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I'm an author spreading the words. Read about my books at www.SeleneCastrovilla.com

Monday, February 27, 2012

Je voudrais un croissant, s'il vous plait.

I was going to call my minister just now. I haven’t spoken to her in years, nor have I set foot in her church, but I know she’d speak with me as though no time had passed. That’s what ministers like her do.

But I realized, I’m not having a crisis in faith. I’m having a crisis in people.

Having my mom and my aunt pass away has been difficult enough. Writing a semi-autobiographical book and facing my life – including my dad, the only one left, who was a pathetic father and who I am now in charge of because he sits paralyzed in a nursing home – makes everything worse.

Why do people think writing about things is cathartic? Is it cathartic to open a vein and bleed out? That’s what this process feels like. I do get satisfaction from writing well, but not from the act of getting it “all out.” Frankly, I feel like I may puke. But I write on. It’s my mission. This much I know, because every time I’ve tried to veer off my path the universe has plopped me right back on it, sometimes kicking and screaming. I don’t fight it anymore. I just write.

The behavior of some people has been utterly appalling¸ and unfortunately it continues to be. There’s a pain in my heart and it’s been put there by humanity (which is not an appropriate name for many of the inhuman occupants of this planet.) Near the end of her diary, Anne Frank wrote that she still believed people were good at heart. Then they put her to death in a concentration camp. What is that?

Still, I write. It’s my job.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself right now, other than write. My plan is to move to Europe eventually, where at least if someone is unkind I probably won’t understand them. It’s the benefit of being a hermit without actually being one. The country will probably be France, because I studied French for about eight years, so I can successfully order a croissant. And yet, I can never get what they are saying in conversations because they speak so fast. Perfect.

Until then, what will I do? Where will I go? I don’t know. I have a house I can’t deal with, plus my mother’s house which I really can’t deal with. The few people I can count on for support have problems (and lives) of their own. The people I ought to be able to count on, I can’t.

Maybe this turmoil is part of grief. Or maybe I just see things more clearly now.

Or maybe this isn’t turmoil at all – just a turning point.

By the way, lest you think I’m despairing of life – I’m not. I feel grateful to be alive, to have my children and the people I can truly call “friends.” It’s the “others” I can’t reconcile. Like an innocent, I still don’t understand why people hurt each other, and why they throw good love away.

Silly me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Method to my Madness Monday: Writing Through the Pain

           Several years ago, author Susan Taylor Brown gave me a magnet which said: “Write where it hurts. Find the courage to create.”

            I have it on my refrigerator. It did indeed help me find the strength to write “Saved by the Music” – largely autobiographical.

            In the wake of my aunt and my mom passing away, I am still writing where it hurts. But my question is: Where doesn’t it hurt?

            Grief is like an ocean with no land in sight.

            Writing isn’t hard now.

            But writing cohesively is.

            I sat yesterday writing notes about the rest of my latest novel. Scribbles are my version of an outline. (If I were in school I would get a failing outline grade. Also a failing penmanship grade – sigh.)

            These are only tentative plans, and yet I couldn’t get a grip on them. The littlest plot choices had me stumped. Then I got mad at myself for my hesitance¸ and poof! I got on board the “I suck” express train. Last stop: Despair.

            Then I did something different. Instead of wallowing, I went to the gym. Thank goodness for my son, who goes religiously. He makes me want to go, too.

            On that bouncing elliptical I was able to make some plot decisions. They might change – and probably will – but I couldn’t move forward without them. I need order in my writing life, all the more now because I don’t have much in my day to day life.

            So that’s me, writing through the pain.

            The secret to writing is that there is no secret. No formula.

            Ultimately, however you get something to the page is the right path.

            The tricky part is that paths change. Sometimes there’s a downed tree in the way, or maybe even an avalanche occurred. We writers have to be ready to find an alternate route – and we have to make sure we don’t get hit or buried.

            Like Winston Churchill advised, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Things to Say to a Dead Mom

           My mom is on my kitchen table, cremation no. 91739 (I accidentally spelled it “creamation”, but there’s nothing creamy about it) performed on February 2, 2012 by Long island Cremation Co., Inc. (another business I couldn’t imagine owning. I feel like it’s one of those operations passed down through generations, fathers grooming their sons to burn and box bodies. Lucky boys.)

            I put her next to my Aunt Olga for the night. I figured I’d give them a chance to catch up on things. Last time they saw each other it was Thanksgiving, about three years ago. Our dinner was like a scene in a black comedy. My mother was going on and on to my aunt, who was too polite to tell her that she had no idea who she was.

            Today we’re bringing Mom to the cemetery where her parents are. The cemetary people are going to insert her in the ground next to them. I think she’d like that. She adored her parents, particularly her dad.

            I’ve got her next to the computer right now. I just had a conversation with her (albeit one-sided.)

            Now, her soul isn’t in that box, I know, but still I felt compelled to say something to her remains while I had them.

            Writers are always looking for climatic moments.

            I put my left hand on her box, and my right hand on my aunt’s box for support, and I asked my mom if she loved me.

            There was no answer.

            But I know my mom did love me. It just wasn’t a traditional love. It was a love often smothered in her issues. You know how you can use a pillow for rest¸ or to kill someone? That was my mother.

            She had no idea of what she was doing. I told I knew that.

            I told my mom that I forgave her.

            I told her I love her, and I appreciate the things she did for me.

            I kissed my index finger and planted in on her box.

            There’s something about physical remains that are so, well...physical.

            You can talk to someone’s spirit anytime –I believe ­­–but there’s something extra poignant about having that box there to hone in on. A focal point, if nothing else.

            Another thing I look for as a writer is a focal point in a scene. It’s like an anchor.

            Life begets writing, and writing begets life.

            My aunt once told me, “Each man is the sum total of everything that has happened to him.”

            True. I might add: “Each man is also the sum total of all the relationships he’s had.”

            My relationship with my mom is (was?) complicated and sometimes dark, but in the end it comes down to this simple fact: we loved each other.

            It takes death to bring things down to the bone.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Grief: It's Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

             I've always been awkward with death.

            Not that anyone copes well –though maybe they do. Like Grandma Mazur in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. A wake is a social event for Gramdma – not to be missed. Of course that’s fiction, but I wonder, does anyone handle death with ease? (Morticians do, of course. How do they feel when someone close dies? And how to they manage to confront man’s mortality every day, and "pretty up" what remains? They are either the most well-adjusted people in the world, or the most f---ed up.)

            Faced with the passing of friends’ loved ones through the years, I’d been unable to deal with wakes (are they called wakes because they’re in the wake of lives?) and Shiva calls. I just couldn’t bear the sorrow – theirs, and mine.

            I’ve always felt a universal empathy, which either helps me be a writer or is the reason I’m a writer – or both. But when it comes to living, it’s a problem, because I feel everyone’s pain. I absolutely avoid the news for this reason.

            And death has been the worst. I do believe the end of a life is not the end of a soul, but it’s the pain of those left behind I can’t take.

            My neighbor Harriet died a few years ago. They sat Shiva right across the street from me. I couldn’t go. I just couldn’t. About a year later I summoned up to write a note to her husband and leave it on his door. I apologized for not paying a call. I explained that I didn’t handle death well. I told him I loved Harriet – and I did. I closed it with this: “Harriet tried her hardest to be a good person and help people, and you can’t ask for more than that.” It was the truth.

            My friend’s husband died suddenly at work, leaving her with two young children and another on the way. She was, understandably, consumed with grief. I told her, “You have to remember the love you shared, and you have to believe that he’s in a better place.”

            She stopped weeping for a moment, looked at me and said, “I don’t care about all that. I just want my husband back.”

            And I got that. And I didn’t know what to say.

            I still don’t.

            There is nothing to say when someone dies. I mean, there are lots of things to say, but none of them will do a thing to console those left behind. It's our friendship and love that comforts them, I realize now. It's what we don’t say. That’s another reason why it’s so hard for me to deal with death. I’m a writer. I rely on words. If words can’t be counted on, what then?

            But the grief has been the heart of my problem. The grief that surged up like a tidal wave, threatening to drown me.

            The grief is what held me at bay, unable to effectively be present during those times of loss.

            It’s a relief to know that I’m better at my own grieving than at comforting others. Perhaps because I write about my life, I’ve given great thought to the day I’d lose my mother.

            Still, it was a shock. Isn’t death always the last thing expected? Even if she was eighty-one, clearly suffering from the early stages of dementia (which I knew too well from my Aunt Olga.) Despite these factors, I never thought the police would have to break down my mother’s door to find her in bed (not expecting to die anytime soon, she hadn’t given me a key, and I’d never thought to ask for one.)

            And it was a sucker punch, this loss. Coming on the heels of losing my aunt.

            But I’m okay. Handling it much better than the previous deaths I’d been exposed to. I guess death has become more familiar. Maybe that’s the morticians’ secret. Familiarity.

            I have my mom’s cat. The poor thing looks to be about twenty years old, bowlegged and all spine. She yowls incessantly and follows me everywhere. She’s hideously mean to my other felines, who take up a Halloween "black cat" defensive stance which I'd never seen in person before. 

            I have my mom’s things. Her favorite scarf. The pictures she carried of my sons. The meticulous notes she took while watching Dr. Oz. The tutu I wore when I was six, which was hanging in her bedroom. Her many, many papers I’m sorting through.

            I have to deal with the things she left behind. Everything.

            I hear her voice, asking the questions she always posed. She had so many questions. I only hope she’s got some clarity now.

            I was raised without religion, but I know this is not the end.  It’s hard not knowing just what this is, and what we are in relation to our dead. I guess that’s where the faith comes in.

            The faith that was never instilled in me.

            Death is, among other things, a lesson in faith. Death and faith are both so vague;  both so muddied by our frenzied, fruitless attempts to explain and complicate them. Untampered with, they are simple.

            They are calm.

            I’m trying to follow their lead.