There Is No Such Thing as a New Year

The new year. There are lists of resolutions. Parties to go to. A new calendar to buy. It’s easy to propel yourself forward through it, working hard to forget what you didn’t do the year before. So many projects left unfinished, so many broken promises to yourself or others.

I don’t think laziness or failure is the problem here. I think it’s the way we mark off our time. I don’t like this roll-over model. I don’t like this clock-bound mode of thinking. That time is a resource hoarded. We spend it like money. I’m not the first, and sure as hell not the last to say so.

So forget New Year’s. Forget it. Bury it under a mountain of something else. Pull back on the reins. Slow down. Look back longly instead: you had a long road from beginning to now. You have done many things. You have learned many things. Instead of breaking it down into little one year chunks and berating yourself for what you have not accomplished (or what you know you’ll say you’ll accomplish and won’t in the next year), look to the arc of your whole life. What marrow have you sucked from its bones?

And if you come up dry… today, TODAY do something strange and delicious and powerful. Volunteer. Write your first poem in years. Draw that comic strip you always wanted to. Just one. Not all the strips. Just one. Why put off until tomorrow what you could be reveling in right now? Because there is right now, or there is never. Not a new year, but a new instant. And you’re here. And why not?

Lit Bit: A Recommendation

While most folk are celebrating with their families, or going out for Chinese food, I am cleaning and reading. I’m finishing up a short story collection by Ursula K. Le Guin. I know, I know, big surprise that I’m reading Le Guin. Her prose is always a favorite of mine.

But I wanted to pipe up today: if you ever have a chance, read The Compass Rose. It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Of late, I’ve read a lot of short stories. I’ve been licking screen prose from Daily Science Fiction, popping Bradbury like candy, and rolling in Stanislaw Lem. I keep returning to Le Guin, though. There is something about the way she handles human relationships that makes almost every story achingly beautiful.

The Compass Rose is arranged not just around the cardinal directions, but up and down: Zenith and Nadir. There are six sections, then, and the tales themselves relate in theme (for instance, west for death, dying, age and endings) or direction of travel to the section in which they’re included.

Take, for instance, “Gwilan’s Harp.” It’s in the West section, and is the story of a life changed course through the breaking of a harp, it’s the tale of an ordinary woman’s life with an extraordinary gift. No great glory, no fortune to find, just a family life, and an old age. And the simple realization that “…you play the instrument you have.” There is power in this, power in the familiar, the ordinary. There is more truth in it than great imaginings or vast battles and worlds changed. Worlds change in a eye blink and at a snail’s pace. And change’s agents are so many that we are all carrying a single grain of rice to fill a storehouse. But this is Le Guin’s art.

Or “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which was also printed in Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Visitations. Movement as text. Humans are not alone on this rock. It leads off the collection, and takes the breath away.

I am leafing through “Sur” now, an all women’s expedition to the Antarctic. As the volume closes, the old familiar feeling of sadness at a book’s end is creeping up on me. Anthony Burgess awaits me when I’m finished, and A Clockwork Orange is not nearly so inviting a text.

If you have something of a winter break, a few spare days for New Years set aside to read, pick up The Compass Rose. It’s worth it. Perhaps it will leave you haunted. If it does, you’re welcome.

A Ritual Urge

I am keeping vigil for the sun. It is a simple act. Every year, on the solstice night, I stay up through the dark hours, and come daylight, I eat an orange that for a moment I hold to the sky.

Let’s not lie. Most years, not each year. Some years I get grouchy, and give up, “What use is this?” Some years I fall asleep, just before lighting the candle that will keep vigil in my stead. And some years are like this, when I work the first part of the night, and am alone deep into the wee hours, knowing I’ll make it.

Despite the fact that I have no literal belief in any deity, despite the fact that my religious leanings are purely poetic, I find power in this ritual. There is something that is for me correct in marking the seasons, in syncing with the dirtball on which I was born and live and toil and will die. I call it my ritual urge.

I am not alone in this. A few no-longer-Catholic friends tell me that even though they do not believe in god as such, do not believe in the dogmas of the church, that they find something peaceful and beautiful in the mass. I can see why. It is not true of everyone. But I do think humans have a general urge to mark off, to make special. Weddings. Graduations. Award ceremonies. The lighting of the effigy at Burning Man.

Perhaps it is not universal, but it is vast. People making events do a lot of work, standing in for other ideas. Taking on extra meanings. What does it mean when you don a black gown, and receive a piece of paper? What does it mean when the desert is awash with EL wire, and we dance with fire hurtling about our bodies? What does it mean?

Tonight is no different. I am keeping vigil for the sun. It is a simple act. Come morning, I will pull the light up from the bottom of a well, from the bottom of the night with a kiss and an orange. These mean many things.

Lit Bit: Good Practice

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a writer was to write a little bit every day. It didn’t have to be a lot. It didn’t have to be a huge chunk of something. It just had to be “enough.” Enough varies. Enough can be ten minutes of free writing. Enough can be two hours of leisurely prose. Enough can be half an hour pumped into the craft of a fifteen line poem. It depends on the day. But write.

The thing of it is, I am a procrastinator. Not only am I a procrastinator, I have ADHD to boot. My attention wanders around like a mayfly. It’s a hard thing to sit still long enough to finish chunks of a novel.

Now, I’d already had an inkling in this direction, as I almost had a “system” to do this sort of thing, but my father crystallized it for me on the way back to Miami in the moving expedition. He’d recently heard this piece of advice somewhere, and since I had hit upon having a couple writing projects in the wings, it gelled. You put things off? Heap on more doings. That’s right. Fill your plate heaps high with things to do, and instead of putting off and dragging heels over just a few painful tasks, cherry pick your favorite to-do items off a list of 100. You’ll get more done. And it will be like candy.

The same is true in writing: with a bazillion projects to attack, you will power through the easiest, the tastiest first. Having trouble on your novel? Been meaning to write a short story? Switch tasks. The short story’s revision got you tearing out your hair? What about that poem you wanted to write? You will get more writing done. Then the rule of sheer practice kicks in: since you’re doing the tastier writing, you’re writing more, practicing more. When you’re avoiding a task, you’re not doing it. Your skills rust like tools left in a damp shed. By switching tasks, you get more writings accomplished. Your volume of production increases. And that’s just the practical side. Never mind the sheer glee of it, the feel of finishing a piece, or the scratch of a pencil on paper, or the marvelous clatter of fingers on keys.

So I wanted to say, thanks Dad, for passing along the good advice. And seriously, if that pencil is dragging, keep your to-do list long.

Moving Days

I hate moving. It used to be a neutral thing, an adventurous thing, but like most adults, I’ve done it so many times now, it’s painful. That’s what I was doing today. Moving.

It never fails to stir up a hornet’s nest. In past moves, going back to the old place brought up wistfulness: the trace of lavender and sugar cookie. Or brought up an aching nostalia: lemon pine floor cleaner and jasmine tea. Personal smells that haunt a place like a ghost.

Today, I wasn’t even move to anywhere new. I was just moving a lot of stuff out from an old place. Instead of wistful sad sweet, the place was hung with a cloud of dread. This was a pit. Port Charlotte. I don’t want to badmouth the place. I just can’t live here. It is the home of my depression, my anorexia. It was where I was raped. There is no public transit. The libraries close early on Fridays. Some aren’t even open on Mondays. The sidewalks roll up around 6pm. The only places open through the night are as follows: a Walmart; a Denny’s, a Wafflehouse. On weekends, so is the IHOP over the bridge in Punta Gorda. Even the best coffee in town shut down; Mrs. McDougall’s is no more. Port Charlotte is a suburb of nowhere.

It isn’t hard to see why coming back, even for this task, would leave me so drained. Like Spider Jerusalem, I hate it here. It’s hard to work up the energy to sort, pack, discard, box. It’s hard to imagine what possessed me to ever consent to live here. This is a place for other people. Not me.

The house I used to live in looks like a rodent’s den, uncleaned. The pall is palpable. My old books are laced with spiderwebs. The looming foreclosure casts strange shadows into the corners. It’s hard to find the things I once found dear.

This is it, though. Anything left is gone for good. I just can’t seem to work up the energy here to care. I want to go home. I miss Miami. I miss Fort Lauderdale. I want to go out to the Original Fat Cat’s and down a cider. I want to go explore the coffeeshops dotted throughout. I want to bum around with friends playing shesh besh ’til dawn. I want this right now.

Instead, I’m exhausted, haunted, and posting late.

Lit Bit: Reading Habits in a Digital Age

I realized something a while ago. As much as I love technology, as much as I find computers to be a comfort, I cannot make myself cozy with an e-reader. It makes me wonder if anyone else has had this adaptive dilemma.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Story, don’t tell me you’re a Luddite!” I can assure you, I’m not. While I flirt with the notion of older technologies, and I stop to wonder at where new modes of communication may take our cognition, I by no means think our devices, our screens, our intarwebs are a bad thing. They are mixed blessings, but blessings all the same.

At first I thought that it was just that tablets and e-readers felt too much like computers to me, but I soon realized I was wrong. No, the reason I can’t quite work with an e-reader is that all my learning is in my body. When I think, I have to move or gesticulate wildly. I have to locate a notion in physical space in order to rough it out, give it a relative position adjacent to me, and the other thoughts on my mental table. I learn and create positionally. Relatively. In terms of reading, I need to hold a physical object. Not had to do, right? An e-reader, like a brick or book, can be thrown at a person.

Ah! But my recall of the text aligns with its physical being. When I remember a non-fiction passage, I remember the physical location of the paragraph within the text. I remember whether it’s on the right or left side (even if I can’t remember right from left in general), I remember how deep into a text a piece of information was found, and the general shape of the surrounding paragraphs. Without a physical book to delve into, my recall of a text drops.

It doesn’t disappear. It doesn’t evaporate entirely. But the change is noticeable. Annoying. More so now that the bulk of my reading is on a screen. Even just the physical act of turning a page cements something in my head.

A touch screen helps. Flipping pages in a manner where I “directly” manipulate the text makes a difference. But then I have no physical marker of how deep into a text I am. There is a visual one, yes, but a tablet doesn’t thicken at one end and thin at the other as you move through pages. The whole concept of a page loses meaning when you can resize the letters to better suit your vision. The entire idea of physical orientation then goes up in smoke, as does the information on the right side or left side, the shape of the surrounding text as a marker of location.

It is an odd thing to notice, really. I want to embrace this technology. After all, I blog, tweet, and I’m formatting my chapbook for the Kindle. And as I’ve said, this hobble is not a crippling one, though it is a hobble. It’s just painful to watch a familiar and tried technique fall by the wayside.

Now the question is: will I find a technology to adapt these new modes of text distribution to my learning patterns, or will I develop new ways to reposition a text in my brain in order to properly digest it?

What things have changed about your modes of digesting books? Have you noticed any stumbling blocks of your own in trading page for screen?

A Long Way from There

Trains, well, I’d only ever ridden on the subway before. That, and the restored trains that ran through Connecticut, green and gold through the wooded hills, pointing out historic points in the landscape. Maybe the BART counted, too. With my Easy Card in hand instead of a paper ticket, I didn’t quite know what to do. The swipe terminal was for transfers only. So I stood on the platform, wondering how to go about this thing, this riding the train. I was off to a job training 45 miles from my home, blearing into the six a.m. sunrise.

This is my favorite kind of mundane adventure, at least these days, even though I can remember it in my body, in the sweat on my brow and the clenching in my chest what it felt like the first time I took public transit alone.

Down underground, a turnstile to one side, and the BART line that ran all the way up Telegraph Avenue beyond. On my side was a machine. Where you got your tickets. Paid your fare. Gained entrance. I walked up to the machine, set into the wall, and the directions swam in front of me.

It wasn’t just the directions. There were people behind me. There were people tapping feet. There were people shifting uncomfortably. And I could not read the directions. I could not make them make sense. One more frustrated sigh… it didn’t even take that. They knew I had no idea what I was doing. They knew. So I fled.

Back up the stairs, running east (ish), two blocks, before I hunched in the shadow of a high-rise. Back against cool stone in the October air, I slid, shirt dragging, back scratched, until I was crouched safely away from the BART. People walked by. They were looking at the weird girl who had started talking to herself.

Do you know what I said?

“Hey, Story. It’s okay. It’s okay. First, take as long as you need to get calm,” I said aloud to myself. People gave me wide berth.

“First, breathe. Good deep breaths. There. That’s it. Now, I want you to know you have permission to be a freaking weirdo. You have permission to not know how to do a thing.”

Okay, so far so good. I’d stopped crying, and my chest didn’t feel as though it was under an elephant.

“Good. Good. You’re breathing again. I want you to stand up, slow or fast as you want to…”

I shot up and brushed myself off.

“… and I want you to walk slowly back to the station.”

West it was. I went back down the stairs, and faced the ticketing machine again.

“Take your time. Read all the directions. Don’t worry about people behind you.”

So I took a good eight minutes to look over the fares, and calculated the exact amount based on the tables given and where I’d hop off. It’d be a long walk from the station up to UC Berkley, and the co-op where my friend lived. But that was in the future. With a steady confidence, I pressed the buttons, and the machine spat out my pass. Then I checked in through the turnstiles. And I was on my way.

Standing on the Tri Rail platform, I thrilled at the flutter of wind as the train pulled up, no idea how to handle my Easy Card. It didn’t seem so big a deal. In retrospect, neither did the BART. But this is Story-now looking back on Story-then, and they are not the same person. I am trying to uncover her, this me who was afraid to buy a ticket. She’s been all but erased, and I can barely make out her shape when I look back over my shoulder. I want to hug her and tell her that it’s all going to be okay, look at how she’ll turn out. Maybe I already have.

But for the day at hand, I stepped into the car, and off to work.

Lit Bit Late

I don’t read enough anymore. I hate saying that. It’s like something uncomfortably acidic on my tongue. Rather, I don’t read enough novels. I keep plugging away at One Hundred Years of Solitude and making little headway, meanwhile I’ve been popping short fiction like candy. Daily Science Fiction has helped with that, giving me a short story per day. On the days that no fiction arrives in my inbox, I find myself picking up Lem and Le Guin, Bradbury and Chopin. That last just to add variety. One can’t live by science fiction alone.

I keep thinking about an article I’d read some years ago in The Atlantic about information overload, snippet distribution of information, and human attention span. There’s been a great deal of debate on the topic. While I at times agree with Carr (I think Benedict Andersen’s thesis bears on this— how maps, clocks, and newspapers helped allow for the rise of nationalistic thinking, and I know how even a technology such as writing itself can impact the way people think), that something may just well be happening to the way people read, I hadn’t noticed this much in my life, until now. Is my fiction consumption pattern altered by the digital age?

The best I can guess is probably, and likely not in the ways that Carr posits. I wonder if my experience really matches Carr’s thesis, or if I’ve just gotten busier. Despite my cramped schedule, I leave vast empty swathes in my day just to collect thoughts, arrange words. I will sit with a single poem for half an hour wringing every sweet drop of juxtaposition from it. These are not the habits of someone who has fundamentally altered their brain to better exist in a world of clips and headlines hanging textless. In fact, I blog about old ideas. I lay out long essays. Is this the mark of someone who can’t focus on a single task?

Maybe. When my gmail is open and facebook is up and my cell phone is on, these are hard to do. Every now and again, I shut them off, log out, and read a short story. I like a good long short story. It has cohesion and impact. Anything up to 7,000 words. Sometimes longer. Just what it needs to be.

Am I becoming more distractable? I posted my Lit Bit late. You tell me.

Eulogies: Everything I Wanted to Say

I do not write this as an offense.  I do not write this out of spite.  That’s not true.  I write this out of spite, but not for her.  It’s spite for a system of glossing over all the bad things, spite because we are encouraged to remember things in black and white: the good old days, the simpler times, the people who hurt us who are now deceased.  We never want to say bad things of the dead.

My aunt was nothing so bad as that.  She was my aunt.  She was human.  I wanted to go to her memorial when she died in 2007 and say, “She was a brick-headed ox of a woman.  She was a Republican, and she was very good at not listening.  I think Rush Limbaugh himself taught her the art of the shout-down.”  I wanted to say, “She never read fiction, but she read mine, and liked it.”  I wanted to say, “Once she sent a children’s story I wrote off to Scholastic without my knowing in order to get it published.  I was both honored and offended that she hadn’t asked first.”  She told my mother I worshipped Satan, even after I, the mysticskeptic, explained to her about goddesses and mythic reinterpretation.  She had a hard time learning chess from me.  Maybe I was just a bad teacher, but she dutifully wrote down all the ways the pieces moved and their values, and the rules of capturing en passant. I was proud of her.  I was proud of her tenacity.  She had such tenacity.

She died of a broken heart.  When she was young, her first husband drowned.  And then, in 1994, a car struck like lightning through a red light, through her husband, my uncle Carl, and rattled her heart in its ribcage.  It never recovered.  Not with a piece of it dead in the driver’s seat.

It’s a slow death that takes thirteen years to get you.  Scarring in her heart tissue.  Not supposed to have wine, but she did.  It was cardiac arrest, but I know better.  She’d told me how empty all those years were.

I felt like a traitor to my cousins’ pain there in the hospital room, but when I had my time with her, I told her, “I know how hard it’s been on you.  I know your sons want you to stay.  You just do what you need to.  We’ll love you no matter what.  Immortality lies on the lips and tongue; I promise I will speak of you.”

I keep my promises.