Here’s a fun exercise for memoir writers. It’s journal-writing combined with word association. This is not “add a new associated word” but write an idea about what this word or phrase means right now. During a cold winter night, as I’m trying to renew myself from a days-long flu bug, I look forward to next week when it warms up to spring and I’ll do some hikes. For now: word games.
Words and Phrases
- Something to learn
- A place
- Guilty pleasure
- Out your window
Avatar is a way to extend yourself to something that represents you, in some other physical form. Most people adorn their social media with photos of themselves, but for accounts that are less personal and more about ideas, I recently fell for a photo of the goddess Ériu, the stone statue with leaves and flowers at the Hill of Uisneach in Ireland. It’s a sacred place in mid-Ireland, which we hopefully will visit in the summer of 2021. At least we are planning another journey there. I use this avatar on my main Twitter account, and I felt that was not just me but the literature I study. Imperfect. Stone-faced. Wide-eyed. Observant. Covered in leaves and flowers. Flawed. Artistic. Fading. Growing. Transient. Ephemeral. Built at one time, but wild now. Summer and autumn.
Something to learn
There are two things I’ve been pondering over in the past year: learning to play guitar better and/or learning Gaelic. I’m also always considering going back to earn a PhD, but sometimes academic people can be boring and strangely competitive, whereas I have a good time studying and learning more about literature every single day, on my own, and it just seems freer this way. I’ve already done two degrees, and have loved learning new things, so I am not trying to knock it–but I don’t feel I need a new credential to help me go anywhere else in life that I couldn’t already go. The idea I’m leaning toward most now is learning a new language. I’m not sure which dialect I might pick up: Irish or Scottish. Whatever, the language is beautiful-sounding and not something people really learn much. I feel the same way about the unique and rare Basque language. I don’t want to learn something broadly used; I want to learn something to keep and hold. To preserve. To just be one more person to help that language not be effaced.
I’m sensing a theme, but didn’t plan it this way. I want to visit County Cork in Ireland, particularly Kinsale. And I want to hang out in the deep summer there with my husband and mom, and any other family who wants to come. I want to watch the fishermen and hear bells and walk the forests. I want to visit all the pubs, especially Mary’s Tap House with its ancient well in the garden. I want to lay back on the cliffs again above the wild North Atlantic and write and fall in love again with that world. I want to do a pilgrimage to the Hill of Uisneach and then go north and take the ferry to Scottland to find the other long-ago relatives’ graves from there.
I can binge-watch “Grey’s Anatomy” because of all the interesting medical things going on, plus it’s an old show and familiar yet new and progressive. I was really disappointed when George O’Malley died and when Christina Yang went to Switzerland and when they killed Derek off. I couldn’t watch the show for a while, but being held up with the flu for a week caught me up on the latest Netflix season anyway. It’s cool how the show always has diverse people–all different faiths and different skin colors and different sexual orientations, and Shonda Rhimes is a funny smart writer, and damn, she makes scenes that make you cry. This is holding me over until Game of Thrones in April, at least.
I keep thinking about this beautiful docu-novel called The Green Gold of Borneo, by Emin Madi, set in Maliau Basin, or Sabah’s Lost World, in Borneo. You kind of wonder how many places in the world are left untouched. This basin may be one of the last places. Emin called it the lost world of Borneo. Absolutely a beautiful book that makes you dream of unexplored places in the world, and hope they stay that way so we can just use our imaginations to make them come alive, while just letting them live as they are without our impact. Then it got me thinking about older fiction compared to contemporary fiction. In some older fiction, there were stories about places not yet widely traveled, so in a sense, the fiction may have been sort of a combo of literary realism and new exploration, fascinating the untraveled reader. An example of this is here. I shudder when I realize we built our world by the force of colonialism, and then not only that but once settling reached out to abuse others with slavery. It’s just so haunting and savage to me. Nowadays the concept of environmental fiction begins to answer to this somewhat but also looks at contemporary viewpoints on things like climate change and the large swath of environmental destruction that began with colonialism. We live in a ghost world, where trees and fresh water and coral reefs and many species are just…going away quickly. And there’s not many places we haven’t been. When I write, it is often to bring those things back or recognize they are disappearing. An upcoming world eco-fiction spotlight, set in Kenya, is a story kind of focused around elephants. I asked the author about animal endangerment. He said that he modeled his approach inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. He said, to bring about caring, instead of saying “The animals are dying!”—it works better to say “Isn’t this animal fascinating and beautiful?” first.
There is not much in the way around me in terms of scent at this precise moment, except for a sugar-free raspberry ice cold drink next to me and the lingering smell of Welsh rarebit I made for dinner. And the way my cat smells. She smells similar to that good and sweet smell of a new baby (she is technically not that old). We have two cats, and they are very loving toward people. My window is cracked open, and someone’s fireplace smoke is wafting. It smells like it did when we used to ice-skate at the outdoor park rinks in the suburbs of Chicago, with big bonfires in the shelters. There is a smell of cold, some kind of peaceful and beautiful scent. I am looking forward to the great summer smells and already am planning my garden. It is going to start warming up considerably this coming week and so I will be getting my hands dirty with the first gardening of the season, which will consist mostly of emptying old pots and germinating some stuff inside. I dream of the earthy soil scents. Red wine on the summer deck. That deep and rich smell of plum and oak and cherry and pepper.
Out your window
My office window looks out over the back yard. It is dark and wintry with pale clouds hiding the moon and the trees in our yard blocking out most of the light from the houses on the next street up the hill. I can see the outlines of cedars. Though it is dark, the melting snow on the grass, deck, and picnic table looks like diamonds and light. Occasionally I hear noises outside. The distant noise of a neighbor opening their door and doing something in their yard. Sounds like they are shaking out a rug. The vague noises of things scurrying or settling in the yard. It is almost spring, so the wildlife is becoming more active again. Already are sightings of cougars and bears nearby, but our yard has its own little ecosystem of bugs and critters and worms and blackberry bushes and wildflowers and trees–mostly cedar trees, though there’s a few deciduous ones. And even though it has been cold and silent lately, the birds sing wild choruses or sometimes just little calls every morning, and it wakes me up nicely.
La Jetée. It’s French for “the jetty,” also known as a viewing pier at an airport. I would have never known this word, even though it was a 1962 French Left bank science fiction film, but–and this is why I love author interviews so much–in another upcoming interview soon, I learned that this film inspired a novel, and so of course I had to learn more about it. And when I learn these things, I always gain new perspectives and connections and wonder: why didn’t I ever know this, or learn this, or think of this? From Wikipedia: In Black and Blue, her study of postwar French fiction, Carol Mavor describes La Jetée as taking “place in a no-place (u-topia) in no-time (u-chronia)” which she connects to the time and place of the fairy tale. She goes on to say “even the sound of the title resonates with the fairy-tale surprise of finding oneself in another world: La Jetée evokes ‘là j’étais’ (there I was)”. By “u-topia”, Mavor does not refer to “utopia” as the word is commonly used; she also describes an ambiguity of dystopia/utopia in the film: “It is dystopia with the hope of utopia, or is it utopia cut by the threat of dystopia.” I know this is supposed to be a writing exercise, and I quoted something, but it’s also a thinking exercise. Damn, I just love learning new things.
I guess this could go into the “Book” word association as well, but I just have to say that my favorite novel of all times is Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. Sometimes books just kind of punch you in the face and change you forever, and this was one of those novels. It’s being adapted for a Netflix series, which makes me happy–as long as it’s done well. First, Márquez’s writing is so wild and flowery it really wakes me up. Seven generations of a family live in a jungle in this town called Macondo, which José Arcadio Buendía builds after a dream he had about this city, which is is surrounded by water and mirrors. Only for several generations, Macondo is isolated from the outside world, except for the few traveling vendors. Their crazy inventions and snake-oil ideas make me think: well, this was set a long time ago, but we’ve not changed in the face of buying ideas that are silly. Macondo finally sees the outside world, by way of a new railroad going through, which drives Buendía a bit crazy. Enter ghosts into the city-past of Macondo and mirages instead of mirrors. I saw parallels in this novel to the television show Lost–the idea of whispers from the past, repetition of history (even in names), and some weird linear narrative that mixes modernity with an isolation of an older world built of fable and myth, building this beautiful mystery of suspense infused with magical realism. I read this book as a younger adult, and it affected me deeply. I feel like I should put some things aside and read it again before the screen adaption comes out.
I once wrote this very long historical novel, which I never finished, and it started out like this:
“In the long-ago, a tribe of villagers known as the Chesare lived in the high coastal plains near Cartagena.”
Sofia Gomez, librarian and proprietor of El Museo del Arte Costero in Cartagena, spoke in a voice cracked by years. It was 1928, and she’d lived a long life in pursuit of the unknown.
She lifted her tired, old body up from a heavy mesquite bench in the library’s sitting room and disappeared into a back room that led upstairs to an attic.
Re-emerging into the sunlit silence, she carefully unfolded ancient scrolls across a large desk fringed in leather braids. Her fingers often shook, but that was because of a medical disorder, not fear, even though the scrolls seemed richly important and as though they held all the secrets in the universe. Her spectators, children–since the town’s adults found Sofia far-fetched and crazy– shuffled their feet on the floor’s masonry and stretched their necks upward so that their dark eyes could view the strange words and maps contained within the vellum.
“My grandfather gave me these scrolls over seventy years ago. He said not to show them to the elders,” Sofia said with rattling breath. Her every movement huffed and puffed into an oblivious crawl. She was one of the oldest women the children had ever seen. “You see, these people were from the long-ago, before Portugal existed. Back when the sailors said, Spain is the end of the world!” she said with as much emphasis as her frail, crackly voice could muster.
At the end of this world, there was also Kirja!” she cried.
What is Kirja? the children chimed.
Sofia was frightful when telling this story. Her gray eyes were half blind and glazed over. She would look at no one. Her gaze was beyond the here and now. “Kirja is the underworld beast,” her voice was unforgiving as she stared into that beyond. “He wore the sign of the true cross on his belly. He would forever change the Chesare, mark my words.”
Sometimes she left the children with their imaginations, but on better days she lifted her arms to mimic the scary Kirja as he broke out of the underworld to eat men and terrorize villages.
This story was about old Spain (Spain, a country I’ve never been, but whose southern coast I have always dreamed of going). I wanted to be that old woman in my story who forever was a preserver of ancient texts in this old huge library that’s like this one or the one in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s The Shadow of the Wind. I want to preserve our texts, our writings, our reactions to changes in the world, our classic prose, and all the things that we write throughout the ages. I can only go so far with Dragonfly.eco. I much prefer the tactical, the dusty windows, the feel of books, the sunlight dripping in the high windows. Maybe someday.
The featured image is one taken of the Hill of Uisneach and the goddess Ériu. Credit: Advertiser.ie.