Author Archives: deemallon

Windy cold

Windy and cold today and so, so many sirens in Newton. Siren after siren. I helped a friend with a small garden this morning and came home, bathed, and slept.

I posted this quilt on Instagram saying I was going to fill in the grid with colored threads. So many people said they loved it as is (surprised me honestly) that I guess I’ll trim and finish, as is. We don’t want to create by committee but sometimes the judgment of others is useful.

Pages of the daily kind remaining blank lately. Why? Fingernails crescents of dirt. Perennial divisions going apace.

But, here’s a collage from yesterday. I was thinking about fearless women, about Colorado, and about meat.

I had just read a N.Y. Times opinion piece examining the awful conditions of the meat processing plants and meat production’s extraordinary cost to the environment.

If the article is behind a firewall, here at least is an excerpt:

We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly. This is not a refutable perspective, but a banal truism. Whether they become Whoppers or boutique grass-fed steaks, cows produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gas. If cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

Off to the ballet?

Not heading out to the the ballet (who is?), this little arts-enthusiast is off to Connecticut.

I can tell I underpriced her because I’m having trouble letting her go. She’s one of my favorites.

A big gardening day here today. I was supposed to help a friend with her foundation beds earlier, but neither vehicle will start.

Note to self: once charged, be sure to drive each vehicle once a week!

Walking over at the school the other day, two things made me pause. The first was ANOTHER dead bird.

The other was the height of a tree, which I sourced, fund-raised to purchase, and planted back in the day. It was four feet high back then. If you squint you can see the dead robin on the sidewalk where the path turns.

It’s too close to the building. A newbie mistake. Still, it’s lovely.

I thought it was a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, but now I’m not sure.

Fiction: Pandemic Day 70 or so

“I’ll take it!” she says smoothing her skirt, meaning all of it: the dispensations of season, the failures of faith and even the fear crashing through the pores. She sips her first cup of coffee as if it were a usual day in a usual spring when it was anything but.

The body bags, faux and real, pile up — some in the basements of overwhelmed funeral homes, yesterday on the steps of City Halls all over the country, overseen by a sober enactor wearing the black robes of the Grim Reaper, holding the scythe at this side, a symbol we all understand.

The refrigerator trucks on Long Island and Manhattan may be fewer now, but the peripatetic Reaper still makes his rounds. You want to read The Plague, you don’t want to read The Plague. You want to know how many the Black Death killed. You don’t want to know how many.

What you really want is to sink into a silence so vast it encompasses all, not just the tectonic plates of our Republic colliding, shattering, heaving up obstructive mountain ranges that dwarf the Rockies, but also galaxies minding their own sparkling business and tree toads calling out the melodies of spring, impervious to our need.

She smooths her skirt, examining her calves, shaved at last, as sure a sign of spring as any.

The TV goes on. The TV goes off. Sometimes the mere introduction of the pundits is enough to make her click and run. Outdoors offers its usual blessings — sun drops vigorous in their social bunching, ferns already unfurled and waving, Solomon’s Seal arching in the shade and dimpling the shadows with their delicate white bells.

But it, the outdoors, offers risk as well. That fucking 20-something female jogger you swore you would yell at or trip but did neither this morning. Even at just 4 1/2 feet away, the jogger didn’t notice your hot glare and how could she, head downturned, scrolling at her phone with one finger, earbuds in. Need I say more?

The morning sun offers its own rewards, especially after a dank and dreary March and a freezing April, months when the weather seemed determined to conspire with the catastrophes of contagion.

She glances heavenward at the rust colored leaves of the 250 year old beech. How lovely the contrast with the maple! As if Nature planned it for her pleasure. Nature planned what? Surely a virulent virus is within Nature’s purview as well? If only the ancient beech could speak to her in a way she could understand — more deeply, that is, than the beauty on offer for any and all to see.

The stories pile up with the bodies. Children’s blood pressure tanking, their little bodies on the verge of heart failure. Fathers dying alone. Sisters, cousins, wives grieving somewhere else.

“There’s no wishing our way out of this one,” she thinks, but what the powers that be do collides so violently with reality it might as well be wishing. “We wish it was over. We wish it was safe to ride on busses and trains again.We wish putting bacon on your plate didn’t require human sacrifice.” So much wishing! It’s nearly a surprise that they don’t attend press briefings wearing pink boas and rainbow glitter.

How is it that wishing gains the traction and force of an avalanche, the weight of an anvil?

If only we were six, she couldn’t help but snicker, watching the cliff fall out from under Wile E. Coyote, knowing he’d spring back to life in the next frame to find yet another way for his idiocy to get him killed. How contained that idiocy was! So without the power to harm a single hair on a single head of a single child mesmerized and laughing in front of the screen. Unlike now, when idiocy lurks and thieves and coalesces and twists itself into tornadic destructive power.

Spring reminds us of the uses of patience, the thrall of cycles, of elements whose duration outlasts our simple, narrow lives. Like that exalted beech tree, here before Emancipation, here during the Spanish flu and the Great Depression and Vietnam — stalwart, soaking up sunlight, season in and season out.

Is that second, necessary cup of coffee ready at last? When she stands, she steps into her own shadow. Inside, a stay-at-home husband discusses pressure. How to ramp it up, how to release it, how to apply its force to productivity. Who knew engineers spoke in such a sexy jargon?

Lessons are all around, she thinks, as the dog looks at her with his liquid eyes of need, wanting her to yet again fling treats around the backyard and command, “Find it!”

***

The prompt from Thursday class teacher was the following poem.

Prompt – taking something apart

Prompt: Write about a character taking something apart

It’s considered “cheating” to explain one’s writing in advance because the writing is supposed to stand on its own. I’m gonna do it anyway.

If a second novel is harder to write (whether the first one bombs or succeeds), it might be wise to have a second subject on deck and maybe even some rough notes before finishing the first.

Most of the initial scenes in the piece of historic fiction I’m now editing came in response to prompts. It’s incredible how participating in an AWA class over time can produce a novel.

Lately, I’ve been “getting” scenes of a family living in Massachusetts in the 1970’s. Closer to home in every respect. No research necessary (except maybe for headlines and number one hit songs). No worries about whether or not it is my story to tell.

What follows is a narrator ‘taking apart’ those initial efforts. Believe it or not, it was fun to write.

Listen, listen. You can’t have a character called Bernadette and one called Bridgette. They’re too much the same, even though it might be common to have certain sounds in a family, like yours — K_____y, D____y, and Finny.  And switching out the sex of the oldest child in this fictional family might be interesting to you and maybe even essential in creating distance from your older sister — a person who, after all, had been called not by one or two people but by several, “a monster” —  but not interesting to others. Have you pondered the gender change enough to make Robert credible? How would behaviors that were high risk for a 22 year old woman, for instance, translate to a 22 year old man? They’re overlapping but not congruent, especially when it comes to sex. Also, aggressive belligerence goes one way in a female body and another way in a male body. Have you considered adding: drunken brawls and late night visits to the ER? Instead of lawsuits for eviction and reckless driving, there might be criminal charges of assault and battery.  In other words, by being male, this character would be softened and teased in some regards and badly amped up in others.

And listen, if Maeve is 17, she has to be 17. She can’t go having experiences from her late 20’s. Compression for the sake of a story is one thing, credibility is another.

Start over. A different place. A different family. Make them Polish instead of Irish. Plunk them near Lake Oswego instead of in the Berkshires. I mean, my god, work a little.

The mother could be a drunk instead of the father and let’s make her a low functioning alcoholic instead of a high functioning one. Give the father a shovel instead of a briefcase. Now we’re talking. It’s a miracle if a kid gets to college, not utterly expected and paid for. The failure of birth control instead of its careful insertion. Instead of zero abortions, how about five? And one baby born out of wedlock. The rebellious antics of middle class kids might just bore the shit out of any audience you can name.

Unless you make one of them a terrorist, like Roth did in “American Pastoral.” Then, of course, you’d go back to making them Irish. What is it about the Irish and bombs, anyway? There are MacVeighs on your father’s side, a fact that of course (of course!) led your sister to assert familial ties to the Oklahoma bomber. But there was reputedly a murderer somewhere out west (in the Yukon? Alaska?) during the Gold Rush. Probably called Kevin. Maybe even Mallon. Or was he the victim?

I’ll say this flat out. Do. Not. Write. About. The. Loss. of a Child. Colum McCann’s character losing a son to the IRA in “TransAtlantic.” John Irving’s parents losing TWO children in “A Widow for One Year.” You do not need to spend time there. Better the fucking self-destructive foibles of teenagers who were given most things, than that.

Given most things, including a genetic inclination toward violence and drink.

Mary Mallon. Typhoid Mary. Reading about her is like reading a character study of any number of your relatives. No problem believing genetic links there! A symptom-free, disease vector. A servant in the kitchen. She stuck to her guns, boy! She wasn’t the problem (YOU’RE THE PROBLEM!). Slamming the door on the way out, you imagine, flinging down her apron in rage. Circulating from one kitchen to the next. Cough. Cough. How do you like the soup? Forcing one to wonder, was this vicious disregard for others or blinding belligerence? Does it matter to the dead?

And by the way, winning the lottery a plot does not make. Shit has to HAPPEN. And one thing that happens has to lead to another thing that happens. Even in character-driven fiction, this is true. Forget about striving to articulate how a character’s cluster fuck of impairments stung and slashed at a younger sibling. You might care about capturing the full toxic flavor of it, and no one else. See? Nothing happening.

Throw out those rough beginnings. I beseech you to make an outline. Instead of writing tangled knots, like fabric coming out of the drier in a clump, it’ll be like hanging ribbons of color off a tree — branches there already, waiting for adornment.

Day 68

Rereading writing from my teaching notebook this afternoon. Themes emerge. Below are three excerpts.

But first, some wisdom from Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life.”

She advocates writing about what most interests us, possibly a thing no one else could write but us. She counsels, like Jude does actually, to give it all away.

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

I’m not suggesting the paragraphs below meet that level of urgency but here they are anyway.

2/20 Prompt: something about Going Big

In the fraught days between impeachment and acquittal, women in black hold large letters spelling REMOVE TRUMP, protesting in silence because otherwise they might be arrested. They walk in repetitive loops as if enacting a strange monastic ritual or like an orderly colony of ants, because to be still, they’re told, is an impermissible barricade of the Senate halls and could also result in arrest.

The darkest hour might be before the dawn, but it’s also true that things die. Even Republics.

Heroes come, rise up, and are crucified, goes one story. Now all my heroines shout and shout again: “NO ONE IS COMING TO SAVE YOU. There is only us.”

On good days, this inspires. On bad days, a silent and sour question emerges: “Oh yeah? And what are WE going to do?”

2/20 Prompt: “Finally, you wonder, why does Gaia tolerate all this?”

How quickly we run into our obstinate, unyielding consumptive need! Maybe Gaia, being a goddess and all, doesn’t care if we make it as a species. Maybe Gaia doesn’t care if earth remains livable for human beings, either.

That’s kind of like what Ram Dass said that time he shared the stage with someone calling herself a visionary Christian, someone passionately committed to our survival, to our waking up to the nature of our self-destruction. Correct course! Before it’s too late! Ram Dass sat there, so alive, so himself, and asked the question right out: “Why should I be invested in our survival? In one result over another?”

4/20 Prompt: speak as a part of the body — I chose spine

We prepare for darkness, the dust to dust part. Such preparations are not morbid. In fact, they are joyous. How lovely to breathe. How lovely to breathe knowing one day you will not. We crumble and compress on our way to the grave. Such is the way of all structures, not just skeletons, but empires and republics.

Did it ever occur to you that much of your daily agonies arise from wanting, desperately wanting, our Republic to survive?

Through the woods to the mall

We walked through Houghton Place which used to be called The Hamlet to get to Webster Woods. At the trail head, I asked, “Which way do you want to go?”

K responded, “Where do you want to go?”

I pointed decisively to the left.

That’s how it goes sometimes.

We threaded through the trees and came upon a man sitting by the pond making the most wonderful melodies.

Climbing up a berm, the empty mall came into view, giving off a spooky vibe. We think the tent and storage units go with Covid19 testing.

It appears that this poor creature was killed mid-meal.

Then we saw a tree offering up an example of extraordinary adaptability.

It’s been a quiet day. I didn’t have enough energy to apply to any of my projects but did make five more masks. That makes 78. So far, the number of masks-made is staying ahead of the number of days At Home (68).

We’re watching Longmire. Again. This is the equivalent of my mother-in-law watching old Gunsmoke episodes. There’s drama but I’ve seen it before and can rest in it somehow. I really like the characters, too.

What shows do you watch for rest?

I could really use a new season of The Great British Baking Show.

Day 65, Crosses, and Thomas Cromwell

Digital collages made this week with CROSS motif. Day 65

Reading second Mantel book in Wolf Hall series. Thank you Joanne for the reminder. Hilary Mantel is among my top ten, maybe even top five, writers alive. Colum McCann is another. I’d have to think about who else.

These days TV feels like a slog and sewing does too. So how great to be filling my head with absolutely incredible historic fiction.

These collages have extra impact if you know the sources — kind of how fabric provenance can lend energy to cloth work.

The pentangle you may recognize as the wooden box my sister used to keep her Tarot cards in. The favorite ones. The small hanging quilt was made in Assisi and was photographed there. The punched tin was photographed at the Cathedral of San Rufino, also Assisi. I think you confess your sins through it.

The open doorway is lost to me for now but the cross visible on the lower right and the nearby brick wall are in Charleston, right across from St. Philip’s Church. That structure and some of the graves were there in Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s day.

Going to consult with a friend about her garden. She wants to pay me. I’m a little wary of my commitment reflex right now, especially with us on the verge of a major backyard renovation. I kinda want to do it, though.

Two scenes from Coronavirus Life:

  • Neighbors held a Bat Mitzvah on the front lawn just down the street. When K passed, the girl was reading her Torah portion behind a six foot table — the kind you set up for a yard sale.
  • I cut K’s hair today and did a fine job. Better than adequate. I was nervous because his hair is very fine. Mistakes show. I can’t tell you how many times he’s come home with a botch job from the barber’s. “It’s great,” says K. “You did a really great job!”