Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

May 2011 be filled with taking chances and dancing to tribal rhythms of the heart.


Sometimes we hear something about our own history that triggers a revelation, even if that revelation is tiny to the outside observer. For instance, Mom, Aaron, Gus, and I were sitting around the living room the other day -- Aaron had flown in from NYC to surprise Mom and me for Christmas; he and Gus set the whole thing up -- and for whatever reason we started talking about babies. Babies' first words, more specifically. And then my mom starts telling us about me:

"Nathan started talking really early. He would say 'Mama' and 'Dada' and 'Milk'. He even said 'Turtle' early on." And then she told us that I stopped talking abruptly, a bit after a year old, and wouldn't talk very much again until I was about four. And then I talked and talked and talked.

I knew about the gap in my speech development, but I hadn't known that one of my first words was "Turtle". This really stuck with me as we kept on with the conversation and moved on to other topics. Turtles play a special part in the novel I just wrote, and I've long gone back to turtles in my thoughts, in my heart. I sure don't know what would inspire me to say that at such a young age! Had Mom read me a picture book? Had I spotted a turtle in a pet store and it stuck in my subconscious? Whatever the case may be, something clicked -- something about me and maybe what I was writing *toward* in some of the scenes of my novel. A mystery I'm enjoying unraveling.

Monday, December 27, 2010

It's a Boy!

Alanis Morissette gave birth to a baby boy, Ever Imre, on Christmas Day. Congratulations, Alanis!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

May your holidays be filled with SCREAMS of delight!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Return to Sender

The Christmas card I sent Helen Molnar got sent back to me. I was sitting at home in the living room Saturday, and I heard the metallic clink, followed by the whoosh of air, as the mailman dropped the mail through the slot. As usual, everything scattered in a hush on the hardwood floor. I jumped up -- excited as always to check the mail, but I'm even more of a maniac at the holidays -- and I recognized the envelope right away. I picked up it, saw "Return to Sender" on one of those rectangular yellow stickers, and took a moment of silence as I read Helen Molnar's name in my handwriting. Did she move? Had I written the address down wrong? Had she, indeed, passed away? So yesterday before work, I tucked the envelope in a larger envelope, sent it to Helen's old address by my grandfather's house, and wrote "Please Forward if Address Has Changed" next to her Alleghan Road address. Will this letter get sent back to me again? If so, I'll know that she's passed on.

I never really knew Helen very well: she lived two doors down from Grandpa John in Saugatuck, MI, and my family would usually stop by for a chat with her when we were in town. She was pushing 75 or 80 by that point, and cranky, and often negative, and she loved to gossip about everybody who lived on Silver Lake. We'd stop in to see her -- her home was nestled amidst a landscape of rusted car parts and overgrown weeds, right past the grove of pines -- and I was always in awe of her near-hoarder tendencies. Piles of newspapers kept you from maneuvering easily. Tons of household knickknacks -- from pens to coffee cups to Hummels -- were scattered over the counters and tabletops. And there was this old lady smell in the air, something like moth balls-meets-crinkly old dresses. But I loved it in there, the mix of shadows and loneliness and comfort and love. When my brothers and I were quite young -- I was maybe ten, eleven -- Helen would let us fish with her on her rickety pier that rested on the buoys. There was this unsafe little wooden walkway to get to the pier/dock/raft, and Helen had red metal chairs to sit on. I can still feel them against my skin in summer, rusty flakes sticking to my arms and the backs of my legs. We'd sit and fish with her, or sometimes we'd go down (with or without her permission) and fish on our own.

For many years, Helen sent Mom a Christmas card. She usually complained in it ("my son isn't taking care of me the way I want," "no one who lives on the lake is friendly anymore," "I sure do miss your grandpa down the road, even though he was such a grumpy fella"). I looked forward to seeing her scribbled writing, that trace of her smell on the card when Mom passed it to me to read. Something about Helen caught my heart, something about her hermit-witch life and something outside her that -- whenever we'd hear from her -- brought me back to the Saugatuck before Grandpa passed away and Mom and her sister had to sell the house, brought me back to the lake and swimming in summer and walking downtown and dashing into our favorite shops like the Old Post Office and stopping at Marro's for pizza. Helen brought me back to Grandpa John's house: the spiral staircase with the fan right there that sometimes nipped your skull, the upstairs balcony, Aunt Joyce's bedroom with the newspaper-style wallpaper, Grandpa's red saloon-style bar with the heart-shaped chairs, weird and sad clown pictures on the walls, so much more.

Over time, Helen's letters siphoned off then stopped arriving. And for a long time, she slipped past my radar. Years went by. Then, two years ago, she just bopped back into my brain like a bolt of lightning. I was in a lonely phase of life myself, and I got to thinking -- not in an unhealthy way, just a curious way -- what it's actually like to be in your 80s and to live alone in a house in the woods and to feel lonely and to wonder why your son doesn't visit. It made me sad in some ways, but as an adult I also admired her tenacity and her quirkiness and her strength to keep plugging along. Helen hadn't had an easy life, after all. What sticks out to me is her husband's illness -- I can't remember if it was cancer or something else -- and how he had to have both legs amputated, and how Helen took care of him until he died. So, two years ago, I asked Mom to dig in her old address book for Helen's address, and I wrote her out a card. I can't remember if it was Christmastime or not, but I do remember thinking, "Will she even remember who I am?" A couple weeks later I got a card back from her; there was her familiar handwriting, her cranky words about everything, her surprise and gratitude that I wrote. She was now living in Grand Rapids with her son since she wasn't able to manage on her own anymore. Last year, I sent Helen another card -- at Christmas time, for sure -- and she wrote me another letter back with her usual but endearing grievances.

This brings us to 2010. I sent a card, wondering as I have the last two years, how old is Helen now? Will she be alive to receive this card? And, as you now know, the card got sent back to me. I'm waiting to see if my second attempt this holiday makes any difference. I think I know the answer, but I'm curious every time I check the mailbox in this rush of holiday madness. I'll even give it a few extra days since the post office is swamped and it may take awhile.

But do know this, Helen Molnar, wherever you are: you are remembered. You are thought of still. You are a piece of others' history. You were complicated like all of us, and you will always be to me like a beloved character in a favorite book, someone to cherish and think about from time to time with fondness.

quote of the day

"Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you."

--Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer

Gosh, I haven't been on Goodreads in forever. (I get these occasional emails saying things like, "Nathan, you've been reading Swiftly Tilting Planet for 9,999,999 days -- what else are you reading these days?") Well, lots, I swear! I just kind of fell off the Goodreads bandwagon through no fault of theirs. In any case, someone recently commented on there that they liked my review of Jennifer Lynch's The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Perfect timing, too, since Gus is watching it with me and we're thick in the middle of the Donna Hayward-Harold Smith plot-line, arguably my favorite in the show.

Here's my review from a couple years ago (yes, I was in e.e. cummings' mode and wrote this all in lowercase):

Recommended for: fans of Go Ask Alice and/or The Perks of Being a Wallflower

the secret diary of laura palmer, written by jennifer lynch (david lynch's daughter), follows the life of a young girl from the ages of 12 until 17 as she experiments with sex, drugs, and giving into our most base -- and sometimes worst -- impulses. laura transforms from a curious seeker of truths who loves cats and bakes cookies with her mom to a cocaine-using pet-killer who has sex with strangers. laura's relationships with her family and friends either disintegrate or get transformed into surface conversations and superficial interactions. laura can't find a way to pull herself out of the darkness.

the most upsetting & disturbing part of the book is laura's nightly encounters with BOB, a scraggly-haired and wicked man who crawls in her bedroom window and molests her, taunts her, cuts her, makes her see her worst thoughts.

this "diary" is a companion to the tv series, twin peaks, about a young town's unraveling as their local homecoming queen, laura palmer, washes up on the shore, dead and wrapped in plastic, filled with secrets, filled with seedy connections to too many of twin peaks' residents. david lynch, co-creator of twin peaks, whispered the name of laura's killer in his daughter's ear so that she could write the book with that knowledge guiding her. the killer's name, naturally, is never revealed (the last entry is written just days before her death) so there are no worries, Dear Readers, that this would give anything away from watching the brilliant, sad, spiritual, quirkily funny cult favorite. if you haven't seen it, the gold box set is just waiting for your indulgence. (just make sure you don't ruin anything by watching the extras before the show, and choose the "regular tv version" for the pilot, not the "international version," because you don't want to spoil any secrets before their time.)

quote of the day

"Sacrifice is not about giving something up, it's about
making something sacred."

--Michael Klein

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Light Beneath Ferns

Here's a review for Anne Spollen's Light Beneath Ferns. (*I just submitted this review to and*) I read her debut novel, The Shape of Water, this summer and just finished up her second book this week.
The quirky, macabre lovechild of Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury, Anne Spollen casts a spell of hopes, haunts, and hurts in her second coming-of-age novel, Light Beneath Ferns. Eliza Rayne, our fourteen-year-old protagonist, experiences an adolescence both familiar and foreign. Her gambler father has abandoned her and her mother, other girls bully her at a slumber party, and a popular boy doesn’t understand her but tries to kiss her anyway. But where other girls may keep diaries, Eliza creates jewelry from bird bones and studies graves in the cemetery that borders her home. One day Elizah finds a human jawbone in the river, and her whole world – and perception of it – shifts. Soon she’s tangled in a romance with Nathaniel, who may or may not be a ghost. Nathaniel takes her on rides down the river in the middle of the night and walks her through a village where reflections linger longer than they should in mirrors. What’s most impressive about Spollen’s novel – besides her sharp, poetic prose – is her ability to break our hearts for Eliza not because she may be caught in a mystery between life and death but because we can all relate to her struggle for both self-identity and kinship. Her mother wants her to try harder to be “normal” and her guidance counselor pushes her to get more involved in “typical” school activities, but Elizah Rayne insists – through strength of spirit – on holding out for people and places that are aligned with her own beliefs and values. Even if those people are literal spirits – and those places are ghost-villages long gone save for rubble, memories, and dashes of magic.