Literary Foremothers: EBS and Me

Elizabeth-Stoddard

The nineteenth-century writer Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard (called affectionately EBS by her admirers) is one of my literary foremothers and a favorite among those I claim. Her first novel, The Morgesons, published in 1862, was a radical bildungsroman that celebrated the values of individual experience and self-determination, notions deeply at odds with the norms of the Victorian American womanhood of the time. Piety, purity, submission, and domesticity were the virtues expected of a middle-class, white woman like EBS, but she was never playing that game.

Cassandra, the first-person narrator of The Morgesons, is a wild child who hangs out with a tattooed friend and who gets a crush on a married man who, alas, dies due to his obsession with spirited, untamable horseflesh (and that only takes us to the middle of the novel). In addition to writing fiction, EBS was the New York correspondent from 1854 until 1858 for the Daily Alta California of San Francisco, the first daily newspaper of the West. Her weekly column came to be called, “From Our Lady Correspondent” and appeared on the paper’s front page. In a column published January 18, 1857, EBS lamented the limited employment opportunities available to women. She wrote:

“At such times I gnash my teeth, (not those that were filled,) and swear that I will make money, forgetting that I am a woman, and that I have not even a chance of being a defaulter, an embezzler, or a forger. At plain sewing I could earn seventy-five cents a day; at dressmaking, one dollar. If I set up any kind of shop, or if I became a simple school teacher, I shall no longer be invited to the moiré antique parties I am so fond of! If I turn literary woman, I shall become of the horror of the male sex, and the ridicule of my own.”

Making money and participating in public life were important to EBS, who reported in her column not only on the economic realities of her milieu, but also on dinners, banquets, literary receptions, concerts, plays, the opera, state fairs, the Seventh Annual Woman’s Rights Convention, P. T. Barnum’s Baby Show, and the New York Crystal Palace. She also reviewed the work of other writers like George Sand, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Bronte sisters, Thoreau, and Whitman, and more than once the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose lecture-sermons she frequently attended.

It’s strange to me when contemporary scholars like Sandra A. Zagarell say that EBS “had few models for the type of expression she craved” because, although “an indigenous American discourse for exploring subjectivity was being created during her time, it was generally unavailable to her.” Reading EBS’s journalism, stories, and novels, it’s clear to me that her authority was inspired in large part by the Transcendentalist movement and by Emerson’s call for a new American literature. The Morgesons is distinctly different from the novels being written by her female peers (like Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Harriet Beecher Stowe), those “damned scribbling women” who wrote “sentimental novels.” EBS’s ambition to be a writer with a unique voice is clearly expressed in a Daily Alta column published on August 20, 1855:

“Who has written the song of the skeeter characteristically? No one. Like the American epic, in spite of Buchanan Read, it remains to be done. Abstractly, I respect the mosquito; he is apparently an insignificance, but he sings and stings satanically. I am but a small bit myself; so I admire power in smallness.”

The Morgesons, an American epic, came out in 1862, not a good year for novels, and a terrible year for America, unless we view the Civil War as necessary for reforming a unified nation in service of its founding ideals of liberty and justice for all. While The Morgesons elicited praise from contemporaries like Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, Longfellow, and George Ripley, who wrote in The New York Tribune that, “Mrs. Stoddard’s style is a model of transparent and beautiful clearness, bright and pure as an icicle, and as cold,” her novel failed to succeed commercially. Two novels followed and also failed to sell, a reality that discouraged EBS, who gave up novel-writing for the next three decades of her life in favor of short pieces of prose and occasionally poetry.

It might comfort EBS to know that, despite lackluster early sales, The Morgesons has never, since its first publication, been out of print. And that she influenced the next generation of writers, including Henry James, who had read her work. Indeed, EBS is one of the American women writers who James disparaged in reviews but whose plots and heroines he appropriated in his own fiction. His novella, The Aspern Papers, is clearly influenced by EBS’s story, “Collected by a Valetudinarian,” published in Harper’s Magazine in 1870. Both texts focus on the disputed ownership and value of a deceased poet’s work. Though the characters are certain that the deceased poets are geniuses, the reader never gets to decide. We don’t have access to the actual poems, but rather get to see the conflicted drama that plays out around them.

EBS lived long enough to see her novels re-issued twice, in 1888 and 1889, when her work was embraced by writers like James. Even so, the public readership and acclaim that she longed for never materialized. Her disappointment, but also her tenacious confidence, in in evidence in a letter that she wrote to Edmund Clarence Stedman in August, 1891:

“The failure of my novels to sell is always the ‘black drop,’ when they are praised, and it chokes me into silence….I have constantly to struggle between the feelings of others…and my own feelings of inward power of life, and achievement. I remind myself of that celebrated Irish gentleman who died lately, he was without arms and legs, but he left eight children!”

What EBS left behind was a body of literature that insists on the power of subjectivity, on a “self-reliant” Transcendentalist conscience embodied in hungry reality, whether the individual is male or female. Even in the end, she tipped her hat to Emerson. In the 1901 edition of her second novel, Two Men, published the year before she died, EBS added an epigraph borrowed from Emerson’s lecture “Experience”: “Let us treat men and women as if they are real.”

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As Notre Dame Burns

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I’m overwhelmed by sadness and stunned by disbelief.  I still have gratitude.

Everyone has their own stories about Notre Dame.  This is mine.

The first time I visited Paris, in 2002, was a celebration of my college graduation with honors at age 36, mother of four who had never attended high school headed to law school. I walked four miles on the Left Bank early every morning.  I had that kind of energy back then.  Near the end of my walk, I’d take the bridge of Pont Saint-Michel over the Seine to Île de la Cité, the island in the river, and walk the quai to Notre Dame, crossing back over the Seine via Petit Pont to get back to my hotel on Boulevard Saint-Michel.  My walks back then were my form of meditation.  After I capped off my the first walk in Paris by silently communing with Notre Dame, I couldn’t end my morning walks any other way.  After only one day in Paris, I had a tradition.

When I toured Notre Dame, I did it one morning immediately after one of those long walks.  The glory of the rose window, the view of Paris from the towers, the feeling that though I was only one small part of the world, I was now part of that world reinvigorated me.  It was as if my day was just beginning.  It was as if my life was just beginning.  After the tour, in the garden behind the cathedral under a canopy of linden trees, I watched a mime paint his face to prepare for his day.  That.  Was.  Paris.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I badly wanted to take my children to Paris.

Two years after that trip, I did.  That was my children’s first trip abroad.  Rather than obey my order to sleep on the overnight flight, they played games and watched movies while I slept.  I had great intentions but poor follow through.  Sleep deprivation rendered my kids inanimate for some of our trip.

Also, Paris was strange and unfamiliar to them.  The iconography they were familiar with wasn’t there.  Everything, down to street signs, looked different.  What was familiar to them?  The Golden Arches of McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées.  (The unisex restroom there, with its communal urinal along one wall of the room where everyone stood to wait for a stall, quickly plunged them back into the waters of the strange and unfamiliar.)

One of my favorite photos in the world is this one of them at Notre Dame.  I couldn’t get them to smile for the camera. Their father found an abandoned cloth doll, wet and dirty, cast aside on the pavement.  To get our sullen children to smile, he did something silly with that doll behind my head—I’m not sure what, but obviously it worked.

And they woke up.  As Millennials, they had one very strong visual and story connection to The City of Light: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  The 1996 Disney movie they’d watched so many times established a connection between them and the cathedral.  They were lively and excited and smiling once we got inside.  They’d reentered the world of the familiar.

Through my tears now as I glance from my computer to live television footage of the inferno, I imagine what it must have felt like for my children to be inside the real Notre Dame, even though the story they “knew” it from was made up by Victor Hugo and then filtered through the Disney lens.  One thing I know is that they were fully alive in that experience, eagerly taking every step and taking in every sight Notre Dame put before them.  I myself half-expected to see the ginger Quasimodo and sexy, throaty Esmeralda step out from around the corner.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I have photos of my children sitting in the Musée d’Orsay with their tired heads resting in their hands.  I have photos of them in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, unimpressed by the modestly-sized masterpiece.  And then I have photos of them high up in Notre Dame, standing next to statues of chimera (not gargoyles), looking out at the city—and I mean really looking at it.  I don’t think they will have photos of their children looking out at Paris that way.  And it makes me sad.  So sad.

I know I’m not the only one aching right now.  I know I’m not the only one who physically feels the pain of this loss.  I do feel it.  I feel it in my body.  If you’ve been to Notre Dame, I bet you feel it, too.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

Only now am I remembering that we have had other stunning losses of cultural and historical matter.  Earthquake, flood, fire, war, civil unrest, and terrorism—our civilization has fallen prey to all of those and more.

War.  I was just in Ireland again.  I’d forgotten that during the Cogadh Cathartha na hÉireann, the Irish Civil War, the Irish Public Records Office in Dublin was bombed.  Financial records, church records, government records, land records, military records, and more—gone.  Up in smoke.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I’m thinking of all the people—how many of them could there have been over the centuries—whose eyes lingered over the stained-glass windows and paintings and sculptures and frescoes of Notre Dame as they learned the stories of Christianity through images because they were unable to read.  Images of Christ, the apostles, martyrs, saints, and virgins, not to mention the organ and the ten bells—gone.  Up in smoke.

Well, I think they’re gone.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

Do you remember the images of the museum in Mosul after ISIS purposely decimated it a couple of years ago?  I don’t.  I only remember that it happened.  I didn’t feel that loss in my body then, and I don’t feel it now.  I’ve never been to the Middle East, and I couldn’t name one piece of art that was destroyed, though I know it was invaluable.  I do have a solid grasp of Christianity and the art at Notre Dame.  Is it just the cultural difference that makes the pain of losing Notre Dame mine?  Maybe it’s more.  Maybe it’s that I’ve been there.  Theoretical knowledge versus experiential knowledge?  Hmm.

On a pillar of the central door of Notre Dame, the allegory of alchemy is depicted.  In this sculpture, a woman holds two books in her hand.  One book is open.  It represents public knowledge.  The other book is closed.  It represents esoteric knowledge.  Maybe there is a public level of grieving and a private one, parallels to theoretical knowledge and experiential knowledge.  We, the general public, are touched by the fire that is consuming Notre Dame as I write this, but I’m certain that everyone who has been there to experience Notre Dame has their private take, too.

If I’d never been there, I would still think this is a tragedy.  But because I have been there, I am processing this in a more personal way.  For instance, I k­­­now now that I will not be at Notre Dame one day thinking about the time I climbed those steps behind my children seeing them clearly but having no idea who they’d grow up to become.  I know I will not be able to look up at one of the bells and wonder if it’s the same one I was looking at when my son surreptitiously snapped a photo of me.  And knowing these things hurts.  I have lost something that’s not even here yet.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

My daughter texted my sons and me a few minutes ago to see if we knew Notre Dame is on fire.  And that is why I have gratitude along with my sadness.  I wanted to take my children to Paris, and I followed through.  They hold the open book of public knowledge and the closed book of esoteric knowledge; they have theory and experience; they have public grief and private grief.  They have memories of Notre Dame.  It is part of them, and now Notre Dame as we knew it is gone.  We should all be so lucky to have such private pain.

Everyone has their own stories about Notre Dame.  This is mine.

 

 

 

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The Three People You Need in Your Squad When You’re Diagnosed with a Difficult Illness

Since it’s Primary Immunodeficiency Awareness Month, I thought I’d talk more about my own experiences and how I have gathered the strength to keep going since my diagnosis.

The Immune Deficiency Foundation is an organization that helps people like me get the treatment we need, connects us with specialists, and can even help us find other people just like us to talk to when we’re going through a hard time.

These past few months have been some of the worst of my life. As I discussed in my previous post, I was diagnosed with Common Variable Immune Deficiency, a rare and severe disease, and my life changed drastically. I was in the ER twice in the past couple months. This month alone, I had to spend over $1,000 on medical bills. And I still can’t get access to the treatment I need because my insurance company doesn’t want to pay for it. I don’t qualify for need-based assistance paying for it through the manufacturer, either. I’m just over the income limit, and I can’t afford the uninsured rate. Aside from regular scans to check for cancer and having to inject myself with the plasma of strangers regularly, I will be able to lead a relatively normal life. I won’t get sick as often. I’ll have more energy. I’ll sleep better. I’m ready for it. But right now, I’m in limbo. It feels awful.

I’m fighting. I’m fighting really hard for my life. I keep getting sick, over and over again. I’m losing money from having to miss work, and even with insurance, every doctor’s visit is at least $50. I’m sick of being sick, and I feel beaten down. Most of the time, I feel some hidden strength rise up and push me forward, but some days, I wonder why I’m bothering to fight. That’s when I need to turn to the people who keep me strong.

If I’ve learned one thing from all this, it’s that you need people like these in your corner:

  1. A pencil-on-paper self-portrait of my amazing cousin, Victoria Matthias. Vicky, you give me strength.

    Someone who’s been there before. The first person who keeps me going is my cousin, Vicky. Vicky is a talented artist and a smart, strong person. She has Cushing Syndrome, along with a myriad of other disorders that forced her to give up a promising career in set design. She’s currently selling her work on Etsy. (Check out her shop here!) There’s a lot of days when she can’t get out of bed and do anything. Sometimes her adrenals go out on her, and she winds up in the hospital. She lives far from me, and it kills me that I can’t see her. But we speak often. I call her when I feel like I can’t go on, and she reminds me how strong I am. She tells me I can do it. She believes in me. And before we hang up, she makes sure I believe in myself. She recognizes how I’m feeling because she’s been there, too.

  2. A partner, romantic or not, who you can be vulnerable with. Another person who gives me strength is my partner, Alex. We’ve been together about six years. She’s been with me since I started getting really sick. She’s in medical school, and she’s watched me get treated poorly by doctors. She helped me find better ones. She’s stayed up late into the night researching my symptoms. Since people with my disease get frequent infections, she helps me identify early signs and get treatment fast. She knows how to calm me down when I’m scared or having a dark day.
  3. My mother and I. She takes me out to lunch often, and I go visit her whenever I can. We also both go to a local writer’s group at least once a month. My mom is, and always has been, one of my best friends.

    Someone to distract you and remind you to have fun. Of course, my writing also keeps me going. That’s a talent I share with my mom. Even when I’m so depressed I can barely move, I’m driven forward by the narcissistic belief that someone needs to hear my story and that people will like the books and stories I write. (I write thrillers and horror when I’m not writing for work or blogging here.) My mother will always be there to guide me through the process: getting an agent, reaching out to journals, and letting me know how much she believes in me and my craft. She was there to comfort me at every scan and biopsy and immediately afterwards to distract me with coffee and conversation about books.

Some people follow mantras, but apparently, I’m driven forward by these incredible women and our belief in each other’s strength. They remind me I don’t have to apologize for myself anymore. Whenever the world  gets me down, they remind me who I am. I’m stronger than I look, and I don’t take anything lying down anymore.

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Let’s School Together

I’m always sure it can’t be real when something good happens for me, especially something having to do with my career. So when my poem appeared on Verse Daily on April 1, 2019, I was a bit leery. Was this some kind of elaborate April Fool’s prank, perpetrated by people I didn’t even know? Yet some kind poet friend saw it and called it to my attention. Even more amazingly, I received a couple of nice notes from other poets—both more accomplished than I—about the poem. And loads of my friends liked it on social media, saying nice things and generally making 2019 the best April first I’ve ever experienced.

Talking to Other Women after the Election

        Grab ’em by the pussy.
—the 45th president of the United States

I was just eighteen,
a friend says, and another says, I was
fifteen. I was seven, I think, you mumble,
afraid even here. But, see, you don’t.
You don’t mumble or quaver or recite—
your lips don’t move. You don’t speak.
Because you can’t, now. It was longer ago
than the whole of the Amazon River,
throat-full of piranha. You don’t think
about it anymore, except
when you do. Sometimes
men’s words are strung across the water
like hooks. The current is pushing
and you don’t know how you got in
or whether you can get out. Should you
get out, find a safer shore?
The men are stringing hooks
and you know how that goes.
Piranhas are actually a timid fish
that school together for protection.

 

But the road to unexpected honors isn’t straightforward. This was a poem that originally was in my latest poetry manuscript (Love Songs from the End of the World, due out from Main Street Rag Publishing in fall 2019), but I took it out after several rejections from literary magazines and a confused response from a first reader. The reader was a kind friend who volunteered to read my (then early stages) manuscript and give light feedback, and I don’t mean to call him out at all. He gave me feedback and encouragement at a critical time, and I am eternally grateful for it.

The fact remains: his response helped me make a small change to the poem, and that change was in place when I sent it out to one more round of literary magazines—one of which, Iron Horse, took it. But that response also made me re-think whether the poem belonged in my book, so I removed it. I’m still not certain about that last move, but I think it was the right one.

So what did this reader say? Upon reading “Talking to Other Women after the Election”—which at the time did not have the epigraph quoting Trump—he said, “I know I’m not the intended audience for this poem, but I don’t get it.”

And I realized: the sorrow and disgust men felt about the 2016 election was great, but not always colored by the sorrow and disgust so many women felt when an admitted sexual assaulter was elected to take the highest political office in the country. I was too much inside my own head, a woman’s experience. I needed to remind readers which of this man’s many awful actions and claims made him so particularly heinous to the women who didn’t vote for him.

I sort of wish, now, that I had done a sociological experiment, and shown the poem sans epigraph to some women readers. Would they have known, when the poem opened with women talking about ages, that that were talking about the first time they were sexually assaulted? Would the title have been enough?

I don’t know. What I do know is that both men and women responded graciously and with generosity when the poem appeared on Verse Daily; more women, true, but then I’m friends with more women writers than male writers. I know the school I belong to.

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3 Meditations for Dog People

If you’re like me, you know you should meditate. It would reduce anxiety and improve sleep, focus, and memory. The thing is, whenever dog people sit on the floor and assume the lotus position, one dog licks your face, the other drops a ball in your lap, and the other stands by the back door, farting ominously.

The other day, I was lying on the couch recovering from insomnia, watching Youtube parrots ride Roombas. I felt guilty because I should be cooking my own organic dog food, ending puppy mills, and cooling planet Earth. Then I remembered, at least I use cloth grocery bags. I also remembered I could perhaps reduce anxiety and insomnia by watching meditation videos. I wasn’t ten seconds into this one video when I realized, I meditate all the time! My dogs actually force it on me.

If you live with dogs, here are three meditations you’re probably already doing:

1. Pooping in Space and Time

When it’s time for your dog to get down to business, take him for a walk.  When he sniffs, circles, and crouches as if it’s going to happen—and then sniffs and circles again, relax. Notice your frustration. Let it go.

Dwell upon the mystery—is your dog looking for exactly the right spot? Or is he, like us, not completely in control of the timing? Is he, instead, waiting for his magic moment? Perhaps the Goddess of Thunder is fickle with dogs, too. Remind yourself that almost-pooping dogs have been faking out their impatient human companions for fourteen thousand years. Meditate upon the Zen koan: “The soaring eagle may not seek to land on the right branch, but to land at the right time.” Your control is limited. So is your dog’s. At least you don’t have to wait for your dog to put you on a leash and lead you to the toilet.

Breathe in. Your dog has pooped before and will again. Breath out. The bowel movement will happen, if not on this walk, then on your carpet. At this moment, all over the world, other dogs are pooping. Creatures everywhere are pooping. One day, you too, will poop.

2. Retrieving Your Dog’s Toys

When your dog goes wild with frustration because he can’t reach a ball that’s rolled under the couch, notice your annoyance and let it pass like a summer storm. Your dog does not have opposable thumbs at the end of long arms and never will, and it would probably freak you out if he did. Willing your dog to reach what he cannot won’t alter his body or your furniture one bit. Take a deep belly breath, and release. (Note: Practice this deep breathing before you stick your face under the dusty couch.)

Ponder the many things your body can do that your dog’s can’t, such as drive to pet stores to buy toys and rawhide that pile up collecting dust and dog hair under the bed and couch. Hold in your mind the notion that your dog regards you as a god, then let it go for the bullshit it is. Your dog has no concept of deities. Your dog is not filled with wonder at your abilities whatsoever. Your dog simply accepts the mystery of you the way you accept his fascination with spots on the ground that appear no different to your eyes than any other spot. He gets mesmerized by the spot, you by your cell phone. You’re a god to no one. Get over yourself.

If you can reach the ball, share a celebratory moment with your dog.

If you can’t reach the ball, contemplate the way your body is made and be mindful of its abilities. Crouch and peer underneath the couch. Hold in the bowl of your heart gratitude that you are as flexible as you are, even if you aren’t. Perhaps it’s easier for you to lie on the couch and slide forward until your head is on the floor and you’re peering upside down. Do that. Be grateful you can read and remember this suggestion. If you can.

If you need a flashlight and a broomstick, go get those tools, counting the many blessings associated with this extra chore. For example, brooms are handy for so much more than sweeping. In fact, you could’ve used yours to sweep under the couch any time. You could do it now, but you don’t have to, do you? No one looks under there. Blessings abound.

If you can’t get off the floor or raise your head, be grateful for health insurance. Or for the open border to Canada. Or maybe just find something to be grateful for while you’re stuck on the floor or hanging upside down and blind. For example, somewhere in your house, maybe there are flashlights. Maybe batteries too. Maybe someday you’ll train your dog to call 9-1-1. While you wait for help, promise yourself you will erect barriers under your furniture like they do in hotels so things don’t get lost, or you’ll get bigger toys or lower furniture. You will find the ball. Someone will find you.

3. Barking at the Window.

When your dog is barking at the window and you are shouting at her to be quiet, rather than clash at the differences between you and your dog, consider instead the differences between the mantras “ah” and “om.” The sound “ah,” as in “bark” and “arf,” is the sound of creation, healing, and joy. That is why this holy syllable is in the name of God in all cultures throughout all time: Allah, Krishna, Jehovah, Rihanna, Lady Gaga.

The sound “om,” as in “woof,” is the sound of everything in the universe. It signifies all meaning contained in every word. That is why this holy syllable is in One, Chromosome, Kingdom Come, Cosmos, and Funeral Home.

Instead of yelling at your dog, join your dog in the great primordial singalong. Become one with your wolf pack in the protection of your property. Commune with all beings aligned against UPS and all men who pair caps with cargo shorts.

When you and your dog chant these mantras, the cells in your body vibrate to this same frequency, the wavelength of All. Tune in. Send all tension and self-awareness into sound waves in the air. Become the wind blowing over the sands of time.

Reflect upon the fact that all humans throughout all time have made and always will make music, and dogs are One with us in the sound of the cosmos. Music is the one true universal language. As you bark and woof, notice everything you can about the music you and your dog are making. When you see the UPS man lift his mobile phone to record you barking with your dog in the window, celebrate the way social media unites humanity all around planet earth as never before in all of time.

For more humor from Lisa, try The Best of WordPress’s “A Girl Scout Cookie Addict Speaks Out,” “The No Poo Chronicles: My Fight Against Shampoo Absolutism,” or “5 Ways to Tell Your Husband You’re Fostering Puppies.

For more on everyday meditation, read Katie Riegel’s There’s No Wrong Way: 44 Meditations and “Meditation for Skeptics,” and watch the video “Meditating With Animals.” It’s got a horse!

Cat lovers might want to try “Cat-Assisted Meditation.”

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It’s Dark and I’m Tired and It’s All Daylight Saving Time’s Fault

melting clocks

Maybe Dali’s inspiration was having to deal with a time change

It’s been two-and-a-half weeks since we did the spring-forward-into-Daylight-Saving-Time thing, and I’m still not doing well. Granted, I’m doing better than I was the Sunday after I lost that hour. I don’t feel like I want to jump out of my skin and bury my head under pillows. I don’t have insomnia. I don’t constantly feel nauseated. All this is kind of like saying I feel better than when I had the flu. A time change shouldn’t make me ill, but it does. It destabilizes me physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I just want it to stop.

Night Owl

I am, unapologetically, a night owl.

The world’s time schedule is opposed to my body’s rhythm to begin with. I am a night owl. I don’t want to see the sun rise unless it’s just before I go to bed. I’d ideally head to bed no earlier than midnight, and get up no earlier than 8am. This would have worked fine had I stayed in my initial career as a college English professor. Though at the start I had to teach the dreaded 8:30 am section, a few years in I had a 10am start. Sometimes I taught night sections that ended at 9 pm. I thrived. I could stay up writing until midnight or 2 am with no distractions, and still get seven to nine hours of sleep. I was living the dream. But the dream changed.

Sleeping Beth

This one slept from 7pm until 5am, with two daily naps. I slept when she slept. Life was good.

I had kids. I don’t regret a single moment of my parenting life, but those first few years were hard. On the best night I’d put my daughter down at 7 pm and she’d sleep until 5 am. 7 pm was nice; I got to watch a tv show or two before I went to bed. 5 am—well, let’s just say I lived for nap time. My daughter would nap from 9:30 am to 11 am and so would I. It was a lifesaver.

Christa sleeping

This one slept all day, and was up all night, just as the older one started school. Yeah. I got no sleep. For a long, long time. It was tiring, but worth it.

Then, I had my second child when my oldest was three. She slept all day and was up all night. On top of that, school started for my older daughter, and arrival time was regularly 7:30 am, meaning up at 6:30 am to pack lunch and snack and then drive the older one to school (because we opted to send them to our parish Catholic school, and that meant no school buses). Again, all sacrifices I was willing and happy to make, but ones that definitely did not sit well with my natural sleep schedule. My motto became, “I can sleep when I’m dead,” and it remains so to this day. We’re still in Catholic school, our start time is still around 7:30 am, and I’m still driving them in the morning (though now I have a carpool—thank God!)

So the world’s insistence that everyone’s day start no later than 9 am is not one that works well for me. I conform to it, as I’m sure others conform to things that do not naturally work for them, because I fully understand that we have to agree on start times and end times for our days.

Spring Forward

Tra la la, it’s not enough that you have to get up at 6 am. Let’s now make it 5am!

But then we have “springing forward,” and “falling back.” I’m told that at some point in our nation’s history this made sense, because of farming, or energy conservation, or children going to school in the dark. Well, whether we spring forward or fall back I still take my children to school in the dark. I still see kids waiting at bus stops in pitch blackness because of staggered school schedules. The lights are on in buildings at all times, whether the sun is out or not. As far as farms . . .I don’t know. I’m a city girl. My cats certainly don’t care. I would think farm animals don’t much care, either. My farming friends can correct me on this one. I acknowledge that there is an incredible amount of stuff that I don’t know, and I am so grateful to have an opportunity to alter my opinions.

Sleepy Cats Don't Care

I know these guys don’t care what time the sun comes up or sets, because they sleep all the time, anyway. Cats are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dawn and dusk.(Please ignore the mess. I was too tired to do the picking up).

But here is what I do know—whether we fall back or spring forward, everyone around me totally loses their minds, as well they should. People have biological rhythms that gradually adjust with natural seasonal light changes. If we would just stop messing with the clock, we would gradually attune to the fact that it gets lighter a few minutes later in the morning and darker in the afternoons in the fall, and that it gets lighter a few minutes earlier and stays light later in the spring. Our circadian rhythms would incrementally adjust to going to sleep earlier in winter and later in summer.

The key word is gradual. Time change takes minute differences and fast forwards us or rewinds us a full hour all at once—moving us sixty times faster than we should. And you know what happens? Horrible things. There is a 10% greater risk of heart attacks on the first three work days after the Daylight Saving time change. There is an 8% overall greater risk of a stroke with a 25% higher risk in cancer patients and a 20% higher risk in people over 65. There are also more car accidents. There are more workplace accidents, with higher severity. There are more miscarriages for in vitro fertilization patients. There is an 11% increase in reports of depression that do not automatically resolve until 10 weeks later. This is the amount of time, approximately, that it would take to naturally change the sunset/sunrise time without the time change. Coincidence? I think not.

Coffee

No one should ever have to have a venti just to wake up in the morning. It’s just too much. I had two ventis the Monday morning after the time change. My hands were shaking by day’s end. Stupid.

Despite the multiple studies that show all of these increased risks, I have a lot of friends who adore the time change. “We get more light!” they say. No. We don’t. We get the exact same amount of light we would otherwise have gotten, we just get it at a different time of day. I get that the light at the end of the day is more convenient for people who like to do things after work and school. But you know who gets inconvenienced? Everyone with an inflexible daily start time. Morning exercisers, who take their life in their hands to get in their outdoor run or walk before work. Parents with young children, as babies and toddlers become hot messes when they’re forced to wake up an hour earlier or later than their biological clock tells them to, which in turn makes parents into zombies who have to hear far more screaming in the morning and at night than they otherwise would have.

Sunlight

Someone’s going to lose daylight. Why can’t we do it gradually?

They key here is this: I’ve been inconvenienced by the world’s concept of working hours since I started school at age four. I had a few blissful years where my daily activities accommodated my night-owl tendencies, but by and large I have gone along with society’s need to start things at what my body naturally feels is a ridiculous time of the morning, and I’ve accommodated. At this point I don’t care whether we stay in standard time or Daylight Saving time. I just want the time changes to stop.

Bella Gives Up

Bella is my mood: over it.

I hear that the Florida legislature has passed a motion to end the time change, and that it now has to run through Congress. “But that will throw Florida off east coast time by an hour for part of the year!” people cry. Yeah. A part of Florida is thrown off east coast time already because the panhandle is not in the Eastern Time Zone. Let’s take it state-wide! And then maybe the rest of the coast will see that we’re healthier, having fewer accidents, and are more mentally well-adjusted for days, if not weeks longer than the rest of them, and move to abolish these physically and emotionally damaging time changes for the whole coast. It probably won’t happen, because nothing our nation does makes much sense any more, but a tired Mom can hope, right?

Sources:

“Your Health and Daylight Saving Time.” Time and Date.com https://www.timeanddate.com/time/dst/daylight-saving-health.html

Strickland, Ashley. “Why Daylight Saving Time Can Be Bad for Your Health.” CNN.com March 8, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/11/health/daylight-saving-time-health-effects/index.html

Welch, Ashley. “Five Ways Daylight Saving Time Messes With Your Health, and What to Do About It.” CBS.com. March 18, 2018.  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/daylight-saving-time-affects-your-health-wellness/

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U.S. Presidents Ranked by Fuckability

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According to CBS News, the top three sexiest world leaders in 2019 are Justin Trudeau of Canada, Pedro Sánchez of Spain, and Prince William of England. If former President Barack Obama was still in office, I’m sure he would have made the list. Sexiness depends on looks, and Obama is hotness itself: tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, a chemistry experiment waiting to happen.

Based on my other criteria—a world leader’s record on civil rights and how he treats women— Obama might be one of the sexiest U.S. presidents of all time, which makes him number one on the list of U.S. presidents I would fuck (though I would never really do it, out of respect for Michelle, whose memoir, Becoming, is an excellent read).

If Obama was the only former U.S. president available to fantasize about, I would be forced to become a nun. Fortunately, there are other men, and some of them have been U.S. presidents. What follows is a list of the other forty-three U.S. presidents ranked according to their fuckability, from most desirable to least:

1. Barack Obama: As Molly Bloom would say, Yes I said yes I will Yes, but no. Sorry, ladies, he’s taken.

2. Rutherford B. Hayes: Absolutely fuckalicious! Hot in all ways. His cousin coined the term “free love.” As a lawyer, Hayes defended fugitive slaves in their fight for freedom in antebellum Cincinnati! His Union company was made up of Literary Society friends, and he was stationed in West Virginia, where I live; perfect! When he inherited a chunk of money, he endowed a library!

3. Millard Fillmore: I have fallen deeply in lust. I agree with Queen Victoria, who said Millard was the handsomest man she had ever seen. His politics makes me want to lick him. Absolutely fuckable.

4. Abraham Lincoln: Yes, yes, yes, fuckable. I’d climb his tall body like a tree.

5. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt: Eminently fuckable, in so many ways: cowgirl, reverse cowgirl, get-along-little-dogies style.

6. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Absolutely fuckable, and so was Eleanor.

7. Dwight D. Eisenhower: Without a doubt, fuckable. When the Navy resisted integration, he said, “We have not taken and we shall not take a single backward step. There must be no second class citizens in this country.” Hot!! He liked to play poker and oil paint in his spare time, and he made the Interstate Highway System happen. He was on the right side of history 90% of the time. It’s a crying shame he was a homophobe.

8. John Quincy Adams: If you like them small and lean, he’s bangable.

9. Benjamin Harrison: Handsome in a wideset-eyes kind of way. I would bang him missionary-style because, even though he championed Civil Rights and national parks, he was a square.

10. Lyndon B. Johnson: A shape-shifting son of a gun who knew how to get things done. Verdict: fuckable.

11. John Adams: He was a DILF. I would have banged him due to the fact that he’s the only Founding Father president who didn’t own slaves, but he probably wouldn’t have banged me because he absolutely adored his wife, Abigail.

12. William McKinley: I want to fuck him until he smiles. In his pictures, he’s never smiling. I would fuck him like a rock star because he defended striking coal miners pro bono in a fight for labor rights, and he won the case.

13. William Howard Taft: He deserves a good, honest fuck in a jacuzzi for being a reformer, a peace activist, and a baseball fan.

14. Herbert Hoover: This guy traveled the world managing gold mines! He was a progressive when it came to workers’ rights and organized labor, but terrible at financial crisis management. In the end: still fuckable.

15. Harry S. Truman: Yes, Harry, the buck stops here: bangable.

16. Jimmy Carter: He’s a poster boy for fuckable: a handsome guy on the right side of history who knows how to swing a hammer.

17. Gerald Ford: Unequivocally fuckable due to his hotness and his politics.

18. Ulysses S. Grant: He was no Benjamin$$, but I would have banged him.

19. Franklin Pierce: I would at least have offered him a sympathy fuck because of his personal tragedies, plus he was friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

20. James Buchanan: If he’d been straight, I would’ve banged him.

21. Warren G. Harding: He was a lover, not a fighter. Fuckable.

22. John F. Kennedy: On paper, he’s known as one of the sexier presidents. I guess if he was good enough for Jackie O. and Marilyn, he’s fuckable.

23. Calvin Coolidge: He was the stoic, silent type. Not my type, but I would have fucked him.

24. George H.W. Bush: He’s not unattractive. He’s fuckable on the grounds of the Immigration Act of 1990.

25. James Garfield: If he had lived, he would have been fuckable. He’s like the narrator who dies for a noble cause in Emily Dickinson’s poem #449, his cause being the holy crusade against the Slaveocracy.

26. George W. Bush: I never knew I had an ear fetish. His temporary guest-worker program still makes me creamy. Too bad the Republican Senate voted it down. He’s fuckable.

27. Martin Van Buren: I could have made Martin happy, but would he have returned the favor? The hottest thing about him was that he was an anti-slavery leader. Bangable.

28. Richard Nixon: You know, he did some good things for women, children, and African Americans. I would at least give him a hand job.

29. Thomas Jefferson: His portrait resembles a later Clint Eastwood. In theory, he’s bangable, but in reality, nah!

30. Bill Clinton: He wasn’t the worst president ever, but he’s unfuckable due to the fact that he’s already fucked his way through his lifetime quota of women.

31. Ronald Reagan: You’ve got to be kidding me. Fuck the man who widened the income gap in America and who eliminated services for the mentally ill, abandoning them to homelessness and incarceration? Not in a million years.

32. James Madison: Oh Daddy-O, I wish you were fuckable. But you owned slaves and couldn’t imagine that all men and women deserve civil rights.

33. Grover Cleveland: Even though he was president twice AND the son of a preacher man, he doesn’t reach me. He was the first president accused of rape, and he tried to have the woman locked up in a mental asylum to silence her. He’s not fuckable, he’s a fuckhead.

34. Woodrow Wilson: He gets some credit for advancing modern American liberalism, but in the end, he’s unfuckable. Not only was he an apologist for racism, he resembled Herman Munster.

35. Chester A. Arthur: Unfuckable, primarily due to the fact that he signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first total ban on an ethnic or national group from immigrating to the U.S. Way to set a precedent, Chester!

36. William Henry Harrison: Who wouldn’t want to bang the governor of the old Northwest Territory? He was a renegade who eloped with a woman named Anna against her father’s wishes. He would be bangable, but he owned slaves. He’s a no-go.

37. Andrew Johnson: I want to give him a break. He wasn’t a bad-looking man; he resembled Steve Martin, that wild and crazy guy. And Johnson recruited 20,000 former slaves to serve the Union. In the end, however, he’s unfuckable, because he couldn’t change his mind when the facts changed.

38. Andrew Jackson: His portrait is handsome enough. He looks like he might be a wild man, and he did have a “frontier marriage.” Too bad he became a slave owner once he could afford slaves, rendering him unbangable.

39. Zachary Taylor: Finally, the last president chronologically who owned slaves. Not bangable. Next!

40. James K. Polk: He looks vaguely like a white-haired Mel Gibson, but he never had any fun. When he was president, dancing, card games, and hard liquor were banned at the White House. What, no whiskey? And he owned slaves. Unfuckable.

41. George Washington: Unfuckable due to his slave-holding, fox hunting, cockfighting ways, a shame because he might have been packing a beast.

42. John Tyler: This dude still has two living grandchildren! He fathered more children than any other POTUS! It’s a crying shame that after he was president, he joined the wrong side during the War Between the States. He’s the only president ever whose coffin was draped with the Confederate flag. Yikes!

43. Donald Trump: No. Just no. Hell no. The thought is terrifying on so many levels. I’m afraid I’d lose IQ points or get cooties just being in the same room with him. Unfuckable.

44. James Monroe: This guy looks like a weasel. He’s downright untouchable due his fucked-up slave-holding practices. Not sorry. The most unfuckable president of all.

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On Losing Weight

A rant in no particular order.

1. I need to lose weight for health reasons (blood pressure, cholesterol, stress on the joints, etc.). I’m not so enlightened that I’d be sorry to look a little thinner, too, even though my personal philosophy is better suited to Health at Every Size, The Body Is Not An Apology, and other body positivity movements. And I am damn tired of buying new clothes as I get bigger; it’s expensive, and I miss my old clothes, and as your size goes up, your choice of nice-looking, quality-made clothes goes down. (I like the [limited] plus-size section at Dillard’s for example, but walking past all the super-cute outfits in the non-plus-size part of the store really amps up my envy as well as my shame.)

I just want a cupcake.

2. WHY IS IT SO HARD? Why have the medical folks not developed something to make it easier? We have pills and procedures for EVERYTHING–why not this? Our choices are: diet and exercise or a major surgery involving making the stomach literally smaller. What about changing the gut microbiome, which some studies have shown is linked to weight? What about a pill that cuts the cravings (and doesn’t turn you into an addict)? All the people in Star Trek are of average/thin weight—where’s the medical breakthrough that makes this possible?

And don’t tell me that millions of Americans are just lazy slobs with no willpower, that if they just “didn’t eat that donut” they’d be fine. Nope. I don’t buy that, and neither do the many studies that show only 3-5 percent of people who lose weight actually keep it off. Also, I’M not a lazy slob with no willpower. I’ve survived a SHIT TON of stuff that required strength and resilience. I’ve got reserves of mental and emotional strength that have kept me alive when my brain was trying to kill me. Am I contempt-worthy, my every health problem dismissed because I’m fat? (I have to say that I’ve been lucky; I’ve had doctors who did actually treat my ailments. But I know how lucky I am.)

3. I know some wonderful people who have, actually, lost weight and kept it off. Believe me, I know the techniques: eat/don’t eat certain types of foods, get a LOT more exercise, cut down portion size, etc. I admire y’all, and I think you’re AMAZING. I’m especially impressed by those of you who keep up that exercise because you enjoy it. But I also know some folks who hate exercise but do it for weight loss, and even more people who obsess about food, counting calories and resisting cravings every single day. I don’t want my life to be about that. I have limited attention capacity, and I’d rather that bandwidth is taken up by cute dogs and poetry and mindfulness and silly jokes and resisting oppression and just about anything but my diet. Heck, I’m the person who resents having to stop for lunch in the middle of the day, because my brain is working and it takes away from my writing time.

So I’m not looking for advice here, just a chance to vent. I’m hoping to express something so many of us struggle with, something for which there is no easy or straightforward solution (for most people).

Delicious when dunked in tea.

4. Don’t tell me “don’t diet.” Because guess what? Not dieting is what got me here. Not dieting means having chocolate digestives (English cookies) when I get peckish in the late afternoon. Not dieting means dessert after dinner. Not dieting means a gin and tonic with dinner, full sugar tonic. (I’m sensitive to non-sugar sweeteners—I get a headache or stomachache when I drink diet sodas.) “Don’t diet, just eat healthy” IS STILL A DIET.

5. I want a freaking cupcake, pretty much ALL THE TIME. No, the cravings don’t go away for me. I was off sugar for a month and the cravings were still very strong. It’s both psychological and physical. We’re WIRED so that sugar and carbs hit the pleasure centers, and I admit it: I like pleasure. I’m no Puritan. (Is it ironic or telling that the country founded by Puritans struggles the most with weight? Is there something about telling ourselves that delicious food is sinful–and the moral shame that we heap upon ourselves and find heaped upon us by our still-oddly-Puritanical culture–that makes it harder to resist? Or is it more related to the worship of capitalism and consumerism, and the mixed messages that we must consume as much as possible in order to be good citizens of the U.S., but not when it comes to this one thing?)

The world is ending. Why not eat chocolate?

6. Does my health and appearance even matter when the world is burning down politically and ecologically? Don’t those realities just mean “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is a pretty damn good philosophy? I mean, I’ve literally never felt so sure that human life could become miserable from lack of resources, fascism, the divide between the rich and the poor–within my lifetime. I was one of those young science fiction readers who believed wholeheartedly that those in power would avoid the mistakes so eloquently pointed out to them by writers and thinkers, scientists and intellectuals. These days–ok, to be honest, these past couple of years in particular–I have been disillusioned again and again. With insects dying off at an alarming rate and the impact of those die-offs on all life on earth, why should I or anyone else care if I’m fat?

7. I know the answer that works best for me: one day at a time. For my health–mental and physical–and for living in this f%&@ed up world. If I give in to the 276th time I’m tempted by sweets in a day and eat some, then I’ll try to go back to healthy eating the next day. If I get through today eating healthy, then that’s fine, but it doesn’t put any more or less pressure on tomorrow. It’s just a day, at the end of which I hope I’ll remember to be grateful for what I have: a body that can walk in nature, take care of my cats and dog, hug my husband, read and write poetry, tell friends and family that I love them, and yes, occasionally enjoy a cupcake.

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When God Winks


Today is Ash Wednesday, and as a practicing Catholic it’s fitting my public blogging life should start here. Most people think of Ash Wednesday as a day of sacrifice and self-abnegation. Others, however, have taken it to mean stepping out in faith to do things we’re uncomfortable with, or scared of, or that stretch us beyond our comfort zone. Perhaps it means inviting someone to go to church with us, or speaking up to explain our beliefs to others. For me, it means writing my first post about God. 

There’s no better way to start Lent than to do something terrifying . . . so I’m writing my first public blog post about listening to God.

Today I’m particularly focused on the ways in which God communicates with us as we go about our daily lives. When I was younger, I thought God spoke to people in big ways—a burning bush, tongues of fire, blindingly bright angels. Absent those signs, I wondered if He was listening. One afternoon I was having a conversation about prayer with my friend Michael. I told him I prayed all the time, but wondered if I was just speaking into the void. He asked me what I did when I prayed. 

“Well, I say my prayers, then I ask God to bless all the people I love; then I ask Him for things.”

“You’re doing a lot of talking,” Michael said. 

“Praying is talking to God, right?”

“Yes. But what about listening?”

I flinched. “Like, hearing voices?”

“Not so much hearing voices, but paying attention to the little things. God is answering us all the time; we’re just so busy talking that we don’t hear his answer. The answers mostly come in the silence.”

My stomach clenched. I was never going to hear God, I thought, because I am terribleat silence. I lived my whole life in a house full of wonderful, vibrant, loud Italian New Yorkers. When I moved out of my parents’ home and into an apartment with my husband, when he had to work nights I would turn on every television in the apartment so every room would have a voice to keep me company. I was terrified of quiet.

How do I hear God’s “still small voice” when I am scared of silence?

I despaired thinking that to hear God I had to get comfortable with silence. It seemed impossible. A lot of days, it still is. Silence in our modern world is kind of hard to come by, and with one teenager, one almost-teenager, a husband, and three remarkably loud cats in my house, chances are that even if I wanted to find silence I probably couldn’t. But, as I said, I’m a practicing Catholic—I know I’m not very good at it, and need all the practice I can get—and sometimes in order to get better at something we have to start with what we know. As a writer, I know how to observe, and I’ve learned that sometimes, when God can’t be heard in the silence, as Squire Rushnell puts it, we see that “God winks.” 

God has, in no uncertain terms, recently winked at me. I have two daughters, and while I pray for lots of things in a given day, the bulk of my prayers are for them. As my eldest daughter, Bethany, started high school, I prayed for guidance to help her find her life’s path. Since Bethany was little, she loved to sing. She has taken singing lessons and worked to develop her lovely voice. She wants to continue developing her vocal talent, but she is trying to figure out if she can find a career that involves music without putting all her eggs in the very precarious preforming arts basket. While she may ultimately want to pursue a life in theater, she acknowledges she needs a backup plan.

I can’t imagine wanting to hear God more than when I’m worried about my children.

A friend of mine in Tallahassee recently posted an article from Florida State University about its music therapy program. It is making great strides using both music and medicine to promote development and recovery in premature babies, people with certain debilitating illnesses, and elderly patients with dementia. When my daughter heard about working with elderly patients, she gasped and said, “Mom. I think I want to look into that.” If you think that was God winking, wait. It gets better.

I started looking into program requirements and saw she would have to play an instrument. Fortunately, Beth’s vocal coach also teaches piano, so I sent her a quick text to see if Beth could start studying piano along with voice this summer. 

Not five minutes later, a friend of mine told me about a lady, Rusty, who was leaving her home to move in with her daughter. Rusty had a piano that had been a gift from her husband before he passed away, and it was so special to her that she wanted to sell it to a musically inclined family that would really love it. My friend wondered if we would be interested. 

Sometimes, God winks. Other times, He’s a little less subtle.

I know that writers often play with concepts of time and space in memoir to make a better story. I am not doing that here. This friend honestly spoke to me five minutesafter I sent that text. Is there something bigger than a wink, but not as large as a smack upside the head? Because I think God was doing that, and he wasn’t being quiet about it. 

I told my friend I had just contacted my daughter’s voice teacher about taking her on as a piano student. My friend immediately gave me Rusty’s contact information. Within a week I was in Rusty’s living room.

It’s not grand, (not even baby grand) and it may need tuning, but it fits in my home like it was always meant to be there.

I looked at the piano, touched the keys to make sure it sounded about right, and checked for signs of termite damage. As I looked, I spoke with Rusty. She was kind and soft-spoken, and so sad to have to let this part of her life with her husband go. 

“He died over ten years ago,” she said, sitting in her recliner with her walker next to her. “I’ve been lucky to stay in my home as long as I have, but it’s becoming impossible. I know I need to move closer to my daughter, but it’s hard to leave all of this.” 

I nodded. No chapters of our lives are easy, but I have witnessed first hand that the ones where we have to let go are the hardest. I told her, “Most kids my daughter’s age like kids and babies, but Bethany loves talking to older people. She loves their stories. I think if she decides she wants to work with music and medicine, she’s going to want to focus on the elderly. This piano is going to help her explore that option.”

We all have chapters of our lives that involve letting go. One thing that makes it easier is preserving one another’s stories.

“I was a nurse,” Rusty replied, “and music really was important in giving people a reason to keep on living. It tethers them to a happier time. Memories are so important when we’re healing.” She gestured to the piano. “After we retired, my husband bought me that. I was taking lessons, and he had it delivered on Christmas Eve. I was so surprised. He would come into the living room at night after dinner and ask me to play something. Those were some of the happiest days of my life. I hope this piano brings you that kind of joy.”

“It will,” I said. “I also hope it can bring joy to all the people my daughter might help one day. This may be her calling, or it may not. But I do know that whatever happens in the future, it’s no coincidence that this happened right now.”

God works that way,” she said. “He comes to us in the little things.”  

I smiled. “Yes. God winks.”

Sometimes, the little thing is music.

I had the piano moved to my house on Monday. My daughter came home from school, opened it up—and what song did she play, first thing? “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Mardis Gras was a day away; Ash Wednesday was coming up; she had just gotten a piano in a move that was one of the biggest God winks I’d ever personally experienced . . . and she, completely innocently, chooses to play “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

Maybe, for all that I know God comes to us in the silence, for now, He’s knows he needs to wink at me through the sound of my daughter’s music. So this Lent I’m going to keep looking out for when he winks, and maybe I’ll even find some time to listen for him in the silence. 

For those of you who participate in Lent in any way, I wish you a season of beauty and spiritual growth.

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A Short Interview with Christi Clancy

christi

Recently, my friend Christi Clancy, an amazing writer and Assistant Visiting Professor of English at Beloit College, has accepted a two-book publishing deal with St Martin’s publishing house, a well-deserved accomplishment that’s cause for celebration. I have known Christi for almost fifteen years, our friendship nourished in large part by a passion for reading, writing, workshopping, and all things literary. Her work has found home in publications like Sun Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her writing practice and philosophy.

Q: From the beginning of our friendship as writers, you’ve seemed to have clear goals about where you want your work to appear. What drew you to particular publications?

A: I haven’t submitted as much work lately because I’ve been focused on novel writing, but early on I submitted first to publications I read and subscribed to myself. Some journals are fortunate to have consistent editorship, so you begin to get a sense of the type of story they are looking for. I’d been reading Glimmer Train for years, so when I sent my story to them I had a good feeling that they were looking for a story with an off-beat character and a bit of humor. That was a really lucky first publication, and I think it gave me the confidence to aim high.

There are other journals I really wanted to be in. When Michael Czyzniejewski was editor of Mid-American Review, I could tell he liked the kind of slightly quirky literary fiction I was aspiring to write, and I discovered some writers in that journal that I loved, like Jessica Anthony. I came close with a few submissions, but the important thing was that I had a sense of where my work would be a good match. The same thing with The Sun magazine. I’d subscribed for years and was pretty obsessed with the magazine, and especially impressed by their devoted readership. I had a bunch of rejections from them, but I kept trying. I went to one of their conferences, and one of the editors actually remembered some of my work, which meant that even though I was getting rejected they knew who I was. I wrote my essay “Lost Cause” with The Sun in mind. The version I sent them wasn’t actually accepted right away; they’d asked for edits, which I interpreted as a rejection. A few months later the manuscript editor actually emailed and asked if I’d received their feedback. I didn’t think that sort of thing happened in publishing! So I went back, revised the hell out of it, and was absolutely thrilled that the essay was published. It was a painful, deeply personal story to write, and it felt like it had landed in exactly the right place. The best part was engaging with readers who’d found much to relate to.

Q: I remember once workshopping a story of yours that was later radically revised with a point of view shift, the story about wounds and cutting sponges. How do you decide when work is ready to send out for publication? How long does a story take? How long for your upcoming novel?

A: I’ve become obsessed with revision, especially in my teaching. I asked my college freshmen about their experience with revision, and many had said they’d never been asked to revise an assignment all through high school. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve edited the life right of a story a few times, but that’s really the exception, not the rule. My work almost always gets better when I try it new ways. Over the years I’ve become a lot less precious about my own writing. I’m more inclined to radically cut and modify as necessary. I think the reason why is that editing is about trusting your future self to be smarter than your present self. You have to believe that every time you work on a document, you’re a better writer than you used to be. I don’t know if that’s really the case, but it helps to exercise some optimism with writing.

As for knowing when a story is ready, it’s almost never when you first think it is. A lot of writers, including me, mistake getting to the end of something with finishing it. There’s this high of figuring out how a story ends and feeling pretty good about how it hangs together as a whole. But once that high wears off, you often realize there’s more you can do to tighten, fix, expand, delete. Just as I said it takes optimism to revise, I guess it takes pessimism to get to the end. It’s never hurt me to put a story away when it’s “hot” and revisit it later. I know this sounds cheesy, but you just have a feeling when you know it’s ready to send, like you just couldn’t make it any better. You need to be careful about sending too early. You can blow some opportunities when it’s close. This is depressing, but most of the stories I’ve published are four, five, six years old. I can finish essays much more quickly. You asked about my novel, and I’d actually just received an email from my editor telling me it is finished! It took almost six years to write and needed some revision even after it was sold. Fortunately nothing structural, just careful thinking about how/why the characters see the world a certain way.

Q: How useful do you find conferences, writing retreats, book fairs, or other writers’ events? Are there other spaces that you’ve found productive as a writer?

A: I have mixed feelings about writing conferences. The best ones, in my opinion, make you feel like you are part of a community of writers. I’ve been to a few where you feel like you are sitting at the kid’s table, and the “real writers” are kept separate from conference attendees. You can start to feel like you’re just money. My favorite conference was LitCamp, run by Janice Cook Newman in California. The “camp” was just relocated to Esalen from Calistoga. You have to be admitted, so everyone is working at a high level, and it feels really intimate. I met editors and agents and super famous writers, but most importantly, I made lasting friendships. It’s important to remember that you don’t actually get much writing done at writing conferences. They are more like creative defibrillators if you need motivation, and I hate to say it, but connections do help in this industry, especially when, like me, you are from the Midwest. What I feel like I need now is just the time and space to get actual writing done (my second novel is due in less than a year! Yikes!). I’m starting to look into artist residencies. I spent a month at Ragdale and got a lot of work done there. As for AWP, I’m going to go this year, but it’s just so overstimulating for me. My best resource is my writing group. We’ve been together for years now, and each person gives honest and super constructive feedback.

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