Monday, January 27, 2014

Burns Night 2014

Robert Burns (Scotland's national poet) wrote about everyday things that everyday people dealt with. That's why I get the sense he wouldn't be picky about the annual meal held on his birthday in his honor. The purpose of the party isn't to have the perfect foods and the perfect accent with which to read the "Address to a Haggis," it's to celebrate being human and enjoying everyday life with whatever resources you've got and whatever friends are closest. It's about being thankful for and mindful of the little things, of this little moment. At least that's what it is to me.

Jonathan and I have tried to keep our annual Burns' Supper pretty traditional over the years, but we've had to make due, seeing as the main dish, haggis, is sort of illegal here and we don't have a set of bagpipes. And we aren't Scottish. The first year, Jonathan tried to make haggis, but it ended up more like an exploded sausage. The second year, we had a more realistic haggis that comes canned from Scotland. The vegetarian kind tasted like dog food to me, but Jonathan liked his. Last year we had the closest thing we'll get to a real haggis in the States, a frozen one from the nearby British food store. Jonathan said it tasted like liver. I happily passed.

Unfortunately, this year things have been so busy with work and play, Burns' birthday snuck up on us, which meant we didn't plan enough in advance for the haggis and couldn't get any on the day. Remember how I said the party isn't about being perfect? Well it isn't. But you gotta have haggis! Even if it's vegetarian. We did have nut roast (my new favorite go-to vegetarian meatloaf) and Cranachan, two dishes I had in Scotland last year. But that didn't make up for not having the "chieftain o' the puddin-race." Still, my tartan bunting I'm so proud of hung over the table to make things festive with or without haggis! (Let me know if you want instructions on the bunting. It's easy, even if you don't have a sewing machine. I did this one all by hand.)

In past years, it's always just been Jonathan and me celebrating, partly because we're really awful at making local friends, and partly because people are like, "Robert who?" But next year, for the first time ever, we're inviting actual living people to our little party. This year's special guest, though not very talkative, was excellent company: a bottle of Lagavulin 16. It's like drinking a campfire. The smell alone makes my eyes swim.

So it was a dinner of nut roast and sausage (best we could do on short notice) and neeps and tatties, then a reading by Jonathan from a book of Burns' poems.

After that came the Cranachan. Yum. Cranachan is whipped cream, toasted oatmeal, honey, raspberries, and whisky, layered to look pretty or mixed together. We used blackberries instead of raspberries, and homemade whipped cream because it's so much better and milder than store bought. All you do for the whipped cream is blend heavy cream, vanilla, mascarpone (or cream cheese, but mascarpone is better), and sugar together till it starts keeping its shape. That takes a long time, by the way, so use a mixer if you have one. Whatever you do, put enough whisky into the final dessert so you can really taste it. The result is mild, earthy, and yummy, and the oiliness and slight burn of the whisky brings it all together.

So there you have it. Burns' Supper 2014. Low key and delicious.

Till next year, in honor of one of his favorite topics (love), and one of my favorite poems (especially for the message I hear between the last two lines), I give you:

Lines to an Old Sweetheart, by Robert Burns

Once fondly lov'd, and still rememb'red dear,
Sweet early Object of my youthful vows,
Accept this mark of friendship, warm, sincere,
Friendship - 'tis all cold duty now allows.

And while you read the simple, artless rhymes
One friendly sigh for him - he asks no more,
Who, distant, burns in flaming torrid climes,
Or haply lies beneath th' Atlantic roar.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Inspiring travel

I can't count the times I've heard, "Write what you know." Harder than it sounds. Sometimes, it feels like I don't know much. Other times, what I do know gets buried under daily life. One trick to get out of that kind of rut is to drive down roads that I've never driven down before. Who lives there? What are the buildings like? Does one house stand out from the rest? What might happen behind its closed doors? Then write down everything.

Now go to the next town over. See the local tourist spots. Visit places you don't consider sacred but others do. Is there a museum? Go inside. Eat at a local diner. Talk to people. Write it all down. Now take a road trip across the country. Buy a mug from every state. Stay in b&bs instead of hotels. Stop at famous places and unfamous places. Watch the sunrise. Take notes as you go. Now save your money till you can fly across the sea. Land somewhere and eat the local food. Meet the local people. Find the hidden places. Take a cab somewhere and get the driver talking. Ride the train. Ride a boat. Ride a camel. Write everything.

Got kids and can hardly leave the house without all hell breaking loose? Order shovels from Amazon. Go into the backyard with the kids and dig a hole. Do it. Dig a huge freaking hole. Vote on officers for your digging club. Make the oldest child President of the Cavern and Keeper of Shovels. Make the middle child Treasurer and Keeper of Shiny Things Found in the Dirt. Make the youngest Protector and Keeper of Worms. You be Captain of the Yard and Maker of Rules. Then go inside and write that stuff down.

Taking care of someone who's old and ill? Research how to decorate a room to look like it would have when that person was young. Play the right music. Hang the right pictures. Talk. Is your patient too grumpy? Too ill? Has she given up already? Write everything down: How do the lines on her face show you she's ready to go? When's the last time she wore earrings or blush? When did she last laugh?

When I'm in a rut, I Go and I Do. If I can, I travel outside of home. If I can't, I travel inside of home.

That's part of the reason Jonathan and I found ourselves on the east coast in a pirate hostel with pictures of buxom babes plastered to the bathroom wall, skeletons hanging above the doors, and a pirate chef serving us breakfast a couple weeks ago.

The plan was to spend a couple days in the sun before what was likely to be, and has been, rainy winter day after rainy winter day in Georgia. We packed our bags and headed to St Augustine, Florida, the country's oldest inhabited city (European-settled anyhow, since 1565), only to find the cold and rain had come with us. Fortunately, we adventured in spite of the weather!

As a result, I can now write about things I knew nothing about before. As excellent as the imagination is for creating stories and settings, and as indispensable as making-stuff-up has been for many a lovely literary classic, and as valuable as wikipedia can be for telling you about a place, writing what you know adds a reality that's hard to make up from scratch.

What do I know? First off, I know this little room at the Pirate Haus Inn. See the lazy pirate taking a nap?

The Pirate Haus Inn is a bed & breakfast for budget-conscious travelers. The rooms are mostly dormatory style, and the entire place is piratey, from the decor to the staff. We even got a walking ghost tour by Gold Tooth Dave who doesn't bother much with Old Town like the other tours, instead taking you to the burbs where the real spooks live. The best part about the Pirate Haus is breakfast, where they make you personalized pancakes and you get a chance to talk with fellow travelers and pirates alike.

Besides the cool digs, there was Old Town right outside our door. Basically it's just several blocks of pedestrian streets full of restaurants and shops, with the old city gates at the end.

Very touristy, but with history mixed in here and there and lots of good food. If you plan ahead, you can get reservations at Columbia Restaurant and share the vegetarian paella and flan with your date, or my personal favorite, the black bean burger with goat cheese at The Floridian.

If you're more into museums, there's a mixed bag of old, new, and weird at the Lightner Museum just a few minutes away by foot. Like there's this stuffed lion that used to belong to Churchill:

This blown and drawn glass machine:

This cafe in the deep end of what used to be a swimming pool (what a setting, eh!):

And weird folk art (for the record, I love my in-laws!):

Between the museum and Old Town, we came across several small parks. One is on the waterfront, and the old slave market still stands there.

Though many a grim moment took place there, St Augustine later became known for its Civil Rights involvement (Martin Luther King, Jr. even held marches around the park). There are monuments to local heroes who stood up for the rights of minorities. When we were there, the whole park was cheerfully done up for Christmas, making such a history seem impossible.

In fact, the whole place is packed with history. There are sign posts everywhere commemorating this guy or that guy, telling how old this church is and how much this or that place meant to the settlement of the eventual United States. Plus there's the fort, Castillo De San Marcos National Monument. There's tons of history behind it that I don't know. Hey you can only do so much in two days. What I do know is it sits right outside the city gates and has seen plenty of action.

Over the bridge from the fort, on Anastasia Island (which blocks Old Town from seeing the ocean and gives it a bay instead), in 45 degree weather with 35 mph winds the day we were there, stood the lighthouse. After walking all the way to the top, I couldn't believe that before developing a pulley system the lighthouse keepers had to take the same walk every couple of hours with a ten pound steaming bucket of oil to keep the lantern going. Once was enough for me.

Because we were so close, we stepped onto the beach just long enough to take a few pictures and run away before our skin was sandblasted off by what was less sand and more bits of shell posing as tiny knives.

Little did I know that health would no longer be an issue in my life. Next stop: The Fountain of (stinking yucky sulfur water) Youth! Here's Jonathan with old Ponce:

The fountain itself:

And the weapons demonstration, which looks bright and sunny but was so cold it hurt:

After which we went to dinner, walked the town taking pictures, and had an early night in before time to get up at 5:00 the next morning and drive the six hours back to get our happy hound.

Lots more happened, and there was lots we had no time for, but the point is: adventure. Just a couple days doing something we don't normally do, and now I've got all this information and more floating around my noggin, waiting to be pieced together across whatever stories I tell next. Fantastic. And a cheap weekend away.

So: Order that shovel. Drive down that back road. Cross the open sea.

And if you ever end up in St Augustine, say hello to Gold Tooth Dave for us (and watch out for the headless aristocracy wandering the back alleys…it's never the pirates you have to worry about).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

One-Question Interview with an Unsuccessful Writer

Over the past few years of posting on this blog, I've done several one-question interviews with people who know about things like drama, poetry, and presenting papers, things I know very little about. 

I've wanted to do another one-question interview for a while but couldn't think who to interview or what it should be about. Finally, I came up with a question. And fortunately, it's one I can answer myself. Here goes:

What's it like being an unsuccessful writer?

Everyone's got 24 hours a day, right? But most of the people around me have their 24 divvied up much differently than I do. For one thing, most are raising a family. That is major. My friends with kids still at home spend massive amounts of time doing parenty things because, well, kids need to be taken care of and, from what I gather, parents really like being with their kids!

Then there's the job thing. Most people I know (including the hubby) are either working full-time or working full-time and raising a family. Around here, that means a long and hellish commute as well.

I, on the other hand, am an adjunct. That means I work 20-30 hours a week. My commute is about 15 minutes each way. On a busy work week, that leaves 136 hours a week not working or commuting.

If you take away time spent doing the necessities--sleeping, showering, and eating--I've still got about 63 free hours a week to fill. Take away a few hours for exercising, that's 60. A few for walking the dog, 57. Grocery shopping and errands, 54. Hanging with Jonathan in the evenings watching Dr Who or Sherlock or chatting or going out, 40. Taking care of house and home, 35. And going to school myself, 30. Approximately 30 hours a week to do with as I please.

As a writer, as that girl back in grad school who wanted to be a famous author with deeply loved stories, this is a fantastic situation! How lucky! 30 hours a week to write as much as I want, chip away at the ugly parts of my manuscripts, read, do field research for my stories, come up with new ideas, get better and better and better at my craft!

The thing is: I don't actually do much of that. The most I do with my writing each week is to edit a chapter on a working draft and post a blog. Granted, posting a blog can take me hours, sometimes a full day, depending on the topic. But with three or four posts a month, and with time spent editing working drafts, I probably average 5 or 6 hours a week at most on my writing. Once in a while I'll send in a submission to an editor or agent, go to a conference. But that leaves a whopping 25 hours a week to do…well…whatever I want.

You've probably seen Ben Franklin's daily schedule. If not, here it is:

Show off! Jerk! Perfectionist!

Only kidding. But let me tell you why I have all this time and don't use it writing, even though becoming a known writer is still a dream of mine.

First of all, writing is performing, and being a performer requires an audience. Performing without an audience for years and years, trying to break into a business based on marketability, and collecting rejection letters slows one down. I was so gung-ho in school. I made promises to myself about spending so many hours a day writing, about how I would get traditionally published, whatever it took. But lack of response to my work, a growing callousness toward the business, lack of skill in some areas of storytelling, and, this one's a little harder to communicate but, realizing the world is just absolutely full of words and ideas and opinions already, have all cooled my enthusiasm. They've put me into a position that's less, "Please know me! This is urgent!" and more, "God it's loud in here. Everyone just calm the hell down."

Secondly, and most importantly, I'm good at my job, I love my job, and that fulfills me. Teaching provides immediate feedback, has a built in audience, and helps people--all the things I wish my writing could do. After graduating, I needed writing partly because I needed something to fulfill me--some good work to put my hand to that would make the world a better place and make me feel I had a purpose. I thought writing was my one and only gift. It isn't. Teaching is my gift. Writing stories is my creative pastime. Instead of needing to write, now I just really like to write.

Lastly, life sometimes goes a bit quiet and lonely. That stifles my head and heart and therefore my writing. For some, it's not bad to live a quiet life. For me, it is, after too long. The 25 or so hours I've got left in the week have not been very well spent a lot of years. Part of the reason was because I became socially and physically isolated. Without life experiences, without friendships, without movement and challenge, my imagination, drive, and ideas shrivel up and die. For a long time, I spent too many hours alone and secluded, and I'm still feeling the effects. However! I'm getting better. Living on the outskirts of one of the busiest cities in the country helps. Having a great job helps. Making friends helps. Traveling helps. One must live life to write about it, and one must find the way her hours are to be best spent, which I'm discovering more and more every day.

It's very teacherly of me to say so, but let's review: I'm fulfilled by my work, I'm building up my life stories again, and I'm less gung-ho to get into an industry I don't necessarily respect, and not willing to add just any old words to the countless words already bombarding us every day from all directions. I'm not traditionally published, that's certain. Almost everyone is completely oblivious to my existence and therefore to my writing. My stories aren't known, well-loved, or making me any money. But, dear interviewer, I have to take issue with the original question. Because I'm not actually an unsuccessful writer. To answer what that's like, you'll have to ask someone who doesn't write. As far as I've learned, the only way to be unsuccessful is not to try at all.

Success is finding your path and walking it, letting old dreams evolve, learning to stop looking for validation in the wrong places, in the places you've been told hold meaning. Success is writing period. And, as you can see if you're still reading, I'm writing along just fine.

Monday, January 6, 2014

First of the year

I've thought and thought how to start this post. As the first one of the year, it feels important, like an announcement of what's expected to come. The trouble is we're already five days in and last year keeps hanging on. We managed to get most of the Christmas decorations put away today. The calendar over the bar reads January. Both of us go back to work tomorrow. It's all happening. But I feel slightly reluctant, like there's closure needed somewhere in the last year. Maybe it's the changed or lost relationships still nagging at me. Or maybe it's that we spent three weeks celebrating Christmas and going on outings and traveling, and have only just started settling back at home, not long enough to breathe deeply and sigh before getting up the courage to face the next big thing. Or maybe it's the book I meant to finish or the poems I meant to start reading but never did. Maybe it's the strange weather, warm and rainy one day and cold and bright the next. It feels like the final lines of Stevenson's "Christmas at Sea": 

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Or maybe it's just January. January is always the hook pulling us into the next year whether we've finished with the last or not. I know there's not really such a thing as January, or maybe even time, but there is such a thing as movement, and that means there's such a thing as change, which now I think of it, might be my problem. The earth spins as it whirls around the sun, so seasons come and go. Rain falls, so rocks are worn away. My chest goes up and down so many times a minute, and with it my heart grows older than it should and too soon. I claim to love change, and I sort of do, but not when it means things are lost that I want to keep or that difficult things are here that weren't here before.

2014. What will you bring? Gain and loss. Good and bad. Another spin around the sun. I know that well enough. It's just I've always been the girl who dips slowly into the cold water, toes first, then knees, hips, hands, elbows, shoulders, shivering the whole way till I finally give in and dunk my head under and laugh at how silly I was at first. Then when the day is done, the sun setting, I want to stay put in what now feels like such a warm bath, all the while knowing night will come soon and the water will go cold and everyone will be gone.

There are beautiful things in the future. I know there are. Things I'll wonder how I lived without. And there are things I'm glad to leave behind, things it's time to leave behind.

Sigh. There it is. That sigh I needed. The sigh I always need.

Right then, Robin. Breathe. Face the year with courage. Just start with today if it's all you can do. Toes in first. Your friends are already there waiting. Wait and see, you'll be laughing at yourself soon.

Goodbye 2013. Goodbye.