Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Kind of Children Do You Have?

I fell in love with Três Taylor’s work about ten minutes before I met him. I was at the River Arts Fest in the South Main district of downtown Memphis on Sunday, with my friends Caitlyn Manning and Brandon Maas. Cruising up and down South Main, enjoying the music and wine and gorgeous weather, I was drawn to Três’s booth by the colorful panels on the outside of his tent. Tall, skinny, primitive images of men, women, and monks. Yes, monks. Some were painted on boards and others on roofing paper.

Once inside the booth I met Três and his lovely wife, Helene, and that sealed the deal for me. Helene was beautiful, gentle and energetic at the same time, and began to pull panels from here and there and arrange them on the ground to help me with my selection. And then Três appeared and smiled at me and I felt like I had stepped onto a stage where the musical “Godspell” was being produced and Três played the part of Jesus.

You can read his story on his website, but let me just say that he was a biochemist for twenty years before a spiritual experience moved him to become an artist. His works show all over the world, but I love that he and his wife give back to the community by organizing group mural projects in some of the poorest communities in the country, in rural Alabama. You can read about them here. I just had this soul connection with the Taylors immediately.

I’ve been looking for some sort of “representational family portrait” for a long time, and these panels are the closest thing I’ve found. I chose one to represent each member of our family, which was so much fun.

When I explained my quest to the Taylors, Helene asked, “what kind of children do you have?” and I said, “two Asian and one white,” which seemed to double everyone over with laughter. I didn’t get it, until Helene caught her breath and said, “I meant how many girls and how many boys! I’ve never had anyone give an answer like yours before… it just never occurred to me!”

I guess I don’t think of gender as a “kind” of child, or adult for that matter. But maybe race isn’t a “kind” of person, either.

So what kind of children do I have? Hmmm….

I have a beautiful, smart, generous, intuitive, artistic, athletic daughter who happens to be South Korean in race and female in gender. But even as I write these words, I’m thinking that being Korean and female are part of what “kind” of person she is. It’s just that those aren’t the aspects of Beth that come to mind when I first think of her. If someone says, “Beth,” I don’t think: “Asian” or “girl” …. I think beautiful, smart, generous, etc. Beth is in her final year of architecture grad school, having majored in biomedical engineering in undergrad….

One of my sons, Jason, is charming, witty, loyal, kind, protective, loving, spiritual, artistic, athletic… and he also happens to be Korean in race but is male in gender. Jason is married to a beautiful woman named See, and has a precious three-month-old daughter, Grace.

My oldest son, Jonathan, is handsome, intelligent, literary, athletic, strong, and affectionate, and he happens to be white and male. (And on his way to Afghanastan soon… he flies helicopters for the Army… please keep him in your prayers this next year!)

I didn’t start out this blog post thinking I would write so much about my kids, but it just sort of happened organically☺

After the selection of my five art panels was complete, Caitlyn found another artist she was drawn to, so Brandon and I helped her select a painting for her new apartment. I didn’t really get a picture of it, just a shot of the artist showing her several options…

And Brandon looking on.

It was just a joy to be out in the sunshine watching the people on sidewalk cafes and looking down from their warehouse condo windows or riding the trolley or horse-drawn carriages. Musicians and artists and food vendors and neighbors and visitors.... a delightful festival!

The children’s activities were also wonderful.

Several artists were demonstrating their work, like Brad Troxel, whose paintings I really liked.

When I got home with the panels it took a while for my husband and I to figure out how to hang them… our headboard is curved, so I bought two long panels and three short panels with that in mind. We even hung the one that represents him (in the monk’s robe, since he’s a priest) over his side of the bed, and the one that represents me (woman with the red dress on!) over my side. The “little monk” is Jason because it reminds me of when he visited Korea and came back with a ceremonial robe. He put it on and made a customary bow to his father and I. The tall guy in the hat is Jon because it reminds me of his “cavalry” hat the helicopter pilots wear with their dress uniforms, and the body language looks like the playboy he sometimes can be. And then there’s the dark-haired mysterious beauty, Beth.

I’m thrilled with how they look in our newly painted bedroom. Can’t wait to get the bedspread made and it will all come together.

Like the bathroom, which is now complete with shower curtain ...

and art work. (This painting is by a Vietnamese artist. I bought it in Little Rock a couple of years ago.) Yep, this house is definitely getting some soul. And all kinds of people.

Here are a few more photos from the River Arts Fest. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Soul of a House

We bought our current home in 2001, three years after my father’s untimely death at age 68. My mother was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s, and I knew it was time to move her out of her home. Remembering how I felt twenty years earlier, when my folks moved my grandmother into a nursing home—I protested loudly that they should move her in with them—I told Mom I wanted her to live with us. I didn’t ask, I just told her. And then we bought a house with a mother-in-law suite for her, on the ground level and everything. Only problem was, she refused to move in with us.

Turned out to be a good thing for her and us… she lived happily in an assisted living facility for three years, making new friends as she was gradually forgetting old acquaintances. And then she fell and broke her hip and we had to move her to a nursing home, one year ago. This is old news… if any of you haven’t been keeping up with my blog for very long, there are lots of posts about “Granny Effie,” that you might enjoy… I think they are kind of summarized here.

That was a long introduction to what I started out to write about in this post…. our house. I’ve never liked it. At all. It’s well-built, in a nice neighborhood, a nice size, but… something’s missing. When I was trying to describe this to a friend once, I said, “it has no soul.” The architectural design (or lack thereof) is part of the problem. But I think over the eight years that we’ve lived here, my attitude of dislike has rubbed off on the house.

About two years ago we found another house in the same neighborhood with lots of soul and tried to buy it, but we couldn’t sell this one, so we had to let it go.We decided to watch the market for a while, and eventually do some upgrades to make it competitive with other houses for sale in its price rang and try again.

So here we are…. Replacing formica countertops with granite (it’s called “Verde Peacock”) and the old sink with a single under-counter stainless sink and brushed nickel faucet. The old electric oven was replaced with a new GE Profile Convection oven and gas stove top and ta-da! New kitchen.

The master bathroom only had a shower, so we had a jetted tub installed, new tile floor and shower wall, old brown vanity cabinets painted white, all fixtures replaced with brushed nickel, and again, ta-da! New bathroom. (Not finished yet, so pictures will come later. Here's a "before." Notice the brown cabinets, no cabinet above toilet, and the shower which you can see in the mirror.)

Oh, and we had the walls painted in the bath, bedroom, den, kitchen and below the chair rail in the dining room and front hall. The colors have cheered my heart as much as the new countertops and appliances… most of the walls were off white for eight years, and I LOVE COLOR!

In the den we chose “Dusty Miller” and in the kitchen a lighter but similar shade… sometimes looks grey, sometimes green, sometimes blue.
For the bedroom we chose “Palomino Gold” and for the master bathroom, “Island Sand.” It all flows together beautifully! Tomorrow they’re painting the front door a deep green… the exterior is red brick and the door has a glass panel, so the green will frame it. It’s in the same family as the green beneath the chair rail in the front hall, so the door “introduces the interior of the house” as you enter. That’s what Bob Graham, one of our builders told me, when he helped me choose the color.

Bob and his partner, Barry Cantrell, have been fabulous. They did the “demolition” work and most of the “heavy work” while we were in Florida last week. At the end of every day, Bob sent me an email with an update of the day’s work. He always included a line or two about Oreo, our 20-year-old cat, and how she greeted them at the door, followed them from room to room checking on the work in progress, and then finally settled for a nap in my yellow chair in the den or up front on the guest bed. I had been worried how she’d do with all the construction and us being gone, even with Caitlyn “house-sitting” … she dropped by every morning and evening to give her food, water, clean litter box, brush her, bring in mail and paper, etc. It takes a village.

So when we got home from Florida Monday night we were blown away by the dramatic difference the work was making. The next day when Bob came over with paint samples for us to choose for the bathroom, we did a walk through together and he smiled gently and said, “It’s getting some soul, don’t’ you think?”

I smiled back and nodded.

It’s not that I think we’ll want to stay here instead of looking for a different house with more office and living space and less bedrooms, on a different street, with an attached garage, etc… it’s just that I’m through putting the house down. It’s like the Skin Horse said when the Velveteen Rabbit asked him about being real:

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

Maybe that’s also how houses get souls. I think I’m starting to love my house.

Yesterday and today I was out shopping for new towels, bath mats, kitchen stuff, and fabric samples for a custom-made bedspread. Came home with over a dozen samples! Oreo is helping us decide.

I think her favorite is the same as Bob's. Husband hasn't weighed in yet.

Found this precious canvas painting of a cat that matches all our colors... she'll probably end up in the bathroom, right over Oreo's water bowl.

Here are a couple more shots of the kitchen and front hallway. Will add the bedroom and bath later. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Attention Walmart Shoppers

“People don’t want to pay $25 for something they know.” David Magee, author of 12 published books (in just 8 years) and owner of Rock Point Bookstore in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was speaking at the Escape to Create Fall Writers Conference at Seaside, Florida October 14-16. His point was that it’s important to find the angle (about a story, person, or event) that no one else saw coming and then understand and frame the story in a simple and clear manner. David is “in love with the romance of a small book package,” adding that “you don’t have to be clever—it’s so clear.” That was on Thursday.

On Friday morning, David joined the five other speakers at the morning session and shared the news he had just heard: Wal-Mart is going to start selling $25 hardbacks for $9. Silence fell over the room of writers, readers, and booksellers gathered in the lovely home in Seaside for the two-day conference. This could be a death-knoll for so many in the writing and publishing business. The news cast a dark shadow over David’s otherwise outgoing countenance. I immediately thought about Richard and Lisa Howorth, owners of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners of Burke’s Books in Memphis.

Cheryl’s brother-in-law (the world of Southern literature is small) is Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts and another of the presenters as the E2C Conference. Neil is also an excellent teacher, and his talk on the art and craft of memoir was worth the price of the conference fee on its own. (At the bargain price of $125, each presentation was worth the ticket.) I could write pages about his talk, but I’ll try to condense the best parts for you:

The difference in memoir and biography is that memoir is “a glimpse into a life,” whereas biography usually starts at birth and follows ‘til the end. Neil says to “start your memoir where your inspiration is.” What makes memoir work (it’s selling like hotcakes while literary fiction is struggling) is a many-faceted discipline. At the top of Neil’s list is “intimacy,”—“it’s as if you are whispering in the ear of the reader.” Following close on the heels of intimacy is conflict—“where the protagonist wants something desperately and there’s something in the way.” Neil’s third nugget is “the creation of scene”—and he expounds on the age-old “show, don’t tell” tenet by saying, “don’t tell the reader what to think.” He wrote 150 scenes for his book, and then “strung them together with exposition.”

Details was next on his list, and he emphasized the importance of using concrete language instead of “universal” language.” So, instead of saying, of the leprosy patients living in the same facility in which he was incarcerated, that “they were shunned by the outside world,” he gave specific instances of how that happened in their lives. Next on his list was vulnerability—the importance of the writer examining his own prejudices, with help from a friend, therapist, or even group therapy. Creating a sense of urgency, even when writing about the past, is also crucial in memoir. So, instead of saying, “I remember feeling this way,” show how you felt by writing as though it’s happening right now. He spoke about not writing for revenge or out of anger at those who might have hurt you. “It’s not about others—it’s about you.” Which leads to credibility—how do you gain this with you readers? Confession. Which is tied to the search for meaning—why are you writing this?

Neil spoke as eloquently about the “Art and Craft” of Memoir next. This was, in some ways, the most valuable part of his talk for me, because he separated the “art” from the “craft” for us in specific ways that I hope to try to emulate when I get home and back to work. The “art” part should happen in a free, childlike manner, where the writer leaves the inner critic behind and let’s the imagination go.. ranting and raving, not worrying about how it looks. “It should be messy.” I think I struggle with this process because I don’t like things to be messy. I tend to edit as I go, and it stifles my work.

Once the “art” is done (one page, one chapter, or the entire book) let it sit for a while and then pick it back up and do the “craft” part—the critiquing, the shaping, the analysis. This is where you “gain clarity that throw you back in the artistic realm,” according to Neil. At this point you “find balance—if you were angry, find peace. If you hate a character, find a redeeming aspect….” You should still keep it to yourself for a while, telling yourself, “I may never show this to anyone.” The puzzle starts to fit together and the work of revision begins.

I’ve only touched on the gems Neil shared with us, and I’ll add his encouragement to “know you genre—read great memoir and personal essays,” which I devour regularly; and his words about practicing the art and craft of writing every day, even when you don’t feel like it. “If you don’t show up every day, you have no idea what you might have missed.”

Returning to David Magee, it was fun to learn that his father, Dr. Lyman Magee, was one of my husband’s professors at Ole Miss (biology) in the 1960s. But also that David was adopted, and his search for his birth father is the topic of a story that he actually got a book deal for but backed out because “the time wasn’t right.” Instead, he wrote a business book (How Toyota Became Number One) and it started his career. None of his 12 published books are his “soul story,” but he says “you can drive what’s in your soul with stories other than memoir—you can immerse yourself in any subject, golf, business, etc., and bring what drives your memoir-to-be to another topic by putting a piece of yourself into it.” Great advice for struggling memoirists who aren’t ready to put all the personal stuff out there yet.

Growing up in Oxford, David was always intrigued with the racial issues, and asked himself, “how does this division of people bubble to the surface?....” His latest work, The Education of Mr. Mayfield: An Unusual Story of Social Change at Ole Miss, is a 230-page jewel that has a lot going on, “candy in a wrapper,” as David says. Mayfield is a gay, black artist in Mississippi who is invited to work as a janitor in the art department by art professor, Stuart Percy, ends up studying under Percy in secret and eventually becomes a successful artist. David always wanted to write a civil rights book, but he wrote 11 other books first and he’s glad he waited because he found himself “at the right place” to right this story six years later. “The story of Mayfield and Percy isn’t really the story—it’s a device through which to tell the story.” My mind is still spinning with ideas of different ways to spin the stories I’m trying to write, personal, spiritual or regional.

I was equally blessed by the talks given by the playwright, Rich Orloff, the poet, Erin Belieu, and the musician and songwriter, Melanie Hammet, although their genres are different from my own. Good story telling is good story telling, and good writing crosses all genres. Erin’s words about poetry are so true of fiction and nonfiction: “A good poem should have mystery, and intelligent and emotional authority.” Maybe a difference is in the reader’s understanding: “You can read a poem and say, ‘that’s awesome” even if you don’t ‘get it.’” Even though Erin believes that anyone can write a great poem, I still feel that poetry it a gift. (One that I don’t have, by the way.)

Melanie Hammet is a songwriter, but she also served as a city council person. She’s written songs about urban planning, which she defines as “how we live on the land with each other,” that are priceless. I loved hearing Melanie sing outside Sundog Books as well as during the Conference sessions. She talked about synesthesia—combining acoustic guitar with urban planning, or with songs for children ages 7-12 who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

She contends that songwriting is not all that different than nonfiction writing, in which cross pollination, or unusual collaboration infuses the work. “You see blue and you know what it tastes like.” Her emphasis on commitment to the work mirrored the other writers’ encouragement, with the added challenge to “make a vow with your work: we torment our relationship with our writing…. We nag it, saying, ‘why don’t you put the toilet seat down, writing?’”

Fiction writer Scott Morris who has led two of the three Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshops I’ve attended at Ole Miss, gave a wonderful reading during his session, a short story called, “Watching Homer,” about a pair of special needs kids in high school. Scott’s writing is beautiful, literary, like poetry and music and fiction all rolled into one. It was a joy to listen to him read. Scott is a true artist, as unaffected by all the “issues” that drive so much that’s out there today. I love what he said during the panel that all six writers led, “The Art and Realities of the Writer,” when the discussion drifted into how hard the writer’s life is: “There’s a rumor going around that all these problems can be cured with medication,” which drew lots of laughs.

Rich quoted Hemingway as saying, “with each novel I write, I die a little,” and
then Erin said, “bring the pain.” Neil’s experience was different: “I absolutely loved writing the story…. You got to find some redemption in the story.” And Melanie summed it all up with her wit: “Let’s not take ourselves so seriously—just write a piece of shit and get on with your life.”

I’m leaving the beach tomorrow with all this inspiration and information spinning around in my head. With several writing projects on front and back burners, I’m going to try to look at them through the prism of the wisdom I gained from these incredible three days at the Seaside Writers Conference.

It’s always hard to leave the beach, with its pristine beauty, even when it’s 50-something degrees!

What a joy it was to have my writing group buddies, Doug McLain and Michael Risely and their wives, Charmaine and Jennie here with me and my husband in this amazing house on Seagrove Beach. We’ve had a great time at local hang-outs, like the Tarpon Club (Bud and Alley’s) where we enjoyed music and dancing with Neil, Scott, David, and new friends from Seaside.

We ate delicious fish at Lake Place and Café 30-A and the best wine and sushi anywhere at the Café Rendezvous.

And yes, I added to my collection of leather and pearls made by Wendy and Jean Noel Mignot. Loved that Wendy stopped at my table (they also own Café Rendezvous) to make some adjustments to the earrings I bought on my last visit, just before she hurried away to pick her up daughter from cheerleader practice. She returned with her son, who had been catching redfish. Yes, they live a charmed life, but they work hard at their crafts.

Also found some funky boots at the Perspicasity shops in Seaside.

As I finish this post, hubby and I are watching the Giants (go Eli!) and Saints game with a view that’s to die for. It’s half time, so I’m going to take a book and head down to the water’s edge. Hope to get into Seaside to some wi-fi to post later today. If not… Monday night back in Memphis. So, here we are again at the Rendezvous Wine Bar (which has wi-fi)....

Can't get many photos posted here... go to my Facebook Page to see more pics....