The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Each generation has a heaviness and this one, as so many others before, is no different.

Those of privilege, the ones who have feasted on the world as it is, seem surprised for what has become of us. How could this be happening, they ask with greater and greater incredulity.

Some who know silence as well as their native tongue claim it is not their story, not their neighborhood, and not their people. The idioms of silence allow for excuses.

These sentiments remind me of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.  I read this book twenty-seven years ago, and while the reviews speak to a love story, I felt it was more. For me, it was about the weight of the world and those who feel too deeply. The conceit is that the heaviness, for some, who are lucky enough to feel, is a freedom. Feeling nothing is unbearable.

Photo: Elsa Mora

On The Street Where She Lived

A character is born in Christchurch, NZ. I know her, but where does she live? What is the address? What is the view from the front window?

The house, imagined from a combination of old photos found in the archives of the  National Library of New Zealand (collections), comes to life. The newspapers of the day report the daily sports events, petty crimes, and news from London; this becomes the morning breakfast chatter between mother and daughter. And then, of course, there is a need to walk out the front door, turn onto a street. Her mission is to buy a dress, but where? Ballantyne’s. And then a photo falls from google-space and you find a place rich in detail to build a believable encounter.

Chapter 4, Caroline Light, Christchurch, New Zealand – 1895.

unknown

For another journey through the streets of a London, this interactive link, on Charles Dickens Oliver Twist written in the New York Times last week is exactly the trip I like to take.

 

Inspirational Outlier

Looking at her from a distance of two centuries, you might wonder how Mary Wollstonecraft, so ahead of her time, arrived at her inspiring thesis: Vindication-The Rights of Women. In her day, the late 1700’s, she was an outlier, an independent thinker, who wrote for us, and for that matter, every generation who followed her.

Yes, there have been others: Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Yes, hundreds, if not thousands of others, who knew the same truths, experienced the same issues and fights. They all wrote for us. Some of these books might seem dated, not relevant, or out of touch with today, yet, the news of the latest insult repeats unsolved issues. Mary’s ideas, published in 1792, had a bite. They left a mark on me.

Reading Mary’s biography by Lyndall Gordon, I knew I had the link to the past I was looking for. I had been researching my family history, using stories my mother told me, census reports from Australia and New Zealand, journals, and newspaper clippings . I was elaborating, embellishing, and I was creating a fictional history of women, of mothers and daughters. How far could I, in any good conscience, retreat from the truth and create a fiction that was universal? And then Mary stepped in.

 

My novel The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light is available on Amazon.

More about Mary later.

 

 

Moving Day

Lizzie Bower waited on the second floor landing while the next load of furniture was hauled up the stairs. Decisions needed to be made: the contents of her mother’s apartment had arrived on Ellis Street.

“Oh, oh…so who is sending you these things? They are all so—so beautiful!” her landlady shouted up the staircase.

Lizzie didn’t need to see her face, she could imagine Mrs. Thorn’s mouth open as each item marched up the stairs: a five foot gilded lamp from a South Hampton estate sale, a small Chinoiserie desk, an iron Napoleon camp chair with brass arm rests and a leather seat. It was a seemingly endless parade of exotic furniture and boxes whose contents could only be imagined.

“Belated wedding gifts from my Mom,” Lizzie shouted back.

Turning toward the growing piles, Lizzie showed the movers where to place the excess of her mother’s life. The men positioned the alien furniture next to the Goodwill discards that decorated the apartment; they demolished any semblance of balance the room once held.

“Jeeze, whoever packed this … supposed to use the fourteen by fourteens for books, Miss, the little ones, yah know, the ones that say: BOOKS.” The mover gave Lizzie a look as he heaved himself through the door.

“Sorry, my mother…”

Lizzie raised her eyes toward the ceiling; she couldn’t expect him to be interested in the details of her mother’s move to London. It was difficult enough for her to explain her own life, but now she had to come up with a rationale for these castoff pieces of furniture. Slicing open one of the boxes with a knife, she found dirty ashtrays and cigarette butts.

Continue reading “Moving Day”

Johnny Heart’s Tattoo

Maude had to wait for ten minutes so Johnny Heart could live forever on her arm.

Johnny had tattoos, he had plenty of them, but then he could: he was with the circus. It was almost required to have them there. Everyone she met at Morris Brother’s Circus had them, even women. Maude started to think about the ones on Johnny’s chest. She remembered the night when she counted twenty, each was in the shape of a heart with ribbons threading through them. Inside the wavy bands a name or a word was written. Her favorite was the rose bud that looked as if it was about to open. Curling from below his right elbow over his left shoulder, a snake twisted, green scaled with a red split tongue extending its length with a small v behind Johnny’s neck. Maude had never seen such a handsome man; his salty smell reminded her of the ocean.

“Okay, girly, it’s been ten minutes. Have you decided?”

“Yes, I’m ready. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Since my friend is here, I’m going to do it now.”

The man stepped back and looked at Jewel, making her feel uncomfortable.

“Do I know you, girly?”

“No, I just have one of those familiar faces.”

“Humph, look at theses stencils. Here are the letters and size I suggest, but if you want to look around and pick out your own be my guest. As you’re coming in here and I’m the expert, these here are what I’d call lady sizes and what I’d recommend. Take em or pick your own.”

Looking around the shop, Maude viewed the stencils hanging all over the walls, pictures of animals, women and almost anything a customer could imagine. Stacked carelessly on a shelf, stained with black circles and drips, pots of colored inks waited. Two swiveling chairs and one lone table, where more complicated work was done, filled the floor space. Maude thumbed through the tablet, agreeing to go with what was offered.

Continue reading “Johnny Heart’s Tattoo”

Frances Liked Oranges

Combing Frances’ hair, Mrs. Buhle turned her around and tried to smile with lips too thin for the gesture. Her black eyes squinted. The skin on her forehead was marked with lines and two oval brown splotches. Mrs. Buhle was very old, but then everyone appeared very old to Frances, who was five. The woman’s shoulders were rounded, padded with a thick black sweater, fluffed like feathers. Frances tried not to move. She was sure she was going to be eaten, or at least pierced by some hidden instrument.
“Now Frances, your mother is coming to visit you today. She wants to see a happy girl. You’re a happy girl.”
This was not a question.
“I’ll take you downstairs, you can go into the front room today. Don’t look so scared. When your mother leaves, I will have a little present for you. How about that…Frances?”
Frances turned her face up toward Mrs. Buhle. Maybe she would get an orange, she liked oranges. She closed her eyes and waited for the blow that didn’t come.

“Frances, Frances, where are you? Are you hiding…sweetie?”
She was trying to hide from her mother, Maude, but her small foot stuck out from behind the large rose-colored wing chair.
“I think I can see you, I see you.” Her mother began a singsong voice.
“Come out, come out, where-ever-you-are. I have a present for you, come out, come out.”
Peering from around the chair with one eye, Frances saw her mother holding a big box with a yellow ribbon.
“Come on, come on…. I’ll help you open this big box. Is it too big for such a little girl to open? Let’s just see what could be in here. You can do it along with me, sweetie.”
Frances crossed the room, smiled and began to pull on the ribbon. The box contained a tea set, a real tea set, not play size like the one she once saw a girl playing with in a book. Frances was very disappointed.
“Give your mum a big squeeze. I have missed you so much. Give me a big hard hug so I can always remember how it feels.”
Her mother had a soft face, with blonde curls falling from under a little red hat. The hat matched the color of her lips and her fingernails. The hug pulled Frances into the folds of a white dress where an exotic scent sealed the moment.

A few days later the tea set disappeared into one of Mrs. Buhle’s cabinets. Mary was determined to get it back to their small room on the third floor.
“It doesn’t belong to them, does it, Frances? It belongs to you; it will always belong to you. I don’t care what she does to me…I’m getting it back.”
Mary was caught, standing on a chair in the pantry. Mrs. Buhle’s daughter watched as her mother pulled Mary off the chair and dragged her into the back room where they kept the punishments.

Draft From: The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light

My mother was raised in multiple foster homes.  Once she received an orange as a Christmas present.  Her mother never gave her a yellow tea set.

Have I Been Here Before?

At what point did it look familiar? Maybe this was one of those dreams that disappear the moment you open your eyes.  Certainly, I never climbed to the top of Mount Major before, never been to New Hampshire, never wanted to go. But now I’m here, looking out at the view, afraid of getting too close to the edge and falling off. When I pick up the scent of a past moment, I have my feet on the ground, but I’m flying. If I just raise my arms and tip into the air stream, I will be soaring. Flying dreams are the best.

“If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do. Don’t you?”- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Déjà Vu

One of the themes of my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light, is Eternal Return. Because my story goes backward in time, the present hints at the past. We know the results of actions before they take place. This was easier than it sounds because I was telling a familiar story: a family saga whose story unfolded like an origami bird.

From The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light-  Frances Baker, 1990 dreaming of San Francisco 1942 :

‘Frances cringed; Milton, the manager, was standing six inches away from her face. Smelling his stale cigarette breath, she tried looking at his yellow teeth but it confused him, so she pretended to be nervous and looked at the floor.

“You know there are many girls I could have hired, Frances, but I chose you, you know why?”

Frances thought this was a question and she started to open her mouth.

“You know why, Frances, you were the prettiest one. Yes, the prettiest one of all of them. You, with your blonde hair. You had the best eyes and legs. You have legs just like Lana Turner.”

Frances managed to step backwards a few inches but he was pressing in. Reaching forward, he slid his hand from her waist to her thigh. Frances jumped and hit the wall with the back of her shoes and head. Her eyes narrowed as she moved out of his way. He tried to block her by putting one arm out to the wall.

“Frances, this is a really good job.”

Milton looked around the lobby with the glow of the concession stand at the end of the hall. The ticket booth had closed, the last show was almost over and they were alone with the muffled sound of a movie playing in the theatre.

“It would be a shame if you spoiled things for yourself. I’m going to be watching you very closely. I better not catch you doing anything wrong. You know what I mean, don’t you, Frances? I mean I better not catch you letting your mother in here for free. Everything has a price. You know we are at war now, everything has a price including this job. Where do you think you’re going? Don’t walk away from me.”

Running, Frances heard him yelling behind her. She turned down one hall, and it led to another. The door was not where it was supposed to be. She felt the wall for knobs in the darkness and realized they were all missing. Suddenly she heard the noise of planes, the building vibrated as though there was an earthquake. The theatre wall began to crumble. Frances started to climb over a slab of cement when a plane appeared to come straight at her.

Droning in some far off room, a vacuum cleaner saved her.’