"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue Moon




As the year comes to a close I must post one final missive in 2009. Tonight there will be a blue moon, an astrological phenomenon. The term "blue moon" generally refers to the second full moon in a month and occurs just once every 2.7 years. But the last blue moon to shine on New Year’s Eve was 19 years ago, in 1990. So, you could say that a blue moon on New Year’s Eve happens only once in a great while. While I’m not one for resolutions, one can’t help but think it a good time for a fresh start, on a personal level and on a national level. “America needs a break,” a friend at work said. And I agree. It’s once in a blue moon, and America deserves a break. Of course, he could have been referring to another invasive, humiliating, random drug test Americans are being increasingly subjected to. So, yes, Americans need a break. And I think we are all looking forward to a better decade ahead.

I already like the sound of 2010. Off years bother me. I like even numbers, colors that match, and straight rows. In the year two thousand and ten, I’m giving away the rest of my cookies and pulling out my yoga mat. I’m going to earn my Superior Scribbler award from Tricia O’Brien (thanks Tricia!) and I will pass it along after serious thought. I will also pass on my Humane Blog award from Andrea Cremer in the coming year. It’s only once in a blue moon one receives such honors. We don’t pass these out like cupcakes . . . do we?

I am thankful for all my new blogger friends. I am thankful for my new Christmas books—A Prayer For Owen Meany, Men Who Stare at Goats, A History of Love, and Gathering Blue, and—from one who knows me well—a vintage copy of early poems from the voice of a generation, The Lords and the New Creatures, by Jim Morrison....

"What sacrifice, at what price can the city be born?"


He was an environmentalist before his time- "What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister?" And I think it amazing that someone had those thoughts in the sixties with everything else that was going on.

But here we are on the eve of 2010, and I’m thankful for heat and blankets and cranberry daiquiris and people with whom to share them. I’m thankful for a chance at a Blue Moon. May the new year bring peace to the world and reward to all those who work hard and do good things.

So here's to all of you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Like Phone Tag Only More Fun

There’s this thing going around the blogosphere called Blog Tag and I’m it. Jean Oram tagged me before I could duck, and now I get to tell you a few things about myself. I’ve procrastinated long enough so here we go.

1) What's the last thing you wrote? What's the first thing you wrote that you still have?

The last thing I wrote was a short story which might be the foundation for a novel.

The first thing I wrote was a poem for children about farm animals; somewhat embarrassing now.



2) Write poetry?

Oh, yes, (see above) long before I started writing novels. I love structured poetry and had the most fun writing a villanelle for a college course . . ."She bought a sarong in Venice, where everyone is beautiful"

I like the power of haiku, the challenge of the sestina and the immortal sonnet but sometimes a subject calls for free verse.



3) Angsty poetry?

Oh, yeah. But hopefully it’s tucked away where no one will ever read it.


4) Favorite genre of writing?

I like to write about serious themes that inspire passion, layered with intrigue and sexual tension for emotional impact.

5) Most annoying character you've ever created?

The spoiled city girl who slept around and drove a Smart car.


6) Best plot you've ever created?

How a body is disposed of organically and the murder weapon is entombed under water.


7) Coolest plot twist you've ever created?

When the bad guy surprisingly shows up in a place where a man can just disappear.


8) How often do you get writer's block?

I really don’t get writer's block. Lack of time is my block.


9) Write fan fiction?

No.


10) Do you type or write by hand?

I type everything on my laptop unless I’m not at home, then it’s in a journal or on a bar napkin, or if a flash of inspiration strikes while driving, I write on a notepad or the palm of my hand while I steer with my knees. (I really do that. Don't you?)


11) Do you save everything you write?

Yes, I even have the first draft of my first novel. And early poems that make me cringe now. I’m funny about that. Boxes under my bed . . . in the closet. . .


12) Do you ever go back to an idea after you've abandoned it?

I haven't yet.


13) What's your favorite thing you've ever written?

My #1 novel which is in the final stage of revision.


14) What's everyone else's favorite story you've written?

The same.


15) Ever written romance or angsty teen drama?

I love a good sex scene but I’ve never written a strictly romance novel per se, but my stories always have a hint of romance. Angsty teen stuff? Maybe. I think most great novels have a romantic relationship at the core of the story and many times the climax is the romantic payoff.


16) What's your favorite setting for your characters?

In the bedroom! Seriously, it’s where they are most comfortable. It might be a ship at sea or a cabin in the woods in the north country, or night fishing with friends on the big lake, or skinny dipping in a pond.


17) How many writing projects are you working on right now?

Editing the #1 novel (getting the word count down) and finishing up the first draft on a second novel. And always poetry bubbling beneath the surface of every situation I encounter.


18) Have you ever won an award for your writing?

Yes. I’ve received awards for my poetry.


19) What are your five favorite words?

Cozy. . . because it’s an onomatopoetic word. (The sound of it imitates its meaning.)

Melancholy . . . because it too unites sound with sense, plus it’s a downright beautiful word.

Chocolate . . . no reason necessary.

Comfortable . . . because I like the way if rolls off the tongue.

Frock . . . because it reminds me of my grandmother.



20) What character have you created that is most like yourself?

I suppose the female protagonist in #1 novel shares some personality traits with me. But she is braver and more daring.


21) Where do you get your ideas for your characters?

From my past and from my imagination.


22) Do you ever write based on your dreams?

No.


23) Do you favor happy endings?

Let’s just say I want some modicum of hope at the end. Ambiguity is okay. The Giver is a good example of that. A bad ending is so unsatisfying. As a reader it makes me feel cheated to have a novel end dismally after having invested so much time in it. I personally don't want to do that to my readers, and I try to be generous and empathetic with my characters. I don't want or expect happily-ever-after but one can only take so much Shakespearean tragedy.

24) Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?

Absolutely. To do otherwise is lazy.

25) Does music help you write?

Yes, depending on what I’m writing, music can actually inspire. When I was writing my first novel, I bought every Doors CD I could get my hands on and cranked it up.

26) Quote something you've written. Whatever pops in your head.

“Everyone was afraid of him, but not her father, which made her proud but didn’t give her courage.”


OK, I've bared my soul. Nah, it wasn't that bad (nothing like running naked to the mailbox). Hope I didn’t bore you. I could’ve kept my answers shorter but that felt like cheating. Now it’s my turn to pass along this opportunity and I’m tagging Rebecca Bush. Rebecca has a beautiful blog that I've been following as long as I've been blogging. And one more, C.M. Jackson, another prolific writer who manages a great blog. If you haven't already done so, check them out. I think I'm supposed to tag three people so I might add another victim if I can catch them.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And The Ones That Mother Gives You Don't Do Anything At All. . .


“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.” Thus begins The Giver, Lois Lowry’s Newberry award novel about a futuristic world of fragile perfection where there is no pain or suffering, no hunger or cold . . . no pleasure, color, or choices to be made.

During Banned Books week I made a commitment to read as many banned and challenged books over the next year as I could. I’ve recently finished The Giver, and I have Jemi Fraser, writer and teacher of the talented and gifted and Jean Oram, writer and chat moderator over at Agent Query here to discuss this complicated, brilliant novel about what it means to be human and how easily we can be molded and conditioned into “sameness”.

All memories of the past are retained for the community in one person, the Giver. He appears very old, but is he really that old, or is it just that the burden of memory has aged him? At the beginning of the book he is about to be rid of some of these burdensome memories. At the age of twelve Jonas is singled out to be the new Receiver. Do you think Jonas’s relationship with the Giver is dangerous after what happened to Rosemary, the prior “receiver”?

JEAN... I kind of wondered about that, too. Has the burden of all that knowledge prematurely aged him? Or is he actually that old?

JEMI...I think the memories have aged him, although he must be middle aged at least. It takes years for him to become the receiver, then years to do it before training Rosemary 10 years before. I don't know if the relationship is dangerous or not - Receivers have been doing this for generations. But because both Jonas & the Giver are questioning the status quo it becomes dangerous for both of them.

JEAN... It is definitely dangerous for Jonas's innocence and naivety. I did get the impression that the Giver had learned his lessons with Rosemary and that he was a lot more careful with Jonas. I didn't fear that the same thing would happen to Jonas, although it did seem that Jonas had fears that he would follow Rosemary.

The death of Rosemary is never really explored but she evidently asked to be “released” and then injected herself. The Giver watched. She was his daughter. But was she his biological daughter? If so, how could that have been possible?

JEAN... I doubted that he was her biological daughter. I think in a way, everyone was family and everyone was biologically connected, but I didn't get the impression that she was a direct descendant. They never did say where they got the males for reproduction though, did they? He didn't take his pills--maybe he's everyone's father. :)

JEMI... I think the eye colour strain is very dominant in the genes. Because they all have similar eyes, they probably are all related, although that's never really explained. We also don't know how the birthmothers are impregnated - I would assume sperm donors because of the pills to eliminate the stirrings. In that case, they could assume Rosemary is his daughter & Jonas is his son.

What was the meaning of the opening flashback when the jet overflew the community? What is this greater power that everyone is afraid of? Something or someone holds sway over the community. Does the community itself have a military? It seems they had the capability to shoot the fighter jet down, but the Giver advised them to wait.

JEMI... I think the opening was a way to set the scene - make it obvious from the beginning how different this society is from ours. My students always look around at each other for reactions when I read that part. They're wondering if it's just them realizing it's different. I think they are afraid because it is against a major rule - and they worry the status quo is being changed -jets would be a rarity. They have advanced technology, but there would be very few trained to build/fix etc. They've eschewed it to go to sameness. I don't believe the community has a military at all - war is too far removed. But there is never a satisfactory explanation for why they have planes at all.

JEAN... I think the community feels vulnerable. There is a primitive fear and awareness--an instinct that is still alive--to protect the ones they care for. I think there is also a natural reaction to lash out at things we don't understand. And things that we don't understand can feel threatening.

The sterile nightly conversations at Jonas’s dinner table and the “sharing of feelings” really irritated me. I wanted to reach across the table and shake them. I suppose this was Lowry’s intent, that we would realize how important it is to the human psyche to have real emotions. To feel real feelings. My impression of the family unit was that the mother is the enforcer…should father ever slip she’d have his head. What do you think? They don’t use the word love. “Do you love me?” asks Jonas at one point. Jonas’s mother corrects him. “It is much better to ask, do you enjoy me. Yes,” she says, “I enjoy you.” Why is it so important for the community to have what they call “precision of language”?

JEAN... I think if people become too real or feel too much, then things have the capacity to get messy. They also are not allowed to touch, something that is a basic human need. It builds connections, too. If they are to create real, deep, meaningful connections, then everything could come down like a house of cards. People might question things. Couples may fight to stay together instead of be separated and placed in the home for the old.

JEMI... There is no reason for love in their society. The parents do what they do to produce capable citizens. They are just following community expectations. Jonas' first experience of love is through the Christmas memory. All real emotions are eliminated because of their desire for sameness. They must have wanted safety in order to choose sameness. Emotions aren't safe, so they've been eliminated. The rituals are to ensure the children grow up and fit in, to ensure their reactions are acceptable.

JEAN... As for language, emotion is difficult to put into precise language. Just look at any little kid. They know happy, sad, angry. But try something more fuzzy like self-conscious, or even embarrassed. I would argue that 'love' is actually, a rather general word in the English language. For example: I loved that movie. I love chai tea. I love it when snowflakes fall on my tongue. I love you. Those are all different contexts for love, and we feel different degrees of emotion in those contexts. It isn't precise. True emotions often aren't. I think that keeping language precise is way to keep the citizens in their numb boxes, to keep them from those confusing emotions that cannot be fully (precisely) expressed.


When the first receiver (Rosemary) died and memories were released into the community, the Giver called it chaos before the memories were assimilated. What I wondered is that if one, say Jonas’s father, received memories, even fleetingly, then how could he not retain some of that knowledge about death and pain and sex and all those things related to the human experience?

JEAN... Good question. I have no idea, because The Giver didn't get them back. You would think they'd have retained some of it.

JEMI... They wouldn't retain them because they didn't want them. They would pretend they didn't exist. They would have been terrified of anything causing them to feel. They would have been desperate to return to sameness. Remember Jonas' memories of colour take a long time before they become permanent. One memory isn't anywhere near enough. I think it would be like understanding a small phrase of an foreign language, but having no context, no way to interpret it. You'd have a very slim chance of remembering it for long at all. These people are cowards. They would push the memories away as quickly as they could. One of their greatest worries is that they won't be like the others. They want to be part of the whole, and you can't if you're unique. Every ritual is geared towards being like everyone else.


Imagine how different we’d be without our memories. “People know facts,” the Giver says, “they know scientific things, but without memories, they know nothing.” Once a memory is given, it is lost to the Giver. Why is that? Like the first time Jonas gives a memory to the child Gabriel to get him to go to sleep, he can barely recall it himself. And why does Gabe have such a hard time sleeping? Could he have been born with memories? Is a child like Gabe, one who can’t or won’t conform to their narrow expectations of behavior, a danger to the community?

JEAN... I was curious about that, myself. Reincarnation? Just a colicky type who needs that connection with others, that attachment, etc? Some babies need a lot of holding to be happy. They need a connection that isn't viable in that community.

JEMI... I think Gabe is of the same genetic strain as Jonas & the Giver. They are all aberrations/throwbacks. There is something "wrong" in them that causes them to ask questions, to wonder. Even before the training, Jonas is questioning sameness. I think memories need to be repeated, built upon in order to be kept. The Giver probably wants to give them away - can you imagine being burdened with generational memories? You wouldn't have room for your own thoughts. We understand blue because we've seen it, heard it called blue and connected the colour/word over and over again for years and years and years. They don't have that advantage.

JEAN... Yes, it breaks their idyllic little scene. They might have to think and feel and try. Despite the sameness, everyone is very individualistic in that they are insular and in some ways, independent. They aren't to depend upon each other emotionally. They are not to lean on each other, ask difficult questions or question things. Someone who is on the fringe threatens their world. Look at a conservative person with rigid attitudes when they face a skinhead. They don't know what to do and feel uncomfortable. It threatens their 'world' views. They might have to question things.

Shortly after this, Jonas stops taking his “pills”. How did you feel about that?

JEAN... Rock on, Jonas!

JEMI... Not taking the pills is one of the reasons Jonas is able to perceive emotions. The pills are emotional suppressants. These people never go through emotional puberty. They never mature. They are stuck at the preteen emotional stage - the importance of rules, the stress on sameness (equal not fair).

Jonas has a gift…the ability to see colors. At first I didn’t realize that that was what it was—I think when he was tossing an apple back and forth to his friend, Asher—then I realized that no one sees colors. How much are our perceptions and feelings formed by colors? At what point does sameness become unbearable? No blue sky….no red apples….

JEAN... If you know nothing else, how can it be unbearable? I think for Jonas, the more he knew, the more unbearable it became. Plus, it isolated him. He couldn't share color or discuss his new world and experiences. People who are colorblind do see shades and tones, so I imagined it would be the same for the people in this community.

JEMI... I love the way the book has no color words until that point. What an awesome concept! Hard to even imagine. My students spend a lot of time discussing how this could happen. Same with the sun - how do they not see it? Are they in a dome - nope, unless it's big - the jet. It's a powerful message about the human capacity to only see/believe what we want. How we can ignore something until it no longer exists. I think the human brain is incapable of staying in this mode for long. We could retreat there for safety, for escape, but our desire to really live would pull us through. It reminds me very much of Hitler's desire for sameness in the world, and I believe Lowry used this as her basis for the story.


With his first memory of pain, Jonas automatically asks for the release-of-pain pill, but it is refused Jonas by the Giver. Is this part of his “lesson”?

JEMI... Definitely - again, these folks want no emotions at all. They don't want to learn from experience, they don't want to experience. Jonas must learn to deal with small pain before he takes on so much more.

JEAN... I think it was. He wanted to numb himself from the truth, but the whole truth is important to being the one holding the memories. How would be become a good consultant for the community if he blocked the true feelings with the memories he was holding?


There is a ban against books in the community. Only the Giver is allowed to have books and if Jonas were to decide to apply for a spouse, they wouldn’t be able to live together because the spouse could not have access to books. The community would collapse into chaos if people read books. So many things in this novel saddened me, but is that what Lowry intended? To make us think about the value of pain and suffering? This ties into the religious idea of suffering for redemption though oddly enough no religiosity is mentioned in this novel.

JEMI... Yes!!! Lowry wants us to fear ignorance. She wants us to embrace diversity and emotional growth. I can't comment on the religious aspect (no knowledge in that department). I think people need to suffer (hopefully in small doses) in order to enjoy the joys as well. We can't block off one part of the spectrum without blocking off its opposite. That's what this society has done - reduced the pain, therefore reduced the joy, until there is no rollercoaster of emotion - just a plain boring highway. No chance for growth or maturity at all.

Jean… I think youth often feel overwhelmed by the world and its sadness, its truths (heck, adults too) and the idea of making everything fair, even, and the same is a tempting thought. I think by showing how different life would be and how things we take for granted would be taken from us can serve as a real eye-opener. If you want sameness, then you have this whole cascade of effects. No books is one of them.


A turning point for Jonas is when he watches his father release a newborn. As father inserts the needle into the soft spot in the head, Jonas realizes that his father is killing it. Why do you suppose they always released one of a set of identical twins when they celebrate sameness?

JEAN... Because people would confuse the two and cause them embarrassment and other feelings.

JEMI... I think they would regard twins as an aberration. They don't want anything outside of the usual pattern.


The Giver and Jonas plan for Jonas’s escape to find the Elsewhere they both are sure exists. He lies to his parents and they lie to him the night before this is to take place, but then the plan goes awry when Jonas finds out that the child, Gabe, is set to be “released” the next morning. He leaves that very night and takes Gabe with him. Herein lies the biggest question for me. As the landscape changes and Jonas starts to see wildlife and birds and then rain for the first time and then snow, does he or does he not really get to a better place where there is love and music and people waiting? With the special knowledge deep inside him he finds the waiting sled he’s dreamed about and starts down the hill to reach those waiting for him. Or does he? Is Jonas only reliving the memory imparted to him by The Giver? Is the sled real or is he simply hallucinating as he falls into unconsciousness?

JEAN... I don't know. That's the beauty of the ending. You can imagine that he has escaped and found a family. Possibly even people he 'knows' or is related to. Maybe there is a higher order at work. Or maybe he passes out. Maybe he freezes. Maybe he's caught and released. It is a bit fishy that this is a memory that he is reliving. Unless The Giver has memories of the future that are to be lived/fulfilled and those to be avoided/unfulfilled.

JEMI... I love this ending - and my students almost always hate it! They want a cut and dried answer. They want to know - and they want to know NOW!!! I love the "what if' aspect of it. If you haven't done so, you must read Gathering Blue, then The Messenger. Although I didn't find the 3rd one as strong and more than a little weird, it's interesting to watch where Lowry takes us.

In the end, what answered this question for me was when the word "baby" is used for the first time...when Jonas becomes aware that the people at the bottom of the hill are waiting, not just for him, but for the baby too.

JEMI... Yes, it's a powerful image. I don't know if most people catch it. Many of Lowry's messages are hidden in nuances of her writing. She is a master!

JEAN... What does it answer for you?

I think it tells me that there is an Elsewhere and Jonas and the baby find it. I think this is what Lowry herself believes.

The book received awards for Best Book for Young Adults and Notable Book for Children, yet as an adult I enjoyed it, so it has a wide range of appeal. I was interested, Jemi, in how your students received it. Wow….there’s an unintended pun.


JEMI... LOL :) My students can't wait for me to read more. We are just past the point where Jonas learns of war. Complete and utter silence in the room when I read that part! Students generally don't like the book right away. Most of them would probably put it down if they were reading it alone. Older, more mature students might continue - they'd have to be strong readers. It entices them slowly with its bizarre society. They can't understand why anyone would want to live like that. They tend to get more interested during the ceremonies. There is limited discussion during the first few days when I read. Now, they groan when I stop, but keep talking about it during lunch and recess. It's very powerful. I think it's great for kids 10 and up - mostly if someone reads to them for the younger kids. Kids of this age are obsessed with fairness. My very first talk of the year is about how equal is not fair, and fair is not equal. By this point in the year, they are beginning to understand it. This book really helps them make connections and grow as people.
I also get caught up and can ramble on when I'm passionate about something. I am passionate about this book and its themes. Hopefully I didn't bore you to tears :)

On the contrary, this discussion has given me a deeper understanding of the book and all its subtleties. I want to thank you both for joining me in this conversation. I love talking about serious books and their hidden meanings, and I look forward to future discussions about other banned and challenged books on your respective blogs.

And to all my readers, thanks for staying with us during this indepth discussion. Now do yourselves a favor and check out Jemi's blog here and Jean's here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Well-Lived Life

We woke to a sheet of ice on everything, but the power held. We only seem to lose power in the summertime from the drain of air conditioning on the electric grid. But what a day—trees to cut and trim, cookies to bake, presents to wrap, bales of straw for the manger and some for the well pit so the pump doesn’t freeze, and wood for the furnace to keep Mum’s house toasty and Dad's arthritis at bay. And now an ice storm to set us back.

I moved my manuscript pages to make room for the Dickens Village (a huge inconvenience) and now they're stacked on my windowsill, stacked on my printer, stacked on my writing table, but I don’t want anyone looking at them. It feels raw, like running naked to the mailbox. No, I didn’t do that. I just don’t want unexpected company out for Christmas cheer walking in the back door and eyeing my stacks of manuscript pages in their disheveled state of revision. The curious questions, or worse, the weighted silence. I've just told you a secret. I'm putting it out there. I don’t want to be read. I want to be read.

Fig tree displaced from the Holy Land.
A nativity scene blown into the ditch
Everyone complains about time.
The end, she says, is near.
So bequeath me a blanket,
the one you just took off your bed.
That's all I want.
And the candle with no wick
in the bottom of the box of ornaments,
like a life well lived and now tucking itself in.
The old Christmas ornaments to a thrift shop?
That’s like pictures of other people’s ancestors
stacked in a corner at the local Goodwill.
Nobody wants that stuff.
Who are they without their frames?
It’s slowly dying without the heat of the Holy Land.
I throw a blanket over it at night
when the sun goes down
but this isn’t the Holy Land
and fig trees can't live on an unheated porch.
Here, holy is clean ground
and the No Toxic Spraying signs
we store in the milkhouse
for winter.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Secret Life of Words

I'm thinking of words this morning and their secret meanings and how all writing requires at least to some extent a trancelike state. There is a very good post on this exact subject over at the literary lab

John Gardner's little book, On Becoming a Novelist, has become my new bible. And don't let the size of it fool you. It contains a wealth of information, inspiration, and writing exercises, with help on everything from dealing with the probing questions—“but what do you do?” to writer's block (which he says, theoretically there's no reason one should get.) "If children can build sandcastles without getting sandcastle block the writer who enjoys his work should never be troubled by writer's block." But of course nothing is that simple. "The very qualities that make one a writer in the first place contribute to block."

He says a serious writer is sensitive to language and will find vivid metaphors never before thought of, "not just because he's been taught not to use clich├ęs but because words and their varied meanings fascinate him. For instance how “discover” means “to take the cover off.” "

Are you a born writer? One sign that you may be is if you have a gift for inventing authentically interesting language, a gift for using your own odd words and spying out their secrets.

Monsters

In regards to the bizarre Twilight frenzy, this is an interesting blogpost on Bella and her abusive boyfriends from a feminist viewpoint, of which we see too little of.

Captain's Log - what do you see in him again?
And, yes, I changed the title of this post because...just because.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fun With Words

I'm always wet
but never rust.
Go on and wag me,
if you must.

What am I?




I just felt like a little fun tonight. Any takers?

One more....

What's greater than God
and worse than the devil,
a starving man eats it
and a healthy man never.

If no one figures it out, I'll post the answers tomorrow.