Darth Vader Was Polish, & Other Lessons Learned

Upon Bo’s insistence, I took a break from grading school work, social media, kids, the lot. The plan: meet my friend Rachel (not the one recovering from a brain tumormost Lutheran mothers were compelled to name kids of my generation Rachel, Sarah, or some form of Kristine) at Polish Fest.

Milwaukee is a hub of summer festivals. Summerfest is the “world’s biggest music festival,” apparently, and there’s German Fest, Pride Fest, Bastille Days, Feste Italiana, India Fest, Irish Fest–just, gobs of stuff. I don’t live in Milwaukee, so attending these goings-on is a rare treat for me. I decided to take advantage of childlessness and attempt something  Inesemjphotography does brilliantly all the time:  chronicle life.

20160617_171739

What did I learn? Capturing people is hard! Take these monks, for instance. (Seriously, take them–ba dum CH!) I was too nervous to stop in front of them and flash the camera like they were some sort of oddity,even though they were an oddity in Milwaukee, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were doing there.  Had they come down from Holy Hill?

20160617_171150

Later Rachel and I discovered a few more inside the Polish Fest grounds by a beer stand. Apparently the monks had made the beer….not that I got a picture of that…

We enjoyed some Still Stormin’ polka by the festival’s entry. A few even took to dancing, like this fellow in the red shirt. (By dancing, I mean a slight bending of the knees mostly in rhythm with the bobbing of his head. That’s how I dance, anyway.)

Determined to spot interesting characters, we meandered about.

This particular gentleman was something of a clay mound of curmudgeonness. His eyes moved only when people came anywhere near his art.

Lake Michigan. It can look beautiful by Milwaukee if you time it right. Never look upon its shores after a storm; city sewers dump disgusting horrors, and you can’t help but wonder if the film Wall-E is a reality not far off, after all.

Some displays, and a sun I decided had to be artfully captured over the dragon’s head, and therefore rather lost the Wawel Dragon.

“I hope this isn’t a secret effigy,” Rachel said of the doll. And I have to admit, the way these dolls were tied onto the posts, I was rather worried if those Milwaukee blacksmiths had other activities planned for their forge’s fire.

My attempt at people pictures was feebler. More feeble? I’m amazed no grammar check popped up with feebler. Who says feebler?

The sun wreaked havoc on my shots. The sky itself had barely a cloud, but once the sun reached a certain point in the sky, all my shots looked like I had a thin coating of Vaseline on the lens.

At least I found more monks. Rachel kindly obliged for a shot, too. 🙂

Over the course of the evening, I also learned just how hard it is to capture characters. Professional photographers have an eye for the elements of setting and person that create a “scene” or a “character.” When one is NOT a professional, and is determined to FORCE such shots to happen, one doesn’t get much. Rather like writing, isn’t it?

Thankfully, Polish Fest gave me a few lucky breaks, sunlight aside. These ladies were cultural assistants, driving around the festival and answering questions.

20160617_173308

Some sort of run/walk relay was about to start. I’m not sure why that would require elf-heads, but then, this was my first Polish Fest.

20160617_173912

Saw this and felt a pang for my kids. Blondie and Bash would love to be nude all the time, if not for, you know, public decency and all that. (Biff is the shy one for some reason.)

I also couldn’t help but be impressed that the mom had successfully tied that balloon to her daughter’s hair, and it stayed throughout the clothing change.

20160617_173146

But here, here stood my ultimate failure on this photographical excursion:

20160617_173624

I know, they’re just a couple. But she in a loud, newer Star Wars shirt with Darth Vader and his lightsaber on full blast, he with a mustache that HE KEPT HIDING FROM MY CAMERA BLAST HIM

Ahem.

He with a mustache that would have made Hercule Poirot proud.

Sentence fragments aside, I felt like I had finally found my characters. I would have loved to eavesdrop on their conversation and discover what brought them here. Heritage? Boredom? A secret meeting of sci-fi mystery enthusiasts?

But alas, they moved purposefully away from my loud phony speech as I “CHECKED MY PHONE” for…whatever, I forget. Pretty sure I’m not made for undercover work…but then, Poirot wasn’t much for undercover, either, and he was still one of the world’s greatest detectives.

Poirot

And to top it off, they ran out of paczkis.

Slumping abounded.

20160617_175455

It seemed best to pack it up, camera-wise. My timing was off, the sun was horrible. Only so much quality could be had from a smart phone’s camera, anyway. And there wasn’t anything to really notice. Maybe I’m being hard on Milwaukee, or maybe I’m being hard on Polish Fest. Maybe I just don’t get out enough, but I thought for sure such a niche festival would have drawn a more unique flavor of life out of the community. Right now, all I could taste was the very American cheddar cheese in my pierogi.

20160617_201232

“Let’s at least try some culture,” Rachel said with a nod toward a long tent off the main walkway. I follow, still slumped. No paczkis. No nationally renowned polka bands with dancing contest. No delectable paczkis. No fascinating people who stand still in a dramatic fashion at the right moment to be preserved for all posterity. No powdery paczkis with oozy raspberry goodness in the center. No cooking demos instructing one on how to make her own paczkis lest such a tragedy were to befall one again.

We walked in, and I lost my slump. Still no paczkis, but there was a fascinating man with some sort of mini-telescope around his neck spinning wool into thread. Angry, spooky pottery. Straw creations that hailed me back to my childhood, when I had tried to follow a Swedish pattern for straw Christmas ornaments. Polish women who had made hats for the Resistance back in *mumble white noise date lost mumble* and were now making them to sell, along with flower wreaths. “Try them on!” They had that sort of loud-laugh-command voice, the kind where they sound light-hearted, but that’s only because they’ve got rolling pins at the ready under the table.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my very Polish grandmother-in-law, it’s that you don’t mess with an old Polish woman.

Guess I didn’t need to hunt for characters so much as be a character. It helps to have a good sport for a friend, too. 🙂

So, overall, a good day. I learned photographing people is best left to professionals, and that Polish Fest should be visited at midday, when paczkis are freshly filled with gooey yumminess and polkas echo up and down the midway.

In the meantime, I’ll wander in the twilight, sharing a breath of lake air with monks and yearning for the sugary delights of far-off lands.

20160617_203541_HDR

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Three Mice Blind: A Q&A

secret-of-nimh

WAAAAY way back, Scotland’s gem of an author Shehanne Moore and her diabolical hamsters threw a ball full of questions my way. Tucked in among those questions was an award:

epic-blog-ward

I never realized Hamstah Dickens and his crew thought of me so highly, and my deepest gratitude to Shey for the honor. 🙂 Now, as for those questions…

What made you choose your current blogging platform?

Naiveté. After reading time and again of the importance of platform, and that all writers simply must have a website, I decided to see what forms were out there. After five minutes of half-assed research, it seemed WordPress was the most flexible with the imagery and text.

 Introduce yourself and tell us about your blog

(sheepish wave from the back of the room) Hi.

I’m Jean Lee. You meet me in the street, you’ll see me defined by marriage and motherhood. Appropriate involvement in church life and PTA. Part-time teacher.

But you’ve met me here, haven’t you?

Here, I struggle as many others do: to read, to write, to discuss both with an iota of intelligence. Also, in the hopes of easing the struggle of others, I share the music and landscape that inspire me so.

 Are you a once in a while blogger or a daily one?

Once a week is the best I can manage with the rest of life’s obligations.

 Do you wish to publish and if so, what type of book?

Publishing would be the shot to the moon, yes. As for type…not literary. That’s best as I can narrow down for the moment.

 What is your favorite thing to do besides write?

Read. The time to not focus on Life Out Here is one of the most precious luxuries a mother—and a writer—can have.

 ~*~*~*~*~

After these very professional questions, I came across the hamsters’ furry lines of inquiry.

What is your favourite line of poetry about a hamster? Oh okay, we mean a small furry creature, or animal.

Oh, dear. I’m not much for poetry…

Wait, dear hamsters! Don’t fly over the Atlantic and seek out my house! (stall stall stall) I will say that mice were primary characters in two of my favorite children’s books: Reepicheep in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcyle.

Whew! Found a line from Seamus Heaney’s Squarings I marked long, long ago:

 What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul

-xxii

What was your favourite children’s book if it was not Mrs Tiggywinkle?

I didn’t know of Mrs. Tiggywinkle as a child (runs and hides). Seriously! When I was 8, I discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of all the stories I read in my formative years, I latched onto those the most. They influenced my taste in mystery and the love of murder described with a foreign accent. Sure, I still enjoyed the ripping good fantasy every, but the mystery became the epitome of Good Story. I even tried writing my own when I was a kid. Kind of hard when one doesn’t know the intricacies of human anatomy and forensic science…

 You’re in the forest. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s mysterious. Suddenly, the bushes part and there snarling before you is a savage, giant hamster. What happens next?

I drop the giant vegetarian wrap I was gnawing on and flee, screaming my little girly head off. I’ll storm to the local Field of Care Wizarding office, pound the door until the bugger wakes up, and file a complaint while talk-gasping my way through the paperwork, and then refuse to let him go back to bed until he’s followed me out and found the thing and given it a good talking-to for scaring me.

 Is there any place in the world you would like to set a book or poem and why?

Honestly, I’ve always been content with where I am. I don’t understand the draw to writing about urban life. Not that it’s bad, mind, but I’m not at home in the city, so unless I need that out-of-place feeling for a character, I’d rather avoid it.

No, Wisconsin’s always felt like The Setting, with the forests and farmlands, its forgotten roads and secret rivers.

You can have dinner with your favourite book hamster character. Who is it and what will the first course be? Recipes are welcome. Of course if you can’t find a hamster, just choose another animal.

See, here’s the thing about being a frugal Midwesterner: everything’s a casserole, or something that can eventually become a casserole. If you can’t just throw it into a crockpot (aka slow cooker) for eight hours and top it with cheese, it ain’t worth eating.

So when I’m asked what I would eat with someone, I am so totally caught off here that I have no clue what to say, because I can’t just say “leftover casserole.” (Though I have a feeling that Basil of Baker Street wouldn’t give a toss about what he eats, so long as he has the energy to keep working.) Hmm. Best play it safe, and say Mrs. Brisby and her children from The Rats of NIMH, and that we would share a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of tomato soup and a cup of cold milk, with chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert. (I, um, don’t do courses. It’s all and done.)

Forget all this hero stuff. You’re being cast as the villain and it’s your choice who you pick so long as they are from a book.

Well that’s full of all sorts of delightful potential. In terms of my reading experience, Livia from I, Claudius is the THE greatest spider ever to spin the villain’s web. She manipulates dozens of people over the course of several generations. As one character puts it, “Time means nothing to her.” Because her ambition is on par with her patience, she doesn’t care how slow others move, so long as they move in the direction she wishes and carry out the actions to which she leads them. Sure, the in-your-face-bwa-ha-ha villain is fun, and so long as he/she has a clear motive for being evil, I’m all for the volcano lairs and plans for world conquest. But the spider web…damn, that’s wicked fun.

What was the last book you read?

I recently finished The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, which was recommended on Fiction Advocate. A vivid and entertaining read, though I never understand when a writer refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue.

 How much of you is in your characters or your poetry?

 I…I, um…

<Stop squirming and just skip, the little dudes won’t notice>

 Who or what inspires your writing?

Back when I was a child, the answer “who” was simple:

My dad, first and foremost. As a pastor, he was always writing his own sermons, liturgies, bible studies, and hymns. So often I would visit him in his office, typing on that god-awful blue DOS screen of Word Perfect. His voice was always beleaguered by allergies and acid reflux, but never his real voice: writing in sickness and in health, for the celebration of a marriage or a life passing on through Heaven’s gates. Writing fortified the soul against life’s terrors. So I, too, wrote stories, endless stories, and shared them with Dad. We’d sit in front of that blue screen for hours, talking about character and plot, just him and me.

But then I grew older.

Time to set aside the childish things, prepare for God’s Calling. God’s real gift to me was in music. Time to go to school, learn to be a music teacher. Play in church. Sing in choir.

But then I grew older, and set aside the music instead for prose.

Well. God’s children need good stories about Jesus and the power of faith.

But then I grew older, and started to write about the tarnished base of shiny Jesus school.

Why are you writing about that? That’s not a good testament of your faith, Jean. That’s not what people need to learn about Jesus.

My dad stopped reading my stories. I stopped offering. There was no point in sharing them with someone who no longer had faith in my writing.

And, I guess, that’s when my own faith died.

~~~

There’s a line in a Christian contemporary song (as opposed to a 15th century hymn) that came to mind as I considered walking away completely. Just, let the blog die. Pull the WIP out of my room, and pack it up in the basement. Pack away the childish things. Grow up. Focus on the little hands tangled in my hair and punching my thighs. I once wrote about my focus being torn into strips. It was time to sew them together. To piece myself together. Wasn’t it?

Anyway. The song’s line: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Those who inspire me and support me now, I have never seen face to face. Yet I know them better than blood relatives. Each has such beautiful imagery to share, be it photographs or prose. Life dictates to them, and yet they somehow maintain control, and drive themselves forward no matter what Life demands. No criticism stops them. Every trial is transformed into a newly discovered strength. This is why I nominate them for the Epically Awesome Blog Award, which calls for them to answer the non-hamster questions at the beginning of this post:

Dyane Harwood: Birth of a New Brain
https://proudlybipolar.wordpress.com/

Michael Dellert: Adventures in Indie Publishing
http://www.mdellert.com/blog/

Inesa MJ Photography: Making Memories
https://inesemjphotography.com/

Nathan Filbert: Becoming Imperceptible
https://manoftheword.com/

Peggy Bright: Where to next?
https://leggypeggy.com/about/

Shey, who’s already received the award, lifts me time and again by showing me her own journey, and that the trials encountered on the Writer’s Road are worth pressing through for the tribulations that await.

Another name comes to mind: a college friend, the only one who also writes, who told me to take on a new name and write myself into existence: Ben Parman: https://bendanielparman.com/

The friendship formed through theater and writing, then he went on to film school, I to grad school. His faith and homosexuality fought inside him for years; few saw the bloodshed’s toll. But for all the counseling, rehabilitation camps, family and friends, it was writing, really, that brought about the ceasefire. That writing transcended into a play: Starlings. I attended, and saw the facets of my friend reenact their war.

Perhaps that is what I need: a bloodletting.

Somehow, I have to uncover the faith I lost in myself. I cannot be a fighter until I do.

Tell us a bit about what you are working on now.

Which brings us here.

Normally, this question shuts me down. After all, what was I working on? The same damn WIP I started a few months after my daughter was born. She just turned 6.

Six bloody years on the same story. Adding characters, taking them out, changing pov, changing plot points, changing descriptions. Never happy. Never sure. Never ready to walk away because it just needs one more change, one more time and then I’ll start something new. Whatever that is.

I look at my story, and all I feel is embarrassment. Shame. I don’t want it out there with my name on it, any kind of name. It’s not worth anyone’s time. It’ll prove that for all the talk about writing, I am only that, talk. When it comes to finally showing what I can do, I’ll show I can’t. And for all the wishful language of writing and story, I am incapable of drawing any imaginative life from inside me onto the page.

But I can’t let the WIP go. It got me out of postpartum. It was the closest thing to light I had in the fog of those years, even though now I wonder if it was merely a trick my eyes played on my mind.

Those who can’t do, teach. And I do teach, but it’s just basics. Remedial writing. Hey, this is how to write a paragraph! Maybe we should focus on sentences, first…no a verb doesn’t work like that…

The basics. As basic as it gets.

Maybe that’s where I need to start. Everyone moves forward from a beginning. It’s time I did, too.

So I looked to a writer who’s done more to instruct me than all my undergrad and grad years put together: Diana Wynne Jones.

(Hush, like you didn’t know.)

I compiled all my posts about her from the past year (Good God, it’s been over a year since I started this) into a single collection. Her stories are a marvel in craft and imagination, not to mention just plain fun.

Hmm. Not quite done. Not quite done reading, true, but it’s the blogging that wasn’t done, either.

So I wrote two new pieces on the influence myth and her own traumatic past have had on her writing. They’re not for the blog.

They’re for you.

Whatever piqued your interest about my site, I humbly thank you. You’ve read, shared, and commented on my rambles week to week. You’ve made me feel my words are worth something after all.

You’ve helped me uncover the embers of my old faith.

But like a fire fairy, they are fast and fragile. If I grasp them too roughly, they’ll crumble in my fingers. If I chase them too quickly, they will fly out of reach, and become indistinguishable among the stars. So we will move slowly, you and I, beginning here.

Next week’s post will offer my Lessons Learned collection to those who sign up to follow me. Perhaps a word or two in them will bring a fire fairy to you.

Don’t let it get away.

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Unlearn to Learn

51mQLRMiC8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Writers observe, absorb. We connect with our characters and worlds because if we can’t, the reader certainly won’t.

All that observing and absorbing is usually good for the writer. Build up understanding. Learn how human nature works. Our minds are always a work in progress, like a historical building being refurbished. It’s been around a while, taken a few dents in a recent storm, but with time and patience, it will be a thing of beauty, grander than ever.

Until, you know, you have to deconstruct it.

I feel like that’s what would need to happen to write Dogsbody as Jones did. Here she takes this effulgent, a being of stars, or a star-being (even Neil Gaiman doesn’t know for sure), and sends him to earth as punishment for a crime he didn’t commit. Only he’s no longer a being of hands, feet, wings—he’s born a puppy.

And nearly dies in the first ten minutes of life:

…he seized the other puppies one by one and tossed them into dusty, chaffy darkness. They tumbled in anyhow, cheeping and feebly struggling. Sirius was carried, one of this writhing, squeaking bundle, pressed and clawed by his fellows, jolted by the movement of the sack, until he was nearly frantic. Then a new smell broke through the dust. Even in this distress it interested him. But, the next moment, their bundle swung horribly and dropped, more horribly still, into cold, cold, cold. To his terror, there was nothing to breathe but the cold stuff, and it choked him. (9)

In the previous post I shared the problem of what happens when writers write without caring to consider the true perspective of the characters and setting. Notice Jones didn’t even use the term “water,” even though you the reader knew right away that’s what she was talking about after the bundle dropped. The only reason she used the term “sack” was because Sirius heard one of the humans around him say it. THAT, I find, is an important point: characters learn just as we do. Let’em learn.

Or don’t.

Sometimes the perfect touch is to share a speculative truth about how something—or someone—works. When Sirius remembers who he really is, and that a powerful star-tool called a Zoi is on earth and must be found to clear his name, he escapes his yard to find it. Being a dog, he of course tries to get help from other dogs:

Farther up the street, there were two more cream and red dogs, Rover and Redears, and they, too, were uncannily like Sirius. Sirius was bewildered. No other dogs he had met looked like this. “Why do you look like me?” he asked Redears.

“Oh hallo, hallo, hallo!” Redears answered. “Beacuase we’re both dogs, I suppose. Hallo.”

“Don’t any of you ever say anything but Hallo?” Sirius asked, quite exasperated.

“Of course not. That’s what dogs say,” said Redears. “Hallo.”

Sirius…said good-by politely and went on. Now I know what Basil means when he calls people morons, he thought. What idiots! (83)

He also, well, had to take a break, because, ahem…

The queer strong feeling was driving him nearly frantic. It was so different from everything he had known before that he did not know how to cope with it. He knew he should be looking for the Zoi, but he could not leave Patchie’s gate. At length, he asked the other patiently waiting dogs what was the matter with them all. Most of them had no idea. They only knew they would sit there night and day if they could, until Patchie came out to them. And she never did. But one hideous old mixture of a dog, with a head like a grizzly bear’s, explained gruffly:

“She’s in heat. She could have pups. That’s why we’re here.”

“Is that it?” Patche said brightly from beyond the gate. “I couldn’t think why I’d got so many friends all of a sudden. Hallo, Hallo. I love you all!” She was in a very cheerful and flirtatious mood. “Why don’t some of you come in?”

None of the dogs could jump the high wire fence. They all sighed deeply. It made not a bit of difference to them, Sirius included, to know why they were waiting. They were too taken up with the feeling coming from Patchie even to quarrel over her. They just sat in a group on the pavement, each one of them panting with excitement, so that from a short distance the whole group seemed to vibrate like the engine of an old car. (116-7)

I had never touched Dogsbody before, and now I can see why Gaiman considers this one of her best. Not only does it smack of science fiction, it also has the out-of-human experience in a very human setting. More importantly, it is a story of the unconditional love between a child and her dog, a bond many of us know from our childhoods. Dogsbody should be read for many reasons: for the friendship and love, for the mystery, for the humor. A marvel in craft and character.

Click here for more on DOGSBODY.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Roads

Two weeks ago I took a trip to visit “Rachel.” A cancerous tumor had been discovered in my friend’s brain stem, and while the removal was a success, she would need to live in a rehab facility for the longest, toughest phase of physical therapy.

I avoided the interstate on purpose.

20150623_082227

20150623_082913When one breaks from the suburban south of Wisconsin, one enters a clear, open space, where farms still live and die by the land. Because I had no deadline, I paused often on the road.

20150623_082837 20150623_082822

20150623_08224320150623_084305I loved how every road felt worth a journey, from the well-tended to the unpainted. The farmlands themselves felt perfect for a hike (trespassing aside).

 20150623_08431120150623_084240

20150623_082924And the run-down places begged for a looksee.

20150623_084653I crossed over a heavily-treed river and noticed a small waterfall—manmade, I figured. As was the mill.

A skeleton of a mill.

20150623_083514_HDRAnd it was beautiful.

I watched the water fall and cast ripples, carry sticks and leaves under the bridge, to the other side, and beyond. As a mother of young children, I am often not allowed to admire natural wonders. The blink of an eye can mean a missed mill. It can also mean a missed child.

So when these moments away from family come, and I am allotted hours to lose myself in the partly-tamed wilds, that is precisely what I will do. As a mother, it allows me a moment to breathe and enjoy the quiet. As a writer, I am reacquainted with the quintessential rural setting. Lose yourself in the natural world around you, and discover a wealth of sensual touches to make your created worlds real.

For more images of Wisconsin, please see “Where and Why I Write” as well as “The Need for Place.”