Shields — for Holly

“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

If we’re among the lucky ones, we’re born into, and shielded by, a large family. We’re surrounded by grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends. We take this for granted, because we’re children, or because we don’t think about it, or because it’s just in the nature of things.

As we get older, our grandparents, who seem to be ageless, weaken and die. At some point, perhaps as young adults, we look around and we have no grandparents, no great aunts and uncles. They were living among us, we gathered together under their roofs, and now they’re gone. But we have our parents. They are middle-aged. They are robust and healthy. They will take care of us, and shield us.

Our lives go on. Our parents continue to be middle-aged, even though we refer to them, with adolescent wisdom, as being “old.” They are healthy, energetic, hard-working, sometimes useful to knock against, as the world knocks against us. Then we are “grown up,” moving toward middle age ourselves, perhaps observing the gradual decline of our parents, our aunts and uncles. We accept that this is so, and go our own way.

For many of us, when our parents die, first one, then the other, we experience our first real encounter with death. Grandparents are expected to die, but not parents. The death of our parents puts us in a position of vulnerability. Even though we might ourselves be adults, they shielded us from whatever is out there, beyond our ken, behind the sheltering sky. But now we are middle-aged. We have our own children to shield. We are the responsible ones, the warriors.

The middle of our lives is our longest and most satisfying period. This is the period in which we fall in love, find—and hopefully keep close—the partner we choose for life, have our children, raise them with apprehension and fear, try to shield them from harm. Any form of harm. They are so tender, so trusting, so awkward, so confident.

Meanwhile, we grow older. Our aunts and uncles grow old, sicken, die. Perhaps some of our cousins die suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, but we haven’t been in touch. The circle of shields that surrounded us is less dense. There are spaces between them. What is out there, behind those strong defenses—beyond our family and loved ones? We don’t know. None of those who are gone have given us a hint. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it—nothing?

Then—and this is the most brutal loss—we begin to lose our friends. A few of them might be from an older generation. Perhaps they mentored us, gave us the courage and guidance we needed to become—whatever we have become. Most of our friends, however, are part of our generation. They have accompanied us on our journey; they have laughed and cried and argued and eaten with us, and clinked glasses with us. They have been given the same years we have been allotted, more or less—and yet they can, and do, die. Which means we can die. Which means we are holding the shields now and we are on the outside, our shields raised, our poor forked bodies exposed.

We have lost Holly Prado, one of our most valued friends, and I am feeling my fragility, my smallness in our “vast, dark universe.” Holly relied for her strength on the creative spirit, and she taught us, by example, to rely on our own creative strength. I knew her for almost a decade, and I ache from the loss of her. Many in her vast community of friends and fellow poets knew her for many decades, and are feeling her loss intensely. She was a teacher for many years, but she dedicated herself wholeheartedly to the creative spirit, and this is mostly how we will remember her. Her poetry was open (as she was), attuned to everything around her (as she was), simultaneously straightforward and profound (as she was). She was generous and giving in her creative spirit. She wielded a strong shield.

The shield that I must now hold up against the darkness feels very heavy. I suppose that Holly felt that it was time to put her shield gently aside, to let come whatever comes when we no longer live beneath the sheltering sky. I hope I am strong enough to carry my shield. I have friends and loved ones who will support and protect me, whom I will support and protect in turn. It takes more strength to let go than to hold on, and I am not ready, as was my friend Holly, to let go. I am not yet strong enough.

Holly’s husband, poet/actor Harry Northup, wrote about his love of and partnership with his wife in many of his poems. In this poem, he describes (so delicately and so deftly) the gratitude we all feel for having been a chosen friend of Holly Prado, our lost shield:

“anniversary”

twenty-three years ago, we got
married
our home is in east Hollywood
with plenty of fans, two cats,
two tvs, one typewriter,
one imac & 1 hp printer

holly made pasta with pesto
& a salad
we eat together every night
she listens to me, loves & supports
me
we participate in the poetry world
we view films at the academy

a distant car horn honks incessantly
a small theatre, many churches
& numerous multi-ethnic restaurants
are within walking distance
the horn quit
the fan continues
the car horn resumes honking
it’s sunday evening, mother’s day
it’s our anniversary
“i’m glad you chose me,” i say

from East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason by Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2015)

Reflection

It takes me a while to get past the holidays. I don’t make New Year resolutions on the first of the year because I’ve found the results to be short-lived and discouraging.

Right about now, at the tail end of January, I’m ready to reflect on the past year, to give some thought to how I might make this coming year more fruitful.

My resolutions, as usual, fall into broad categories: family, creativity, health, finances.

Most of us want to outlive our few years on this earth. That’s one of the reasons we love, protect, and treasure our families. They are our legacy. They will outlive all the books on all the shelves in the world. It’s one of the reasons that family is so important in all of my writing. “Family,” of course, has become a malleable word. It includes blood relatives, extended or adopted family, friends and, often, work associates. This year, I want to do better for, to give more time and attention to, my family.

I thank God, and the powers that be, for allowing me to pursue my lifetime objective of writing fiction. Two of my novels have been published. A third is scheduled to be published later this year. A fourth is waiting in the wings. Over the years, I often considered, and accepted, the possibility that I might continue writing all of my life with only nominal publication. Although I never considered giving up, I was often discouraged. For a writer there is, in the end, nothing as affirming as a book. It is heavy and solid. It takes up space. It lingers in the universe, if only on a few shelves. In all likelihood, it will outlive its author. I want to continue writing—and publishing—fiction for as long as I am able.

Once we are past the fleeting years of youth, we are obliged to pay attention to our health, or pay the consequences. I pay attention to my health—except when I don’t. I am always aware of falling short of my goals, falling back on bad habits, neglecting the steps for going forward. And yet—what can I accomplish without my health? As with most of us who make New Year resolutions, most of my focus is on improving or maintaining my health, while getting past my lack of success during the course of the previous year.

What can I say about finances? The bills keep coming in. The money keeps going out. Money has become more ephemeral than real. We don’t see much of it these days. Money has become a more-or-less reliable promise, payable with a piece of paper or plastic, a wireless transaction, or a swipe of our smart phone. It’s the promise that’s important, and that’s what I think about. How much can I, in good faith, promise to pay out, when I compare it with what is coming in? For me, it is a subject of serious and ongoing reflection. I want to bring those in-at-the-door-out-through-the-window financial transactions into sync with each other.

We are not just creatures of habit, or creatures of impulse. As members of the human race, we can change and become. Our impulses, our habits, are strong, but our ability to change can override those habits and impulses. I think that’s why, every year, we resolve to make ourselves better, to—in effect—make ourselves over. We, as humans, can do that. Just as our cells regenerate, we are capable of change and transformation. I continue to be hopeful.

Why we reread in times of stress and anxiety

I’ve been doing a fair amount of rereading lately, and I’m wondering why I’m in “reread mode.”

I’ve reread The Forsyte Chronicles by John Galsworthy; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler; and I’m now (add any number of “re’s” here) rereading—you guessed it—Jane Austen herself. Persuasion was my pick.

Okay, in a certain sense, it’s pure laziness. I know exactly the trip I’m in for. It’s also easy access, since I tend to reread what is as close as my bookshelves, with library supplementation.

But there’s something else involved, or maybe several things.

First of all, rereading is—I admit it—a form of escapism. I’m disturbed by ongoing headlines of violence or attempted violence—what the news services call “domestic terrorism”—against innocent people. I am numbed by class hatred, and by disregard for the sacredness of life—all life. I’m appalled that we are losing the security of our collective environments—those places where we gather to worship, to shop, to share a meal, to be entertained, to participate in a rally or a marathon.

Secondly, I find that rereading is reassuring. Good stories well told reassure us about our lives, our potential, our hopes, our goals, the rightness and goodness of our worlds, of the people in our worlds.

Finally, there is the solace of literature. When we think of literature in this respect, we most often think of poetry. A few lines of poetry, a stanza or two, are often effective antidotes for a momentous or tragic occasion. We have had many of the latter in recent days and months. I have great respect for poetry, but I will often choose to revisit one of the fictional voices that I love and admire when looking for solace.

Now that I’ve broken my reasons down, I think they are, in the end, all one. I reread in the same way, and for the same reasons, that I communicate with and visit good friends. Friends help me to deal with my life on an ongoing, day-to-day basis. Books are like the voices of old friends whispering in my ear, soothing me, reassuring me, helping me to understand and to cope with—just about anything.

“The Way We Live Now”*

In my first novel, One Who Loves, one of the principal characters, Tess, recalls being raped at a very young age. In writing about this event, it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual in the fact that she repressed this memory for many years. I believe that this is often the case — which makes me wonder at the doubt cast on women in the news who, in turn, have repressed or kept silent about similar traumatic experiences.

What is there in our culture that prevents women from speaking out? Why, when they do speak out, are these women so often dismissed as unreliable, or blamed for their own behavior? Why does it become, so often, a “he said, she said” discussion, in which we side with our sex rather than with our hearts and our minds? Why are so many of us visually impaired when it comes to seeing both sides of a situation? We are, in some ways, regressing to a less open, less liberal society, in which a harsh reaction has replaced a more thoughtful response.

I am not a political person. I am a writer, a novelist, who works best in a quiet environment, away from the noise and thrum of our agitated society. But, like all women, I want to be heard and considered when I choose to speak out — whether it’s with written words or testimony or protest or some other form of active engagement.

*My subject line, “The Way We Live Now,” is the title of the 1875 novel written by Anthony Trollope. The novel is about what Trollope considered the corrupt state of England at the time.

The Novel (Part 2): Why novelists should read (and write) poetry*

For a long period of my adult life, I paid little attention to poetry. Yes, it was a part of my growing up. My father loved to read and recite poetry. Yes, I studied it in college and grad school, as my degrees were in English literature. Yes, I taught English composition; therefore, I read and reflected on poetry during those chapters in my life. Other than those periods, however, poetry remained in the background of my reading and my consciousness for many years.

When I moved to Los Angeles, some years ago, I was accepted into a local writing workshop. The moderator and some of the participants were poets. We met once a week. Every fourth week, we had a poetry hour, during which we read and discussed poems we had chosen from among the world’s poetry, old and new—poems that were as near as my bookshelf, my computer devices, my library and bookstore.

It was while preparing for and participating in the monthly poetry hour, as well as listening to workshop members discuss their own poetry, that I rediscovered poetry.

Inevitably, I gave in to the urge to write a few poems of my own. Most of my attempts were crudely crafted, but I got help and encouragement from the workshop. I was urged to rethink, revise, go farther, go deeper. The outcome I hadn’t foreseen was that, because of my exposure to and attempts at writing poetry, I became a more disciplined, a more thoughtful, a more insightful novelist.

In my novel, The Second Mrs. Price, there is a scene in which the Price family gather together one evening and read aloud, in round-robin style, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.** The poem itself is a favorite of mine. It is a celebration of youth, and a nod to the inevitability of losing that youth. It is about the timelessness of that brief, often idyllic, season when we were “happy as the grass was green.”

Dylan Thomas has been described as “a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.” *** In a style reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas takes daring leaps as he bends and shapes language to fit his vision, his voice, his unique consciousness.

When I linger over the fluid, tantalizing lines in “Fern Hill,” I am beguiled by the potential of language freed from the restraints of formality, convention, grammar, even logic. I ask myself: How many ways can a story be told? How close can I get to my character’s thought processes? How honest can I be, especially in portraying flawed, sometimes unsympathetic, characters? How can I put into words the ephemeral moments that make up our lives?

In The Second Mrs. Price, I attempt to answer those questions and test those boundaries, just as, in “Fern Hill,” Thomas is testing the boundaries of language.

Bernard, the patriarch of the Price family, is in his late 80s. It seems natural and appropriate that “Fern Hill” is one of Bernard’s favorite poems. I see him as the embodiment of time and timelessness, perennial youth and death, as he remembers “the sun that is young once only.”

Even as he approaches the end of his life, Bernard is in love—with youth, with beauty, with nature, with the small comforts of each day, with the memory of his late wife, Anna. Just as Dylan Thomas is aware of the intertwining of life and death in all of creation, Bernard understands that, from his earliest youth, “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Selene, the flawed heroine of The Second Mrs. Price, takes a daring leap into the unknown in her quest for a fulfillment that is, perhaps, beyond her reach. She is attuned to Bernard, but she is living her “green and golden” moment, rather than reflecting back on it. Her obsession for Griff is disturbing but, hopefully, the reader comes to relate to her—to the pulse of her attraction, to the often self-imposed stranglehold of security, to her longing for freedom.

“Poetry,” Dylan Thomas is quoted as saying, “is what in a poem … makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” ****

In much the same way, the novel allows us to enter the mind, the consciousness–the very soul–of the characters. The emotional divide that separates us as individuals can be bridged through storytelling and the imaginative use of language.

For more about Dylan Thomas, his life and his work, visit discoverdylanthomas.com, the official website hosted by Hannah Ellis, granddaughter of Dylan Thomas and Creative Director of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate.

*See my January 27 post, The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price,” at tonifuhrman.com.

**“Fern Hill” was published in 1945. Born in Swansea, Wales, in 1914, Dylan Thomas died in 1953 while on tour in New York. He was 39 years old.

***https://vinhanley.com/2016/02/23/the-poetry-of-dylan-thomas/

**** https://izquotes.com/author/dylan-thomas/6

The Novel (Part 1): Inside the mind of “The Second Mrs. Price”

“Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.”

The above quote is from an article* I read this month comparing the experience of reading a novel and that of watching a movie or TV.

I’ve often pondered the question of why I am drawn to novels—both reading and writing them. My upcoming novel, The Second Mrs. Price, dwells quite a bit on this “interiority.” Selene, the principal character, is continually examining her thoughts, her motives, and her actions.

This “drama of the mind” propels the narrative forward. It enables the reader to understand Selene’s mixed emotions, her divided loyalties, and her overwhelming attraction to Griff. Here is a brief passage from the novel:

Why the brother? she asked herself. They share the same last name; they emerged, bloody and enraged, from the same womb. There’s something similar in the stacking up of the features, the way the ears fit snugly against the head; but how at odds they are, otherwise. Alex so solid, so grounded, so cocksure of himself; this other one so tentative, so unsettled, perched on his chair as though waiting for, expecting an alarm—a signal to flap his wings noisily, heavy and awkward as he lifts himself up and flies away.

There is no doubt a talented actor could convey this comparison between Selene’s husband and Griff with little more than facial expression and eye movement. But it would be a general impression, without the narrative detail, or the opportunity for metaphor. In addition, it would be conveyed, first, by the skill of the actor, and then, indirectly, by the writer and the interpretation and additional consciousness of the director, the cinematographer, and the editor—not to mention the production designer and the composer of the musical score.

There is much discussion these days about the declining popularity of the novel, especially in view of the increasing popularity of the TV drama series, in which there are no time or viewing constraints. Viewers have an in-depth experience as they watch characters develop over time—one of the great achievements of the novel.

In a novel, however, there is nothing between the reader and the writer. The novelist provides the narrative, with or without authorial interpretation. The reader takes it from there. The story goes from mind to mind without filters.

The comparison between the novel and visual storytelling bears some resemblance to that of the artist versus the photographer, after photography made its debut. What could a painting or sculpture do that a photograph could not do better, and with more precision? Photography is, and was from its inception, an art form, because it involves making artistic choices. But the traditional artist is still very much alive and kicking, as is the novelist.

All art forms, in their essence, examine the soul. They do not so much compete with each other as add to the ever-evolving manifestations of creativity.

*http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/05/the-novelists-complicity/