Tomato Love

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They’re called ‘love apples’

I am lying on a bunk bed in the middle of the day when I hear my name over the intercom. The speakers are everywhere – in the middle of the girl’s camp on the hill. Down in the hollow where the boy’s cabins are clustered. At the swimming pool. Even out the dirt road leading to the barn where the horses are standing with their heads down, resting in the heat.

“Jayne Morgan, report to the Mess Hall.”

I loved every minute of being a ‘counselor-in-training’ – grooming the horses, saddling them and bridling them for the riders,  mucking out stalls, leading the campers in cleaning the cabin and the wash house, gathering my young charges at the end of a full day and marching down to dinner, all the while belting out the Motown hit, “War, huh, good God y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again!”

I hadn’t gotten in trouble for that yet. Or for the many other things that I did that summer without realizing they were controversial.

I’d been coming to camp for years, loving the beauty and wildness of the place. I’d learned archery and canoeing and gotten my lifeguard certification. I’d lain on an old mattress smelling of mildew while a college boy wrapped his arms around me and helped me aim a rifle at a paper target. I’d made more lanyards than any human being could possible use in a lifetime. Days were a blur of activity and nights were spent singing around campfires and sneaking through the darkness to wrap one of the boy’s cabin in toilet paper. It was the first place I went away to by myself and though I dutifully wrote letters home, I never experienced a moment of homesickness..

I felt so adult, working a full day and being responsible for the safety and well being of a dozen small girls in Arapaho cabin.

But now my free hour was interrupted by a summons to the Mess Hall. The assistant camp director met me on the porch and pointed toward the parking lot.

My mom was standing by our white Olds Cutlass . She waved.

At 15, I hadn’t known the loss any family members. It would be another year before four of my friends where badly injured in a car that I was supposed to be riding in. (My mother, angry at me for not completing my chores, wouldn’t let me go with them) I didn’t yet know that surprises could be anything but wonderful, or at least interesting. So her unexpected appearance was odd, but not alarming

I went to see what she wanted.

I don’t remember our greeting or the conversation, but I’m sure she grilled me on what I was doing, did I like my Senior Counselor, did I need clean clothes and I answered  her in shrugs and monosyllables. It was what she did next that I still find remarkable.

She reached in the window and pulled out a paper bag containing a dozen of her homegrown tomatoes, still warm from the car. We sat on the hood and ate the red fruit like apples, juice running down our chins. Just she and I. Licking the juice off our fingers and then eating another. As if it was something we did everyday. We ate tomatoes until we were stuffed.

A half hour later, I stood on the gravel and watched her drive away, wondering, “why did my mother drive all the way from Knoxville with a bag of tomatoes?” Parents didn’t just show up at camp in the middle of the week unless they’d been called to take a kid home due to illness or misbehavior. It made no sense to me.

That night, after lights out in the cabin as I lay in my bunk, the truth hit me. My mother missed me.  In the middle of her day, perhaps while out in her garden, she had felt the need to see me. To share with me what she had grown with her own hands. She got in the car and drove, never questioning this need. Or the offering she brought.

It’s such a small, sweet memory, but it matters. In later years, when her darkness engulfed us all, I would remember that moment. Sitting with her and eating tomatoes. It would be a touchstone, a reminder that, no matter how crazy things got, she loved me. Missed me when I was gone. That memory got me through and helped me find our connection again.

I miss her now. Every time I pluck a tomato off the bush and bite into it right there, I remember.

So here’s to mid-summer sweetness, the hot flesh of a homegrown tomato. To the hard, sometimes crazy-making task of being a mother, the vulnerability of daughters, to the gardeners and their harvest – the memories that allow us to transcend the pain and find new hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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HOW TO

I used to write for television. Mostly how-to  shows – trying to get you to believe you could wallpaper your bathroom yourself. Sorry about that.

But I enjoyed it. I’m a teacher at heart so the idea of putting together neat little segments on tools and processes was fun for me. Until I learned that how to television is not, as it happens, about learning how to anything.

The powers that be at these nameless networks know that the vast majority of people are never going to pick up a paintbrush, or a hammer, or god forbid, a circular saw. Our audiences used our wallpaper hanging video as, well, video wallpaper. They listened to us while they did other things, fascinated, apparently, by endless shots of plywood being cut. Tile being laid.  Screws being screwed. Our work was the background buzz of their lives.

I do understand this fascination with watching other people’s work. I once spent an afternoon on my front porch, sipping coffee as a guy from the city used a backhoe to carefully picked out chunks of sidewalk while leaving the tree roots intact. He was fast, accurate and by god, an artist. I was spellbound.

Then there was the time I hired a guy to remove a stump. Ever see a stump grinder at work? These machines look like prehistoric beasts, swinging their great saw-toothed heads back and forth, grazing on wood and bark. It was mesmerizing. And hysterical, when a garbage truck drove by and released a screech of air from its brakes just as the beast took a big deep bite into the earth. The operator did a cartoon run in midair, certain that he had struck a gas main and was about to be blown sky high.

I tried to learn the skill of writing how-to without really explaining anything, but it went against the grain.  It was a formula and I wanted to write something useful, interesting, entertaining. None of that was wanted. The goal was familiar. Soothingly bland. That’s why every how-to or house flipping or cooking show is basically the same. Different hosts, different cities, but the same projects, with the same lack of detail, over and over again. Other people doing things we will never attempt, but like to think we might. That’s entertainment!

I  did write for a show that broke the mold. Or rather, created a new one. It combined interior design with childbirth. (Don’t ask.) We were to build drama by suggesting that every single birth was a terrible crisis and each nursery reveal a joyous homecoming. I did my best to take the footage I was given and create entertainment…to fit the odd template the network wanted. High drama in the birthing suite. Thrilled reactions to the nursery.The trouble was, the new parents were joyous at the hospital and usually stunned and aghast at what had been done to their house in their absence.

I tried. Really, I did. But our contact at the network was never happy. She returned my first script for the show with the notes, “This sucks.”  “You’re killing the show.” And my personal favorite, “Write better!”

I called my boss in a panic. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “She always says that. About everything.”

So I kept writing. She kept finding new ways to make me feel like a failure.

She did me a favor, actually. Brutal feedback doesn’t faze me. My writer’s skin was toughened from all the abuse. I’d probably still be doing it, if the economy hadn’t tanked and put all the freelancers like me out of work.

But I’ve come to see that as a gift.

I’ve had to learn how to.  How to tell stories I love. How to write to my own specs, not someone else’s. How to carve out a living without selling my soul. How to yes, “write better”.

It’s work, you know? And sometimes very hard. But I feel a sense of accomplishment anytime I push a novel a little further toward completion, or submit a short story, or offer up something for feedback from my writer’s group. It’s my work.

And I remember the last time I heard from the woman at the network. The show about babies and nurseries had just been cancelled and she was suddenly out of work. My phone rang and it was her, sweetly greeting me as if we were the bestest friends.  Hey, Jayne,” she said. “Keep me in mind if you ever needed a producer, okay?”

Karma, huh?

GOOD WITH PEOPLE

I like people. Really, I do. But I’m an introvert. And that means I prefer dealing with people one on one. Or in small, intimate groups where the conversation can be inclusive and deep.

Sometimes people are surprised by this. “But you’re so good with people!” they’ll say. They’re right, I am good with people. The same way a lion tamer is good with big cats or a border collie is good with sheep. Like people are some foreign species I have to control.

Parties drive me crazy. I don’t know how to get beyond the meaningless discussion of ‘what are you up to these days?’ to the more interesting questions of ‘who are you, underneath your mask?’ and ‘what do you really care about?” Intellectually, I know that small talk is the social grease that smooths our way through awkward moments. I’m just lousy at it. I’ll panic at a silence and throw in an odd and inappropriate comment like, “did you know the Mafia used to rub garlic on their bullets to make their enemies bleed out faster?”

I read that somewhere. It’s an interesting tidbit. But maybe shouldn’t be one of the first things out of your mouth at a social gathering. Unless it’s a Mafia reunion.

I’m fine throwing a party because I have things to do. Someone to be. And I’m fine, more than fine really, being on stage in front of hundreds of people. Because that audience becomes one person to me and guess who’s in charge? Me! And I get the delicious thrill of sharing something truthful with them. It’s a source of joy.

But a cocktail party. Ack! I run screaming. I feel the need for a chair and a whip.

I have a ritual I go through before any social event. I’m dressed and ready to go….usually way too early. I’m killing time before I hop in the car and a little voice in my head says, “You don’t have to go.”

But I want to, I think. I like these people! It will be fun!

“But you could stay home and read. Or write that scene that’s been floating around in the back of your head. You could get dressed in something more comfortable and make pancakes.”

But I should go, I think. I should spend time with people I like. Get out of the house. Practice talking like an adult.

My mind keeps tempting me with all the other cool things I could do alone. Soak in a nice  hot bath. Organize my closet. Read the newspaper cover to cover. Start learning to speak Spanish. Play with the pups.

Sometimes my introvert wins and I call in sick. Other times I grit my teeth and go and….usually have a good time. Almost as good a time as I would have rolling on the floor with the pups.

I have some coping strategies when I remember to use them. Focusing on the breath helps. Turning into a reporter and interviewing other people is a good strategy to keep the conversation going. Alcohol was my social lubricant of choice when I was younger, but it’s not so fun anymore. It used to make me stupid and happy. Now, it just makes me stupid and morose. Not a good combination.

My fear is people will think I don’t like them, just because I have trouble dealing with them en masse. But I do like people.

Under the right circumstances.

A long time ago, I had the rare good fortune of sitting in a circle with people I believed I had nothing in common with and hearing them open their souls. A wise teacher named Joyce created a space for all of us to speak from a deep, tender place inside. It was a revelation. I was amazed by what I learned in that circle.

Amazed to see how narrow my view of other people can be. Amazed to discover that with enough safety, support and plenty of silence, every one of us becomes a teacher/storyteller/seer/actor/shaman of our own truth.

Amazed to learn that not only could I like people, I could freely accept and love the hell out of them when I saw their real selves. I could even accept and love myself! I learned that we all hid secret worlds inside us – like C.S.Lewis’s wardrobe. Underneath our everyday mask, behind our opinions and judgements of ourselves and others, each of us is a portal to an entire lifetime of true stories – tragic, slapstick, wise, mysterious.

This is the struggle. There’s a part of me that walks into a party looking for the door to the magic wardrobe and sees light social banter as a distraction from the real adventure, a screen to keep us from seeing the one thing we most long for in each other – our loving, messy, wild truth.

And there’s another part of me that thinks I am an officious ass who needs to get over herself and just have another glass of wine. And half the hors d’oervres table.

I don’t imagine I’ll ever get fully comfortable with this conundrum. So I’m doing the next best thing. Accepting the discomfort. Acknowledging my weirdness.

And if I cancel on your social event at the last minute, know this: I like you. Really.

But there’s someone inside you that I’m frigging crazy about.  And if you ever want to share that secret self with a fellow weirdo…call me. I am so there.

 

 

 

Killing My Darlings

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The is the ‘wrong’ kitten. I can tell.
I love writing. I’ve been doing it since I first learned how. Letters, journal entries, poems, essays, plays, fiction – you name it, I have scribbled it out in a crabbed long hand or tapped it out on a keyboard.

At age twelve, I took a stab at my first novel, beginning with these unforgettable lines:

Laura lived in her own world. No one else lived in Laura’s world. Laura was alone in her own little world.

Okay, so it took me a while to discover the joy of editing and the rule of showing, rather than telling. But that wasn’t the only problem with that first novel.

Take my main character, what was her name? Oh right, Laura. She was a 12 year old whose parents had just died in a car crash, which left her blind. And an orphan. At that age there was nothing, and I mean NOTHING, more romantic to me than being an orphan. The thought of having no parents around to tell me to clean up my room or do my homework was almost unbearably attractive. I killed off my parents regularly in my dreams and  fortuitiously dead parents would be a theme in almost all my early work. These days, I’d likely be sent to a psychiatrist’s office for such fictional patricide/matricide. But of course it was all in the service of making myself a figure of maximum sympathy and mystery.

Wait, did I say me? I meant Laura.

My twelve-year old romance novelist self spent months crafting a compelling story.  It started with Laura in the hospital, (alone, did I mention that?) unaware that her parents are dead. To cheer her up, the nurse, a sweet, elderly Swedish woman named Ilsa, brings  Laura’s pet kitten for a visit and puts it in her hands. Our young heroine is thrilled, then freezes. Suddenly, she knows! She can tell that this is not her kitten! This is a replacement kitten! And in that awful moment, she knows (don’t ask me how) that everyone has been lying to her, her parents are dead, and so is the original kitten, who must have also perished in the crash. (Because losing one’s parents is not sufficiently terrible. I had to kill a cat.)  This scene, which my twelve year-old self thought a stroke of sheer genius, established Laura’s preternatural sensitivity. She could divine the falseness of the feline just by touching its fur! What amazing perceptivity! What delicate palms! What drama!

Now the story really picked up steam. A dashing young doctor appeared! Gifted and caring, he would soon miraculously restore Laura’s eye sight. But first, he caught the eye of Ilsa, who was now German and growing younger and prettier by the page. Nurse and doctor started flirting and slowly, I began to hate my own story. My beloved Laura sat in the corner, ignored, blindly petting the wrong kitten while two supporting characters were falling in love with each other. This was a serious problem. So I wrote my way out of it. As the chapters piled up, Laura aged rapidly until she was mature enough to lure the doctor away from the now ugly and entirely unpleasant (and unexpectedly French) Ilsa.

The kitten was never seen again.

I kept writing in a frenzy and the improbabilities piled up until one day, I just lost interest. Laura was no longer a romantic loner; she had an adoring doctor, 20/20 vision and probably, a life long enemy in the jilted Russian, Ilsa. But who cared? They were all now adults. Just like my parents. I put the novel in a drawer (literally) and forgot about it for years.

I wish I still had it. I would love to read my early, purple prose and reconnect with that thrill, that certainty that no matter how illogical, what was I was getting on paper was THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD. It was a wonderful feeling.

I don’t get that much anymore. The love affair is more mature, balanced by an understanding of the work involved. I know now that the stuff I love the best, that gives me a tiny taste of that long-ago writerly delirium, will probably end up being cut because, as William Faulkner put it, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

So the parents in my stories get to live and my darlings must die. I guess that’s progress.

On those days when it is SO HARD to get myself to settle at my desk and take up the lonely, lonely work, I’ve started a new ritual. “Jayne writes in a world of her own,” I whisper to myself. “No one else writes in her world. Jayne writes alone in her own little world.”

It makes me laugh. It soothes me. And reminds me that no matter how bad it gets, I can always write my way out of it.

Hello!

I’m sitting here in Knoxville, TN, on a gorgeous spring day, surrounded by sleeping dogs Dog pics and boxes of Kleenex. Nothing like a cold to slow you down, particularly when you need to get things done. Hard things. Writing an author’s bio – is there a worse chore in this business?

And creating this blog – a place to share my writing process and samples of my work. Also inspirational stuff to keep me…and you, writing.

All necessary and even enjoyable when I’m not dulled down by Benedryl. So excuse the lame beginning and read a little from my latest projects here MOONFLOWERS – first chapter  and here. HEART OF STONE – sample chapter Feel free to comment.

Thanks for stopping by.