The Age of Disconnect

The novel, or play, La Celestina, a.k.a The Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea, considered one of the greatest works in all of Spanish literature, is an intricate tale of love and treachery, written entirely in dialogue. Fernando de Rojas, the author and a descendant of converted Jews, published his work in 1499, just when Spain was exiting the Medieval period and entering the Renaissance. There was a lot going on in Spain at that time. It was only seven years after Columbus reached the Caribbean, and after the Spanish monarchy violently expelled the Muslims and Jews, some of my ancestors among them. La Celestina is historically and artistically significant in all kinds of ways, and I won’t get into any of that at all.

I read La Celestina in grad school, wrote some kind of paper on it, and then, like most of what I read and wrote back then (about 15 years ago now) forgot the whole thing. There was, however, one tiny bit that I remembered, something insignificant that nevertheless attached itself to my brain and stayed with me. This bit is a passage in which the character Areúsa, a prostitute who lives independently, has something to say about friendship. At this moment in the narrative, Areúsa is talking with her cousin Elicia, also a prostitute, and the title character, Celestina, a crafty older woman they both work for.

Here is the passage and my faulty translation. Areúsa says:

Assí goze de mí que es verdad; que estas señoras ni gozan deleyte ni conocen los dulces premios de amor. Nunca tratan con parientes, con yguales a quien puedan hablar tú por tú, con quien digan: Qué cenaste? Estás preñada? Quántas gallinas crías? Llévame a merendar a tu casa. Muéstrame tu enamorado. Quánto ha que no te vido? Como te va con él? Quien son tus vezinas?”, y otras cosas de ygualdad semejantes. Oh tía, y qué duro nombre y qué grave sobervio es “señora” contino en la boca!

Take it from me, it’s the truth; that these ladies neither enjoy nor know the sweet rewards of love. They never deal with relatives, with equals, with whom they can speak familiarly one to another, with whom they say: What did you have for dinner? Are you pregnant? How many hens are you raising? Take me to eat at your house. Show me your lover. How long since I’ve seen you? How is going with him? Who are your neighbors? And other things like this. Oh Aunt, what a hard name, and what grave arrogance is the word “Lady” in one’s mouth!

I think the reason I’ve remembered this random paragraph all these years is because I found it endearingly familiar, in that the small details that constitute friendship are the same now as they were over 500 years ago. There are bigger and deeper themes we share with our friends, but I think if you care to know what your friend had for dinner last night (Facebook posts notwithstanding), or how many hens she has, those are markers of real affection and intimacy.

Back in the old days, and now I’m talking about my own old days, in the period between high school graduation (1988) and when email took over completely about 10 years later, I and my long-distance friends kept in frequent touch by writing letters and artsy postcards. Pretty much everyone did. Of course, letter writing goes back hundreds of years, and even for me dated from before 1988, but that’s when it started for me in earnest because my friends and I dispersed to different places.

Email killed letter writing, and then Facebook and texting quickly killed email as a means of keeping in touch long-distance. The phone still figures in somewhere, and the rest is a mystery to me. I don’t know what people do. Several years ago, living in a new place, I suddenly needed a way to connect with friends that didn’t depend on time (as in schedules aligning) or space (or money or fossil fuels), so I decided to start writing letters again. I did this with a personal policy that I shared with the people I wrote to. Here it is: 1) I don’t expect anyone to write back. Everyone is so busy, for one thing, and unless you are weird in the ways I am, you aren’t going to make writing letters a priority. 2) I only write to people who will actually enjoy getting the letters. I can’t pour my heart and soul and humor (and the petty details of existence) onto the page if I think the recipient will find it tiresome.

The main thing I get out of writing letters is the feeling that I’m hanging out with the person I’m writing to. Real hanging out is much better, but I have people dear to me that I rarely get to see or talk to, so this helps. Writing also helps me process my life, and while I could do that by keeping a journal, I’ve never been very interested in that. What’s the point of recounting something funny to yourself? I’m totally not knocking journal writing –it’s hugely valuable to lots of people– it’s just not the thing for me.

I actually have gotten some letters back, that’s a thrill. And the friends who haven’t written have let me know in other ways that they appreciate getting the letters. Even if the letters are full of a lot of minutiae, on par with numbers of hens or ingredients in dinner or how it’s going with the love interest, the important thing is that the friendship gets nurtured. If women like Areúsa valued this 500 years ago in the same way I do, then it must be a universal human thing. Maybe that’s obvious.

In less elegant terms, you could call talking about whatever “shooting the shit.” This is a great expression because it means you’re doing something that seems meaningless just for the pleasure of it, just because you are connecting with another person. In the Age of Disconnect, which I think we could reasonably call our age, when you have to work at connecting rather than having it occur naturally, we sometimes have to get creative. And sometimes getting creative means reaching into the past and resurrecting something that has fallen out of the culture.

I know I’m not the only person who writes letters, there are other people out there who need some slow ways to be in the world, slow food, etc. I wonder who they are and why they do it. I wonder what they write about, and who they write to, and I hope they sometimes get letters back.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.

Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.

Find out more on the publisher’s site.

 

 

 

Catalonia and the Time of the Doves

Last August I reread one of my favorite books, The Time of the Doves, by Merce Rodoreda, for the fourth or fifth time. I re-read it because I was about to travel to California and give my copy away as a thank you gift to my editor, Neesa Sonoquie, or as I’ve called her in print, my editorial Kung Fu Master. If you’ve ever had an editor turn your manuscript into confetti, in the most magnificent way possible, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a transcendent experience. I wanted to give Neesa this book because The Time of the Doves isn’t just one of my favorite books, it’s one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever come across in my life.

I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda from the writer Sandra Cisneros in 1995. I had the chance to meet Sandra in California, because she was speaking at an event my boyfriend at the time was organizing, and I rode along in the car while he drove her to her hotel. She was gracious and kind, shook my hand with a wonderful warm smile, and said after that if her mom could see all the flowers in the hotel garden she would start crying because they were so pretty. When I told her how much I admired her work, she told me about Rodoreda.

Not long after the event I found a second hand copy of of The Time of the Doves in a bookstore, and packed it along with several other books in a large backpack. I’d been saving my money and was off to Spain to travel and then see if I could make a living teaching English. The boyfriend was supposed to follow me there a month later, but he never showed up. That’s another story.

I was 24 and this was my first time traveling alone. Email wasn’t much a thing yet and neither were ATM cards. I had $3000 in travelers checks stuffed down the front of my pants and that was pretty secure. Even if I fell asleep on a train, no one was going to be able to undo my belt and rob me. When I needed cash I’d go to a bank and wait in line behind people who were smoking, and then when it was my turn I’d exchange for enough pesetas to last a few days.

If I’d wanted to supplement my funds before such time as I was established as an English teacher, I could have accepted the offers of a few old men who assured me that money was no object, or that what they proposed would not take long. This was attention you could get if you did something really provocative like be young and sit alone on a bench in the middle of the day, or carry a backpack at a bus station, even dressed like a boy. The first time that happened I was so shocked I truly realized the meaning of “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” That’s exactly how I felt. Later I just started threatening to hit people.

Traveling alone was illuminating in many ways, and my time in Spain (teaching English, etc.) turned out to be an important period for me, not just at that stage of my life, but for the stages that came next. The books I took with me were great companions, though I was hardly loyal to them. Every time I finished one I left it behind to lighten my load. I read them in no particular order, but as it happened I read Time of the Doves when I was traveling through Catalonia, Rodoreda’s native land. I hadn’t realized she was Catalán, and I knew nothing about her history or that of the region.

When I left for Spain I had the name of just one person I could look up, someone I had never met, a woman named Lizzie who was my father’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s step-daughter. Lizzie’s address included a city or province called Lleida, but once I was in the country I couldn’t find it on any maps. Paper maps were all you had to navigate with back then. Where was this mysterious city that didn’t exist? I must have spoken with someone, I don’t remember, who informed me that Lleida was Catalán for Lérida, or rather Lérida was Castillian for Lleida. That may have been evidence of the history of Franco’s war on regional languages, but as I say, I knew nothing of that at the time. So I went looking for Lleida, and found Lérida, and from there I managed to get ahold of Lizzie by phone, where she worked near a tiny village in the Pyrenees as an instructor at a rafting school. She invited me to come out for a few days, and so I took a bus up there. It was October now and the air was crisp and vivid, with bright clouds suspended over the road, in the gaps of blue sky I could see between the mountains. Different from the big cities I’d been in, the hot, arid south of the country, and the humid Mediterranean coast.

I’d been in Barcelona, Rodoreda’s city, walking the streets several decades after Natalia, her protagonist, survived the civil war there in the 1930s. Natalia tells her story, which begins before the war and continues much after, like a dream, but the most lucid, hyper-real and resonant of dreams. Today if you buy a copy of one of Rodoreda’s books you will find in them introductory essays by Sandra Cisneros. Naturally the publisher wants to pull these books written in the 1960s into the contemporary era, though these efforts are already over 20 years old. Rodoreda, who died in 1983, was a highly acclaimed writer with an international reputation who wrote many books. As far as I can tell, only three were translated into English. David Rosenthal, her brilliant English-language translator, was an important translator of Catalán literature, a poet, an editor, and an author who wrote mostly about the history of jazz. Sadly, he died young, at only 46. I wonder how many native English speaking writers exist that speak perfect enough Catalán to translate more of Rodoreda’s books. If the books have been translated into Spanish, I wonder if someone like me (an author with a translation background) could attempt it, but it would hardly be the same. Translators have to make thousands of decisions when doing their work, especially in literature. It’s an interpretation at many points. If you don’t translate something from the original, but from a previous translation, you will get something really strange, like the Bible.

In one of her essays, Cisneros quotes a French critic who says of Rodoreda and Time of the Doves, “One feels that this little working woman in Barcelona has spoken on behalf of all the hope, all the freedom, and all the courage in the world. And that she has just uttered forth one of the books of the most universal relevance that love—let us finally say the word—could have written.”

My days in the tiny mountain village with Lizzie, her Catalán husband and her younger sister who was there visiting too, were rare and magical. We hiked up into the mountains, where shaggy horses grazed, and picked buckets of tiny blackberries to make a cobbler back at home, which added to the best meal I’d eaten for ages. I’d been eating and sleeping on the cheapest scraps I could find during my travels and eating well was a thrill. Even better, I slept in the attic on a kind of traditional futon stuffed with wool, which is the best thing I’ve ever slept on before or since. They say wool has many extraordinary qualities, like the ability to wick away both moisture and any kind of negative energy. I would attest to that.

Once after midnight we drove along a small winding road and crossed the unmarked border into France to visit an ancient Roman hot springs. We took off our clothes in a pitch black shed and then stepped into the steaming water. The sides of the tub—if tub is the right word—were perfectly even, rounded stone that the water just superseded, so that the surface was an unbroken mirror of stars.

When I left the village to get back on the road I left my copy of The Time of the Doves with Lizzie, having read the last page on that marvelous wool futon.

Several years later in grad school in Massachusetts, where I went to study “Hispanic Literatures,” I read The Time of the Doves for a paper I was attempting to write on the modernization of Spain, comparing Rodoreda’s novel with a classic of Spanish literature, La Gaviota (The Seagull). The book struck me in this second reading in a way that it hadn’t quite before. Maybe being a little older and a little more mature helped. I was so in awe of it that I seriously considered changing my concentration from Latin American literature to Spanish, but in the end I didn’t. I was already in too deep, and was also too interested in seeking out Latin American Jewish writers. So my relationship with Rodoreda’s writing never turned academic, it stayed personal.

I read The Time of the Doves again several years later when living in Vancouver, Canada, a reprieve from the days of medical crisis that dominated the first few years of my child Asa’s life. I reached the last page and was as floored by its beauty as if I’d never read it before. I spent some minutes staring at the ceiling, held motionless under its powerful spell. Several more years later, in Victoria, more than 20 years since the first time, I read it again so I would have it in my mind and heart while I didn’t have it on my shelf—the temporary interim between giving Neesa my copy, and replacing it with another one. I tend to forget most of the details in the years between readings, and since we read differently in different life stages, the experience, though familiar, is always new.

I look forward to the next time.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.

Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.

Find out more on the publisher’s site.

 

 

Reminiscing ~ Iona

Of the contemporary minds that I admire, one that stands out is the author Zadie Smith. I find it insane (and frankly unfair) that someone that brilliant is also that beautiful. It can be difficult to know which is more dazzling, her beauty or her brilliance, when you watch an interview with her, but it all comes through in a rare, bold, and piercing eloquence. I mean, seriously.

Recently I took in a conversation from a few years ago, with Zadie Smith and the wonderful Paul Holdengraber of the New York Public Library. At one point in the conversation, talking about how the idea in hip-hop of “keeping it real” applies to literature, Smith said, “If you’re extremely honest, you will always be extremely weird….The honest expression of experience is always strange.”

I’m really glad she said that. It gives me a lot of courage, and will help bolster my telling of the following small story:

When I was 18…

Many years ago, which can sometimes seem like yesterday, when I was 18, on a sunny day in San Francisco, I went to a hilltop park with two friends. Gwen and Lily, and I sat in the grass and ate little graham crackers shaped like teddy bears; we were out for a day of art and adventure. Eventually we made our way to the playground, the sand and the play structures scattered with kids.

Gwen had brought a camera with a roll of black and white film, and we took turns with it. I was absorbed in taking pictures of some kids on the swings when I noticed Gwen climbing all over one of the play structures and laughing her head off. Gwen and Lily and I had the advantage of being teenage girls, and white, in that we could hang around a playground without anyone suspecting us of being dangerous, even playing with two random kids, as Gwen was now doing.

The kids were a sister and brother pair, Iona and Melvin. Iona was the older, eleven (Melvin was only seven), and confident in the way that eleven-year-olds are, at the apex of mature childhood, before adolescence starts to sneak in and undermine things, and she was directing the game: obstacle courses.

“First you climb up this ladder, then you slide down this pole…” she explained, along with numerous other directions, and I quickly got on board. So then we were all over the bars, one after the other, breathlessly finishing one sequence and then starting another.

When the game came to its natural end, Melvin had a lot of sand in his hair, which I tried to help brush off. He was a quiet guy, though smiley, but Iona had a lot to say. We sat on a curb between pavement and sand.

“My Rocky Robot won first prize,” she said, filling me in on the science project she and her dad had made in the garage, and a lot of other things. I was generally interested in meeting people with stories to tell, and Iona was a really, really cool kid. I got my notebook and a pen from my backpack and began to take notes.

I liked kids. I had no siblings and always wished I did. I had a big, unspent love for a younger sister, that somehow I always felt was missing. When I myself was eleven my dad had a girlfriend named Barbara, who had two little daughters, two and four years old. I hoped my dad and Barbara would get married, so the girls could be my sisters. The older one, Addie, was especially charming. If she couldn’t pronounce a word, she’d put an “FR” at the beginning. That summer we spent a lot of time “frimming” in pools, or sometimes “friving” in the car to a lake. But it wasn’t to be. I lost them in the wake of change, like I’d already lost so many people I had wanted to keep.

Sitting with Iona, talking about her life and writing things down I was mostly quiet, especially when Iona told me that her mother had died. I was struck, and so sad. The revelation took me by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. I would know now, maybe, almost 30 years later, having slowly acquired some social skills. But that day, that moment, I just watched her face, her eyes looking down, listening to the tone of her voice as she said the words.

I don’t know how long we sat there, but at some point Iona said that she and Melvin had to go; they were expected at home. Gwen and Lily and I collected our things and walked with them down to the corner. On the way, down a long set of wide concrete stairs, Iona sang “Rockin’ Robin.” I knew that song too and sang along.

Rockin’ in the treetops all day long

Hoppin’ and a-boppin’ and a-singin’ his song

All the little birdies on Jaybird Street, love to hear the Robin go tweet tweet tweet

Rockin’ Robin, tweet, twiddly-deet, Rockin’ Robin…

Gwen took a picture of me and Lily with Iona and Melvin in the middle, and someone took a few pictures of Iona by herself. And then we said goodbye and went on our separate ways.

Goodbye Melvin.

Goodbye Iona.

“The honest expression of experience is always strange,” said Zadie Smith. I’m sure it will sound weird if I say that every time I’ve thought of Iona since that day, I’ve missed her, like I missed that younger sister I never had. Too bad we couldn’t have met as neighbors or something, and maybe I’d help her with her homework once in awhile, if she was working on it on her front steps, or we’d go to the park and do her obstacle courses, and sing songs. If she didn’t have a mother, and I didn’t have a sister, then maybe, in that alternate reality, we could have kept each other.

I still have a few pictures from that day. At some point, shortly after saying goodbye to Iona and Melvin, Gwen opened the camera by accident and the pictures of them got over exposed. There are two dream-like portraits of Iona, one where she must be in the middle of a monologue, and another in a reverie, with her scarf blowing like the Little Prince on his asteroid.

Somewhere out there, in the real world, I hope, Iona is alive and well, and almost 40, and Melvin is 36 or so. I hope they are happy.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.

Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.

Find out more on the publisher’s site.

 

 

Why Do You Write?

I love it when I hear the question posed to writers, “Why do you write?” I listen with avid interest to the answers, which are sometimes elusive, like, “It’s just what I do,” or a conclusion arrived at by a process of elimination like, “It was the only thing I was good at,” or, “There’s nothing else I want to do more.” The writer Jhumpa Lahiri once quoted someone to say that the writer is “the reader who can’t control himself,” which must speak to the love of the medium, a love so fierce, that when you dive into a book, as into a swimming pool, that level of participation is not enough, and you have to, upon reaching the bottom, carve out another pool, and so on, so you can keep swimming forever.

Writers also talk about hating writing, and I love that too. Paul Beatty, the genius who gave us The Sellout, has said in interview that he hates writing, because writing is hard, and yet he devotes his whole soul and intellect and the years of his life to it. He’s not alone in this feeling, which of course gives rise to the question of why do it. Personally, I seem to write because I need to. I have a love for it, it’s one of the activities that seems most to be in harmony with my soul, and it’s also a strategy I lean on heavily, to deal with myself and the world, the inner and outer spaces, and the interconnections throughout them.

A big part of that mediation goes out in the desire to connect with others, by reading and by writing, via that special sort of communication that Stephen King calls “telepathy” between reader and writer. It’s a funny kind of communication because at any one point, in real time, there’s only one person present, either the reader or the writer, and yet it works. It works brilliantly well.

            Now that House of Rougeaux is launched, now that we’ve broken the champagne bottle over the hull, and the thing has lurched out of the harbor, it goes off on a sail that has little to do with me anymore. I spent two years (or so) building it, and now off it goes, in wind and water that I didn’t create, and while I’m very invested on its voyage, it’s now an entity separate from me. Actually, during the making it also felt like an entity separate from me, even though I was very intimately involved. The books I am working on now, two new novels, one of which is a Rougeaux sequel, have a stake in Rougeaux’s success, because these are two new entities that also want to be born. They want to be born, and also to have a life (publication, readership, participation in the culture of reading, in the activity of life on earth), and it’s the life part that depends on forces outside my own sphere. And after that, likely there will be others, because I’ll keep writing, because I need to, though that personal need, in itself, is not particularly interesting. More interesting is the question of why humanity does this at all.

One of the few writers to whom I have a deep, personal attachment—someone who feels like an important friend, even though I’ve never met him and never will, unless it’s in the afterlife—is David Foster Wallace. Wallace once said in interview:

Fiction has a very weird and complicated job, because part of its job is to teach the reader, communicate with the reader, establish some sort of relationship with the reader, where the reader is willing, on a neurological level, to expend effort, to look hard enough at the jellyfish to see that it’s pretty. That kind of effort is very hard to talk about, and it’s real scary because you can’t be sure whether you’ve done it or not. It’s what makes you sort of clutch your heart when somebody says, ‘I really like this. It didn’t strike me as gratuitous.’ Cause that’s, of course, your great hope when you’re doing it. The point of art has something to do with loneliness and something to do with setting up conversations between human beings.

This is as good a description of the point of art, and the intention of the attempt to get to that point, as any I’ve ever heard. Or it’s better, I don’t exactly keep track, I just know when I hear something like this that I have to write it down. And I have to reread it and share it, and keep it for myself, because it helps me understand what the hell I am also trying to do.

Thanks for reading.


Jenny Jaeckel’s latest book House of Rougeaux was published in April (2018) and is available in hardcover, ebook and audio wherever books are sold!

Living for Art and Stories

One of the first things I did when I got started on the planet, after getting the hang of eating and excreting and some basic motor skills, was draw pictures. I learned to walk late, talking and drawing were bigger priorities for me. Somewhere my mom has a photo of my first drawing from when I was one and a half: a mass of short lines, scribbles and dots on a chalkboard that I told her was a face. I pointed out the “eye-bows.” What got me so obsessed with drawing I don’t know, but I drew all the time. People told me I was good at it and that probably went to my head. Once when I was five I saw a picture in a museum, of a train drawn by Diego Rivera when he was three. I calculated that I could have drawn a picture that good right then, but I would have had two years on him and I could tell that in the imaginary competition in my mind, little Diego Rivera had won. Forty-one years later, it’s easy to see that against me Diego Rivera, and many lesser known artists, will always win.

The thing that I did not struggle with when I was a kid, was questioning the value of art. I took for granted that I did it just because I wanted to. I find that adulthood sucks in large part because everything you do has to have a reason, a justification, it’s got to make money, or at least help someone. Really what it means is that your activities have to justify your existence, and while choosing activities in an intentional way is a good thing, it can also make for a pretty sad baseline.

I spent a lot of years pursuing things I thought had more value than art. And then when I was back to doing art (which was often) I spent a lot of time trying to push the concepts of “art” and “value” back together in my mind. The two kept repelling, like magnets with the wrong sides toward each other. I’m not sure where that struggle went actually, I never came to any grand conclusions, but it has faded over time.

Here’s what I think won out. Two things, first: I really love stories, even the kind that start with “One time,” and end with the person you’re telling it to going, “And?” Sometimes visual art makes stories come to life in a way they couldn’t otherwise. Queens of comics art Marjane Satrapi, Kate Beaton and Lynda Barry, for example, are superb at this. So there’s love and excitement and beauty and poignancy in works I really connect to, whether that’s in books, radio stories or moments from life.

Secondly, I’ve discovered that for me part of the value of art (including writing) is that it’s a big part of the way that I deal with the difficult parts of being alive. Last year I read in Langston Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea, that he wrote mostly when he felt bad. I felt relieved reading that. Maybe being a writer isn’t all about inspiration, maybe being a writer also means it’s what you turn to when you have to turn to something. And maybe another part of the time it’s just for the imaginary friends you get out of it. In any case, it turns out I’m still doing now what I started as a toddler. Maybe it was all unavoidable.

On that note I’d like to leave you with a story, because that’s what I live for.

One time many years ago I spent ten December days in London, on an impromptu, medicinal visit. I’d been in Spain and was a sort of casualty of love. I stayed with my friend Dina, and while she was working I went out on the tube to different places she recommended. On one of these excursions I went to the National Gallery and stumbled upon a school tour of the Van Goghs, given by a man I remember as resembling the French actor Dominique Pinon of Amélie, Delicatessen, etc. Thirty or so young students were seated on the floor in front of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, while clusters of older museum visitors, myself included, stood around behind them.

Monsieur Pinon knelt beneath the painting on one knee, expounding passionately on Van Gogh, and the brilliant way he sculpted the paint into texture, and his important relationship with the painter Paul Gauguin. He spoke of the role of the painting in Van Gogh’s time with Gauguin, and the feud that erupted between them when they were living and working together in Arles, in the south of France. This feud, the lecturer said, caused Gauguin to leave town.

At that moment another visitor at the museum, a man with long hair and a goatee and a puffed-up chest he’d had his arms folded across, called out, “And then he went to Tahiti and shagged all the young women!” He strutted out, as he said this, disappearing into another gallery.

Dead silence. The students stared.

The lecturer, who had frozen mid-sentence, tipped his head to the side and said, “‘Tis true…”

The students laughed. The rest of us visitors laughed. And Monsieur Pinon went on with his talk.


Recently, Jenny Jaeckel wrote an essay for Writer’s Digest called “Bodies, Blind Spots and Quirks” where she talks about writing her novel House of Rougeaux. To find out more about her newest book visit Raincloud Press. Also available to order here, or from your favorite bookstore.

A Theory of Creativity

The Mystery

Most of us are familiar with Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc 2 (Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light squared) and most of us, myself included, really don’t understand it. I know very little about physics, and based on only my own anecdotal evidence, I would like to offer an additional equation: M = EY2.

This is an equation that describes the relationship, as I often experience it, between the energy of events in life, and the actual events themselves. Nothing scientific or mathematical here, just some nerdy, New-Agey philosophizing. But call it what you will, I believe it speaks to something many people experience, even if it’s not something we generally talk about.

M = EY2.

In this equation, Matter (not Mass) equals Energy times the square of an unknown variable, Y, a variable that will always remain a mystery. Y is squared because mystery seems to have that exponential power; it kaleidoscopes away from itself, and just leaves you wondering.

The way I know about this equation goes something like this: certain events, certain relationships, and certain creative projects arrive with, or are preceded by, a large amount of Energy. For example, sometimes I feel an up-swell of energy that I know will be a project—in my case, usually a book—before I know what that project will be. Then, with whatever time frame it requires, the book takes shape and becomes real. It becomes Matter.

The Fire of Creativity and Relationship

          The separate arrival of energy and matter in relationships has been more rare. In the case of meeting my husband Chris, now twenty years ago, and without going into the details, the energy preceded the event, and then that big energy became the “matter” of relationship, marriage, and family life with our child Asa. I felt something similar upon meeting one friend in particular, an up-swell of energy completely out of proportion to the relationship. The energy was big, and the relationship was brand new, so one did not logically fit the other, and when big energy happens it seems like fate is talking to you. “You’ve met a soulmate!” it seems to say, or, in the realm of projects, “You’ve created a best-seller!” But in this case that energy did not become matter, at least not in a continuing sense. This friend and I had lives that were completely divergent in focus and geography, and that energy, which we both seemed to feel, did not manifest in a continuing friendship. That’s the thing about the energy, it does not always manifest as matter, or it manifests in a very different way than I expect, and that seems to be part of the mystery.

We have all heard people talk sometimes about being struck by something, as if by lightning, or having a fire lit under them. I would characterize the experience of perceiving energy like that, or as the up-swell, or like a river running in a certain direction, or like a force or a presence, or like plugging into a socket, and in other ways too. It depends on the situation.

At the end of my second year at university, at the age of twenty, I heard a classmate read aloud a story he’d written, about meeting someone in Mexico, and walking up a hill to overlook the sea, and there was a line about “glistening palm fronds.” I hardly remember it now, but there was something about that story that lit that fire in me. Up until then, writing, for me, was one of many interests, and nothing serious. I had intended to focus the following year on film and video-making, but that day I scratched those plans, and spent the next two years studying creative writing.

I had very few decent ideas, very little sense of how to handle words, very little to say, and very little imagination. Somehow that mediocrity didn’t stop me. The fire that got lit didn’t manifest in anything presentable for a very long time—far beyond university—though occasionally, and usually in the form of a comic or something visual, I made something nice.

Book Projects

           Since very young, many of my projects were attempts at making books: picture books, comic books, or other art and text combinations. My first graphic novel, Spot 12, Five Months in the Neonatal ICU, that I made in my mid-thirties, was my first serious book, and the first one that I felt became an entity of its own. I had the distinct feeling, in the middle of making it, that it would have its own journey, something separate from me, as if I were raising a wolf cub that would one day return to the wild.

Ten years later, House of Rougeaux, my first regular novel, became an entity too. I was writing a series of short stories, when that happened. The book was maybe half-written (in its first draft) when it sat up and began issuing orders. I was not writing stories, it told me, but chapters, and I was to call them that. The book declared itself to be a novel, and told me what its title should be.

They say creating something is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. I don’t disagree. Making books is arduous, tedious, and the thrilling moments are brief. It takes work to turn energy into matter, though sometimes no amount of work will do it. Once in a while, at least, we ourselves are part of that Y variable. The human being, both energy and matter, is a remarkable instrument, and very mysterious. Exponentially so.

M = EY2. Matter, Energy, and Mystery. The three cosmic playmates, playing tag through time and space, and our own little universes. I don’t understand it any more than I understand Einstein’s work, but it does seem to be real.


Jenny Jaeckel’s first novel House of Rougeaux publishes next week. It’s a literary and historical novel that spans from the Caribbean in the 1700s to Philadelphia in the 1960s. Learn more about this magical novel, or pre-order here. Available in print, ebook and audio (narrated by Bahni Turpin).

Mr. Rat: Storytime

I have never had any kind of stomach for gore, and am too easily scared or disturbed by horror to want to consume it as entertainment. I can barely tolerate little bits of the news.  Hence, I’ve never read the work of Stephen King, except for one book: On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. I love this book, and I love Stephen King as the writer of it.

In the beginning of the section where he discusses the craft of writing (after the first section that describes his growing up to become a writer), King divides writers into four categories: bad, competent, really good, and the great geniuses. King doesn’t see much possible movement between these classes of writers, except for the potential for competent writers, with much hard work and devotion, to ascend into that of the really good. Myself I hope to I’m somewhere in this category of upward mobility.

Of the geniuses, King says they are “…divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain… [most of them] aren’t [even] able to understand themselves…” I fully agree that this kind of genius is beyond my ability to understand. That’s how I feel when I read James Baldwin, for example, or one of my favorite authors, Edith Wharton. If you aren’t familiar with the works of Edith Wharton, try her short stories like “Roman Fever” or “The Other Two”. They are like tiny novels. Or try one of her actual novels, like The House of Mirth, which is an entire world folded up into book-size.

What follows is my homage to Edith Wharton. Let’s say you see a heavenly parade in which a magnificent goddess passes by, and somewhere in her wake there’s a little hunched up troll, tooting a tune of devotion on a little horn. That little tune might be analogous to this story. Here goes. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Mr. Rat

Riding the elevated from Grand Central Station to Union Square, Mr. Rat snapped the pages of the Hole Street Journal and perused the Real Estate section. His neatly trimmed whiskers twitched from side to side. It was not yet the rush hour and the other riders swayed languidly with the motion of the train. Outside the city tumbled by, the skyline fading into the yellowish haze of afternoon. Folding the paper with a sigh, Mr. Rat drew a gold pocket watch from his waistcoat and consulted the time. Four o’clock. Enough time to ring Mrs. Rat to tell her he would be dining at his club that evening, make his “detour” and return to his offices to finish up his work on the O’Leary case. He would not be missed at home.

Mr. and Mrs. Rat’s only child, their daughter Celina, had made her debut a year ago, and now Mrs. Rat’s sole devotion was to see her wed. Were he present at dinner, they would only ply him with demands. Celina would be needing a new opera cloak, or set of Parisian parasols for the next summer season. Silk, of course. According to Mrs. Rat, it was essential that Celina be carted around, making appearances in all the right places, and with all the right people, in order to land the right kind of husband. In his day the elders in society brokered the marriages without all the fuss. But things were different now. What with all the new industrialists, new money was mixing with the old so fast the purer stock was growing more diluted by the week. Fashion was overtaking tradition at breakneck speed. It made one very dizzy.

However, he would leave the scheming to the women. A profitable match for Celina was key, he did agree, and he trusted his wife to get the job done. Mr. Rat’s duty was to tend to the firm, bring home the bacon, and as long as he did so he felt he was entitled to a little comfort and pleasure of his own. For some time now this had taken the form of his “detours,” and for the last several months these led him to the heavily feminine apartment, on upper 9th Street, of one Miss Vera Hines, a young lady rat whose sleek fur and refined character were equally, in his estimation, unblemished.

All the bedroom stuff, that had been over with Mrs. Rat for ages. Things were playful enough when they were young, but after Celina, and her brother Boris, who was tragically taken from them in his infancy, the spouses withdrew to their separate corners, and there they remained.

At 4:35 Mr. Rat tapped his special knock on the door of Miss Vera Hines. Even before it opened he smelled her perfume. How long had it been since they met? Nearly a year? At the big painting exhibition at the Rattus Norvegicus. He wasn’t much for pictures but all of rat society attended and he went with an associate, and there he spotted her. Those large, dark eyes, with their coquettish lashes. She was a friend of one of the artists, a model perhaps, not one of the patrons to be sure. They struck up a conversation about one of the pictures. He was charmed. She gave him her card. Two weeks later he went to see her.

Now she greeted him at the door, lashes fluttering, in the silk dressing gown with the Chinese print she knew drove him absolutely mad, and the pearl choker he’d given her last month as a birthday present.

“I’m just dressing for an engagement,” she said, having installed him in an arm chair by the fireplace.

“Dining out?” he asked.

“Mm,” she replied, vaguely affirmative and fiddling with earrings.

It did not occur to Mr. Rat to be jealous. He knew she had friends, other admirers certainly, but the idea that she could have other romantic interests did not cross his mind. Still, it was an opening for their customary ritual.

“Ah,” he sighed in mock melancholy, “out with the younger set. I don’t see why you want to be bothered with an old codger like me.”

“You aren’t so old,” she cooed, coming over to sit on his lap and stroke the greying fur at his temples. “You’re seasoned.” She flashed that naughty smile.

“Like a chop,” he said wistfully, knowing that in minutes he would be making her squeak with delight. She laughed, stood up again, and extended her paw.

“Come help me pick out my slip.”

It did not occur to him that this part of their visits, rather than the romps in the bedroom, was actually the most pleasurable. A lot of things did not occur to Mr. Rat.

The next morning, breakfasting on their cook’s omelette with kippers, the Rats scrutinized different sections of the Times, Mr. Rat again with Real Estate, as many of the clients at his firm dealt in properties, and Mrs. Rat and Celina over the Society pages. A particular article held their interest, about a ball given last weekend at the Van Hole de Berg’s. Celina had danced with a number of the young gentleman rats, but she and her mother had their eye on a certain one. This was Jack Bentley, son of Ambrose Bentley, one of the new industrialists that had clambered his way up society’s ladder in the decades since his crude beginnings. Mr. Rat disliked Bentley’s ingratiating manner, but ignoring a man who commanded that kind of money was bad for business. Bentley’s son however, refined and educated at the best schools, was a real rising star, and one, all agreed, whose destiny it was to outshine his father.

Mrs. Rat read aloud the description of the ball, and those in attendance, while Celina listened and checked the precision of her curls in the reflection afforded by the silver orange juice pitcher. They were ecstatic to see that Celina herself was described as “the radiant young Miss Rat” and was noted in the company of Mr. Jack Bentley on two occasions. Mr. Rat glanced over.

He recalled a moment from the ball, when seated at a table with a few of the other gentlemen enjoying cigars, he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning round he met the bulging eyes of Ambrose Bentley, huffing to shift his considerable girth around in his chair to address Mr. Rat from an adjacent table.

“They make a fine pair, eh, Rat?” Bentley indicated their children in the crowd, dancing a waltz. Celina’s flowing ivory gown, and Jack Bentley’s crisp tuxedo, not to mention the smiles on their young faces, were attracting some general attention.

Mr. Rat had cringed at the insinuation. Bentley was not his kind, even if he was exceedingly rich, and Mr. Rat had no desire to endure an in-law relationship with the Bentley’s. The thought of the rest of his Sunday dinners in their company made him shudder. Still, he had to admit, as Mrs. Rat was highly aware, that the young Jack Bentley was considered quite a catch, and that the Bentley’s certainly would not object to such a union. The Rats may not be as rich, but as a traditional pillar of New York society, a marriage would be unquestionably advantageous for the Bentley’s.

“I am happy to have him among respectable company, you know,” Bentley had gone on, taking puffs from his own cigar. “Some of those eccentrics he runs around with have Mrs. Bentley overwrought.”

Mr. Rat was no longer listening.

Breakfast concluded, Mr. Rat bid his family goodbye and headed to his office. Midmorning he received a call from Mrs. Rat regarding an engagement to dine on Thursday at the home of the Edward Morrises. The Van Hole de Bergs would be in attendance, as would the Bentley’s. This wasn’t one Mr. Rat could avoid, Mrs. Rat let him know, and promptly hung up in order to “race off to the dressmaker’s with Celina.” Mr. Rat sighed, but soon put the matter out of his mind. Pressing business, like the O’Leary contract, occupied the rest of his morning and bled over into his usual lunch hour. When the moment came that he could extract himself, he took up his hat, coat and cane, and set out for lunch at his club.

As luck would have it, Roger Van Hole de Berg was seated at a table in view of the entrance and waved him over. Van Hole de Berg’s true passion in life was golf, and nothing pleased him so much as an audience on the subject. Mr. Rat didn’t mind. While he chewed his steak, and Van Hole de Berg waxed lyrical on the mechanics of the downswing, he let his thoughts drift back to Vera Hines, calculating their next rendezvous. They only ever met at her apartment, but he wondered if he could find an excuse to take her away somewhere. The Muroidea Inn in Connecticut, maybe. He’d consider that.

Suddenly, an approaching figure interrupted the respective reveries of Mr. Rat and Van Hole de Berg. It was Ambrose Bentley, sweating, smiling, and breathing heavily. “Good day, gents!” he said, leaning one paw on the back of an empty chair.

Mr. Rat was not in the mood.

“Roger,” Mr. Rat said, standing up and tossing his used napkin onto his plate, “please excuse me, I must be off.” He extended his paw to Bentley in greeting and continued, “Bentley, please take my place.” Bentley happily accepted. Roger Van Hole de Berg did not object. He crossed his legs and leaned back.

“Bentley,” Mr. Rat heard him say as he headed for the door, “play a bit of golf, do you?”

Thursday evening the Rats arrived by hired cab at the Morrises’ and were admitted by the butler, who was so tall and gaunt the family called him “Weasel.” He took their wraps and led them to the drawing room where the guests were collecting. Mrs. Rat spotted the Bentley’s at once, on the far side of the room, whispering fiercely to Celina to pretend not to notice them. Appearing too eager, Mr. Rat had often heard her say, never behooved a young lady. When Weasel returned to announce that dinner was served, Mrs. Rat held back until the Bentley’s passed by, and then made a lavish show of being surprised to see them. She offered them her most dazzling smile and shoved Celina forward toward the younger Bentley.

“Of course you remember my daughter!” she cried, and was duly pleased when Jack bent to kiss Celina’s paw. Moments later however she was just as vexed, when the Bentley’s were seated at the opposite end of the table, with all the Morrises and Van Hole de Bergs in between.

“Do you see how Elondra has placed him next to Prissy?” Mrs. Rat hissed into Mr. Rat’s ear. “Well, nothing will come of it. Prissy isn’t half as pretty as Celina.”

Mr. Rat, at least, was relieved not to have to converse with the elder Bentley, nor witness him consume roast and gravy at close range, nor be privy to Mrs. Bentley’s random babbles about dirigibles. How the two of them ever produced something as good as their son was a living mystery. Mr. Rat noticed that Jack Bentley held his own quite well on any topic, and he had an easy confidence. He would make someone a tolerable son-in-law one day.

Mr. Rat had a chance to further consider the notion of a son-in-law one fortnight hence, when the Bentley’s invited them, and several other families, out to their country estate for the weekend. The weather was warming and fresh, and the guests were treated to garden parties, lawn tennis and sumptuous meals. The ladies even received gifts of tasteful imitation silk scarves, that Mr. Bentley, under Jack’s direction, was importing from India. They were all the rage this year in Paris.

Mrs. Rat and Celina went about with their scarves, keeping Jack in their vicinity. Mr. Rat, enticed by Mr. Morris into joining a game of croquet, was just lining up a particularly good shot when his wife approached him, smiling triumphantly.

“See here, Julius,” she said, “I think he’s quite fallen under her spell!” Mr. Rat looked across the garden to where the two young people, were sitting together on one of the white-painted wrought iron benches. He didn’t imagine Celina had much in the way of spell-casting powers, but she did have youth and beauty on her side. Jack Bentley had his head cocked at a rakish angle, and Celina was giggling, her fan tipped up toward her face.

“He must be very witty,” remarked Mr. Rat, judging by the way Celina kept up the giggling. Mrs. Rat went off to join some of the other ladies at the tea table, and Mr. Rat continued his game. He was besting Morris, and that was always satisfying. When at last he won the match, energetically shaking paws with the other players, he saw that Celina and Jack Bentley were still engaged in their tête-à-tête on the bench.

The next few weeks proceeded in their usual way. Mr. Rat and his partners brought the O’Leary case to a profitable conclusion, and attended to the other top tiers of their clients. He was vaguely aware that Mrs. Rat and Celina were plotting to invite the Bentley’s to dine, along with a select few other guests, and spent their breakfasts poring over possible menus. On a Tuesday after lunch at their club, Edward Morris, wanting to even the score after their croquet match, challenged Mr. Rat to a game of billiards. Mr. Rat won that too, and after congratulating his opponent on a fine effort, strutted back to his offices in a state of high gloat.

Thus, he had plenty to boast about when he went to see Miss Hines later that afternoon, for the first time since his weekend away. She’d been busy with something or other. He kept the billiards game like a choice nugget in his pocket, waiting for the right moment to drop it into the conversation. In his actual pocket he had one of Bentley’s scarves, wrapped in tissue paper.

“Just a trifle,” he said, fetching it out and placing it in Vera’s claws. They were seated together on her divan, opposite the slightly open window where the early summer breeze ruffled the heavy, view-concealing lace curtains.

“Oh, how marvelous,” she said. “Thank you, Darling.” She planted a kiss on his cheek.

It was then he noticed the scarf she already had knotted around her neck, almost identical to the one he’d just given her. How had he missed that? “I’ll have a proper collection,” she said. “They’re all over town, you know.”

“Quite,” he said, disconcerted. Anything that was all over town was necessary for a lady to possess, but he was disappointed. His gifts ought to be much more rare and expensive than something she could pick up at a shop herself. He would make a point to visit the jeweler’s when he next had a chance. Perhaps a ruby this time. Something to bring out her eyes.

Gifts of jewels, however, did not stay at the forefront of Mr. Rat’s thoughts for long. There was always much in the way of immediate business at hand, and it was not Mr. Rat’s habit to see much further, on any given day, than the end of his snout.

Such as it was when several days later he received a call from his wife at his office. In a voice shrill with anxiety she beseeched him not to be late that evening. This was the day the Bentley’s were coming to dine. It was an overstatement to say Mr. Rat had forgotten, since he had never fixed the date in his mind in the first place. But he didn’t let on. He assured her he would be there on time.

“For Heaven’s sake,” said Mrs. Rat, and then hung up.

To the mutual rapture of Mrs. and Miss Rat, everything that night went off perfectly. Celina’s youthful assets were displayed to their greatest effect, their cook outdid herself with the pigeon avec aubergines, and the puits d’amour dessert, and the conversation was amiable and erudite. Even Mrs. Bentley’s comments about blimps and zeppelins did not seem terribly misplaced. Most importantly, young Jack Bentley showed every sign of being taken with Celina, and even asked Mr. Rat’s permission, after dinner, to let Celina show him the view from the terrace.

“What did he say?” pounced Mrs. Rat, later when the guests had departed.

Celina smiled dreamily. “Oh, Mama,” she said, “he has ever so many plans!”

“Like what, dear? Don’t keep me in suspense!”

“Oh, building buildings, new ventures abroad…” the women drifted down the hallway toward the bedrooms, leaving Mr. Rat to finish his second cup of coffee with cognac alone by the fire.

Late in the next week Mr. Rat left his office on the pretext of a meeting, and set out to visit the jeweler’s, an exclusive shop he favored, up on 47th Street. He still had a ruby in mind for Miss Hines, something small and tasteful, since it wasn’t a special occasion. A hatpin, maybe. A bell tinkled as he opened the door. A clerk stood to attention.

While the clerk went to fetch a velvet tray of hatpins from a case, one of the proprietors, Mr. Mandelbrot, emerged from the back, removing a monocle from his eye and cleaning it with a small chamois.

“Ah, Mr. Rat,” he said congenially, stuffing the monocle and cloth into his pocket and extending his paw. “What can we do for you today?”

“Hatpins,” said Mr. Rat, shaking paws. The clerk came back just then with the tray.

“How did the pearls go over last time?” asked Mr. Mandelbrot, giving him a wink. He always remembered what his customers bought. “Top quality, am I right?”

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Rat, avoiding the first question. He bent to inspect the tray.

“We’ve had some serious business in here this morning,” Mandelbrot went on. “A notable young gentleman…” he waited, but Mr. Rat, who considered gossip a woman’s game and beneath him, did not take the bait.

“…was in,” Mandelbrot continued undeterred, “looking at engagement rings!”

“How much is this one going for?” said Mr. Rat abruptly, pointing to a pin with two small red stones, set in gold.

As the jeweler set his elbow on the counter and leaned toward him, Mr. Rat leaned away, holding the hatpin up to the light and squinting his eyes at it.

“Jack Bentley,” said Mandelbrot.

“I beg your pardon?” said Mr. Rat.

“Jack Bentley was here. For an engagement ring.”

Mr. Rat stared at him. He didn’t think the jeweler would know anything about his connection to Bentley. His possible connection. Either way it was deucedly improper that the jeweler should comment on a man’s business to other customers.

Mandelbrot caught the meaning in Mr. Rat’s chilly regard, cleared his throat and straightened. “Oh, believe me,” he said, “I’m not one to speculate. It’s just that Jack Bentley has a slight reputation.”

At this Mr. Rat raised an eyebrow.

“For being a bit unconventional,” said the jeweler. “Been seen with artists. And intellectuals. Some have wondered if he was the marrying kind, but now it seems he’ll be siding with tradition. Good, solid tradition.”

Mr. Rat set the hatpin on the counter. “I’ll take this one,” he said.

“A fine choice,” said the jeweler, “I shall wrap it up for you.” Mandelbrot scurried off, and the clerk returned to take away the velvet tray. Mr. Rat straightened his coat.

Well, well, well, he thought to himself. Aside from the jeweler’s impropriety, this was some interesting news. A vision of Jack Bentley, on bended knee before Celina, passed in front of his eyes. It did make sense after all. To be expected, really. And he was used to things going as he expected. He smiled to himself. A fine match for Celina. Mrs. Rat would be over the moon. And that Ambrose Bentley. Really, he wasn’t a bad sort, not with all that money. Soon enough, it seemed, they would be related.

Later that evening, at home, he snuck a look at his wife and daughter from over the edge of the evening paper, as they sat near the fire, engrossed in their embroidery. Naturally he couldn’t tell them what he’d heard at his illicit visit to the jeweler’s. How soon, he thought, everything would be changed.

Next afternoon he went to see Vera Hines. The ruby and gold hatpin lay in a satin-lined box in the pocket of his overcoat. It was drizzling out, but the sky was bright, with the sun promising to break through the clouds in time for tea. He tapped out his special knock on her door with the handle of his umbrella, savoring the thought of how she would thank him for her gift.

But when she came to the door it was with a somber expression.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, draping his overcoat on a hook of the coat stand. She invited him to sit.

“Julius,” she said, “I have something to tell you.” She hesitated, giving a faraway look toward the window. He had never seen her pensive before. She looked different. He considered making a joke to lighten the mood, but it died in his throat.

“What is it?” His voice came out with a hoarse edge.

“Julius,” she said again, “it’s that… it’s that I’m going to be married.”

Married?

He couldn’t have heard right. Everything went very quiet, except for the clock, ticking on the mantlepiece. Vera looked down at her paws. Mr. Rat did too. A diamond ring sparkled on one of her left claws.

He rocked slightly, side to side. Oddly, he thought he might tip over.

“I don’t want you to think this is easy for me, Julius,” she said. “Knowing you has been… beautiful.”

He blinked. He rocked.

“Who,” he said at long last, “is the lucky fellow?”

How long had she been seeing this other man? He wondered. Indeed, he knew very little about her life outside of their trysts.

“You may know of him,” she said. He could see in her shining eyes that she was very much in love. “His name is Bentley. Jack Bentley.”

If Mr. Rat was shocked before, now it settled over him like a heavy glass globe.

Somehow they concluded their conversation. He congratulated her. They shook paws meaningfully. They said good bye.

Good bye.

He went out into the light rain. He had forgotten his umbrella, but it hardly mattered now.

All the rest of the day and into the evening he went about encased in his globe of glass. Mrs. Rat asked him if he wasn’t feeling well. She suggested he take his tonic and go to bed early. He did, and lay awake for a long time, gazing at the dark ceiling.

The next evening when he came home and took off his overcoat he realized the box with the hatpin was still in the pocket. He stood for a second in the entryway, fingering the box through the cloth. But in the next moment he heard a thump, and then a commotion coming from the drawing room. He turned and hurried down the hall.

Pushing open the door he saw his wife and daughter on the sofa, weeping piteously. Pages of the evening paper lay scattered on the floor.

“Good Heavens,” he cried, “what’s wrong?”

“There!” shrieked Mrs. Rat, pointing a claw at the paper at her feet, “There!”

Mr. Rat scooped up the nearest page. The Society Section. Engagements. “Ambrose and Cressida Bentley are pleased to announce the betrothal of their son Jack, to Miss Vera Hines, of Dartmouth.”

Dartmouth, is that where she was from? He looked to his grieving family, and then back at the paper. It really must be true then. He had the sudden, topsy-turvy sensation that the three of them had all been jilted by the same man. From somewhere in the background he thought he heard the sound of shattering glass.

Lowering himself to the sofa he reached out and patted their paws.

“There, there, my dears,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “There, there… Surely there are other fish in the sea!”

At breakfast the next morning Mrs. Rat shook out the Society Section of the morning paper. Already there was a small article on the Bentley engagement.

“Scandalous!” said Mrs. Rat. “Why, that Hines girl has no family background at all. What will become of the respectable families if the children continually marry beneath them?”

Celina was quiet. Mr. Rat watched as she nibbled at her toast, around the edges. Hadn’t she done that as a little pup? He recalled an image of her, so small, with such big eyes, nibbling her toast around the edges and he himself teasing her, saying, I say, but it looks like Mother Rat has raised a mouse! He stirred his coffee, and for once did not pick up the Real Estate section.

All morning at his office he sat idly at his desk, a stack of unopened files at his right. Before him lay the satin-lined jewelry box with the hatpin inside. It was black and smooth, a tiny coffin. He fancied he could see through it, like an x-ray. The twin rubies, like two eyes staring back. Had it died? Or was it awake?

The glass globe had broken. Its pointed shards lay in a heap inside his chest. Had he loved Vera Hines? He wondered. But a larger question loomed forward, like a stranger out of a dark alley way: Whom, in his life, had he loved?

He did not know the answer.

A lone tear escaped his eye, slid down his snout, and hung from the end of his nose. It occurred to him that this was something he ought to find out.

Mr. Rat left his office earlier than usual that day. Rather than take the Elevated home, he walked the long distance. Through the business district, through bustling crowds and neighborhoods, past fruit-sellers and newsboys, little girl rats playing hopscotch and old women on their stoops, and at last past the stately mansions of his own street. He arrived home before Mrs. Rat and Celina –he seemed to remember they had gone to call on Mrs. Rat’s cousin– and went into his study to sit down at his writing desk. He drew out a piece of card paper and unstoppered the inkwell.

A little something to cheer you up, he wrote. Yours, Julius.

This he placed on his wife’s night table, together with the ruby hatpin in its box.

The maid confirmed that Mrs. Rat and Celina were dining with the cousin, and at his request served him his dinner on a tray in the drawing room. After this he went to lie down in the bedroom. He was unusually tired.

It was dark when he awoke to someone stirring in the room. He heard the sound of a striking match as his wife lit a candle.

“Just getting in?” he asked. “What time is it?”

“Oh, Julius,” his wife started. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Yes, we were gone longer than expected. Gretolia’s in a state because of George’s gout and…” she stopped short. The candle illuminated the jeweler’s box, and his card. She picked them both up. “Oh, my,” she murmured after a moment. “How very thoughtful of you, how very…” and then she was crying again, silently this time. He sat up and scooted over to sit beside her. She leant her head on his shoulder, quite as she used to, when they were young.

The Rat family passed a quiet summer season. Mr. Rat suggested they spend a week at the Muroidea Inn, in Connecticut. He thought a few days by the lake would do them all good, and, to everyone’s surprise, they went. They rented a rowboat and a picnic basket. He discovered Celina was deucedly good at chess, and won each of their five games. He tried to interest her in croquet or billiards, but she declined. When they returned to the city they found a large, gold-embossed envelope among their letters, an invitation to the Bentley wedding, an autumn wedding, quite soon. Calmed as they were by their week in the country, the invitation caused no consternation. Mr. Rat was glad to see it served merely as another pleasant oppotunity for Mrs. Rat and Celina to plan their attire.

September the twenty-fifth, a Sunday, the Rats traveled by hired carriage to the Bentley country estate, and the nearby church where the wedding was to be held. The sky was a perfect blue, and the foliage brilliant in the turning colors of early fall.

The ceremony and reception were, of course, not without ostentation. The wedding cake nearly reached the ceiling of the hall, the bride’s train stretched halfway across the floor, and the guest list covered the whole of the region. Mr. Rat particularly enjoyed the shrimps with buerre blanc. Mrs. Rat was partial to the music –a ten piece orchestra with rotating soloists– and Celina was pleased to be invited to dance by many of the young gentleman rats, not least by young Muskind, one of the Morris boys.

The merriment culminated at last when the bride and groom were to be sent off on their honeymoon via a hot air balloon. All the guests streamed out of the hall and collected on the green where the great, billowing, purple balloon was being fired up. The newlyweds were loaded inside the basket, the groomsmen and bridesmaids tossed out sandbags and released the ropes. The gas jets roared and the balloon began to rise. Mr. and Mrs. Jack Bentley waved, and the crowd hooted farewells. Vera Bentley threw her bridal bouquet and it clocked Muskind Morris on the head.

Mr. Rat gazed up at the rising sphere, a giant plum ascending to Heaven. Something inside himself was rising too, something as yet unconceived, but that would one day reach a new horizon. Gently he wrapped one arm around the shoulders of his wife, and the other around his daughter. He did not know what tomorrow would bring, but somehow, this was a great relief.

 

The End


House of Rougeaux by Jenny Jaeckel has been compared to recent bestsellers Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Pacinko by Min Jin Lee. Advance readers and listeners love that it is “historically accurate,” “beautifully written,” “engaging,” and overall, “a wonderful multi-generational family epic.” Don’t miss what Publishers Weekly called  “this rich tapestry of a novel.” To learn more about the audio, digital, and print version of House of Rougeaux visit www.raincloudpress.com or order now.

Mistakes and Humility

Once I farted into a phone. I swear to God. In the early 2000s Chris and I were newly in Vancouver, living in a place with a shared landline, and one day there was a call for our housemate, Sean. I answered the phone, a cordless, went to knock on Sean’s door, and as I was waiting, absentmindedly let my arm relax, so that the receiver was hovering by my rear end, and I passed a little gas. Oops.

Live and learn. The problem is that if you are a perfectionist, as I tend to be, you think it goes, “Live and learn, so that at some point you stop making mistakes. Forever.”

About four years ago I made a different embarrassing mistake, and in the midst of berating myself, I uncovered the previously unconscious expectation that I should have already reached the age (40?) of no more mistakes. It was logical. Spend the first 40 years of your life scrupulously learning from your mistakes, so as never to repeat them, and then it’s all smooth sailing from there.

Of course, that logic breaks down very quickly because of, you know, reality. I went on making mistakes left and right. In fact, certain kinds of mistakes I make more frequently now than I used to, which is starting to get me accustomed to it. Once, well before the phone incident, I was verbalizing my incredulity over a mistake to a friend, saying, “How could I have done that?” and she said, “Um, because you’re human?” I’m not so shocked anymore, so maybe that is what life is really teaching me.

You should see me try to do simple math. I did fine in math, in school (my dad is a math genius and he helped me) but now the math part of my brain is so atrophied it’s like it had polio. I’ve been working on it though, ever since last year when I was trying to keep track of some correspondence and I failed to count to nine.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes. It masquerades as a virtue, and is a way we can strive to be good enough when deep down we think we aren’t. Learning from mistakes is useful, even key to living a decent life, but I will say it took a touch of maturity for me to realize that I’m going to continue making them.

Every epiphany of my life turns out to be a no-brainer. Something remains hidden until it somehow pops out and is suddenly so obvious I can’t understand how I didn’t see it before. And there’s always more. Mistakes do more than highlight a better way to proceed in the future, they teach us humility. Perfectionism may come from fear, but it comes wrapped in the hubris that perfectionism is even possible, and the subtle narcissism that believes spending time in excessive rumination on mistakes is a good idea. It’s an elaborate tool for control—control, the ego’s life’s work and hobby—made in an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Humility takes down all of that. It leaves us empty-handed, vulnerable, and, finally, honest. If perfectionism is fear in really good shoes, maybe humility is love in bare feet, made for walking with acceptance.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

A Study in Cluelessness

1985

Like many of my peers, the summer I was fifteen I entered the beyond-babysitting workforce. I had two jobs, a stint filling in for a secretary on vacation, at the office of two lawyers my dad knew, and one scooping ice cream at my town’s Baskin-Robbins. My first week on the job at Baskin-Robbins I worked three days, learning the in’s and out’s of making the various cones and sundaes. One kindly patron, after watching me struggle for ten minutes to get a wad of grand marnier into a ball, asked, “Are you new?” The other staff members, though more seasoned than I, were also a bunch of teenagers. Everyone stuck plastic spoons into the tubs and ate the ice cream when there were no customers or managers around, and one girl did whippits off the empty whipped cream cans.

Filling in for the secretary, I worked with the office’s other secretary. I learned to file papers, work the photocopier and answer the phones. One of the lawyers heard me on the phone once and told me to answer more cheerfully. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought my flat, tired tone could get the job done just fine. This wouldn’t be the last time, in years of boring jobs, that a boss would tell me to be friendlier to customers. I had the triple-problem of lacking a bubbly personality, of succumbing easily to the malaise of understimulating work, and having zero clue as to how I was appearing on the outside.

Another day at the law office I had to make a number of photocopies of maps of a neighboring county, Butte County, and I kept calling it “Butt County,” until finally the other secretary corrected me. Despite my flaws, the lawyers told me I was doing a good job—they even hired me again, and for longer, the next summer—and the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary when I grew up. Raised in a petri dish of Northern California 1970s feminism, I scoffed and said, no way, I was going to be an archeologist. This might have been an appropriate response had I been asked the question by my high school principal, and not by the professional secretary at an office nice enough to employ a kid who didn’t know the difference between Butte and “Butt” County. But no, clueless again, I had to turn the moment into an insult. I wish she had gone on and told me that if I was going to be an archeologist, maybe I could just go on a dig in Butt County.

The first Friday of my job at Baskin-Robbins was an evening shift, and in the day I went to my office job. Part way through the day I started feeling slightly ill, as if I had a cold coming on. It was only my third day at Baskin-Robbins so I didn’t want to call in sick, even though by the time I got there I was feeling decidedly worse. Since it was a Friday night, and Baskin-Robbins was a happening place, it was crowded and there were lines out the door. Two of my friends came in to laugh at my uniform, and order peanut-butter-chocolate, which was the hardest flavor to scoop, and I thought they did it on purpose.

I was fatigued and achy, but I knew I could make it to the end of my shift. What were these blisters on my hands? I wondered, picking at them between orders. When I went to bed that night it must have been 90 degrees out. We had no AC in the apartment where my dad and I lived, and I guess he’d never heard of a fan, but even under a pile of blankets I was freezing. I shivered and shook, and in the morning I had a fever and a full-blown case of the chickenpox. This was way before the chickenpox vaccine, and what I didn’t know then was that those little blisters (the newly emerging pox) were concentrated virus bombs. I must have infected a hundred people that night.

I called Mr. Right, the store owner, the next day to tell him I’d be out for a week, and he was nice about it. He told me to stay out of the light. The next week I laid around while the virus ran its course, watching TV and cutting up my dad’s old Time magazines into pointless art projects. At one point, going stir-crazy, I stripped naked in front of the bathroom mirror and drew a diagram of my whole body, front and back, mapping out each red crusty blister. Then I named them all. There was one called “Radar O’Reilly,” so you can guess what one of the TV shows I was watching was. At another point I had a freak reaction to the virus where I started laughing for no reason, and couldn’t stop for fifteen minutes. I was sitting on the couch, laughing even though nothing was funny, and my dad kept stepping out of the kitchen to peek at me. A few times I tried to stop laughing, and I would succeed for one second, then it would start up again.

Regrets

The following week I was back to work, and everything was fine. But the week after that they changed the schedule at Baskin-Robbins and didn’t tell me. Apparently they changed the schedule every week, but no one told me that at the beginning, and since I hadn’t yet worked two consecutive weeks, I was still unaware. It was Monday morning and I was at home, expecting to go into work at 2:00, like I had done the previous Monday, and the phone rang. It was Mr. Right informing me that I had not shown up for my 10:00 am shift. I stammered that I thought I was supposed to start at 2:00 like last week, but he wasn’t having it. “Bring in your uniform, and let’s be friends,” he said. That was it, I was fired.

There are some moments in life I wish I could go back to. If I could go back to the moment the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary, I would try not to be such an asshole, but, though I regret it, I’ve never lost actual sleep over that one. But funnily enough, there was one moment, during one of my six working days at Baskin-Robbins, that stands out among all the moments in my life I wish I could go back to. It was a moment when someone came in, a middle-aged woman it took me a minute to recognize.

Here’s the backstory:

            For two years, in the 6th and 7th grades, I had a close friend named Leah, who was two years older than me and had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that mostly affects the lungs. Hanging out with Leah I learned a lot about CF, especially the fact that, since this was the 1980s, and treatments being what they were, she was likely to die in her teens. Leah lived with her mother and stepfather, and younger sister Nicki, who was my age but went to a regular school. Leah went to the hippie school, Mariposa, that I went to, because at regular school she got teased for being so skinny, a typical effect of having CF. Skinny or not, Leah had no problem attracting boys. She probably had ten boyfriends in the time I knew her, which was interesting to hear about during our many sleepovers at her house.

One of the Mariposa teachers once commented to me that he thought having a lot of boyfriends was how Leah dealt with being sick. I remember thinking, well how else is she supposed to deal with it? Plus, it wasn’t like she went after the boys. It was a moth and flame situation, and she was the flame.

Leah knew she was going to die young. At that time, the oldest someone with CF had lived was thirty. Thirty years old seemed very far away to me, at that age, and I could only hope that Leah would at least live that long. But most people with CF didn’t. Leah went to summer camps for kids with CF, and so, during the school years, she heard regularly that another one of her friends had died. Really, how were you supposed to deal with that?

And how would someone deal with it as a parent? Leah and Nicki talked sometimes about their mother’s drinking. I remember Nicki picking up a water glass her mom had left in the living room and sniffing it. In all the time I spent at their house I never saw any evidence myself that their mom, Julie, had been drinking, but it was something Leah and Nicki worried about. Now, a parent myself, it’s unfathomable to me how one could cope day to day, with treatments and medicines and grueling stays in the hospital and life in general, knowing their child would likely die in just a few short years. Bring on the booze.

The summer I was thirteen and Leah was fifteen she went into the hospital for the last time. I hadn’t seen her for several months, since we’d both gone to different schools the previous year, and I went to see her with my mom. She was there in a darkened room, leaning forward propped up on pillows, with an oxygen mask, and barely able to breathe. Julie was sitting next to the bed in a chair, gently petting Leah’s hair. My mom and I sat there for a little while and I don’t remember saying anything. When we got up to leave, I said, “Bye Bea,” my nickname for her—she called me “Benny B.”—and she struggled to say “Bye” also. She died a few days later, and not long after that the family moved away.

The point is…

Fast forward two years, Julie came into the Baskin-Robbins, and as I said it took me a minute to recognize her. She looked so much smaller and thinner than when I had seen her last. She said to me, “Is your name Jenny?” She had recognized me first. I was a kid the last time she had seen me, and I had changed a lot.

“Oh, hi!” I said. I would have said how are you, but I didn’t dare. She might have asked me if I remembered her, and said that she was Leah’s mom, and I probably said, “I know!” and then didn’t know what the hell else to say.

And then she said, “Thank you,” flat out. “Thank you for being Leah’s friend.”

Then she left, and I never saw her again.

So if I could pick a moment in life to go back to, that would surely be one. Because I wish I had asked how she was. And I wish I had stepped over to her side of the counter and given her a hug, and told her how much being Leah’s friend had meant to me. What a good friend Leah was. And that I missed her. And that I was so sorry for what happened. That it wasn’t fair. And that I hoped she (Julie) and Nicki were ok.

What I hope is that Julie could have guessed all that, being far older and wiser, and not the clueless kid that I was. But either way, I’m glad that the moment happened at all. It might easily not have. I’m grateful for that two-week job at Baskin-Robbins, because thanks to that, we crossed paths, and I believe that what Julie said was an extraordinary kindness. That moment is a treasure to me, flawed and painful and afflicted with regret, but a treasure just the same.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

A Tale of Two Classmates

The first boy I ever liked was a boy named Todd. I was eight and at a new school, a hippie school called Mariposa, in the hills outside the little town of Ukiah, in Northern California. The school wasn’t new, I was new to it. My mom and I, and some others, had moved to Ukiah from Berkeley, so the adults could do the back-to-the-land thing. My class was a combined fourth and fifth grade, but I had started school early and was the youngest in the group. Todd was older by a year or more. He had a big cowlick over his forehead, a staccato laugh, long eyelashes, and I thought he was the ultimate.

Some of my memories of that time are random and vague, and I don’t know how they fit together, such as the time I found myself on a bus with Todd and his older sister. I’m guessing it was a Greyhound and we were on our way to other places to visit our respective fathers. Todd’s sister tried to set us up as a couple. She switched seats so I could sit next to him, after telling me that he and I could “go” together. I asked her what that meant exactly and she said we would sit together, maybe hold hands, and that sometime he could take me to Love-N-Spoonful, which was a candy store in town.

Todd didn’t like me that way, I’m sure. I was little and I wasn’t pretty, but he went along with sitting with me on the bus. What I don’t remember is something he told me about later, that I had picked a big booger out of my nose, held it out to him, and said, “Here.” Classy move. Did I think boys were into gross stuff and that that would impress him? Maybe. In any case, it didn’t work. That bus ride was the extent of our romance.

The next year though, we became great friends, possibly even a form of best friends. We hung out a lot after school, in the classrooms, and made forts out of cushions and the tumbling mats. We spent hours creating slapstick optical illusions that we performed for each other. My best one was creating the effect of going down an escalator, by standing on a bench placed behind a bookcase. The trick was to stand with your legs apart and slowly lower yourself down and forward by bending one knee, while casually gazing around. It was gold. Todd’s specialty was making like he was falling down a flight of stairs, again with the benches behind the bookcase. He’d trip at the top corner of the bookcase, disappear behind it with all kinds of yelling, and then reappear at the opposite, bottom corner with a somersault on the floor. Pure genius.

The other kid I’m remembering right now was a boy I’ll call Ben. Ben was nerdy and into Dungeons and Dragons, and he had his own talents. The year I was in the fourth grade our class produced a literary magazine, and we had to present our contributions while sitting in a circle. Ben wrote an amazing poem with several verses that began,

Where does the Fire Dragon sleep?

And who is the master of his keep?

Todd wrote a poem too, his was called “Cats”. It went like this:

Cats are stupid little stupids,

That scratch and bite.

That was the whole thing. Todd was popular, and his poem earned him cheers and applause.

When the teacher suggested we call our magazine “Where the Fire Dragon Sleeps” there was a general outcry. I’m sure no one objected to the poem, it was more that Ben wasn’t well liked. Kids can be real shitheads, and I was certainly no exception. In the end we chose “Marmaduke’s Masterpiece Magazine” for the title, after the class rat, a big white thing that lived in a cage in the corner.

Around the time Todd and I got to be friends, Ben and I became enemies. I’m sure it had a lot to do with me taunting him. Along with friendship and romance, there was a lot of antagonism among the kids, most of us got nailed by it and dished it out too. Lots of drama. More than once Ben and I got into playground tussles that ended up in some kind of stalemate, like, “You let go of my hair, and I’ll let go of your nose. On the count of three.” But all that evolved. I was friends with Trish, Ben’s older sister, who hated him half the time too, and Ben and I were eventually sort of frenemies.

Both Todd and Ben moved on to the middle school in town before I did, since Mariposa only went until grade seven. But later we all went to the same high school. We weren’t friends or frenemies anymore, by then the Mariposa days seemed like another lifetime, but there weren’t many degrees of separation between us either. If I remember right, Todd had flings with a couple of my friends, and then got heavily into drugs. The last I heard of him was some years later, from a high school friend living in San Francisco, that he was a heroin addict. My friend had seen him on the street a couple of times and said he looked like an old man.

What a horribly sad thing. If Todd ever got into recovery maybe he’s still alive, otherwise, 20 years later, I can’t imagine he is. Back when we were kids the seeds of addiction must have been there already, genetics that made him vulnerable, or other internal demons that could get out of control. Cat poem aside, Todd was really sweet, really smart, really funny. A really really good friend. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s at peace. I seem to have a thing about me where once I really love someone, that part of my heart never goes away. I may not visit that place for years, but if I do I find it alive and well, still there.

I never loved Ben in that same way, but I do value shared history. We connected on Facebook a few years ago and it was sweet to catch up. Ben is an exceedingly nice person who has been through alot, and is now married and raising a daughter. I had a chance to apologize for being such an asshole when we were kids, and tell him I remembered, among lots of other things, his Fire Dragon poem.

I went to Mariposa for four years, and I lived there for three, because my mom became a teacher there and everyone who worked at Mariposa lived together, commune-style. Four years is almost nothing in adult time, but in kid time it’s long and full of formative experiences. There’s one memory that particularly stands out, a night in spring when Ben and Trish’s parents were out of town, and Trish invited a handful of girls for a sleepover. I was 11 and Trish, two years older than Ben, must have been 14. We got up to all kinds of ridiculous things, and then, late in the night, we went outside and crossed the road. Trish and Ben lived in a rural spot and across the road from their house was a big sloping field full of lupines, a sea of lupines in bloom as high as your waist.

The sky was clear and the moon was out, and we played hide and seek in the field. All you had to do to be completely hidden from view was lie down, and we ran around delirious it was so fun. Todd wasn’t there that night, but he wasn’t far away, and I think he would have loved it too: the black sky, the bright white moon, your friends a bunch of shadowy shapes and the field of flowers a ghostly blue. Finally no one is fighting, just laughing, or trying not to laugh, while you’re crouched down on the damp, fragrant earth, and someone is nearby, looking for you.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of four books, including the forthcoming literary novel House of Rougeaux. Read more about her books, or order wherever books are sold.