Kathryn and Me

Over the weekend, I engaged in a heavy dose of self-torture by reading about literary genius, Jonathan Franzen, and how he came to be so god-like to book critics. This followed with a dream in which I met Franzen, who refused to speak to me HDU_Lovebecause he was disgusted with my writing.  It was, of course, a metaphor for my secret fear about my own work.

On productive days, I am happy with my progress, the shape of my story coming to me with consistent pieces.  On unproductive days, I question what to write next or is it time to print it all out and start massaging, or worse: the story doesn’t make any sense and I need serious guidance with pulling it all together.

I used to think that my greatest fear was that I’d get to the end of this writing sabbatical and have an unfinished novel.  After being snubbed by Franzen-in-my-dream, I realize that writing a mediocre book would harm my spirit more.  So I decided not to do that — to write a crappy book.

Then I read about Franzen’s partner and fellow writer, Kathryn Chetkovich, who wrote a beautiful essay a few years after Franzen’s first bestseller, The Corrections, sold over 3 million copies. The memoir essay, “Envy,” haunts in its honesty as Chetkovich describes living under those victorious years with Franzen while she plugged along, her feeble attempts to finish a book in the overwhelming shadow of her lover’s success. Reading Chetkovich helped me to understand that there would be something far grosser than to write a substandard novel: to live with Jonathan Franzen while I wrote it. Writing rumor has it that Franzen is less prickly than he used to be, now that the world has acknowledged his literati greatness, but the thought of having him as a live-in critic would be enough to make me break my no-alcohol-for-Lent vow. So I’m not going to do that either — go live with Jonathan Franzen.

I will never be a Franzen.  I would need to redo childhood, probably attend a different school system; read more books, read the right books, not that that wouldn’t be fantastic but it’s not reality. I can be a better writer than I am today, though. I’ve seen improvements in my own work over the last four years before I hit the road and opened the sabbatical up to more than only writing.

That enigma of a story, “From Down Under,” (renamed In The Land of Oz) which I began in late 2014 is already being reshaped since I kicked off my writing journey.  I am doing most days what I set out to do until I compare myself to great novelists, or other non-Franzen writers, ones whose content is not in the same genre as mine or even literary fiction at all. But I compare.  I compare because they’ve finished and I haven’t. They’ve published and I haven’t. They did what they set out to do, and I’m still a work in progress.

So I pull inward, reminding myself that Rosemary-time is not Franzen-time, and I let go. I let go of Jonathan Franzen and allow Kathryn Chetkovich to be my guide. Sometimes I spend more than six hours a day with the novel (Franzen), but sometimes significantly less, and yes, sometimes no actual writing at all but pondering and thinking and reading (Kathryn), always the reading of those writers I would be honored to emulate.

On this made-up adventure-by-highway, purposefully solo if one isn’t counting the cat, I continue to do my best to address those hidden fears and unacknowledged insecurities so that they are not barriers but motivators, pushing me into a realm of doing what I do not already know how to do but doing it anyway.  Most of all, and this is the best part, I am humbly reminded of why I am writing in the first place:  Because I live for the flow of the words and with each sentence that I write, especially the run-on ones, I am able to love my husband all over again.

If Kathryn can live with Jonathan and still produce the lovely essay, “Envy,” and eventually write two books on her own — in the face of Franzen’s fifth novel and second blockbuster, Freedom — then this soothes my yet-to-be-published self.  And I thank her, I thank Kathryn, for reminding me that all writers struggle, that to be a better writer, one must be willing to put in the work, even if you’re living with Jonathan Franzen.

Kathryn Chetkovich’s essay, “Envy,” published in 2003.  Truly touching:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/22/extract

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Out of Dixie and into the Hand

Gatita helping me to read my handwritten directions. She's very old school.

Gatita helping me to read my handwritten directions. She’s very old school.

My first night in Michigan, I had a dream in which I took the same roller coaster ride over and over and over again. A friend of Hook’s was at the festival with me, which I’ve learned from previous dreams usually means that Allan is somewhere nearby.

In the last months of Hook’s life, this same friend told me that he’d had a dream in which all three of us were living together in a house. In his dream, the landlord of the house was being mean to Hook and me, bossing us around. The friend said it was pissing him off how Hook and I were being treated, but that neither of us would say anything, that we just took whatever the landlord dished out. The friend’s dream, of course, was symbolic of living with a terminal illness: The house, Allan’s body; The landlord, the cancer.  This friend was with us when Hook took his last breath, so it has never surprised me when he and Allan show up in my dreams together.

In my sleep state, our friend gave me a quizzical look as if to ask why I kept getting on the roller coaster. I felt confused, because until I saw him, I hadn’t realized that that was what I was doing. There was no memory of the actual rides, only standing still on the platform afterwards and a feeling of exhilaration, each greater than the last. When I turned around to try and explain, the friend was gone and I saw only “210” appear in large, block white numbers, the size of a billboard. The numbers didn’t flash but held steady, not in the sky but in the air, off to my left.  When I woke up, I thought, What does 210 mean? Then I remembered, somewhat distressed that I could have forgotten even for a second: 210 is 2:10; 2:10 was the time of Hook’s death, or the time of his flying away, the moment of his freedom, the moment of ours, depending on how one interprets it.

Out of Dixie

I have left Dixieland and am now residing in the Hand state. If I am on an amusement ride of any kind, it is one made up of highway driving and short-term rental living.  I was not sad to leave the Outer Banks, but I wished more than once that there was a way to box up the ocean, the same way I boxed up nine containers of Quahog, Whelk, Clam, Oyster, and Wampum shells. Of course, the only box I really needed was the litter box which I washed out with soap and water then put inside a plastic bag and stored away for the drive.

Cats can hold their urine and feces for up to 24 hours. Gatita had used the litter box only an hour before our drive began. That first day, our trip was a simple 3.5 hours from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina into Kilmarnock, Virginia — from Dixie to Dixier – to spend time with some of Hook’s family. Fifteen minutes after I’d merged onto our first highway, Gatita began to circle the inside of the Jeep, beginning with her bed (the passenger seat) then my lap, then the entire length and width of the back area of the truck before returning to her bed. She walked this circumference several times before making what I knew immediately was her bathroom cry. She paused over the passenger seat and began urinating as I said “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god”.   Then, she walked over the console to stand on my thighs, arching her back and squeezing her butt muscles so that she could drop four, dry cat turds onto my lap. I did the only thing I could do – I petted with my free hand and soothed with my voice, reassuring her that we wouldn’t drive forever.

At the first exit, I pulled off and found a store that sold club soda and corn starch, allowing the feces to roll down my pant legs as I stepped out of the Jeep.  After I used paper towels to soak up the urine, I poured club soda over the wet area then generously applied corn starch. If you’re a cat owner, this is the one true solution to pulling up the yellow of the urine while simultaneously neutralizing the smell.  After I changed out of my poop pants, Gatita spent most of that first driving day asleep on my lap which is all she ever really wants anyway. After two days, we left Virginia and Hook’s family and began our trek up north to Michigan and to my family. I secured a litter box in the back of the Jeep which Gatita used several times, all of them for feces gifts that dropped from her kitty bunghole which faced the Pennsylvania and Ohio drivers traveling behind us at 70 miles per hour on the tollways.

Pure Michigan

Sanford is northwest of Midland.

The state of Michigan, sometimes referred to as the state shaped like a mitten, sometimes the Hand state. Temporarily, I’m living in Midland with one sister living in Sanford and another living in Saginaw. Although Sanford is not on the map, it is northwest of Midland.

Gatita and I arrived Michigan on December 22nd with dates and days immediately melding into a holiday fugue so that even knowledge of the exact hour became a mystery. I grew up in the Eastern Time Zone, lived in Michigan for the first 23 years of my life. I am by birth a Michigander, a girl from the Midwest, someone who enjoys board games and euchre.  I have traveled fourteen countries, driven European-style in one of them. I read maps, get around with little effort on other continents, but I come home to the Hand state and immediately lose all sense of direction. It has taken me 36 driving years to understand that I rely solely on comfort and awareness to navigate my home state.  I only know where to turn via landmarks or routes driven a thousand times in the past, familiarities that take a while to return when I’ve been away too long or when the visual marker has disappeared and been replaced by shiny, newer versions that appear when a state begins to prosper again. Last week, I found getting lost amusing. This week, I find it frustrating. By next week, I hope to find it educational.

Before leaving North Carolina for Michigan, I set up a short term rental in Midland, a halfway city between both of my sisters’ homes – one in Saginaw, one in Sanford. It was the only efficiency I could find that was fully furnished, accepted a cat, and would allow me to pay by the week before committing further. I was desperate to get Gatita onto steady ground so I ignored the duct tape holding down the carpeted entrance. By the next morning, I could distinguish the smells of stale smoke and old grease as I manhandled my Murphy bed, a mattress that springs out from a paneled wall at night then slips back into the wall in the morning, revealing a sofa underneath. Odd smells aside, the efficiency is all very retro and That Girl, and it hosts a heating unit that could warm up Alaska.

Before the first snow fell, I watched from a writing desk as the tall pine cone trees, always sturdy regardless of freezing temperatures, shook with the wind while some needles fell to the ground. The earthy smell that comes from these evergreens remains vibrant throughout the winter, almost as a reminder to humans that this is what we’re supposed to do as well.

For the last two years, I have avoided holidays with my Texas family and any semblance to what Hook and I had celebrated together. Here in Michigan, I was able to let go of Hook’s absence during the Christmas days of festivities, remaining centered through it all.  When sadness did finally come, it wasn’t until I was alone with Gatita, the one traveling companion I never wanted yet clearly need on this journey.

I’m in the midst of setting up new, temporary digs in Michigan, while preparing to welcome in the New Year.  I am indeed on an adventurous ride of sorts, but it is one of my own choosing and creation, the direction and purpose decided solely by me, with a quirky scientist guiding my every turn.  Even the snow in Michigan contributes to this revealing-itself-along-the-way sabbatical.

For now, Gatita and I are warm and safe and looking forward to 2016.

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