I stepped out on the back porch with my coffee this morning, and a crow landed on the deck railing. She looked at me sidelong, I straightened under the inspection, Miss B for once did not decide to go scrambling after something new and quite probably chase-able…
…and Odd Trundles, wriggling between my ankles, threw himself at the railing. Which held up, thank goodness. The crow rode out the shuddering, cawed sharply three times, and flew away with a wingsnap and something suspiciously like laughter.
After the bees the other day and every cat in the neighborhood coming out to greet me on my 5K yesterday, I’m beginning to suspect Something Is Afoot.
Yesterday I tried cooking eggplant for the second time, and the results were…unsatisfying. I think when I eventually get a grill, I’m going to have to just grill the snot out of some eggplant and hope for the best. So far, though,it’s like okra–I never want to put that in my mouth again, world without end, amen.
This morning I tried the new habit of sitting down at the piano just after breakfast. Hava Nagilah is still difficult, but it’s not making me cry now. I can limp along through it, so not it’s just a question of brute practice. I’m up to the seventh piece in my Bach book, too, and either they’re getting a little easier or he’s just trying to fake me out before dropping something full of sixteenth notes on me.
At least it’s not Mozart. I get the sense that Bach really wants you to succeed and is pulling for you, where Mozart is sort of a bro who really loves adversarial music, deliberately trying to trip you up. I hate rigged contests, so I don’t think I’ll ever like playing Mozart.
In the “really good news” department, B was allowed to accompany Odd Trundles on his daily constitutional yesterday. A very slow, very gentle, very short walk did wonders for her nervous twitches, and stretched out her injured leg. Consensus is it was a simple sprain, and the only thing to do is keep her activity level down until it heals, and watch her carefully for a long while before she can be my running buddy again.
In short, it will be torture for her, but Odd Trundles’s slow ambling is the only speed available for her silly furry butt right now. Every time she gets snitty with me about not going on a run I just tell her, as Hyperbole and a Half so memorably said, “DOG, YOU DO NOT MAKE GOOD DECISIONS.”
That’s all the news from this side of the fence, I think. Now I go back to work revising Cormorant Run and knocking down my List of Things To Do Today, which has grown to truly massive Wednesday proportions. I’m sure whatever the crows, bees, and cats have been warning me of will hit soon.
I get to go back to work today! I get to revise Cormorant Run! Everything is itching under my skin from trying like hell to take a few days off. I know I needed it–my head was not a pleasant place to hang about, last week, being full of the noise and clamor of the internal engines winding down. But it was unpleasant.
I did finish reading a couple books, though. The best of them was Sarah Wise’s Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England. Wise is an auto-buy for me, everything she does is a cracking good read and backed up with well-organized notes. Her bibliographies and appendices are things of beauty, too. You can feel her joy in history radiating from the page.
Her observations near the end of the book about the mid-twentieth century’s use of the Victorian concepts of “lunacy” or “moral insanity” and the connections to eugenics were startling and thought-provoking. She ends with saying that’s another book, and I devoutly hope she’s writing it.
Next up on my list is the Norton Critical edition of Brothers Karamazov, as well as Judith Herrin’s history of Byzantium. The latter has some problems, true. My eyebrows have nested in my hairline at some of the typos, as well as Herrin’s extremely evident good-feelings towards Christianity somewhat muddying the analytical waters. For all that, it’s a good general introduction to Byzantium, though not as magisterial and readable as John Julius Norwich’s work on the Eastern Roman Empire, which I reread every now and again, generally after I’ve had another bout with Gibbon.
I am pleased to report Miss B’s leg is doing well, too. I am still not taking her on runs, or even on gentle walks. The problem seems to be a muscle sprain just below her ankle, and that needs to be good and healed before she can chase anything down the hall or go on walkies. The poor thing is beside herself with impatience, and I can’t blame her. I feel the same way when an injury sidelines me. However, many snuggles and plenty of canine massage to help the healing process seems to be a somewhat (if not thoroughly) acceptable substitute. This morning she even scrambled after Fearless!Cat, who had come upstairs to investigate whether the dog bowls had leftover bacon grease suitable for feline snacking and hairball-easing.
After I revise Cormorant I need to make some decisions about which project to finish next. I’m thinking it will have to be Afterwar, my near-future Band of Brothers homage crossed with mutation and maybe, if I can shoehorn it in, some cyborg action. It’s still in the planning stages, but it’s a trilogy, and I feel like sinking my teeth into a series after finishing a spate of stand-alone books. This particular project scares the hell out of me, because it is big and there are so many ways it could go wrong. But it’s the type of terror that makes me fiercely determined to do my best to pull it off.
And that’s all the news from this corner of the world, except for an upcoming event at a local bookstore (more on that later) and Odd Trundles’s perennial quest to hoover up any item anyone in the house drops on the principle that sooner or later it will be something edible. This weekend he almost gobbled my phone, two sets of earbuds, a handful of cabbage meant for the cavy, a few catalogs, and a tube of rose-scented hand lotion. Thank God I’ve been rolling high on every “grab that before the dog gets it” interaction. Training for multiple years with toddlers has finally paid off.
It’s Friday again. I would have a Friday photo for you, but things are a little topsy-turvy here right at the moment. I am having to carry a fifty-pound dog down the stairs for loo breaks. It’s a grand workout, and this is the dog with sense enough to stay still during the entire operation, but still.
What happened? Well, yesterday I had to answer the door.
Perhaps I should explain.
Neither dog can be trusted when I have to do so, but Odd Trundles can’t make it down the inside stairs. (This gives the cats someplace to go to escape his exuberance. If he ever finds out they’re perfectly navigable there will be FURRY HELL TO PAY OMG.) So the thing to do has become to put both dogs in my bedroom, which smells like me (and like them, let’s be honest, because that T-shirt that says “Sleeps With Dogs”? That’s me.) and does not hold anything that can harm them.
Unfortunately, Miss B was Very Excited at the prospect of SOMEONE AT THE DOOR. She dealt with this excitement by throwing herself at the bedroom door.
What I think happened next was that Odd, who had been napping on my bed (look, just don’t ask) got excited by all Miss B’s excitement, and made a beeline at whatever she was trying to get at. He relies on her to tell him what to do almost every minute of the day, including when to breathe and where to pee.
SO. I think Miss B landed on Odd. As a cushion, he leaves a little to be desired. He’s built like a brick shithouse, really, and not much can damage him, but brick shithouses are not pillows.
I closed the front door and heard a yelp. It activated the Mother Circuit in my head–you know, the one that flips when you realize your child has been Too Quiet For Too Long, or when you hear an “I’m hurt” noise, which is totally different than “I’m having a meltdown over not riding in the grocery cart” or “I am too tired for this shit” or even “MOM HE’S BREATHING ON ME!” noises. I all but teleported up the stairs, and the first Wrong Thing I encountered was Odd Trundles on the other side of my bedroom door, wiggling and pleased with himself but very baffled, since he is rarely allowed to be the first to greet me.
Miss B was holding one of her back paws up, and looking at me with a similar baffled expression. Then she put it down, picked it back up, and hopped three-legged towards me.
“Oh, fuck,” I said.
As far as I can tell nothing is broken. She is putting some weight on the leg and the bones are all in the right place; the entire leg moves as a whole with no floppiness and she has regular range of motion in all the joints. Her paw is a bit swollen but she lets me palpate each toe, so I think there’s nothing broken in there, she just landed wrong and sprained something. If she’s still limping tomorrow, it will be time for a vet visit I probably won’t be able to afford right now.
But today, I am carrying her up and down the stairs out back when she needs to pee. There will be no running for her, for the foreseeable future. Which is just going to be all sorts of fun if she can’t work off her nerves. And Odd Trundles, trying to be helpful, is chewing up the coir mat at the entrance of my office, because he has no clue what to do when Miss B isn’t bossing him, and this is the best he can come up with.
So apparently yesterday’s bees (look, they won’t sting me, but it is a bit concerning to pull my tank top away from my breasts and have a bee fly out, really) were carrying a night of vivid dreams for me. Which, great, I must have signed up for this sort of shit before I was born and I’ll put up with it, but really, YOU COULD HAVE JUST SENT A CROW, FOR GOD’S SAKE. (Aaaaaand this just landed in my inbox from my writing partner, who delights in doing such things.)
Anyway. Ahem. Hi. Welcome back, dear Readers. In the past couple weeks I’ve finished revising two all-new books and sent them off. While I chew on my fingers waiting to hear back (no, that’s not a typo, we’re down to actual flesh) I get to try and force myself to take a breath before going in to restructure, rebuild, revise, and just generally make CORMORANT RUN better. I wrote the zero and first drafts at such a white heat I’m surprised my hair didn’t catch on fire, and it’s a good thing I have my favorite editor around to tell me where the story in my head needs a little more clarification on the page.
Editing doesn’t have to be adversarial.
The trouble is, my internal engines are unstable and going at such high speed I stand a very real risk of pulling some mental muscles by going back into the fray before I’ve healed up. At the same time, I am aching–aching–to get some more work out the door, because the financial hit from having to shelve the Book That Shall Not Be Named because fuckwits kept stealing has been…severe. I’m not quite at the point of no return yet, but I’m definitely in Anxiety Land.
I keep telling myself that things have been truly bleak before and this is not that. I practice self-care, I am taking the long view and choosing not to do short-term flailing that will injure my ability to keep producing. At least, producing for public consumption. I’ll always write, it’s just publishing that seems to be the strangle-point. Then again, after being in this game for over a decade now, I should know that it’s cyclical.
Why do I speak about this publicly? Because a lot of people don’t. Because there are few things “new” and aspiring writers need to know more than what makes a sustainable career. Because being honest about it helps demystify the process of making a living as a creative. Also, because I want people to know and understand the consequences of thievery, and to shame those who still indulge in it. Also also, because I don’t have time for bullshit, and openness discourages yon fragrant bovine droppings liek woah.
Yes. Well. Now I have to distract myself so I don’t go blazing into the next round of revisions just yet and hurt myself.
This last weekend I finished Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’d heard of Grossman several times, of course–along with Ehrenburg he was the Soviet war correspondent of World War II’s Eastern Front. Or, as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War. (Ehrenburg would disagree with Grossman sharing his pedestal, I suppose. But I don’t.)
Grossman survived the war and even outlived Stalin, despite the latter’s vicious, senile anti-Semitism. Khrushchev, while not allowing Life and Fate (and other Grossman works) to be published, didn’t send him off to a camp or to the Lubyanka. (Small mercies, I guess.)
Life and Fate follows the Shaposnikov family and their circle, in various parts of the Soviet Union, through the siege of Stalingrad. The echoes of War and Peace are intentional, and indeed Grossman struggles with Tolstoy’s philosophy as well as his literary achievements. (Thankfully, though, he doesn’t betray a Sonya. He gets sort-of-close with Yevgenia Shaposhnikova, though.) His sort-of-protagonist, Viktor Shtrum, is part of the Shaposhnikovs through marrying Lyudmila; it is Grossman’s focusing on the women of that family that gives the book much of its strength. Even though Viktor is to a large extent Grossman’s authorial insert, it is the women who hold the book together, just as it’s the women who are always left to rebuild after the men kill each other in massive quantities.
Several times during the book, women are shown as more capable, more durable than men, and it is the “old peasant woman” in her many forms who holds society–such as it is under totalitarianism–together. There is the old woman holding a brick, who the observers clearly expect to bash the brains out of a German prisoner after the fall of Stalingrad. When she chooses something else, despite herself, Grossman’s own surprise is palpable. His habit as a journalist of describing what he actually sees despite it going against whatever preconceptions he may have is also palpable, and it made me enjoy myself despite some of the more wrenching parts.
What Grossman does best, really, is show the compromises–emotional, physical, spiritual, and in every other way–and the mind-numbing fear of living under totalitarianism. Viktor, after enduring the terror of waiting to be arrested by the NKVD, is suddenly restored to “citizenship” and grace because his scientific work helps the nascent Soviet nuclear program, and Stalin has just realized the utility of the latter. Once he is “redeemed” in the eyes of the State, he is presented with an awful quandary, asked to commit a betrayal. After sticking up for the “right” thing earlier in the book and suffering that completely devastating fear of arrest and reprisal, well.
People get tired, and they have to make choices under that fatigue.
Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed–while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end. Life and Fate, p. 840
During the war, Soviet citizens had a hope of freedom. The state and Stalinism relaxed their iron grip in order to save its own skin, because terrified slaves don’t fight as well. Many believed that after the war, the arrests and repression would stop. That was part of what they were paying for in blood and pain and sorrow.
Needless to say, the repression began again just as soon as the German siege of Stalingrad was broken. Stalin had no intention of allowing the terror that kept him in power to fade, even if it was tactically sound to loosen the strangling fingers temporarily.
Grossman’s eviscerations of Fascism sprinkled through the book both highlight the brutality of genocide on the Eastern Front as well as, more subtly, the brutality inherent in Soviet totalitarianism. He doesn’t quite explicitly state that the difference between the two dictatorships is only cosmetic–and what Soviet writer could? But the comparison is there. Fighting an evil does not automatically make one good, Grossman seems to be saying, and that is a distinction often (if not always) lost in the heat of ideology.
If there is a way out of the tangle of bloodshed and fear, Grossman says, it is kindness.
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. Life and Fate, p. 410
Of course, the character reading the above passage is in a concentration camp, he’s a diehard Soviet reading a “mad priest’s ravings.” The tension between this small hope and the evidence all around Grossman and his characters of man’s inhumanity to man is overwhelming. Grossman was Jewish, and one of the first to report on the death camps. Viktor Shtrum’s mother–a Jewish woman in Eastern Europe–dies, and Viktor’s grief is palpable. The effects of anti-Semitism, a cancer in Soviet Russia just as in Nazi Germany, is a poisonous aquifer in the book. Grossman, no doubt, saw enough of it to fill him to the back teeth.
Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of–I’ll tell you what you’re guilty of. Life and Fate, p. 484
A neater–and truer–example of projection can rarely be found. Our own modern bigots and xenophobes do the same. If it’s not Jews, it’s Muslims, immigrants, what-have-you. Plus ca change…
Reading Life and Fate was a marathon. Several times I had to set the book aside and take a deep breath. The tearing pain of bearing witness bleeds through the pages, made worse by the fact that Grossman saw the horror personally and could not bring himself to look away. I deeply respect that. He was also smart–and empathetic–enough to untangle the feelings of those who believed in Stalin or Communism, who had to believe or who could not imagine anything else. He didn’t shy away from the tragedy of the informer or the NKVD torturer as well as the victims, or the tragedy of those caught between and simply trying to survive from day to day.
Betrayed by his own state all his life, his books “arrested” and his own body failing him with stomach cancer in 1964, Grossman died without knowing that Life and Fate (and Everything Flows, his later book) would be smuggled out and published in the West in 1980, finally seeing publication in his own country in 1988. One suspects that as a journalist Grossman might have felt vindicated. And one can further suspect what he’d think of Russia’s current dictator-lite. Many thanks are due to Vladimir Voinovich and Andrei Sakharov for keeping the faith–and the manuscript–safe and bringing it out to breathe freely.
Wherever Grossman is now, I hope he can rest comfortably. He earned it.
I’ve never liked Cinderella. The idea that one must be patient and submissive even under the worst treatment and someday, someday you’ll be rewarded strikes me as damaging at best and a culturally approved way to groom people to be abuse victims at worse. I was always faintly uncomfortable with the endings of different versions–the stepsisters cutting parts of their own feet off, shoes full of blood, casks full of red-hot nails rolled down a hill with the stepmother inside. It wasn’t the violence that made me uneasy, I knew from a very early age the world is a brutal place and safety largely an illusion. It was the feeling of righteousness welling up when I read about abusers getting theirs that made me queasy. I often wondered if those feelings made me just as bad as the stepmother and sisters–or just as bad as the people who beat me.
So when I realized Ellie from Nameless needed her own story, it irked me. I didn’t have the trouble in choosing the tools to excavate it; they came easily to hand for once.
That should have been my first clue that the exorcisms weren’t over.
I wrote Wayfarer during the Great Casa to Chez situation. About halfway through, I deconstructed under the stress, and for only the second time in my life, the words refused to come. I had no emotional energy to spare and yet the urge to write tormented me with spurs under my skin. I would sit down, look at the files open on my desktop, and slide straight into a panic attack because I was too burnt out to feel my way from word to word. Having the urge and being unable to scrape together even a single syllable was a very special kind of hell.
Buying a house is not for the weak.
Anyway, that passed, and as if in payment for keeping the faith, I fell into Ellie’s story as soon as I turned on said desktop in the new house. It occurred to me, now that I’d achieved some distance from the story (not by my own will, but still) that I wasn’t really writing about someone else.
I was writing, in some ways, about myself.
The fairy godmother doesn’t show up when Cinderella is being beaten for not cleaning something properly, doesn’t show up when she sleeps in the cinders, doesn’t advocate with her when her inheritance is stolen. Instead, she arrives before a goddamn ball. Which has always seemed to me like she’s not really very invested in dear old Cindy-Rella, but has an agenda of her own. You find out when you survive a bad childhood that escaping carries a price and risks all its own. Those who offer to “help” you often have their own agendas, and your wellbeing may be only a small (or nonexistent) priority. A few harsh lessons from that quarter and the devil you grew up with starts looking like a marginally safer bet. Some kinds of help aren’t really helpful at all. In other variations of the tale, it’s the dead mother and a Giving Tree who step in to send Cinderella to the ball, and if that doesn’t make a false dichotomy between the dark and passive feminines, I don’t know what does.
Ellie understands very well she’s trapped because she’s a minor. She puts a brave face on at school and doesn’t invite her friends further into her problems than she is absolutely forced to. “Help” isn’t something she feels is possible, it isn’t something she feels she can ask for. When she is finally driven to a certain cottage, the “safety” there is just as perilous as “home.” She does well in school until she can no longer go, understanding it’s one of her few ways out. When you’re that young, and that under siege, isolation begins to feel like your only and safest bet. You cannot trust anyone else, even those who really do want to help you. You fight even the best support, because trust is a liability you can’t afford when you’re holding together your psychic integrity under assault 24-7.
Not only that, but one can often feel…corrupted. Being told over and over that you’re worthless, evil, the worst thing that ever happened to your parent, that it’s your fault they do these horrible things to you, fucks up every sense of priorities, perspective, and worth you might have. The effects go on for years, and even therapy cannot completely erase the stain or the sting.
It can take a long time to piece yourself back together. Therapy has helped me immensely, as well as medication to get the anxiety under control. (Just give me a stick!) I have found people who can be trusted, and I have allowed myself to trust. There was no fairy godmother, even though I wished for one. In the end, it’s Ellie’s own strength, and her bonds with people who are willing to give the right kind of help, that saves the day. The latter is never guaranteed, and the former isn’t either, but I’ve spent my life betting on the latter and am, incredibly, still breathing.
I found out I was stronger than I ever suspected. Ellie’s survival is in part mine too; this is part of why fairytales stick around. Even under the trappings I care very little for–the prince, the ball, the dresses pulled from a nutshell or bibbity-bobbity-booed into existence–there is a hard kernel of truth that can ignite the bonfire I burn all the pain and rage and helplessness in. I don’t sleep in those ashes anymore, I have difference sources of warmth.
But when I go into battle, I paint my face with them, because I’ve survived. That was the story I needed to write, and I think–I hope–I did.