Into the Woods

My family went to go see the film version of Into the Woods the last day it was showing in our local movie theater. Turns out Christmas is actually a really inconvenient time to try to catch a movie. Between get-togethers and parties and trips and new semesters, there just wasn’t a good time. But we desperately wanted to see it. At least, my little sister and I. Katherine was in the show in high school. I’d loved it since I first listened to the soundtrack.

I’ve always loved fairy tales. Not necessarily the Disney ones. I loved the original ones, dripping in gore as they might be. I remember my dad telling me “One Eye, Two Eye, Three Eye”, a grittier version of “Cinderella”, the excitement as I realized these were stories meant to be retold, changed each time in the telling. Into the Woods caught this love by telling the Grimm versions first, complete with bloody shoes, and then pulling them apart, shaping a new story out of the ashes.

But that wasn’t the real reason I threw together the outing on the last day the movie was in theaters. The real reason was hidden in my purse. A bottle of prenatal vitamins, the means by which I was going to tell my parents about their new grandchild. The movie was a convenient excuse. Albeit a much anticipated and enjoyable excuse.

One of my favorite things about this show has always been it’s discussion of the relationships between parenting and storytelling. Stories are the means by which we understand the world. Parents help deliver that, for good or ill. I love the tradition of one actor playing both the Baker’s father and the Narrator.  The movie keeps this alive by having the Baker narrate. Father tells us stories, even if those stories trip us up in the end.

Even though Caleb and I had known that I was pregnant for almost two days, our new identities as parents still felt like arbitrary titles. I was fighting against despair to claim the name “Mother”, trying to imagine the joy of seeing a little face in the rear-view mirror, of holding Epiphany in my arms. I kept trying to talk about it, as though words would make it real. It didn’t hit Caleb until we sat in that theater, holding hands, watching the Baker struggle his way into fatherhood. He was going to go through that struggle, to welcome a child into the world and become a good storyteller. We walked out of the theater glowing.

A little over a week later, I sobbed in Caleb’s arms, our shattered hopes holding us together. The words fell away from us. I tried to tell him what was happening in  my soul, the fracturing death of so many dreams. I didn’t have the words.

“I wish…” I said, choking

The lyrics filled my head. “More than anything… / More than life… / More than jewels…

“I know,” Caleb whispered.

As I brushed my teeth the next morning, trying to hold onto sanity, I thought about Into the Woods and, for the first time, understood the second act. It’s about the transition into adulthood, I realized. In the first act, the characters learn things that shape their view of how the world works. But in act two, all the familiar paths are gone. The woods are new and strange and the rules are all wrong. They literally kill the Narrator, throwing him to a giant. I thought about the first time I saw the show and felt completely unsettled as a normal plot disappeared in a howling mob. I understand that fear in real life now.

Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. So what do you do after? How do you go on?

Last month, I auditioned for a community theatre production of Into the Woods. Our first rehearsal is on Sunday. I’ll be playing Cinderella. There are a lot of good things about this opportunity. It’s a great cast. It’s a hobby to fill my often empty evenings. It’s a chance to act and sing, both of which I’ve really missed. But it’s also an opportunity to safely step back into the woods, to re-trace my steps, to try to understand everything we’ve lost. And maybe discover what we’ve gained. Stories change in the telling. Why shouldn’t we, too?

The Story Thus Far

I played imaginary games in my front yard much longer than is culturally acceptable. I used to pace the walkway of my parents’ house or the ridge on our hill, imagining action in my head, talking in characters voices. Of course I was writing. It took me a while to put words to my madness. I call it “talking out a story”. Nowadays, I don’t have a yard (or woods) to hide in, so the madness is temporarily on hold. But back then it was the best part about summer. That and all the prizes from out-reading everyone in the summer reading program. But I digress.

The summer after eighth grade was particularly exciting. I couldn’t wait to get outside every morning, walking barefoot over the bricks in the walkway in the dewy air. I was doing something new, taking old stories and piecing them together, weaving them into a coherent narrative. I discovered three spurting narratives that lived as soon as they came together. I talked out each part, playing every character. To my surprise, I had a book.

I started writing in July, the weekend after the Fourth, on the computer in my aunt and uncle’s basement. I knew the story I wanted to tell. After lots of attempts, I really I hoped I could see this one through.

I worked on the first draft through freshman and sophomore year. Sometimes I would write before school. Mostly I would write after. I got in fights with my mom when I wanted to write instead of do chores. She wanted me to learn discipline. I think I did.

I finished the first draft on July 3, 2007, almost two years exactly since I’d started. I could hardly believe it. I had written a book. A BOOK! 163 pages, roughly 80,000 words, a legitimate book! Now I could tell people I was a writer, instead of saying I wanted to be one. Of course it wasn’t ready to be published, but I had time for that. I knew I  had plenty to learn. And as I learned I would rewrite.

I started reading more great works: Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby. I started thinking about how I put sentences together. Something Wicked This Way ComesI, Robot, Seamus Heaney’s BeowulfMacbeth. I thought about where my fantasy novel fit in the world of speculative fiction. What was I doing others weren’t?

The summer before college I started a complete overhaul of everything I’d done. I realized I need to do more than change a sentence here or there. I needed to scrape down to the bones and re-sculpt the flesh. And then classes actually started. My intellectual energy flew away. I couldn’t revise. But I kept reading. The Tenant of Wildfell HallCrime and Punishment. Oh, to write like the greats, explaining the world in such a way that the world weeps.

I chugged through chapters during the summer or when I had time. I re-imagined scene after scene. I listened in all of my classes. Everything had something about writing. Literature taught me what good writing looked like. Musical Theatre taught me how to holistically tell a story. Psychology taught me how people become the way they are. Theology made me ask questions about why I wrote. I kept thinking. I kept learning. I kept working.

I graduated with half of a second draft. I got married. I struggled with adulthood, exhausted and disillusioned. I spent a year trying to plow through a single chapter. Our dreams died. We were exiled to my in-laws. And suddenly I could revise again. It became my escape, the one place I felt like I could exist. When I wanted to end it all, I would remind myself that I still had a draft to finish. I had to keep going. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, but I could revise, goddammit.

Our life suddenly became functional. Caleb had a job. We moved into our own place. I could write every day for as long as I wanted.

Today, May 7, 2015, ten years after I started dreaming through this story, I finished my second draft.

I’m still not ready to seek publication, but who cares. I revised a book!! 180 pages. About 74,000 words, every single one mine.

I’ve grown and changed so much since I started as a fourteen year old dreamer. I’m a different person with a different place in life: a college graduate, an adult, a wife, a grieving mom. But I’m still a writer.

And that’s not going away.

Which of These Was a Neighbor: Daredevil and Gentrification

Last night my husband and I stayed up past midnight finishing the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil. We’ve been rationing out the show for weeks, an episode here, an episode there, but last night we couldn’t stop, falling headfirst into the gritty world of Hell’s Kitchen.

There are a lot of things I could say about this show. It’s incredibly well made, good scripts, excellent acting, fantastic cinematography. I could talk about the phenomena of the Marvel Cinematic Universe coming to the small screen, or just the MCU itself. I could talk about it as a Netflix show, in the funny land of not having broadcast limitations (R-rated violence) but not having to deliver on the expectations of HBO shows (no sex or nudity). But none of those things have my head spinning this morning.

Daredevil is the story of two men: Wilson Fisk and Matthew Murdock. Both spent their childhoods in Hell’s Kitchen. Both were torn from their homes in the aftermath of their father’s deaths. Both couldn’t get this place out of their heads. Both return intending to improve their neighborhood. But improving can mean different things.

Fisk grew up in a terrible home situation with a father who wouldn’t stand to be embarrassed. In one scene, he beats up a teenager for making comments about his failed political ambitions. Fisk latches onto this baggage, molding himself into a person so sophisticated, he can’t be embarrassed. This is a man who makes himself chef-worthy omelets while wearing a silk kimono and listening to Bach’s cello suites. He wears custom suits and drinks fancy wines. This outer facade is supported by a criminal network. Fisk crawls his way to the top, a violent man beating and coercing and raging his way to a polished life that is outwardly above reproof. That’s what he means by improving his neighborhood. He wants to tear it apart and replace it with a sophisticated version that covers up a past of violence.

Matt grew up with a father who loved him sacrificially. He was a boxer who continually urges his son to stay in school, to think, to treat everyone with respect, even the opponents who beat up his father in the ring. He dies when he chooses not to throw a fight for a mobster. He cares that his son see him as a man of integrity. Matt grows up trying to honor his father. He studies hard, attending Columbia to study law, graduates summa cum laude, and receives an internship at a prestigious law firm. But Matt, disturbed by the firm’s iffy morality chooses to leave, starting his own practice in Hell’s Kitchen, to literally advocate for the people he grew up in. He wants to improve the lives of the people who live in this neighborhood, to give them the opportunity to change their community from the inside out. And, as Daredevil, the crime-fighting vigilante (this is a superhero show), he takes down the criminal structures that stop Hell’s Kitchen from improving itself.

Fisk lives in a fancy apartment high above the street where he can look over Hell’s Kitchen. He uses dirty money and coercion to buy the properties and obtain zoning rights so he can tear down old buildings and replace them with fancy condos and restaurants. Matt lives in Hell’s Kitchen among the people he wants to help. At one point he and his law partner Foggy agree to represent a woman who’s landlord is trying to coerce them out of their building. His partner goes to her home and even fixes her pipes.

In the last episode of the season, Fisk tells some FBI agents the story of the good Samaritan. He explains that he always thought he was the Samaritan, the man coming along to his neighbor (or neighborhood) to heal him. Instead, he’s realized that he’s the robber, coming to destroy. I’d go one step further. He didn’t want to help his neighbor. He wanted to take his neighbor’s stuff. While he’s telling about the Samaritan, the screen shows us images of Matt and Foggy at their small firm among the people. Matt wants to advocate for his neighbor to keep his kids. Foggy will literally take his neighbor to the hospital, while bleeding himself. Daredevil will walk into a nest of criminals to rescue a young boy.

The real conflict of this show isn’t wrong vs. right. It’s gentrification vs. incarnation.

The real Hell’s Kitchen is going through this struggle right now. New building projects are driving up rents in an area of Manhattan that has stubbornly stayed low income. Actually, this struggle is going on all over America as our culture opts to take our neighbor’s stuff and make it look cooler instead of tending our neighbor’s wounds. It’s hard to get up close and personal with brokenness.

So how do I, Lydia, a full-time writer living on the more affluent side of the highway, be incarnational? I don’t know yet. Maybe that’s why my head’s spinning. Sometimes being incarnational means taking a migrant worker’s kids shopping for clothes so they can go to school. Sometimes it means acknowledging the image of God in superficial, materialistic suburbanites. Sometimes the latter is just as hard as the former.

I don’t know. But at least I’m asking the question.

Taking Time

It’s been two and a half weeks since I officially became a full-time writer. The results are astonishing. In a dozen days, I’ve re-written six chapters. That’s a chapter every two days. After crawling through this second draft for almost eight years, starting over every time I grew as a writer, getting slowed down by school and depression and work, I’m suddenly tumbling to the finish line. My head is spinning, my stomach churning. I’m completely overwhelmed.

So I decided to take a break today, to step away from my novel and breathe. I’m not ready to plunge into the denouement and that’s okay. Feeling rushed and good art do not go together.

That’s not to say good art can’t be produced quickly. There are plenty of stories of writers completing tent-pole stories in days (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and poets pulling sonnets out the air like magic (Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”). Some writers can produce content incredibly quickly. Joyce Carol Oates has published over forty novels since the sixties on top of short stories, poems, and plays while teaching creative writing at Princeton. She can’t do all of that and not produce art quickly.

But there’s a difference between writing quickly and feeling rushed. I can crochet a scarf in a day if I feel like it, but I wouldn’t do as good work if didn’t take the time to count stitches occasionally or take breaks to keep my fingers from blistering (not an exaggeration. I did it once).

So I’m taking a day off, cleaning the apartment, watching movies, playing Mariokart.

The funny thing is, taking time will help me write more tomorrow. I’ll have been able to breathe, to get some perspective, to remember that finishing this draft will feel so darn good. And all the while, my brain is still working, figuring out problems that I haven’t had to tackle yet. I’m learning how people talk, how people think, how it feels to finish something that’s defined one’s life for years.

I guess all life works like this. We need to take time for the things that matter. Caleb and I have to take time to process this craziness that’s been our life for the past month. I need to take time to figure out how to communicate to the culture of yuppies. If we don’t, if we try to rush ourselves to fit in or adapt to normal, we’re liable to hurt ourselves, each other, or the people around us. And as we take time to rest, to breathe, to walk, to finally finish Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, our brains are still working, teaching us how to cope, how to communicate, how to live.

Strong Coffee

“Eavesdropping, sir? I don’t follow you, begging your pardon. There ain’t no eaves at Bag End, and that’s a fact.”

Every Starbucks is different. Some have nice booths. Some have long wooden tables and leather chairs with strange metal ottomans. Some have little nooks. Some only have two cramped tables. No matter the offering, I know where to go. I prefer to sit near the door, next to a window (as long as there isn’t sun pouring in onto my laptop), my back against a wall, the counter and the door in view. This isn’t because I want a quick exit or am naturally suspicious. It just gives me the best angle to people watch.

I do most of my writing in public. As an extrovert, this is the best way to ensure that I can write every day without turning into a zombie. It makes writing sustainable. It also gives me good material. Sometimes.

Recently, it’s just been making me mad.

You can tell a lot about a culture by what goes on in the local Starbucks. The company’s weaseled its way into being essential by virtue of its “third place” philosophy (to be that safe place that is neither home nor work) and has basically become America’s version of the local pub (with less alcohol and singing, of course). The last Starbucks I frequented had a crowd of nursing students that would cycle through daily. The faces would change, but not the existence of a nursing student. It also had a frequent occurrence of customers who had never been into a Starbucks before and were baffled by what to order. And lest I forget, the two retired couples who would come every afternoon and talk about all their friends who had died/were sick/were making terrible decisions or about the way things used to be (which was better than now, of course).

The Starbucks I frequent now has three types of people. First, the yuppies who come to complain about their jobs. They come in groups of 2-4 and rant about how terrible their bosses are, how much they hate their coworkers, how things would be better if they had their way. Second, the old friends who get together seemingly to have a good chat and end up selling each other something. Either one person’s trying to get the other to apply for a job or buy some product. My least favorite was the 60 year old women having a genuine conversation about caring for people that was really an excuse for one to sell essential oils to the other. Third, the upper middle classies who brag to each other about how much money they’ve spent/their privileged antics. Really? It doesn’t bother you that your teenage daughters all have fake IDs and go clubbing together when you’re all on vacation in some exotic local?

I have way more in common with the people behind the counter than in front of it.

I guess that’s okay. I’m a 20-something who spent the last two years working in food service. But it’s also hard. Caleb and I are planning on being in this apartment for at least two years. This is our home. We want to belong here. But I don’t want to live the high-spending, superficial, manipulative lifestyle we keep running into. In my heart, I’ll always be a starving artist, passionately pursuing an authentic life of creation and craft.

I guess that’s a little too strong for the vanilla bean frappuccino crowd.

New Beginnings

2015 has been the year of emotional whiplash for Caleb and I. It started dark, then Epiphany burst into our life for nine bright, brief days. When her light was extinguished, things were darker than ever before for me. Caleb found ways to keep chugging along. One of those ways, a job fair, resulted in an interview. He had the interview on a Monday, got the job the next day, Tuesday, and signed the contract on Wednesday. We went apartment hunting on Friday, signed a lease the following Monday and moved in on Saturday. That was two weeks ago. Our life went from black days in my in-laws house to bright days in our own apartment in a matter of weeks.

We’re still trying to sort everything out.

Bizarrely enough, things worked together in such a way that this blog no longer has an appropriate name. Our apartment is hardly a garret. It’s definitely smaller than either of the apartments from Friends, but it’s on the first floor, has central air, and fits more than three bookshelves. I am no longer the “starving artist” I once was. I can write full time now, with the proviso that I stick to the cheaper drinks on the Starbucks menu. I am very aware of the fact that two weeks ago I was behind the counter, not in front of it.

Some days, I’m thrilled to pieces by how things have turned out. I nurse my iced coffee and plow through paragraph after paragraph of revision, knowing that I will be writing tomorrow and the next day and realizing that my second draft could feasibly be finished sometime this summer. (!!) I walk home, HOME, and cook dinner in our kitchen while singing as loudly as I please.

Other days I wake up and stare at the ceiling, blinking away tears of confusion. Why now? Why this much wonderful after so many months of bitter agony? I know I would have been grateful for the cold water without having to be scalded first. I’m not the same person I was when our magic car drove off the cliff. That’s not necessarily a good thing. I used to value authenticity and vulnerability. I’m better at hiding now.

It’s going to take a while to recover. The good things help. They’re the pain meds of emotional whiplash. But it’s the exercise and stretches and time that will bring real healing. Wrestling through the pain, working through the disaster, waiting for clarity, hoping that all the effort will strengthen and release my spirit to shine like it used to.

Out of the Darkness

In December, I wrote a letter in which I restated my commitment to work on this blog. I saw it as a chance to help me get better by adding normality to my life. It worked for two weeks. Christmas happened in week three. New Year’s happened in week four. And then something happened in week five, something I wasn’t ready to write about. Well, not exactly a thing.

We called her Epiphany.

She came in a bold, pink line the day after the Feast of Kings. Caleb and I stared, stunned, pinching ourselves. But the next few days showed us it wasn’t a lie. I had to hide in the bedroom from the smell of cooking chicken. I got hungry faster, and watched my emotions spiral out of control if I didn’t get food fast enough. Epiphany was real.

i was concerned at the backlash of our news. We still live with my in-laws. Employment still eludes my husband. We don’t fit anyone’s picture of stable adulthood. I knew a baby would invite questions about our ability to provide. We would already be judged as irresponsible parents.

And yet, I was sure that if God had given us a baby, he would take care of everything else. I took Epiphany’s appearance as a sign that things were about to change. Caleb would get a job. We could have a home. We would know the joy of meeting our child, a little bit of Lydia, a little bit of Caleb combined to create a shining, unique, human being.

I was so stupid.

Nine days later, she was gone. I didn’t even get to see her small, twinkling heartbeat.

Today’s my birthday. As best as we can figure, I would have been around twelve weeks pregnant. We would have been preparing to bring the world in on our excitement. Today would have been a perfect opportunity. Instead, I’m using it share our deepest sorrow. For nine, brightening days I was a mother-in-waiting. I don’t really know what I am now. I’ve been reluctant to mark today. I don’t really want to commemorate the year that shattered my hope, kicked me out of adulthood, and killed my baby. I’d rather pretend that time isn’t passing.

I finally admitted to Caleb that I didn’t really feel like celebrating.

He said, “It’s okay. Let us celebrate you.”

I’m trying. It’s hard. But I’ll settle for publicly acknowledging that Epiphany was real. And she mattered.