A Toddler's Lesson: Sane Woman Walking

On my writing desk, I keep three photos of myself as a child of three years. I wear a cotton jumper. Twin barrettes hold then blonde hair in place. In the first photo, I give a fierce look at someone off camera. In the second photo, I sit on a tricycle, cookie in hand, eyes closed, my face a scowl, feet on pedals. In my favorite photo, I point to the sky as I look back, the shadow of the person holding the camera blending into mine on the grass. In all three I see determination.

For the past forty-two months, my body has been twisted into a pretzel and more thanks to a mosquito infecting me with West Nile Virus in October 2015, paralyzing me and destroying nerves. I’ve done three kinds of therapy—physical, occupational, aquatic—yoga, weight-lifting. and floor exercises in gyms, a studio, my living room, a motel room, and yes, in a wheelchair. With help from family, a special friend, and amazing therapists, the paralysis is gone. Nerve damage claims residency in my left leg, but I deny it permanent status.

Without my trusty walker or forearm crutches, I become a tin soldier in need of a good windup whenever I fall limply forward from the waist. On my crutches, standing tall, I move like a ballerina, on my walker a marathon runner. Pure fiction, I know.

Speaking of fiction, through it all, writing gave me sanity and a way to understand loss and love, past and future. Since the bite, I read my work at a Greenwich Village pub, lectured at my MFA program, revised my novel, and wrote or revised a dozen stories. (I have been on a few hikes - that’s another blog). I continue to meet with my two writing groups, one focused on craft, the other on new work. Writing stayed my priority. Without it, I would not be out and about, a sane woman walking.

When I look at my toddler photographs, I understand the determination on that face. I imagine I had my sights on the near impossible when I pointed to that sky. I imagine I was told no when I glared at the photographer. On my tricycle with cookie in hand, I was determined to go where my finger pointed. Now, I must bring that determination to my work—first draft, revisions, publication—just as I resolved to walk again when people told me I might not.

Yesterday was my first Wednesday in forty-two months not to exercise. Instead, I met with my writing group. We shared writing resources and markets, and then we submitted our work. The determination in that room to get work into print helped me realize that, like my toddler self, I look forward.

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A New York City Story - June 2018

My trusty walker, Ms. Scarlet, met a robot in New York City. I met several kind men, including a street beggar. We were in the city for a conference and, everywhere we travel, we look for story ideas.

Many of you know a mosquito bit me 992 days ago. It gave me West Nile Virus, paralyzing much of me. My body is back except for my left leg so I use Ms. Scarlet, a Nitro Euro all-terrain walker, hot red and black. She is a siren when it comes to meeting men. We enjoy their curiosity about her and their conversations with me. In NYC our adventure began at LaGuardia Airport.

I sit curbside on her lap, waiting for our ride. A six-foot tall blue and white robot, shaped like a thick, squat bullet, moves back and forth on the pavement. He is a test robot for the security team. He comes up to Ms. Scarlet. A light in his cone-shaped head scans back and forth, back and forth. Then he rolls away. I don't know who watches us through his eyes. Ms. Scarlet and I move behind a concrete post where he can't see us. Hmm, a thriller?

TWH2018 writers gather in a bookstore. Ms. Scarlet sits in a cab with me. The driver drops us off and says the event is across the street. He fails to say five blocks away, the farthest I have walked with Ms. Scarlet. At the bookstore, we encounter a young man in the aisle on the phone, his back to us. I say excuse me. Nothing. I tap his shoulder. He glances back to me and returns to his phone. Ms. Scarlet pushes against his legs. What happens next? Ah, a mystery, an action story.

Ms. Scarlet and I check out a restaurant, amazed at how many old men bring their daughters to supper. Hmmm. We walk to the grocery where an old man using a cane flirts with us. A four-year old boy challenges Ms. Scarlet to a race in the snack aisle. He wins. The old man asks where I live. A visitor, I say. He tells me I remind him of a copywriter he worked with in advertising. Yes, a love story, a reunion in a grocery.

One night, writers gather to read their works at The Bowery Poetry Club (Awesome place!). Two women help me and Ms. Scarlet onto the stage. Ms. Scarlet loves the stage! And applause, even whistles from writers. (So do I!) After a fun evening full of talent, we take a cab to the hotel where the driver lets us out a yard from the curb. I look up to a beggar near the hotel. He takes a step toward me and stops. I understand he will help me if I need it. At the door, I turn to thank him. He is gone. Maybe, a mystery, a love story, the man, her long lost husband.

Silas House, author of SOUTHERNMOST (amazing book on shelves now), says: "Stories are a balance between mystery and information and stories must be about love." I agree. New York City gave us mystery, information, and kindness, if not love.

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Novel Excerpt: BEYOND THE BONEYARD

Bobby Shaftoe, the farmhand, January 1964

“….that pretty girl pulled cold charcoal from the ash pan, sharpened it with a kitchen knife, and put color into old house paint to draw on slabs of flat rock and wood, making her face, Chase’s, her mama and daddy, even me. Caught the mule, too. My most liked was the one with the yellow flowering of the tobacco, the little waterfall in the creek, and the walnut trees on the up side of the boneyard. I been saving it all these years for Flora, when she come home.”

 

April, 18, 2018: WHERE I'M GOING...

"Where you come from is gone." - Hazel Motes in WISE BLOOD

WISE BLOOD, Flannery O'Connor's first novel, was published in 1952, the same year she was diagnosed with Lupus, a debilitating, death-bringing illness. Returning to her mother's Georgia home, Flannery set aside two hours every day to write no matter what. I borrowed her discipline after a tiny mosquito bit me in 2015, leaving me unable to walk without Miss Scarlett, my bright red walker.

West Nile attacked my spine and my brain. Speech, physical, and occupational therapists brought back most of my body. (My PT and I continue to work on my left leg, a stubborn mule of a limb.) While my body improved, my mind remained cloudy. I struggled to read and write.

One day, out of 150 days in hospitals and a nursing home, a caretaker, Brian, brought me a book. He challenged me to read it because he'd heard my worry that I would never write again. I read it in a day. I dove into other books, and then I came home. Papers, books, sketches of my characters, timelines, a coffee cup cluttered my writing room, a space caught in a time warp of who I was five months earlier when I got bit. I couldn't write. I couldn't sit at that desk.

Who I had been as a writer was gone. I had to find a new way to work. I had to learn to write again. I decided to edit the novel I had completed before the bite. My goal: cut 10,000 words. I deleted  21,568 words and the novel, WILLIAM AND ROSE, sang.

Now my writing room holds only what's necessary to my work. I sit at a new smaller desk. I copy Flannery's discipline and write two hours (usually more) most days. I have finished a collection of 12 stories, AUDITIONS OF HOPE, and am hard at work on a new novel, BEYOND THE BONEYARD.

Miss Scarlett and I are not the stay-at-home types. We travel by car, boat, and airplane. She helps me get wherever I want to go. I sit with her to eat, cook, and play. I'm no longer quick or graceful. That part of me is gone. Writing powers where I am going -- forward! Make writing your power source: It works!

Novel Excerpt: WILLIAM AND ROSE

William Ashley, 21-years old, in love with a mad woman – September 1936

“…the wheel and the ride held tarnish as if behind the glitter of lights and bright paint something ugly hid. If it broke apart while they were at the top, he could do nothing to stop their downward spiral. He could not save this girl beside him from a fall.”