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most of the following are old blog posts

     

merrylegs
It may not have been the first book I ever read, but the first one to leave a permanent imprint on my heart was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Being a redhead, I bonded with Ginger and cried at her sad fate. I’ve been weeping for fictional horses ever since, from Flicka to War Horse.

My attachment to horses was always borderline unnatural. I drew pictures of horses. Talked about horses. Read books about horses. Created horse paper dolls which I dressed in various blankets and riding regalia. My parents were incredibly tolerant of my obsession. They indulged my collection of porcelain and china horses, included stops at racetracks and horse ranches in family vacations and paid for riding sessions at a local farm. The only game I ever wanted to play with other children was “horse.” The family backyard was a pasture where I neighed, cantered and rounded up my herd, all the while dreaming of galloping free across the Western prairie.

This phase lasted well past normal stages of fantasy play, clear through my elementary schooling and into junior high. By the time I was in high school, I reluctantly accepted the reality of my situation. But I told my mother that I was not going to have a baby until science found a way for me to give birth to a horse, which seemed a perfectly reasonable expectation of modern medical technology. Science, however, has never caught up to me.

During those heady days when I was falling in love with my husband (and he with me), we happened upon an old-fashioned rocking horse at a local antique shop. Tom didn’t have the cash, but he tried to trade for it. He lost the rocking horse, but won the woman. Over the years, a number of rocking horses have galloped through our lives—always when we were between jobs, between paychecks, or between houses. Then this fall, Merrylegs arrived.

Merrylegs was born in Ohio a few decades before me. He was once a beautiful dappled gray (like Anna Sewell’s Merrylegs), with flowing mane and tail. But by the time we rescued him, he had a raggedy stump of a tail, no mane and a single ear. Thick, white enamel paint covered his body and a crude saddle was nailed onto his back. His glider was also in a sad state of disrepair.

So far, Merrylegs been relieved of his tacky bridle and saddle. I stripped both layers of paint from his head to reveal the golden wood. Now I am working on sanding and filling in nail holes. While his transformation continues, Merrylegs has happily taken up residence in our dining room cum library.

but is it a task?
It’s been twenty-five years since I first heard the term multi-task. The word was used to describe those incredible administrative assistants who could type with the left hand and complete a purchase requisition with the right hand, all the while talking to a client with a telephone wedged between head and shoulder. If someone stood in front of the desk and signaled that they needed a document, the same person would point to the right file drawer without missing a beat. That was multi-tasking.

The dictionary defines a task as: “a specific labor, study or work undertaken” and “an exhausting or bothersome job or duty.” In other words, a task is a job of work.

Watching u-tube videos is not a task. Checking Facebook pages is not a task. Nor is texting a friend, taking a selfie or tweeting what I did on my summer vacation. These may be time-consuming activities, but they are not tasks. They are distractions—things which distract the individual from actually accomplishing meaningful or productive work.

I like to put together jigsaw puzzles while watching television and eating a sandwich. Multiple distractions are fun. But I can also turn off all the distractions and actually complete a task. Can you?

tulips
In the garden, tulips stand upright. But sever their connection to the earth and they droop immediately. Captured in a vase, tulips have a haunting presence. They don’t reach for the light or fall into an easy symmetry. They look so uncomfortable. So fragile. Almost as if they have already crossed the brattice and what we see are ghosts.

My grandfather’s garden lives in my memory. His rose bushes. Lilacs. Hollyhocks and poppies. When I lived there, a few straggly tulips pushed through the soil near the garage. Usually purple ones. Once or twice red. Always small, under-grown blooms with twisted stems and ragged leaves.

But her last spring, dozens of tulips emerged. Particolored ones. Double-petaled ones. Some with darkly-tinted, fringed edges. They were absolutely brilliant. I gathered them all, every one, into a bouquet and took it to Grandma. She said she hadn’t seen some of those flowers for more than twenty years. It was as if the bulbs themselves needed to say their good-byes.

closure
Doors slammed shut in fear or anger haunt me. Mostly, I try to leave passageways open. I don’t understand why people want closure.

The maze of my career was plagued by dead ends—dozens of terminated projects and unbudgeted initiatives. At times, I backtracked and attempted to recover lost visions. But stealing glances over my shoulder, I trudged forward. And still do.

I bond with my work. Each word and image is part of a creative continuum. So I refuse to be walled off from dead projects. For me they are never actually dead. I re-imagine them in my dreams and revise old drawings, poems, and previous printed pieces. Then there’s my Rosamund book—now in what must be its twentieth iteration over twice as many years. Every version unveils new insights and promises more ahead. I will be re-thinking that manuscript in eternity.

If I can’t finalize projects, I am worse about relationships. I never give up on absent friends or lost loves. In the past, I looked for them in the telephone book. Now I google their names. Found some too! If we befriended each other in our mutual pasts, I will track you down. Count on it.

When it comes to people, life is one, long good-bye. I keep waving as individuals retreat. Some of those who are temporarily out of sight, continue to wave at me. That’s the best anyone can hope for.

The single most important door to leave ajar is that one between life and death. Those who have crossed the brattice cast long shadows. I dance in that shade, inhaling their discarded breath. They live in my lungs and my being. Closure would surely suffocate me.

back to ireland
Forty years ago, Ireland changed my life. Its crisp northern light colored every subsequent experience. I’ve been a long time returning to her western shore.

I solved no mysteries this time. Experienced no revelations. Although my companion did.

Through the kind of happy accident that makes people believe in fate and leprechauns, Kate found the living descendants of a family separated by famine 165 years ago.

It’s a story meant for the telling. It started as a tentative search for the place in rockbound Clare where the Waters family once lived. In Kate’s heart lived a vague hope of finding some something, perhaps a sandstone marker with the name weathered into its grain. But I missed the turn-off to the church so we asked a farmer for directions.

Being Irish, he began a dialogue. “Why were we going to the church in Boston? Do you know Sean Waters? No. Well, it’s Matthew you want.” He pulled a cell phone from his coveralls and snatched a signal from the empty, treeless landscape. Minutes later, Kate and Matthew Waters bridged three thousand miles and four generations.

The rest is a tale Kate will tell the rest of her life.

it was the worst of lines;
it was the best of lines

I’ve always found good friends and good conversation in pubs. And occasionally a good line. I don’t mean pick-up lines (although I’ve heard a few of those), but a line worthy of a book or short story.

The Londoner in Addison, Texas is a good place for a writer to keep his ears open. People talk to strangers there. And the ale and tobacco-scented air rings with a variety of American and Celtic accents. By far the best line I ever overheard, the line destined to appear in prose, was the taxidermy one.

Afternoon was creeping toward happy hour when a young woman in business attire entered. A shadowy silhouette in the shaft of light from the open door, she approached the bar. “I’m here for the meeting,” she announced.

In his most professional voice, Daniel said, “This way,” and stepped from behind the bar. As the woman and the bartender disappeared into the adjoining room, I heard her nervously inquire, “Is there any like. . . taxidermy in there?”

st. patrick’s day without tom watson
Tom was not the sort of person I would choose as a friend—a right-wing extremist, a professional gun dealer, a sport hunter. But we were drawn together by our mutual love of Irish music. And through the magic of music, we became friends.

What began as a chance encounter on St. Patrick’s Day endured for decades. Halfway through that time, Tom was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. St. Patrick’s Day of 2002, he didn’t want to go to our usual rendezvous. He said he didn’t want people to think he was “just another drunk” if he fell. Kathleen and I assured him that we had no intention of letting him fall.

The issue never came up again. Each St. Patrick’s Day, he donned his custom-made green felt bowler and arrived at Trinity Hall in time for breakfast. For the past five years, that has required a power wheelchair, a service dog, and a specially-equipped van driven by another friend, Dave. Only a handful of us had any inkling what it took for Tom to be there.

He was always impeccably dressed and groomed—freshly scrubbed, clean-shaven, hair trimmed and combed. Quite a feat for a man who could not bathe, or shave, or dress himself. Think of what it’s like to go through a brief hospital stay or even a colonoscopy procedure—the embarrassment, the loss of control, the lack of personal privacy. Imagine living like that every day—waiting for a paid caregiver to help you transfer out of bed, use the toilet, or brush your teeth. Imagine how much you’d have to want to live to accept life on those terms.

In the old days, Tom could be a bit brusque. But as the challenges of simply living grew greater, his temperament mellowed and he seldom had a harsh word for anyone. Unthinking people closed elevator doors in his face, stepped on his service dog’s tail and parked in the last van accessible space. He would shrug and let it go. And when he ventured out for a holiday visit, lunch at the pub, a medical appointment or a trip to the post office, he would laugh and tell stories the whole time. Eventually chewing and swallowing became an iffy task, so he sucked his Guinness through a straw.

Until his final breath, Tom lived alone in his own home on his own terms with Isley, his “Paws with a Cause” service dog. This year, Tom will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day peacefully and painlessly. We’re the ones who will be hurting.

a pony in here somewhere
Before the age of reality television, celebrity and 15-minute fame, diaries and journals were private things. They provided opportunity to emote, vent and or just pull lint out of your navel without the rest of the world knowing how petty and foolish you really were. Now we put all our weaknesses and meanness on display.

Writing, painting, dance, music—all the creative arts—are basically forms of communication. By its nature, communication is a two-way street. The painting no one sees, the symphony no ones hears are like the tree falling in the empty forest. Unshared, they really never happened.

This is the artistic dilemma. Who wants to read about my navel lint?

rejection
Rejection is a injury you can feel coming a long way off. The lover sees it in the partner’s eyes before any words are spoken. Friends spot the approaching chill the way the leaves on trees feel autumn. Writers sense it instantly and remotely. The letter is a mere formality.

Papering the walls with rejection letters is a popular misconception. The truth is, fewer and fewer agents and publishers write rejection letters today, even the dreaded form letter. Some simply return your query letter with the word “No” scrawled across it. Add the agent or editor’s return address to every stamped, self-addressed envelope because many won’t identify themselves. They slice a sheet of paper into thirds and slide these thin slips of disappointment unsigned into waiting envelopes—rejecting writers anonymously three to a page. An economy of pain, or at least paper.

Writers can also test for rejection via email. One agent expressed her disinterest in my project only four minutes after I sent the query. And now there is a website where aspiring authors can have their submissions rejected with chilling remoteness.

Agents warn that if return postage is provided, unsolicited manuscripts will be returned unread. Otherwise they are recycled unread. If a query is sent by registered mail and someone has to sign for it, they won’t. Top literary agents don’t accept submissions from anyone, ever.

At book signings, authors often share their first publication story—which generally happened so quickly that it took them by surprise. However, upon questioning, I uncovered a depressingly common thread. For I rarely meet a published author who is not the blood relative of an editor or another published author. Like the DAR, publishing seems to be a club you must be born to, a closed, nepotistic circle.

It’s been my practice to court literary rejection at intervals because I’d never survive a steady diet of it. I assemble tidy, professional packages and carry bundles of them to the post office. My proposals are sent in flights, three weeks apart, a dozen or so at a time. It makes the hope last longer. One in every ten recipients will ask for an extended synopsis or sample chapters. One in four of those will request the complete manuscript. None has ever returned a contract.

I have lost count of how many times I have survived this torture. It takes years to recover from each ordeal. Years when I avoid writing and focus on my day job. Years of building sufficient scar tissue to withstand another round. My conclusion is that the publishing industry’s unspoken goal is to find another DaVinci Code entirely by sense of smell.

frogs & unicorns
First my sister collected dogs and later on frogs. When she moved to Florida, she switched to unicorns. And eventually it was books. I recently sold her books—unable to stand their accusing glares, “Why can’t you love us the way she did?”

I don’t know what happened to the china dogs. And the unicorn collection was half-hearted at best. But when Mom and I emptied Carol’s house, we stumbled across the last frog. During one of her many hospitalizations, our grandmother gave her a plush frog stuffed with birdseed. The strange creature was as large as a newborn baby and about as heavy. Carol would hug the frog to her chest, it’s head and forelegs flopping across her arms. Unknown to the rest of us, Froggy remained with Carol to the end, slowly leaking seeds into a shopping bag.

I wonder what our collections say about us? I think it was the frogs that said the most about Carol. That she was forever waiting for some magic to transform her malformed body into that of a perfect princess. She told me once that she always believed that our father couldn’t accept her deformity, that he was never able to love her because she was flawed. I disagree. I think he loved her, just not as much. Not as much as me, the favored child. I could never make that up to her. Neither could he. And we tried. Believe me, we both tried.

My Dad collected ships and lighthouses. Now they sail with me. My mother collected paperweights which weigh down an unused cupboard. The women of my family quilted, knitted, crocheted and needlepointed. My closets hold the evidence. I also inherited dozens of decorative towels embroidered in such bizarre hues that I wonder if my grandmothers were color-blind. No one ever knew what to do with these linens, so they have lived for decades in a succession of bureau drawers, most recently in my guest room.

By default, I have become the keeper of all the family photographs. The oldest ones are tintypes. Before we moved, I sat teary-eyed for hours on the floor of my childhood home sorting through albums and boxes of snapshots. Even after discarding images of unpopulated places which I did not recognize, I was left with hundreds of photographs that included people, some of whom I cannot name. I suspect most of these unidentified souls live on in my genetic code, so I can hardly trash their likenesses.

There are letters and Christmas cards. Birthday greetings and souvenirs. So many collections and too few stories. The saddest thing about oral history is that it is rarely spoken. Which is why I am writing some of mine down.

aberfan revisited
I first heard of Aberfan when most of the world did—October of 1966. I remember the grainy photograph in our local newspaper. Printed in black and white on cheap newsprint, the fuzzy shape of a large hill loomed over a cluster of small houses. A black smudge ran down the slope and into the buildings. Precisely where the village school had been.

It looked more like a rivulet of lava than a landslide. And while that black death also engulfed a half dozen homes, it seemed to have targeted the school. One hundred-sixteen children and 28 adults were smothered under black cinder. What I assumed to be a hill or mountain, however, was no geologic feature of the landscape. It was an unstable, man-made pile of debris from nearby coal mines which had absorbed autumn rains until, unable to hold any more, it burst into a deadly, down-racing slurry.

When I made my first trip to my great-grandmother’s hometown of Aberdare, my relatives took me to the cemetery at Aberfan. I didn’t want to see those haunted graves, but was too polite to refuse.

Virtually every road in south Wales was lined with dark heaps of coal slag in the 1960's. They were as large as the drumlin-like hills of my native Ohio and traveling amid those vales was like driving through a trench—black walls of coal debris on either side of the tarmac roadway. Acre upon acre of mine rubble had been dragged to the surface by men, boys, women, and half-blind horses, then heaped upon the landscape. When one coal tip became too steep to negotiate, they started another. Until Aberfan.

About half the victims of the Aberfan disaster were buried together on the hillside in solemn, soldierly rows. Others were interred in family plots or cremated. My cousin muttered about children dying “for the price of coal.” The mass grave site was marked with individual white crosses. I stared awkwardly at the vain attempts of grieving parents to impress the memory of their own child upon such overwhelming loss—flowers, teddy bears, smiling photographs, carved angels. A committee was already at work on a new structure. Soon a series of white, stone arches would link each victim to the next and form an unmistakable landmark in the narrow valley.

But the tale of Aberfan got even worse. Britain’s National Coal Board declared that the failure of the coal tip was not an industrial, but a “natural disaster” caused by an underground spring. No one was ever prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted. Moreover, the Government forced the Trustees of the Aberfan Disaster Fund to bear the cost of removing the remaining coal tips which still threatened the village. One-hundred and fifty thousand pounds of the charitable donations that poured into Aberfan from around the globe were siphoned off for that purpose. Insult to injury. The mining company paid a pittance of a fine. Over the ensuing years, Aberfan survivors have been the subjects of studies on post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and birth rate. The dramatic white arches, recently refurbished, supplanted individualized memorials. And those who remain in the village watch helplessly as tourists gawk and snap photos of their children’s graves.

Today I was reluctantly transported back to Aberfan. A young English writer who was not even born when the event took place, mentioned the cemetery in the opening pages of her new novel. At her behest, our huge and conspicuous coach made two lumbering assaults on the hillside but was unable to negotiate the hairpin turn in the road that leads to the cemetery.

I did not tell my traveling companions what I thought—that Aberfan is not Gettysburg, Arlington or Normandy. These children did not sacrifice their lives for God, or country, or principal. Nor was this place dedicated to public grief, but to painfully personal and private sorrows. Let the sweet souls of Aberfan sleep.

   
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