Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Birthday of a Lost Friend

Today is the birthday of a former friend. Some dates are seared into my memory, and this is one of them, perhaps because this friendship reached the furthest back in time. We became friends when I was twelve and she was fourteen. Our friendship broke apart twenty-five years later when I had my third child, and she didn't approve of that. The crystal that hangs in my sun porch window was a gift from her and is one of the things that remains of that friendship.

I have written about the loss of this friendship before, so I won't repeat myself, but it interests me that this still bothers me. Today, as I was writing my Morning Pages and the date of her birthday stared back at me, I did a Google Search and after trying different tactics (she has a rather common German name), I did find her. There was her face, smiling back at me from a family therapist's office page. I have to say it was nice to "see" her again. And there, too, was her email. Should I send her an email? Reach across the divide? It would be so easy and yet, I had to ask myself what I would be looking to accomplish. I had already, several times before, tried to rescue, or rather, resurrect, our friendship. My last Christmas cards, and a few years ago a vacation postcard, went unanswered. There's a clear message in that. Why extend myself further? Invite further hurt?

And honestly, how could I ever be friends with her again if she did not approve of my family life? I couldn't, I had to admit to myself but I could still mourn the loss of a friendship that had meant a lot to me. That is what this twinge I feel whenever I think about her, is about: mourning. It's a death of sorts, and while I can't rekindle what was, I can mourn it. It is a loss that hurts.

On anniversaries like today, I can look at what was lost, regret that loss but also acknowledge it as such: It is lost and that is that. And then I can move on to revel in the wonderful and supportive friendships I do have. Instead of pouring energy into this loss, in looking back, I drew up a list of friends whom I owe emails, phone calls, invitations. That's where my energy should go!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Writing Exericse: A Startling Sound

Have you ever been startled by a sound you had never heard before? Stopped in your tracks, wondering what the hell was going on?

Felice Benuzzi's unique adventure memoir No Picnic on Mount Kenya, which I read with my StoryStudio workshop last month, had me wondering just that. It's the story of the hare-brained plan Benuzzi and two of his fellow Italian POWs hatch and execute: they escape the Kenyan camp, where they are being held by the British during World War II, with the sole purpose of climbing Mount Kenya, the 17,000 ft. high mountain they see from their prison windows. They did this not to escape the camp for good, but rather to restore their spirits. Afterwards they return to endure another two years of captivity, but this time with their memories as nourishment.

I found the tale of this quixotic scheme highly entertaining, and I was particularly struck by Benuzzi's gift for describing the astounding world of sound they encountered in the wilderness, first in the jungle they had to traverse and later up on the thin-aired heights of Mount Kenya. For example, there is the wondrous chorus of the trees, heard on their descent from a summit reconnaissance:

"We were about to descend to call Enzo and to fetch our kit when a gentle breeze rose from the mountain and, passing through the thousand needle-like leaves of the heath, played on them a tenuous, soft, weird music. It started piano like a tune on a flute and it increased, mezzoforte, forte, till it resembled a magic harp concert.
We looked at each other and listened fascinated. The arpeggio rose and fell, and as it rose, it was accompanied by a deeper music which started like a fluttering of wings and strengthened to the sound of a double-bass, caused by the branches of the heath trees rubbing one against the other.
I have never listened to anything so eerie, so unearthly. We both felt very humble. Were we worthy of hearing this wondrous music?" (p. 152)

So, I pondered, when have I been thunder-struck by sound? I pretty quickly knew my answer, and I will share it below. I also figured this would make a nice writing exercise, so I posed this assignment to my class after we had wrapped up our book discussion, and I had read the above passage out loud to them:

Write about a time when you were startled by sound. (Set a timer for ten minutes and go.)

Here's my ten-minute sound story:

I woke up to a roar. A gigantic, reverberating, rumbling, roar. The building was shaking. The window of my fourth-floor dorm room, its panes clinking, stood wide open to the narrow rue Montparnasse like it did every night as that was my way of trying to sleep comfortably in the heat of a Paris summer. I blinked and groped about to steady myself getting up, while the roar gained force. Something, many things, were on the move outside.

I staggered to the window and, leaning out, looked down the narrow street towards the roar. There, in the thin light of dawn, I made out tanks. Tanks, in double file, were clattering down the Boulevard Montparnasse. The streets were deserted. The Russians are coming!

I did doubt that initial thought but what else could it be? This was, after all, 1982 and the Cold War was still on. I kept watching, resting my elbows on the window sill. Apparently I was the only resident aroused by the noise. Then, on one of the tanks, I spotted the tricolore.

What? What day was it? I stumbled back to my desk, fumbled about for my calendar. It was, so I figured out, July 14th, i.e. Bastille Day, and the French were preparing for the gigantic military parades they hold on the Champs Elysees on this, their national holiday.

P.S.: Of course, later that day, my friends and I joined the crowds on the Champs Elysees to experience the parade where the French show off their military might, the Tour de France rolls in, and the show culminates in fighter jets spewing the blue, white, and red of the tricolore above the length of the wide boulevard.

PPS: In honor of this exercise, I dug through my old photo box to see if I had been alert enough that morning to take a photo of the tanks rolling by my dorm. Alas, as my memory of their startling roar recalled, I was half asleep, and I must not have thought of taking a photo. Or maybe the light was too dim that morning. However, I did find this picture I took of the tanks on the Champs Elysees.

In the meantime, I have remembered several other instances when I've been startled by sound. Perhaps I shall collect them in an essay? Nevertheless, the tanks on Bastille Day are definitely the incident when I was most taken aback by sound.

Interestingly, it turned out that none of my students had trouble finding a startling sound to write about. In fact, one of them wrote about the absence of a particular sound. Now there's a thought...

Friday, April 29, 2016

Three Years of Morning Pages

I was sure it had been four years since I adopted the habit of writing Morning Pages, but one of the benefits of blogging is that it does provide a log of what I've been up to. Each year, I celebrated my Morning Pages anniversary, and thus it turns out that it's been only three years. It really seems much longer than that to me because it has become such an integral part of my life.

I can go several weeks without producing a piece of writing, by which I mean an essay or an article that I plan to submit for publication, or fiddling with a larger writing project, but I rarely skip a day of Morning Pages. Five mornings a week, Monday through Friday, with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, I sit in my spot on the couch, my legs curled up under me (not very healthy), the notebook propped on the armrest, and write whatever comes to mind until two pages of these red/black books are filled. In last year's photo there were five notebooks in the stack, now there are seven.

My husband has become accustomed to my writing in the morning; even if I can eek out only ten minutes, it's a graciously quiet time for me. I aim for two pages, which takes me about 30 minutes and two cups of coffee. If there is less time, I settle for less because it's still beneficial for me to visit with myself. That's what Morning Pages have really become: a visit with myself. As Julia Cameron writes, and to her I am indebted for this wonderful ritual of Morning Pages, "writing means expressing yourself, and in order to express yourself, you need to have a self to express."

My Morning Pages books have become sign posts, places to house ideas that get scribbled on the margins, homes for lists of ideas, tasks and plans. Those pages of lists are often ear marked, and I do return to them now and then, to see where I've been, where I wanted to go, and whether I made a few destinations or ended up taking a different route. I've noticed that often, when I begin writing, I'm first dumping the trash of the current events in my life, and then it truly bops around less in my mind. As I keep going, however, I write myself into something else, something I didn't see coming, something new, be it a different angle on something that's happened, or an idea for an essay.

Every morning I marvel again at the beauty of this process. It is simply a great tool not only for a writer, but for life.