Sunday, October 30, 2005

International out of sorts day

I declare today "International Out of Sorts Day." (If I cite the switch to standard time as one of the causes, I can claim international status.)

I am out of sorts today, which is wretched because this is my respite from the soul-wrenching grind of working life and all that goes with it.

It began yesterday, when "Charles" (a euphemism) arrived three days early and for the second time this month. Just as a blue moon should be rare, so should a second Charles in a month. As a result, I'm tired, cranky, listless, and in pain—for the second time in October.

Then I woke up this morning at what would be 5:00 a.m., which I do sometimes, especially when Charles is around. Today, of course, it was really 4:00 a.m. I stayed up. I've had three cups of coffee and one cup of tea; I've tried unsuccessfully to nap or at least to relax, but I remain tired, cranky, listless, and in pain . . .

I did see a thin crescent of the moon brightly lit, with the dimly outlined glow of the sphere on top, sometime between moonrise and sunrise.

When it was light, I could see that the two trees below my windows are now bare except for one stubborn twig at the end of one branch on each. The leaves of the magnificent horse chestnut across the way in the park are not coloring and falling off so much as turning brown, curling up into a crisp, and dropping. The maples and some others at Promontory Point are half red or orange and half bare. A few trees are still relatively covered with slightly colored or even mostly green leaves. From bare to green, even the trees seem out of sorts.

I'm reading the Claudine novels by Colette and am nearing the end of Claudine in Paris. Claudine is homesick for Montigny and the country; she is disturbed by her discovery of Luce and her new status as mistress to her fat, elderly uncle-by-marriage; her other friends have left school and are getting married or otherwise settling into inevitable adult life; she believes Marcel's lover to be somewhat of a fraud; mostly, she is 17 and starting to feel caught between a childhood to which she can never return and something—"more than a husband"—that eludes her; she is lonely, tired, cranky, and listless.

Claudine is out of sorts.

And, although in this novel she is 27 years younger than I am, we seem to be out of sorts for some of the same reasons. It's autumn, and I miss the country and the annual drive with my parents to see the fall colors. I don't always like the people with whom I am surrounded, and there is no escape from them. I don't know what to do with myself, or, if I do, I don't have the energy or will to do it.

As with Claudine, something is eluding me, something I can't define. I think of things I could do that I might enjoy for a moment, but none of them would scratch the itch that torments but that I can't find.

Claudine is, to some extent, Colette herself. Colette would live a rich, full, varied life. Was her itch ever scratched? Or, for such a woman, does a new one take its place in the heart?

While no one ever has everything they truly want, which is part of what keeps us going, there seem to be some for whom the hunger is constant, the longing acute, the water and fruit always beyond reach.

To you I say: Happy International Out of Sorts Day.

And may it not last a lifetime.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Dream: Gothic Teaneck

At the end of a day, someone had left me a bag of work. It was all pieces that had been around for a while and were due, so I would now have to stay late to finish them. I saw the VP, who works part time and would not be in for a few days, in the women's room and had a monstrous temper tantrum about how we work and how this simply could not continue. It was the proverbial straw.

Later, I realized I was at the community in Teaneck, New Jersey, which didn't look like what I was expected. There was a porch all the way around, with Gothic windows looking inward to Gothic windows. I'd decided to eat my work instead of doing it, because it was appetizers and desserts. Just as I noticed that there was a lot and that maybe I couldn't finish it, I realized there was a big party inside with lots of lights and hundreds of people. The chefs and wait staff were looking for what I had to set out, and I panicked. Then I saw Martin waving and thought, "Oh, maybe I can get away with thinking he left it for me as a thank you." They really weren't looking for the food, and he had, at least I think so. I found myself being waved at by the chefs, the executive director, and the sales director. Everyone seemed very happy I was there.

Suddenly, everything was gone. I was on the Gothic porch/hallway. I started panicking about getting home. A housekeeper came out and resentfully said I probably expected to be taken somewhere where I could get to New York (so I could catch a flight). I said that would be wonderful. She got in a car in the parking lot and drove around the block, I thought so she could be facing the other way. Someone else came out and pointed out that she was being difficult. Meanwhile, there was a pony pulling a carriage, and the pony accidentally bumped a woman who looked homeless, so she started abusing it, which horrified me. I thought the driver would try to back the carriage up to get away from her but there was no room.

Suddenly I was home, which turned out to be only a block away, and the community was still there. I could still see the Gothic porch/hallway as though I were still there. But I noticed now the brick work was painted in places, but irregularly, as though the paint had come off. I found a brush and remnants of paint and tried to cover up a spot, but overdid it. Just then the lights came on, and another huge party started. I felt like I'd been caught again doing something questionable or wrong, just as with the food, only this time I was giving instead of taking.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Dream: Spirit, trek, sex

My dream was part spiritual experience, part adventure trek, and part sexual experience.

I was flying over trees and water, so low that a few times I crashed. It was frightening, but somehow I never got hurt. I eventually spent more time flying than crashing, and it was exhilarating more in a spiritual sense than in a physical one.

Then I was with a group exploring a mysterious place full of trees, bush, and waterfalls. We could do anything, like we were a different form of life, including going over waterfalls and going anywhere in the bush. It was a wonderful, indescribable setting and emotional experience.

This was somehow supposed to culminate in a sexual experience with one particular person, but I didn't want to wait until the end. The person I found myself with was sweating so much that I had to close my eyes against the sting. He apologized. The last thing I remember seeing was his rear and thinking that what was supposed to happen wasn't going to work unless there was something truly supernatural or different about us. The original person could see all this and didn't like it, but only in a detached way. Still, I was concerned. Despite the circumstances, the sweat, and the uncertainties, it was hot.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dream: In love

I was in love with someone, but the moment I woke up I couldn't remember if it was a mutual relationship or a deep, meaningful one on my part only. I tend to think the former. One day, unbeknownst to me, he met one of my friends, and they fell for each other instantly—so instantly that they announced their engagement and got married almost immediately.

I was devastated. To make matters worse, I was having a hard time finding a bathroom stall that I would fit into.

Soon it was the day of the wedding, and everyone would, without thinking, tell me they were going. I wasn't invited, but my friends were because they were dating or married to friends of the groom. I didn't know anyone so I wasn't invited.

I found myself at a picnic table under a tent. The setting felt like a reception, but I don't know that it was. I couldn't eat anything put in front of me, most of which seemed to be bizarre fruits. I was sick, physically sick, not about having loved and lost, but about having been betrayed and forgotten, about having become nothing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Golden Rule

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Some people should apply this to their own pets and children.

I see runners jogging along, dog in tow. Except no one asked the dog if he likes jogging. A lot of dogs love the thrill of a spurt of speed after a Frisbee or ball, like taking off after prey. Those attached by the leash to joggers, however, seem torn between exhaustion and boredom. And what good is it to pass all those trees, trash cans, newspaper boxes, etc., if you can't stop or at least slow down enough to pee on them?

Then there are the jogging parents who push their charges along in strollers in front of them. This strategy enables Mom or Dad to avoid seeing their baby or toddler with its sensitive eyes and its chapped little face screwed up against the cold, wind, and sun hitting baby head on, eyes streaming tears.

I've been reassured that dogs and babies love this activity.

Well, of course they do! They are unable to voice an opinion except with the miserable expressions on their faces and the contortions of their body language, both of which are always conveniently out of sight, out of mind.

Dream: Bucking train

I am walking along what looks like a stony ledge near water, looking for a place to shower, but then I remember I don't have a towel. I mention this to someone, then realize I do have a towel on my hair.

Elsewhere, we see a train pass through a surrounding car that is set up like a sitting room and has a fireplace that we can somehow see as though the side were partially open. I tell the other person that the engineer can stop there (like a docking station) for a bit of rest and comfort, but then it occurs to me (in my mind) that the engine would block the tracks, so how does that work? I don't even wonder how the engineer gets access to this tunnel-like contrivance or any of the dozen other impracticalities.

A train comes along just then, an engine with a couple of cars, going in the other directions. It is jumping the tracks repeatedly, looking just like bucking bronco. The effect is horrifying. I say, "Why doesn't he slow down?" but the train didn't seem to be going that fast. I wonder how long it will keep landing perfectly on the tracks as it bucks high off them and continue moving forward. I tell the person with me that I lived with train tracks right behind my home, that they curved around my brother's ash tree and ran behind the trailer (a recurring theme).

We enter the respite tunnel and find it is quite elegant and comfortable. There is all kinds of fancy furniture for which I don't have names, although I speculate. I think we contemplate ordering tea and cookies or something but don't know how it all works, especially since no one else seems to be there, at least that we can see. We sense something.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Glorious October

The light from the sun has grown softer as it strikes obliquely from the south. For me there is respite from Chicago's high skies and, this summer, unrelenting brightness unmitigated by grey. As the chlorophyll fades and the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns emerge, for a moment I feel like I'm 18 years old again, arriving in Chicago for the first time, adapting to a sunrise and sunset that occur earlier in the day here at the eastern end of the central time zone than they do in Western New York, in the midst of the eastern time zone.

Of the first few weeks I don't remember much—a cab driver taking me to Kimball instead of Kimbark, meeting my roommate and her parents, orientation, placement exams that made me stressed and sick, adapting to communal living and the concepts of status and pecking order, a field trip to see Monty Python's Life of Brian. If the new experiences and freedoms of adulthood away from home inspired exhilaration, the strangeness of the new life and setting, plus the unanticipated rigors of academia compounded by loneliness, inspired detachment and depression.

Still, it's October, when sun glows gloriously through the multi-hued leaves and the black clouds lower to crush the land, tinting memories of long evenings drawn out by pain and warmed by conversation, like a harsh movie scene softened by artful focusing.

It was a time for long, cool walks under the sun or the clouds, and in the evenings under the slowly awakening lamps. It was a time for sharing herbal teas and discovering a rare kindred spirit over them. It was a time when there was still hope that classes would go well or at least not badly. It was a time when it was comfortable outdoors, not hot, not cold, not humid, but brisk and invigorating. Memories of those first Octobers and the feelings they evoke have made living here all these years bearable. It's not home, but nothing is. There is only October.

October is also a bittersweet month. It was in October 1987 that my brother and I returned home for the final time, to help our dad sort through his belongings in preparation for his move to Pennsylvania, closer to his family.

Most of the week was memory perfect, often sunny and cool enough to require big, comfortable sweaters. It made my sister-in-law want to move to Western New York, and it made me wonder why I'd ever left. Now I was leaving, forever, the only place that had ever felt like home to me, the place that, small and cramped as it was, had been my only home for 18 years.

Between packing and shopping, we had time for a visit to my dad's cousin John in Eden, New York, a place I had always loved, where on other visits I'd seen hummingbirds in the garden. Returning home one night from a visit many years before, we'd seen a shooting star ahead as we navigated down the strangely dark country road. My dad and I must have had the same thought—that our eyes were not to be trusted. "Did you see that?" "I think so. What did you see?" Such sights are so rare and so lovely that we were almost sure we could not have been so fortunate as to be in the right place at the right time. I don't think I've seen one since; I don't know that I want to, because twice in a lifetime might diminish the rarity and beauty and uniqueness of the shared vision.

Now we were in Eden again for what we believed would be our last visit. I wasn't 16 years old any more, and all of John and Catherine's seven children were long gone, just as we were, all well traveled down their paths in life, just as we were.

When you're a child or teenager, you have no way of realizing that the moments spent with other kids in their houses and rooms, play fighting, admiring possessions, tickling, teasing, perhaps even flirting, will one day evoke painfully strong memories of a sweet, unburdened time that can't be recaptured and evoke emotions that are as elusive as a dragon, as intangible as beliefs that can never be experienced. Adulthood has its joys, but they are never as artless and unaware as those of a child. So while a feeling was born that those were rare times that somehow ended before I could know what they would mean, the children had left, along with the youth of the parents, now grandparents, and my own sheltered naivete. With all that gone, the magic is only a memory.

Had we seen a falling star on our return that day, it might have interrupted the conversation or the silence, but would it have inspired awe? Much of the time the adult mind is so crowded with facts, thoughts, concerns, worries, anxieties, love, lust, fear, anger, skepticism, a host of processes and emotions that it can't relax and open itself to uncensored experience and emotion, the kind of passion that inspired so many scientists, writers, and poets as children.

We went to Niagara Falls late on an oppressively grey day. It was little like my memory, which had when I was very young become fixed on walking through the parkland around it and encountering my first squirrels, lovely creatures I'd envisioned as appearing only in deep woodlands only to woodcutters and lost children. It was impossible that there were squirrels in such a crowded sitting, only a few feet from me, sitting in the dappled morning sun falling through the tall trees of the park. Now I see a dozen squirrels a day. The sight is so common that it has lost its magic, but has the memory?

I took dozens of photos at Niagara Falls and of my home during that final visit, trying to capture something that had either changed irrevocably or had existed only in my head or heart as a feeling. The field where we'd played baseball and football, where I'd picnicked, where I'd discovered and picked wild strawberries, where I'd explored the swampy low spots and hidden behind grasses and trees, where I'd gotten sunburned following the mowing machine and collecting the hay, where my dad had dug up a wild rosebush—now that field is no longer a field, but an extension of the trailer park, covered with mobile homes. The corner of the woods next to the intersection is now a funeral home and parking lot. Nothing stays the same, but does it improve?

I still have the photos. I still have the memories, but like the photos they are flat and lack the power to make me forget 25 years of adulthood that have made me numb my feelings in self-defense. Perhaps when I am older, old, my filters will weaken, my walls fall, and I will once again feel throughout my being the simple joy of seeing a squirrel twitch its tail on a sun-dappled lawn or of going out for a treat like ice cream. When I am old and everything is once more uncommon or difficult, not to be taken for granted, maybe then I will experience the purest and deepest of pleasures and strongest of emotions once again.

Maybe then I will feel October's glow and warmth once more.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

"It's only words, and words are all I have"

There's a student publication at the University of Chicago that gets delivered to The Flamingo every Thursday, so I read it. The past two years, it looked like a newspaper—masthead, several stories on the front page. I liked it. Now it has gone the way of everything designed to appeal to youth—a big, pointless, out-of-context photo on the front, with the contents at the bottom in as few words as possible. Words! No one can stand words any more! Someone in a meeting with me said the biggest turnoff for him on a Web site is "too many words." He's in his mid-40s. Is it my generation that's decided reverting to communicating through the equivalent of cave paintings is chic?

What other animal writes?

How have we come to hate words?

Especially when there are billions of them online?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Edmund Fitzgerald

I was listening to one of my favourite songs from my adolescence, the eerie, haunting "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." I think I've always assumed Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 tune was about a shipwreck that had happened long ago, but today I decided to find out more. To my surprise, two of the best sites dedicated to the Fitzgerald have been developed by young people who weren't yet born in 1975, which I learned is the year in which the Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing all 29 members of her crew.

The first site, S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, has information about the ship, the crew, and the wreck. The second site, 3D Edmund Fitzgerald, features 3D drawings, meticulously detailed and with documentation where details are missing, for example, the hole for the ladder to the crow's nest. I give these kids a lot of credit for their thoughtful interest in an event that is minor in the scheme of history and that most remember primarily because of Lightfoot's tribute. Both sites are well done and worth bookmarking.

I won't get into the details of the Edmund Fitzgerald or the wreck—just visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. What the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald reminds me of, though, is what all of us too often forget—the work of those who keep us comfortable and in comfort. The Fitzgerald was carrying iron ore in her hold for the auto industry. Who mined the ore? Who loaded the Fitzgerald? Who would have unloaded her? Who would have hauled the ore to the plant? Who would have processed it? People—people who risk their lives so that we can have heat, food, necessities, comforts, and conveniences. People who may like danger and risk and who are often fatalistic about it. People who work on farms, in mines, in processing plants, in rail yards, in dockyards—and on freighters. How many farmers killed or maimed, miners buried, rail men crushed, how many injured, amputations a testament to the risks of the machine age? How easy it is not to think of the essential work we've never seen or experienced, like that performed by stagehands behind the scenes at a theatrical production.

The men of the Edmund Fitzgerald experienced bitter cold, howling winds, and crashing waves—and the knowledge of wrecks that "the gales of November remembered"—November, one of the stormiest and deadliest months for shipping on the Great Lakes.

This November 10 will mark the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the deaths of all her hands. No one knows what caused the wreck itself. But we do know a great deal about her crew. For the most part, they were seasoned seamen, as well as family men. One had survived Iwo Jima, while another pursued a passion for learning cooking and baking. A couple, including the captain, were looking forward to retirement. They were ordinary men who knew they could die on the job but probably never expected to, or to be memorialized in one of the decade's hit singles—or online.

When you take a look around you, at your food, at your clothes, at your appliances, at your furniture, at virtually everything you own, remember the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald—and everyone else who, sight unseen, keeps you warm, fed, clothed, and comfortable. They deserve to be recognized for all they are willing to do—and all they are willing to risk.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Dream: Eating celebrities

A pre-Halloween dream: I found myself with the eaten (gnawed, even) torso of a celebrity about whom I know nothing other than their name. It looked like a raw side of beef. I had a fuzzy recollection that it had become the rage to eat celebrities, which is why I had these leftovers, but I didn't remember participating in the rage. I must have. I needed to dispose of the torso, though, but didn't want anyone to think I'd killed this person (whoever it was). After all, it was a fashion everyone was participating in, not just me, and it needed to be clear that it was the fashion, not murder. Should I just get some plastic gloves and someone to help me throw it in the trash?

I didn't want to touch it. And it made me sick to think I'd eaten it not just because it was so meaty, but why would I have chosen that particular fad to glom onto when I never glom onto any others?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

My adult censor

When I was a child, I could concentrate. I think I could read for long periods, and I remember being one of the fastest, most accurate readers in my classes. In fifth grade, I breezed through the colours of the reading program so quickly that I ran out of them. I could focus; I could become wrapped up in what I was doing.

Some of the things I did seem silly or amusing now. I recorded music from the radio by holding a microphone up to it. I listened night after winter night to Buffalo Sabres hockey games. I wrote sports columns, often about fictional games and featuring fictional interviews (with real players). I may have written other things, but I don't remember. And I read. A lot. My dad drove me to the public library probably four to six times a month.

At some point in junior high school or high school, I changed. Perhaps it was because I found myself in a much larger school with a huge group of strangers, being swallowed up by the crowd, or maybe it was my growing feeling of being on the outside, or the fact that one of my elementary school teachers had recommended me for a math class for "slow" kids while my few friends were taking advanced classes.

It must have been around then that my confidence in myself began to erode. No matter how well I did in school, I feared failure. The more I feared failure, the harder it was to work. By the time I took advanced and college composition classes, my INFP personality and my fears had teamed up to make me a lifelong procrastinator. My papers were due on Monday mornings, so I would write them on Sunday evenings and type them (painfully slowly on a manual Royal Sabre typewriter) overnight, probably keeping my poor mother in the next room awake.

I never liked anything I wrote, or, if I did, I knew it would be subject to scathing criticism—which it rarely if ever was. I lived in terror that my work would reveal what I'd tried to keep secret—that I'm neither educated nor bright.

Fast forward 30+ years; not much has changed. The internal censor triggered by the process of getting out and growing up is as oppressive as ever. I have a terminal case of writer's block and can't do the one thing I'm reasonably good at. I read what others write and feel ashamed that it comes so easily to others and not at all to me.

Although my job requires little meaningful or intellectual effort and although I'm very good at it, I still procrastinate, still out of a fear of being found wanting. I can't focus on reading or anything else for more than a few minutes at a time; my mind never wants to settle down and think things through. And I never want to start anything; if I do, I never finish it.

How do you kill the adult censor, the fears programmed into your psyche over so many years, and how do you recapture the self-assurance and unselfconscious creativity of childhood that time and experience conspire together to repress?

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Review: The Green Dwarf

The Green Dwarf: A Tale of the Perfect Tense by Charlotte Brontë. Recommended.

The Green Dwarf demonstrates that literary achievement owes perhaps as much to experience and craft as to ability.

Set in the exotic colonial city of Verdopolis in Africa, The Green Dwarf is awkward on its own as a novella. It's framed at the beginning as a tale within a tale; the recuperating Lord Charles, apparently a renowned literary figure, requests his venerable friend Bud to tell him a story, which turns out to be the story of The Green Dwarf. There are references near the beginning and end to "Captain Tree," who would apparently figure in other juvenilia by the Brontë siblings.

A time-worn adage about writing is to "write what you know." The Green Dwarf exemplifies the practical reason for this bit of wisdom; the Brontë siblings did not know Africa, so little of Verdopolis resembles a colonial African city or town. Even the descriptions of hills, glens, and forests, save for the occasional mention of a palm, evoke an English or Scottish setting, not an African one. It's also never revealed in which part of the vast African continent Verdopolis lies. The nature of the "African Olympic Games," the characters' names, the occasional anachronism, and the plot of a lady in distress lend The Green Dwarf the air of a fairy tale in a fictional setting.

Interestingly, Brontë's imagination is perhaps limited by her chronological age and her social and cultural experience and milieu. The piece villain says, "Beautiful creature . . . Behold me, fair lady, and know into whose power you have fallen!" A more mature or modern writer might hint at something more sinister to follow, as Brontë will later hint at Rochester's depravity and his paternity of his ward Adele, but after this ominous line the kidnapper merely gloats and then leaves to serve his country.

The Green Dwarf's beginning and early Napoleonic aside are nonsensical, its language overblown, and its plot awkward (and interrupted by authorial intrusions such as, "It may now be as well to connect the broken thread of my rambling narrative before I proceed further."). Brontë's imagination shines through at times, in whimsy, in images, and in words. The ailing Lord Charles is fed a diet that consists of, among other delicacies, ". . . stewed cockchafers . . . and roasted mice." In his rambles, he suddenly comes upon the green, foam-covered sea, which his "excited fancy" sees as a plains covered with "white flowers and tender spring grass and the thickly clustered masts of vessels . . . transformed into groves of tall, graceful trees, while the smaller craft took the form of cattle reposing in the shade"—quite a vision for the recovering poet. And Bertha's comment upon the arrival of Lady Emily answers its own question: "But what have you brought such a painted toy as this here for? There's no good in the wind, I think."

Brontë foreshadows the significance of the "carroty-haired hero of the cart and asses" when he defeats Colonel Percy's magnificent steeds and chariot in a race. She also cleverly keeps him a man of mystery: How did he win the race? How did he happen to be at the right place at the right time to find Colonel Percy's servant "at a very lonely part of the road"? If he is more than human, why does he need Colonel Percy's money to pay for his vices? Or is he a representative?

In many ways, The Green Dwarf reads more like a play than a novella. with the awkward authorial intrusions serving as scene breaks. Even the Ashantees and their king Quashie are mere plot devices who enter the scene, breathe wind into the plot's sails, and add nothing to the drama.

Work on The Green Dwarf and other juvenilia undoubtedly fired Brontë's continued interest in writing. She achieved success when she left Verdopolis and Africa behind and focused her imagination and her ability to convey it on what she knew and had experienced—the often difficult, lonely, isolated lives of independent, intelligent women in the 19th century, women who, like Jane Eyre, do what they believe is right at the cost of their own happiness.

Sunday, 2 October 2005.
© 2005 by Diane L. Schirf.