Friday, February 26, 2010

Some Progress

So the screen capture above is from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award PDF of the list of manuscript entrants who passed on to the second round.  The second round consists of a field of 1,000.00 candidates for a potential publishing contract with Penguin and a $15,000.00 advance.  Know, by putting this up, I know I may have jinxed myself already.  Although, I entered this contest last year with The Journey Forward and apparently I made it at least this far or further because the guidelines say that you will receive reviewer feedback in the quarterfinals.  And if you look at this old post from April 2009, I seem to have made it to that level.

In any event, I put this up to encourage you, my millions of fans, to keep reading this blog as one day your attention to whatever it is I am doing when I press buttons that put these symbols that are in black up on a white background will pay off and you can say, "Yeah, I remember him before, he was better then. He used to write about basketball and beer and that was more entertaining than a book about a damn family funeral that Ron Howard made into a movie that is garnering serious Oscar buzz before the 2012 Academy Awards. And if it wins he won't get to enjoy it all because 2012 will all be happening in December anyway so what do we even have to buy Christmas presents?"

See, keep reading here and that could be you. So keep getting it while its free.

Now, the next installment of From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt. This is an extra long one to tide you through the weekend. Feel free to analyze, overanalyze, etc.:

Maggie stood and approached the casket.  She remained standing and regarded the roundness of her mother’s face.  Her mother looked round and smooth.  It appeared as though she were one with the coffinbed, that they both existed as a single shape.  Maggie marked her mother out, she separated the lines of her face from that of the pillow and the wooden finish of the casket.  Her eyes felt strained, as if she’d been in the dark room for too many hours or had drank too many cups of bad coffee.  She knelt onto the cushion.  It was so important to separate her mother from those other parts of the casket.  She couldn’t let them all become one – her mother’s  body would not be assimilated into the fabric of the bed, the cushion of the pillow, just like in some way it would never be a part of the earth. 

    The cushion stuck to her exposed knee and Maggie recalled the first time she gleaned the importance of keeping an object separate.  To her, the idea had at first seemed silly to even dwell on.  A person first knew themselves as a separate object, or knew how to separate objects from other objects when they were an infant – breast from mouth, hand from foot, head from table.  So when she sat in her photography class, her brow furrowed, feeling very much sixteen and misunderstood, the goosebumps that rose up her shoulders in waves that could almost have been palpable, were not be to taken seriously.

    “Maggie?” The teacher had said. “Is something wrong?  Do you understand.”

    “Yes,” she’d said curtly, the only tone she knew. “Why?

    “Oh, you just had a funny look on your face.  Like you didn’t understand.”

    Maggie had shaken her head at the teacher, Mrs. Teller.

    Mrs. Teller continued. “Which is why I emphasize, that when you want to take a picture, you do not need to see a whole scene.  It would be foolish to concentrate first on the complete scope that is in your lens. Focus on one object and see how it stands out.  Focus on those lines, what sets it out.  What makes it what it is.”

    The goosebumps slithered in more waves and then felt as though they emnated off of her body out into the art room with the olive paint and the grey corked stools.  Mrs. Teller was the fifth best teacher she’d had in her life.  However, those lessons were – at their core – elementary, not just in theory, but in relation to photography, as Maggie saw and felt it.  It would be foolish, it seemed to her then, looking at the white paper scraps on the dull peach floor, and still did now as a photographer looking at her dead mother, to not take advantage of the complete scope of a lens.  To see the space provided for its full area, to the edge of its boundaries.  However, the logic then would reverse itself.  For a panorama, a shot of mountains on purple orange sky, the vision of a noontime Turkish marketplace taken from its from its most removed perspective, still would separate itself from what was not marketplace, what was not mountain and maroon sky.  The fault being, that you couldn’t just decide to focus on one object – that would be amateur.  You had to learn to negotiate both. Like a child, who at first thinks itself one with the world, one with each object it encounters and only later knows the pain of bumping the crown of its head on the edge of a glass table, so too did photography have to be learned.  It was only later in life and in taking pictures that you could separate what is what from what is not what.  And cognition in many ways is easier than art, than photography.

    Without realizing it, Maggie was in the dark.  She opened her eyes again and the casket was still there.  Her mother’s nose, the flowers backing up the wood – these separate entities were all there.  Each one with an inner light  begging to be rendered.  If I took a photograph of my dead mother, is that maudlin or is that beauty?

        Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
         They called Maggie O’Donnell
        A fire-crotched…

    She had learned the term “inner light” in college.  It was in an aesthetics class and it was in relation to Cezanne.  The professor was a large man with a well kept goatee, his hair was thinning and stuck out around his ears in strands.  She had forgotten his name, which was not to say that he was a bad teacher, but like most college students she had been too full of herself to remember many names.  It’d been a Cezanne still life.

    “Look at the way he paints the table.  Three legs seem to be in harmony.  Three legs of this table are something you would buy in a store.”

    “This dude know about Ikea?” a student in the back asked.

    The professor laughed, took off his glasses and cleaned them. “No,” he paused and put his glasses back on. “In any case,” the class laughed as he continued. “Then we have the fourth leg, the leg in the foreground, it is shorter than the rest and if you follow the edgeline of the table, it is uneven, keeping true to the form.  Now follow the table’s top to the fruit bowl.  The bowl is off-balance, the fruit looks like it is about to tip.”

    “So he could draw a crappy table, what is so impressive about that?  We could all do that,” the same student in the back said.

    “Yeah,” Maggie spoke. “We could all say that in response to art, 'I could do that.'”

    The professor laughed.

    “Very true, Maggie.  If you look at the shapes you will see how true to life Cezanne keeps them.  In many ways it is only important because he was coming out of an era of the French academic painters.  But it was also important because he was coming out of the impressionist era and bring the importance back to the objects themselves, the imperfections, not just the imperfection of seeing them.  He knew that objects were imperfect, but that their inner light lets us see them as imperfect and as beautiful.”

    The way the professor had described the theory struck Maggie as wrong.

    “That is some real sixties bullshit,” she’d said.

    The professor shrugged.

    Later, Maggie walked through the snowflakes across campus.  She felt furious at the idea of letting something just be imperfect for the sake of being imperfect.  There was no point she felt, with her short uneven hair, her knit woolen gloves and scarf, and used maroon rain boots, to give yourself up to that thinking, whether it was in life or in art.  She looked at students skipping to class smoking cigarettes, wearing expensive winter hats and boots.  That idea had led her generation for too long.  She turned her face down the brick path and watched as snowflakes melted on the cracks where little bits of grass still stood even in the cold.  And she felt like she could cry from her great anger, and the beauty she felt in herself and in the sight of a snowflake melting on red brick.

    Maggie’s lids were squeezed tight and she felt the moisture right on the edge of her lashes.  She opened them once more.  She had no sense of time and immediately felt a pull on her heart as she looked upon her mother.  It seemed as though there were no way Maggie could ever understand how she had come from that tortured academic youth to the position she was in now, a woman over thirty, with pictures and postcards from all over the world and now a mother who no longer existed.  Why had she never called her mother on the phone in college and talked to her about aesthetics?  Maggie knew that she was interested in those things.  The image of her mother sitting on the wicker rocking chair in her room, the corner lamp on – the worn book of Thomas Aquinas open and, even though it was made of cardboard and coffee colored thread, the old cover seemed to shine onto the unlit portion of the room.

    “Mom, I’m going out.”

    The dull pain persisted in Maggie.  How could one hope to see their life as something complete and understandable?  You could never see the point to point creation that put you into whatever position you currently saw the world from.  Maggie knew this all too well as the image of her apartment appeared again and she saw the one clean pan sitting next to the sink.  She thought of Jake, as one who, in a state of emotional flux, will think of the person who they have loved more than anyone or anything else in their life.  She saw him by the sink in his grey sweatshirt - the one he had worn since he was a junior in high school - cleaning the dishes.  She saw and thought of him and felt a terrible earnestness, because for the first time she could feel the word “mistake” come to the very front of her mind and to her lips.

    She looked behind her and saw her family still sitting in the front row.  Maggie turned quickly back to the rail in front of the kneeler.  A flush came to her cheeks.  She felt foolish and incredibly angry at herself to look back, to hope that he was standing there or sitting in the room. How could she possibly think of going back?  How could she possibly be thinking of her love that went wrong while her mother was dead and gone and now laying with a bed of flowers around her, but not in the way that any poet would’ve written it or any folk song would have sung it? She was dead and now she was just another object to be taken in with the rest of them.  Maggie felt sick at Siberia, the Turkish evenings she’d seen, the Morocco she would be flying to in a month.  She wished that her camera were there so she could smash it right on the edge of her mother’s casket, right where the glare from the lights reflected on the wood making it seem white.

    Her mother’s face was round and waxy. The plastic quality of her skin and the whiteness of the glare made Maggie remember a full moon.   The night she remembered was dry and cool she could see her breath, but it was a night that is usually unique to December in that there was a mild quality to its edges – you could feel comfortable taking off your coat for a while to soak in the winter darkness.  The night was the night before Christmas Eve.  The white lights were draped along the front gutter and, with the strength of the moon, it made the bare flowerbeds glow; even the old mulch seemed distinct and profound.  She stood out on the front porch, running her shoes along the mortar that filled in the spaces between the stones.  The door opened and Jake stepped out with a glass of whiskey in his hand.  Maggie looked at the perspiration collected on the sides of the glass.  Jake blew smoke as he stepped out, shutting the door and rubbing the curled collar of his black sweater simultaneously.  He asked her what was wrong, knowing well that she was anxious and uncomfortable having him this close to her family. To her, having him this close, having him look at ornaments of her sitting on Santa’s lap, made their intimacy all too real – which forced her further away from the two of them together as a couple, as finacees as, perhaps, soul mates.  She told him nothing was wrong, she could just use a cigarette.

    He curled his glass towards his left armpit and poked his hand into his right pocket.  She could freeze him there carelessly rummaging his pocket, handsome like a movie star entering the  frame.  He kept moving and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.  She hated him for doing that.  She hated that he could know her and buy things for her.

    A cigarette hung from his fingers – one solid cylinder. She took the cigarette and let him light it.  She smoked and he kissed her cheek.  Her anger faded again with the comfort of the night and the way branches and stones were lit; even the grass as one whole uneven shape.  Jake could, at that time, feel the strain in Maggie.  He knew that for all her talking and articulation, that she could still not articulate herself.  He wrapped his arm along her waist and pulled the corners of their hips together so that they locked in the strange way that bodies familiar with each other have a habit of doing.  He looked out into the edge of the lawn where the light turned abruptly to black and wondered what more there was.

    The front door opened, the handle clicked and Maggie saw her mother.  The sound of Django Reinhardt’s music drifted out.  She quickly flicked her cigarette.  A trail of smoke rose from the bush where it landed.  Rose smiled.  She told the two of them to come in for coffee when they wanted.  Jake put his whiskey down on the arm of the bench.  He grabbed Rose by the right arm and swayed drunkenly with her as the guitars strummed in an ignorant and timeless bliss.  Maggie watched Jake spin her mother in the door and state that she was too good a dancer for someone as clumsy as himself.  He looked to her with his hands on his hips, his chest broad, sticking out in his sweater.  He smiled and his well defined jawline followed.   Maggie felt herself grow restless then as he stood there with her in the comfortable cold.  But with him dancing with her mother, nothing was comfortable.  The white lights and the shadowy tree limbs, which had seemed familiar and enchanted, now mader her nauseous.  Her cheeks itched.

    And as Maggie pulled her kneees up from the kneeler, she inhaled the flowers.  They smelled sour.  Love is not charming someone’s mother.  Maggie’s eyes fell upon her mother’s waxy cheeks once more.  She turned her head back.  He wasn’t there, the flowers stunk and Maggie felt weak.  She could feel her ears and feet itch.  But she walked back to her seat, unable to itch either place.  She knew that it was her problem, not her dead mother’s, and certainly not Jake’s.


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