August 4, 2010

What's on your list?

My mother was a gifted storyteller and poet. She wrote amazing monologues and dialogues using in the voices of women from the Bible. She'd run retreats and start each session dressed in character; her dramatic words brought tears, laughter and healing. One piece I loved had my sister as Mary and my Mom as Elizabeth (Mary's older cousin who birthed a child in her old age). The piece starts when they are both pregnant and ends after the birth of both children. It was a great way to bring the Christmas story to life.

Another year, she worked with the kids in our inner city church to write a modern version of the Christmas story. My brother played the slum lord who told Mary and Joseph, "There's no room in the apartment building, but you can crash in the garage for the night".

As much work as she DID produce, there was one work that she never finished. I read this article today and thought of my Mom. How, if she were still alive, she'd read it and self-flagellate herself. I literally can't remember a time when she wasn't talking about her "Chelama Tale". She read us a chapter when we were little and it was GREAT. There were many, many, many times when she'd look around our messy house and sigh, "If only this were clean, I could write." Dad would use her computer and tell her that he'd get off whenever she wanted to use it, but never understood that she needed a sacred, blank space that was waiting for her whenever she found the energy and courage to attack the void.

I understand that need. When I was a fine art major I spent as much time cleaning and organizing my studio as I did painting. Before I cook at home, I have to clean the kitchen and have everything in it's proper space. The organizing phase is part of the ritual descent from logical left brained activity toward creative, right-brained connectivity. If I'm in a creative mode like painting or cooking, any need to organize snaps me back to left-brained mode.

After my mother died, I eagerly searched the house to find her notes and scribbles of the Chelama Tale. It was supposed to be an autobiography of her life set in a fantasy/spiritual allegory world. In the arrogant confidence of a 20-something woman, I thought I could take what she'd started and finish it. Build something from the ashes of her wishes and early death. When I found her stash, I was crushed. There was the chapter she'd read us, a few notes, and many, many empty folders. Waiting for the work that never filled them.

It changed me. Now, if I want to do a project, I might let it simmer for a while, I might talk a while before doing it, but I don't hold the project over the head of people around me. I don't make excuses for what I 'need to do to give myself permission to write'. It's the Yoda wisdom, "Do or do not do, there is no try."

I have a novel that my Grandfather wrote to entertain us. It's a GREAT plot with wonderful characters but told in a non-empathetic, matter-of-fact writing style that isn't appealing. One item on my life list is to take that skeleton and add the muscles, skin and tear ducts. I started to do it in college and made some wonderful progress, but it was lost when that computer was retired. I know it's in me and somehow, I know it will happen, but the time is not now.

Do you have a 'list' in your head? Where are you in your progress toward checking items off? Or have you lived while surviving someone else's list?


Aimee said...

I'd like to write a book, but I can't nail down the story. I'd like to write about the place my grandparents and Mom grew up, and about my great-grandparents' marriage and divorce (weird, but it highlights how strong my g-gma was). But can I tell you a secret? I think I'm going to enter a writing contest.

OTR sister said...

I love this post.

I've been surprised as an adult how angry I am at Mom for the implied, "If I didn't have to take care of you all and this house, I could fulfill my dreams."

Even if it's true, you don't tell your kids that.

It also under-valued what she did accomplish. But I think it was easier for her to keep this unfulfilled dream out there then to attempt it and fail. Or succeed.

To turn it around on myself, I can't think of any dreams that I have. What does that say about me? Have I gone too far in the other direction?

OTRgirl said...

@Aimee: I'm excited for you about the writing contest! Obviously, my answer is go for it.

@OTR sister: It was a weird guilt trip, wasn't it? How could someone so empathetic lay that on us? I totally agree that it was much easier for her to live on talk and excuses than prioritizing it and making it happen. Feels like a harsh judgement, but she really did go on and on, huh?

I don't know if you have to think of things as big as 'dreams'. You've done a bunch of stuff that I think of more as projects. I have other projects in mind, other trips I want to take -- I think of that as my 'list'. I don't know if I have a huge overarching dream anymore, either.

Anonymous said...

It is strange that having to clean before playing came out in you too. I remember as a child I would need to clean the area in Gma's basement before we could play dolls. The boys have wore me down about that. I still want the kitchen in order before I cook. Maybe that is why hubby does it. I still have the dreams of jumping out of a plane and traveling. I have the passport now I WILL plan a trip. Be gentle about mom, she did the best with what she had and not enough time for mellowing out. jj

Anonymous said...

@Aimee. Here's a strange recommendation for you. If you want to write your family history, read the preface to "Little Britches". It's an excellent boy's book, but the preface is as dramatic as the book itself, and it demonstrates how effective anger can be as a spring-board for writing a good book.

@OTRgirl. Two corrections, of some importance.

In your Mom's OTR Nativity play, your brother played the rental agent, sympathetic to the plight of the Tennessee mountain couple whose car had broken down on Christmas eve. As part of the packing process, I reread the play in June.

Betina, who died in a car crash a couple of years later, played the hardhearted slumloard -- who did not want to violate City ordinances by putting up the couple in a substandard apartment. Your brother didn't put them in a garage; he put them in a vacated apartment with no heat and no electricity. It was the only available space.

The angels -- who did a rapp, years before rapp became current -- appeared to a group of homies,
and they visited the couple in the dark, cold apartment.

Second comment: We went to a lot of trouble to get a writing room for your Mother. We considered renting a room elsewhere in the neighborhood, but finally decided to give her a private space inside the house. So, we gave her the fourth floor room which was next to your bedroom. I put a lock on the door, and she was the only person with the key. We moved all her writing equipment up there, so it would be as productive as possible.

Result: She seldom used it. Why? Because the filing kept piling up, and so it was not a guilt-free space.
I have similar problems, so that's why I often do creative writing a coffee houses.

Contrast: If you're really a writer, you don't even sweat the big stuff. Example: Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was a terrible housekeeper and probably not a very good mother.

My source about Harriet's writing style was her friend, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman MD in the United States.

When Harriet wanted to write, she swept her arm across the dining room table. The excess crashed to the floor. Then she had a space to write. As she wrote, she ignored her children -- unless they were seriously injured.

See, you can do it. You just need to be able to focus like Tiger Woods.

Anonymous said...
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OTRgirl said...

@ Aunt J: so funny that you have the cleaning thing! I told Jrex this morning that what I love about my wonderful collection of aunts are the times when I discover that what I thought were personal quirks are actually genetic! You're also very right to remind us to be gentle on Mom. She DID do the best she could and most of the time, she hit it out of the park.

@ Anonymous/Dad: Thank you for the corrections! I TOTALLY forgot about the room on the 4th floor. You're right! She never used it. I was only thinking of her room on Orchard St. Thank you for the reminders about the Christmas play. She was amazing.

Mizasiwa said...

Iv spent the last few years living in the past and im trying desperatly to do two thing with my life right not 1 live in the present and 2 know and trust that the answer is out their and be patient enough to wait for it to be answered!
Its not easy and iv spent a lot of the last few weeks going over the fact that i wait for that speical moment - ALL THE TIME! and the right time is now! Thansk for this post i enjoy your blog not only becouse my husband is a designer as well but your devotion and your stumbling and you ness is so real!! thanks you