The Tiniest of Spiders in This Troubled Web

weepingbuddha

The email from my massage therapist was brief. Their two woman massage clinic would be closing for two weeks during the Covid-19 outbreak. Massage, she pointed out, wasn’t compatible with “social distancing.” I can imagine them thinking as they made this decision “two weeks? four? two months?” because who can tell when, if ever, their clinic will reopen.

My musician friend who spends six or eight hours almost every day practicing for a few gigs a week in the best of times, kept checking her emails last time I saw her, looking for messages from her bookings telling her they were canceling: not enough customers to justify even the small amount she’d be paid, not enough customers to fill her tip jar when she wasn’t.

And I’m a medical exercise specialist–what one of my clients calls a “fancy personal trainer”–certified to work with exactly those people most at risk from the virus: older people or those with chronic health issues. A number of my clients have already chosen to go into self-isolation and while I am able to offer to “meet” with them remotely, not all are willing or able to do that.

All of us are part of a diverse group of people who don’t fall neatly into the usual definition of “gig workers”: independent professionals. Our ranks include massage therapists and personal trainers; yoga teachers and dance instructors; math tutors and freelance writers; artists and musicians. We are not salaried so will not qualify for unemployment. We don’t have status as employees so will not benefit from sick leave or family leave. We are small business owners but we work alone so even if payroll tax cuts were involved, we’d see no help there.

And while all who fall into this category have specialized talent, skill, or education, while all of us continue to hone those skills and advance our knowledge, we admittedly aren’t essential to anyone’s lives. Very few people physically need a massage regularly. Most people feel they can keep themselves active and healthy. None will suffer major loss if they can’t go out to a restaurant or bar and listen to music for some time.

We weave ourselves into the community on such a thin thread while trying to bring measurable good every day we put our energy, education and attention to the professions we practice and the people who benefit from our skills and talents. And when crisis hits as it has now, our thread is often the first cut, leaving us floating away like tiny spiders cut from their webbing.

We are irreplaceable. Yet we are dispensable. And when the world rights on its axis, we may be gone.

 

Is Quitting Sometimes the Greater Good?

paper and  pen

As that old song goes “Should I stay or should I go?”

For the last five years or so, I have been trying to return to the writing that I walked away from when I stopped teaching after twenty years. Twenty plus years of not writing, then I began again. Stops and starts; small steps into a poem or blog piece here or there; frenzied thousands of words through the past three years NaNoWriMo and here I am: Where?

My writing may not be as bad as my eye and ear perceive it, but as I grow older, grasp for thoughts, words, concepts with more difficulty–my God, I’ve started using a Thesaurus–I can’t help but wonder what or who benefits by my trudging on. I found myself re-reading some older blog pieces and I can’t deny that rather than improving by writing more, I see less value, less poetry, less rhythm of word and thought three years later.

Yes, walking away from 72,000 words of one mystery and 50,000 of another feels like failure. But would walking away from 100,000 in another year be less soul depleting? My heart says I am on a useless journey; yet my ‘pen’ pushes on, another word, then another until a sentence builds and here I am again. But should I be?

At the crisis point in one of the mysteries I have been writing–and every writer who struggles with the “writer’s journey” and the 3 act structure knows that point comes quite late–my protagonist, almost sure she has been the indirect cause of a death, thinks that there is no reason she should stay in the old neighborhood she has embraced as home, thinks she could move on and be free of the responsibility, the guilt, the pressure to solve the riddle of the first death. But as she paces her apartment, listening to the sounds of the bar she inherited floating up from below, the music, the clink of glasses and bottles, the laughter of her neighbors, she knows she cannot go. She is home.

Late in my third act, writing may be my home, my pen continuing to craft a world, sentence by sentence. That might be my answer.

I’m just not sure it’s the right answer.

Born Sad

56298672 - nepal jungle

 

“She was always making jokes in class, kept us laughing all the time.”

“I don’t know that I ever see her without a big smile.”

“Some people are just born funny.”

They’re not talking about me.

Not that I don’t have a sense of humor that can range from silly to sarcastic to full-on giggle torrent. Sit me down watching an episode of “QI” or “Would I lie to you?” and I’ll drive my husband crazy, laughing with my headphones on. All he sees is a crazy person going manic while I’m listening to Sandy Toksvig or David Mitchell. It must be like being in the room while someone else is having a phone conversation–on LSD.

And I tell jokes or what I hope are jokes in my QiGong classes and I’d like to think the students’ laughter is more than politeness on their part–although QiGong students do tend toward the polite end of the civility spectrum.

But I’m not by nature a happy person. I am more likely to politely disappear into a private world where thoughts run more toward the unhappy stories I hear, the pain that someone must have felt when they were let go from a job or told off by a friend, the grief and loss of a pet or relative or even an object they held in value. I will think of these things and feel a visceral deep ache in my heart and gut despite not being personally affected.

And when the loss is my own, I carry my sadness forever. Not every moment of every day, not in a way that keeps me from enjoying a good dinner and drink or a beautiful walk, but somewhere in what might be called by some my ‘soul.’ The pain of the death of my beautiful caramel tabby almost three years ago will just, from seemingly nowhere, wrap a fist around me and I will hurt almost as deeply as I did the last time I caressed his fur.

I’m not speaking of depression, either, here. I have gone through periods of deep and lasting depression, depression that seems to have no cause, no igniting source, per se. So I know what that feels like all too well. No, this no antidepressant or talk therapy would change. This sadness is simply part of my being.

My life walks in a deep forest, the limbs dragged down by their mantles of leaves, the senses dampened, the sounds of insects humming in the dark, beautiful but always dialed down to a few decibels lower than what those on the sunny savannah might hear. The knot in the chain won’t be untangled; the chip in the vase not repaired; the broken heart remains broken.

Those of us born in sadness aren’t more intuitive necessarily or more sensitive. I know I’m not. We just see the world revolving with downturned lips, beautiful nonetheless.

I’m happy there are those who are ‘born funny.’

And I’m just fine being born sad.

The Problem With Series Mysteries: Who Changes?

woodeneye

 

Writing is all about the protagonist, right? And that protagonist goes through some turmoil–yes, simplifying here–and then, abracadabra, she goes through some fundamental change by the end. Succeed or fail, she changes in some deep way. Got that? Never varies? Rules of the game and all.

Except. Except. Really? What about Sherlock Holmes? Wow, he really grows and matures, huh. Joe Friday (if you’re old enough to remember Dragnet)? Yeah, goes home from the precinct a changed man at the end of each episode, hoo boy.

Uh. No. Holmes is pretty much always Holmes. Lights a pipe, grabs his violin and waits for the next client. Friday has to be one of the most colorless, blank slates of all the slates out there. Throws the crook in jail, gavel bangs to show justice will be done. Onward.

So when writing a series mystery, as opposed to a stand-alone, if it’s not your detective who changes, who does? In modern mysteries, of course, we’ve seen more changing. The sleuth–whether amateur or pro–becomes harder drinking as life’s harsh realities set in, leaves the spouse (or the spouse is killed: cautionary note to those thinking of marrying a detective), retires vowing to never touch another case, develops PTSD or OCD or another DSM classification. As I think about it, the changes never seem to be all that positive: “Hey, honey, I feel like the world has become so much cleaner and brighter since that blackmailer fell off the bridge, let’s get a puppy!”

An argument could be made that in a classic mystery series, the “protagonist,” the one who changes, is the “antagonist,” the evildoer who has been brought to justice in some way. But unless the killer goes through a substantial psychological change or breakthrough, isn’t the change really external: he goes to jail, gets sent to the gallows, falls off the bridge? (I’m never walking across a bridge if I forget to pay the gas bill on time, by the way.)

What then creates the epiphany or recognition that “story” supposedly demands? Traditionally, a mystery–whether puzzle or police procedural–brings about not change but a return to stability. Yes, even in the traditional hero story arc, there should be the return of the hero, bringing back the grail or ring or sorcerer’s stone, to the land where she began and that’s stability. But she’s supposed to have changed in some way. She recognizes her own strengths when she thought she had none. She appreciates Kansas. She’ll never go hungry again, damn it.

Can the change occur in those characters surrounding the mystery? In Nicholas Blake’s The Widow’s Cruise, the character who seems to have the most change is a young man who starts as a stuck up little prig, all ego and cockiness, who falls for an older woman only to have her end up dead and himself suspected for a time. Blake describes him at the end as having matured. But do we feel this changes the outcome of the mystery that much? Could he have stayed cocky and the mystery still pleasingly resolved? Absolutely.

Now, I’m supposed to give you the answer. Well, I can’t because I’m struggling to figure it out. Maybe in a series, change isn’t really the answer–although that means I’m going to have to ditch a passel  of books on how to write that I own. Or the change may come to the community as a whole (although in the previously mentioned Blake book, they just continue to cruise the Aegean). Or the “protagonist,” the object of change is just that–an object. The blue carbuncle? The apportioned will? The body in the library?

In my own work, I suspect the neighborhood of The Blue Moon might be the “character” most “upended,” as Lisa Cron phrases it in Story Genius. Yes, my protagonist will change a bit more than Holmes or Miss Marple. But not so much she can’t go on to sleuth out another day or mix another cocktail. (Trigger warning: if this series ever flies, it’s not a cozy. Swearing will ensue.) Cheers. And if you do have the answer, I’m all ears (not really, I have fingers, toes and other body parts, too).

 

Villanelle For “The Black Dog” (version 2)

weepingbuddha

 

You’ll go through each motion, one by one,

As dark night gives way to blacker day.

You begin with “I’ll live,” as you’ve always done.

 

Pull the cord, raise the blinds, turn away from the sun.

Step into the shower.  Coat the  pain in wet spray.

You must go through each motion, one by one.

 

Clothing. Face. Don’t cry or mascara will run.

Room’s a damn mess. Make the bed anyway.

Mutter “I’ll live. I’ve always done.”

 

Don’t break the routine or the black dog might run

Up your back, clamp his teeth, rip the mask clean away.

So just go through each motion, one by one.

 

It’s not like you’re out buying pills or a gun.

Safety comes from not wanting to cause a display.

Keep on with “I’ll live.” As you’ve always done.

 

 You’ve been here before, seen how the thing’s done,

Studied the lines, know the acts of the play:

You’ll go through each motion, one by one

And repeat, “I’ll live.” As you’ve always done.