Thursday, May 29, 2014

Against all Odds: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an accidental memoirist, though she would eventually write six volumes about her life. She was also well known for her poetry, singing, acting, playwriting—the list goes on and on. I once heard Dr. Maya Angelou speak at Calvin College, at the Festival of Faith and Writing. She held us spellbound—in a basketball fieldhouse where we sat uncomfortably on bleachers without any back support—yes, she had that affect, to transport us out of our current misery and to another place. She was an encourager.

Her personal story encompasses many lives. She was a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, single mother, magazine editor in Cairo, administrative assistant in Ghana, friend of James Baldwin, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and a Civil Rights activist. She was a chronicler of her time.

She stood up. For women, for her race, for all people. ’Cause that’s how it is.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings her first volume published in 1969 was a sensation, not because of the prose, but because her editor didn’t think it would sell. The autobiography of a black woman. This from the NY Times obit: The book — its title is a line from “Sympathy,” by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar — became a best seller, confounding the stereotype, pervasive in the publishing world, that black women’s lives were rarely worthy of autobiography.”

Maybe that was her greatest achievement. Confounding others.

Yet, according the NY Times, she never set out to why memoir.
Near the end of “A Song Flung Up to Heaven,” Ms. Angelou recalls her response when Robert Loomis, who would become her longtime editor at Random House, first asked her to write an autobiography.
Still planning to be a playwright and poet, she demurred. Cannily, Mr. Loomis called her again.
“You may be right not to attempt autobiography, because it is nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature,” he said. “Almost impossible.”
Ms. Angelou replied, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
What an example of courage. Maya Angelou was a woman who faced the blank page, it was white, but she painted it all the colors of the rainbow with her words. Thanks.

Maya Angelou in 1969, the year of her landmark memoir. Credit Chester Higgins, Jr.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Notes from Thalassa, part 3

I know I left you dear reader(s) hanging. I was having a bit of a breakdown in my shack by the sea all alone. But, that weary dreary day broke this writer wide open.

After that I began to write. And write. Write write writewritewritewrtite. I filled notebook after notebook. Split it at the seam and used the other side of the paper. Front and back. I wrote into the center of many questions, looking for answers.

Dateline: Thursday at Thalassa
Well a pretty good day. Yesterday I went into town. It took me 20 minutes to get out, Must be a record. Once I got to the road I took my time and in half an hour was to town and ate a sandwich outside thelibrary where I spent 2 hours reading e-mail and charging devices. Gave me some wiggle room with the phone, though battery juice will probably be low by Saturday morning when I leave. Also extravagant with the I-Pod, listening to news and music.

All these little restrictions I've put on myself are coming off--all the counting of bread slices. I'll probably end up with too much food. Hopefully I'll lose a few pounds--not body weight, but actual physical weight since I don't want to carry leftover food home in my backpack. Made one last batch of skillet conrbread and a mess of lentils--why am I recording this minutia???

It feels a little silly, but this is the real, all the other stuff is just in my head. The stories, flashes, memoir bits I've been jotting down.

That's what I do most of the day, every day here. Look out at the sea and tell myself stories. Watch the gigantic carpenter bees thwack into the side of the shack and compose sentences. Catch the rise and fall of a swallow carrying grass to a nest and the plovers scribing the beach with their taloned feet and drift in and out of words.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Notes from Thalassa, Tuesday, after being there 3 days

Notes from Thalassa, Tuesday, after being there 3 days

Just want to say that here I see real geese. Not those sidewalk crappers down by the lake that eat hamburger buns out of the garbage, but sleek Canadian geese with accents. Not the fakers by the Montrose Harbor Yacht Club who wouldn’t know Ontario from Ontario Street. Here they fly over like stealth drones, fit and in shape. No waddling. They catch fish to eat, call out to mates, and at sunset line up in V formation for night maneuvers. The geese by us in uptown wouldn’t know they were silly gooses even if you told them. They’d hiss and keep pecking in the grass for grubs or cigarette butts.

They need to be secretly renditioned and turned into foie gras before it goes off the menu again in Chicago

Wind from the north,
White caps today.
During the night I could sense
a change, a shift. Items on the deck
skittered into corners, a window
not latched banged, until I removed
the screen and pulled it in and hooked
the eye, then replaced the screen—
I don’t know why; they aren’t storm
Windows, nothing is air-tight.
I closed the door,
Something I haven’t done since I got here.

According to the radio the high today
Is only going to be the mid 50s with
Wind directly off the water. The temp
In the shack is 57̊. A day for tea and
Writing beneath blankets.
Occasionally the sun pops out and
For a second the room solar heats and
The grey water picks up some jade around
The shallow sand bars.

I want the blue
That Hopper blue
But I am limited by words
What do I mean by blue
The blue door to this shack, or
Would that be turquoise
Yet turquoise can also be green, teal
Even acqua-marine can pale
Cold as ice next to Robin egg blue or a cornflower
The water is blue, no it isn’t
It’s grey, slate, pewter, white-capped silver.
The sky is sky, no it’s clouds, contrails, bleached bone.

You see, I don’t know what I want.

It’s Tuesday. How do I know? I don’t until I turn on my phone. The days sort of run together. Wake up, eat, read, write, walk, eat, read, write, pump water, go to the outhouse (a lot), over and over.  Occasionally, I make popcorn for the outhouse, feed it a snack. Actually this is part of the outhouse hygiene. Poop corn, is how I refer to it. Maybe a Boy Scout or biologist can explain it to me later.

Basically I sit when I’m not sleeping, pee when I’m not drinking tea, read when I’m not writing. I’m either making food or thinking of making food. In between I try to remember what day it is.

Oh, it is beautiful. I listen to the surf, to the birds sing and think: How far is it to walk to town?

I seriously thought about it this afternoon. There’d be time to get there and back—but what would I do? I could check my e-mail at the library, yet . . . would I seriously want to walk for an hour and a half to delete SPAM? Yes! And, then an hour and a half back. Maybe. No.

The wind has been strong all day and its COLD outside. If its only 60̊ in here then its 50 something out there. I get out when I run from the shack to the privy—about a hundred times a day because of all the tea I drink.

It’s beautiful but isolated. I think of Edward and Jo (Hopper) in their cottage in N. Truro. Get me a ham sandwish, he calls, and she answers, Get it yourself, you big lug. He couldn’t paint all day, there was no Internet, no TV (possibly, but no reception out here). Did they have a phone? Maybe for emergencies. How did they spend all the long hours of the day.

What I miss most is a radio and if I ever come again I’ll invest in one of those “wind-up” ones you crank. I’ll learn the name of symphonies, the numbers for concertos. I’ll research biographies of composers, conductors, and become a connoisseur of classical, anything to not go mad and walk off the cliff in front of me.

A couple of times while out walking I’ve run into Art’s Dune Tours. Each time they pass me, the driver asks if I’m okay. Do I not look okay?


I feel like I’m running one of those extreme sports races. I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna make it  . . . even if I go crazy, drop dead of a heart attack, and forget why I even wanted this so bad.

Have decided to start talking to myself. Trying to think of names for the “other” guy.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Notes from Thalassa, part 1

Notes from Thalassa

It feels so great to
Laze about
In basic beauty  . . .
And hope I have something to write about.

I would not have imagined this 3 weeks ago!

I brought with me a diet that resembles Into the Wild
And we all know how that turned out.

I feel like a Jumblie (Edward Lear) set out to sea. I see now why artists paint it—because it is beyond words. Colors rendered in indigo, sienna, oxide from the earth, ashes to ashes, seed back to seed. The sky a Hopper blue, the dunes mutes, variegated by shades of green, rust, rosa rugosa like a Marsden Hartley painting.

I took a picture. It was all grays with a line across the middle—or, depending upon the day, hour, minute hues of blue, sometimes dotted like an exclamation point with a sail way out there, motionless on the horizon.

I have a vegetative splinter in the palm of my hand from where I fell down running over the sand to the outhouse. It hurts like arthritis in the morning.

I’m on the front deck (there is no back) facing the ocean.

Yes! The Atlantic, the big pond. Who ever coined that phrase lacked imagination because you cannot dream this—this big, the sounds, the peace. Some of it is the typical, what we’ve come to expect. A trawler, its motors chugging at a distance from the shore, the crash of waves, constant, every once in a while one with personality will add an emphasis, but it will melt back into the placid depths. It is Muzak, along with the buzzing of giant bumblebees the size of humming birds that dive bomb and then go off to make merry in the waving sea grasses. And the birds, they sing, chirp, peep, twitter, trilling not that this is new or not done in Chicago, but that I am alive to them.

And, that is the difference. Between the postcard and the actual experience. Wish you were here.
my outhouse with a million dollar view!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Off to Thalassa

Thalassa is a Greek word, meaning a sea goddess.

Yup,that's me.

Off to write flash in a small cabin by the sea and possibly the ghosts of those who have gone on before me (Eugene O'Neil, Edward Hopper) will inhabit me and inspire me.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dive Nostalgia

Something I’ve noticed lately is a nostalgia for dive—or maybe it’s simply plain nostalgia for what used to be.

I see it in blogs such as Lost City, Ghost Signs, and Uptown History.

As soon as something’s gone we begin to miss it the most. Read here the Richard Nickel’s story of how he lived and died to save some of Chicago’s most fabulous landmarks.

Recently I helped curate Portraits of Uptown: Photos by Bob Rehak. Between 1973 and 1977 Rehak a young copy editor at Leo Burnett ad agency downtown took photos in Uptown, preserving in film and now digitally what the neighborhood used to be. His collection of over 5,000 images is a virtually treasure trove. We had our opening reception Friday at Everybody’s Coffee and the place was packed out.

I talked with several people who lived here during that time period and they all said what a great place Uptown was!

Yet . . . you look at the photos and it looks like a dump, a dive, a ruined city. Trash swirling at the windy corners, paint peeling off doors, dirty-faced kids running in packs. Looking at the photos—I’d never seen so many amputees, people on crutches, faces bruised and battered. And gang kids, there was photo after photo of teens of all races and backgrounds proudly showing off their gear: heavily embossed and embroidered sweaters sporting their logo, Latin King pins, flags, rings. As if they were a fraternity or sorority. Then there were the gang hand signs, the tattoos, the graffiti, tagged park benches. It was everywhere!

Some of the photos make the viewer uncomfortable. The sad stories, the mess, the people waiting in line for a drink, a job, a Salvation Army handout.

How could any place so wrecked be that great?

I talked to sisters, subjects of Bob’s Popsicle Girls and they shared, “We grew up in the 4640 N Sheridan building with working-class parents. Our mother got up and went to work everyday, even if the wages may not have been fair. We really did not want for much growing up. We were very happy kids, teenagers, and so on.”

Indeed, many of the faces in the photos are smiling. The children genuinely happy. So many kids—I hardly see kids anymore out on the streets, playing. It really was another age.

Uptown was chaotic, out of control, a wreck, but so alive. That’s what I miss. That sense that anything can/could happen.

Even though the streets are safer/cleaner these days, there is a battle/rivalry taking place where factions of the neighborhood seem to want to shut each other out/down. Things are not as simple as they used to be. At times I long for dive, for what used to be.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Just Updated Places to Submit

Hi! Fans of Flash, Flash Memoir, and Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir

I just updated PLACES TO SUBMIT adding about a dozen new places for you to send your work. Check it out!