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Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: Second, Find My Voice.

A thud strikes the house while I sit on the floor with my sons. Not quite ready to walk, they roll and crawl about for their animals and trains. Bash has already made two successful trips across the room for my coffee.

I stretch myself upright, and see a smear the size of a baby boy’s leg on the window. The smear is white and red.

I peer outside, and see a large bird on the porch, a head of red feathers, grey breast, black wings. It’s blinking. Gasping.

The red head was not intended by creation.

Its chest heaves.

My sons gurgle, topple the zoo again.

Its eyes flutter, close, flutter, close.

My sons cackle at one another. I hear the ting of a train against my mug.

The porch turns red beneath its neck. Its chest rises, falls. Stays.

~*~

I’m here to write about a failure.

Everything seemed to be churning so well, like that wave of relief you get after finally vomiting all the bile. Back in May, I accepted the word “victim” in its connection to myself. After reading Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, I finally found words to fit what I had felt from those years ago: the pain. The anger. The confusion, lots of confusion, as Zolbrod put it: “I could not find a place for myself” (215). When you don’t really know you’re a victim, you don’t know what you need to tell. You believe what you’re told–this is what families do for each other–and there’s a part inside that hisses:

Your parents are doing God’s work. If you tell, they won’t be able to do God’s work. God won’t reach others. God is more important. His ministry is always more important.

So you make yourself believe what’s going on will have to end sometime, and then it will be done, boxed up with all the other past days where it can’t slip beneath your clothes. Breathe heavier, and heavier, while all you go cold in the world and pray to Not Be.

~*~

I turned away from the bird and took care to my own. Surely enough creatures lived around here who would love fresh bird. I saw a fox the other day. Cats lived nearby. Hell, I’ll take a snake, just…Nature, take care of your own.

~*~

When something is horrible and commonplace, especially when it’s caught in the web of loyalty and blood, it’s easy to look away, make the bet it won’t happen again, assume if it’s really of great consequence, someone else will force it to stop.

-Z. Zolbrod, 218

~*~

Bo came home and took care of his own. Our duties formed by expectations and obligations: Bread Winner, Stay-at-Home Mom. Admittedly, not an easy marriage then.

“Did you see the bird?”

“No.”

“There’s a dead bird on the porch.”

Pause. “Okay.”

“It’s been there all day. I was hoping something would carry it off, but nothing’s come.”

Shrug. “I’ll handle it in the morning.”

Morning came. He left.

The bird still lay there. Odd feathers blew around in the whirlwinds caught by our porch. The beak went slack: open, shut, open, shut.

~*~

While Zolbrod faced her memories and her family before she got married, I did my best to shove that box into the dark recesses. I can remember days in high school of being so bloody angry and unable to verbalize why. Because…God? Because everyone was going into the ministry but me? But now I can see it was because The Monster had started to take an interest in my friends. I wanted to protect them, but I couldn’t say why. I had scrawled “nightmares” on the box, hoping that would make it easier to contain. Childhood nightmares are just a part of anyone’s life, right?

Only in college, the first school where no other family member ever attended, was I able to create some sort of identity for myself….until The Monster announced he was enrolling there my second year. My parents thought it a marvelous idea. “Jean, you’ll help him, won’t you?”

I broke down crying with the college chaplain, and he recommended that The Monster and I address our family together. No healing could come without unity.

To be true, to be me. To open my mouth, and say, “This happened to me, and it’s affected who I am.” I could not finish what college had helped me start without this moment.

The Monster’s reaction to the chaplain’s suggestion: “Look, it was a bad thing I did back then. They don’t need to know.”

End of conversation.

And like a fucking coward, I did what I always did: I silenced myself.

~*~

Spring, beautiful spring. My firstborn sleeps on my chest. I’d barely had ten minutes’ sleep all night. I still reeked of ravioli vomit from labor that night. But I was a mom with a healthy baby. A daughter.

Family came round later that day: Bo’s father, then later on my family, including The Monster.

Oh, God.

I have a daughter.

Every family gathering thereafter put me on DEFCON 1. The Monster showed little interest in baby Blondie, yet I always kept my distance, always nursed out of sight. When I told Bo I wanted to speak up, he pointed to The Monster’s behavior and said, “You don’t know if he’s going to do anything. Just leave it be.” He saw me as paranoid, fed the part of me that thought like Zolbrod did: The Monster was working through his own growing sexuality. He wouldn’t do anything now.

The morning after Bondie’s first Thanksgiving, I walked outside to say good morning to my father. I remember the bright blue sky, and giant elm in the yard half red, half green. The dog, sniffing for squirrels. My father turned to me, and I could see nothing “good” was meeting his eyes.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you and ___, but you need to grow up.”

…wha?…

“You always look down on ___. You need to deal with that. Now.”

Here. Now. NOW, Jean, say something! All the missed chances in the past, all the pain and anger and dreams of killing The Monster, just open up and FUCKING SPIT IT OUT

I remember shaking all over. Visibly shaking. “Do you ever wonder why I act like that?”

My father bit his lip. “Yes, I do. And maybe you’ll tell me some day. But it’s still something you have to work out.”

End of conversation.

~*~

Zolbrod wonders, as I do, what would have happened if she had told. She learned after her first child’s birth that the cousin who had abused her was arrested for molesting another child. I see The Monster come and go at family functions, and hate myself because I don’t know. Were there others? Are there others?

Or maybe I was it. Maybe it really was “a bad thing he did back then.” Maybe everything is okay now. I once tried to make myself believe that, but motherhood rewired me: how I walked, how I ate, how I slept, how I even went to the bathroom. But especially in how I viewed the past.

When the Josh Duggar scandal broke, my mother blamed the media for slandering a “good Christian family.” “They took care of it themselves, like they should,” she said while my sons played at her feet. “Besides, it all happened a long time ago. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

I had to leave the room, bite my fist to keep from screaming.

The past so. fucking. matters.

My children shouldn’t share my nightmares. The same self-loathing that makes it so damn hard to accept any compliment from anyone, because who compliments garbage? Who can look at me, this thing used and discarded, and somehow see me as worth their time?

No. My children will not have that tar slathered on their souls by The Monster’s hands.

~*~

I hate being afraid of my own porch. I can’t have the kids grabbing a dead bird–let’s not have that be a generational thing.

I’m sick of being afraid. I need to be what my kids need me to be:

Unafraid to do what must be done.

I gather up some newspaper and a shoe box. With Thomas the train distracting the children, I step out. Drop the newspaper over the body. Kneel. Lower my clawed hands over the newspaper where it lifts from the ground, and slowly clutch.

It’s still so soft. Light.

Into the shoe box. A small red patch on the concrete holds a single feather in the air.

~*~

My therapist does not consider me ready to face him.

I had wanted to do it this coming weekend, when my children are to be watched, and my mother–The Monster’s biggest ally–will be occupied elsewhere.

Yet I’m being encouraged to wait. And with every day’s wait, I grow more and more afraid to speak.

The holidays are coming. Holidays mean family for long visits, attention drawn in one direction while kids go in another. I think of this, and I think of the summer shindig my mother threw: everyone outside, Blondie goes in to change out of her swimsuit, I see The Monster go in after her, and I pound through another door and shout my daughter’s name.

The Monster was staring at his phone by the kitchen table. Blondie looked at me from the hallway, confused. I…I had to make it sound okay, just….it’s okay, Kiddo, I just wanted to make sure I knew where you were…and I could see he wasn’t near her, but–

Why did he have to go inside just to check his phone?

I think of that moment, and I think of the holidays, and lose my breathe to fear. I do not see how others can tell me to wait.

Because this isn’t about me. I can’t alter the past, but I can prevent its recurrence. All it takes is the voice which crawled into the back of my throat time after time let’s play a game to come back to my lips, to look into the eyes doesn’t that feel good? and push back the hands this is what families do for each other

The voice that failed then. That fails now.

This failure has to stop.

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Pride of Place

The concept of theme alluded me for years. I’d read various articles, listen to graduate school classmates deliberate and professors pontificate, but still not “get” it.

A story entertains readers, gives them a chance to escape the everyday. It can teach a lesson, too, I suppose–rather like parables: “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” But isn’t theme something readers interpret for themselves? I couldn’t correlate the characters with the writer’s intent. Characters are supposed to be their own entities, moving about the stage the writer creates. Writers create people, not marionettes. If I want to see stringed creatures tugged about and opening their mouths for voices projected from behind a curtain, I’ll attend a puppet show, not read a book.

Yeah, no. I was pretty wrong about that. About theme, I mean. But I didn’t really understand how wrong until a few days ago.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve taken on a Middle Grade fantasy based in Michael Dellert’s Matter in Manred series. The characters and setting were not mine at the outset: I guess you could say I adopted them. I love them like my own, and while they certainly piss me off some days, I refuse to give up on them. They’ve even made me brave enough to share freewrites and scenes on Facebook.

The latest scene I shared on Facebook was a dinner gone horribly awry. The protagonist’s parents have invited another family to dinner in hopes of acquiring a suitor for the protagonist, Gwen. The scene ends in a debacle, of course. Awesome. Great.

Now what?

Well, I knew I had left the progatonist’s mentor in a hot-temper; she wouldn’t wait to make her feelings known. I’ll have her show up and get things moving.

Life got muddled for a bit after that.

Gwen didn’t know who overturned which chair first, or whose cup flipped across the table, or how Murtagh and Nutty got barred from leaving when Demmán came in with warm water and cloths for cleaning. But you better believe that when the door broke open to a stormy gust of stink and Fiachna’s whine of, “I’m sorry my lords she made meeee!” everyone stopped to look.

Terrwyn’s iron leg reflected the fire. Fists at hips. Braids half-kept in leather strips. Raindrops fled away from her face and down her leather coat.

Eyes over all. Even Nutty looked down and away when that glare was on.

Gwen wanted to hide under the table. Somehow this was all her fault. She didn’t get to her home when Terrwyn said, and now everything was wrong, and Terrwyn was mad, and—

“My lord, is it not time to visit your family’s shrine?” She spoke with such a polite calm that even the visitor-mother felt it acceptable to sit while Demmán cleaned her up. Her eyes, however, shone with the white-hot heat of a forge.

Lord Aillil brushed the remains of his dinner of his tunic. “Ah.” He coughed. Raised his eyebrows at his friend, who nodded in kind. “Yes, you are right. Muirgius, you will pray with me later. Please tend to our guests while I escort your sisters and mother.”

“But it’s my ancestor—“

“Since your…duties…prevented you from tending the gate, you can pay your proper honors now.”

Muirgius dropped the half-squashed apple cake, defeated. Gwen struggled not to smirk as she walked out to him stammering, “So, ah, a good walk? Oh yes, you rode. That carriage must have cost…”

The moment their other house-servant Iarél closed the door behind them Saffir hissed, “What duties?”

“Damned if I know,” Aillil halted himself time and again to keep behind Terrwyn. No one went near Terrwyn for fear of getting her bellows going again. “Iarél lost him by the mill. He wasn’t bothering Aberfa, as far as Pyrs knows.”

Nutty walked by Gwen, face pinched at everything she laid her eyes on. “I thought you weren’t the trickster with the flies.”

Gwen said nothing. She knew better…especially when Terrwyn’s leg swung so with that angry gait.

“It certainly explains where the miller children get it from. The whole lot’s dumber than a sack of seed. Dumber than Aberfa.”

Gwen grabbed Nutty, made her eyes bulge out at the sight of soot on her pretty dress. She cocked a fist ready to take out a few pretty teeth but—

“Aberfa knows better than to insult her peers over nothing.” Terrwyn stood, cane between her legs, at the altar. Gwen looked for her mountain-land: it had turned in upon itself, and continued to turn, slow, like a spinning wheel transforming cloud to the thread of lightning…

Saffir stood some feet away, at the shrine’s outer edge. Her muslin, stained with grease and wine, fluttered about her spotted face. “Mind your tongue, Neued.”

“But since when do we go to the shrine? This belongs to Muirgius’ mum, not us.”

“Since I needed to remind you that this suitor was for your sister. Not. You.” Saffir pulled a ring off Neued’s finger and put it on her own. “You cannot marry before her. I trusted you with one thing: to get Gwenwledyr ready while I tended the dinner. And what do I see? You dressed in her clothes.”

Soot, grease, dirt, hay. Somewhere under all this lay a dress of some sort. Blue, maybe? Gwen honestly couldn’t remember, it’d been a few days. She had some boots with holes by the ankle and heel. Her hair thick and coarse as a hedge.

This wasn’t the kind of body to go in a dress like that. She wasn’t the person. The thought made Gwen feel sick all over again. Even Nutty’s swelling tears did nothing to make her feel better.

“She’s not my real sister, and he’s not my real father.”

Gwen never thought she’d seen Saffir get color in her cheeks before.

“Neued. That is enough.”

A rumble from above, and from Lord Aillil.

Terrwyn remained still as a lone fly buzzed into their circle.

Lord Aillil caught it, crushed it. “Go back with your mother. And remember her words. Well.”

Neued stomped off past her mom. Saffir’s gaze shifted as Lord Aillil wipe the fly on the grass. “Gwenwledyr…” She bit her lips, blinked away a rain drop. “Oh, if only you were a proper daughter!”

My face scrunched as I forced myself on, despite Biff screaming to “FIND the shiny truck! Find it, FIIIIIND IIIT!” and Bash grabbing at my coffee any chance he could, even after I made him his own cup. (Oh hush, he ain’t your kid.) Writing when the kids are around is always hard, but lately the boys have almost no patience when I’ve got the computer out. My stomach throws some acid into my throat every time I say, “No, you can’t sit in my lap. No, I can’t read a story. No, no no no…” But the logical part of me swallows it back down: One hour. You are allowed one FUCKING hour for YOU. 

Time up, scene done.

I didn’t like it.

Kinda hated it.

I sent it to Michael with an “ugh. I don’t know. Gwen may as well not even be there.” Michael agreed: “Gwen’s lost in it.”

At first I blamed the scene itself: too many people, too much going on. I’m not a good enough writer to handle so many characters interacting at once. Even in a play, action and dialogue are limited among two to three at a time while others shift into the background. (Unless you’re into musicals and dance numbers, which I am not. At. All.)  I didn’t like the guests being present for Terrwyn’s entry. I didn’t like Gwen being the only one NOT doing anything. I didn’t like how whiny step-sister Neued was. And the plot-drop about the suitor felt dumb.

Michael suggested a smashcut to the shrine, and to focus “on Gwen’s conflict.”

I shirked at the thought of a cut, but Michael was right: I wasn’t putting Gwen first. The protagonist of any story needs to be front and center. If she’s not physically in the front and center, then the other characters MAKE her the front and center. That’s why the dinner debacle felt right: she wasn’t participating, but she was the topic of conversation.

What was this story called? The Middler’s Pride.

What was missing? Gwen’s pride.

The dinner had cut her down; now she needed to cut back. But the story had to move forward, and that wasn’t going to happen until I established the relationships with her parents. From Gwen’s point of view, she’s treated like crap. She makes that clear within the first few pages, and the dinner debacle seems to prove it.

But pride does funny things to one’s perceptions, such as seeing how one’s treated by others. Back when I brainstormed this story out, I saw the arc being Gwen’s transformation: how her pride feels like an asset when all it’s been is a deceiver, and only when her pride is totally crushed does she find proper strength in herself and through others.

Huh. Well, what do you know: a theme.

But I didn’t want to pull the characters’ mouths with strings to make them say what I wanted them to say. I wanted to give them the chance to be themselves, so Gwen could naturally rise, fall, and rise again with this transformation.

This meant whatever happened after that dinner party needed to give her pride a chance to show as well as move the plot. Since her father’s the one that gets Gwen to Act II, why not him?

Nope.

Not going back.

Not ever ever EVER.

Never mind the cold water, or the cloud mountains’ destruction above her as rain started again. Gwen wanted nothing to do with the manor or any other piece of Easavainn Mills. She’d rather stay in the river until the goddess Gasirad herself said otherwise.

Gwen swam against the current, its fingers clutching her dress, boots and hair. It pulled her down. Roared in her ears. But she always pulled harder, up to the surface, and down again. She swam this way around the thorp to the mill itself, where the water kept the wheels ever-turning. Then she’d stop, float downstream, and start again when the shrine came in sight.

On her third trip down stream, she caught scraps of Terrwyn’s tongue-thrashing:

“—only child DOING anything—“

“—talk to horses more—“

“—handing off like grain—“

“—BE a father for two bloody minutes—“

She wanted to look, she really, REALLY wanted to look, but no: Gwen kept her eyes to the water, to the feel of fish fighting past her, and pressed back. Every stroke felt like a question:

Why? Me? Why? Me? Why? Me?

New fingers, tighter and stronger and—formed! Fingers pulled her down she could SEE hands, and Gwen knew eyes of rainbow stared at her in waves of pitch-black hair, lips moving, but she didn’t understand—

Gwen kicked up, hard, harder, and threw herself out towards the small dock she and the baker’s dozen used for fishing. Fingers just grazed the splintered edge—

Caught.

Pulled up. Out.

Lord Aillil held Gwen off the ground with hands as big as bear paws. His dark eyes gripped hers, his nostrils flaring.

Gwen dangled, caught sight of Terrwyn seated by the shrine, striking flint against her iron leg to light her pipe.

One heaving breath.

Two.

What to do?

“Thanks.”

Lord Aillil blinked, set her down. Gwen couldn’t remember the last time he’d held her, or even stood this close. “You always swim fully dressed?”

Gwen shrugged. Even shrugging hurt, but it beat talking.

He studied the river’s current while tucking fallen locks behind his ears. “Takes a warrior’s strength to swim like that.”

A flicker of linden leaf shone against Terrwyn’s face. Gwen thought of the hunting trips with her father and step-brother. Of her traps that worked, her successful spears. And how she was denied to continue once Muirgurgle became an adult because HE was the son. He was the one who was supposed to be the strong one. The warrior.

But talking was hard. It was always hard. So she said: “Yes, it does.”

Rain weighted Lord Aillil’s hair, pulling it back down in long, earthy strips. “What do you want, Gwenwledyr?”

Oh, the things that popped into her head…

The lost hunting trips.

The refusal of the family weapon, a spear imbued with magick from long ago.

The denied chances to sit on his knee.

The denied chances to leave the thorp with travelers who spoke to her more in one hour than her own father spoke to her in days.

“I want what’s mine.”

Lord Aillil started to shake his head.

“It’s all I have, and I want it. I want to answer the blood-feud.”

“No.”

“Those people drove my mother out of her home, they killed her family. My mother’s spirit deserves justice.”

No.”

“It’s all I want! I don’t want a husband or land or title. I’m not asking you to give up your family. I’m not asking you to give anything.”

Gwen puffed herself up. She no longer shivered. Even her hands remained still. She survived the trickster in the deep. She survived pestilence and fire. She survived houseguests.

She was Gwenwledyr, and she would. Be. Heard.

Lord Aillil’s right hand twitched at his side. He lifted it, almost reached through the space between them…but scratched his beard instead. His eyes drifted from the nearby manor and stables towards the water, the forest. When he looked on her again, a strange glitter filled them—raindrops, perhaps. “Yes, you are.”

Of course. He thinks I’ll take a horse. Gwen readied herself to say otherwise, but the wind picked up, blowing old kindling for the shrine down the hill. Some leaves and twigs fell upon them, others into the water, where colors sparkled underneath. Eye-shaped colors.

“Come inside. It is late, and the fire is warm.”

Gwen spat a leaf out of her mouth. “No.”

Lord Aillil bit his lip, smelled the air, and shook his head. He couldn’t even look at her, cleaning his eyes as he turned away. The moment his foot touched Easavainn earth, his gait and posture returned. A coin sang and sparkled as he flicked it through the air to Terrwyn, who caught it with ease. The moment he reached the hilltop Terrwyn called to Gwen: “Come along. I’m cold and tired. So are you.”

Gwen was. By gods, she was. Everything felt heavy, in and out. The coin still smarted. “So he’s paying you to keep me now, is he?”

Terrwyn puffed as she hobbled. “No.” The thorp center opened beneath them: a circle of lamplights and hearth-fires. The smell of warmed cider and bread set Gwen’s stomach roaring for its supper. “I merely wagered you’d refuse.”

Lord Aillil’s the biological parent, so it makes sense for him to be the first to interact with her after the dinner debacle. Plus, he’s the one Gwen’s mentor Terrwyn would ream out (being a former soldier herself), which allows her anger from before the dinner to come back into play.

I also wanted readers to have a chance to see Gwen alone with her father. All they’ve heard and seen is his formal self, his pride-filled self. Sound familiar? That’s when I knew Gwen needed to look a lot like her father rather than the dead mother. They mirror each other more than they know, and in this scene, I think Lord Aillil finally realizes it. This spurs him to petition the king to enlist Gwen in the Shield Maidens, and help her become the warrior she thinks she already is.

The idea of Gwen swimming just to swim, just to prove she could, felt like the right show of pride: it’s a solitary task, one no one can really interrupt…except a goddess. Yeah, that bit excited me when I thought of it: the river goddess comes to Gwen for help to begin Act III. Why not have her first appearance here and now?

Yes, letting the scene be just Gwen and her father made me remove the stepmom and stepsister. Not a fan of that at first, but when this one-on-one with the father worked, it seemed only right Gwen be the center of a scene with her stepmom, too. I didn’t want Saffir to fit the “evil stepmom” stereotype. I wanted her to apologize and reach out to Gwen in her own way. Nutty/Neued already had her establishing scene with Gwen; we don’t need another one. A one-on-one with Saffir could finish establishing the “normal” life in their society before Gwen is exposed to something totally new. It would also give Gwen a chance to buck, shut down, and cover herself in pride yet again.

Theme itself really does have pride of place in the elements of story. All the choices we make about the setting, the characters, all that happens or does not, hinges upon theme.  It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.

 

 

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Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. When I’m working through a piece of life, as I am now with The Telling and my own history of sexual abuse, I tend to see in words. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Despite all I have experienced–all the time-stops on those afternoons long agoor the endless days with my newborn sonsmusic and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

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Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: First, Face Myself.

Before my kid brother or true nightmares existed, I came across a blue jay on the sidewalk. Its plumage looked beautiful despite all the little bugs crawling all over it, and was it a problem its eye no longer stayed in place? I didn’t think so. I knew it wasn’t properly alive; a properly alive bird flies away when you get near it. But I really hadn’t thought too much about death apart from “Jesus died and rose again.” Death had no sense of permanence. When the time came, the bird would be properly alive again.

There is a difference, I think, in knowing something is not-right vs. knowing something is wrong. I knew the bird wasn’t alive like me, but I didn’t know it was wrong to put it in a dump truck and drive it around like any other stuffed animal. You better believe my mother made sure I knew after scrubbing my hands for several minutes. The disease, the dirt one can get from playing with the forbidden. It transfers. It festers.

I still carry a dirtiness on me and in me, and I’ve never been able to scrub it off. Zoe Zolbrod used the same term: “my dirtiness, of which my victimhood was a part” in her memoir The Telling (71).

It was the first time I had seen the word tied to the Feeling. Experience. Person.

And through reading, that Person was me.

Zolbrod sent me reeling with the stench of old wounds and fears. When she recounted the first night her cousin came into her room, I remembered the hall light in my bedroom, and The Monster’s silhouette as my parents were occupied elsewhere in the house. Let’s play a game. His hands slipped under the elastic waistband of my pajamas. It felt wrong. It had to be wrong, but…but he’s family, so…so it couldn’t be THAT wrong, could it?

When Zolbrod wrote of the cousin’s coming in the day when her parents promised to be gone, all those afternoons pulled me back, those hours when The Monster knew my parents were bound to be at church for hours, got my kid brother to be quiet in the basement while he kept me in my room, knowing there was no way I could overpower him as he talked so damn calmly as he reached in. Pulled down. Slipped his tongue in. Put my hands there. This is what family does for each other. Don’t you want to be like other girls?

I didn’t. Yet The Monster spoke time and again, turning the wrongness into something normal-ish, practically traditional. It wasn’t properly wrong, just not-right.

Zolbrod takes readers through life after the abuse, including how she began to move beyond her cousin in a new “float of physical bliss” with the boyfriends of her youth  (76). She took back her sexuality, her body. I, on the other hand, retreated as far as I knew how. I wore sagging clothes that would have made my father look a wastrel, refused to do my hair or face. I was often mistaken for a man by strangers, and didn’t care. I didn’t want to be seen as other girls. I didn’t want to be seen. And no one could, not the proper me, so long as I hid it deep enough. Zolbrod calls it “personhood vacating” (121). I fled into myself where The Monster could never reach. Like Zolbrod, I discovered my own “inborn intricacies,” and thought that In Here, The Monster could never really hurt me (94). A body’s nothing, the soul everything. And he’ll never get that.

Until now.

Words make worlds, do they not? Writers create with language. And I had created a wall with the words of stories, metal so thick surely no villain could penetrate them.

But in reading Zolbrod’s memoir, words twisted into sinew and skin: the hands, calloused and hot, across my body. How does it feel?

Words betrayed me. They burned me so that every emotional poke from my children felt like an axe on firewood.

Little Loves, you’re better off tossing Mommy out with all that’s broken. I’m no good for you. You deserve someone whole. Clean. Better.

Does a phoenix feel like this when the fire finally comes and cleanses its rigid body of all the creepy-crawlies?

I have written of phoenixes before. They, too, live anew and beyond death. When I finished Zolbrod, I felt as she after reading Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: “I sensed some truth about armor and pure resolve arising from violence and shame” (41). For years I have struggled to make sense of why God put me through that pain. God’s plan is always sure and right, He never gives us more than we can bear, God knows best, etc. So apparently it was in my best interests to be abused?

At this point, a “Fuck you” screamed at heaven sounds near-logical. Sounds, but doesn’t feel. Perhaps it’s the preacher’s kid in me, who has always thought faith a second-breath, as important as blood and unable to be transfused if lost. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve already faced such horrible parts of myself during the years of post-partum that to look back on something even older and disown God on THAT seems…Petty?

Or maybe, and I think this may be the truth, it’s because I could feel the armor and resolve grow with me, and take me beyond the Monster’s reach. I have knowledge others do not: to be tortured year, after year, after year, to suffer on my own without hope of help, yet live. I fucking lived. My husband, my children, my friends, my masters, my teaching, my—well, this, here. MY words. They’re mine. And they don’t hurt.

Now the real duel awaits:

I must face The Monster, hands and all, in the present.

Click here for more on Zoe Zolbrod and THE TELLING.

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Presumptions

Summer’s heat crawls up the hillside where Bo and I watch the boys. A park outing is always special, especially one that allows for a walk down to the lake. We take our time along the wildflowers, point out all the fishing boats. Laugh in the shade over ice water and brownies.

I often see social media sharings from other mothers chronicling their museum outings, concerts, parks, kid yoga, blah blah blah. They assume I can meet them at the parade, or out to eat. Every time, I have to say no, and why.

My sister-in-law keeps pressing us to attend Green Bay’s city-wide celebrations: pumpkin trains, egg hunts, Christmas parades. Every time, Bo says just Blondie will come, and why.

Your boys can’t be THAT bad.

I look at them. I’d love to say: you weren’t there when Biff head-butted me repeatedly in the temple to the point where I could see nothing but stars and barely walk. You weren’t there when Bash had such bad diarrhea in the library that I had to change him by the movies and hiss at Biff to please for the love of GOD do not tip over the book cart, oh GOD he’s going to bring it down on himself Bash no DON’T GET UP stay THERE you STAY no NO NO. You weren’t there that evening, when the librarian called me at my home to explain that my sons’ history of “deeply disturbing other patrons” had gone too far today, and if I could please bring them back when they were “ready” for a library.

This wasn’t even the first library from which they’d been banned.

And yet other mothers think I joke. That my sons can’t be that bad.

My mother insists the boys are autistic. No boy hits their mother like that. They should be listening. Following directions. They’ve just turned four, they should be BETTER than what they are now.

I look at her. I’d love to say: your elder son threw furniture at you when he was 19. He punched holes in walls. Does that mean he’s autistic?

Bash holds my hand and walks an even pace with me up the hill, back to the playground. “Mommy, you’re my best friend.” The sun sets off the dark brown in his eyes and the white of his toothy grin. A tiny gap between the top two–may his grown-up teeth never take that from him. “Best friends come true.”

This from the boy I almost let die on the roadside.

We reach the playground, and Biff cries out, “Forks, we gotta get out of here!” He runs round us, growling with those toddler vocal cords. “Look out, I’m Big Mouth!” Turns, points at me, “You’re Scooper. Hi, Scooper.”

I start to say hi but Bash turns on his gravel-voice and says, “Big Mouth, we gotta squash cars!”

Off they go. Bo stands alongside me; my hand reaches for his out of instinct. Our sons climb ladders, bark orders about lifting loads to each other. Their small tanned hands grab mulch–aka, the “squashed cars”–and “dump” the cars down the slide to be scrapped.

The boys ignored each other for years; Bash even thought he was another Biff, so we had to tell him every day that he was someone else. When church members, relatives, or strangers saw the boys they always cooed, “They must have so much fun together!” and I always had to shoot that presumption down.

This past year has seen such a change in them: all of them, together and apart.

Bash’s imagination continues to wow and warm me. He wants to tell stories, so many stories about his trains or trucks. Every now and again I’ll borrow read-aloud stories for listening to in the car; Bash has memorized all these cues and builds on them: “Thomas wheezed weakly, and moved down the line. Suddenly, James arrived with a heavy load. ‘Oh no, the rain is coming!’ he peeped.” Barely 4, and he understands more about dialogue/action balance than I do.

Sometimes the boys tell stories together. Hell, I just thought the playing together without yanking hair or thumbing eyes to be amazing, but their creativity combined always pulls me from my work to their door–out of sight, mind, lest my presence sets their world off-balance. Lightning McQueen got lost in the desert, Dusty and Blade Ranger can save him, woosh! Then a brief argument over who gets Chug, then a concession–a concession! without fists or tears!–then back to the story, because it’s not worth arguing about Chug when Lightning’s in trouble.

When the boys are in no mood for each other, Biff can often be found in his bunk, reading. I mean, READING reading. At that age, Blondie had a helluva memory, and knew many stories, but not how the words she heard connected to print. Biff knows what he sees, and WE know he knows because he’ll pick up new books and bam–read’em. Sometimes I get a shriek of “MOMMY!” which most would presume an oh-my-god-get-to-the-hospital-pain cry, but no: he’s still in his bed, looks down at my panicked face, and asks, “What’s this spell?” After rolling my eyes, because of course it would be this and not a broken leg, we go through the letters and work out the word. If a book has no words of which to speak, such as his picture book of 1,000 vehicles, he makes up conversations and adventures between the wee trucks on the page.

I see my sons, and I see such imaginations that want to grow, and explore. Imaginations that deserve to be better stimulated than with trips to the park, but there is still little I can do with them out of the house and on my own when their tempers are so vicious. Museums and zoos invite nothing but running and tantrums with these guys. Events with loads of people make them nervous, ornery, angry. So we make the best of Bo’s free time with the simple things. And for these two, time on a hillside among wildflowers is far more than simple: it’s an adventure.

Blondie stares out the front window. Tonight’s the night: back-to-school shopping. Doesn’t sound like much, but we’re to go when Bo gets home from work, just her and me. No boys.

“Are you sure they’ll have the BB-8 lunchbox?” she asks for the 3,649th time.

“If they don’t, Daddy will go to Toys’R’Us tomorrow to get one.”

“Okay, and you’ve got the list?” she walks briskly on her toes over to my purse as though we’re by a swimming pool with over-attentive life-guards. “List, wallet. Mommy, your phone!” She packs it, then hands me the purse. “Here, you hold onto this.” I take it, despite washing up dishes and hunting down the boys’ pajamas. She’s been counting down the days for this, time out with just me. When I was small, I positively loathed such trips with my mom. Outings like this promised a dressing room, a pile of stuff we likely wouldn’t get because it wasn’t on sale enough but I had to try them all on anyway, and then I would have to walk around the store in said items because Mom never hung out by the dressing rooms for more than thirty seconds.

Yet my daughter thinks this the greatest thing in the world, because it means she gets me all to herself.

It’s been one of my greatest fears as a parent ever since the doctor chirped, “Oh there’s TWO in there!”: letting Blondie fall to the wayside.

And she has. I’d be a liar to say she didn’t. Everything’s been about what we can do “because of the boys.” Trips to the museum, the zoo, to special places with other relations are always done with Daddy because I need to stay with the boys. Mommy always stays with the boys. The boys, boys, boys…

20160809_204106The first thing upon entering the store: we find the lunchbox. She pays careful attention as we work through her list as well as her brothers’. All things gathered, and a cool new shirt for the first day (“Saturn has headphones on? That’s so weird!” she laughs) we get in line to check out. It’s late for her, but I ask anyway: “Should we get a treat for being so awesome?”

Her eyes go wide beneath her thin blond curls, hands cupped to her mouth, “Can we go to the place with the, the Thomas train flying around, and the Superman, and the submarine, and the train, and the…”

It’s late. It’s already past her bedtime, not to mention mine. But this isn’t about me. This is about a little girl who’s been told “Not now,” “we have to help Biff/Bash with A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H/I/J/K/L/M/N/O/P,” “I’m sorry the boys screamed/ran/fought/ect. Did you still have fun?” day after day after day. And those days are going to continue.

But today doesn’t need to be like that.

So I smile, stifle a yawn. “Sure, Kiddo.”

Ella’s Deli has been around for ages; though the Madison neighborhood has changed, it remains its quirky self, complete with carousel. We get there just in time for a ride before it’s closed for the night.

We order our ice cream inside and wander about.

Blondie laughs at the dancing feet, works the mini-carnival. Scarfs down super-chocolatey ice cream at a table depicting a Lego battle. We talk about what we see, what I remember about my own childhood visits here. I put her favorite Veggie Tales song on repeat for the whole 30-minute ride home as she marvels at the stars, the lights of the city and how they fade in the country. The dark farmland makes her nervous, so I drive one handed, the other squeezing hers behind me. Usually she hollers from her way-back seat: “Mommy, you’re supposed to have both hands on the wheel,” but tonight there are no boys, so she gets to sit by Mommy, and Mommy gets to hold her hand.

~*~

One of the great stressors of this life–this writer’s life, mother’s life, wife’s life and all-other’s life–is the the struggle to balance that which keeps me sane with those who need me to keep life liveable. The kids have grown since I wrote “To Create in Bedlam”: no longer placated so easily, far more fearless, emotional. Independent, yet together, too. Yes, together. Sometimes Blondie spends afternoons in the pool with Biff. Sometimes she and Bash go spelunking in his bottom bunk. And then there are those days where all three actually play together. These three: the one whom I nearly left on the road, the one who tried (and still tries) to play with fire, and the one who wanted the others to be returned to the hospital for months: they, together. Never in those first three years did I dare assume this would happen. Childhood told me as much: my elder brother was a nightmare. My kid brother came to me for a while, when we were both very small, but then The Monster came for me, and for him. Not in the same way, but yes. For him.

It is the single hardest regret I carry to this day: that I did not protect, or help. That I merely hid, and thanked God it wasn’t me that day. I left my kid brother to fend for himself, to build his own inner walls for escape. We attempted to bridge ourselves together in the teenage years, but already it was too late. My elder brother had decided the younger should be his friend, so off I drifted to the side, and remained there, as so many home movies show: apart. The runt of the litter.

My mother has it in her head that we siblings have always been and continue to be close. It is not a bubble I have the energy to pop. And while she sees what she wants to see, I watch my children fight one minute and laugh the next. Tickle each other, flee from each other. But they always come together. They always stop when one is hurt, or scared. Hug, and give kisses to make it better.

Today, and I dare presume for always: Best friends do come true.

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Writer’s Music: Ramin Djawadi

Bo and Blondie return as I finish up the dishes. Both have sticks and bits of pink frosting about their faces. Pink frosting + sticks = cake pops.

The boys catch this in .000025 seconds. “ICE CREAM ICE CREAM!” Bash shrieks. (Hush, certain terms are not worth arguing.) “One for me? Have it? One for me?” Biff hops in place as Bo pulls two slightly mashed cake pops out of one paper bag. Blondie hands me another bag–awfully hard for a cake pop…

Music? Music I get to own?

“I got you season 1 because it had Sean Bean on the cover,” Bo says as the boys scale his lap while holding their cake pops like trophies into the air.

“Daddy said it’s for your writing.” Blondie hugs me, and whispers: “I’m going to play legos now. Don’t tell the boys.” Walk walk door-slam lock-click.

Honestly, 6 going on 16…

Anyway.

I ripped off the plastic and stuck it in. The quest for Gwen’s theme has not been easy; much of my music library was already committed to other stories, a lament I must have shared so often that Bo felt the need to surprise me with this. I don’t watch television or movies, so I have no idea what’s currently “good.” I needed something old, of period. It couldn’t just be fifes and mandolins, but some orchestrations get ridiculously bombastic or phony-sounding. It had to have a light sense–Gwen’s only a New Adult, after all–yet there needed to be…something gutteral about it. A swift movement. Dominating. Not to be intimidated.

I played the first track: Game of Thrones’ main theme.

YES! The cello was the perfect representation of one not to be daunted, one whose movement was echoed by the world, not vice versa. The drums pound like horses, like rain–yes, all this, want, me, yes, now.

BUT. Hmmm.

No, this couldn’t be it, not by itself.

Gwen isn’t ALWAYS like this. She thinks herself strong and powerful, but that’s just her pride talking. She feels that the only thing she’s got claim to in life is the blood feud of her mother’s family. She’s a middler with no love for her family or home. She has to rise up in memory of her mother’s memory. She has to claim blood by her own hands.

She has to be a killer. And what kid can will themselves ready for this?

Gwen has to face her pride and all the fears meddled with it. That’s a tremulous time. No drums there, no bad-ass cello. Something softer, more thoughtful…

Dammit, but I really like the theme!

So I continued through the seasons, noting which tracks fit my corner of Droma and/or my Shield Maidens. One of the great blessings of being a hermit is that I’ve never watched a frame of Game of Thrones, and therefore had no scenes/characters from the show to butt their way into my imagination as I listened.

After hours of exploring, I found young Gwen’s theme in season 3’s “For the Realm”:

Such a gentle guitar, yet through its echo of the main theme, I could still sense the old strength there. I set this guitar before the main theme, and felt Gwen’s character grow as the music changed. Perhaps you’ll feel the transformation, too, when you listen. All I know is that I’ve finally found Gwen’s theme. Her uncertainties, boastfulness, strength, and valor all come together for me here. About time.

Click here for more on Ramin Djawadi.

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Take Advantage of the Sweet Yet Unreliable Narrator.

I admit that I still confuse “unlikeable” with “unreliable” every now and again. An “unlikeable” narrator is not so much a twit as an asshole. One we just can’t bring ourselves to care about. If the story swallows him up, good riddance. If he gets away with it, then we enjoy imagining how he’ll get his comeuppance in the unwritten pages thereafter.

Captain Hastings is NOT unlikeable. In fact, he’s one of the kindest, loveliest chaps you could ever hope to meet on the page. Affable, thoughtful, and never afraid when things get dicey, he’s the bloke we’d never mind having over for a long visit. Hugh Fraser was a brilliant casting choice for Hastings in the Mystery! presentations of Poirot that ran for decades, what with his bright eyes and sweet smile. In fact, he’s so sweet that we, the audience, can’t bear to smack him with a rolled-up newspaper until the latter half of the Mysterious Affair at Styles, when we all KNOW he should know better.

Agatha Christie’s creation of Hastings is, as I said in the previous post, not necessarily meant to be a Watson clone. While both were army veterans, Hastings has no medical experience, so when it comes to forensic studies of the body, he’s very much an every man. Perhaps that’s why Christie enjoyed using him in so many of the Poirot mysteries, and why television adaptations worked Hastings into stories where he hadn’t been written in: he’s the Every Man. Hastings is Us.

And we are sooooo clueless around someone like Poirot. Yet in Styles Hastings time and again wants to prove himself Poirot’s superior in the world of detection. Near the beginning of the investigation, Hastings already questions Poirot’s abilities:

I shrugged my shoulders. If he was going to take the matter that way, it was no good arguing with him. The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him some one of a more receptive type of mind.

Every member of the family is certain that the odd duck Alfred Inglethorp is guilty BECAUSE he’s the odd duck: married the old lady for her money, etc. He acts suspicious, he dresses suspicious, so therefore, guilty. After Mrs. Inglethorp’s death–during which Alfred is suspiciously absent–the whole family sees nothing but clues proving their case. Although he recruits Poirot to discreetly investigate, Hastings completely agrees with the others, and cannot understand at all why Poirot would disagree with them both before and after Alfred Inglethorp’s vindication:

  1. As for me, I was literally dumb with astonishment. I could only conclude that Poirot was mad.

  2. His words gave me an unpleasant shock…Still, I had a great respect for Poirot’s sagacity—except on the occasions when he was what I described to myself as “foolishly pigheaded.”

  3. This proceeding of Poirot’s, in respect of the coco, puzzled me intensely. I could see neither rhyme nor reason in it. However, my confidence in him, which at one time had rather waned, was fully restored since his belief in Alfred Inglethorp’s innocence had been so triumphantly vindicated.

How does Christie pull this off? On the one hand, she has to make sure all the clues to the murder are set into the lines of text, but she can’t be obvious about it. How can she get these major points by the casual reader? By placing them before a casual observer. For while Hastings may see himself as a thoroughly intelligent fellow who’s built upon Poirot’s method, in reality he is one who has allowed himself to be led to conclusions by others–not just the family, or the murderer. By Poirot, too.

“Who put it in the chest, I wonder?”

“Some one with a good deal of intelligence,” remarked Poirot drily. “You realize that he chose the one place in the house to hide it where its presence would not be remarked? Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”

I acquiesced.

“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

“Yes,” he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, “you will be invaluable.”

This part still makes me chuckle. We the readers know that Hastings is indeed being complimented on his true worth–only it’s not quite the same worth Hastings thinks he’s earned. I see this as Christie’s signal to readers that Poirot is NOT going to be giving Hasting’s clear clues from here on out. What we observe through Hastings’ senses may or may not be completely true. We’ll have to mind his perception that it doesn’t veil the truth from ours.

This slight shift in their budding partnership does lead to conflict between the two, which is another reason why I enjoy these characters so much. True people react to how they’re treated. At one point Hastings knows Poirot’s keeping stuff from him, and calls him out. Here a friendship is tested over truth:

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Some characters can listen, absorb, and grow. Others, like Hastings, are, shall we say, “stubborn.” Even after one of his friends is arrested for the murder, Hastings doesn’t understand why Poirot wasn’t more open.

“Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend,” observed Poirot philosophically. “You cannot mix up sentiment and reason.”

“I must say I think you might have given me a hint.”

“Perhaps, mon ami, I did not do so, just because he was your old friend.”

I was rather disconcerted by this…

Last I checked, “disconcerted” is NOT the same as “understanding.” Hastings has once again been told something very true but also unpleasant about his perspective on things, and once again he can’t quite take it in. As readers, we’re not totally sure what to make of it all, either. By now we’re on Possible Murderer #3…or is it #4…dammit EVERY one is a suspect! By now Christie’s slathered suspicion all over every member of the Inglethorp family. How can we readers possibly see through all this muck?

We won’t. And yet it is the Every Man’s observation that saves the day, for it is Hastings that reminds Poirot of a simple action from early in the investigation that sets Poirot’s grey cells dancing and reveals all to Poirot. Only after Poirot gathers all the suspects into one room (love that part!) and walks through the case step by step do the other characters–Hastings included–come to realize their own blindness to the facts:

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With the killer(s) revealed and brought to justice, the mystery can end, yes? Not quite. While we may not feel too invested in the family of suspects, we have been with Hastings and Poirot for quite a while now. It’d be a strange move to have these two end the book in a tiff. There’s a reconciliation to be done, and it’s done in such a way that we chuckle yet again over Poirot’s unique way of “handling” Hastings, although we know his compliments to be also genuine:

“Poirot, you old villain,” I said, “I’ve half a mind to strangle you! What do you mean by deceiving me as you have done?” …

“I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.”

“Yes, but why?”

“Well, it is difficult to explain. You see, my friend, you have a nature so honest, and a countenance so transparent, that—enfin, to conceal your feelings is impossible! If I had told you my ideas, the very first time you saw Mr. Alfred Inglethorp that astute gentleman would have—in your own expressive idiom—‘smelt a rat’! And then, bon jour to our chances of catching him!”

“I think that I have more diplomacy than yon [sic] give me credit for.”

“My friend,” besought Poirot,” I implore you, do not enrage yourself! Your help has been of the most invaluable. It is but the extremely beautiful nature that you have, which made me pause.”

“Well,” I grumbled, a little mollified. “I still think you might have given me a hint.”

Just because a character has a beautiful nature doesn’t mean he’s completely reliable. When a writer needs to reveal all and yet hide some, an unreliable narrator allows for truth-in-truth, a slight of hand that does not insult, but perpetuates the curiosity which meets us on page 1 and moves with us still. We must trust this narrator completely with the facts, and yet not so completely so as to give away all the plot points before their time. A careful balance requires a careful hand. God-willing, I’ll have that hand someday.

Perhaps your day’s already come.

Click here for more on Agatha Christie & Hercule Poirot.