A sense of place

So often I read calls for submissions that say something about looking for work that has a sense of place. Sometimes, when I see this I stop and wonder about place. For most of my adult life I have felt rootless. I have lived in places, but the constant seems to be the need or want to live someplace else. It kind of is an affliction in my family. I can’t blame anyone for it. We are still trying to find our place here after three generations or two or a mix there of. My family is from Sicily. I have family there, but I haven’t seen most of them in almost 20 years. I grew up in various places in metro Detroit, mostly Canton, but when I go back I don’t really know anyone there anymore. My immediate family is scattered, across continents and across oceans. It seems like we are always searching for something, a kind of home, a kind of place.

This weekend I went on a pilgrimage of sorts. It wasn’t a long pilgrimage. We just made a short trip south to St. Marys, Ohio, where my husband, Jay, was born and lived for a part of his childhood. In our nine years of marriage we have never made the trip. We passed St. Marys multiple times and every time Jay would say, “There’s St. Marys.”  Not only is St. Marys where Jay was born, but his parents grew up there. He has roots there. He has family there.

We traveled to St. Marys for a wedding, Jay’s cousin Sherri’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding. What made it beautiful more than the flowers or the church or the food was the intense family rooted in place vibe, a vibe I really haven’t felt a part of in a long time–if ever. I met Sherri’s longtime friend, briefly, and I listened as she laughed with another cousin about stories of when they were young. People were there because they love Sherri and her family and still know them and still live near them. In essence it was a small community in all the small community kind of ways I’m sure, but I realized that more than them being rooted in place, place is rooted in them. Perhaps this is sentimentalizing everything a bit, but I envy these scenarios sometimes. I envy the real sense of belonging people have when they are rooted somewhere. I envy Jay’s parents that they can go back home to St. Marys and see people they know and care about, people who still live in their hometown or have a strong connection to it. I envy Jay in that his cousins really are not that far away. They are my family now. I do know that, but I am not from a place like St. Marys. Still, I have searched for that sense of place often. I spent years at a small community newspaper trying to make place and roots kind of happen, but none of that can be made intentionally. It just happens over generations, over time. Perhaps, that’s why I am always stopped by that term “a sense of place.” I am an observer of it more than a participant. Hopefully, my children will have more of it than I have.

This morning, we woke and had breakfast lakeside at Grand Lake, the lake where Jay’s mom grew up. After, we drove around the lake and saw the house that Jay’s mom grew up in and then the house Jay lived in as a little boy and the house that Jay’s dad lived in as a boy. I heard how Jay would steal away from home to go to the pool when his mom wasn’t looking. I heard all kinds of stories and appreciated being immersed, for even a brief time, in this sense of place.

Regardless of all of it I feel that place isn’t just about place. It is about the people that are rooted in that place and deeply connected with it. It is Grand Lake and two towns where everyone knows each other. It is the rocky shore and the old little cottages that haven’t been dozed for bigger lake homes. It is the history of the lake itself. It  It is the winding neighborhood streets that lead to town. It is the fact that Jay’s parents can return to that place year after year and find friends and family welcoming them back. Now that I know that, I will work with that. I will understand that a little better when I see those calls and when I set my characters in place and set place in them.

Unfortunately, I was so captivated by place in this sense, I didn’t take the time to photograph the lake or anything. Oh well.

For Cristina without an H

For my entire life I have been two people. A real Cristina and an imagined Christina. I am Cristina, named after a client my mother had when she worked as a hairstylist that many years ago. TI am Cristina couldn’t eat at the table without a wet dishcloth because I would go into an instant hissy fit if food got on her face or hands and there was nothing to wash it off with. I am Cristina, an introvert who prefers the quiet of her home over public places, but can pass as an extrovert, though it will wear me out immensely at the end of the day. I am Cristina, who can’t hit a basket to save my life (or a net with a puck or…the list goes on). That being said, I did nearly start a one-girl stand-off in a pet store when the clerk told me that a dog that they were giving away free would be killed if it didn’t get a home soon. I am the real Cristina, who studied sports medicine because it was easy, but ached to be an artist, which I knew was going to be the most difficult, gut-wrenching path to follow. I am the real Cristina, who had cancer at 38 and knows now I won’t live forever, but doesn’t really know what to do with that information. TI am Cristina who cries at the littlest things, always has, Cristina who loves her children fiercely and thinks they are worth a million times more than the gross domestic product, Cristina who is generally a hot unorganized mess and readily admits it after arguing that she is trying her best and Cristina who wants to read and write more than she actually does those things and wants literary success but kicks and screams for the paltry little windows of time she has to make that happen.

For Cristina without an "H"

For Cristina without an “H”

For nearly all of my life people have been trying to change my name, trying to give my alter-ego its due. No matter how I often I say I am Cristina without an “H,” the “H” finds its way in. At times it has been nothing short of a migraine-inducing inconvenience. There have been legal documents that have had to be rewritten, applications that have had to be re-entered. Once I didn’t get paid for work because the bank couldn’t be sure that I was the person named on the check because there was an “H” typed in the name, though my last name Trapani-Scott is so unique that in the global community of the World Wide Web there isn’t one single other person with my exact name, H-less or otherwise. In recent years, I have even caught myself by surprise as I slip that H in there as I type my name. Sometimes, I do wonder what it might be like to be Christina with an “H.” Would she be all those things I never could be? Would she be charming and witty? Would she have always known what she wanted and be well on her way to solving issues of world peace while showing off her mad dribbling skills? Would she always know what to say to her children, know how to comfort them and protect them from sadness? Would she know how to bake the perfect cookies (Oh, I already know how to do that when the oven works correctly)? Would she have jumped that fast track to literary success and have that quiet little bungalow writing space set far off in a quiet corner of the yard where she is not bothered until she emerges? Would she, would she, would she?

Ah, but I am not Christina with an “H.” I will never be Christina with an “H.” I am Cristina without an “H.” I am not really two people and really I have Andrei Codrescu to thank for reminding me of that. He gave a reading here near my home. I, of course, had to go. I am a huge fan of his NPR commentaries. His voice, with that thick Romanian accent, draws me in and his words keep me in a space that makes long commutes dissipate into a space where I feel like I am being read to personally. Hearing that voice again with out the distraction of keeping my eyes on the road was that much better. After his reading, I purchased a book for which he signed. I told him to sign it to Cristina without an “H” (habit, of course). He had read a poem that evening that mentioned a Swedish princess named Christina. “Not with an “H” like Princess Christina?” he asked. I said, no. Then he signed the book. I didn’t look at it until I was in the car and on the road back home. In the darkness of the moving car I shined a flashlight that revealed the following inscription, “For Cristina without an ‘H.’” Yes, Andrei, here’s to Cristina without an “H.”

I shoulda known: How I became a writer

So, I’m participating in this little writing contest all about telling the story of when you knew you were a writer. It’s called You Are A Writer and is being hosted by blogger Bryan Hutchinson of Positive Writer.

All the signs were there, but I was never good at reading signs. I struggled with elementary school, mostly because I was living in some fantastic place in my head instead of paying attention to lessons. I suffered for my art, even back then. All that living in my head meant I never did well enough to sit in the loft and eat popcorn like all those obedient students who were happy enough paying attention and finishing their work. Because of my less than stellar performance, no one was beating down the door saying this kid might be a writer, though a really astute teacher might have.

Of course, I didn’t know at the time that living in those fantastic worlds in my head were signs of being a writer. I wasn’t  really any more interested in books than the next kid, that is except for the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I read those over and over and couldn’t get that old-time simple life world out of my head. It was just another world to collect and daydream about. Still, no one, not even me, thought that made me a writer.

My less than stellar performance in elementary school set the tone in some ways for the rest of school. I did fine in middle school and high school. I passed. I got good grades. Still, I doubt too many teachers remember me.  Again, I read, but no more than the next guy or girl, though I still remember fondly books I read back then. I wouldn’t say I was exceptional in any way. The last thing I imagined anyone would say was, “Hey, she’s a writer.” Because I kind of internalized this attitude, there were two stand out moments in high school that kind of came and went and I didn’t really do much about them. The only two times that I can remember actually getting some kind of really positive, almost startling, feedback from teachers were from stories I had written. One was a story I had written in humanities class. It was supposed to be research based, but I wasn’t into the research. I was into the story, so I wrote it and just did what research I had to do. The teacher loved the story and recommended that I enter it into a contest. I got an A for the story and a D on the research. Still, I never entered it. My over all attitude then was that I wasn’t exceptional and I never win things. The other moment was in French class. Our assignment was to write short stories all in French. My teacher recommended that I translate my story back to English and send it out for publication. Of course, I didn’t do that. What I do remember about those two assignments, more than the brief recognition from teachers, was that for once I really enjoyed assignments in school, well for twice. Still, at that time, I would never have said I was a writer and no one ever told me then to go be a writer. I might have listened, but that’s not something counselors and teachers suggest as a career. I still liked to live in the worlds in my head and even jotted some of them down but never thought I’d be a writer.

Instead, I went to college and studied sports medicine. I somehow landed as far away from writing as I could possibly land. In fact, there was very little writing in my sports medicine courses. There was a lot of taping ankles and watching athletic practices and games. Each year, I wondered more and more why I had chosen sports medicine as I read boring medical texts and sat at boring sports practices. Each year, I picked up more and more novels to read to keep myself from going insane. My roommates couldn’t figure out how I had time to read extra books. I had to get into those worlds. In fact, I began to realize those worlds were a lot like the worlds I lived in in my head as a kid. I enjoyed being in them, being in these worlds other people created. I kept thinking I wanted my worlds on paper. I wanted to explore my imagination. When I graduated with my sports medicine degree, but with no intent on practicing sports medicine, I turned to writing. I wasn’t qualified to do much but tape ankles, so I found myself with a college degree working the same jobs I worked in high school and feeling pretty low about all of it. Writing kept me going. Making the worlds I always lived in the worlds I wanted to share my central focus made me happy. It only evolved from there. Now, I write short stories, poetry, and am working on a novel. I’ve been published. I’ve even had some agents look at my novel manuscript. What makes me a writer though is that I love writing.

I should have known. I could have seen all of those signs. Much later my mother gave me a stack of stuff I did in elementary school that she had saved. Among the construction paper and paste projects were stories that I’d forgotten I had written, stories filled with imaginative detail. They were the beginnings. Even now, I look back at those two high school experiences and really feel like those were defining moments, even if I didn’t get that back then. Yes, I should have known, but what is important is that I know now. This is it. Writing is as necessary as food. It took a while to accept it, but that is just the way it is. I can’t change who I am.

Those darn first lines

From my bookshelf

From my bookshelf

I have struggled, to say the least, with this revision of my novel in progress. It has me tearing my hair out. It has me cutting whole chapters. It has me rethinking the entire novel altogether. The credit for this has to go to my writing team, my group. As frustrating as the process is, I truly appreciate their feedback.

I think the lesson I have focused on most, as of late, is the lesson of first lines. We all know the first line of a book has to grab the reader (or the editor) or the fear is that either won’t look past that first line. First lines are a bit like poetry. They say a lot in as few words possible.

My epiphany is that there are a lot of first lines in a book. For each chapter, there is a new first line that has to be as compelling, if not more so, than the last. Hey, if a book doesn’t keep my interest, I’ll stop reading and move on to the next one. I’ve got too many “to reads” on my bookshelf to mess around.

It’s not easy to get those luscious lines over and over again. In this revision, I’m really looking at how each chapter opens, that is if I keep the chapter. That’s a whole different post. Anyway, I turned to the great Barbara Kingsolver to get a lesson on first lines throughout an entire book. The Bean Trees was what was in reach. I read it years ago, but I could definitely read it again.

First line of the book:

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.

Here we know something about the character. We know her a fear. We know she probably comes from a rural background, a farming background. We know she probably has some grit herself, even if she starts out talking about a fear.

First line of Chapter Two

Lou Ann Ruiz lived in Tucson, but thought of herself as just an ordinary Kentuckian a long way from home.

Again it tells us something about a character, about where she lives and where she is from. We know she is out of her element from that little line. We are compelled about this whole idea of her being out of her element.

First line of Chapter Eight

Of all the ridiculous things, Mama was getting married.

Short and to the point.

All these lines are compelling. All these lines drive the reader to want more. These are just a handful. Now, it’s my turn to go through this revision looking at the lines I’ve chosen. My task is to take them apart and really examining how effective they are at drawing the reader into the next segment of my novel. Well, my work is cut out for me. Cross your fingers. Hopefully, this project will be done by the end of summer.

I will be 45, not 29

From a walk in the woods the week before my 45th birthday.

From a walk in the woods the week before my 45th birthday.

In two days, I will be 45. I am not 29. I was 29 once. I don’t want to keep being 29. I’m 45, or almost 45. I have creases at the corners of my eyes. There are lumps and bumps and sagging places on my body. All of that is because I have lived nearly 45 years. I have lived, sometimes not the way I thought I would, sometimes exactly as I had always pictured it. It all has gone as it has gone. I don’t want to keep being 29. I want to be 45. I want to be 46. I want to be 47 and so on and so on, as long as I can. For now, I’m almost 45 and it’s all been beautiful to this point.

I think of my favorite line from Doctor Who. My kids will laugh at this. I’m an obsessed Doctor Who fan, or Whovian is a fan term I’ve run across, for no other reason than for the imaginative story telling…and the characters…and the monsters…well, you get the idea. In essence, I most appreciate the writers. In this case, for this quote from the episode “Vincent and the Doctor“, the nod goes to Richard Curtis. Anyway, when Amy Pond laments the fact that she and the Doctor couldn’t change the course of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, even after carting him to the future in the TARDIS to see how important he became, the Doctor tells her, “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.” As the daughter of a painter and the granddaughter of an artisan shoemaker, I loved the “Vincent and the Doctor” episode most. I loved the idea, even in pretend, that Vincent could get a chance to see what he gave the world.

But, this post isn’t about Doctor Who. This post is about life and birthdays and about how that line from Doctor Who resonates so deeply in my life. It’s about how life, my life, is all one big messy ball with frayed strands of disheveled threads hanging everywhere, but it’s a beautiful ball nonetheless. I can’t help it. I can’t make excuses. I can only say that’s the way it is and I would gladly have more. Even on the worst of the worst days, I would gladly have more. Perhaps we won’t make as profound an impact as Vincent. Perhaps we will. The point is we can’t know. We can’t go and see. Somewhere, though, for someone, we still exist. We still make an impact, but we do it for celebrating what is now. We do it by celebrating this wild and crazy beautiful life with all these disheveled diversions. As much as I might whine about them, I love them. I would not change them. I wouldn’t even ask the Doctor to change them.

So on Saturday, toast 45 with me, toast your own age, toast the lines and the sags and the bad and, most of all, the good. It’s what we have. It’s what we’ve earned. It’s all very, very important. Someone might even say it’s the most important thing in the whole universe.

When resolutions are resolved

We hear so much about how people make resolutions and then consequently fail at keeping them. We are inching ourselves further way from the start of the New Year, but I wanted to write a little success story. Each year I declare either that I am never making another resolution again or that I am resolving to start running, to get back in shape and any number of other things related to health. Last year, I made a resolution to go deeper than that, to start from further outside myself.

Authors of the book Life at Home in the 21st Century note that “For more than 40,000 years, intellectually modern humans have peopled the planet, but never before has any society accumulated so many personal possessions.”

I would have to say that in my life this was indeed true. I looked all around and there was stuff. I felt its heaviness. Even before I saw statistics, I felt overwhelmed by it all, so last year I resolved to lose the excess weight caused by accumulating stuff. In fact I put it like this on my Facebook status, “New Year’s resolution: Lose weight, but not body weight, material goods weight. In essence, I just want to purge all the junk and open up some peaceful space for family togetherness and writing.”

I actually did it, or a good chunk of it anyway. Here is how I did it. I let go of the emotional attachment to things. I thought about what would ultimate serve my dreams of becoming a writer and what would hinder them. I thought about how I have grown and don’t need to hold on to too many keepsakes from a time when I was someone I no longer really know. In essence, I am letting go of yesterday and not getting caught up in what I think I might need tomorrow.

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My latest Goodwill pile.

Along with letting things go, I understand that this kind of transformation is a process. It can’t all be done at once, though in my case I get focused and before I know it I have gutted the basement. By making it a resolution at the start of last year, I understood that  it would take a year or more to do this. Throughout the year, piles formed at my front door. Piles I would take to the nearby Goodwill store. I have one now consisting of bags of cookbooks, not the good ones my chef husband has collected, but the ones that I thought I would look at and never have. Now, I have an iPhone with millions or recipes at my fingretips, so there is not need for cookbooks I never looked at in the first place. So, off to Goodwill these books go.

I have succeeded in keeping with my resolution. I have purged load after load of stuff. Goodwill and Freecycle are my friends. It’s amazing how much more there is to get rid of. I have another Goodwill pile growing in my front room. What I learned from the experience and continue to learn is to make peace with the small space I live in. Part of making peace with it is to rid myself of things to open up the small spaces and make them peacful. As part of all this  I have been rearranging things and dusting corners that have not been dusted in years. In fact, I discovered a little book in my bookshelf called “Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life: How to Use Feng Shui to Get Love, Money, Respect and Happiness.” I figured decorating my home with the guide could do me some good. Essentially, the idea is to clearn things up and place things in order to increase the chi, or the universal energy. I will admit a few good things have happened since I began moving things. Whether that’s because I’ve moved my stuff or just because they happened, I do believe that the new placement and the purging has opened the flow of energy, a peaceful energy that allows the the creativity to flow and allows the space for good things.

The resolution, however, does not end. There is more work to do. I have conquered a good chunk of my house. The major projects are done. The year ended with the basement purge. Now, it’s the smaller areas–drawers and cubbies. Things seem less overwhelming. There is space. There is chi. Now, it’s time to honor my creativity.

Rejection

I have recently been conversing with writing friends on the topic of rejection. There is no way to get around it as a writer. If you send work out, you are bound to get rejection letters. Most are of the form letter variety, but once in a while an editor will write a nice note about your work or add helpful suggestions (that might be sugar coating it a bit) for editing the piece. While rejections in any form sting, there are positive ways of looking at the experience.

1. The more rejections you have, the more work you are sending out there. I attended a workshop with author and University of Michigan MFA faculty member Peter Ho Davies many years ago. He said his stories were rejected on average about 12 times before they were accepted. The more stories, poems, essays you get out there, the more you increase your chances that they will be accepted for publication.

2. I always like to evaluate a story after it is returned. If I receive critique from an editor, I try to look at it as a gift. Gifts can be taken or thrown away. If you don’t agree with the gift, or don’t like it, throw it away. It is your work after all. If there is a nugget of truth to the gift, don’t take it personal, play with what is being suggested. I like the word “play,” because that is what it feels like when I am working on stories.

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There is a ghost in my Gothic garden. This is what I spend my time doing when I am not working at the cart or writing.

3. I recently discovered that gardening and weeding and cleaning the yard are nice ways to work off any bad feelings associated with rejections and life, for that matter. It’s always good to step away and keep things in perspective. I could reiterate the stories of all kinds of famous writers who received harsh critique and rejection, but all you have to do is type something like “rejected authors” in Google and you’ll find plenty on your own. I figure they are like anyone else making a go at a writer’s life. They too must have felt the pangs of doubt creep in when those notes came in. What did they do about it? They kept going and going and going. They still keep going.

My mother used to tell me when I was running races, you are only as good as your last race. In other words, you keep going, keep trying, keep working to get better. That is really the best way to fight the doubt that comes with rejection.

Dream House, Dream Life

The other night I dreamt of a home that I could easily see as my dream house. Even now, I keep mulling the floor plan over in my head. The front door opened into a family room furnished with antiques in the gold and maroon shades I like so much. That sitting area was to the right of the door with a big picture window adjacent to the door. The room opened to the left, too, where a fully stocked bar sat. Beyond the family room on the right was another living/dining room area. The family room and bar area had a log-cabin interior. The living room was dry-walled and painted a toned down yellow. The kitchen sat at the back of the house and  was much bigger than the tiny galley kitchen we have now. I could enter the kitchen from the living room/dining room area or through the back hallway where the bedrooms were. In the dream, my house was so beloved that random groups of people would meet there or have photos taken there, even though I lived there.

Yes, I could see myself there, maybe not with all the random people, however.

Why am I going into detail about this? Well, the house felt like home. It felt like a dream home on so many levels. It got me thinking about my dreams and aspirations. So often I get caught up in the “should do” mentality, i.e. I should be substitute teaching today because that will put some cash in the bank. That is when I lose sight, first, or what I have already done, and, second, of what I really want to do.

I already have been happily teaching quite a few classes. I already have been picking up a few regular freelance writing assignments. In essence, I left my full-time job to teach, to freelance, and to help build our food business. All of it was meant to get me closer to home and to get me closer to doing what I want to do the way I want to do it. That’s what I am doing. I am essentially in my dream home, not the one in my dream, but the one I am creating for me. In creating that dream home/life I realized that I always wanted to freelance, but feared the uncertainty of it. I am often one to try to see the signposts along the road. Lately, I have been doing some freelance work that I have been fortunate to get with little effort. To me, that’s a sign. That’s the universe telling me to keep doing what I want to do, giving me a little taste of that so I’ll get down to business and begin seeking more of that. That is why I have foregone the subbing for today. That is why, starting today, I am committing to my goal of building my freelance life, building my dream life, building my dream house. Essentially, I am living it already. I am realizing that building the dream life means living the dream life not sitting in some distant setting imagining what that life might be.

Keeping it simple

I have these Schoolhouse Rock song lyrics repeating over and over in my head, “Mother necessity, where would we be?” It resurfaced from my childhood as I fed my big dog Maynard while waiting for my morning coffee to percolate. I have been thinking about the meaning of necessity lately as I have systematically held to my New Year’s Resolution of purging. I look at certain things and question more and more whether they are really needed. The lesson I am learning through all of this is that less really is more, is that what we think is making our lives simpler might just be making it more of a hassle.

Take my computer, for instance. This week, it died. Kid Two got a virus on it. It was an old computer that should have been replaced a year ago and would have, were it not for my husband being a technical guru. My computer, it turns out is a necessity, a necessary evil is more like it. I need it to do things like write on this blog, or compose the six freelance articles I’m working on or organize materials for the three college classes that I teach. Still, it is a time sucker. The fact that my husband can make a six-year-old laptop still run means he spends countless hour debugging and reformatting and cussing up a storm in the process because he had better things to do.

Moving on. I drink coffee. I love coffee. I can’t be without coffee for very long. I’ve tried and I always go back. Still, coffee makers, the ones made to make life easier, have only given me headaches. I once received one of those coffee makers with a built in grinder, which was indeed a really nice gift. Still, the grinder only held so many beans and would get wet from the steam and clog and stick so that I would have to take a knife to it. Eventually, I killed it trying to get the parts to work right. I also killed at least one expensive coffee maker at my old job, and the hand me down I had been using at home overflowed every once in a while, making a huge mess all over the counter. None of the coffee makers ever made coffee the way I like it, so I went into the garage and fished out the percolator I used once or twice while camping. Best coffee I’ve ever had. No mess, no fuss and surprisingly it doesn’t really take that much longer to make.

This week we also lost our dryer. We didn’t physically lose it. It’s a big appliance. It’s kind of hard to miss. We lost the use of it. That’s when it dawned on me that the thing took too much energy anyway. It ran too often. I thought of when I visited my sister in the Netherlands and how she, a full-time working mom, managed to hang dry her clothes even with an infant who messed up a whole lot of clothes. I decided to do the same. Hang clothes, that is. I am in no way shape or form going through the infant thing again. What strikes me as odd and refreshing all the same is that hanging clothes to dry has somehow made doing laundry less of a chore, which seems counterintuitive. Sure, I have a rack of drying clothes standing in my front room, but I don’t have three baskets of dry clothes that need folding staring at me on a daily basis. I no longer do a bunch of laundry at once. I do a load a day and pull the pieces off the rack throughout the day.

With each step, I feel like I am becoming strangely more efficient and at the same time reducing my impact on the environment where I can. So, I guess the question to ask is, does “easier” necessarily make things “simpler”? I am finding the reverse. Simpler is easier.