Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween

I've written about Halloween on this blog before--specifically, I wrote about it last October. In that post, I described the uncomfortable feelings I have about the strangers who come to my door trick or treating. I don't expect to feel differently about that this year. I've actually come to dread Halloween to some extent, though it's a rich mixture of magic and nostalgia and dread--perhaps an appropriate mix for this particular holiday.
     At any rate, Halloween has special meaning for me, and as I've mentioned before, my novel begins on Halloween. I can cite multiple reasons for this, and as I have multiple book events next week (see schedule in right-hand column), I will use a deep dive into the meanings of Halloween as a launching pad for at least some of my presentations.
     What I've noticed this year about the weeks leading up to Halloween relates to decorating trends. When I was a girl, although Halloween was a time of great excitement, people didn't decorate their houses at all (at least not that I remember). Of course there was the pumpkin on the porch or in the window, but that was it. Gradually, Halloween has become a marketing phenomenon, and decorations have become more and more extensive and elaborate. But they have also changed in character. A few years back, it was all about those nylonish-inflatable-type decorations. Bright colored and friendly and silly, at least until they collapse in a dirty pile on the front lawns. You know what I mean.
Other items I have seen with regularity are the spider-web things that people stretch over their bushes and so forth.
 

And there are pretty little lights. And pumpkins, of course: Real, ceramic, and plastic. Plastic or wood gravestones with funny inscriptions (can't think of any at the moment) are also common. Bony legs and arms and feet emerging from the ground. Skeletons hanging from trees. Witches that have crashed into trees.



What I want to say is that this year, I have noticed a decidedly more ghoulish look to the decorations. Large plastic rats. Zombie-like faces emerging from spider webs. Big hairy bats with fangs. A skeletal bride and groom enclosed in a cage and hanging from a tree. Other skeletal creatures with really horrible faces.
     When I mentioned this "trend" to my husband, he said, "Scary things for scary times."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stumped

That's how I feel about this week's blog post: stumped. It's not that there are no topics available. There was that article in the NY Times a week or two ago, pointed out to me by a faithful blog reader, written by an African American man who takes the train to work into NYC everyday and who has observed that the seat beside him consistently is left empty by white passengers, even when all the other seats in his car are filled. And, he pointed out right off the bat, that he has excellent hygiene and wears very good business suits.
      And there's the novel I'm reading now, called Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) (the other Elizabeth Taylor, as she sometimes is called)--a British writer. The book opens when the widowed Mrs. Palfrey is moving to a rooming house for the elderly, all by herself and in a taxi, no one to help her, as she and her daughter don't care much for each other, and she and her grandson don't either. It's a fascinating book, about age and loneliness and odd bondings of people. One could say (and for the sake of unity in this blog post, I will) that the characters in this novel are in the same situation as that man on the train in the NY Times article. I could say a lot more about how it's got me stirred up and focused on age, but I won't.
     And then there are all the stories about people I've met and the stories they've told me at my various book events, some of which I have told in previous posts. But there are many more I could tell. Instead, I'll just tell one thing I learned at a book event last week: Even though the errors in my novel were corrected when the book went into paperback, they have not been corrected in the Kindle version. I'd like to do something about that, but really am not sure where to start. Ideas? Volunteers?
     So the word "stump" came into my mind as I was thinking about what to write this week, and I started looking at pictures of tree stumps, and I realized that some of them look like a kind of tunnel or entryway into the underground. The word omphalo comes to mind: umbilicus or navel. And the omphalos stone (meaning center of the universe) at the shrine of Delphi.
Sometimes at readings, I have told a story about a tree stump that inspired the ending of my novel. The story (in very abbreviated form) is that while I was researching my novel, I was a guest in the home of an old friend. She was out of town, so I was alone in her home for several days, researching, writing, pacing. It was summer and very hot, but her home was freezing because I could not figure out how to adjust the AC. So I would sit, wrapped in a blanket looking out her back window, which had a lovely view down a hill to a creek and a wooded area. One day I decided to go outside to warm up and walk down to the creek. I noticed a tree stump and headed for that, as a place to sit. When I got to the stump, however, I saw that although it looked solid from the front, like a place where one could sit, it was completely decayed and decomposed around the back when one got the full view of it.
     You know what decaying wood looks like--spongy and moist and layered and orangish, with all manner of beetles and other insect life scurrying around. And as I stood there, looking at the solid front and the decaying back, it struck me that everything depends on perspective. What one sees depends on the angle from which one looks and how closely one looks. And this struck me as so important a thought, and so relevant to my novel, that I scurried back up to the house, opened my laptop, and drafted the last scene of my book. If you look at the last page of the novel, you will see a reference to that tree stump.
     So there you have it. A stump can be an opening. It can even be a house.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Normal/Normality


I'm not going to pretend to understand what happened in the "former Yugoslavia" in the mid-90s. I mean, I do understand that a brutal war occurred, that thousands were slaughtered, that atrocities against humans were committed, and that many lives were shattered. And I understand that ethnic divisions/hatreds/histories between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians (or Bosniaks) were at the center. 
     At the time, I remember NPR reporters asking experts and insiders of all kinds to explain to the rest of us what the sources of these ancient conflicts were. 
     Historical battles, borders, territories. These were some of the answers. My friend, Vesna Neskow, a writer whose family comes from this part of the world has given up (I hope only temporarily) on the novel she wrote about these people and this world. 
     "It started to seem too much like a lesson in history," she told me, "as if I had too much of an agenda," she said. "Do people understand what that war was about?" she asked me. Speaking for myself, no, not really, but on the other hand, yes, of course.
     What prompted me to take up this topic this week was a story I heard on NPR a few weeks ago. The story started out by saying that 15 years after the war, Sarajevo appears to be a city healed. But the reality of the region is that ethnic divisions remain.
Education, which should foster a multicultural society, has instead been manipulated by each ethnic group. There are separate education ministries, and each draws up its own ethnically based curricula and textbooks.
The part of the story that struck me most deeply was this:
In many towns and villages, few refugees displaced during the war have gone back to their homes. More and more young people are segregated: They've never met anyone from the other two ethnic communities. . . .
Says organizer Emin Mahmutovic, "Young people, they are starting to think that ethnic divisions are normal."
 One thing I like about writing this blog is that I don't need to come to any conclusions. I can do with this material whatever I want, including simply putting it out there. While reading about Bosnia, however, I did learn that during the war, this beautiful bridge in Mostar was destroyed. 
It has since been rebuilt, but what could be more metaphorical than a bridge destroyed? And what could be more normal (at least for me) than worrying about what normal can or should be.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Through the Back Door

I've met a number of people because of my book. Some I have met at readings, and in a post-to-come I will tell about some of them and the stories they have told me. Others I have met via email--that is, people who have written after or while reading my novel because they have been moved by it or appreciated it or wanted to point out errors. One of the people who wrote to me (who signs in here as rasirds) lived for many years in Detroit (but does no longer) and has become a regular reader and commenter on this blog, and I thank you/her very much for your/her interest and participation. 
     Another person who emailed me, Marcy Feldman, still lives in the Detroit area and is planning to host a book event for me when I visit in November. She is an extremely dynamic and socially conscious person, and she heads an alumni association of people who attended her Detroit elementary school. This group raises money and provides many other kinds of much-needed enrichments and services to the students and families of this neighborhood school.
     One of the benefits of heading this alumni association is that Marcy has managed to keep in touch with many people from her past and get to know them as adults. Which leads to the subject of the post: the back door.
     Through Marcy, I heard this story from Lynn, a member of the alumni association who no longer lives in Detroit. Lynn kindly gave permission for me to retell it.
     When Lynn, who is African American, was a little girl, a Jewish friend of hers (let's call her X) invited Lynn to come over after school to work on a school project. As Lynn and X came up X's walk, however, an African-American woman--the "maid"--appeared at the front door.  She studied Lynn very carefully, held the door open for X, then turned her attention to Lynn and said, "Where you think you goin'? You need to go to the back door."
     Here's what Lynn says: "Later that evening when I was dropped at my house, my mom was anxiously waiting to hear about my first study date.  I told her what happened, and still today, I can remember the look of pain and horror on her face."

We can only imagine what X made of this. And we can only wonder whether X's mother knew about this, and if she did, what she would have said. And we can only imagine the damage that must have been done to the "maid" and/or her fears about her job and/or her place in the home of X's family to inflict this kind of treatment and humiliation on a little girl who had been invited to this home. And, certainly, we can all quietly sit with our own painful musings about the impact of this incident on Lynn all those years ago. 
     Because Marcy has rallied her fellow alumni, she has also had the privilege to revive this relationship with Lynn, and the two women have made it possible for me to tell you this story. In a follow-up email, Lynn said that she thought this must have been a very common experience for African-American children. This makes me realize how little I knew about the many black children (we used the label Negro back then) I went to school with and what I might hear if any of them stepped through time into my current life.