
Me one
Love, one lifetime...
Lead me, save me
From my solitude...

Say you want me
With you,
Here beside you...
Anywhere you go
Let me go too -


.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Reflections on Aging, Women and Cinderella's Pumpkin


Several years ago I began writing a story about a woman alone. It never occurred to me that a pandemic might make its title and subject more prescient than ever. The story was about an older woman living alone for the first time in almost forty years—a way to sort through my own jumbled thoughts about this business of women and aging. Here she was, an empty nester, looking back on her life and her choices, while wondering if she was one of those “widows” so often captured in novels—old women with their dogs or cats in a “lonely” house. 

As I wrote, I realized how many of us live solo. According to the Wall Street Journal, “35.7 million Americans live alone, 28% of households. That is up from 13% of households in 1960 and 23% in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Delayed or foregone marriage, long life expectancy, urbanization and wealth have contributed, demographers say.”  

Women tend to live longer than men. And for many older women there was joy in having our “own castle”. The trope of the old widowed woman in a cluttered dirty house smelling of dogs, had become not just antiquated, but laughable.

Yesterday I bought two pots of bright yellow mums and planted them along my walkway. I bought a white pumpkin, too. “Oh, you’re like Cinderella with her white pumpkin,” the lady at the store enthused. I gave up on the glass slipper, the white carriage and Prince Charming long ago, but not so much the fairy godmother. Although no magic wand is going to make me thirty years younger, I am still a romantic at heart, a believer in the possibility that when you least expect it, magic shows up on your doorstep in one form or another. It gives me courage and hope.


Poof! I can go out West for three months or stay home. All it takes is a will and a way.  Years ago, I learned the value of slowing down, taking your time and thinking things through. I’m lucky because I don’t have to work. Still, I do my own grocery shopping, clean my own house, attend to my finances. There is satisfaction in scrubbing down the kitchen, cleaning out closets. I prove my own resilience on a daily basis. There is satisfaction, too, in raking leaves in the backyard and watching my dog Lily roll with abandon in the grass. My friends and I do what we can. We meet in twos or threes in the park and social distance at a park bench as we read our stories. We talk on the phone for hours. We take long walks and share moments of our days.

As I once wrote here on this blog: The single woman's journey and the writer's parallel each other. We have confronted the difficult, the complex, the unspoken in polite company. A solitary and independent breed, we also identify with the collective journey; the need to give each other assistance.



Still, loneliness is real, it’s acute. Wearing masks, when we finally did emerge from lockdown, didn’t lend itself to animated conversations or seeing that smile, although maybe the twinkle in the eye. Aging is real too. I know because with temperature checks at the dentist and at church, my body temperature hovers between 95 and 97.8 degrees. I read that lower body temperature has to do with losing muscle and fat as we age. Fortunately, it's normal and nothing to worry about.

I enjoy the first cup of coffee in the quiet of the morning with no distractions. I enjoy making dinner when I want and preparing what I want. I enjoy stretching out on the sofa in the afternoon with a good book, knowing I don’t have to be anywhere or deal with anyone. 

As always, writing saves me. As always, reaching out by sharing my story saves me. As always, making a connection with you saves me. I hear my voice echoing in the chamber of my own quiet space. Trust your intuition, it says. Trust that the narrative is yours to create. Keep writing ... and poof!

“I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me ... I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life ... I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I'll ever have.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, American author. 





Monday, September 14, 2020

On Beach Vacation, I Dream of Him—A Journal






Friday, September 11

When morning comes, a gold light suffused with scent of salt water greets me. The muffled  roar of ocean sounds just beyond the cottage on Seagull Way where I vacation for a week. 

It was never supposed to be like this, I think. This being alone on a beach vacation on a barrier island in the Atlantic. Last night winds whistled and thunder boomed. Nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the Outer Banks in North Carolina is a stormy treacherous meeting place of southern and northern winds and water that shipwrecked many. 


I deserved to be with him today. It's his birthday, September, 11. He deserved to be here, taking in this time and place—surf and sky, calm now. I shake the feeling of wondering the impossible.


I sip my coffee on the deck. The news on my cellphone is more the same. Fires raging out West. A virus out of control. Riots in the streets. When people belittle and scorn each other, everyone—and everything—is corrupted.

I finish my coffee and slip on bathing suit and shorts, glance at the woman in the mirror. Not young anymore, but not bad. Oh well. Maybe when I get home, I'll join a dating site, forestall the loneliness, although how lonely is it to meet a stranger for coffee?

It’s a short walk to the beach, up a sandy path, across a golden windswept dune. Crashing waves with curled silver manes inspire the poet's muse. Although no poet, I find journaling therapeutic and the thoughts written here come to me later when I want to write, not when I feel forced to write. 

A couple strolls the water's edge, holds hands. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t supposed to die. I wasn’t supposed to be alone. I dream of a strong man in my bed. I dream of him, walking the beach.



I walk toward the shore. Swirling around my ankles like a rite of redemption, the riptide's surprising force pulls at my legs, my toes dig in deep to keep me from falling. I breathe in where sky meets sea. It is suddenly very warm. Where have the years gone? This is my vacation, my beach vacation. I let it all go.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pandemic Pause: A Writer Muses Time and Choices

Fall has always been a harbinger of new beginnings, a fresh slate. Schools reopen, churches return to normal services, community craft fairs and fundraisers abound. But this is pandemic life and for many of us this fall portends a continuation of staying home and limiting travel and activities. What to do with all this newfound time? As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." In this post, writer Marilyn Gilpin muses her choices when the 'cosmic pause button' is pressed. Please welcome Marilyn back to the Women's Writing Circle.

***

There have been times in my life when I wished for a “pause” button. Even before there was such a thing. Sometimes, I felt overwhelmed by life, responsibilities, deadlines. I needed time to catch up. 


This was especially true in college. There were always papers to write. Projects to complete. Rehearsals, exams, classes, campus job. There was never a moment when nothing was due. I wanted to stop the world for a little while until I finished a few things. I pleaded with the universe:

“Just let me finish this report before I get a new assignment.”

“Just let me memorize my lines before the next rehearsal.”

“Just let me pass this test before I have to start on that project.” 


After college, there were other pressing matters. Work always got in the way of the important stuff. I have several bookcases filled with hundreds of books that I haven’t read. When will I ever get the time?

Many years ago, I started a list of films that I missed when they were in the theatre that I hoped to catch when they came on television. That list is now a dozen pages long. How will I ever see them all?

Suddenly, the cosmic pause button is pressed.

Stop.

Right.

Now.

I cancel all vacations, trips, theatre and concert tickets, outings, luncheons. I can’t go anywhere. 



The world has stopped. There are no appointments, no deadlines.

Breathe.

Rest.

Be.

I should be thrilled, right?

Well, yes I am.

But I am overwhelmed again. Too much free time. Too many choices.

Which of my 639 books to read first?

Which of 297 films on my list to watch tonight?

The cosmic voice says: JUST PICK ONE!

What are you choosing now that time is on your hands?


Marilyn Gilpin has been an avid reader and writer for as long as she can remember. Some of her pieces have been published in The New Sweetwater Reporter, the newsletter for East Nantmeal Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She is a passionate gardener, theatre lover, and student of piano and has contributed to numerous Women's Writing Circle read arounds. So far, Marilyn has made some progress on her lists: she has watched Hidden Figures, and her reading has included two classics – East of Eden (John Steinbeck) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving). Contemporary works include Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and A Marriage Story by novelist Tayari Jones. She lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania with her husband, Michael, his many guitars and their four cocker spaniels. 

(Photos courtesy of Marilyn Gilpin.)


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

'Rodham' Review: Hillary Alone In a Man's World


Anyone who knows me knows I have long been an ardent supporter and advocate of Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the spring of 2008, while she was vying for the nomination against Barack Obama, I saw Hillary when she campaigned in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I remember thinking how petite she was clad in a white suit…how beautiful and articulate and well-spoken. Like the rest of the crowd, I gave her a standing ovation, not once, but several times. When she became the Democratic nominee in Philadelphia in 2016, I felt, at long last…at long last. I even worked phone banks for her and heard Chelsea speak in West Chester.

Reliving the 2016 election, even now, leaves me feeling something akin to grief, of what might have been―our first woman president. Usually, I can’t read about the election, even Hillary’s own retelling in What Happened. It’s too upsetting, made more raw as the 2020 election looms and once again a man is at the top of the ticket. But pandemic summer left me the time to read Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s fictionalized account of Hillary’s life. 

The ‘Hillary’ in Rodham is much like I imagine her: strong, logical, emotionally intelligent in every way…except when it comes to Bill Clinton. 

My favorite scene in the novel takes place in 2005. After Hillary has turned down Clinton’s three marriage proposals and understood that he is a sexual predator and, by his own admission, a man unable to remain faithful, she has struck out on her own and been elected Senator from Illinois.


Now in her late fifties, she accepts his dinner invitation. He is twice divorced in Sittenfeld’s telling, a tech billionaire living in San Francisco.  


Laying out her best lacy underwear,
Hillary imagines having sex with him again, even nurturing hopes that maybe, just maybe, she could chuck all her political aspirations―by now she has waged one unsuccessful bid for the presidency―and settle down with her self-described soulmate. As she enters Clinton’s luxurious apartment with a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay and he makes them dinner―he is now a vegan―she again feels the chemistry, the charisma that is undeniably his and which no man, before or since, has equaled. 

As they sip red wine and she basks in how handsome he looks, without warning, Clinton goes off about another woman, a woman he even considers having a child with, a woman who is young, a woman who, like all the women Bill Clinton ‘dates’, is under the age of forty. It’s as if Hillary is merely an audience for his narcissism, his complete lack of empathy for what they once had as law school students and her decision to follow him to Arkansas. It is here she unleashes on him, calling him not just a narcissist, but a "spoiled, selfish child." This is the Hillary that perhaps many of us wanted, or the Hillary that Sittenfeld, a writer of fiction, crafted to give her protagonist that hook that so many strong and intelligent women could identify with―loving, and eventually, leaving a narcissist, albeit one who haunts their dreams for years afterward because in some twisted way he understood them.

"You know," I said, "if you're trying to humiliate me, I am ashamed of myself. But not for thinking you'd find me attractive. I'm ashamed because you've given me so much evidence for so many years about what a piece of shit you are, and once again, I ignored it."

In Sittenfeld’s telling of Hillary, she is a woman alone in a man's world, a woman whose love of politics and making a difference in the lives of many, results in becoming what she calls “an honorary man.” Except for Bill Clinton, Hillary is deemed by most men too “opinionated for a girl” a phrase that rings true for many of us who heard this and whose sexuality was diminished for going toe-to-toe with a man. Hillary dates, but the price of her ambition and her smarts is that in Rodham, she never marries and remains childless.

As a writer of fiction, as well as memoir, it's fascinating that Sittenfeld created her own Hillary out of the myriad books written about her life, as well as Hillary’s own memoirs. But surely, even this technique, while based in research, this melding of fact and fiction, strains credulity of an iconic figure whose life is so well known that a fantastic revamping of her story feels unsettling, at least to this reader. 

Sittenfeld’s earlier novel American Wife, based on Laura Bush, was a fun read because her name had been changed, and there was a modicum of detachment from the real Laura Bush. While I have no problem with writers “breaking the rules of writing," I was a bit nonplussed throughout the reading of the 492-page Rodham, with twisting history, right down to Bill Clinton running against Hillary in 2016 and people screaming “Shut her up!” at his rallies. (Is there no difference between Trump and Clinton?)

"Sexism claims were considered sour grapes…yet was this not the starkest proof?" Hillary muses of the chant. She even calls Clinton and asks him to make his supporters stop. A cutthroat politician and perhaps even a Hillary-hater, himself, he refuses.

Written in first person, Rodham channels Hillary in a way that felt, at least to me, real. Sittenfeld is a clever writer. Of the press, the fictional Hillary thinks: They constructed elaborate narratives based on scant evidence. They were also self-righteous and self-congratulatory...they assumed that in other fields, they could make salaries many times what they currently earned, but they believed journalism was a noble calling. Hillary goes on that while many don’t bathe for days on the campaign trail, they delight in picking apart her looks. 

This version of the Hillary who never married Bill Clinton leaves us wondering if she might have found her voice long before the 2016 election? Reading interviews with Sittenfeld after the novel was published this spring, I noticed that Sittenfeld admits she never met Hillary and probably doesn’t ever expect to. What?

An appearance by Donald Trump at the end of the novel strains credulity. Although Sittenfeld presents him as a pompous buffoon with his own undeniable brand of charisma, her decision to make Trump a supporter of Hillary for President in the 2016 campaign borders on annoying and ludicrous. Trump is also a sexual predator, but as Hillary notes, people, even women, shrug and say they, “don’t care.” How true! But it is the cruelty with which Sittenfeld depicts Bill Clinton as a predator and narcissist that most disturbed me. We all know how Gloria Steinem once observed that the Clintons had a strong marriage because they were truly help mates with each other…that he should be so despised and vilified by the fictional Hillary at the end of the novel felt like another disrespectful treatise on the real Hillary’s decision to stay with her husband.

In reading about Sittenfeld and her process in writing Rodham, it struck me that maybe this was the author's way of coming to terms with her grief about 2016 and the woman who would be president...one who now remains a stark reminder of pervasive sexism in both men and women. 


As Rodham confesses about her desire to be president: 

No man has run because he hoped to gain entry to the highest office of power on behalf of an entire gender.  Women and girls were half of the population and we deserved, as a basic human right and a means of ensuring justice, to be equally represented in our government. Yes, I was me, Hillary, but I was also a vessel and a proxy.




Monday, July 27, 2020

A Writer Moves From Memoir Back to Fiction

Most of the blog posts I wrote these last few months had a pandemic journal subtitle. It's a Dog's Life ... July and the Simple Life ... a pandemic journal.  I'm thinking I shouldn't attach the a pandemic journal anymore to these blog posts. There's no end in sight to this crisis and a pandemic journal could run for years—a reality show that endlessly spins and spins. Everyone agrees on that—the part that there is no end in sight. The despair is deep and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth if you focus too much on it, although the stories people tell me of how they are living are filled with such courage and honesty I will continue to blog about that. It always surprises me how much grit people evince, the ones who are quiet, especially, the ones whose modesty and acceptance teach me how to live through this time. 


 
Oh, I'm just a writer. That’s what I say when people ask me what I do these days. “Oh, I’m just a writer ... you know.” Weeks revolving around deadheading petunias and reading novels on my Kindle fill the time too, but it is writing which absorbs me during this pandemic. The oh, I’m just a writer part really doesn’t let people in on how much work writing is, though. How many hours it takes. How writing is something that you either do, or you don’t. Sometimes, there aren’t enough hours in the day to write all you want to write.

As the pandemic rages, I've been thinking about Ava Stuart, the heroine in A Portrait of Love and Honor. The people she’s met, her memories of when she and Jay first fell in love, their son who would grow up and never get to know the man his father was. 

I read an interview with novelist Elizabeth Strout after she reintroduced Olive Kitteridge in Olive, Again, a book I read this summer and loved, as I did Olive Kitteridge. In this interview in The New Yorker, Strout says:
"I never intended to return to Olive Kitteridge. I really thought I was done with her, and she with me. But a few years ago I was in a European city, alone for a weekend, and I went to a cafĂ©, and she just showed up. That’s all I can say. She showed up with a force, the way she did the very first time, and I could not ignore her."
Like Olive, Ava has much to say as she ages, a woman alone. So, I'm  putting my completed memoir on the backburner and writing fiction again. I feel free, letting Ava tell her story, instead of me. 

Although I have written two memoirs, who can ever truly analyze oneself? I have begun to believe it is impossible, especially the older one gets, and considering the times in which we live, where there are more questions than answers. And how does one write with clarity about people with whom one is intimately involved, without in some small measure, at least, betraying confidences and making the whole business seem trivial through endless dissection? I know ... changing names, changing identifying characteristics, creating compelling scenes, all tools of fiction writing, anyway. I did this in both my memoirs and loved the process, but it seems a new story needs telling from another point of view.

Ava can speak about writing, because she is a writer. She can speak about growing old because it has been years since Jay died and her loneliness and her solitude are worth exploring. She’s acerbic and sometimes judgmental. Regret, disappointment, it's all there, and she doesn’t have to worry if her grown kid likes what she writes, or if an old boyfriend might sue her for libel because she reveals his inadequacies, and her own, at the same time, which can be sad. There's a freedom and energy in letting Ava tell her story. It’s not a watershed moment in one’s life, like chronicling an abusive childhood, hiking the high trails above the Pacific, grieving the death of a child, performing a unique job like trampoline artist ... just the ordinary days of a woman searching for meaning.

Although even when I wrote fiction people thought it was memoir, this move back to fiction feels freeing, gives me energy in the morning to write. It's all good, as people say. Writing is a force during this dark time. What could be better than that?