Monday, May 31, 2010

To My Indomitable Mother

Who is gone, finally. I wish you well. You were my inspiration. Because of you I wanted to be a professional woman, first a doctor, then a writer. Because of you, I knew that women could do whatever they wanted and were equal or often vastly superior to their male colleagues. You were a force to be reckoned with, often unintentionally. You had a sharp temper, and a way of speaking your mind that could have used a little editing. Still, you were incredible. I am who I am because of you. I love you very much. And always will.

I will leave the memories for the memorial service; that's the best place for the long funny and touching stories. But I'll think of you whenever I go out and admire my overly abundant lily, tulip and daffodil displays, that is if I can ward off the deer this year. You loved to garden. It's where I get my love of gardening from. A little thing, but one that remains constant. The truth is, I'll think of you often.

This book Surviving Amelia was written with you always in mind. It's about strong women, about sisters, and best friends. I wanted most of all to write about what it means to grow up and grow into yourself, to learn how to be an independent woman. You were my inspiration for that. You showed me how to live and how to be assured about my own abilities. I'm glad you got to see how that worked out, and that you lived a long, full life.

I'll miss you.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Do not go gentle into that good night

When do we accept death? When do we deny its claim? What is death? What would we be without it? Human beings are born knowing they will die, and it informs pretty much every waking decision of our lives. It gives us that sense of urgency that leads to much of what is good in us. My mother is dying, imminently it would seem. Yesterday, I brought my younger son to say goodbye. The person is there, but their body has failed them. She's had a long, good life. Yes, there are regrets I'm sure, but on the whole she's done much of what she wanted. She's lived her way. Was it the way that was easiest or best for me, or for my siblings? No. I think that's safe to say. She was an admirable woman, a role model for me, but she wasn't a great mother. She was alternately kind and cruel, needy and generous. Yet I love her, and I loved her as she was.

What I don't love is what it's meant to watch her die. It seems wrong that this is what our end is. That we're left to suffer, to linger, to have no quality of life at all. She's lain on her couch in the living room of her house for months now, obviously ferociously attached to life even when she hates the minutes she's living it. I can't bear to think that someone so full of life has been reduced to this. But that's what's come of her life, this is its end. She has no control, someone who tried to control literally everything and everyone around her. I suppose that it's a form of poetic justice, but it's also horribly unfair. And she's unfortunately managed to reap what she sowed, a dysfunctional family. We siblings do our best but we aren't exactly close and our communication skills are wanting. Her end would have been so much easier if that wasn't the case.

When my father got sick and died it was different. The intimacy my brother and sister felt with him created a different kind of war zone. They fought over him in death as they had in life. I gave up trying. He and I never really got along, so what was the point? With my mother, it's different. I was the one who she was closest to growing up. Over time my sister seems to have taken on that role, or at least imagines herself my mother's fierce protector. My brother does what he can, given that he and my mother fought bitterly. And my sister in law does so much, it's as if my mother is a stand in for the one she left behind and visited once a year. Today I call hospice, and who knows, will she live out the weekend? Will she surprise us and continue to hang on to what isn't life as anyone should live it? Or will she finally die and be done with it? For her sake, I hope she does die, because then we can grieve and remember her in our own ways and she can find relief.

What I wish for is a better way. I wish our culture embraced death the way it does life. I wish it gave us more support and more options, and I wish we talked about it more freely before it became an issue. I wish it wasn't a topic for self help but something we came to understand long before it was thrust upon us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Doing something you love; even when it makes you sick?

One biographer writes that Amelia had ongoing issues with her sinuses and that flying always made her feel worse. She goes on to say that she was always quite sick after a long flight. It isn't something that others have claimed, although it could well be true. Is it important? What if the thing you love to do most, makes you feel horrible? Would you keep on doing it? I think the answer for many of us is yes. My husband blew out his knee playing basketball. He'd come home and ice it down and go back the next day. I've played myself and I hate to admit it, but basketball is addictive. You can't get enough of it. It's that kind of game, the intensity, the way you can lose yourself so completely in the competitive and physical aspects, and of course the skill set you need to be good at it. All are compelling. We're only human after all, and by human I mean that we want this feeling of exhilaration, it's what makes us feel alive. So what is a little physical discomfort compared to the exhilaration of flying, the thrill of breaking records, breaking barriers.

I say hats off to Amelia and to the rest of us who have chosen to fight through the pain and get to the pleasure, or as she wrote, the ones of us who've lived fully, who have chosen to do whatever we've chosen to do for "the fun of it."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I miss Amelia or why writing is so incredibly satisfying, and why I hate to say goodbye to anyone

Yes, the time has come. I miss Amelia. I miss thinking about her, and thinking about what she might say or do. I very much miss her and all my characters. Has it only been a few weeks? Still, they were my life for so long and now they're out and about in the world. Not just those characters but literally everything I've worked on for the last three and a half years, a novella also out, an article just accepted. That's a novel, a novella, an article, all gone into my send box and sent . . . whoosh.

Here's why writing is so satisfying, at least writing something you care about. It's the one thing I do that occupies me wholly. There are other things I experience that engage me in the same way; I love conversation, or just hanging out with those I love the most; I can't get enough of travel, and I even count lying on the beach as an activity that can be as completely engaging, but writing is different. I am a relentless writer, (and for those old Firesign Theatre fans, I'm also ruthless). I used to write poetry, then stories, and then I settled on the long form. I didn't want the pleasure to end and I so didn't want it to be over. I didn't want to have to say goodbye.

Yet saying goodbye is the human condition. When I dropped my older son off at college I cried the whole way home, I knew I'd see him again, and of course I have. But I also knew that what I'd had, what I'd loved having was over. This is what it means to grow up and grow older, time passes and we change because we have to change. So onwards, whether to work on the book a little more, or to write here about how it goes when I do my best to sell it, (via an agent), and hopefully the process of beginning something new as well. Because really going back is not an option. It never is.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fame and its Attendant Embarrassment; or what Amelia Earhart might have had to endure

I've been thinking about fame. About what it means to the rest of us. And what it must be like for that famous person who's just trying to go on about their business and live their life. I've been thinking about it because it's a theme of my novel. I write about Amelia, about what fame brought for her. It brought her the ability to be the person she most wanted to be and do the things she most wanted to do. It also made it impossible for her to have a private life. It's something that's much talked about, how you have to give up privacy and how hard it is, but also how little we, your public care. We want you to admit that losing privacy is worth it. I'm sure for much of the time it is. Who wouldn't want to be rich, or successful or admired. Who wouldn't want to be recognized for doing the thing one loved the most. And how wonderful to have that be financially rewarding. But there are downsides for sure.

Example numero uno; John Lennon. His murder was one of those moments that's seared into my consciousness. It was the end of innocence for me.I'd lived through all sorts of other horrible events, the King assassination, Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy, yet I'd still managed to retain a bit of that belief in the good of humanity. Perhaps I was at an age when senseless loss hit me hardest, more likely it was just my visceral connection to Lennon, to his music and then his desire to seek privacy in the city I loved so much.

New York City is filled with famous people. Growing up, a true New Yorker knows what to do. When you see someone famous, you pretend you haven't. You give them space. You don't ask for an autograph. You don't make loud, rude comments. You let them live their lives. It's a good thing even if it's not particularly honest. It's not like we don't tell everyone we know who we saw, who we spotted on the street, or in a play, we just don't go up to them and embarrass them. To do that would be to embarrass ourselves.

Speaking of which, I did attend a play recently and a famous actress sat behind us. She was trying her best to hide, glasses, a hat. The couple nearby talked about her as if she was invisible. "That's that actress, you know, the one in that movie, you know the one with Bill Murray, see she's trying to hide but you know who she is." I wanted them to be quiet, I thought of turning around to tell them so, but I didn't. That seemed as rude as what they were doing. I wanted them to realize how horrible it was for her, because fame requires that you give up something vital. She was no longer just a person, she was a commodity.

Why does fame matter so much to the rest of us? I suppose it brightens our lives in some way. Look, we've seen, we've been, we matter. I've spent a great deal of time thinking about this and thinking about how Amelia takes it, when she comes back and no one recognizes her. It's unsettling, yet also liberating. She gets to just be herself again. We don't want to hear the famous complain about their lack of privacy, and yet as human beings we depend on it. We like to watch, to listen, to be anonymous. What if that was taken away from us for good? What then?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to begin again, and is it fair that there are final chapters? Thinking of Amelia . . .

In the novel, I have a coda. In it Amelia is in the cockpit, flying towards Howland. I use her own words, spoken into the void. Not that the Itasca, the ship waiting to spot her, couldn't hear. It was that Amelia couldn't hear their response. There was one moment of contact, but that was it. I presume to channel what she was feeling and thinking. Anxiety. Exhaustion. Exhilaration. And ultimately, regret. When my own mother pulled me close to whisper that I was the one who got her, a few weeks back, I think she was counting up her own regrets. They are the things that stay with us, I suppose. And that haunt us.

But life is full of other things. I happen to believe that the more one risks, the more one gets from life. Granted, the risks I've taken are writ small. I've spoken my mind, often in an impolitic manner. As a writer, I've been rejected over and over and over. And I've fallen in love, and loved my friends wholeheartedly. It doesn't always work out in the end, or work out in the way I imagined. Yet I believe it's worth it. Without putting myself out there, without risking my heart and my live-lie-hood where would I be? And who would I be? No one I could recognize.

Anyhow, there it is. My Amelia moment for the day. All this time spent with her has made me think a great deal about taking chances. And how important they are. How they really make life worth living. So here's the question I pose. How does one live life to the fullest? What chances do we take? And what risks do we force ourselves to take?

Monday, May 17, 2010

You can't go home again; or High School Reunion Time

I interrupt this regularly scheduled broadcast to bring this up. You really can't go home again. Yet god knows we try. Memory is what we're made of, our lives are merely compilations of all our remembered experiences. We process, act and react accordingly. This was brought home to me, yet again, at my high school reunion. I was pretty miserable in high school. I've met plenty who weren't. One of my dearest friends was actually voted prom queen. She still has the most infectious smile. I don't hold her good times in high school against her, I envy her. Because of my own experience, I made a conscious choice to move to a place where my children would attend a large, multi-racial public school. I attended a small, tokenly multi-racial private school. The education was stellar. The social life for me, not so much.

I'm not a reunion type of person. This is the second one of any sort I've attended. It's not that I don't like parties, I do. It's that I don't really want to be reminded of who I was then. I moved on and that was a good thing for me. I don't want to remember how I agonized about literally everything I did and felt and said. For me, that was high school and it was such a pleasure to leave, to realize that I could make friends, that I was attractive and smart and funny, or maybe just that I was able to find enough other people who thought I was. I left high school and found people who 'got' me. That's all it takes, a group of peers who make you feel good about yourself because hey, they get your jokes and you get theirs. You laugh at yourselves and at the world, and you make your way in it. That happened for me and I've never wanted to look back or go back. But I did on Saturday night.

It was fine of course. We're all grown ups now. It was a relief that we could all be friendly and chat. But it was also a bit odd for me. I guess it reminded me that it's true, you really can't go home again. And that's a good thing, because in reality, we shouldn't yearn for that. I know Amelia didn't. She couldn't wait to get away from her family. And she spent much of the years after she became famous living at arm's length. That is when she wasn't lecturing or flying. She had no desire to go home again. She'd been there, and definitely done that.

One night is good, it's catch up. But life is like a relationship, (and perhaps a little like a shark) if it doesn't move forward. . .

"A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why the Ending is really the hardest part; or where did Amelia Earhart disappear to?

Mystery readers expect tidy solutions. When I wrote mysteries I delivered as best I could. Although I would term my mysteries quirky, they still followed the guidelines. The puzzle was set, the detective, or in this case two detectives followed the disparate leads, and eventually the solution presented itself. They and the reader could breathe a sigh of relief, all was right in the world once again. There's a comfort to that. Life presents no such comfort. Our endings are messier, or open ended. Our lives unravel slowly or quickly, or in ways we don't see, or can't afterward define. Amelia disappeared on her way home. She was there, and then she was gone. For years, the mystery has endured. Presenting a solution to it, means giving her an ending. Personally I find the ending of her life not nearly as interesting as the journey she took to get there. But as a writer, I know I am defined by endings.

Recently I read a novel that began with great promise, I couldn't put it down. But by the time I finished it I was annoyed, and then dismissive. A few weeks later, asked about what I'd read recently I couldn't even remember the title or what the book was about. That's how disappointing the ending was. Looking back I realize how unfair that is, the writer presented really beautifully drawn characters. She had me with her much of the way. But by the time I reached the end, I was so disappointed I rejected all the rest of her hard work. I forgot her talent.

What is it about endings that matters so much? We don't live our lives in thrall to them. We live them minute by minute, or hour by hour, or day by day. Yet when we read we require an answer to the questions that we refuse to ask ourselves. We want the ending to satisfy us, we want it to deliver in ways that life rarely does. As a writer it's a daunting task, but also a fair one.

Recently, doing research I came upon a letter Muriel had written to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for more information about one of the theories. In brief Eleanor assured her that she knew nothing of Amelia being sent on a spying mission by FDR. Muriel was later quoted as saying, she was certain her sister had crashed and died.

Those who remain fascinated with Amelia Earhart's final hours are solving a puzzle. They are much like those who write mysteries, myself included, and wish for a tidy ending. Not a happy one, obviously, but one that satisfies the strictures of the genre. Lots of red herrings are strewn, but there's only one real solution. I prefer to think about Amelia differently and in writing about her I have chosen a different sort of solution for her. If it works, then it mirrors life in all its untidy glory.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Amelia Earhart and how we define courage

I've been wanting to write about this for a while. Recently I've had a wonderful opportunity, I've interviewed several people who went above and beyond the normal call of duty. Their actions saved lives. They acted when others stood by. Their stories were inspiring and of course immediately made me wonder, what would I have done in their shoes? Quite likely I would have called 911, and waited for the proper authorities. But who knows, sometimes it seems that you act in ways that astound you. One of the people I interviewed honestly couldn't imagine how she'd physically managed to do what she did, in the process saving the life of the man she was with.

Under duress our best and worst sides emerge. It's made me think a lot about heroism. We know what constitutes it in these cases. It's obvious when you've risked your life and done some physical, semi super-heroic deed. But life creates daily opportunities for us to go above and beyond. It doesn't have to be obvious, active heroism to count. There are small heroic steps we all have to take. Death calls forth both fear and courage. How we die matters. Or how we deal with the loss or the potential loss of a loved one. Courage is something that we all have to tap into. It's impossible to know how it will be, but we will learn at some point in our lives. Sadly, we will learn how we will deal with death and loss.

Obviously Amelia Earhart was amazingly courageous, she flew solo over the Atlantic, and numerous other routes, she tested her limits at every turn and did it willingly, did it eagerly. She also fought for what she believed in, politically and personally. She was a role model to young women and is to this day. She used her fame to push a feminist agenda. She was a woman who was eager to make the most of what had come to her, and it had come because of her obvious desire to test her physical limits. She also had the courage of her convictions, they weren't always popular convictions. She was a pacifist, and a true liberal.

Which brings me to another sort of courage, the courage that comes when you refuse to name names in front of HUAC. Or go to prison and are executed for protesting the government's hard-line position in Iran. There are countless heroes and heroines who stood up for their convictions, many of them lost their live-lie-hoods and their lives as a result. That takes incredible courage.

And there's the courage I saw in my own students, those who had come to this country or were brought up here with absolutely no resources at their disposal, those who had lost relatives and friends because of violence in their communities, those who wanted something better for themselves and worked tirelessly, spending the day at a menial job then coming to school at night, those who fought for themselves and believed in their own potential, those who did it for their kids, or their families.

So courage matters, it matters in big and small ways, without it our world would be a dismal place. Human beings are so often terrifying selfish, yet when you think of how many of us are tested on a daily basis and manage to rise to the occasion, to do their best and even better than we could have imagined, when you think how we surprise ourselves and do it too, it gives me a reason to hope.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Rosanne Cash, Johnny and Amelia Earhart

As I was heading home, I heard Rosanne Cash on the radio. Or rather, I heard Johnny Cash say, "Rosanne, say cmon." Then she starts singing . . . "It was a black cadillac drove you away. Everybody's talking but they don't have much to say." The perfect intro for a song that's all about loss and all about love. This song is about her love for her imperfect but undeniably charming father.

When Amelia visits a therapist in my novel, her father comes up. After all, it's therapy and begins where we all begin, with the parents. This therapist wants to uncover who his patient is, and how else to figure that out but to figure out what shaped her. Amelia gives him what he thinks he wants, she writes the story of a father who was both admirable and disappointing. In other words, human. Amelia came to forgive her father for his mistakes, his weaknesses, in the end she was supportive and kind. She was the one who flew to his side to nurse him through his last illness, (with the help and comfort of his new wife). And she continued to care for her stepmother after his death. Many have written about Amelia's dependability, she obviously took on the role of caretaker, and considering how undependable her own parents were, it must have been a relief to be able to provide for others. A relief and a burden. You see, there are always two sides, two protagonists, to versions to every story. What my novel tries to do is show both sides; Amelia's and Muriel's . . .and in the end give them what history didn't, an opportunity to make amends.

I know I have spent this much time writing a novel about making amends because of my own experience with losing loved ones. Fiction is tidier than real life. It has to be, plotting demands it. But if you do a good job, it resonates. For me, writing this novel surely has.

Monday, May 3, 2010

What would Amelia Earhart do?

The woman wanted to write. Sometimes fate takes a hand. She got to fly planes instead and we're all grateful for it. Writing is such an oddly solitary profession. You engage with these characters daily, you fight with them in your mind and often aloud. Yes, that's me, the madwoman who wanders the trails of Mills Reservation with my aged dog in tow, saying things like "What if?" and "Then what?" And answering myself because there's no one else around to do it for me.

Today, I sit and wait and try to keep busy. Not that I don't have things to do, an article to finish, (worked on already, questions sent yet again etc.), and a novella to try and publish or maybe extract short stories from, a business to run to make money which I surely do need . . . still I wait. Wait for judgment and then more judgment. What would Amelia Earhart do? I know she waited for a chance to get into a plane and fly over the Atlantic. She waited, not happily for an interview with her future husband to insure that she would be included in that same flight. And she waited for other things, for money to be raised, for planes to be readied, for weather to clear, for dawn to come. As she waited she undoubtedly did many of the things we all do . . . worried, gnawed away at those worries, dismissed them, thought about the future, thought about the past, thought about odd things. . . and so the time passed.

It passes so quickly really, and it seems a shame to miss any part of what is fleeting. I see that with my own parents, and with my memories of my children. Wasn't it just yesterday, yes it actually was if you look at it in terms of the bigger picture. Sometimes to gain perspective I try that. I think of how we're just this one tiny planet in the cosmos. But then of course I'm pulled back into me. Into my demands and the primacy of my incredibly important life, (joke intended.) I so wish I was different. I wish I could just walk away from the self that wants and needs approval, on the other hand, I can't. Getting better at something means exactly that, you've gotten better. Better with not wanting to scream or murder someone or else just sinking into despair when you get those dismissive rejection letters. Better with the process of waiting. Better with the way people tell you what they would or wouldn't have done if they were well, you. Infantilizing? You betcha. Yet I'm all grown up right?

When G.P. Putnam left Amelia to cool her heels outside his office, she wasn't pleased about it. I think of her sitting there, waiting for that interview, not knowing that the next few hours would change the course of her entire life. I think that's how everything is, in a way. There's a before, and then there's an after.