November: The Most Depressing Month?

November road fallen leavesNovember’s probably my least favorite month. This year I’m feeling great, in part because I’ve begun work on the sequel to my vampire soap opera thriller Hope Dawns Eternal. But in November of 2010, I was mired in a deep depression. I wrote this poem in Julie Gutman’s class at the Arts Center of the Capital Region. The assignment was to write a poem modeled after Wallace Stevens’ Twelve Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

I write my strongest poetry when I’m depressed. It’s a wonderful form of therapy. Lots of the imagery I used still applies, but the way I’m looking at it now is much sunnier. Still, I dedicate this poem to those readers who are prone to doom and gloom at this time of year. Trust in the sunny days to come!

Eleven Ways of Looking at November

I.

Rusty crimson leavesNovember smoke tree

Cling to my smoke tree

Breathing in pale November sunlight.

 

II

The dead oak’s gray-brown branches

Hollowed by woodpeckers

Past Halloween

Sway outside my window

Waiting for November’s winds

To tear them down at last.

 

III

My mother died in late November.

I crafted a comforting casserole

From the dregs of Thanksgiving dinner.

 

IV

I savor the cold November breezeNovember crooked tree

Wafting across my body from the open window.

Swaddled in Polar Fleece to save on oil,

I’ve learned to welcome the encroaching cold.

 

V

Election Day’s finally over. News is bad

This chill November morning.

A hard freeze frosts the fallen autumn leaves

Ushering in years of deadlock and decline.

 

VI

The slanting sun casts shadows on the siding

Of the house across the way, silhouetting

A scrawny maple shedding yellow leaves.

Its roots snake unseen beneath our basement.

November’s high time to take it down but even so

We’ll probably let it be.

 

VII

A friend my age is failing. A housebound invalid,

She measures out these cold November days

In solitude, refuses visitors.

She longs for death, having a valid reason

To succumb.

 

VIII

Weeds have repossessedNovember dead thistles

My withering November garden.

Only stonecrop thrives

Among the shriveled thistles, chicory

And Queen Anne’s Lace. In my depression,

I let them go to seed.

 

IX

Daylight savings’s over in November.

Fall back and gain an extra hour

To while away in bed

Dreading another day

Of uninspired ordinary options.

 

X

November rain falls hard and cold

Grave of my golden retriever Lucky

Grave of my golden retriever Lucky

On my neglected garden

Nourishing buried bulbs of daffodil and crocus.

In spring they’ll bloom again around the graves

Of late beloved pets.

 

XI

People are prone to seasonal affective sadness

In this the eleventh month, so says my shrink.

But still I hold firm to nearly barren branches,

Stubborn as rusty crimson smoke tree leaves

In the November rain.

 

©Julie Lomoe

November 4, 2010

 

 

The NaNoWriMo Challenge – Do you play well with others?

Baldacci Total Control coverWarming up the car this morning before taking off for my Nia class, tardy as usual, I caught the tail end of an interview with the best-selling novelist David Baldacci on WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Joe Donahue, the interviewer on The Roundtable, asked him if he’d ever consider collaborating with another writer. “No,” he said. “I don’t play well with others.” 

Donahue was referring to writers like James Patterson and Janet Evanovich, who have published novels with a co-author listed in smaller type below their names. “Why would I do that?” asked Baldacci. “It would spoil all the fun.” 

I’m with him – I don’t write well in groups. Case in point: National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. I signed up again this month, though it’s been an exercise in frustration when I participated in past Novembers. Writing 50,000 words in a month is a daunting task. It comes out to an average of 1,617 words a day. You post your daily word count on a jazzy bar graph on the NaNo website. The graph and its accompanying chart track your progress and the date you can be expected to finish if you proceed at your current pace. Last night the site told me I’d finish on Christmas eve if I churned out about 2,500 words a day. In other words, I’d lose. 

The Albany area has a large and dedicated group of NaNo participants. There are multiple write-ins at various locations in the Capital Region. For the most part they’re at cafes and coffee houses, and for good reason – the caffeine tends to inspire jacked-up bouts of creativity, and people can hang out for hours nursing a single cup of coffee. Personally, I feel it’s only fair to order some food as well. This usually takes the form of high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar concoctions. One of my favorites is warm apple pie a la mode drenched in caramel sauce. Denny's French toast ad

That particular diet destroyer is on the dessert menu at Denny’s, where write-ins take place every Sunday night. Writers with laptops descend on the place like locusts at the Latham location, where they’ve taken to saving a separate side room for us. The Municipal Liaison, aka chief cheerleader, is Shannon Kauderer, a young woman with blond hair shading to green, who’s a chemist by day and science fiction writer by night. 

These Sunday night write-ins have an unusual format: folks write silently for 20 minutes, then socialize for 20 minutes, then write, then socialize. And so it goes, usually till midnight, sometimes as late as 2:00 a.m. (The fact that Denny’s is open 24/7 is a major inducement to patronize the place.) 

My husband thrives on this format. He can flail away at his laptop, then get up and stroll around the room, chatting with the other participants, most of whom are several decades our juniors. Then when Shannon sounds the timer, he can sit back down and resume writing right where he left off. Others can apparently write this way, although I have no clue as to the quality of what they’re churning out. Still others ignore the chit chat and write straight through the social breaks. 

Woman Writing, Picasso 1934

Woman Writing, Picasso 1934

I can do neither – at least not well. I work best in absolute solitude, with only my dog or cat for occasional company. No background music, no interruptions except for full-blown emergencies. I’ve learned to write during those 20-minute sprints, but I hate turning my creative process on and off at will. And I never talk about what I’m writing in the midst of writing it. For me, it dissipates my energy and scares away my ever-elusive muse. Huddling silently over my laptop while my spouse enjoys the company of younger women, I may come across as curmudgeonly, but I truly don’t care. Like David Baldacci, I don’t play well with others. 

Still, despite my reservations, I’ll probably show up for another Denny’s write-in. The positive energy is infectious, and I’m getting better at jumping right into my writing without procrastinating. I may make my 50,000 word count after all. Besides, there are lots of scrumptious desserts I haven’t tried yet. 

What about you? Can you write with others around, or do you require solitude? I’d love to hear your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Drifting downstream in search of inspiration

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888

In search of illustrations for this blog post about NaNoWriMo and my writing process, I Googled “Woman Writing Painting.” Hundreds of images popped up, and as I scrolled through them, this painting of the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse* caught my eye. The woman is drifting on a river, face tilted skyward, eyes downcast, in an exotic black boat. What is she doing amidst all the images of women sitting demurely in gardens or cozy interiors?

Through still more Googling, I learned that the work is inspired by a poem by Tennyson, in which the reclusive Lady of Shalott is lured by the sight of Sir Lancelot to leave her island and drift downstream in a boat to Camelot. As she floats, she sings until she dies.* But to me she’s a striking image for creativity, drifting downstream, open to whatever comes her way. It’s an image reminiscent of John Lennon’s lyrics too – “Picture yourself in a boat on a river” and “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

But I digress. Still, that’s the beautiful thing about sitting down at the computer in front of a blankJohn Lennon Imagine illustration screen – you never know where it will take you. In part, this image, labelled as being in the public domain, inspired me to look for other nineteenth-century paintings that might serve as cover illustrations for Hope Dawns Eternal. I’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to hire an illustrator, designer and webmaster to maximize the impact of the book when I launch it, but maybe the illustrator won’t be necessary. So far, the results have been underwhelming, but I’m determined to persevere. One way or another, I’ll launch the book before the end of the year.

I’m so convinced of the potential of Hope Dawns Eternal that I’ve created a brand-new blog at www.hopedawnseternal.net. That site will focus exclusively on my vampire soap opera thriller and my route to publication, as well as on the sequel, Sunlight and Shadow. (I’ll be keeping up this site as well, and sometimes you may see me cross-posting on both. If you do, please pardon the repetition, but please subscribe to both.)

I’ve been working on Sunlight and Shadow during this month’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. I’m woefully behind,

Another Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott, titled "I am half sick of shadows"

Another Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott, titled “I am half sick of shadows”

because I’ve devoted the first third of this month to grandmothering duties and to the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, of which I’m President. (You can learn more about this important community ministry, which helps folks learn more about affordable funerals, by visiting www.hudsonmohawkfca.wordpress.org. )

I’m aiming for 33,333*** words by November 30th, the equivalent of two/thirds of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words. I know I can reach the 50K goal with the aid of some creative copying and pasting, and by counting blogging and journaling as part of the word count. Strictly speaking, that’s cheating, but who knows – I might even reach the word count legitimately if I can barrel through the doubts and insecurities that are entangling my creative process as I relax and float downstream.

*John William Waterhouse, a British artist born in 1849, the period when the Pre-Raphaelite style was at its height; he adopted the style decades later.

Alfred Lord Tennyson**Tennyson’s poem is beautifully evocative, and I was inspired to learn more about him. The biography at www.poetryfoundation.org describes how he suffered from deep depressions and was fearful of succumbing to the mental illness that ran in his family.

***$3,333 is the amount I’m hoping to raise on GoFundMe. Please help me by visiting www.gofundme.com/gep8ts. Every little bit helps. You can win prizes, too, including signed first editions of my books.

The Luxury of Late Summer Lassitude

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

For the past few days, I’ve had every intention of writing something meaningful about Labor Day, but I was too busy being lazy. I told myself I had every right to wallow in sloth over the holiday weekend, but it’s three days later and I’m still wallowing. As a long-retired senior citizen, I’ve earned the right to indolence. Doing nothing used to make me anxious and guilt-ridden, but the older I get, the more those negative emotions fade away.

More and more, I find deep contentment in simply being in the moment, and isn’t that what countless self-help gurus say is the ideal state of being? I’m especially happy outside in my garden. Lying on my chaise in dappled shade on a perfect late summer afternoon, reading a book and sipping Pinot Grigio, my dog and my cat lounging in close proximity – life doesn’t get much better than that. I can gaze at a shrub or a single flower for minutes on end. And occasionally I actually get a little gardening done.

Then there’s the lake a few hundred feet from my house. I can walk down the public-access boat ramp and wade right into the water. I’m a slow, lazy swimmer, and I love floating on my back soaking up the sun. Or if I’m feeling especially ambitious, I can take out my spiffy little red kayak.

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Walking my dog Sirius is high on my list of humble pleasures too. He’s so fascinated by the world around him, especially its olfactory aspects, and so polite and friendly to the people we meet, that his positivity is contagious. Unfortunately, when we meet another dog walking its owner on leash, he goes ballistic, becoming instantly airborne, whirling in circles and barking wildly. At just forty pounds, he’s fairly easy to control, unlike some of my former dogs, so his fleeting mania doesn’t pose a major problem. I don’t believe he wants to attack the other dogs; he simply wants to get more intimately acquainted. And when we pass other dogs chained in their yards and barking furiously, he passes them by in quiet dignity with eyes averted, every inch the gentleman.

This immersion in the natural world that surrounds me is probably my most meaningful spiritual practice. Yet when I was in the depths of depression, the kind of despair I described in my post about Robin Williams, I was oblivious to these pleasures. For two years I ignored my garden, letting it go to seed and weed. I didn’t swim in the lake or launch my kayak. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we didn’t have a dog in residence at the time; dogs make marvelous antidepressants.

“Somewhere sunny and seventy-five” – that’s how country singer Joe Nichols describes the

Joe Nichols

Joe Nichols

perfect day and the woman who evokes those summertime feelings in him. Here in upstate New York, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of days like this. I’ve taken full advantage, here at home and with excursions to a few of this area’s many attractions: Tanglewood for classical music, Hunter Mountain for country, Saratoga for Steely Dan and the races, Lake George for the Americade motorcycle rally. I’ve been to two women’s retreats – one at a cabin at a Vermont lake, another for writers in Connecticut.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I’m deeply grateful for my good fortune. Measuring my existence in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m well above the midpoint. All my basic needs are comfortably met, I have a loving family, my self-esteem gets better with age, and I’m somewhere in the lower reaches of the top triangle of self-actualization. I have the luxury of contemplating a variety of choices. Some will bring me present-time pleasure and others will bring me closer to realizing my creative dreams. Should I go out to a movie with my husband or confront the last chapter of my novel? Should I do some gardening or finish this blog post? Maybe I can do a little of everything – but only after I watch this afternoon’s General Hospital. After all, I need to keep my priorities straight.

I’m well aware that billions of people around the world don’t enjoy my level of luxury. I began this blog post intending to discuss the growing division between the haves and the have-nots in this country. Not counting the 1%, there are millions like me who have paid our dues for decades in the educational system and the workplace and can afford to kick back and reap the rewards of our labor. Then there are the millions of others – and their numbers are steadily growing – who are desperately clinging to the bottom rungs of the ladder of Maslow’s pyramid. Those millions will never enjoy the luxury of mulling over the many pleasurable paths to self-actualization.

But forget about gloomy ruminations. Right now it’s time to turn on ABC and see how that kidnapping is coming along, and whether Silas’s evil wife will win out over his true love. After that, I’ll take my dog outside and play in the dirt. Today, while it’s still sunny and seventy-five.

 

Robin Williams and the Dangers of Depression

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

As one of the millions of people who have suffered from severe clinical depression, I can readily imagine why Robin Williams committed suicide. When you’re in the depths of depression, it sometimes seems as though the darkness will never end, and suicide is the only way out. And when life pelts you with lemons, you can’t muster the strength to turn them into lemonade.

His widow has disclosed that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, although he had not yet gone public with the fact. The diagnosis must have been devastating to a man who built his public persona upon his genius for rapid-fire, manic improvisation. Sooner or later, Parkinson’s would inevitably have eroded those gifts and slowed him down, and perhaps that prospect was more than he could stand.

Michael J. Fox has taken a courageous stand in going public about this devastating illness and appearing on camera with his tics and

Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox

tremors on display. But he’s always been a star with a certain sweetness and vulnerability, so his role as a crusader against Parkinson’s is a perfect fit for his personality. Perhaps in time, Robin Williams could have faced the diagnosis with similar grace, but alas, we’ll never know.

His career may have peaked. His CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones was cancelled this year after one season, and he worried about his finances, especially the alimony to two former wives. His California ranch was on the market, and he felt pressured to take roles he wasn’t enthusiastic about purely for the money. In his final days he spent most of his time lying in a room with blackout curtains, too exhausted to get out of bed.

I know that feeling well. I’m diagnosed bipolar, and within the past decade, I suffered two debilitating depressions, both of them after I had completed and published novels that failed to set the world on fire. Both times I was convinced life was no longer worth living, and I contemplated suicide, but like Dorothy Parker in her famous poem, I found something objectionable about all the possible methods and decided I might as well live.

With help from a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and above all my husband, I eventually climbed back out of depression, although I live with the fear that it may recur. For now, medications keep me on an even keel – Zoloft and Seroquel, to be specific, and Lunesta as needed for sleep. All three are now available in generic versions, so I spend under $20.00 a month for meds – a small price to pay for happiness.

But I may be paying a much higher price. I was diagnosed as bipolar twenty years ago, and I’ve been on psychotropic medications ever since. I’ve accomplished a lot in the past couple of decades, including publishing two novels, but I no longer have the overriding drive and energy that powered me through my earlier years as an artist. Laziness and complacency are ever-present dangers. I’m content just being in the present moment – gardening, walking my dog, reading – though I suffer pangs of guilt over my lessened productivity. Is this a normal product of aging, or a side effect of my medications? Maybe it’s both, but I’ll never know for sure.

When I learned of Robin Williams’s suicide, my first thought, after the shock and grief, was that he too was bipolar. If so, he had never publically disclosed it, but certainly his public persona was over-the-top manic. But as I read more about him and listened to old interviews, it became apparent that his personality when out of the camera’s eye was calmer and more reflective. He readily admitted to substance abuse and periods of deep depression and discussed them candidly, so if he’d been diagnosed as bipolar, he probably would have disclosed that too.

Still, I can’t help thinking he may have been in denial about the nature of his illness. The rapid-fire imagination and creativity so striking to those who knew him well may not have been full-blown mania, but it teetered close to the edge. Perhaps he was afraid that the powerful mood stabilizers and antidepressants of modern medicine would dumb him down intolerably, and perhaps he would have been right.

I don’t know what meds Robin was on or what therapy he was receiving. But it’s extremely common for people diagnosed with a mental illness to refuse or discontinue medication because they don’t want to become comfortably numb. And the inexorable progress of Parkinson’s disease, with its many physical and mental symptoms, including depression, would have taken a terrible toll over time.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Doubtless more details will emerge and more people will conduct psychological post-mortems. But in the meantime, although Robin Williams’s death is a tragic loss, I believe I understand at least part of the rationale for his decision.

 

Russian Ballet and the Mysteries of the Dance Belt

Bolshoi Ballet's Don Quixote

Bolshoi Ballet’s Don Quixote

On my birthday last Thursday, I treated myself to a matinee performance of Don Quixote by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I’m not a huge fan of classical ballet, but I figured this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Besides, I viewed it as an homage to my mother, who enrolled me in ballet classes and took me to performances at the Pabst Theater whenever a major touring company made a stop in Milwaukee.

Most often, that company was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, featuring the great principal dancers Frederick Franklin and Alexandra Danilova. To refresh my memory, I Googled them and discovered a fascinating tale my mother never told me. They were founded in 1938 when their founders Leonide Massine and René Blum split off from the original Ballet Russes. Blum was arrested by the Nazis and died at Auschwitz. During and after World War II, they toured the United States extensively, bringing classical Russian ballet to many cities where it had never been seen before. As its dancers – including George Balanchine – spun off and founded their own troupes, they taught Russian ballet to generations of Americans.

I recall seeing many of the classics, like Swan Lake and Les Sylphides, and I enjoyed them, but as a naïve preteen girl growing up in the postwar Midwest, I was most fascinated by the mysterious bulges under the men’s tights. The principle male dancers of the Bolshoi sported similar bulges, and I decided to Google those as well.

WARNING: The following paragraph contains sexually explicit descriptions of the male anatomy, and prudish readers may wish to skip over it.

Baryshnikov

Baryshnikov

Male dancers, especially when in tights, wear a garment called a dance belt, a specialized athletic supporter that supports and protects the genitals. It most resembles a thong, and is designed so that no telltale seams appear under those form-fitting tights. It’s made in varied flesh colors, nowadays with Spandex, and the front panel is reinforced so as not to provide too much information to fellow dancers and the audience. Unlike other athletic supporters, it is designed to hold the dancer’s package upwards, so that dangling genitalia don’t get squeezed or injured during vigorous dance moves.

That’s probably more than you needed to know, right? But if this whets your appetite for more information, just Google “dance tights,” and I guarantee you’ll find more graphic details than you could ever imagine. Anyway, it explains the rationale behind those bulging crotches that so fascinated me as a child and filled in the gaps in my sexual education. It was well over a decade before I gained a more accurate knowledge of the male anatomy.

I got off on a bit of a tangent here, didn’t I? I’d planned to write about more elevated topics like the

Nureyev

Nureyev

contrasts between classic and modern dance, the questionable value of making klutzy young girls study ballet, and how dance can actually be fun, for example in my Nia class. But I’ll save all that for another post. For now, I’ll search out some delectable images of male dancers to share with you. Enjoy!

Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun. Costumes weren't quite so revealing back then, before they invented Spandex.

Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun. Costumes weren’t quite so revealing back then, before they invented Spandex.

Soap Operas: Fifteen Unwritten Rules

HOPE DAWNS ETERNAL, my new paranormal soap opera thriller, is practically finished. I plan to have the final edit completed by my birthday, July 31st, and to make it available online in September, so it’s high time I start building some buzz about it.

Michael Easton as John McBain

Michael Easton as John McBain

My hero, Lieutenant Jonah McQuarry, is the narrator. With his years of experience as a soap character, he has an expert but often cynical take on the venerable traditions of daytime drama.

Here are fifteen of the conventions he talks about. While they’re not hard and fast rules, they occur more often than not. See what you think:

  1. When two friends or former spouses share a hug, usually in times of tension or grief, one of their significant others discovers them. That person may sneak away to brood in silence or may confront them openly, but either way, he or she refuses to believe it’s just a friendly hug.
  2. People don’t phone ahead to set up appointments or check whether someone is available. They prefer to drop in unexpectedly.
  3.  When someone knocks, those inside open the door without asking who it is, much less using an intercom or peephole.
    An exception occurs when there is no answer, the visitor barges in, and two people are caught in bed in flagrante delicto.
  4.  When a man and woman have spontaneous, unplanned sex, the woman gets pregnant.
  5. If the pregnancy is unwanted, it never ends in abortion. The woman may consider terminating the pregnancy and may even discuss it, but always decides to keep the fetus, which is always referred to as “the baby” even in the first few weeks.
  6. When two people are shown in a car, there will be a crash, usually resulting in a fatality or at least a life-threatening injury. It’s never just a fender bender.
  7. When people share confidential information with each other, they do so in a public place, and usually in perfectly audible voices. Preferred locations are parks, hallways, bars and restaurants. It follows that:
  8.  Someone is eavesdropping. That person will share the information in nefarious ways.
  9.  The people who shared the information will be flabbergasted that the news got out, and will usually blame each other for spilling the secret.
  10.  Anyone who shares a secret on condition that the other person swears never to tell another soul is delusional, because that person always confides it to someone else.
  11. People spend enormous amounts of time discussing and bringing each other up to date on the goings-on of everyone else.
  12. Many of these people have professional careers or run newspapers or corporations, but they are rarely shown at work, and they never let their responsibilities interfere with the more important business of discussing the other characters. Partial exceptions include cops, doctors, lawyers and others whose jobs impact directly on the plot.
  13. Those with no discernable jobs or income nevertheless live in lavish or at least comfortable living quarters.
  14. These living quarters are always immaculate and clutter-free, though the inhabitants are never shown cleaning house.
  15. Unless someone is shown actually dying, for example flat-lining in an intensive care unit, that person can never be considered unconditionally dead. Even flat-liners can sometimes be miraculously resurrected. At the very least, they can come back as ghosts.

Can you think of any soap opera conventions I’ve left out? Do you disagree with any of mine, or do you want to elaborate on them? Please leave me your comments. And please subscribe to this blog so as not to miss any exciting new developments as publication of HOPE DAWNS ETERNAL draws near.

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