At Our Leisure

Today was an exceedingly lazy day. Asa didn’t have school and was tired from acting in a play nearly every night for the last three weeks, and I was fighting a cold, so we stayed in. Chris woke up late, nine o’clock, but still made it to work for a nine-thirty meeting.

I called the property manager to tell her our bathroom fan had died again. She told me that she used to live in, and manage, the same building at the same time, and how hard that was and how she’s happier now, and how probably they’ll need to send over a contractor to punch a bigger hole in the ceiling. We’ve been airing out the bathroom for weeks with a floor fan, so there’s more condensation on the windows when it gets cold, especially when I make a big pot of soup (like today) or have to hang the wet laundry indoors when the building’s one dryer breaks (also like today).

While Asa was eating breakfast, I read them a section of a new novel I am writing. No one had read it or heard it before, Asa was the first. Asa really liked it, they even started to tear up at one point, but they felt that the protagonist’s character (her perspective, her experience of the events) needed more development. Asa was right and I was quite amazed (not for the first time) that one so young (thirteen) could be that insightful about a piece of writing.

The doorbell rang in the afternoon. I ran down all the stairs and found the postman with a package. Many weeks ago, someone left a kind of scent dispenser in the foyer with the mailboxes, a mysterious little glass pot with a handful of black sticks sticking out of the top, reminiscent of incense. The postman had moved it to the interior stairs. He said it reeked so bad he literally got a headache every time he came in. He said he was going to have to talk to his supervisor. I said, “You know, I’ll just throw it away.” So, I did, executive decision, right in the big bin outside. Postal carriers suffer enough, they’re even on a rotating strike right now. No reason they have to huff that nasty perfume. No need to involve the supervisor.

Upstairs I opened the package. Amazon had sent me Michelle Obama’s new memoir. Cool! I suspect my publisher ordered it, another book for a Goodreads review. I’m happy to read about someone heroic like her, even if I won’t relate at all. As we all know, she’s extraordinarily high-achieving and charismatic, a brilliant power house with an against-all-odds story. Last night some new friends loaned me two books: The Master and Margarita, and The Language Instinct. I’m already slowly reading three books, one of them is by an author new to me, A.S. Byatt. Even on a lazy day though, I rarely read during the day. I’m almost exclusively an in-bed reader.

No, to really be lazy, Asa and I needed to watch a movie. Today we watched an episode of Star Trek. An alien woman in a shiny purple mini-dress, with matching thigh-high boots, appeared on the bridge of the Enterprise and stole Spock’s brain. Spoiler alert: they got it back. We also watched Mike Mills’ beautiful film Twentieth Century Women, which is really excellent, and if you haven’t seen it, you should.

During Star Trek, I finished sewing a sweater I’ve been making from two sweaters. I am constantly making demented recycled clothing. I don’t mean for the clothes to look demented, that’s just how they come out. I suspect this will be one more difference between me and Michelle Obama.

Before the package arrived, delivered by the postman with two earrings and a headache, I taught a Spanish lesson over Skype to my friend Jacki in California. Today is the day after American Thanksgiving and she was at her parents’ house in Ukiah, in her old room where decades ago, in high school, we used to hang out. She had written in her Spanish homework that she was thinking of visiting the Azores in the Portuguese Atlantic. I told her that I knew an island that she should visit, namely the big island that I live on (Vancouver Island) because I like to skew these lessons to my own purposes when possible. But she did say she was also thinking of visiting my island, and I said, “¡Muy bien!” because this was indeed the correct answer.

Now, as I write this, I am lying in bed, winding down from this leisurely day into a night of sleep. Full disclosure, my lazy days don’t differ hugely from my productive ones. It’s slightly analogous to the narrow margin of difference between my daytime clothes and the clothes I sleep in, and while I may not be proud of it, I don’t seem to be able to change. However, since it is my reading hour, I will resume with my new friend A.S. Byatt. Actually, I don’t know if A.S. and I will be friends or not; this thing is too new. But I’m hopeful. I always have room for a new friend.


My review of Elementals by AS Byatt, 4 stars:

Eerie, strange, mystical tales, each presumably a kind of metaphysical riff on a real object of art: a still life by Velazquez, a 17th century goblet from Venice, etc. I was particularly sucked in by “Cold” wherein an ancient princess discovers her nature, inherited from a forgotten ancestor, that drives her, at first, to dance naked in the snow. Later, wooed by a king from a desert kingdom, the two lovers must find an impossible solution to be able to be together. Strange drives and longings permeate these stories. 

See more of my book reviews and more about the books I’ve authored on Goodreads.

 

The Psychedelics of Writing

It so happens that as my experience of writing evolves, I keep wondering what it is I’m doing and why. As both a doer of the process and an observer, and as someone very interested in brain function and consciousness, I have some random observations.

Here goes.

  1. Is the Writing Brain Like a Brain on Psychedelics? What results in flat lines of words on a page is actually the end product, or representation, of a multidimensional, active model, with countless moving parts and locations in time and space. I’d be very interested to know what a writer’s brain looks like in a functional MRI. So I read, in normal waking states the different systems in our brains don’t actually communicate with each other very much. A brain on psychedelics though, with the area called the “default mode network” temporarily shut down, the systems start massively connecting. Could the writing brain, calling upon multiple brain functions at the same time, be a little bit psychedelic?
  2. The Lego Bin of Materials. In writing something seriously, you aren’t just putting words together, selecting them from a big Lego bin of vocabulary accumulated over the whole of your life, you are simultaneously reaching for every relevant memory, any image, concept or metaphor that will help build new structures and bridges with which to interpret and express the information (or narrative) you are trying to convey.
  3. Using Raw Materials. The thing is, all these accumulated materials must be treated as raw. If you use pieces that have already been put together from previous experience, i.e. something formulaic, you will kill your idea dead. Old formulas won’t apply, and yet you depend on the accumulation of all these bits, because without them you would have nothing to work with.
  4. What Has Never Before Existed. Nothing of the new has ever existed before (at least not in your experience), even if it’s built of familiar material. All the molecular permutations are new, and you are bringing them into being moment by moment, transferring energy into matter that can then be transferred to other minds.
  5. Focus Tames the Ego. With the intense focus that writing requires, you find the suspension, at least temporarily, of all the ego’s usual cage-like narratives. All the negative clutter that habitually brings you down and reduces your experience of living to a tiny set of harsh judgements. Riding the wave of energy that can accompany, or propel, a project can be so absorbing and exciting it wipes out everything else. Your mind becomes your friend and helpmate, the indispensable tool of your creation. You are a mind dancing with itself. (A little bit transcendent, a little bit psychedelic. Or, in other words, a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll?) Even if you aren’t that excited about a project, and getting yourself to the writing desk takes all the self-discipline you can muster, the focus needed to do the writing still takes up all the mental space, leaving no room for excess chatter.
  6. And Now We Have to Grow. Add to this the new emotional growth the project facilitates—or rather, demands—in order to be born. New growth becomes a requirement, you have to dig deeper, finally enter those areas you previously managed to successfully avoid, in order to actually create what wants to emerge. But, is it even growth, if all you are doing is mental and emotional excavation of stuff that’s already there? I guess so, because the unearthing (of things you yourself [or an earlier version of yourself] buried) requires the container of “you” to expand, to digest and bring forward the old/new material. (Expansion, another feature of the psychedelic experience.)
  7. Shifting Reality. New growth on the inside and new work on the outside can create an experience of shifting realities. Let’s say our view of reality is composed of a stack of transparent slides that together form a cohesive three-dimensional image. Then let’s start sliding those slides around. Images fracture, rejoin, reconfigure, become indecipherable, rearrange, and, wherever they ultimately land, it’s not in the same picture you started out with. This is another reason why writing can feel psychedelic.
  8. And What Do You Get? Next, how do you like the results of your efforts? Not even the “final” results, but all the results that unfold in the process? At any point it can seem hopeless. The sentence, the paragraph, the page, sucks. It fails. Or you can’t see how to solve the many problems your editor has so humblingly illuminated for you. The macro-structures have to effectively support the narrative, and the micro-structures have to support the macro (and all levels in between). Each is essential, and doomed without the other. Each one plays a complimentary role in conveying the beauty and value of the whole piece. And this is only one aspect of all the possible problems you have to solve. It can be overwhelming.
  9. Forging the Beauty. We are working with beauty and ugliness, but it seems to me most writers are essentially going for beauty. The characters may struggle and suffer, (or the information may be chaotic and contradictory and out of control) but rendering that in a beautiful way helps make life bearable (and in the case of expository writing, understandable) for all of us, and is surely a big reason why we read at all. So the writer composes her work of small beauties—single images, turns of phrase—and the larger beauty of building the case, bringing the character and reader through an evolution. All to make a story that maybe no one will like, or an article no one will take seriously.

 

In conclusion, (at this arbitrary moment in time where I’m ending this piece) I have no conclusions. Why do we do this writing thing? James Baldwin said, “I’m a writer and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Nature finds its expression, or can’t avoid it. The “why do we do this?” and “what are we doing?” questions of writing are different ones, of course. With both, I myself am only speculating. The eye can’t see itself, but maybe, in writing, that’s what we are trying to do.


Here’s my recent review of

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

by Michael Pollan

If you want to follow my latest publications and book reviews on Goodreads, visit me there!

It’s cliche to call a book a “landmark achievement,” but to me, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is exactly that. In astonishing depth, Pollan covers the history, neuroscience, and modern therapeutic application of a class of drugs—or “medicines”—known as psychedelics, in the treatment of such paralyzing human conditions as end-of-life anxiety, addiction, and depression. Combined with his own “travelogue” of personal experiences in psychedelic-assisted therapy, Pollan explores this fascinating subject with both a journalist’s hard-edged skepticism and a pioneer’s sense of wonder, synthesizing and articulating his material with a facility that is truly beyond compare. Reading this book is a journey through human consciousness of the most remarkable kind.

Remembering the Muffin Man

Many years ago, in my early twenties, I lived in Santa Cruz, California, and had a job at a small health food store called The Food Bin. I disliked this job for a number of reasons, but it had its good points. I enjoyed the friendly rapport I had with some coworkers, customers and suppliers, such as a certain clean-cut young guy, around my age, who delivered muffins once a week from a local bakery.

One day I was far from The Food Bin, on some kind of errand that took me way into the very outskirts of town. I’d finished whatever it was I was doing and was heading toward the bus stop, when I spotted the Muffin Man outside a restaurant, unloading a big tray of goods from the back of his van. I went to say hello, and then, thinking of how long it was going to take me to get home by bus, asked him if he might by chance be heading back into town.

He said he had another stop or two, but generously offered me a ride, and so I climbed into the van’s passenger seat, he took the wheel, and we were off. We’d never had a real get-to-know-you conversation before, and he told me the bakery belonged to his aunt, and that he was from somewhere else. I don’t remember where exactly, but it was someplace smaller and more conservative. I asked him how he liked Santa Cruz, and he said it was different. I asked how so, and he said it was the people. I asked how so again, and he started talking about alternative lifestyles and soon I understood that he didn’t mean the hippie element that was prevalent in the area, but the queer element.

I looked down at myself. I had on my customary scruffy jeans and tee shirt, and I had recently cut off all my hair. It was only an inch or two long and very boyish, and after a lifetime of liking boys, I had just started dating a girl. Also, there was my mom.

“You know,” I said, “my mom is a lesbian.”

“What? Whoa! Really?”

I told him how she had come out when I was eight years old, and it had always seemed totally normal to me, and then I said, “And I like both.”

“Oh, my GOD!” he said, gripping the steering wheel so as not to keel over. This was blowing his mind.

When he recovered a little, though, he said that actually there had been a gay guy on his swim team, and that nobody minded, and that he was a really nice guy. We talked about that for a while, and then he said that he thought that having gay friends was okay, but that what he would never want was a gay son. That would be too hard for him.

I said, “But what if you did have a gay son?” I said I had a friend whose mom had disowned her after she came out, how awful that was, and how if he did have a gay son, he’d have to love him and accept him and support him. What would happen to his gay son if he rejected him?

           The Muffin Man stared at the road a few minutes. Then he said he supposed I was right. If his son was gay, he wouldn’t want to be that kind of father. It wouldn’t be his son’s fault if he turned out gay, and he’d love him regardless.

“I guess it would be okay if he was gay,” he said, “as long as he wasn’t all frou-frou about it.”

“But he might be frou-frou,” I said, visions of short shorts and feather boas dancing in my head.

We were nearing downtown now, where in a moment I’d hop out and he’d return to the bakery, and at this point in the conversation the Muffin Man knew there was no turning back. He looked at me sideways, smiled a little, and said, “I guess I’d learn to live with it.”

I wanted to say, “I love you,” but that would have been weird. Instead I thanked him for the ride and said it was great talking with him. He told me to take care, and that he’d see me soon at The Food Bin.

As we all know, life is unending school. These days I am frequently corrected by my non-binary teenager, who is way more up on appropriate terms and concepts around gender and sexuality than I am. I like to think that I’m a good student in life, but of course often times I’m not. Still, I want to be someone who, with a little effort, can blow through a series of hurdles like the Muffin Man did that day, when in the course of a twenty-minute conversation he went from being weirded out by a little queer culture in his general environment, to loving and accepting his very own (hypothetical) future frou-frou gay son. If there’s one thing this world needs, it’s more of that.


Check out more of Jenny Jaeckel’s writing from her four published books to her other essays and anecdotes! Her latest book is also out as an audiobook, narrated by the incomparable award-winning Bahni Turpin. Available anywhere audiobooks are sold, or request it at your local library (give them this ISBN: 978-1-941203-31-6).

Remember Your Favorite Teachers?

Remember your favorite teachers? The one who let you drive his van? Or ate chalk? Or taught you how to write a real essay, or, when he spotted the picture you absentmindedly drew of him on your desk, merely lamented the future loss of the rest of his hair?

I’ve had a few, and what they each gave me is hard to qualify: a rich view into the subject they loved, and, equally so, a rich view into myself and the world, since as the world unfolds to a young mind, the mind expands with the view. These teachers also gave me a very special kind of friendship, even if it was of the less personal kind, it was very personal to me. Of all of these, my most favorite was my high school art teacher, Mr. Hamilton.

Richard Hamilton, who passed away in 2011 after a many decades-long career, was the very favorite teacher of a lot of people. After that sad day in 2011, another former student wrote of him, “[He] was the rock star of art teachers, Grandmaster of his little corner of Ukiah High School. He was truly a rare breed. Without him, myself and countless others may never have graduated, made it through the system at all.”

Hamilton took us on field trips to the City. He yelled “Dada!” in the class, when that was the art movement we were studying. He sliced my Frisbee in half in the monster paper cutter. He had a human skull you could draw if you wanted to. When Andy Warhol died, under Hamilton’s direction, we buried a can of Campbell’s soup on Dissident Hill, the grassy rise behind the Art Room.

Mr. Hamilton, photo by Jacki Taylor 1988

Buncha crazed teenagers? We must have driven Mr. Hamilton insane. But somehow he took us seriously, he liked us, he called us out when we needed it, encouraged us, but didn’t coddle us. He was steady, but a rebel too, and we loved him. Some great art came out of the collective studio that was his classroom, and a lot of not-so-great art, but the concrete belief in art as something worthwhile and important permeated the space. For me, in the crucible of Hamilton’s class I was in my element. And with a mentor there, as committed and caring and irreverent as he was, I felt upheld, protected, challenged, even loved, in a way I didn’t feel anywhere else in the world. I felt like me.

In high school, I thought bigger and better things awaited me, in college and beyond, and that turned out to be true in most ways. But while I was lucky to have some very good professors in college, and later in graduate school, and some very good teachers in other settings, never again did I have a teacher that became as important to me as Hamilton. Not even close. And isn’t it one of the killers of getting older, that by the time you finally have some perspective, and maybe the ability to thank someone for their role in your life, it’s too late?

I hope he knew anyway. No doubt he heard the kind of things I would have said from many other former students. As the parent of a student, I have many opportunities to thank the teachers in our lives, and they deserve it. I revere teachers. I’m in constant awe of what they do for young people, and I think the job just keeps getting harder.

I’d like to say something cliché, like “Go out and thank a teacher today!” But if I could, I’d rather say something my old art teacher might have said, by way of good bye forever, after a big hug and a pat on the shoulder, and an exceedingly kind smile: “Raise a little hell.”


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.

The News from Chicken Town

Every morning when I open up the window by the table where we eat, I hear the news from Chicken Town. It’s an all-day broadcast, and not unpleasant.

But let me give you a touch of background.

We had a controversy in the neighborhood, like those happening all over Victoria, where a developer wants to over-build and neighbors try to change the plan or stop it. There’s a massive housing crisis here, and it’s a complicated problem that I won’t go into, but one could say that the thing that happened on our block was a special case.

Our neighborhood is unique in the city, for its many old mansions and large houses that for many years have been divided up into rental apartments. A year or so ago, the owner of the property next to the building we live in wanted to build a huge number of new units, and there were legal issues, and a coalition of neighbors who protested, and all of that was not so unusual. But when the owner lost the battle, she decided instead to bring in some chickens.

There’s a quirk in the city’s chicken bylaw which, for some reason, allows people to keep as many chickens as it takes to lay two eggs per resident per day. The owner of that property has 50 residents in her building, so she brought in a hundred chickens—no small number for an urban area—and established what I like to call Chicken Town. From Chicken Town comes a lot of squawking. The neighbors are displeased, and the property owner seems to be having her revenge.

So, while somehow the city is allowing a hundred hens in a single urban yard, like similar municipal chicken bylaws, they don’t allow roosters. Lots of squawking, but no cock-a-doodle-do.

Curiously, the places in the city where roosters are allowed, are certain doctors’ offices, that offer special therapies, and sometimes dental offices. My information is purely anecdotal, I admit, but a number of times now I have happened upon some of these offices and I can’t help but notice the pattern: one youngish, attractive male doctor, who occasionally struts around, among a fleet of (mostly) younger, attractive females, who carry out most of the daily business. Have you ever been to an office like this? I shouldn’t be surprised. There must be millions.

I’ve been a patron to three such places in the last few years, and I have benefitted from their services, and I would not suspect anything nefarious or me-too-ish in any of them. Still and all, this phenomenon is a clear figment of the patriarchy. Justify it all you want, I bet you will never see an office with reverse dynamics: a lead female, with a fleet of young, attractive males (sometimes in matching uniforms) running most of the operations. I wonder if there is such a place anywhere in the world. If there is, I’d like to see it.

That would really be news.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, available in print, audio and ebook. Narrated by award-winning Bahni Turpin.

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

Find out more on the publisher’s site.

 

 

 

 

Front Yard Productions

Some years ago my child Asa, who is 13 now, fell in love with acting. As such, we tried out a few of the local summer drama camps in our town, and while Asa pretty much enjoyed them, they were decidedly ho-hum. We thought Asa needed a theater experience they could really dive into. We thought we could do something ourselves that would be better. We had cardboard and tape. And so, we assembled a handful of Asa’s friends, selected a play (in our case, based on a movie), hammered out a script, and Front Yard Productions was born.

The first year we staged The Princess Bride: papier-mâché stick horses, cardboard pirate ship, pretend poisoned wine, the whole thing. The kids got their scripts ahead of time, and then we spent a week putting it all together. It was great fun and the audience loved it, and Asa, as Inigo Montoya, had a role they could sink their teeth into. The second year we did Young Frankenstein—an age-appropriate version, with the humor adapted accordingly. That one required more elaborate props and sound effects, but you can do pretty much anything with stuff you find lying around your house.

This year we have our biggest cast by far—11 kids, ranging in ages from nine to 15, and a more ambitious drama: Pride and Prejudice. The actors have been cast in their (sometimes multiple) roles, they are learning lines, and we are starting to think through the many details. The really fun part for me is adapting the play and dialogue in funny ways, and finding places to embellish the staging: bits of narration supported by pantomime, or instead of a kiss at the end (Darcy and Elizabeth are 13 years old, after all) we will have a free for all dance scene in pajamas.

Besides the fun of it, the kids get to co-create something themselves with no money needed. They have an in-depth acting experience, and it’s something that we share with friends and family. As a parent, it’s a great way for me to spend time with my kid. We go through all the steps together, brainstorm and problem-solve, paint props, etc. and then celebrate at the end with the show. Not least, I appreciate modeling the fact that sometimes the DIY approach is the best one, and that it can be done virtually for free.

We also get to provide acting opportunities that support the various abilities of our actors. One of our cast is in recovery from a brain injury, and though a brilliant and talented kid, memorizing lines is difficult, and since we are in charge of the script, we just make it how we want. Our star this year, in the role of Elizabeth, is a fine young actor, but is a somewhat shy and soft-spoken person, and finds the usual audition scenario intimidating. We prefer invitations to auditions, however, and we know she will be stellar on our front-yard stage, as she has been in our previous plays. And of course, Asa gets their pick of roles. This time, it’s Mr. Darcy, which will be an interesting challenge in subdued intensity, after flamboyant roles like Inigo Montoya and Igor.

So, if I may, I recommend this recipe for summer fun: get some friends together, dig through your neighborhood recycling, and put on a play in someone’s yard. A really good time is guaranteed for all.


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.

 

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!