[new mantra] it will be fine

My hard drive died.

Sitting at that genius bar with only scorched earth possibilities is … sobering. Galvanizing (surrounded by all that lovely metal, I couldn’t resist that word). Clarifying. What was important enough to have the very helpful young man give me a backup of? One thing. One thing that won’t surprise anyone. Family photos.

It Is You and all my other past and partial manuscripts were already backed up. Same with Word documents of family stories. But the one thing that was most overwhelming to save was the most overwhelming to consider losing.

There was a lot I chose not to save. I will miss the folder of positive notes about my writing that I’d hoarded, but I never looked at them after the first read-through. I don’t need a physical copy of them to let them bolster my faith in my dreams and my vision. I remember how wonderful they were and how important to me they are. That’s good enough. There were some hilarious extended family exchanges that I’d saved, but I’d never looked at them. I let them all go.

This has changed what my main focus of my Happiness/Stableness Project will be. The project is modeled after the one Gretchen Ruben did for herself (and has written two books about, The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home). The idea is to take a year (or so) to focus on and turn around areas of your life that are a drag on your happiness/stableness and pump up areas that are uplifting. Before today at 11:10 a.m., I’d had some ideas about what I needed to focus on: our finances, my irritability, my failure to be emotionally balanced or distanced or stable about the already (you are doing good writing that is satisfying and pleasing to you and to others) with the not yet (you do not yet have an agent or publisher) of my writing career.

I’ll still have some goals that relate to those broad issues, but those things just became secondary to the massive project of sentimental organization. Photos, cards, letters, kids’ stories, kids’ drawings, school projects — I know where they all are. Pre-2005 is in 3 neat file boxes. Post-2005 is shoved in a box, willynilly. It would break my heart if I lost these due to my own negligence.

So while I sat at the bar trying not to cry, surrounded by the genial geniuses, I came up with my September Happiness/Stability Project goals:

1. Figure out good backup procedures for everything. Implement them.

2. Restore and consolidate all digital photos from the various computers and external drives they’re on. Make sure they receive regular backups.

3. Work out (with husband) a budget that incorporates our new financial obligations and work on a system for regulating spending (envelope system?).

4. Finish reading The Happiness Project and interact with the others in the group.

And speaking of backups….

5. Schedule the RotoRooter people to prophylactically clear out sewer pipe so we don’t get a clog from tree roots and have a disgusting back-up problem of a different kind (like we did 2 years ago).

My computer works again, after being wiped clean, inside and out, which I’m grateful for. But who knows how long it will stumble on with only its left fan working?

And now for a little stress eating — for once, I’m taking the last chocolate chocolate chip muffin for myself.

Have any of you had to bounce back from this very modern catastrophe? How did you do it?

 

 

The Evidence I Wanted?

The previous diary entry was embarrassing enough that it took me over two months to recover, but now I’m ready. I think. Then, I’d bemoaned the fact that all my entries were about boys and social drama, and not about church or any of my other enthusiasms. The evidence I wanted is here, gushing out all over the place. Gushing.

There would come a time when I’d mainly write in my journal about angsty things, but in the beginning of 1984, I clearly wrote when I was feeling most sunny. Note that, in person, all those exclamation points are peppy triangles over little circles.

16th birthdayLast time, I included a one-off entry from August, 1984 that had slipped into the previous diary, but this book is all 1984, starting halfway through grade 11 (my junior year of high school, for my American readers). I’d just turned 16.

New Year’s Not-So-Rockin’ Eve

You will notice that the first entry was New Year’s Day and I was at church, good Christian Reformed girl that I was. Am. There was a good chance that I’d worked the pancake breakfast that morning, which I had little problem waking up for because I wasn’t partying hard with my friends the night before. Nope. Until my second senior year of college, when my parents lived in California, I spent every New Year’s Eve with my extended family.

The big event for my Hart clan was New Year’s Eve. I’m sure this year the kids hung out separately from the adults until we all came together somewhere around 11:45, when my oldest uncle read a Psalm and prayed in the New Year. These were long prayers that I believe got very specific about what had happened in the family that year. My memories of the prayers are vague because it was midnight, my eyes were closed, and I’d probably filched some wine. Scratch the probably — this was my European family. Wine was available. Then we’d creak to our feet, walk around giving kisses and saying “Happy New Year” to everyone, ignore any of the adults who might be having a more intense hug or kiss, have one last bite of food, and head home.

It was tradition. Also, since I try to tell the truth here, I was never invited to do anything else on New Year’s. Never.

The Evidence (a larger chunk than usual since I managed to write for 5 days in a row)

1/1/1984  Happy New Year! Church this morning was good. He talked about faith. H said nobody understood Tuyle’s sermon, even her parents! K slept over. I had dinner at H’s and watched Von Ryan’s Express. The only thing I didn’t like was that Ryan died. R didn’t spend New Year’s Eve with C; H and I are so disappointed. D, the deaf boy from camp, was at her house. They get along really well. Nothing else happened today: so bye! Uncle D came over and the four of us had a really good talk. I feel amazing about myself!

1/7/84  I went out with H, L & N tonight. It was pretty good. A carfull of 4 guys yelled at H and I: ego boost! We pigged out severely. It was a Thurs. today and H and I skipped last class. I know, I know, naughty, naughty, but I know! Life is wonderful! Praise God!

1/8/84 I sat today and read the four Harlequins H and I bought. I had a real riot. They were cute but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

1/9/84 Schuller this morning was great. He talked about faith again: it was really directed to church goers this time. He ties things together so well. I really enjoy listening to him and always learn something. I went nuts trying to read Great Expectations. At the moment I hate that book cause it’s driving me nuts. Oma was also over.

1/10/84 Today just whizzed by! I think it was the shortest Tuesday I’ve ever had! H said that too. Each class seemed like a rec. period. It was great. H and I are doing our English seminar on the title, I hope it works. No workout tonight. Darn! But catechism was great. We talked about parent-child relat. as compared to craftsman-apprentice. It brought up a lot of discussion. We really saw the true colours of some of these kids. Sad! I’m having problems with my devotions: I’m not doing them. I have to shape up. But I think I will start slowly by praying every night, then I will go to reading the Bible every night as well. I thanked God heartily for my family: I always will!

1/11/84 Today has been an absolutely amazing day! It was the 1st ISCF meeting of the year and it went so well. We played games & then had an exec. meeting. We made up such amazing topics. We have two blocks of subjects: relationships and faith! Praise God for the ideas! I know that they came from Him because everyone was so enthusiastic. M was over. At the end (5:15) her and C went to T’s and H, P & I went to Orange Julius and had a riot. We then walked to P’s house, getting crazier as we got colder and had hot choc. I then walked with P and P to Uncle D’s cause they were going swimming there. That was really fun and we walked faster because H wasn’t with us. No, that’s mean. School just zipped by again today: it was great. I’ve started to teach myself to type using R’s book. It’s going to be hard but very useful. Young People’s is probably finished cause L and J quit. I’m really sad but I want to go out with a real bang. Like going to JJ’s cottage and getting plastered. Oh well! H and I are really serious about going on a diet because we severely pigged out. I can tell my workouts are working. I can add 5-10 more pounds to my stomach and the pushups are a lot easier! Praise God!

Where to start?

Those entries are an accurate representation of how I remember my mid-teen years: friends, faith, romance novels, my reality always falling short of my ideals. Actually, this sounds like me now. Let’s do a comparison.

Me at 16: I’m having problems with my devotions: I’m not doing them. I have to shape up. But I think I will start slowly by praying every night, then I will go to reading the Bible every night as well.

Me, just a few days ago: I’m trudging along a path that I have created in my brain, and which my brain desperately wants to remain on, whether it’s leading me where I want to go or not. I am Resisting mightily the development of new habits that would be better than some comfortable old ones. And when I manage to head out on a new path, I drift back to the old one way too soon….That’s it for now. I’m not going to try to revolutionize my entire schedule in one fell swoop. If making that change doesn’t bleed over into my bad evening habits, I’ll revisit this process in the new year.

Yup.

The second entry cracks me up. Was my response to a litany of random boys honking at me, pigging out severely, and skipping school really, “Praise God!” With an exclamation point? It does sound like a fun day, but I can only shake my head at myself.

An Unusual Child

My parents hadn’t attended our church for a few years already; I’d either watch Robert Schuller on the Crystal Cathedral on TV with them, or walk to church by myself and be the final Hart family representative in “our” pew. I’d listen to the sermon. I was even known to go to evening church, mostly because our minister at the time didn’t feel the same pressure to be the “domine” in the black robes behind the podium then, and gave wonderful messages. I attended Young Peoples. I was an officer in the Inner School Christian Fellowship group at my public high school. I was a representative of our church at regional young people’s planning boards. I went on service weekends and to conferences. I believe at this time I also went to a Friday night Bible study (8pm – 12am) with a bunch of Pentecostals and Baptists in a suburb of Toronto. I was a thoroughly churchy girl, with no specific encouragement to be such by my parents. I just loved it. This makes me unusual, I know. And I still love church. Even when it frustrates me, pains me, hurts me or my friends, it gives me joy and comfort, it challenges me.

Still me

While the grownup me uses very few exclamation points in both public and private writing, most everything else in these posts is still part of who I am. I still thank God for my family every day (although I’m less judgmental about people who didn’t have such great families of origin). I’m still involved in churchy matters. I still read romance novels (although not Harlequins; they’re too short). I still love food, movies, God and my friends. I’m still not as regular as I’d like to be with Bible reading. I still like to periodically skip things for no good reason.

So I will give that dear gushy girl of my past a hug. She wouldn’t always be so up.

 

 

Cures for Invisibility?

I shouldn’t write this tonight. I had a nap today. This may sound like a lovely way to spend an afternoon, but when I nap, I wake up queasy and (there is no better way to put it) bitchy. In other words, a terrible time to write a thoughtful blog post, but it’s been over a week since my last one, and that’s way too long.

But I want to put the invisibility thing to bed (since I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight, something needs to go to bed).

Not so fast

I was talking about Calling Invisible Women with a woman in her 70s, who was surprised by one of the themes of the novel (that women in their 50s feel invisible and powerless), because in her experience, women in their 50s were often at the height of their career, powerful in their organizations, courageous in speaking out.

True. I can think of lots of women who fit that description. And that’s part of the solution for the women in the book. They treat their invisibility as a superpower, making life better around them, but at least Clover’s family still doesn’t notice. At the end of the novel, one invisible woman (a Russian mail order bride) travels far to meet Clover and deliver one of the best pep talks ever. I had to bring the book back to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote, but it essentially goes like this: we’ve been acting like we’re Chechnya, but we’re not little victims to be squashed by big, bad Russia (aka pharmaceutical company). With the power of our voices, our stories, our media savvy (or that of our children), our insistence on being heard, we are Russia.

And, indeed, the invisible women get cracking and the ensuing media blitz brings the pharmaceutical company to its knees, many women get their jobs back, and they have lives more vibrant than before they became invisible.

So the woman at the height of her courage and powers is one part of the story of women in their 50s. But so is the woman who drifted along, cutting everyone else slack, making excuses for everyone, and found herself doing all the drudge work and getting no recognition for everything she gave up for the sake of others.

Maybe this is a particularly lively fear for me since I’ve mostly been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years. Yes, I’ve done freelance work, and in-office work for a couple of years, not to mention the novel writing. But it’s so easy to make excuses for everyone else’s stress and not insist on things I might’ve insisted on in the past. To let things slide. Sometimes, this is a kind thing to do, but it can get to be a nasty habit that I can see leading to accepting invisibility.

Invisibility might not always be so bad

My older friend also remembered when men in general stopped noticing her — it was a relief. Freeing, even.

I can see that, and celebrate that, eve. But it’s complicated for me. I no longer get catcalls and rude suggestions from idiots driving by, and I don’t miss them one bit. I no longer have the internal debate: am I in a public enough place to be safe to give that guy the finger? I don’t have to think about what I’m wearing to try to minimize attention. But I’d miss the occasional moment of recognition of me as an attractive woman by cashiers, waiters, etc. Those are nice little moments.

However, I can’t stop myself from growing older. Those moments will go away and I’ll have to rely on my friends to tell me how amazing I look in my turtleneck (which we’re all wearing because we feel bad about our necks). When it happens, I’m sure it’ll be fine. It already is fine. I’ll remember to treat it as something freeing.

We’re back to seeing

I’ve written about seeing before, both the power of being seen and allowing yourself to be seen. I’ve even thrown God into the mix. That’s what this book comes down to: seeing. Making sure that I pay attention, both to my own life and to the people around me. Looking cashiers in the eye when I thank them. Making sure I keep handing over household chores to the kids. Nudging the grandkids to help with dinnertime chores (even though my mother slips up the stairs from the beach so quietly and does almost all the work before we get up to the house). Thanking my husband for doing his regular stuff around the house. Not giving up so easily on relationship issues. Showing what’s really behind the mirage of omni-competence. Paying attention.

Real invisibility

While anyone of any racial or socio-economic group can be taken for granted in their family unit, the novel mostly focuses on middle class, mostly white women. They are a couple of nods to women who the characters recognize are possibly more invisible than they are: hotel maids. Hotel maids here stand for all those people, mostly minorities, often immigrants, who do the crappiest, most thankless jobs, who work long hours for low pay, who are easy to ignore, who many people often prefer to ignore. If I decry invisibility for myself, I have to decry it for them, too. If I pay attention to my own life and my friends’ and families’ lives, I have to pay attention to their lives, too.

One more person to pay attention to

Thank you, Jeanne Ray, for writing this dystopian novel for the middle-aged woman. I don’t think it’ll take off as a subgenre like the YA dystopian novel has, and I’m not sure I’d get into it if it did, but Calling Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about while entertaining me. And that’s always a good thing.

 

Are You Testing Your Invisibility?

I’ve been avoiding writing about this book (Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray), but there’s too much in there that hits too close to home. Clover is a fiftysomething mother of two (1 college student, 1 recent college graduate), married to a crazy-busy pediatrician, a dog owner, and writer of a gardening column for the local newspaper. She has one little brief blip of invisibility before becoming completely invisible: voice still there, body still there, but she cannot be seen. Her family doesn’t notice. For several weeks. As long as she does all her regular tasks (including sex with her husband), they don’t know anything is seriously amiss.

I picked up the novel in the library because of the cover and title, read the blurb and put it back. “No,” I thought, “that’s way too depressing to be as funny as the blurb implies.” I walked two steps away, pivoted, and picked it up again. Read the first line: “I first noticed I was missing on a Thursday.” Loved the off-hand tone of it, so I gritted my teeth and got it. I was going to read it like it was medicine.

And it was. The book is truly funny and the tone is comic throughout, yet I was on the verge of tears, if not actually crying, almost the entire time. Luckily, it’s a fairly short book (246 pages), and a fast read, so it wasn’t a terribly long time. But still.

The best parts of the book were when we meet the other invisible women and go along as they discover how to use their invisibility like a superpower. An ex-teacher goes to school on the bus (naked, so nobody can tell there’s a person there), whispering in the ears of bullies as their conscience, making sure shunned kids have a place to sit in the lunch room, interrupting cheaters, and generally making life at school better, fairer. Another slips off her clothes in the middle of a bank robbery and foils it. They hold naked meetings so they don’t have to pay for the hotel conference room. They learn how this happened to them (there is a physical reason, it isn’t magic), band together, confront the problem, and achieve a pretty good level of victory.

But Clover’s interactions with her family and the world at large made me so sad. Even a little panicky. I’ve got tears pressuring behind my eyes right now just thinking about it. As long as she’s wearing clothes, the vast majority of people don’t notice that the clothes are floating in midair. Even her doctor responds to her statement, “I am invisible,” with a bland, “We get a lot of that in here,” not even looking up at her from her chart as he talks. The only one who notices and didn’t know other invisible women first, was her best friend.

This is a nightmare that is too easy for me to imagine being real. The first time it happens, Clover panics and wakes up her son to ask whether he sees her. There’s some silly back and forth, including this nugget, “If you feel like I don’t appreciate you, well…it’s because I don’t. I will again, but not until at least ten, okay?” She’s visible by the end of the conversation. Next time, it’s permanent. She didn’t plan on testing her family, but the first time, when she stood in front of her husband as just a nightgown floating in air, and he didn’t notice, but kept up an ordinary conversation, she dismissed it as her own mental illness. And then it becomes a test, a dare.

Aren’t there tons of ways you test the people who love you? If I don’t change the toilet paper roll, how long will it take for someone else to do it? Will anyone notice that I cut/dyed/changed my hair? If I do job X that person Y usually does, will they thank me for it if I don’t mention it? If I don’t plan a night out with the husband, how long before he suggests it? If I don’t hand the camera to someone else and ask to have my picture taken, will anyone notice that there’s little evidence that I’m part of the family? Or that I’m sometimes part of the fun? Maybe it’s just me, but I bet I’m not alone.

What does it mean when they fail the test? It might mean that they don’t love you, but not necessarily. It might mean that they’re wrapped up in their own dramas and anxieties, with some tendency to take you for granted on the side. No matter what, it sucks for you. You feel crappy when they fail. After the first interaction with her husband, Clover cries out, “‘He didn’t notice!’ A pure grief washed through me. It was bigger than the problem at hand” (p.27).

But you also feel kind of crappy when they pass, because you’ve expended time and energy scheming and imagining both scenarios and every one of your interactions is fraught with suspense and expectation. And all the negotiating with yourself to explain every nuance. Clover does this, too: “The next morning when he leaned in and kissed my shoulder, my neck, I started to think about it all another way. Maybe Arthur didn’t see me because he knew me so well and his vision automatically filled in all the things I was, based on the slightest hint of shape or scent. Maybe when you’ve been with someone so long you don’t so much see them as you project them onto things. Arthur could have been making love to my twenty-year-old self, my forty-year-old self…Anyway, this morning, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt” (p.48).

But it’s also kind of irresistible. Another character asks Clover why she doesn’t just tell her family. She admits that it would be better if they knew, “But after awhile it just becomes a point of pride. You start to wonder just how far it can go” (p.151).

Yet it isn’t only pride, it’s also fear. Fear of being unloved. Fear of being unlovable. And hurt. Hurt from all the times your loved ones have failed you in the past. Not to mention humiliation. It’s humiliating to feel like you’re begging for attention. Clover puts this messy soup together this way: “Maybe because we were timid and hurt, having already spend so many years feeling invisible before the truth of the matter kicked in. If we didn’t have the starch to tell our own families that no one could see us, then how could we be ready to tell the world?” (p.157).

Not to mention the mingled guilt and anger in those who’ve been tested. Anger at the person for putting them in that position, but also guilt at being neglectful and clueless. Hurt that the tester didn’t trust them.

It ends pretty well for the characters in the book, and Clover does apologize for testing them, but reading this has convinced me of the stupidity of testing. I’m going to stop it. In fact, I already have stopped it. I changed a door in our kitchen yesterday, and instead of waiting to see who’d notice, I told everyone that I did something big in the kitchen. My daughter wanted to know so she could anticipate it. My son didn’t want me to tell him what, so he could see whether he noticed right away — he did. And I tagged my husband in the Facebook post that had the picture of what I did. When I see that the toilet paper roll needs changing, I’m going to change it. I’m going to open curtains (while teasing my family about really being vampires). When we’re having people over for brunch and I’m busy cooking, I’m going to ask my husband to make the bed instead of wishing that he’d notice that the bed needed making and being hurt when he doesn’t. There’s more, some silly, some deeper, but you get the picture.

And there are more convictions to come because of this book, but I’ll save that for a future post.

 

Review: The Mighty Miss Malone

Books like this are why I love to read and why I want to write. Miss Deza Malone is a diamond of a character. It isn’t just that she is bright and has a sparkling personality (both of which are true), but it’s also that she is so clear. Christopher Paul Curtis has given us a child who is clear about who she is. She knows herself, her family, her community.

What a pleasure to read about a child who has been loved and known and encouraged by an intact family for her entire 12 years. I adore the Malone family — not perfect, but real and loving and firm and funny. Deza’s compass for truth and nonsense come straight from what her parents taught her and what she observes of how the world works. The family has a hand signal to warn each other that they know someone is trying to string them along: they put their hands on the imaginary steering wheel of the Manipula-Mobile. The father often speaks in alliteration, and has long alliterative names for everyone. They so clearly love each other. So often, main characters in children’s lit are orphans, or one parent has died, or they have at least one terrible parent, so it’s a testament to Mr. Curtis’s skill that he crafts such a dramatic story for this great family.

Deza is intelligent and curious and asks for an explanation when she runs across something she doesn’t understand. That last thing is a great personality trait in a character, because the author gets to explain things that would be beyond a child’s normal understanding or experience. It is a regular refrain in the book that she will become a writer, that she’ll go to college. Deza lodged herself in my heart and I’m dying to know whether any of that happened. PLEASE, Mr. Curtis, write a sequel some day.

She’s also self-aware. I loved how she’d talk about her reactions when things didn’t go her way or something really bad was happening.

I’m different from most people and one of the main reasons is, I think I might have two brains. Whenever I get nervous or mad or scared or very upset, I have thoughts that are so different from my normal thoughts that there isn’t any way they could be coming from just one brain (p31).

She usually grits her rotting back teeth until the pain stops the bad brain, because she is a child who values truth and honesty. But the couple of times she takes the bad brain’s counsel are fantastic.

 The Mighty Miss Malone is, akin to the Newberry-winning, Bud, Not Buddy, a road book for part of the time. The book takes place in mid-1930s Gary, Indiana and Flint, Michigan, cities that were devastated by the Great Depression, even more so for Deza because she and her family are African-American. She and her mother and brother ride the rails and live in a shantytown — where she meets Bud. Deza appeared in Bud, No Buddy, so here we get the same scene from her point of view. (I didn’t remember this. It had been years since I’d read Bud, so I had to google it.) It’s a sweet little moment.

I won’t tell you all the stuff that happens, but, in many ways, it’s typical of other stories about the Depression: the father leaves to find work, promising to send money, and then doesn’t. Things get really tough. Here’s how Deza describes it.

If somebody came along and saw us walking they’d mistake us for a very quiet parade instead of what we really were, a river of people who didn’t know what city we’d be in tomorrow, or what we’d be eating, or even where somebody would let us stop and rest (p227).

Hoping is such hard work. It tires you out and you never seem to get any kind of reward. Hoping feels like you’re a balloon that has a pinhole that slowly leaks air (p232).

And I won’t tell you how it ends, either, but it makes you root for them to get to where their family motto says they’re heading: “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.”

Well, this novel is wonderful, and the cover is killer good. Along with being a good, dramatic story, it’s accurate history. I highly recommend it.

Stealing from Life

I’m a thief.

I’ve stolen one line from a famous family story and used it in the novel I’m working on. Here’s the story in its more accurate version (to be followed by the pithier version that’s usually told).

In the last year of World War II, my father’s family fled the city of Utrecht (in the Netherlands) to his Tante Nell’s house, where they were also joined by his Tante Uut’s family. There were 25 people living/being hidden in this country house and Nell ran the place with military precision. One night, it was one of the kid’s jobs to do the dishes. He preferred not to. When Nell found the dishes undone, she went all over the house looking for the culprit. When it was determined that he was hiding in the little bathroom under the stairs, she stood in front of the door and made a speech about how it was important for everyone to do their job when it was required of them, and if they had to use the bathroom, they should do that on their own time.

The version my uncles always told was more dramatic. In that one, Tante Nell pounded on the door of the bathroom, yelling [language cleaned up a bit], “Poop on your own time!”

I stole just the last bit for a scene between Saul and David. They’ve both just returned from the battle after David killed Goliath. Saul was unable to sleep that night, obsessing about the song the women of every village they passed sang: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his ten thousands,” which was literally impossible at that time, so it really burned.

Near dawn, Saul demands David be fetched to see whether the boy’s music will calm him down like it always used to:

The sky was still mostly dark when David finally arrived.

“You’re across the courtyard. What took so long?”

David cleared his throat. “My morning, um, attentions, my lord.”

“Piss on your own time,” Saul said. “Now that you’re a great hero and the new hope of all Israel, are you too important to play the harp for your king?”

It’s such a tiny thing, just five words, but I love slipping family lore into my works in progress. There’ll be more of these in the future, some funny, some more dramatic.

Feel free to tell me some of your family lore in return.