Coming Home

I love to travel. And I always love to come home.

I love Paris. I love Paris any time of year (although April can be cold and rainy, and gray.) I will return home tomorrow after sixteen days away. During my stay in Paris, a crazy man in a truck killed a lot of innocent people in Nice. The next day, flags flew at half-mast in Paris.

 

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We were at Versailles, celebrating Bastille Day,  riding bikes through the grounds and watching fireworks at eleven p.m. IMG_0609

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detail of a garden urn, Versailles

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Marie Antoinette’s cipher

We returned to our hotel room and the sobering news about Nice.

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In the garden of the Musee Rodin

 

 

 

 

 

 

I won’t stay home. If I do, then terrorists (or crazy, truck-driving murderers) win. Although my father and husband worried, we stayed. And here are some of the things we saw:

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Roses at the Hotel Costes

 

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Picasso’s chair

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Faux bois at the Jardin du Luxembourg

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Laduree macarons

We enjoyed Paris and went on to enjoy Valencia, eating paella on the beach at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spot.

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La Pepica, Valencia

 

I am ready to get home now, to see my family, and my dogs and my garden. My daughter wants to get back to her friends and her new apartment. So we have memories, and photos, and mementos, and best of all, a family and home to return to.

The Story Behind the Story: Mrs. Walker

We are all shaped by our experiences—what is inflicted upon us, opportunities we are given, and the things we choose for ourselves. There is choice, and there are also elements variously called “luck,” “fate,” “divine providence,” and “coincidence.”  My friend Aggie once told me that she had heard a saying: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” At the time she told it to me, my own mother had just been diagnosed with the stomach cancer that would take her life within a matter of months.

Google tells me that Albert Einstein was the author of that quotation. I find it humbling that a genius of such magnitude found space among his calculations for God. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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But coincidence does play a role in our lives. So does fate. So why are some destined to die of cancer? Or Alzheimer’s? Or a car accident?

When my mother was ill, Hospice helped to care for her in her final days. I was so impressed by the organization that I signed up for volunteer training at my local non-profit Hospice. I never would have signed up before my mother was diagnosed. But my experience with my mother’s cancer shaped me. I became a volunteer, going to patient’s homes to sit with them so that their caregivers could have a few hours respite.

Being inserted into a household where someone is dying is delicate, and requires equal parts sympathy (or empathy) and detachment. I know that detachment sounds like coldness or distance, but it’s not the same thing at all. In being detached, I can get done what needs doing, and allow the caregiver to take care of his or her own needs, if only for a few hours each week.

After three years, I requested that I not be paired with any more patients. I needed some distance. I found I was becoming more than detached. I was becoming cold because I needed to separate myself from the need and pain and grief I saw. Now I work in the supply room at the Hospice office. I fill orders for nurses, filling shopping bags with products with ambiguously optimistic names like Skil-Care, Med-Pride, and Primaguard. Anything manufactured by a company called Caring, must, to some perhaps subconscious degree, provide a modicum of comfort.

My job is to open boxes and stock shelves. The convoluted pads go next to the Dawn Mist lotion soap. Must remember the terminology: adult diapers are “briefs”, absorbent bed pads are “chux,” for no reason that is apparent to me, although the box calls them “Wings.”

As if.

As if someone could fly away from their deathbed on a green absorbent pad. Facial tissues, which, personally, I always call “Kleenex” are called “Envision.” And a paper towel? Not a paper towel, but a “Preference” towel. Pull-ups are still pull-ups but are available only for those below the poverty level, who might not have indoor plumbing. When were are caring for someone at the end of life, we need all of the confidence available. If it comes in the form of a gauze pad or alcohol swab, who cares?

The nurses and aids phone in lists of supplies they need. End of life, they call it. Because it can take a while. Death is an instant. End of life can be the final days or months of a terminal illness. My work at hospice is but a drop in the bucket. These brave, dedicated nurses and volunteers look death in the face every day, and say, “You may win this one, but I’m here to ease the journey.” Their patients won’t get better. These patients won’t go home with balloons and wilting flowers. But the nurses keep helping.

Has my writing been influenced by my own experiences? Of course it has. Our imaginations are fed by experiences, whether they be the result of choice or fate or providence.

To read the story, click here: Mrs. Walker

 

Photo by François Bianco [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

The Story Behind the Story: Brainfreeze

cancun1984   Since the mid-1980’s, my family has been going to the same resort in Cancun, Mexico, for a week each winter.

     The place is old school; low rise, with well-manicured grounds, white stucco walls, and red tile roofs. There are lots of retirees, and many families, who re-connect from year to year and have watched each other’s children grow up and buy timeshares of their own.

 

In March of 2015, I was there with my husband and daughter. I was determined to write a short story, and I had a hard time settling on what to write about. Sitting beside the pool one afternoon, I watched a young father follow his toddler around the pool deck, lap after lap after lap. I remembered those days with my own daughter, and I felt a pang that I could only describe as a mixture of relief and nostalgia.  IMG_2528

 “Brainfreeze” was inspired by that young father. You can read it here, at Rum Punch Press.

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The story behind the story: The Hunting Museum

August 22, 2015

Ekphrasis– a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art. (Merriam- Webster Dictionary)

I had the extreme good fortune of spending a month in Paris this summer. The first week I was there I participated in the Left Bank Writers Retreat, led by the fabulous Darla Worden. I highly recommend it. On one of our forays, we visited the haute taxidermist’s shop, Deyrolle, at 46 rue du Bac, where they have been selling everything from exotic butterflies to ostriches to black bears since 1831. 

The shop is above a very swanky gardening shop where you can buy a metal chair like the ones in the Jardin du Luxembourg for a mere 500 euros, (shipping not included.)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: flightlog [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
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The Jardin du Luxembourg, where my writing group met every day.

It was a hot day in June, and as I climbed the stairs to Deyrolle, I was feeling the summer heat. I had been to the shop before and I didn’t like it. On this day, I felt agitated, hot, and hyper-aware. I looked around quickly and went back downstairs to wait for my group.

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When Darla asked me how I liked it, I told her I didn’t, and that I knew it sounded “woo-woo” but I felt like I was picking up some sort of energy from the taxidermy. Perhaps I was just being anthropomorphic, I don’t know, but it made me uncomfortable enough to leave.

Deyrolle, photo from Wikimedia Commons: bixentro (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

The following week, when I was on my own, I visited the Musee de la Chasse et Nature, 62, rue des Archives, in the 3rd Arrondissement.  I don’t know how to describe it, except that it is in the Hôtel de Guénégaud (1651-1655), a fabulous seventeenth-century house with a courtyard.

Faisanglier by Julien Salaud, 2015
Faisanglier by Julien Salaud, 2015

The museum displays antique firearms, trophies, tapestries, and paintings, but also fabulous contemporary works. There is a small room decked out as a kitschy hunting lodge by American artist Mark Dion, that has a definite Wes Anderson vibe.

I had a similar response to the animals there. It was visceral, but then again, there were some creepy exhibits. The one I wrote about is called “La Nuit de Diane” by Jan Fabre (pictured at top of page).

Mark Dion's Hunting Lodge installation.
Mark Dion’s Hunting Lodge installation.
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After I left the museum I was haunted by multiple reactions to the exhibits– visual, physical and emotional. I have never had such a physical reaction to art before. I had to write about it. When I went back and read about Fabre’s piece, I learned that his owls have human prosthetic eyes, not avian.

Fabre himself said of the piece, “these figures also return the passage from life to death.”

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My friend Nita Ann read my story and said that it reminded her of the Rod Serling T.V. show, “The Twilight Zone”, which we used to watch as kids. How very apt. Isn’t that just another name for Fabre’s “passage from life to death”?

The central stairway in the museum.
The central stairway in the museum.

Here is the link to my story, which was published in August in Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing.

Bad Dog

Delmar

Delmar

           Available to read online, in the March 2015 issue of Bluestem Magazine:

     The story behind the essay:            Boris on Terrace

 

 

 

 

 

(Update, January 2109- dear Boris passed away this month due to complications from cancer. His passing was peaceful and he is missed).

The awful day I describe in Bad Dog happened in November of 2013. Our physical wounds, human and canine, healed fairly quickly. My daughter has scars on her shin, and the little black dog, Boris, has a set of hard, bumpy scars over his neck, in the outline of the jaws of Delmar (pictured above), the dog who attacked him. When Boris’ fur grew in over the scars it came in white instead of black. It was about three months before he would play again. Now, a bit over a year later, he is happy and playful and healthy.

We now have three dogs; a purebred America Bulldog, Blossom, and two rescues. Boris, a Scottie-Cocker (?)  mix, came from Fuzzy Face Rescue of the Northern Neck,  near Fredericksburg, Virginia. I found the shelter through a search on Petfinder.com. They take dogs from high–kill shelters around the state.

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Fleetwood (center) is about 18 months old now. He is an English pointer-black lab cross from the Franklin County Animal Shelter in Virginia.

I cannot express how much I support the adoption of pets from shelters. If your local shelter does not have a pet that suits your preferences, have a look on Petfinder.com, where you can search by breed, age, gender, and distance. Or do a web search for breed-specific rescues. If you can’t adopt, then consider a donation. That is how I found my dogs.

Delmar (pictured at top) was a sweet, loving dog (to us). He had a high prey drive and was overly fearful of strangers. I believe he had other demons, resulting from the life he had before he came to us, at six months old. We gave him a good home for three years, and we did not hesitate to adopt a rescue again. My mixed breeds have been my healthiest dogs by far, and they show their gratitude every day.

Boris terrace

About the essay:

I had never written a creative non-fiction essay before this, but I was so haunted by this experience that I felt a need to write it, just to get it out of my head, and park it somewhere else. On paper, I suppose I could look at it more objectively and with some distance. Writing it out was cathartic, and though it still upsets me a little each time I re-read it, the exercise of turning it into an essay was empowering.

The first time I ever read a piece of my own writing to an audience, I read this essay. I was at the Novel Retreat at the Vermont College of Fine Art. I was extremely nervous. I absolutely hate being the center of attention, and I was a wreck about putting my work out if front of people. But the attendees and faculty of this retreat were a warm, welcoming, and companionable audience. With two glasses of wine and a pep talk by new writing buddies, Victor and Maryka, to buoy me, I began to read, and my voice was a little shaky. About a minute into my five-minute limit I began to lose myself in the emotion of the story. It helped that I had on reading glasses and the audience was a blur when I looked up. But I got through that reading, and I felt I had overcome a hurdle.

After the retreat, I put the essay aside, while I concentrated on my novel. When I realized that I needed to try to get my work published, I saw that I had pitifully few pieces to offer. When the nonfiction editor of Bluestem Magazine contacted me, with interest in Bad Dog, I was delighted. She said that she liked my story and was considering publishing it, but she felt that the ending paragraph didn’t work. I’m so grateful that she bothered to ask me to tweak it because now it is published. I hope you’ll read it, and please let me know what you think.

 

 

Scrapbook

The story behind the story:  Scrapbook

My story Scrapbook is one of 42 pieces of flash fiction featured in Microchondria II, the literary journal of the Harvard Bookstore. The finished book is in stock.

You have your choice of four different cover designs. However, if you don’t want to order the book you can at least see my very own name, listed as a contributing author. If you email me or fill out the form below I will send you the text.

The story behind the story:  Scrapbook

 (Spoiler alert! Read the story first!)

Scrapbook was inspired by two things, the first being a 1914 scrapbook, assembled by my grandmother, Elsie Curtis Nelms. It seems to me that people were more sentimental then. Things were saved and treasured. Granny Nelms is also the inspiration for my character Elsie in my novel. One of her children, Jimmy, died of scarlet fever at the age of five.

Secondly, the story was inspired by Harvard Professor Dr. Matthew Kaiser. Two years ago, I took Dr. Kaiser’s Harvard Extension School class, English-156a: Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature and Culture.

The class was fascinating, and one of the things Dr. Kaiser discussed was the Victorian obsession with death and mourning. He showed us macabre photographs of families posed with dead loved ones, which was, for a time, a fashionable thing to do. The images were unsettling. They stayed with me. The images below are not from my grandmother’s scrapbook. They are from a 2016 article on bbc.com called “Taken from Life: The unsettling art of death photography,” by Bethan Bell.

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