A New Mantra is Born

Flash Fiction is not my forte.  I struggle to get my ideas out in less than 500,000 words much less 500.  The following is an account of something marvelous which happened during my run this morning.  Hints of American Election subtext are totally intentional.  As always feedback is appreciated as I will probably try to submit this somewhere soon.  Enjoy.

 

This girl can.  No.  This woman can.  This large and out of breath and middle-aged woman can.  Can.  Can.  Can.

I match the rhythm of my running mantra to the beat of my new, electric orange trainers.  ‘All running shoes should be orange,’ proclaimed the gentleman who sold them to me.  But amidst the woodland trail of my local park, the neon orange reminds me of hunting jackets, prison fatigues and pumpkins.

I am not a pum14963401_10154660846558659_7698905646507313732_npkin.  Not a pumpkin. Pump.  KinPump.  Kin.  Pump.  Kin.

A new mantra is born.

My pumpkin/hunter/prison trainers percuss happily as I dodge patches of damp leaves carpeting the path.  The azure, autumn sky provides a perfect canvas for the gold-capped, russet-coated trees overhead.  A perfect day to run.

Struggling up a steep hill, I pass a man jogging opposite, his pace made easy by the downward slope currently giving me difficulty.  I look forward to this later leg of my run, though he doesn’t appear to be enjoying it.  His feet fall swiftly, rather lazily, assisted by gravity, but his face looks grim, irritable, dissatisfied.

Perhaps he needs orange trainers, I giggle inwardly.

Just below the crest of the hill, silhouetted against the blue/gold/russet skyscape, stands an elderly woman; her white hair escaping beneath the blue hood of the puffy coat she wears to defend against October’s chill.  In each hand, she grips a walking stick—not a pair of orthopaedic crutches, nor the smartly polished accessories I’ve seen older woman in town wield like status symbols.  These are walking sticks of action forged from space-age metal, sporting rubber grips and wicked tips, purchased with Everest in mind.

She calls out to me and I shift aside my right headphone, the better to hear her.

‘Did you see that man running past?’  She nods down in the direction of the dissatisfied jogger.

‘Yes,’ I pant, looking back with her, though neither of us can see the man in question who is long gone.

‘He ran behind me so quietly for an age,’ explains the white-haired, blue-hooded woman of action.  ‘Finally, he passed me so close.  I said to him: “you’re lucky you didn’t get this in the shin”.’

She lifts then waves the right-hand Everest stick in a threatening manner.  The space-age metal tip catches a spark of bright sun.  I step back involuntarily.

‘You’re a dangerous woman,’ I chuckle.

‘I am!’ she agrees, matching my chuckle then raising it to a victorious cackle.

‘Good for you,’ I beam encouragingly.

‘We should all be,’ she proclaims with a mischievous grin.

‘Too right,’ I add perfunctorily, running in place.  I’m enjoying our conversation, but I don’t want to lose my momentum so near the top.

My dangerous companion must be eager to enjoy her downhill lap, however.  Deftly manoeuvring her sticks, she strides down the path with surprising speed and agility.  I turn and run on.

I am a dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  I am dangerous.   

A new running mantra is born.

 

Confessions of a Musical Junkie

I have a powerful, emotional and visceral connection to musical theatre.  When I go to see a musical, any musical, I start to cry.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a show I know and love or one I can barely sing along too; whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.  You can guarantee that, before the orchestra has a chance to find their groove, I will be in floods.  (There is only one exception so far to this rule: Miss Saigon.  I really hate that show.  And Grease but I would never willingly go to a theatre to see Grease.  Unless one of my former students was starring in it and offered me complimentary tickets and it would have to be a former student I really, really, really liked.)

into-woods-movie-release-dateIt doesn’t even have to be a live stage production.  Glee held me in its saccharine grip for three seasons.  After one episode I had to phone a friend and sob about it to him.  I went through an entire box of tissues during Les Miserables.  Even the recent televised Tribute to Tim Rice had me misty eyed.  Is it any wonder that I spent most of the two and whatever hour performance of Into the Woods quietly crying into my daughter’s hair?  (She sat on my lap throughout Act Two and, for the record, hair is not terribly absorbent. #shouldabroughttissues)

Why do I get so verklempt by musical theatre?  At first I thought it was just musicals I loved at an early age: Les Miz, Into the Woods, Chess, Sunday in the Park with George, Evita, Cats (I was nine, ok?), Pirates of Penzance, Jesus Christ Superstar…  I’m going to stop listing now because this is taking too long.  But why did I sniffle through Wicked, a show I like very much but am not particularly attached to emotionally?   Why did a scene from Lion King performed at the Tony Awards reduce me to a gibbering puddle?  I hate that stupid film!

My conclusion is that I am Pavlovianally (there’s an adverb for you) hard-wired to respond with deep emotion to musical theatre because so many of my happiest, most fulfilling moments from the age of 8-18 can be linked to musicals: shows I’ve been in, shows I’ve seen, soundtracks I’ve listened to so often they are in my blood.  When the lights going down and the orchestra tunes up I’m transported through a worm hole where sequins, recitatives and cycloramas mix with willow trees I’ve climbed, friends and family I’ve loved, opening night jitters, closing night tears, a lighting gel sample fan I carried around for years that taught me everything I know about colour, practising my tap dancing on a discarded plank of driftwood in my living room when I was ten, my dad in a pink dress playing the role of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum when I was seventeen.

Most of all, musicals remind me of my small town high school which put on a musical every spring.  Some parts of my adolescence sucked, but once a year there was a musical and all my friends were in it.  Every night we rehearsed, every weekend we painted sets, hunted for props or made costumes and every moment I remember thinking there was nowhere else I would rather be.  On my eighteenth birthday, after our last dress rehearsal of the last show I would do on my high school stage, the entire cast sang “Happy Birthday” to me and someone brought cake and ice cream and there was nowhere else I would rather have been.  Spring is still my favourite time of year and I still put on high school shows—only now I’m the teacher/director.  Magic, memory and music combine into a heady emotional cocktail, rendering me powerless to resist the siren songs.

I should pause at this point for an interval/intermission because this blog was supposed to be a review of Into the Woods and it’s turning out to be Confessions of a Musical Junkie.

IntoWoodsTitlePage1At the age of sixteen, right in the middle of my most musically emotional period, I discovered Into the Woods and immediately claimed it as my own.  Sondheim wrote it for me.  I am as convinced of this now as I was at sixteen.  What could be more Kate than a musical fairytale?  Nothing.

For me, this show is a coming of age story in every way.  The characters and story, lyrics and themes taught me a lot about the kind of person I wanted to be but also warned me about the pitfalls of growing up and making choices.  “Nice is different than good,” Little Red Ridinghood taught me.  “Isn’t it nice to know a lot…and a little bit not,” she also sings, which resonated with me as a self-confessed Miss Know It All.  Jack warned me about giants in the sky, but also reassured me that when I came back to my small world, it would seem different but dearer.  This is what every kid needs to know when they leave home to go to university.  Cinderella and The Baker’s Wife taught me about men.  Handsome princes might be good for “whatever” but it was likely that they would be “charming not sincere” and I should wait for someone in-between.  I learned that for sure.

The Baker taught me the most because Into the Woods really is his story.  In the first act he tries so hard to complete a quest without losing his moral compass—unlike his wife who is willing to do anything to get what she wants.  But when he loses her in the second act, he loses his way in the woods.  Scared that he will become “like father, like son”, he runs from the consequences of his choices.  Everyone runs from the consequences of their desire to achieve their dreams because their choices leave a big, bloody mess on the stage.  This musical is all about choices and the consequences of those choices and the realisation that while you are chasing your dreams, others are chasing theirs or just trying to keep their heads down and get on with their lives.  The final choices that these characters face are not necessarily good ones, but you can see them trying hard and that is the point.  You will make mistakes but fix them as best you can then tell your story and hopefully the next generation will learn a truth from it.  Into the Woods is a big chapter of my Bible which, I guess makes Sondheim a major prophet of some kind.

INTO THE WOODSAs with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd, I was scared (“well, excited and scared”) to see the film.  I heard they had changed it, Disneyied it, sanitised it.  They didn’t really.  There were a few changes but mostly it was the musical I knew and loved with a cast cooked up in fairyland.  Chris Pine, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are just perfect.  Little Lilla Crawford (I was scared at first that she had lip synced it but I looked her up and she’s totally a Broadway baby) is a gem.  I liked Meryl Streep, but as a fan of the show I wish they had cast Bernadette Peters so there could be one connection to the original play.  James Cordon continues to challenge my expectations and my biggest regret of the film is that he didn’t get to do “No More”.  Hoping for a director’s cut DVD.

As with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd and even Noises Off, I did find myself thinking throughout the film (when I wasn’t crying): great cast, great costumes and staging but can I please just see all these people do this on stage?  I’m a boards and greasepaint gal over screens and celluloid I guess.  I crave the live.

Treading Darkest Waters: on death, depression and other happy things

dark waterI met her in my fourth year of teaching.  A gifted young actress, musician songwriter, artist.  Able to communicate emotion through her talents with the kind of sincerity, depth and honesty that you cannot learn.

She was loved.  Oh dear me was she loved.  By friends and family.  Loved like crazy.

Later, I had to explain to some people who loved her—to my own students—that their beloved friend was in hospital because she had tried to take her own life.

She has been on my mind and in my heart recently.  Like Robin Williams, she was an artist.  Like Robin Williams, she suffered from mental illness (bipolar).  Few people knew it.  Fewer people saw it.  I know she tried more than once to take her own life. I am guessing Robin William’s final suicide attempt was not his first either.

I’ve been thinking too about my former teacher David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in almost the same way as Williams.  Struggles with depression, struggles with substances but ultimately the struggle was in themselves.  And their struggles were widely misunderstood.

I remember breaking the news of my student’s hospitalisation to a classroom of young people who knew her well.  After the shock wore off, they had questions.  The answers were difficult.

‘What happened to her?’ one asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well something really awful must have happened to push her to this.’

‘Nothing awful happened to her really.’

‘Why’d she do it then?’

I had to think about that.

‘She was sick.’

‘When did she get sick?’

‘Always.  Maybe.  A long time.’

My answer was pretty lame and I was losing my audience.  But how do you explain to someone who’s never been at the bottom of a well?  If you’ve never felt yourself drowning in darkness how can you empathise with someone who constantly treads black water?

‘It’s like having a broken leg,’ I said.  ‘If someone breaks their leg, you notice.  They limp.  Maybe they have crutches.  Or someone has a missing arm or finger.  You can see it.  And you know that person will have to do things differently.  Make allowances for their missing limb or digit.’

‘She had a missing arm, only no one could see it.  Every day she had to make allowances for that and worked three times harder than anyone else to go about her daily business.  Just not in a way anyone could see.’

And that’s the thing about mental illness.  It’s hard to see.  Because we can’t see it we struggle to understand.

Reading various on-line posts and messages about Robin Williams’ death, many are sympathetic, heartbroken.  Some use it as an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of mental illness and the quiet tragedy of depression which so many suffer from every day.  And there is confusion.  He had everything.  He was so loved.  He was so talented.  What a waste.  Some expressed anger that he would selfishly take himself out of the world that needed him.

But if you have depression, you cannot see any of that.  All you can see is the darkness around you and no way out.  Like the bottom of a well.  Your head can’t escape from the well.  Your body certainly won’t co-operate because all it wants to lie back, float, let the dark water lift your burden.

People with depression live like this–always treading darkest water.  Medication can lessen the symptoms.  Therapy can alleviate the helpless loneliness.  And sometimes it gets better.  Good days.  Better months.  But it’s not something you can snap out of.  It’s not simply a matter of shaking off the blues.  Depression is illness.  You treat it.  You cope with it.  But you can’t shake it any more than you can tell your sinuses to stop running because a cold is not convenient just now.  You can’t will a severed limb to be whole again.  You can only learn strategies for coping without it.

I have experienced depression in small doses on two occasions in my life: after the births of each of my children.  I struggled to bond with my daughters.  I felt useless.  There were many times I convinced myself both children would be better off if I gave them to someone else to raise.  I even had a plan for this that seemed totally reasonable at the time.  Breast feeding was particularly awful.  This reached a high point—or rather a low point—when I took a pair of scissors to my favourite t-shirt and shredded it just over my breasts.  At least it was my shirt and not my skin.

If I spoke to anyone about my feelings, people would almost always say the same thing: “your babies are beautiful, healthy and they are going to be fine.”  My babies were never a question.  I always knew they were fine and would be fine.  I was the mess.  I felt like I was slowly dying.

I vividly remember when I finally felt like a mother.  Or felt the way I thought a mother should feel.  My first born daughter was seventeen months old and we were on holiday together in New York City.  That was the first time I had fun with her.  It was just as bad with the second one, though I recovered faster.  I still have moments, rare though they are, when I make plans.  Plans that seem totally reasonable for about an hour.  I can’t image how it would feel to live in that dark place full time.

Some of my favourite authors have written about depression.  Matt Haig is one of the most honest.  Stephen Fry the most vulnerable.  David Foster Wallace the most eloquent in his own way.  Robin Williams spoke openly about his struggles.

She wrote about it too.  And I have written about her.  She was my primary inspiration for the character of Rowan in A Circle of Lost Sisters.  She is still here.  Everyday managing to tread darkest waters.

My newly decorated writer’s space

Since I have reduced my teaching hours  this year in order to devote more time to my writing, I figured it was time I had a useful space in which to write other  than the dining table.  With some err….negotiation shall we say, I carved out a corner of my husband’s “man cave”.   Fine.  Not a corner.  Half the room.   Half is fair.

cornerThe centre piece of my corner is a fold out chair, in case I am up late and fall asleep writing and also to serve as a guest bed in case anyone doesn’t mind the chaos of our lives.  A laptop desk has been purchased but not yet assembled.  I made the quilt throw and lace cushion ages ago.  The wolf cushion, a gift for my eldest daughter Freya made by our Rock Star Quilter Gill Young, fits the space nicely and reminds me of my first novel.

A Shakespeare doll I purchased for my youngest daughter Juliet perches over my shoulder.

The jacket slung over the  door is one I made in high school and which became something of a legendary artifact among my teenage friends.   I wanted it in my space to remind me of the audience for which I write.  Beside it is a bag made for me by a friend.  I wanted to have as many hand-made and sentimental objects in my creative space.  The better to channel the creativity.

The painting is a compromise.  My husband loves it.  I hate it.  My back is generally turned to it.

cupboardAcross from my chair is a book shelf topped by an antique medicine cabinet given by my in-laws when they renovated their bathroom.  As with the corner of my space I tried to include as many hand made items as possible here.  On the top of the cabinet is a photograph staged by my eldest daughter, a poseable artist model and sugar paste prairie roses made by my friend Jo.

inside the cabinet, on the first shelf, a ceramic pot made by my mother holds my grandfather’s ashes.  Beside him are copies of my three favourite novels from my own Child/Young Adulthood.  Below that is an old clock, a reminder not to waste my time, a Union Jack/Yankee hybrid flag made for my 40th Birthday cake and a strange Lego thing my daughter keeps putting back in the cupboard each time I try to take it out.  On the bottom shelf is a candle, a clay Totoro whistle made by my childhood friend and fellow Anime fan Jamie Addams, and a heart cushion filled with lavender from my father’s garden to remind me that every story is really a love story.

Snuggled on either side of the cabinet are my writer’s notebooks, post-it notes for organsing plot and two reference books on Folklore.

notesFinally the bookshelf, filled with old games my husband refuses to part with, is covered with images and notes.  There is a very badly sketched map of the fictional town of Burly-the-Wath and the surrounding Burrdale area.  Some photographs, taken by myself or a family member, indicate settings for my novel.  Others are basically costume plots for characters.

Just outside of the room hangs a mirror for modelling gestures, poses and facial expressions.  Beside my chair a blank wall is papered with post-it notes  to keep the various plots, time lines and characters of four different time lines straight.

Now I just need a kettle, mini fridge, mini-bar, hot tub, masseuse…

My Rebellion (for ELLE magazine talent competition 2013)

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At sixteen I was desperate to rebel against my parents.  I didn’t dislike them; they were perfectly fine as parents go.  But I was sixteen, chafing under the bit of their authoritative yoke.  I needed me some rebellion!

I experimented with calling them by first names then I failed a school choir audition and cried for Mommy and Daddy.  I stole Dad’s cigarettes.  He didn’t notice.  I stomped to the breakfast table wearing borrowed Doc Martins, mismatched knee-high argyles, artfully ripped t-shirt, neon tutu and denim jacket I had tortured then repaired with a hundred safety pins à la Donatella Frankenstein.  My mother grinned.  She told me about the plastic mini skirt she had loved when she was my age: black with yellow daisies worn over shiny white Go-go boots.  Outwardly I mocked her absurd fashion sense; inwardly I cursed her for not keeping these vintage relics to pass on to me.

            Honestly!  What was it going to take to get a reaction from these people?  Tattooed boyfriend?  Mom critiqued the shading around Betty Boop’s boobs inked on his bicep.  Obnoxious punk music?  Dad bought me a walkman—I was the first of my friends to have one.  Arrested at a political rally?  Just try and shock former flower children with that one! 

            Fail.  Fail.  Fail.  Against the front of my parents’ open-minded, freedom-loving, daisy-painted tolerance this rebellion seemed doomed. 

‘Instigate Generational War!’ vowed I.

But how?  Who could possibly battle against the stubbornly non-confrontational? An answer came on a pure beam of sunlight bursting through parted clouds across an azure sky.  Sympathetic to my recent musical failure at school, my friend Michelle, invited me to join her church choir. 

‘Church choir?’  I grimaced at the hymnal she handed me.  Its cover depicted a beam of sunlight bursting through clouds.  ‘Why would I want to join a church choir?  I don’t even like Amazing Grace.  I’d have to attend church every Sunday and my parents would not approve of—

            Hang on.

My parents would not approve.  My atheist parents never set foot in church unless attending a wedding (even then it would have to be the wedding of someone they really loved) or a funeral (even then it would have to be the funeral of someone they really hated).  If I joined a church they would be furious. 

Hallelujah! 

Michelle’s church choir welcomed their new alto with open arms and voices.  But I didn’t stop there: baptism, confirmation, youth ministry.  I even preached an Easter Sunrise Service.  I dressed the part as well, building a collection of vintage cocktail dresses, Mary Jane shoes and dainty cross jewellery.  I looked like the Catholic school fetishist poster girl of 1957. 

Best of all was the expression on my parents’ faces when they reluctantly attended the baptism.  Forced to conceal their fury and horror, they sat in awkward tight-lipped silence on the edge of their pew.  Those patent leathers of mine clicked delightedly.  God blessed my successful rebellion!

Les Peeps Mortes C’est Ooglie

33c9f33218a6cab6054375fb76129a80My friend Jo has a ghost living in her house.  This is a well known fact amongst our circle of friends.  In the wee hours of weekend hijinks, we have been known to assemble at Jo’s house for a spot of spectral provocation.  “Here ghosty, ghosty, ghosty…come out, come out wherever you are.”

I say “we” but I really mean “they”.  I have never and will never set foot in Jo’s house ever. Like never.  Because ghosts give me the major ooglies.  Just the idea of them completely terrifies me. They don’t even have to do anything.  By all accounts, Jo’s deceased housemate is utterly benign.  It doesn’t matter.  Ghosts creep me out.

This fact has sunk in with further clarity recently as I have been I watching French television drama The Returned on ITV.  Seemingly harmless ghosts just wander back to their homes as if nothing had happened causing emotional upheaval and confusion in slow moving, beautifully French cinematic style.  I spent the entire hour clutching my pillow for comfort.  Predictably, the most terrifying of these spectres is the doe-eyed little boy who says nothing.

Aha.  Maybe what frightens me about ghosts is their silence?  They just stand there staring at you all dimly lit and shadowy saying nothing.  I’m sure there is deep wiring in our ancestral DNA which links fight or flight with being silently stared at.  It’s predatory and it’s giving me goosebumps just writing about it.

the_ghost_of_jennet_humfrye_by_hernandez_henson-d5o5p6qOne of the most frightening ghost stories is Woman in Black.  If you have only seen the recent film and are now thinking I am a spineless wimp, get yourself to a theatre or a library.  The stage play and the novella it is based on are far more haunting.  Jennet Humfrye is a truly frightening ghost, and she never says or does a thing (other than waving her arms about once or twice and causing children to die).  She was a tortured soul in life whose death was a cruel olive on top of her liver ice cream sundae of an existence.

Hmm.  Maybe what frightens me about ghosts is the way in which they embody the life left behind?  Someone who lived their life in physical or emotion pain will leave an echo of this when they die.  Ripples in time, as Doctor Who says.  A ghost is unlikely to leave pleasant ripples in their time puddle.  In the case of Jennet Humfrye, she wants to pass around her horrific ripples by splashing about spectacularly and soaking everyone around her with as much pain as she possibly can.

Even if they aren’t silent, ghosts are just wrong.  They are dead and they don’t belong here.  They come in uninvited and uknown.  You can’t quite make them out so you’re not sure who or what they are.  Or if you do know who they are but you know they shouldn’t be there.  It’s like running into your teacher out of school when you aren’t expecting it, only ten times worse.  Ghosts are spectacularly out of place.

1178718_les-revenants-capturesIn The Returned, the ghostly main character of the first episode is a young girl who has no idea she is dead.  Her parents struggle to cope with the concept of a daughter they buried five years ago taking a bath as if nothing had happened.  The girl in question only becomes aware that something is wrong at the end of the episode when she comes face to face with her twin sister who is now five years older and no longer her living reflection.  The world has moved out without her and she has no place in it any longer.

The good old Ghost Who Doesn’t Know It’s a Ghost trope (Sixth Sense, The Others, all six seasons of Lost—sort of) plays beautifully into the uncertainty surrounding the discernible dead.  When I was a kid, around ten years old, I purchased A Question of Time by Dina Anastasio from Scholastic Books.  For some reason my mother got her hands on the book first.  Once she had read it she declared it too scary.  Mom hid the book and I was not allowed to read it.  Of course I found it and read it secretly in the dead of night.  Kids, listen to your mothers.  That book is quite possibly the reason why I find ghosts terrifying.  That and the ten or so other ghost stories I read as a child.

I suspect I might be an emotional masochist or psychological adrenaline junkie.  No roller coasters or bungees for me, but I will endlessly read, watch and even write ghost stories.   As long as I have my teddy close by.

Authorial Intent: a rock song

(You have to imagine a loud electric guitar—something Joan Jett or Chilli Peppers.)

Staring down the barrel of 40

Had a lousy day at work

Satisfact’ry just ain’t good enough

Think I’ll go and write me a book.

 (Here’s the chorus bit where even the drummer who can’t sing joins in)

I think I’ll write a book.

Maybe write a book…

Could I just write a book?

Done some poetries and some essays,

Even wrote some daily news

After thirty years of killing pens

Reckon that I’ve paid my dues.

I could write a book…

Why not just write a book?

Wanna write a book.

 (This is the bridge which may or may not be rapped)

 JK in her cafe

EL and her porn

Meyer got a movie deal

Why am I even torn?

I could be Prachett

I could be Gaimon

Gimme half a chance

Bet I sell a ton.

(This final chorus repeats a capella with the audience clapping while the lead singer pans a microphone around the crowd)

If I just write a book.

Wanna write a book.

Gonna write a book.

Shut up and write that book!

(lead singer screams this final line at the mosh pit before leaping into it)