Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Seasons

As I took my leave of Portland in the waning days of a glorious summer (a 6-week summer, but a summer nonetheless), several people told me they could never enjoy living someplace that “didn’t have seasons.”

Ah, but Miami, I have recently been forced to recall like a slap on the cheek, does have seasons. Or rather, it has “The Season.”

The tourist season has moved in for the duration, and things will get worse before they begin to let up, around April. The restaurants are busy, the Starbucks cafes are fuller than ever, the boardwalk at Hollywood beach pits boisterous international families against kamikaze bicyclists, and miscellaneous out-of-state license plates pepper the traffic jams like a game of fifty-two pickup.

I arrived in early October, when South Florida was still sleepily enjoying its extended summer and going on about its workday business. I moved my little RV into Seville Mobile Home Park (permanent trailer homes with just a sprinkling of spaces for RVs) and enjoyed the quiet of being surrounded by pulled-down shutters and chained-up patio furniture.

But Les Canadiens sont arrivés!

I had been warned that the population of this parc was almost exclusively Quebecois snowbirds, but that was fine with me. During my prior fifteen years of Miami citizenship, I got used to the European and Latin American visitors that filled the stores and roads of Dade County during the winter. This would be my first winter over the border in Broward County, and my first encounter with the French Canadians, butt of much local humor. (Eh?)

So gradually, the trailer homes have been coming to life; the shutters have come off, the sound of hammering and general fixup, from the depredations of a South Florida summer of winds and rain, fills the air. Bienvenue, mes voisins.

I am a very undemanding tenant, wherever I live. All I ask for is quiet. Of course, in most rental situations one asks in vain . . . but the next best thing is being surrounded by people whose language you cannot understand. Conversation is as music, in such a case.

Before the first of the snowbirds arrived I feared that my rudimentary language ability might negate this benefit, my French being sufficient  for reading simple signs and instructions and the aphorisms introducing novels of literary pretense. But no. My new neighbors could be plotting provincial secession or talking about my funny shoes, and I would never know. And I don’t think I can blame it on my seventh-grade French teacher, Mr. Henderson, whose Français  had a resolvedly Brooklyn accent. No, I suspect that these folks are the same puzzle to me that a fast-talking Cockney would be to, let’s say, a Cuban who got an A in her Advanced English class. 

What I enjoy most about living in this enclave is that it has the air of a summer camp. I realize that in other neighborhoods nearby, people rise early and leave for work, come home and attend their children’s school plays . . . but here, in over-55 snowbird paradise, the long winter afternoons are spent sitting on patio chairs, riding bicycles up to the Dunkin Donuts, or playing petanque  behind the clubhouse. 

Once I leave our complex and put my car or my bike on Federal Highway (which turns into Biscayne Boulevard just a mile down the road, at the Dade County border), I am in the thick of The Season, or rather several “seasons.” I am, first of all, in the midst of holiday traffic for the region’s megashopping mall, Aventura (which, unfortunately, is also the home of the local Apple Store and thus I am sometimes forced to abandon all my bah-humbug principles about seasonal shopping and brave the Animatronic Santas in order to pick up a cable for my iPad). And this coming weekend the racing season starts: horses at Gulfstream (half a mile to the south), doggies at Monte Carlo (a quarter mile to the north). 

I may sound like I’m complaining, but this all brings back tender memories of my earlier sojourn in Miami, and fifteen years of going into and coming out of The Season. Perhaps there’s a little more traffic now, and the alta cockers in their white Cadillacs with New York plates, going 25 mph up Biscayne Boulevard, have been replaced by alta cockers in white Camrys with New York plates.  We natives honk and shake our heads, but really . . . we love the energy and money and challenge they bring to South Florida’s “Season.” Even the alta kockers in yellow Miatas with Oregon license plates.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stories

The final piece of my fictional puzzle has come into place, and my female character is about to fall in love. 

I knew, from books and workshops on the art of fiction, that stories are driven by the needs and wants, and thus the goals, of the main characters. Yet "What do you want?” is a question that can often yield an easy answer but little insight. One writing coach offered a slight distinction that made all the difference for me: he asked, What is it your character yearns for? 

Aha! That's a question to be answered not by asking the subject, but rather by observation. And so I re-read my manuscript with that question in mind, and the answer was both clear and startling. (I believe it was the same teacher who said that you can't know a story until it has been told; in other words, often the writer herself cannot see a story’s destination until she  reads it on paper, follows it to its natural conclusion.) 

And it turns out that stories themselves are the key to my character's needs, her yearning. What she longs for is just permission to stop telling her stories, to stop trying to keep those she loves (or fears, or both) alive, to stop trying to hold the world together, purely through the power of her storytelling. She is like Sheherazade, but spinning her tales to save the lives of others.

What she wants, what she yearns for, is permission to be silent. And that is the gift the man from Nebraska will offer her.

So I have been thinking about stories. Our stories have great power. Stories remain as powerful as they were when all of history was passed along through the human voice and scratchings on a cave wall. Stories are the way we learn about life and about ourselves. Stories and their shadows (the silences) are what make us human.

For a child, there is no more powerful utterance than the plea “Tell me a story,” and no moment more full of promise than the moment that follows it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Buy Nothing/Eat Nothing

I have found the American holiday season a little creepy ever since I first noticed that about 90% of magazine articles at this time of year focus on how to “survive” the holidays with sanity/relationship/budget intact. None of this has ever sounded like cause for celebration to me.

For several years now I’ve observed Buy Nothing Day on so-called Black Friday, the day on which Americans endorse the holiday slogan “Peace on Earth” by trampling each other to death at the doors of Walmart and ToysRUs. 

Especially this year, after having successfully divested myself of most of my possessions, I look with dread at the prospect of accumulating more consumer items that I don’t need (or even things I  feel I need that 99% of the world would neither dream of nor want . . . nor even be able to identify).

This year I’m adding something new to my curmudgeonly non-observance of the Season of Joy: I will be fasting on Thanksgiving.

For many years I’ve dodged the invitations of well-meaning friends and relatives, and with no local family here in Miami no one will miss me and all my irritating vegan/gluten-free/chocolate-allergy restrictions. More important, I will be confronting one of my greatest demons head on. The pleasure of food has always loomed too large in my life, a luxury that a great percentage of the world’s population cannot enjoy. Too many people start the day hungry, and remain that way. For many people food is not a joy but a struggle, or an unobtainable pleasure. That I have turned its abundance into a personal contest of will is unseemly. In fact, it is almost enough to make me lose my appetite. 

And so for one day at least, I will find another focus for my thoughts and my wishes and perhaps even my feelings of thankfulness. Life is good, my life is good—and I don’t need marshmallow-covered yams to prove it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Heart Warming

I always sit outside at Starbucks because I can't bear the chill of commercial air conditioning, especially down here in Florida where it is usually cranked up to brutal levels.

But at this moment, here at this little table looking out at the palm trees ringing this parking lot on Biscayne Boulevard, I'm still cold. My hands are cold, my arms in their t-shirt are cold, my toes in their Birkies are cold.

Today's Miami Herald cheerfully proclaimed the advent of winter season--the return of cooler, drier air (a low of 60!)--as if that were a good thing.

This morning in the 5 a.m. chill of my RV I realized that cold is the key to advancing my novel (see previous blog entry). It is the cold--or rather, the inability to get warm--that will finally motivate my dear, settled, unchanging Nebraska architect to cast his lot with the Miami free spirit who has introduced him to the possibilities of life in the tropics.

In the mid 1980s, I wrote a personal essay for the Miami Herald's Tropic Magazine on the subject of love and cold. I had just returned from a summer in Oregon, a journey undertaken in part to put some distance between myself and a relationship whose intensity was causing me some pain. I had always preferred to be alone, unencumbered not only by husbands (there had been two by then) but even friends, who often seemed merely clutter and noise in my life. Yet as the Portland weather turned chilly I came to accept, then to want, and finally to need closer human contact. By the second week of autumn, I was even dreaming of marriage. That the man in question was in any case not available for that particular adventure did not affect the strength of my surprising desire. I knew it was time to head back south.

The lesson of that northwestern summer was an understanding of the role warmth plays in my life. Sunshine, warm air, give me what other people seek from friends, family, even lovers.

And so I see that my Nebraska architect, suddenly bereft of his family's human warmth, will feel his body and then his heart tugged south by the letters of his faithful correspondent.

As for me, I'll dig out my heavy sweater and socks, and hope they'll protect me from making any rash proposal to some random fellow Starbucks customer.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How To Fall In Love


Having decided that writing is the thing al que voy a dedicarme, to which I will dedicate myself, and having discharged all the other obligations that conveniently kept me from applying butt to chair (during a week of torrential rains that in any case kept the seat of that chair unusably wet), yesterday I opened the folder marked “Restoration” and got back to work on my novel, which is whole but unfinished, the final third flat and unmoving, even though the ending is written and immutable.

They fall in love. They will be together, and thus his life will change.

The novel is epistolary in structure--just letters. Yet every time I reread the first half of the book I fall in love with these two people, and see how good they would be for each other. Surely each must also feel as I do.

But with a physical gap the size of the Nebraska plains between them, and temperaments as divergent as the tropics and the tundra, how will I get them to see that they complement, they complete each other? Or, more importantly, as  they come to see it, how will I show that to the reader?

How does a correspondence change as feelings deepen and change? The first half of the book is discovery. She tells him something of her life, he relates something similar in his. In the excitement of recognition and the chance to be heard, there's little comment on each other’s information. But, of course, the unwritten message is “Yes! I hear you. And here’s how it happened to me.” Because at first it is about “me”: I’ve found someone interesting to talk to, I've found someone with interesting things to say to me, someone who listens to me. The thoughts, the feelings, only gradually become about the other person.

So, in completing my novel-in-letters, I need to show love developing—but without that physical pull that signals early possibilities, without those tiny touches and not-quite-accidental pressures by which we ask and answer those early questions (might she? could I? is this?) 

And so I must think about this: How do you change when you fall in love? What are the observable clues?

Should I look within myself? How do I change when I am “in love”? How different is a 40-year-old in love from a 20-year-old? How different, really, is a 66-year-old? To the outside view, probably a world of difference. Inside? I suspect it’s all much the same.

But what is romantic love? What causes love to happen? Why is one person “loved” and admired but fated to be a best friend while another will become a lover?

And how the heck does this happen by letter (or, more recently, by e-mail)?

Because it does happen, and I can prove it.

I am a writer, a lover of words. I have loved men for their words, and have made them love me for mine.  In 1995 I began corresponding with a fellow member of an e-mail discussion group about Brazilian music, sharing random thoughts and feelings and indulging in the occasional electronic wink  ;-)  One day he suggested to another member who was writing a music review that the word he sought might be “ineffable,” a lovely word I would not have thought of. 

That night I called my closest friend and announced that I was in love . . . with a man I had never actually met.

And Reader, I married him.

So if I want to understand how to move my two characters toward their ordained resolution, perhaps it’s time to unseal that big box of e-mail printouts from 1996 and re-read all that groping toward understanding, the missteps and the emoticons, the slowly dawning inevitability.

And although that story did not have much of a happy ending (as most stories won’t, if you follow them long enough), it may help me see how these two folks I’ve come to care about so much over so many years of writing can find each other and find what they need in each other.

Maybe they can even help me understand what exactly is the meaning of this word “love” that I sometimes think I use without the precision I demand from the rest of my words.

Or perhaps love is the one word, the one concept that truly is “ineffable.”