In case you wonder what it feels like to get published…

Day 2

So how did capturing a “smell” in notes turn into a manuscript–a book–and why would publishing said book change a person?

The Dad who smelled earthy, the smell in the train station of metal burning foreshadow the coming of age the narrator (a twelve-year-old girl) is about to go through.

The writer (me) is committing to following the idea of a girl coming of age to its conclusion. Somewhere early in the writing, not long after taking notes on smell, I came up with the book’s title The Starlings in London. This is the one thing I never wavered about. It helped me focus on the unfolding story.

I decided I was going to write this story of anguish, the break-up of a large American family in the foreign city of London in the late 1950s and I decided I wanted to contrast the city with the country to make it more interesting for the reader, and to give the anguish a breather once in a while.

The book’s ending, I knew from the book’s beginning. That helped give it bookends so to speak.

Each chapter I wrote was brought to writing group to be critiqued. I did not incorporate all the suggestions of the other writers. Instead, I thought about the suggestions and decided which of the suggestions made sense to me.

After a good long year of writing and critique in writer’s group, and re-writes, I then worked without interruption…not reading any books during this 3-month period because I did not want any other voices in my head other than the ones I was honing in the book. No reading. No Facebook.

When I had completed the manusrcript to the very best of my ability, I sent it to a very good copyeditor. Lots of grammatical errors were corrected. I had to give way to her suggestions about word changes (hard to do). For instance, I wrote that Lily Starling states, “my socks were dew wet.” The copyeditor changed that to “wet with dew.” For the most part I went with all the copyeditor’s corrections/suggestions, as in copyeditor knows best. However, I would only do this because I know how good my copyeditor is.

Now we have the final file. Great! I can read again! Check out Facebook if I want to again. Have a dinner date not just with my husband, but with friends. Rejoin the human race.

To be continued…

In case you wonder what it feels like to get published…

Day 1

Yes! my new book The Starlings in London is out! My last blog was about a road trip. I always imagined road trips as LONG. Enough time to even change the inside of you by what you experience along the way, so much so that you even act differently when you return home. Hopefully more grounded and with greater perspective about life. Well, the road trip to Bentonville, AK was short and it was everything I had hoped it would be but it did not change the inside of me.

Publishing has changed me. It may take a few blogs to convey this change.

Read on if you want to hear about it…

First you have an idea and begin to type or write something. My idea began with writing about smell in a writing group. My “smell” was getting off a train as a kid in a zombie like condition in London in the wee hours of the morning after a crazy trip across the Atlantic on The Queen Mary to rejoin my father, which is later fictionalized in the book.

Writing assignment in writing group:

There are smells to seasons. There are smells to places, and there are smells to every time of one’s life. Use this prompt and write something. (I don’t like prompts, but I was trying to be a good group member.)

Okay, okay. What can I possibly say? I’ll jot down some notes:

Smell of the change:

Deadness in the air, gritty, greasy, metallic, foggy, gray heavy air, permeates nostrils. It hangs on the insides of them. Combines with sights clanging, shuffling of feet, train whistle, deadness, different shades of gray, tiredness, wasted, depression, forced smiles, vacancy, wool coats in summer, nothing obvious, or direct, unseen forces, reaching through a pea-soup fog and finding a hand, whose hand is it? A friend, a family member, a stranger?

The above notes became these words in The Starlings in London:

Dad smelled earthy. I was sure he had not had a bath. The skin of his cheeks was loose, yet bristly. The hanging mole next to his left eye jiggled in my right eye. My warm blood leaked fast, out of my face, down my throat, past my chest, and through my stomach, coursing toward my toes.

I smelled metal burning. My spit tasted like poison. I could no longer hear anything.

to be continued…

Open Road…

The Open Road, PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AMERICAN ROAD TRIP, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, February 27 through May 30, 2016

With 100+ images, The Open Road features 19 photographers on the move across America from the 1950s to today.

My daughter Cora and I took to the open road (about a four-hour trip from Lawrence) to take in some art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville AK, and to be together, mother and daughter in the car, in restaurants, at a bed and breakfast, and at the art museum. We both like art and food and r&r time, seeing things, and being together, so we had our own short open road trip.

Here is a photo of us and a few images of what we saw at the museum:
(We shared the same camera.)
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Thoughts from a Trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

My last day in New York City in March 2012, I took myself to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My eyes were drawn to the wall niche where hydrangeas–slightly pink, slightly blue, slightly lavender–raised their plump arms towards the upper reaches of the Great Hall. Passing through this room, I climbed the large steps to the exhibit I wanted to see: The Worlld of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty. The Met’s program notes describe the exposition as covering the period from 1215, the year of Khubilai’s birth, to 1368, the year of the fall of the Yuan dynasty in China founded by Khubilai Khan.”

I spent an hour and a half with the guided audio tour taking in the paintings, sculpture, textiles, and other decorative arts. I came away with a sense of the art and culture of this period. My favorite single piece was a drawing in ink on a handscoll titled: Noble Horse by George Kai, which beautifully captures a once robust and noble horse, his jutting ribs depicting neglect while retaining nobility–a symbol of lament for the fallen dynasty.

Time running out before the clang of the airport call, I wandered down the stairs and into the American Wing. My purpose: to eat an early lunch in view of the Tiffany windows so that–in my mind’s eye–I would take home a piece of my great-grandfather’s (Louis Comfort Tiffany’s) art.

Whilst in my revierie, a woman put her coffee cup and Danish down on my table and sat down. Before long, I knew she was Dutch, lived in rural east Holland, had not recovered from her husband’s death but was trying hard to move on. Her two grown sons were applauding her uncharacteristic trip to get out in the world with this trip to New York. Then she found out exactly what I was doing at this table in this room with this view, in this museum at this moment in time.

She said she was thrilled to have a personal meeting story to take home to Holland and tell her sons.

Reinventing Ourselves

As I look around me at family members and at friends and acquaintances, even at people I don’t know but read about, I am struck with how hard people are trying to reinvent themselves. Some of these people are doing it in little ways, such as: a change in size–through diet and exercise; a quick change of appearance through a different haircut, a new hair color; or facts or fictions people are saying about themselves on Facebook. Others are more daring: having lived decades as straight, people are choosing gay partners. Still others have left any known universe we have once shared and have leapt into the unknown; these people one can only now find in snippets–both words and pics on the Internet.

Why are people doing this? Is it because of self-hate? Is it a calculated strategy to succeed in this changing world? Is it fear of failure? Is it in the hope of finally finding fulfillment? Is it finally trying to be who they really are?

About fifteen years ago, I moved from the East, where I had spent my whole life, except when I was living in London, sight-unseen to the Midwest. Now that was a rather large change. Was I trying to reinvent myself? You bet I was. In work–especially writing–and in love, I sought to create worlds that reflected the now urgent vibrant sense of self that was screaming for expression. Even if no one else acknowledged these needs for change, I did, and I acted on them.

So, did re-inventing myself work? Does reinventing oneself work?

I think it did; I think it can, if the changes one is seeking are authentic; And, if one is able to find a system or world to support the reinvention. For, reinvention is creation and creation is risk-taking, barrier breaking. Sometimes the barriers are family and friends. Sometimes the barriers are new conditions that one encounters. Sometimes the barriers are parts of oneself that are hanging on for dear life until one gives them the boot.

The Golden Summer: Giving Myself Permission to Just Be

This summer, we arrived at the lake in sorry shape. Paul had been in a biking accident where he broke his sternum. Scrapes and bruises covered his body. In fact, his entire butt was black and blue. His psyche took a hit. My eldest sister had been found in a diabetic coma and there was the family scramble of how to get her proper care. My bruises were internal: the worry over two people I love.

We headed to the lake, two Sunday drivers–what with our 4Runner, top-heavy with 2 kayaks, towing our old Corolla and changing over as drivers every hour.

Once at the cabin we were met with the workings of a critter, a critter that chewed through my couch cushions and sprayed them in a circular pattern with something smelly and black. The critter also gnawed the edge off a windowsill, scattering wood chips onto the floor. The plumbing did not work at the kitchen sink. Inside the cabin the air was cold and damp. Outside it was cold and it often rained. We did a lot of huddling under heaps of blankets, coming out to light the Franklin stove and then sit in our chairs under blankets…and sort of stare at the fire.

This state of being–like the weather–lasted about two weeks. Finally the plumber came and soldered pipes. The cabin’s pipes are the age of the cabin–forty-six–and often leak. With water in the cabin flowing, we began to move. One day Paul gingerly sat on his bike seat and rode a few miles. Material and thread came in the mail and I began to measure and sew. For a week, our kitchen table was covered with fabric, measuring tape, needles, iron. The sewing machine whirred in our little study. The light and warmth of the spring sun came to Wisconsin in mid-June. Step outside and there is the iris that usually makes its appearance at the end of May. Same for the lilies of the valley that run along the cabin’s side. And trillium, both white and pink, spreads sporadically through the ferns on the downward slope of the hill to the lake.

I transported two carefully wrapped little flower-shaped silver vases from my Norwegian grandmother–Mormor–to Wisconsin this year in order to snip a few of these lilies of the valley for the vessels and thereby bring my worlds together through a small offering of sight and smell.

Couch cushions washed, repaired, or thrown out; new curtains for the living room and bedroom up and working, it felt like I was ready for outdoor fun. What should I do today? A walk? A bike ride? A kayak ride? A swim? Friends coming soon. Let’s get going.

I notice Paul is smiling a lot–even beginning to glow. He’s now biking for 25 miles. I can sense the lightness in my own expression, an expression that comes from my insides to the outside. As I walk, I am not afraid of bears; I breathe in long whiffs of sweet light early summer air. As I kayak, I watch: the yellow water lilies opening up, the turtles sliding into the water after sunning on a log, the loon’s webbed feet disappearing from the surface water’s light-filled transparency. On my bike, I am free. I am young. Swimming, I am a girl.

Sets of friends come and play. Then, go.

Paul is now up to fifty miles a day. In a week he will join some high school guys pals to bike 400 miles across Iowa.

And I am back to me. It’s a golden place to be.

Exploring the Mind and Creativity

Was it Camus who said artists recreate four or five experiences one had as a child? I thought about this listening to Bruce Carter’s WVIK radio interview with Mississippi River artist, Nancy Purington. I heard her say, “Yes, growing up in Princeton, Iowa–a town of 250 at that time in the mid 1940’s–there was nothing to do. The only stimulation was the river.” She is sure her parents took her for walks by the river at night; nights when the light from a full moon shone on the water and that as a baby attracted to light, she absorbed its aesthetics. It became one of her four or five primal experiences. “Moonlight on the Mississippi” became the name of many of Nancy Purington’s works: watercolors, paintings, gouache, pastels, and digital photography.

But, when I picked up an art catalogue on my way out of the Dubuque Museum of Art on July 31st, it was the catalogue’s cover of ice and snow, and the words NANCY PURINGTON/TWELVE VIEWS OF WATER that first drew me in. Winter! Water, 12 Views! Interesting. Who is this Nancy Purington?

2004, ICE SNOW IKAT, gouache on paper 6” X 8.75”
A small gouache painting, observation of a Mississippi River scene of white snow on indigo colored ice shaped into this zig-zag water design patterned by the wind.

It wasn’t until the morning after I woke up in my own bed at home in Lawrence, Kansas, and reached for the catalogue that I got to Purington’s Moonlight on the Mississippi series. Spring, summer, fall.

2007, MOONLIGHT ON THE MISSISSIPPI, digital photographic print, 22” X 28”
Photographic capture of the full moon inscribing its name on the indigo waters of the river.

Something was kicking in for me about my own childhood memories of water. Here’s one: Moonlight beaming on black water at midnight in summertime in Norway. The light created a luminous path across the Skagerrak. So mysterious, so enticing, so beautiful. As a child, it made me want to be the water touched by that magical light.

No need for my meditation book that morning. I became what Nancy Purington caught fly-fishing with her digital camera:

… the flecks of gold shining on the water

…the wavy lines of gold and azure

…the churning granite waves

…point, line, curve

…Lake MacBride with diamonds

…infinity in

These shots caught on the fly brought Purington home to visions of the Mississippi she had absorbed all along as a child. The Mississippi became her great teacher then and now. From this base, she recreated with formal training and a lifetime of developing her work as an artist what she experienced primordially living on the Mississippi River. TWELVE VIEWS OF WATER touring exhibit, gives to the world in various forms of art “the continuation and culmination of thousands of hours of living, observing, tasting, smelling, dreaming and otherwise being touched by the Mississippi River.” (Barbara Christensen, Director, Muscatine Art Center)

Purington’s work nourishes my mind and creativity. It is an intellectual and seeming kinesthetic exploration that offers what it knows, leaving room for what you know to find balance and harmony with it.

I can be all her different shapes in “Flotsam & Jetsam.” I can be her little warning triangle in “M.M.5,” her waves in “New Wave,” her fiery rectangles glowing from underneath folding sheets of indigo blue in “Prelude (in the dark).”

Nancy Purington’s Twelve Views of Water invites you in.

A few highlights from Nancy Purington’s Artist Vitae: Kansas City Art Institute BFA Painting, Nelson Atkins Group Invitational: The Pleasure of Pattern 1987; Jeune Peinture 39e, Grand Palais Paris 1988; J.P. Morgan Library, research access 2001; Major Iowa Artist Grant, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs 2006; Launch of Twelve Views of Water touring exhibition, 2009: Muscatine Art Center, Waterloo Center for the Arts, Clear Lake Art Center, Dubuque Art Museum.
For more information on this artist, go to nancylpurington.com

Why I Keep Letters

Perhaps I intuitively understood from an early age that my life would encompass loss. People, places, things. Whatever the case, when I was sent a letter from say my great-grandfather, Bompa, I kept it. From my grandmother in England, her missives were read, then put in a drawer. From my American friends once we moved to England, letters arrived to let me know what was going on in my native country and to let me know even as the years passed I was still missed. Those went in my top drawer. My Norwegian grandmother never wrote me. Her English wasn’t very good. But, I remember she visited Italy once and sent me a rosary. (It was made of a chain with rosaries of mother of pearl–from that trip.) I took a lot of pains to open the chain with pliers, put it around my neck and pinched the chain link closed so that I could wear it to school. Everyone there thought it was weird. You don’t wear a rosary, I was told. I undid it again at the end of the day and regretfully put it in my jewelry box where it has remained ever since–a sort of perennial love jewelry letter–which blooms every time I open the box.

But, I am digressing. There were the adventures of being a military policeman in the very north of Norway captured in pen from my Norwegian boyfriend, which buoyed me up amidst a disintegrating family when I was still living in England. Reassuring letters arrived from my first real American boyfriend back in America when we were on different educational plans in college. Unlike me, he was attending college in the summer, and the reassurance he offered me was because he knew I was not tolerating our separation well. Then years later when I was poor, I received in the mail a hand-drawn advertisement–a birthday invitation–for a ski holiday in Zermatt, Switzerland from a man who was rich. Later still, there was the E.E. Cummings poem that came via post thirteen blocks from west 72nd street to west 85th in NYC from a man I had just met that pretty much sold me on him before I knew one real thing about him. Three of these boyfriends turned into husbands, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that words on paper had something to do with the outcomes.

Words in letters are living breathing spirits to me. Or can be. You can so easily return to them and read the intent of the person who wrote them: A well meaning great-grandfather to his great-granddaughter, a jealous sister to a jealous sister, a father who abandoned his family to his bereft daughter, a troubled son to his guilty mother, a boyfriend who forgave and never forgot. When the great-grandfather, grandmothers, father and mother, lovers and husbands are gone, the letters are still there. When there has been a rift, forgiveness can still take place. Opened, each one is a little piece of history in the making. For a few moments, each one gives me back these people and a piece of myself is restored.

Norway Part XIV

One word best describes the ghost of my mother, her people, and her land:

GRIT.

Those long cold dark winters.

The earth, mostly mountains.

The heavy arctic sea.

The dazzling but brief summer light.

All of these elements are climate conditions that created “bone in the nose” of its inhabitants.

My mother is gone. But she has left us “this strength…this example of grit” to return to.

You feel her presence at her cabin. The presence of my grandparents whispers in the wind. You don’t have to duck your head in shame at loss–as with my father–because though my mother’s heritage is chipped and beaten, there it still stands… rugged and, in some places, quite tall.

That’s Mom as a young woman at the front of the line of skiers, waving her ski pole in the air.