Unraveling

Please forgive my absence from this page. My eyes have been wonky, which is terrifying, for someone who entered Kindergarten able to read with fluidity, but is normal for someone who just had two cataract surgeries. The doctors assure me that my progress is within the realm of the normal. In church at night, I can read well because the surroundings are dark and the type is big. At home, I struggle, relying on my own version of “predictive text” for the prayers that I’ve memorized, sometimes launching into parts of morning prayers in the evening or vice versa. When I have to read a menu, the words come out slowly and in syllables. It is maddening.

I decided that I would work on my granddaughter’s hat. a work in progress but not much. The pattern is simple — cast on sixty stitches, knit four and purl four back and forth across the rows until the thing is ten inches long, then drop one stitch per group and knit three, purl three, until it’s another three inches, then taper down to two stitches per clump, then one, then bind it off and stitch the sides together. Easy, unless you are having trouble seeing. I mixed up with stitches were supposed to be knit and which were supposed to be purled. And I didn’t see what I had done until the next day’s eyedrops wore off.

My work was going to have to be unraveled.

Unraveling the written word

Writers can relate. At some point in the editorial process, a writer discovers a past error, an inconsistency, and infelicity, or worse, just changes his mind. That which was written has to be unraveled and reconstructed. And the process is fraught with peril, because removing one thing shifts everything else around it.

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Michael Crichton

When I started taking out the false stitches of my knitting, I found that I had accidentally dropped a stitch or two along the way. This meant going back many rows further than I’d intended and dredging up stitches using a hairpin and carefully counting everything by holding the knitting at a variety of distances from my face like an air trombone. The same thing happens when you change something in a poem.

The rhyme scheme changes, the meter gets messed up, the meaning shifts, and all of the sudden you no longer have what you had. I am convinced that Keats left “Cortez” where “Balboa” should have been in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” because one more syllable, and one that ended with a vowel, was simply too much. (You can read more about it here.)

Fiction

In fiction writing, authors change names, and before computers it was much harder. Margaret Mitchell could not use the search feature to change “Pansy” to “Scarlett” when she was writing “Gone with the Wind.” Some of your work is easier. But some isn’t. Every writer needs an editor to make sure that changed locations, marital situations, number of children, and occupations in their novels are consistent.

Nonfiction

In nonfiction, things have to change when the writer learns new facts. A family lie about where an ancestor was born, the true identity of the board of directors for a shady corporation, the true side effects of a medication and the research used to defend it, all should cause the author to rewrite and, if need be, re-issue.

Other times, you change your mind about something write writing. Part of my research for my third-semester project involved reading “The House of Happy Endings,” the ironically named story of the son of the authors of the Uncle Wiggly stories. The book documents the author’s father’s mental breakdown over time. But I read it just as I had been diagnosed with diabetes, and what looked to the author like mental illness struck me as a classic case of low blood sugar. A doctor’s look at the memoir would make a fascinating read.

Entertainment

Television is notorious for changing plots and re-casting shows without warning. One of the most notorious examples when the dream scene from Dallas that succeeded in bringing back a popular character from the dead, but at the cost of an entire season’s plot development. The thirty-one episodes between the death and reappearance of Bobby Eweing were wiped away like mist from a shower. Fans were elated. Writers were busy!

Change Something

In our lives, one change can provoke so many more. In my case, I can leave the house without my bifocals, but not without my sunglasses. When you move a piece of furniture or move up a grade in school, paradigm shift follows. You have to re-examine old routines and establish new ones. This can be bad, this can be frustrating, yes, but it can also be very good.

Writing Prompt — Unravel Something!

Take a piece of writing that you are almost satisfied with, and change something from an early part of it. See what that does to the rest,

In a poem, does it change the rhyme scheme? Good. Maybe the whole meter needs to be changed.

In non-fiction, ask a what-if question. How would you have felt if you knew, at the time, featured, the things that you learned later? How does a new scientific development affect our understanding in other ways? When Pluto ceased to be a planet, school children had to learn a disappointing new phrase — “My Very Educated Mother Just Made Us Nothing!”

Change something in your fictions. Move your characters to another place or time. This will affect their diction and their dress. Change a character’s sex or speech pattern. Make a taciturn character loquacious and switch long paragraphs into pithy sentences to see what else changes as a result.

Not Just Writing

And, in your life, make a change. Drive a different way to work. Visit a different grocery store. Dig through your Facebook friends and check on someone whose news you don’t usually follow. Then, write about how this changes you. You might have an essay. You might have a novel. Or you may learn that you love better what you already do and have.

But you won’t know until you unravel the fabric of your normal day.

Wednesday Writing Prompt — What Will They Sing at Your Funeral?

+Metropolitan Laurus (Skurla) reading from the Great Canon of St. Andrew before his repose in 2008

All over the world, Orthodox Christians are gathering in dark churches to sing and read the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The hymns are especially moving, focusing on repentance and using the people of the Bible for examples, both good and bad. But when your husband is an Orthodox priest, the hymns have another layer of meaning. The eirmosi of this canon are what the clergy sing as they carry a priest around the church, in his open coffin, at the conclusion of the funeral service.

I appreciate that in the Orthodox Church, the services are already laid out for you. You don’t have to write your own wedding vows. You don’t have to dream up an appropriate celebration of life when someone dies. At the wedding, everyone prays for the establishment of the marriage and the Church lists good examples from the Bible. At a funeral, everyone prays for the departed, and we remember that we, too, will die, so we should be prepared, by growing closer to God and being kind to each other.

An Orthodox funeral is not short, but a priest’s funeral is like a layman’s funeral on steroids. There are five Gospel readings instead of one. The entire Kontakion for the departed is read, with all twenty-four verses, instead of the shorter form used at every lay funeral and memorial service. And at the end of the service the priest, vested and in his coffin, is hoisted by his fellow clergy and carried around the church that he served, not unlike the athlete in Housman’s poem:

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

“To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman
Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)

All of which brings me to the question: what will they sing at your funeral?

Or, rather, since this is a writing prompt, “What will they sing at your character’s funeral?”

Is there a song that epitomizes your life, or the life of your hero, or the life of your villain?

Conflict

The conflict behind the scenes and even overtly at funerals that can be such heartache in the life of people can be gold in the life of a book. What is there that the deceased wants that someone else does not want?

When the Diocese of Providence told Roman Catholics that they could not play “Danny Boy” on bagpipes at funerals, one wag said, “I want ‘Danny Boy’ sung at my funeral Mass, and if I don’t hear it, I’m going to get up and walk out!”

Hearing Songs Again

Because I am not Roman Catholic, I do not attend Mass on a regular basis. But there are hymns that are sung at many funerals, like “Be Not Afraid,” that I hear only at christenings, baptisms, and funerals. Hearing the hymn at the wedding of a friend’s grandchildren whom I last saw at her funeral, where this was sung, has two different effects. It makes me miss my friend more. And it sort of makes it feel like she has been included.

Funerals are great for writers.

The possibilities for fiction are endless. We see them in movies and television — the funeral designed by one set of friends or relatives and attended and critiqued, by others, in ‘The Kominsky Method;” the modern children at a traditional funeral who don’t know what to do in “Grand Torino;” Data’s choice of a New Orleans Jazz funeral for Geordi and Ro’s funeral on “Star Trek, The Next Generation” are all examples of how a funeral can force characters together to underscore their differences and further the plot.

For non-fiction, you can write about a funeral you were at, or a funeral you missed. You can write speculatively about the service you envisioned or in an expository manner about the one you actually did attend.

But music…..

But music is something special. Just as the sports teams, television shows, and movies have theme songs, your funeral music, like your wedding music, is a reflection on your life, and when people hear it again, in another context, it can bring you to mind the way the eirmosi of the Great Canon remind me of standing with a tear-stained face with friends and family at the funerals of priests and bishops whom we love.

In “Hamilton,” the big music question is, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”

All of us die. Most funerals have music (and if they don’t, that’s worth writing about also.)

Where did you hear a song that you also heard (before or after) at a loved ones funeral?

What did you sing at your father’s funeral?

What song or hymn would you want people to sing for you?

Writing prompt: Remember a funeral you attended. Make a connection between the deceased and the music. Or write about the disconnect between the deceased and the service.

We had a parishioner who was a pioneer in nuclear physics. She and her husband were childless, and toward the end of her life, she lived with her nephews, who loved her very much. The nephews’ wives also loved her, but were constantly after her to try something different with her hair, with her make-up, and with her clothes. When this lady died, the nephews’ girlfriends made the arrangements, including choosing a new stylist and make-up artist for the funeral. This somber, scholarly woman who always wore her hair in a discreet gray bun lay in her coffin with bold make-up, blond hair, and a jewel toned blouse.

I could have sworn I saw her wink at me.

The Great Canon

Coming back to the Great Canon, I think I know some of the reasons why we sing what we do at the funeral of a priest. We pray for the dead always, but especially in the first forty days after their repose, when the soul is judged. And so we use the hymns with which we launch Great Lent, a journey of forty days, for launching the clergy we love on this journey. We hope that, like Great Lent, the priest’s forty days’ journey will end also with a glorious resurrection.

But also, the words of the canon profess deep faith, and hope, and love. As we stand behind the priest in church when these words are sung, so we stand behind him in procession, when they are sung again. It is goodbye. It is an honor guard. It is our battle hymn.

I will leave you with the first ode eiromos:

He is my Helper and Protector, and has become my salvation.
This is my God and I will glorify Him. My father’s God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously has He been glorified.

(Exodus 15:2,1; Psalm 117:14

My Seat at the Cancer Party

I didn’t write a writing prompt this week because I am gearing up for my second cataract surgery and Wednesday was the day when I could bend and clean. That’s not what I did, but it reminded me of a second person essay that I wrote for one of my FUMFA (Fairfield University MFA in Writing) on why you, or I, don’t write more.

We all should write more.

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my auntie Rita’s repose. I still miss her.

And so this excerpt is in her memory. Make yourself some good pasta and a nice salad, and eat with people you love.

Auntie Rita, Before Cancer. Borrowed from one of my aunts.

   (Background: At the time, we lived in Connecticut and my daughter was in college in Massachusetts, not far from the part of Boston, Roslindale, where I grew up.)


         When your Auntie Rita gets cancer, the other aunties step in, and teach you how to have a cancer party at hospice. You tell Auntie Chee Chee the story of Auntie Betty and the Spaghetti Sauce. It’s a wonderful story. You kick yourself for not having written it down.

            Here’s the story.

            Auntie Rita said, “Betty’s kids came to my house, and when they came home, they raved about my spaghetti sauce. And so Betty called me, and she sighed, and said, ‘My kids can’t stop talking about your sauce. So I guess I’d better ask you for the recipe.’ And I say, ‘I hope you have a pen and paper handy to write it down, because it’s complicated.’ So she gets a pen and paper.

            “And I say, ‘Are you ready?’ And she says ‘Yah.’ So I say, ‘Here’s what you do. You take a stick of butter.’”

            And because she’s Auntie Rita and her Boston accent is so thick, of course she doesn’t say “butter”. She says “buttah”, and she says it like it’s the best thing God ever made.

            “’You take your stick of butter, and you melt it in the pan. You got that?’ And she said yes. And I said, ‘And then you pour in a jar of Ragu and you heat it up. And that’s my secret recipe.’ Betty was so mad.”

            And she laughed.

            But when you tell the story to Auntie Chee Chee, she says, “Ann Marie. If you’re coming to see your daughter, you could stop by hospice and see us.” And you think it strange that she says “us” but of course you agree.

            You stop by your stepmother’s house on the way, the one that used to be yours, the one that your grandfather bought for your grandmother before both of them died, before your mother died, before your father died. It is not your house any more. It is your stepmother’s, and she is working late and cannot see you this visit.

You bring her dinner, because she is alone now, and nobody ever cooks for her. Without you there to remind people that it’s her birthday, her name day, the would-be anniversary of her marrying your dad, then sometimes your siblings drop the ball. So while it’s not an occasion, you are there, and she has to work late, which is hard. You go shopping at the new yuppie market where two angry Irish brothers used to have a terrible grocery store with warm milk and stale bread. The new store, like so much of Roslindale, is dazzling, expensive, and completely foreign. But their food is good — wholesome and fresh, displayed with care. The vegetables are clean and attractive. Shopping here is a pleasure.

The rotisserie chicken at the store looks like something from a painting. The chickens are brown and glistening. They sit in a puddle of their own juice, and each looks so good that you get one for your stepmother and one for your aunt. The other aunties say Rita is not eating much, and you want to fix that.

            Women want to fix things.

            Sometimes even more than they want to write.

            You take a look around the changed house that you didn’t always especially enjoy living in, and you head on to to the North Shore, to the gorgeous new hospice that they thoughtfully built halfway between Auntie Rita’s house and Auntie Chee Chee’s.

            Because your husband is a clergyman, you have been to several different hospices before, in three States, plus the former run-down hotel in Houston that became run-down housing for Aids victims and their caretakers. So you are a connoisseur. This is a very nice hospice. Because you are near Boston, because you are from Boston, you even pronounce it to be “pissa” before realizing that this is like laughing in church. You straighten your face and walk down the hallway to find your aunt.

            But you don’t find your aunt. You find all your aunties.

            They used to have different colored hair, but now everyone has settled on shades very close to your own. Mary, whose hair was black and who always was skinny, is there, and Chee Chee, with reddish gold hair, and Katie, with goldish red hair, Peggy who has eight kids and still looks to be twenty, and Betty, all the way from Maine, and Dorothy, a darker red than the others perhaps because she’s an actress, and Rita, who has always looked like you, all looking up, all so glad to see you. You hug and kiss them all and admire their sweaters – turquoise, lavender, blue – and say, “I always could figure out what colors would look good on me by looking at my aunties.” And everyone smiles.

            They are seated around a table with teacups, crumbs from pastries, and pictures of all their children and grandchildren. It doesn’t have to be this new century. It could be your grandmother’s dining room in 1972, uncles and aunts smoking and talking over Salada tea with milk, only, nobody smokes anymore, and they are done with half the husbands.

            And your weary heart rejoices as they call out your name, and marvel that your daughter could be so grown up, and ask about the play she is in. She is not in the play. She is in the pit orchestra. But for your aunties, that makes her the star, because she is their grandniece.

            And oh, Rita is so happy with the chicken. “That looks so good,” she says. “That looks so good that I want to eat some right now.”

            And all the other aunties beam at you. And they make you sit down and have a muffin and some tea.

            And Auntie Chee Chee asks you to have a little supper with them, only, of course, it’s “suppah,” and who can resist suppah with the aunties?

            Not you.

            So they serve out some salad, and each aunt talks about the parts that she can and cannot eat, and Rita makes everyone have a little bit of chicken, and Auntie Chee Chee brings out spaghetti, and it’s so good, so good. And you smile at her.

            Because you taste the butter.

            And you know the recipe.

            And you feel like you’re sitting at the grown-up table, a very special treat.

It is a kind of coming of age, to have a seat at the cancer party. It is as if you were given the mantle that nobody wants, but that you need. You wear it, and you wear it well, because it comes in turquoise, lavender, blue and green, your colors, and it was draped on your newly squared shoulders with love, for when you need it, in time, yourself, to stay warm.

Writing Prompt — The Sewing Box

My sewing box is nowhere near this neat.

In the Orthodox Church, the first week of Great Lent is called “Clean Week,” and some people take this to heart, literally cleaning things in their homes the first week of the fast. A friend mends pillows, fixes hems, and makes those small repairs on things that upset her the rest of the year. People dust picture frames and wash walls, cull their clothes for charity donations and finally clean out the kitchen junk drawer. In anticipation, I have been gathering some things that need attention — my favorite dress, which has a tear, a flowered blouse that’s missing a button, and some other similar things. When I dug through my sewing box, in preparation, I remembered how I got it.

When we lived in Connecticut, I didn’t know the neighbors as well as I wish I did. One neighbor had sold her house and was moving to assisted living. She had a yard sale that was as good as an estate sale. A yard sale has things that people have decided they do not need any more. An estate sale has the things that people used every day, but which their loved ones don’t want or need. At a yard sale you can find interesting things. At an estate sale you can find essential things — seasoned baking sheets and well-worn cookbooks, real cotton bed linens and woolen blankets, toys that aren’t made any more and sturdy hand tools. My neighbor had all of these for sale, plus her sewing box.

It was a clear plastic box with several layers and she had it loaded with thread, elastic, extra buttons, pieces of trim, and some lace. When I went to pay for it, her hands lingered on it, and I realized that this was the essence of who she had been to her family. She had gone to this box to put patches on Boy Scout uniforms and to take in prom dresses, to move buttons and to fix hems. When she got rid of this, who would she be?

I, too, hesitated. “Perhaps you shouldn’t sell it,” I said. “You may need it, or your family might need something in it.”

“No,” she said, and looked directly into my eyes. “Take it. You need it. I see how many kids you have, all of them running and falling and growing. You need it. And that part of my life is over.”

Sewing boxes are repositories of secrets.

Your sewing box is where you keep things that you don’t want the children to mess with, things that you don’t want your husband to find. It holds extra snap closures and bra strap buckles, thread to match the outfits you tear most often. My whole soprano section, two elderly sisters, died one year, and each of their sons gave me his mother’s sewing box. In each box I found the Christmas ornaments I had given the choir members over the years.

Sewing in Literature

In Susan Glaspell’s story “A Jury of Her Peers,” a group of neighbors gather clothing for a woman, Minnie, who had been arrested after her husband’s death. The men are trying to determine if she killed her husband or if someone else had. The story is well worth reading as the women discover things about Minnie’s married life and reach conclusions. One of the more important developments is when they dig into her sewing box to see what she planned to do to finish a quilt in progress.

In “The First Circle,” Solzhenitsyn tells of the prison life of Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician who is not in one of the labor camps — the lower depths of hell — but “only” in a research prison, the first circle of hell, where he is assigned to determine which of three men made a damning phone call which was treasonous, and which had been secretly recorded. He decides to say he cannot say which man it was, to spare one from arrest, but to his horror, all three men are arrested, instead.

Having shown us daily life in the prison, Solzhenitsyn uses the arrest of one innocent man to show what arrest is like in general — the confusion, the removal from friends and family, the need to begin life afresh in these strange and unpleasant conditions. The newly arrested man loses buttons when he is detained, and when he complains, the prison guard hands the man a needle and thread so that he can sew the buttons back on. This, the man has never done. And so Solzhenitsyn describes how the man learns how to do this, figures it out, invents sewing, as he will re-invent and freshly discover so many other parts of daily life.

Non-fiction Sewing

Sewing is also essential to some works of non-fiction. “The Dressmakers of Auschwitz” tells of a group of prisoners who were chosen to create high fashion garments for prominent Nazi women. A children’s book, “Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist a book by Barbara Herkert and Vanessa Brantley-Newton,” tells of how a former slave used her talent with needlework to support her family after the Civil War. And Sewn Stories is a blog dedicated to stories about garments that writer sewed or had sewn for them.

Different cultures sew differently. In WWII, the United States bought clothes from refugees to help the spies who were sent abroad to work undercover. Women working for the spy agencies learned that American sew their four-hole buttons in an X, while in Europe buttons were sewn on in two straight parallel lines.

Writing Prompt: Work sewing into your writing. You could write about the first time you sewed something, or the first garment anyone ever sewed for you. Characters who need to talk in a work of fiction can go shopping together to buy sewing supplies, and their preferences — fabrics, colors, quality of threads — can further underscore their differences.

If you don’t sew, never sewed, never want to sew, and don’t know a thing about sewing, that’s okay. (It’s also essay worthy — why? Who sews for you? Do they recognize the things they made when you wear them?) There is a first and a last time to use everything. Think (and write) about the thing that you would part with last — handing over your work badge after clocking out for the last time, giving your adult children your favorite skillet, or maybe handing your car key to a stranger. There are things that we don’t know we are using for the last time — the last hospice visitor’s pass, the last sanitary napkin, the last time you eat off the family china. Things can stand for who we are, what we do, what we did. They are the milestones we don’t notice until they are behind us. Look around. Think about the things that are essential to your daily life, and that some day will not be needed.

Not What You Think It Means — A Writing Prompt

So many languages to choose from!

Professor Irina Lynch of the Wellesley College Russian Department was one of the pioneers of machine translation, something we now call artificial intelligence. She told our class how they tested the success of a translation by running a phrase through, English to Russian, and then running the Russian phrase back, to see how close or far it was from the original. Sometimes the results were good. Sometimes they were bad. Sometimes they were hilarious.

Her group used English aphorisms and Bible verses. They tried “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It came back, “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.”

They tried again, with “Out of sight, out of mind.” The result? “Blind idiot.”

I have sometimes been surprised, while workshopping a piece I’ve written, but the way it was perceived. “Wow, that’s really catty,” they said of a heartfelt poem about why I hadn’t contacted friends in a while. “That’s really funny,” they said of another work which was about something I thought tragic.

It can be entertaining and even useful to see how your writing comes across in translation. Take something short that you’ve written, use Google Translate or the program of your choice, and then translate it back into English.

I tried this with Shakespeare. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I turned it into Mongolian: “Би чамайг зуны өдөртэй зүйрлэх үү?” And I flipped it back into English. “Can I compare you to a summer day?”

The translation is technically accurate, but the nuance has changed.

Writing Prompt: Translate a piece you wrote into another language.

Translate it back into the language in which you wrote it.

Ponder the differences. Is the translation more direct? Does it lose something you loved?

You might try rewriting the piece using the tone of the translation, just to see what it would be like.

For an added twist, compare the translation into two or more languages. How does the Italian differ from the German? What if you translate it into a language that doesn’t use articles?

Enjoy!