If by Rudyard Kipling

fray

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Holiday Wars

Holiday wars

If you’ve been caught in the crosshairs of the War on Christmas, I have news. You’ve been duped. Bamboozled. Had the wool pulled over your eyes. There is no War on Christmas, but there is a war on everything that isn’t Christmas (namely, all the other holidays sharing the month of December).

Still, ranks of well intentioned but misinformed believers are engaged in a fierce battle. Their plaintive rallying cry is their desire to “put the Christ back in Christmas.” Some picket big box stores, insisting they replace the all inclusive “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” in each and every advert. Or, they take to the airwaves, reminding believers that wishing their hairdressers or children’s teachers “Happy Holidays” is a sign of persecution or cultural brainwashing.

During this season of love and light, do these soldiers ever question what they’re fighting for? Bullying the local superstore into using the word “Christmas” does not seem likely to make the Ancient of Days happier on the occasion of his birth. Does Almighty God need his name plastered all over stores that encourage over spending, proffer low wages, or who treat their employees with disrespect?

“That’s all beside the point,” huff believers. It’s frighteningly easy for charismatic leaders to lather up their flocks, then watch them descend down slippery dystopian slopes. Into worlds where Christmas and religious freedoms have all but disappeared and the baby Jesus has been kidnapped from the manger. Every last Who silenced, even the Grinch’s faithful dog lying dead in the abyss. And it all began with wishing each other “Happy Holidays.”

But wait, interject the Happy Holidayers, all is not lost! Wishing each other “Happy Holidays” takes nothing away from Christ. It’s too cumbersome to wish your neighbor a “Happy Yalda,” only to discover they are not practicing Zoroastrians. Or to send your boss a “Merry Kwanzaa” card when they’re actually celebrating a joyous Bodhi Day.

“Happy Holidays” is the elegant, yet simple answer to honoring the many faiths which hold spiritually significant celebrations in December. A phrase of inclusion, designed not to cast down any one Ascended Master, but rather to elevate  and make whole all of God’s children. An invoked greeting of joy and goodwill, gathering and building upon a rising tide of merriment. All voices, faiths and beliefs can then ring out in unison, “Happy Holidays!”
So before we allow each other to retreat any farther into separate camps of belief, with Christians accusing the other side of stealing the very hay from the baby Jesus’ manger and everyone else sniggering on the sidelines, I propose a cease fire.

To meet at this clearing, let’s begin with a basic understanding of a warrior’s heart. Believers who fight the War on Christmas are fighting for a cause larger than themselves. They wage war, not because they are fearless, but because they are terrified. That if they don’t engage, their way of life will be forever altered. That their children will grow up in a society devoid of anything worth fighting for.

These good hearts could be directed towards wars on other fronts, and many already are. Wars on poverty, bigotry and intolerance. But if gearing up to fight any war, especially in the name of the Prince of Peace, it would be wise to choose our causes carefully, and to mindfully check the names carved on our hearts before entering the fray.

Fear. Misinformation. A winding road paved with good intentions. All foundations of senseless wars waged throughout the ages. Have we grown any savvier?

Perhaps it is too much to ask for a ceasefire when both sides are so deeply entrenched. A stopgap solution might be for moderates to join in the battle. For me, this then becomes a personal fight, beginning with my a battle to hold on to my faith in those who label themselves as Christians (because I happen to be one of them). As Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Maybe I can tend the wounded, reminding them that Christ’s birth is a season of peace, and that he loved making everyone feel welcome around his table. I’ll also remind myself that to judge is a sin.

There are other forms of resistance, small and large. I’ll fight for a return to sanity, hope and giving. Strive for moments of balance and peace within my family, all during a season which ought to be marked by an overflow of lovingkindness.

Christ, the essence of love, came out of a desire to heal all of mankind. Not just those who attend church or who have Christmas trees in their living rooms. As mature, adult believers, our gift to the one we profess to worship can be a sincere, sustained effort to embrace the minority and the majority. Gifts of reconciliation, peace, harmony and generosity.

In a world divided by crosses and stars, symbols and traditions, I’ll teach my children to reject chaos and bigotry. Perhaps by sowing these seeds, the next generation will put a permanent end to this War on Christmas, and will go on to fight battles far more deserving of their time and energy.

My sincerest wish goes out to everyone, in this broken world we hope one day will be made whole, for a very Happy Holiday season. May you and yours be blessed with peace and understanding.

All I Want For Christmas…

Christmas List

The Confession

Read The Confession on WattPad

Thanks to @MorrighansMuse for making this amazing graphic. Check out her works here.Confessions

Holiday Stress

Holiday Stress

Tis the holiday season, and people are rushed. To-do lists are endless, phones ping party reminders, and you need to bake 8 dozen macaroons for the neighborhood cookie exchange. There are gifts to wrap, open houses to attend, special meals to prepare and families to visit. But if you are depressed or struggling, the holiday hustle and bustle isn’t just busy; it’s overwhelming. There are effective ways to cope with your feelings during the holidays, but they require honesty and a willingness to mix things up a bit.

The holiday season isn’t simply a time of celebration. It is also a season of perpetual busyness and endless (sometimes forced) effervescence which begins right after Halloween and doesn’t let up until New Year’s. That’s a long stretch of merry making for anyone suffering from depression, struggling with an addiction, grappling with the loss of a loved one or healing from a broken heart. Sometimes, the holidays simply aren’t that happy.

If the holidays are difficult, take heart. You are not alone. Despite what television and advertisements would have us believe (families gathered around the fire in matching pajamas, sipping hot cocoa, scrapbooking all the reasons they love each other), the holidays aren’t always all happiness and light. Many of us would love to zip right through October all the way till January (or maybe June, when it’s nice and warm outside). It would be a sweet relief for many to escape the commercialism, prickly relatives, annoying parties, itchy holiday sweaters, over spending, and general emotional upheaval the holidays often bring.

If you are clinically depressed, it’s easy to believe everyone else is happy during the holidays. Everyone may look like they’re running a smooth holiday marathon when you can hardly floss your teeth. But that simply isn’t true. Depression is a tricky little imp. It makes things appear more difficult than they are, and twists your thoughts into a jumbled mess.

Just when you think you’re ready to tackle any small task, wrap a few gifts, bake some cookies, depression will talk you right back down into its black grasp. What began as a tiny spark will be promptly extinguished as your mind runs off like an untamed horse. What will you do with the stack of cards that need to go to the post office by 5? Where did grandma’s cookie recipe go? How can you come up with another Elf on the Shelf’s idea before morning?

When the list of holiday “shoulds” and “musts” becomes so long it sucks the energy and life blood clear out of you, it’s time to pare back your list and strategize. Stat. Your mental health is of far greater importance than flocking the tree or whipping up a batch of holiday pomegranate margaritas. (Although if the latter sound good, by all means, feel free.)

When you feel yourself wavering this holiday season, stop. Take a time out. Call a good, trustworthy friend. Take a bath or get some exercise (both, preferably). Give yourself permission to cry, feel bad, get angry and hate everything having to do with the holidays. Make an appointment with a therapist or your pastor. Go completely Grinch for a while. (Just don’t steal anything or get too mean.) Breathe, pray, write or draw in your journal (even if it’s only a few measly scribbles). Take a nap. Rinse and repeat.

Here is the most important step of all. When you wake up, look at yourself in the mirror and remind yourself of the biggest, most vital truth you will ever know. You may not believe it right now, but you must stop and say these words out loud, with your mouth, vibrate your vocal cords and hear the words until your brain registers their truth.

You are beautiful. Every hair on your head, every pore on your skin, every square inch on your body was fearfully and wonderfully made. Nothing about you was, is or ever will be a mistake. No matter how awful you feel today, you will feel better. You are strong. Stronger than you can ever imagine.

No matter how we dress and decorate the windows of our lives, each and every one of us suffers from some degree of holiday angst this time of year. If you suffer from clinical depression, the holidays are an especially difficult time of emotional pain and stress.

So during the holidays, treat yourself with tenderness, kindness and patience. Do not beat yourself up over things that don’t matter. Come to think of it, don’t beat yourself up about anything. Ever. You are worth every ounce of kindness, peace, hope, joy and love the holiday season has engendered in the entire world. Ever. Just for you.

Give that gift to yourself. The gift of knowing that you will find peace, even if you don’t have it today. Know that loving yourself as you are, right now, is one important key to feeling better. Have hope that tomorrow is a new day, full of possibility. And remember that there is always joy in living, no matter how bleak things may seem today.

“I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”

Anne Frank

Winning Entry: Margaret Atwood #Freeze-DriedFiction Contest, Sister of the Bride

Sister of the Bride” was written by Jennifer Cooreman as a prequel to Margaret Atwood’s story “The Freeze Dried Groom” (one of the nine tales in Stone Mattress). It was chosen as the winning entry by a panel of editors in the Margaret Atwood sponsored Freeze Dried Fiction contest. Be sure to read Margaret Atwood’s story first so you’ve got proper context for my story (see link above). Happy reading!

Sister of the Bride

Ashes

Claire pushed past her mother, dragging her sister’s mahogany chest down the steps and through their back yard. “Claire, don’t make me beg. Her journals are all we have left.” For a moment her mother’s shoulders lost their rounded slump, her eyes flashed and she appeared ready to do battle with her oldest and only surviving daughter.

But by the time she’d thrown a thin wrap over her nightgown, Claire had already reached the burn barrel and stood poised, ready to strike the match. Touching the flame to the first bits of paper, the fire started easily in the cold morning air. Whatever secret joys and sorrows her younger sister had recorded in her letters and journals became quick, bright tinder, envelopes and pages tumbling one after another into the roaring fire.

As Claire stirred and banked the coals, wanting to be sure each scrap of paper was reduced to ash, she tried to tamp down her guilt and despair. When she lost a patient, when their father walked out without warning, she knew how to detach. This was her art, one she believed she had mastered.

But her sister was gone, and although she knew she was not responsible for her death, she could not separate herself from her sister’s accident. She believed she could have saved her.

“Nonsense.” Claire spoke to herself as she stood near the dying fire, as if she was one of her own grief-stricken patients. “Think logically, Claire.” If anyone was to blame for Elise’s death, it was Clyde Davis.

At the rehearsal dinner the night before their wedding, Elise’s fiancé had been vacillating wildly between laughter and tears, listening to his friends and family reminisce about his younger days, sharing his dorm room, braving the police academy together. As the night drew to a close, Claire pointedly steered Clyde away from the bar. “Better get a good night’s sleep so you’re in top form tomorrow.”

Claire had never seen him so drunk. Was Elise embarrassed by his antics? She seemed oblivious and was glowing, radiant with excitement. Claire tried to hide her irritation. It was her sister’s night, not hers.

“After tonight, she’s yours for the rest of your life. How about letting me drive her home?” Claire tried to finesse her way past Clyde’s considerable male pride, the same way she approached difficult patients. Sideways. Telling him he was too blitzed to drive wouldn’t have gone over well, especially not in front of his police officer buddies.

Elise shot her sister a warning glance. One that said, quite clearly, “Let go, Claire. We’re fine.” So she backed off, giving her sister one last hug.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Claire. Eight o’clock sharp. I know you can’t wait for hair and makeup!” Elise flashed a wide grin, and then she was gone.

It was only a five mile drive, Claire told herself. Nothing Clyde couldn’t handle.

Gone

Claire returned to the restaurant to collect her things and drove home, looking forward to a good night’s sleep. The ringing phone startled her. “What could Elise want now?” She was surprised to hear a stranger’s voice, “There’s been an accident.” Annoyed, Claire shook her head. “I’m not on call tonight.”

“No, Dr. Ledus. Your sister has been involved in an accident.”

Claire couldn’t remember how she got to the hospital. Her only clear memory was Clyde, slumped against the corridor, outside a room she knew was the morgue. The blood stains on his white shirt. Still dressed in his suit and tie, he did not look at Claire until she stood directly over him, shouting his name. “Clyde, where is Elise. What the hell happened? Who’s working trauma?” Clyde began to howl, banging his head against the tiled wall. “She’s gone, Claire. Don’t you understand? Gone.”

Claire’s vision turned inward, becoming a long grey tunnel. She focused on the center of the hospital’s endless hallways, hearing faint sounds. A group of people speaking in hushed, urgent tones. Nurses? Doctors? Someone took Claire’s elbow, steering her towards an elevator. A steady whisper began in her ear. Calm, as if she was a child that needed soothing. Perhaps it was a nurse, or one of the orderlies who wasn’t afraid of her. Claire was the hospital’s leading cardiothoracic surgeon. Most everyone on staff was afraid of her for one reason or another.

An officer, one she’d seen with Clyde countless times, approached Claire. “She’s gone, Dr. Ledus. There was an accident just after Clyde and Elise left the rehearsal dinner. Your sister did not make it. There will be a full investigation. I can promise you that. But Clyde’s too torn up now. We want to let him grieve. Give him some time.”

Someone wrapped her in a blanket. “We’ll drive you home, Claire.” The whispering people were telling her what to do, making her sense of unreality more acute. More arms, more whispers along the long white halls. This was her hospital, the domain she controlled. So well lit, but strangely quiet tonight. Clyde appeared, walking stiffly next to her, his boutonniere hanging limp from his lapel. “I tried to slow down. It all happened so fast. I’m sorry, Claire.”

Sorry? Give Clyde time?

Then she heard a woman scream, waling so desperately that Claire couldn’t think. She closed her eyes and covered her ears, finally sinking to her knees. Flashing lights coursed behind her lids, red and white pulses. Where was her sister? There was a roar, a wind, someone holding her down. They needed to give that woman something, Claire thought absently. Some Seconal, something to calm her nerves. Why wouldn’t anyone help?

Promises

Five months before Elise’s death, Claire and Elise took a walk around a lake near their childhood home. Barefoot and laughing, they talked about their lives and family. They agreed their mother needed to see a therapist. Would she ever get over their father? “I don’t think about him anymore, Claire. I used to pray he’d come home.” Claire never thought of their father, and certainly never prayed he’d come back.

Their conversation wound its way back to the wedding “You really don’t mind the bridesmaids dresses? I know pink is not your color, but it looks beautiful on you. Everything does.” Claire made a face.

“Can we dye it black?”

“Stop it, Claire.You’re going to look stunning. Pink is the perfect backdrop for my flowers. Garden roses, Stargazer lilies and gardenias.”

“You sound like a florist, Elise. Maybe you should open up a flower shop and paint with petals. Put your fine-arts degree to use. You know, make some money?.”

“Shut up, Claire. I make money. Clyde says my paintings are beautiful and I’m going to be a famous artist someday. Anyway, we’re supposed to be talking about the wedding. I’ve made all the chair sashes. So many wedding things have been delivered to the apartment. Clyde says we look like a couple of hoarders.”

“Elise, do you think that’s a sign you’re going overboard?” Poking her sister, she continued, “I could set up an eval, get you some meds. I hear there’s a new disorder. Bridal mania, I think.”

“You’re going to wind up exactly like me when you get married.” Shooting her sister a sideways glance, Elise added, “Well, when it’s legal for you to get married.”

Then Elise stopped, her mood darkening. Avoiding Claire’s eyes, she bent to pick long stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace growing along the edge of their path. “Can I ask you something? Don’t laugh. If anything ever happens to me, burn all my journals. Everything in my chest.”

Bile rose in Claire’s throat at the memory. She had laughed, surprised at Elise’s strange request, so out of character for her light hearted sister. For that she would never forgive herself. Other mistakes, sins and split second decisions would never haunt her the way failing to listen, truly listen, to her sister would.

Memory

For a time, Claire hoped she would find the strength to forgive Clyde. Humans were prone to tragic errors. Forgiveness would have been a stretch, but she could have forced herself. For her own sanity.

But then she found one last piece of her sister’s memories lying in the snow, as if placed there by an unseen hand. A thin red ribbon had escaped the fire. It had been meticulously removed from one of her sister’s journals, the ribbon firmly attached to a sheaf of papers with Elise’s distinctive writing covering its pages.

She started back to the fire, intending to add those pages to the ashes, stirring the coals to life. She fully intended to keep her promise.

But her sister’s words reached for Claire as she carried them in her trembling hands. Despite her best efforts, she could not look away, and she was soon consumed by her sister’s private memories.

“So afraid… He’ll be fired…lose his license. He’s so angry when he drinks. I want to help, but I don’t know how.”

Claire’s hands shook as she backed away from the fire.

“…Can’t tell her. This isn’t the Clyde I know. How can I help?… gets angrier and angrier until I do what he wants. Last night the landlady threatened to call the police. Then what would we do?”

She didn’t want to keep reading, but how could she stop? There had been so many clues, but Elise had been so careful to explain each one away. She nudged Claire from her circle of secrets, and Claire had believed all the excuses. The mysterious bruises, the cancelled plans. “I’m such an idiot, Claire. I hit my face on the bathroom cabinet in the middle of the night. I don’t feel like going out tonight.”

Pieces of a puzzle whirred together. The plate glass door Clyde fell through. He wasn’t a klutz, he was a violent drunk, an addict and excellent liar. One Elise fought to save and protect. One she ultimately died for.

“…I don’t want to lose him. I told him I’d tell Claire or call his boss if he didn’t stop, and he started…I couldn’t breathe, but he cried so hard afterwards…Don’t know what to do…keeps promising he’ll quit.”

Was that why her sister wore so many layers? “Why do you wear so much makeup, Elise? You’re wasting your money on all that crap.” Why hadn’t Elise trusted her with the truth? Why had Claire laughed? Why had she ever laughed at her sister?

She shuddered, realizing Elise had lived with two men. The Clyde the world knew, a responsible policeman, tall and handsome, always ready with a joke or to lend a hand. An upstanding citizen, seemingly above reproach. That, in stark juxtaposition to the Clyde Elise lived with behind closed doors. The petulant drunk who finished a six pack after work to ease the stress of his day, then started in on the harder stuff. By the time he staggered into their bed, he wouldn’t listen to Elise’s pleas. Please stop, you’re hurting me. Don’t make me beg.

Claire hated herself for not listening, for failing to protect her sister. She hated Elise for protecting Clyde. And she hated Elise for dying.

Above all, through the haze of the dying fire, Claire hated Clyde. Clyde, who drove home from the rehearsal dinner, drunk, taking back road curves at ninety miles an hour. Clyde, who’d walked away from the wreck with barely a scratch, sobbing over his lost love. Officer Davis, the grieving groom, hadn’t even gotten a ticket from his buddies who were called to the scene . “Has he been drinking? No, he’s been through enough tonight. Let it go for now.”

Regret

Claire was cold, even standing next to the fire. She didn’t want to move, or answer any of the questions waiting for her. What would Elise wear in the casket? What readings would she like for the mass? What the hell did any of that matter now? Her sister had died, and Claire didn’t give a shit about readings or caskets. But someone had to take over, and her mother and Clyde were too hysterical with grief to help. She thought of her sister and felt ashamed. If the situation had been reversed, Elise would have done something, somehow been a better sister. Rage and regret battled with Claire’s desire to help. To kill. To die. Claire was rooted to her spot in the snow. She could not stop remembering.

She had introduced Elise and Clyde thinking they’d be perfect for each other. On the phone, Elise could barely contain her questions. She’d begged Claire to introduce her to one of her residents. “No, he’s not a doctor. Doctors are egotistical assholes who cheat on their wives and get blow jobs from nurses in supply closets. This one’s a policeman. Upstanding, serve and protect, all that bullshit. I’ve watched him around the hospital. Seems like a decent guy. As far as guys go, anyway.”

The entire hospital staff loved Clyde. Affable, handsome, always ready to help those in need, to rush in and save the day. He handled Claire’s toughest patients with an easy calm, never using too much force or throwing himself around like the other cops she knew. Hospital security was usually a hardened bunch, but Clyde was gentle. Like he cared about the mental patients and gunshot victims he escorted into her ER.

Claire built her life around caring for others, and her methods had always worked. Calm logic. Hard work and planning. Yet she had failed her sister miserably. Clyde Davis won. He’d fooled them all.

Funeral

Claire would not allow her sister’s funeral to revolve around Clyde’s conspicuous grief. She knew the truth, felt it shining from her like a beacon. Everything in her screamed, “Liar!” But the mass would be a celebration of her sister’s life, honoring her spirit and providing some small balm for their mother’s wounds.

She tried to spare their mother as much pain as possible in the days before the funeral, first by calling in a favor from a colleague in the psych department. He had known Claire since her days as a resident, before she became quite so callous and clinical. “Mom, I know you hate taking medicine, but you’ve got to sleep or you’re not going to make it to the funeral.” Dr. Weisman left Claire with several scripts for anti anxiety meds, for herself and her mother. She now carried a small pharmacy in her purse. “What else can I do for you, Claire? I’m so sorry. What about something to help you sleep? You know not to combine these with alcohol?”

Dr. Weisman was the only physician in the hospital who didn’t seem afraid of Claire, or call her a heartless bitch behind her back. He knew her professional detachment was nothing more than a screen, an efficient tool she used as a surgeon. He’d seen Claire punish herself when she lost a young patient or when a transplanted heart was rejected.

Claire wished she could ask her mother for help deciding what to do with Elise’s wedding things. She had been avoiding calls from the country inn where her sister planned to hold the reception, but she had to call them back eventually. What would she do with Elise’s wedding dress, the celebration set up for a bride who’d never show? Although the staff was well aware of the tragic circumstances, their messages were becoming increasingly short. “I’m sorry, Dr. Ledus, but we can’t hold these things past tonight. We’ve got another wedding coming in.”

The funeral planning had frayed Claire’s nerves. Disposing of Elise’s wedding things would have tipped her over the edge. So, she spared herself yet another painful decision by dialing up a moving company. “Can you pick up a load of wedding supplies this afternoon? The wedding’s been cancelled. Groom’s a no show. Yeah, a real asshole. Deliver the entire lot to a storage facility in Mississauga. Yes, I’ll pay a rush fee. Whatever you need. I’ve rented a unit big enough for everything.”

Claire knew she should let go. Donate the wedding to a deserving couple, or toss it all in a dumpster. But she couldn’t. Not the boxed favors, each one lovingly handmade by Elise, tied with a bow and holding a tiny heart shaped candle. The crates of champagne, folded table linens and a guest book which would remain blank for eternity. Her sister’s wedding dress hung, with its voluminous tulle skirt and hand appliquéd silk organza flowers, in the bridal room of the inn. The funeral director asked Claire if she would like to bury Elise in the gown. “Seems a shame she never had the chance to wear it.” Claire agreed with the unctuous prick. Elise should have had the chance to wear her dress. But she wanted to preserve her memories of her sister when she was alive, even if she had to manufacture them. So she would imagine her sister wearing the gown in the winter portraits she’d planned for her wedding day, not trapped in a coffin, rotting in the ground.

Claire went shopping one last time for her sister, choosing a dark green dress for the burial, one of Elise’s favorite colors. The saleslady, not noticing Claire’s mood, insisted on idle chit chat. “This will look beautiful with your hazel eyes. Are you going on a trip? Somewhere fun?”

Medicated, but present enough to mourn, Claire made it through the funeral. She heard the prayers and hoped her sister had truly gone on to a better place.

“Lord, we trust in your grace, believing those who have died live glorified in Your presence. We pray in joyful hope for our families, and for the souls of the dead, whose hope lies in You alone.”

Their mother seemed, impossibly, at peace. “It was a beautiful funeral, Claire. I know Elise was looking down on us from heaven.”

Claire was dying inside. Disintegrating while she waited for her escape. But her mother held firm. “I’m worried about you. Nothing will make me whole again, but I’ll survive. But I know your heart is breaking. Stay with me. Just for one night?”

“I need to sleep in my own bed, Mom.” More than anything, Claire needed solitude. To hold her sister’s sweater, which she’d borrowed the weekend before she died. To cry, with no one there to tell her everything would be alright. Because she knew that was a vicious lie.

It was after midnight when Claire stopped crying, wiped her eyes and went to the kitchen for water. Still wearing Elise’s sweater, her thoughts took a morbid turn, one she recognized but could usually talk herself through. “Perhaps”, she mused, “the best solution to this pain is death.”

Depression stalked Claire for much of her life. There had been many times she fleetingly decided death was a kinder option than living. Tonight, alone in her apartment, death became increasingly appealing. She meditated on the opportunity cost of suicide. It did not seem steep. Going to to sleep, never waking. No new days without her sister.

She was already dead. Walking back to her couch, she found her purse, counted the bottles of muscle relaxants and sleeping pills. She considered driving to the hospital, pocketing several vials of Ketamine. It was snowing hard now, but she could walk the few blocks to the hospital and mix her own cocktail. Propofol, morphine, some Methohexital, just to be sure.

She thought of her mother, who told Claire she was irrevocably broken. “So my death will be the icing on the cake.” Claire found a bottle of vodka in the back of her freezer, then some orange juice to wash down the pills. Wasn’t that how Marilyn Monroe died? She couldn’t remember.

Her mind calculated the number of pills, how much vodka she’d need to consume without throwing everything up. Distracted, concentrating on her plan, she barely registered the knock at the door. Would it be less suspicious to drive to the hospital and nab a few vials from the pharmacy or should she walk? Or go with the pills? The anesthesia would be more reliable. Quicker.

In the stillness of her apartment, she heard another knock, then a familiar voice. “Claire?” Was she already in hell? Peering through the peephole, she saw Clyde. Distorted, the tiny opening giving him a walleyed appearance. His head looked bigger than his body, and he wore a large black hat. Was that his top hat? It was getting colder outside. She could feel it. “Clyde, what are you doing here. And what are you wearing?” She heard crying, then a muffled thud. “Clyde?” Had he fallen, or fallen asleep? Left the building?

She opened her door a crack and saw him slumped against the wall. Bleary eyed, reeking of sweat and alcohol. This time she could smell it from across the hall. “What are you doing? I hope to hell you didn’t drive here.”

“I am supposed to be a married man, Claire. The groom. Look at me. Would you fucking look at me?” He had gone out in a winter storm wearing his tuxedo, dressed for the wedding he’d made impossible. And he was there at her doorstep, drunk as hell, banging his head on the doorwall. He would wake her neighbors. Claire thought frantically of calling the police. Then she thought of Elise. Of how frightened she must have been when he came home at night.

He pushed his way easily into her apartment, crying and babbling. “I’ve lost my bride. She’s all I can think about. I should be with her right now. She was my everything. Do you understand, Claire. Are you even listening?”

Claire looked through him. Should she walk to the hospital in all this snow? How many vials of anesthetic could she steal without anyone noticing? Clyde lurched towards her couch, helping himself to her vodka and orange juice. Claire just wanted him gone so she could sleep. He was the reason she did not want to live, a walking, breathing reminder of all the ways she had failed her sister.

She looked out her window, and saw the snow falling harder and faster. The storm was coming, just as they’d predicted. Sometimes the forecasters got it wrong, but not tonight. They’d warned the storm of the century was bearing down on the region, fueled by uncommon weather patterns. The polar vortex. For once, they were right. Soon the entire city would shut down. Claire needed to get Clyde out of her apartment. She sure as shit wasn’t going to get snowed in with him.

“I’ve got to take a piss,” Clyde announced abruptly.

Claire’s stomach tightened. “Clyde, you can’t stay here. There’s a storm coming and I don’t have anywhere for you to sleep.” Maybe if she was lucky, he’d walk home and freeze to death on the way. Clyde was in no rush to leave, and was still zipping his fly as he emerged from her bathroom. Slowly, as if he’d just realized Claire wasn’t a mirage, he turned to face her, appraising Claire as if she were a ghost. “That’s Elise’s sweater. It looks good on you. You two could have been twins.”

Clyde sat down heavily next to her, so close that Claire could see the broken capillaries in his eyes and the places where he’d cut himself shaving.”You’re so pretty, Claire.” He’d slurred his words, resting his head on her shoulder. “Don’t go to sleep, Clyde.” She knew she’d never get him up if he passed out. “I’m not sleepy, Claire. I’m just dreaming. Thinking how much you look like your sister. But you’ve got a bigger rack. Elise was beautiful, but she got screwed in the tits department.”

Claire thought about how long her sister had protected this worthless piece of shit. She considered for a moment which way to go. But it was Clyde who helped her decide. His hands had a mind of their own. The man had no soul.

His breath was sickly sweet as he leaned towards her, his fingers tracing her spine. “Have you ever thought about me, Claire? What it would be like? Because I’ve thought about you.”

Claire forced herself to breathe. “Really, Clyde? I’m flattered. I thought you knew.”

Clyde chuckled. “Well, Elise told me. But I figured you might change your mind. That I might change your mind.”

“Oh, but you have, Clyde. You have changed my mind.”

Clyde reached clumsily for the buttons on her blouse, but Claire held his hands. “Are you sure, Clyde? You’re not going to regret this?”

“Shit, no. I knew you wanted it. Don’t feel bad. It’s perfectly natural. We’re lonely souls. God, you’ve got gigantic tits.”

“Yes, Clyde. I know. I’ve been saving a bottle of wine for the right occasion. Let me pour us a glass.”

Claire poured two glasses of merlot, and spoke to Clyde from the kitchen. She was not ready for him to fall asleep. “I can’t believe this is really happening.” She heard him half laugh, half snort. “Me neither.” She mixed his glass with extra care, added a few of Dr. Weisman’s easily dissolvable helpers.

“I propose a toast. To new beginnings and second chances.” Clyde drained his glass in one long gulp, leaning greedily towards her. She stood quickly, unbuttoning the first few buttons of her blouse, giving him a glimpse of the black, lacy cups of her bra. “I’m going to change into something special. Just for you.”

From her bedroom, Claire saw his head nod. Then heard snoring.

She wondered, as she pulled on her winter coat and boots, how many pills would it take to put down a horse? None of that mattered now. She was just playing games. Clyde would sleep while she made a quick run to the hospital. “Just here to check on my patients. Wanted to be sure everyone’s OK before I get snowed in.”

Anesthesiology was always dead on stormy nights. Scheduled surgeries were cancelled when the weather got bad. If any emergencies came in, Dr. Wagner was on call and he wouldn’t bother Claire. She’d done a triple bypass on his mother last month. Saved her life. He wouldn’t notice if she slipped in and out with a few vials of anesthetic in her pocket. Claire moved quickly through the hospital. On her way to the parking lot, she grabbed a wheel chair. Clyde was a heavy bastard.

Back at the apartment, Clyde was sleeping. Claire calculated the timing of her trip. Less than an hour, even with all the snow. But she needed to hurry, before any more ice accumulated on the roads. They were deserted, everyone hunkered down and waiting for the storm to pass. Clyde woke easily, drunk, relaxed and compliant. “Wake up, baby. I’ve got someplace special to take you. The perfect place for a romantic evening.”

Claire helped him to the car, cajoling, dragging and wheeling until he was finally settled in the front seat. He nodded in and out while Claire focused on her driving. She couldn’t afford to slide off the road. Parking on the side of the building, she turned off her car and used a blast of cold air to wake Clyde. “We’re here! You’re gonna love this.”

It took more time and strength than Claire knew she possessed, but there was just enough room to maneuver Clyde into a corner. She had to shift a few boxes and crates, and focused on working quickly and quietly. For good measure, she placed a few dissolvable morphine tabs on his tongue. “Don’t forget your top hat!” She placed it on his head at a rakish angle, then set up a makeshift table. Two champagne flutes, a dried bouquet and two linen napkins. So very festive.

He stirred, briefly, when she emptied the first syringe into his vein. The massive dose of Succinylcholine would paralyze his body almost instantly. Soon, he wouldn’t be able to breathe, speak or move. But he’d be able to see. For a few minutes, anyway. Then, it would all be over.

“All tucked in! Cozy, isn’t it? There’s plenty of champagne if you feel like celebrating. It’s already chilled. Going down to negative nineteen degrees tonight. Can you see the extra bottles? They’re right over there. Just behind the wedding dress.”

His eyes silently followed Claire as she paused to take one last look before turning out the light. Then she slipped out of the storage locker, making absolutely sure she’d closed the rattling metal door behind her.

“Sleep tight, Clyde.”

***Cover photo courtesy of Teresa Lee, www.teresaleephotography.com

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

Neil Gaiman gives The Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries.
Neil Gaiman
Photograph: Robin Mayes

It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

Enid Blyton's Famous Five book Five Get Into a FixNo such thing as a bad writer… Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction andfantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien's illustration of Bilbo Baggins's homeTolkien’s illustration of Bilbo’s home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollinsAnother way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

A boy reading in his school libraryPhotograph: AlamyLibraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not haveinternet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

• This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman‘s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

The Rainstorm

 

The Rainstorm

The Rainstorm

Oh! that you could turn your eyes towards the napes of your necks, and make but an interior survey of your good selves. ~William Shakespeare, “Coriolanus”

The library is usually quiet, but today, it is filled with commotion. I am huddled at my customary table with my computer and stack of books, determined to write. To be productive. I left home to escape the perpetual evanescence of my three children, who wake at eight o’clock each morning, dinging brightly like miniature summertime bells. “What are we doing today, mom?”, ding. “Can we play in the sprinklers?”, dong. “Who ate the last red popsicle? You said I could have it!”, ding, dong! “I don’t want to take the dog for a walk, I might get kidnapped!”, ding, dong, ding, DONG!

Clearly, I picked the wrong day to seek refuge in the library. Silence and peace are maddeningly evasive. A man in khaki shorts and blazingly white sneakers is copying the phone book, page by page, at an ancient Xerox machine. As it whirs, clicks and spits out sheet after sheet of paper, the noise sets my mind on high alert, exquisitely highlighting every other sound in the room. The bathroom door, opening and closing. Someone at the drinking fountain.

Nearby, a freckled boy walks in ever tightening circles, wearing neon green, froggy faced flip flops. Thwap, thwap, thwap. “Can I check out these books, mommy? Please?” His huge pile of picture books falls from his arms in slow motion, ending in a slippery heap at his tiny, froggy clad feet. He begins to cry, a slow crescendo at first, building into a loud, lusty wail. “It’s ok, sweetie. Let’s pick them up together.” Snuffle, snuffle. Flop, flop. 

Where are the shushing, tut-tutting librarians? Where, in God’s name, is my peace and quiet? Certainly not in the library. Not today, at least.

A black beetle appears suddenly, flying in just over my left shoulder. It lands Kamikaze style on the white, glossy surface of my computer. Six tiny legs flailing in defeat, black abdomen and thorax flexing and heaving with the effort of what I imagine was his final, erratic flight. The beetle looks how I feel. Exhausted. Overwrought. This feels like a bad omen.

Did the incessant noise drive him mad? Did he just commit hari-kari on my MacBook Air? He’s not gonna make it, poor bugger. “Sorry, little guy. It’s hopeless.” Here, allow me to end your misery. Flick.

Franz Kafka, regarded by many as one of the most influential novelists of the twentieth century, knew the importance of solitude and silence, not only to the creative process, but to the health and well being of our souls. Without ready, regular doses of tranquility, Kafka understood that humanity risks tracing the erratic path of that black beetle who gave up his life on my trackpad. If we live surrounded by constant noise and tumult, we are virtually guaranteed to become exhausted by the ceaseless rhythm of life, doomed to living lives of repeated failure. Crash landings, hard falls and upside down flailing in unfamiliar surroundings.

No matter our place in the world, we must find time within our tiny spheres to rest, find tranquility and be still.

In order to find silence and rest, Kafka said, “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Unfortunately, Kafka’s brilliant words leave a gaping hole where my life and current affairs are concerned.  If, for argument’s sake, I decided to stay in my room, waiting dutifully for the universe to unfold in ecstatic glory at my feet, the results would be disappointing at best. In the worst case, I’d be left waiting for the barest crumb of silence so long, some unfortunate soul might find me mummified, head propped in my dusty hands, sixty years or so from now. That’s how loud my house is. Ever tried living under the same roof with with three kids, a workaholic husband and kinetic puppy? It’s not easy to find silence in my abode.

Still, I would not trade places with Kafka, who was a bachelor and who, I imagine, did not have to battle for moments of solitude as I do. Not for all the silence in the world. For one, he was a bit of a loon. Some say he suffered from schizoid personality disorder, others that he was an anxious, depressed sex addict. Even if he was entirely normal (and simply morose, like so many great writers and people I know), what he gained in solitude he likely would have lost in the chaotic, joyous hubbub being part of a large, loving family often entails.

Perhaps Kafka and I don’t share much in common. But, then again, Kafka was preoccupied with existential visions of metamorphosing bugs. Maybe we have more in common than I’d like to admit, me with my kamikaze beetles, bad omens and a growing preoccupation with finding silence. In the end, we both agree that solitude is an essential building block for creativity, peace and the regeneration of our souls.

Even if it does make me sound bit loony, in a Kafka-esqe sort of way, I freely admit that excessive noise drives me up a tree. These days, noise seems to follow me everywhere I go, like a modern plague. People yell and yammer. About their jobs, exes, exercise routines and vacation plans. Their digestive ills, garden weevils and saddle bags. Perhaps I was British in another life. Aren’t some things better left unsaid, a few precious subjects best held close to the vest? Stiff upper lip and all that? (Or not. Allow me to demonstrate, for your continued enjoyment, the fine art of the over share.)

A Frenchman I met recently remarked that while Americans are tremendously friendly, generous and kind-hearted, we often move to the nitty-gritty, disconcerting details of our personal lives with alarming speed. “Did I tell you that I had surgery last week. This little donut pillow is a life saver!”

I often wonder if one particular event turned me into a silence hog. But there isn’t one particularly loud, obnoxious day I can recall that sent me over the edge. Instead, after turning thirty and birthing two of my three children, sounds of all kinds began to disturb me intensely, for no good reason at all. Perhaps pregnancy messed with the delicate workings of my inner ear. Maybe having babies, combined with an intense lack of sleep, drove me a bit mad, and it stuck.

Whatever the case may be, now that I’m nearing forty, I can’t even manage a car ride and conversation when the radio is playing in the background. Some people can converse, knit, watch television and perform minor surgery, all while whipping up a batch of spaghetti sauce and performing Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy. That person is decidedly not me. If you try to converse with me while music is playing in the background and we’re riding in a vehicle of any sort, my head just might catch on fire and explode. You’ve been duly warned. 

My need for quiet and solitude intensified when I became a mother, then again when I became a writer. My children, the noisy, lovable little louts, demand constant attention. This is as it should be, but it doesn’t make the commotion they trail in their wakes any easier to bear when a moment of tranquil solitude is in order. They cry, talk or otherwise make their presence known from the moment they wake in the morning till their sweet heads hit the pillow at night. “Mom, I’m hungry. I have to go potty. Did you know Nikola Tesla was friends with Mark Twain? The dog pooped under your bed. Why can’t we have steak for dinner like the Lees? I’m hungry!”

When my children were small, finding fragments of silence in the midst of the everyday was easier. Each afternoon, I’d lead them towards their rooms as they protested, “But I’m not tired!” Then, handing over their binkie, bottle or blankie (sometimes all three, depending on the child), I’d send them off to sleep with a story, kiss and cuddle. Only then could I revel in a few precious hours of peace and quiet. It didn’t matter if I had work to finish, a mountain of laundry to fold or toilets and floors to scrub. A house with a child napping inside stilled my heart in an otherworldly manner which defied the very laws of gravity. A napping child is so serene that their tranquility is capable of pulling me in, like a super nova or exploding star. Even my restless, cluttered mind could not resist the force of my children’s untroubled daytime slumbers.

But as they grew, my children did a terrible thing. They stopped napping. Even worse, they became teenagers, and began staying up past my bedtime. These days, long after I’ve drifted off to sleep with a book propped upon my chest, I hear strains of Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead floating up the stairs. “You still up?”, I holler. “Yeah, mom. Go back to sleep. I’ve got to finish this one thing. I’ll be up soon.” Now, I have difficulty finding peace during the day and have a hard time finding tranquility at night. 

Friends with older children warn me, often with a vicious gleam in their eyes, “Just wait till they get their licenses. You’ll never sleep again.” Holy Mary, Mother of God, is there no rest for the wicked? I thought having a newborn was exhausting, but now I’d give anything to go back to those days, when my little ones couldn’t crawl, run or otherwise escape my grasp, and they could be easily pacified with bottle, breast or a ride in the car. That, plus they slept eighteen hours a day. Now you’re telling me it just gets worse? 

In my current stage of life, surrounded with constant noise and busyness, I increasingly find I can’t think straight. This makes finding moments of rest and silence more important than ever, as stringing thoughts together coherently is an important part of my job. My children do go outside to play and head off to school occasionally, which ought to give me a break. But, sad to say, my mind won’t turn off, even when they are away from home.

Like a fretful shepherd, I am forever on alert, whether my brood is in the cul de sac riding bikes or out skinning their knees on the playground at school. Making pancakes, signing permission slips and packing lunches, I number my flock while scanning the hills for proverbial wolves. “One, two, three. Everyone’s accounted for. Where is Ava? There, in the neighbor’s tree. Ah, crap, she can’t get down. Dammit, who went to school without underwear?”

Therein lies the crux of the problem; I am in desperate need of silence and quiet at regularly spaced intervals throughout the day or I begin to develop problems. Serious ones. Eye twitches. Depression. A deep seated longing for the life of a cave dwelling hermit. I crave silence amid the noise and uproar of my life like a junkie craves crank or a bird craves flight. Without it, I become ornery, ugly, stupid and refuse to pluck my chin hairs. “What’s that you were saying? You want a bagel with cream cheese? I’m the bees knees? Kill me please? OK, fine. Whatever.” 

Clearly, I am in need of an extended vacation, a panic room or nanny. Time at an abbey in the Alps, where everyone takes a temporary vow of silence, would do my heart a world of good. Maybe this strikes you as crazy or selfish. If it does, please do not call my husband (or me, for that matter). Maybe it’s all in my head and I need to take a chill pill. But the fact remains; I can’t stand noise. So sue me. (Actually, please, don’t do that.)

Back at the library, readying myself to leave after the beetle’s untimely death, I heard a young mother’s voice rising several octaves. I didn’t need to see her face to know she was reaching critical core temperature and was about to blow.

 “Put the book back, Abby, it’s starting to storm and we still need to stop at the grocery store.” As if on cue, thunder rumbled ominously, shaking the glass panes of the library. Weather alerts began going off on cell phones all around the building. “Flash flood warning! Severe weather alert!” Batten down the hatches!

Everyone in the library grew skittish as the sky turned black and the winds picked up. Everyone, that is, but the little girl who was still resolutely clutching the book to her chest, oblivious to both the impending storm and her mother’s growing distress. 

“But this is my favorite book, mommy, ‘Everybody Farts’! Remember? The one with the dog. Who FARTS!” The little girl began to look damp and crestfallen. But her mother took on the black look of the hari-kari beetle, poking from around the edges of her eerily calm demeanor. Dangerous. Frenetic. 

But, like Marcel Marceau at his finest, her face suddenly shifted to a mask of peace, patience and serenity. All for the benefit her small, hopeful daughter. “OK, but we’ve got to hurry. Step up on the stool so you can check the book out yourself.” 

 Before the pair hurried towards their car, I tapped the mother on her shoulder. “You’re an amazing mom.” Her eyes filled with tears. Mothers are in need of appreciation, especially ones who willingly stop to check out books about farting dogs during epic summer thunder storms. Then, I looked at the little girl.  “Is your mommy going to read you this book tonight?”  Wide eyes, damp hair plastered across her brow, the little girl nodded shyly. “That will be fun. I bet that dog is stinky! But, I’ll bet you’re mama’s so sweet, her farts smell like cotton candy!” Smiles and giggles all around as they ran through the parking lot, huddled together in the pouring rain.

From the library windows, I saw a tiny patch of blue sky clinging hopefully to the easternmost edge of the horizon. Near the mountains, angry black storm clouds forced their way across the western slope. As forecasted, the summer storm brought sheets of rain, dime sized hail and a vicious wind that lifted a hazy film of dust off the quiet summer streets in a quick and savage whirlwind.

The library crowd thinned to all but a few patrons. Everyone else wanted to beat the storm and get their cars safely into their garages before hail dented their hoods into hundreds of tiny round hollows. “Whew, that storm came on fast. Sure is nice to be home. Anyone want soup for dinner?” I felt suddenly ready to pack up my things and head home. Ready to return to the less than quiet, loving tumult of my waiting family. Perhaps we’d order pizza, watch a movie and wait for the vivid rainbows which almost always appear like magic after Colorado thunder storms. Double rainbows, sometimes.

Artwork: Sascalia

 

Roadmap To Your Soul

road map

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Going Home

 

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“Home is where the heart can laugh without shyness. Home is where they heart’s tears can dry at their own pace.” Vernon Baker

Our plane touches down at one in the morning, and I text my best friend of 28 years, “We landed thirty minutes early. Colorado tail wind!” My children, unaccustomed to air travel, do not understand why planes take longer to unload than school busses. “It’s hot. Why aren’t these people moving?” My five year old’s Thomas the Train blanket is coiled around his head like a fleece turban, his eyes glazed with exhaustion. Wedged between his eleven year old sister and fourteen year old brother, he is conked in the head by her purple flowered backpack and his big brother’s navy duffel bag as the older ones tussle for precious open space in the aisle way. “Move over, idiot! I need to stand up and stretch my legs!” 

Leaning in close, I smell my daughter’s freshly washed hair and wish I could scoop them all up and tuck them in bed. They are worn out, hot, tired. Ready for cool sheets and a long sleep.  But at the moment, threats are in order because we must get off the plane without incident and I’ve run out of Skittles and all other believable bribes. “You see that guy giving us the stink eye? I think he’s an air marshall, which means he has zip ties and a gun in his pocket. So I’d put a sock in it, before he hauls you off the plane in handcuffs.”  All but the little one, who simply wants to lean his head against my belly and rest, look alarmed, and promptly stop shoving each other.

But my oldest son is swaying, looking hot and flushed, as if he’s about to have a heatstroke. The stewardess strapped in her jump seat, calmly sipping a diet Dr. Pepper and tapping away on her iPad, ignores the mass of sweaty, irritated passengers. “Any chance you could turn on the AC?” She flashes a tight lipped smile in my general direction, the signature, “screw you, lady,” look of disdain made famous by the young, overworked and childless. “I’ll phone the flight deck and see what I can do.” 

Yes, that would be wise. Before the woman in 26B has a panic attack. She’s complaining loudly, to no one in particular, that she can’t control her core temperature because she had her ovaries and uterus removed four prior to our flight. And, she shouldn’t have ordered the caramel mocha before the flight because dairy always gives her gas. It is now easily one hundred and ten degrees in the cabin. Apparently they are hatching chicks on the plane. 

Ten lifetimes later, we emerge into the florescent coolness of the nearly deserted airport, and zig zag towards our waiting Metro Car. Ground transportation, God bless you. In an hour, we’ll be at my best friend’s childhood home and for six days, we will swim in her pool, wake to blueberry pancakes, eggs and bacon and watch her parents dote on all of our children, her two tiny ones and my three medium ones. 

Her home was my second home and had been since childhood. When my own parents died, her mother and father stepped up, generously giving me an anchor and place of refuge. They knew I would not last long without a repository for memories, a nest to fly home to when my own felt hollow and cold.

From memory, I tell the driver their address. Forty five minutes, if he drives quickly and my children will be tucked under the same blankets we used when we were gangly seventh graders giggling over boys. When I cried myself to sleep after the sudden death of my sister, and hid from the home I wasn’t always ready to return to. Dreaming the peaceful sleep that is possible when you know you are safe, as the future rolled towards me with its diaphanous edges and gently lit hopes.

They are standing in the driveway, waiting. The laughter bubbles up before the car slows to a stop, and I fumble in the dark for the door handle. “What took you so long?” Her mother is wearing a robe I don’t remember, and Anna is doing an Irish jig while she settles the tab with the driver. We flutter around the driveway, lighting first on each other, then on each of the children in turn. “My God, who is this big grown man?” Shaking my oldest son gently by the shoulders, arms reach for my littlest. “Mason, get over here and give babcia a hug. I’m gonna squeeze him!” Mason, wide eyed, is willingly enfolded in the embrace of his Godmother and her mother. I laugh, without hiding the tears sliding down my cheeks. “Ava, you look just like your mother. Are you hungry? Get inside, now, you’re gonna get eaten alive by mosquitos! Don’t forget to take your shoes off. Anna, did you make those beds?”

“Yes, Janice. I made the beds.” Eyes rolled in my direction make me laugh, and Anna makes a face at her mother. “Don’t pinch me. Who do you think you are? My mother?” We tumble down the stairs as quietly as we can manage, our small herd. But before I head downstairs to sleep, I pause. The kitchen is the same. There is the gleaming wooden table with the fluted white bowl in the center, where my parents ate pierogi and sauerkraut. The green wicker chair in the corner, which overlooks the garden. 

Every detail of the house rises up to meet me. Cut roses on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. The antique crystal glass, holding a dozen silver spoons next to the coffee pot and a plum kuchen, which will be our breakfast. The smell; clean and warm, like baking bread and lemon oil. The piano where Anna sang and practiced for hours, the painting of an old piece of pottery, cracked along its edge. That has been reframed. 

Standing alone, briefly, I hear words to a melody I was sure I’d lost. Like finding a key, hidden deep inside a pocket, one you thought you’d misplaced, I am flooded with relief. I am home, the world is ordered properly. I head slowly down the stairs to join my children and laugh for a few minutes with my friend before we all turn in, knowing full well that tonight, I will rest.

 

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