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You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
-Maya Angelou

The crack of a gunshot shakes me awake. 

I lie alert, listening with shallow, silent breaths. I peer out from under the cardboard. My eyes lock on the silhouette spears of a fence standing 20 yards away and beyond them a few stars pinprick the black sky. 

Nothing. 

No outcry, no running feet. 

A full-throated engine -- must be a bus -- emerges from the stillness, and then an accompanying rush of a speeding car. The noises lie beyond the fence. I stare at the sharp shadows, fully awake now, listening. A ripple of adrenalin flutters in my stomach and then a chill shudders through my body. My knees draw tighter to my chest and I'm glad the sleeping bag feels constricted and close.

The silence is not comforting.

It's past midnight; I need to make it through the night.

***

This is not my first time in a sleeping bag. I grew up going on family camping vacations. Every few years my educator parents took advantage of their summer breaks to pile the four of us kids into a car and tour the country via camping grounds. Then as the mother of a Cub Scout I'd notched a few camping trips on my mom belt by helping to watch over the antics of my son and his friends. But lying in a sleeping bag through the night is where the similarity between those experiences and this one ended. There is no parent keeping guard on this cold night. 

I got here because a few weeks earlier, flipping through office email, I came across a message that inexplicably drew me. It's the season of fund-raising requests and this one came for Covenant House Missouri. I read that it's an organization that serves homeless youth, from age 16 up to their 22nd birthday. What made this one stick was the note that one in five homeless kids become trapped by human traffickers, whether for labor or sexual work. 

The spiral haunted me. How a young person already in dire straits, desperate to find someone to trust, is taken advantage of and then caught up in a worst situation. Could I do something?

***

My shoulder aches; I realize I am lying at an awkward angle. I shift to turn to my other side, the cardboard box flattening against my face. I snake my arm through the twisted sleeping bag to dig my iphone out of my coat pocket. 

Only 1:30 a.m. 

You've got to be kidding me.

***

Funny coincidence, my New Yorker husband Juan knew the founders of Covenant House. Some 35 years ago now Juan  hung out with the men that initially put the organization together and he remembers their animated conversations. Today the corporate headquarters is still in NYC and its grown to 15 other major cities. Along with shelter for homeless youth, the program provides a number of services, from counseling to education to drug treatment, to address the kids' needs and to coach them toward independence. 

In St. Louis, 3,000 kids sleep on its streets every night. Three thousand! Invisible, vulnerable. The facts defy stereotypes. For example, half are from St. Louis County, an area more affluent than the city. Perhaps less surprising, half find themselves on the street because of family dysfunction. 

***

I had drifted into a doze but now my bladder wakes me. I mentally assess: how bad is the pressure? Can I stand it a few more hours? I shift to my other side, and drag a scarf under my head to simulate a pillow. The movement exposes my face to outside the box and the cold snaps my eyes open. Wind chill in the 20's. 

I wonder about kids outside tonight. Huddled against concrete, hidden in the shadows. I imagine that if I was homeless I would get good at spotting hidden corners during the day that I could return to at night. I imagined knowing when buildings lock up at night so that I could slip inside ahead of time. I thought about kids in just a hoodie and jeans -- here I lie clothed in four layers in a sleeping bag inside a box -- and I feel cold. My heart sends out a prayer, "Father, keep them safe. Please let them feel Your love."

A gust of frigid wind catches my face again and I duck into the bag, pulling its folds over my head. 

Damn the hot chocolate I drank at midnight. 

Where do kids go when they need to pee in the night?

Dig out my phone:  2:32 a.m.

You've got to be kidding me.

***

So I decide to participate in a "Sleep Out," which is a Covenant House fund-raiser similar to walks that other organizations do. Participants walk in support of a cause, which donors support by giving money. For Covenant House "sleepers" raise funds by sleeping out in the elements for one night, duplicating a homeless experience. Outdoor-lifestyle firm R.E.I. provides sleeping bags while a moving company, Two Men and a Truck, donates cardboard boxes -- the boxes are a barrier from the chilled ground. 

About 25 Sleep Out volunteers assembled at the Covenant House earlier in the evening. In the registration area we mill around, mingling with Covenant House staff, all wearing Sleep Out t shirts. i get into an animated conversation with three junior counselors about racial issues in St. Louis. "I don't like the term 'African American'," said one young woman, "My family's been here for generations. We're just Americans!" "I think the words Caucasian and White are stereotypes," said a young man. "Look around - there's lots of colors in this room." I pepper them with questions, enjoying their articulate arguments and passionate vision for this community. "It can get better!"

Abruptly, our conversation ends. Time to gather in a meeting room for orientation, a panel Q&A and then small group discussions with staff and youth. Surprised, as the program begins, I realize that the composed young people I'd been joking with are not counselors but residents, former homeless kids. 

***

A growing rustling rises -- is it rain? -- no... leaves from nearby trees stirring in the wind. Unable to stand it, I worm out of my cardboard cave and hurry unsteadily toward the building to use the bathroom. I pass a fire pit where a few people in lawn chairs are staying up all night to watch over the scattered sleeping bags. Inside the building I find five sleepers; a few unable to sleep, a few others taking a bathroom break like me. 

We chat for awhile. I stall going out into the cold and mix up another cup of instant hot chocolate. 

It's 3:28 a.m. when I return to my sleeping bag.

***

Remember that as I write this now I have their faces in my mind. 

  • There is Brianna* whose mother died of cancer in 2010 but before passing left her daughter a house and car with an aunt as a guardian. When the aunt neglected to pay taxes on the house, they lost it and Brianna moved into the car. She slipped into a depression so deep she ceased to speak. 
  • There is Jada* who grew up homeless, shuttling from hotel room to car to shelter to the street, passed between mother and father until getting kicked out of the family unit. To make money she prostituted herself, though not just to anyone, she explains. She had three regulars.
  • There is Ethan* whose mother died when he was a baby. He has 20 brothers. Raised by an unconscionably cruel foster mother, he would escape to his aunt's home and sit on the front stoop watching dealers sell drugs. He learned the trade, joined the Bloods gang and became an intimidating dealer himself. 

In the echoing meeting room, listening to their testimony, I am quietly reeling. I am struck by the incongruity between their stories and the composure in front of me. Tears prick my eyes. The suffering and hardship they have experienced is so sad, but the reason I am moved is not sympathy for their past but, rather, what I see in the present.

They are unbound. They have worked very hard to untangle from the grip of memory. They have faced the terror and sadness of their experience in order to leave it behind. Somehow they have moved from victim to refusing to allow their history to deface the beauty of a life that deserves love and feels wanted. 

Phenomenal, caring professional staff have guided these young people's journeys, encouraging the youth to choose for themselves whether to walk forward or not. Amazingly, today they affirm goals and dreams and aspirations that would have been untouchable just a few short years ago.

Where hopelessness had been is now a kernel of recognition: I do have worth; I am worth fighting for. 

***

Fellow sleeper Colleen shakes my box; I jar awake. Scooting, I shoot forward out of the bag and narrowly miss a nosedive. Glancing around I see that most of the sleeping bags are rolled and the lot vacant. I hurriedly wrap up my bag, while another sleeper kindly drags my cardboard to a stack of other flattened boxes.  Stiffly, I stretch. It's just after 5:00 a.m.

Inside the building we sleepers clutch cups of hot coffee and chatter, "How did it go? Did you sleep?" We're herded back into the meeting room where we share a few reflections, recognizing that one uncomfortable night is not the same as chronic homelessness. Jada joins us in her pajamas and sweatshirt, smiling at our comments. I look around the room. Faces are puffy and hair is mussed -- not the typical business executive gathering. 

I think this night will linger for all of us. 

I know it will for me.

In just a few days is Thanksgiving -- I hope you have a very happy one! -- I am grateful for the many, many blessings I have. Thank you for allowing this blog to land in your inbox each Monday; I'll return next week with an update on writing the book. I am grateful for your support.

In this spirit let me end with another quote from Maya Angelou: 

If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present...gratefully.

P.S. - *I changed the names of the young people to protect their privacy. Also - a few of you had trouble with the fund-raising link last week. If you'd like to contribute, here it is again: Joan's Fundraising Link

With warm thanks,

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Original

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Original

Hi, here's an opening thought:

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.
-William Ralph Inge

What?? Why?

First, because copying, imitating, repeating, and adapting what others do is the precursor to finding your own style.

This is what Vincent did.

(In my book I'll be showing how protagonist Johanna did this too. She copied first what she'd learned from others before the breakthrough that caused the art world to listen to her and finally recognize Vincent's talent.)

Vincent practiced; once he started painting at age 27 he never looked back, but trained and learned continuously. 

He tried out lots of methods - from learning through copying the classics at the Louvre, to brightening his own canvases with more color in imitation of the Impressionists. He experimented thinning out his oil paint with turpentine for a watercolor-like effect. He tried the stippling practice of Pointillism. He added large planes of color to his paintings after admiring and collecting Japanese prints. 

He painted still-life, landscapes and portraits of neighbors, friends and (always chronically short on money and unable to afford models) dozens of self-portraits. All to practice, experiment and paint every day -- so much so that he left behind more than 800 paintings when he died.

While reading it struck me that there must be many Van Gogh paintings that are not good. I wonder how many Van Gogh paintings hang on museum walls today that Vincent would have considered just practice?

The second idea on gaining originality: grit.

More than simple determination, grit is the ability to get up, again and again, despite failure or setback and to try again.  For example, Vincent's breakthroughs of originality began to emerge even as struggled with recurring mental illness, including being confined to an asylum. You have to hang in there long enough imitating others before your own style will emerge...and then continue producing and hanging in there when life throws you a curve ball.

I have a few modern-day examples of artists that had this potent example of practice + grit. I read about them in a blog by Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist. A few weeks ago he wrote about artists and musicians that turned physical limitations into the means that ultimately led to originality. Here's a portion of Austin's post (edited a little):

For years now, I’ve been collecting stories about artists whose physical “shortcomings” have led to their signature work. Examples:

  • Chuck Close, along with his paralysis, suffers from prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, in which he is unable to recognize faces. And yet, he’s most famous for his face paintings, which help him remember faces. (We have one of Close's amazing paintings, "Keith," in the St. Louis Art Museum.) 
  • Tommy Iommi, guitar player for Black Sabbath, after he lost fingertips in an industrial accident, was inspired by Django (guitarist Django Reinhardt lost the use of two of his fretting fingers, and played all of his solos with the remaining two fingers)Iommi formed homemade prosthetics, and detuned his guitars down to C#, so there was less tension on the strings. This detuning is part of what makes Sabbath’s guitars sound so heavy, and thus we have heavy metal.
  • Henri Matisse’s failing eyesight and health led him to make his “cut-out” paper collages. (I first discovered Matisse's cutouts at MOMA in NYC and heard how, bed-ridden, Matisse would have assistants hold colored paper and turn it according to his instructions while he cut out shapes with scissors.)

Their determination to create despite their handicaps led to their originality. This reflects ideas I'm toying with when it comes to my book about Johanna van Gogh. A good story is about persistence in pursuing a goal and overcoming obstacles along the way. Despite many handicaps (widowed, single parent, social pressures against women and more), Johanna persisted in gaining Vincent van Gogh recognition as a major artist. But it can't be the only point to my story, otherwise you already know how it ends. Johanna's achievement is an important outcome but not the only one -- and I'm working on those ideas now.

Will it be original? We'll see!

How I'm Writing the Book
Writing Craft:  I finished a rough draft of the 3-page outline of the book's scenes but it needs lots of revision. I also brainstormed around a killer sentence, or elevator speech, on what this book is about so that I can grab people's attention with just a few sentences. When I have a few versions I like, I'll run them by you and see what you think. 

Research: As you can tell from this post, this week I traced Van Gogh's experimentation and evolution of painting style, but I honestly did not capture very good notes. I need a more disciplined way to keep track of the research. My notes are simply in stacks and folders; I've failed to adopt a system other than making copies, highlighting passages, and copying quotes into my journal. My least favorite thing to do is to backtrack and organize previous notes but I will need to find the time to do this. 

This next week I'll be in KC with my mom visiting daughter Cristina, checking out the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abilene, and then returning home for a night in a sleeping bag on a downtown St. Louis street to raise awareness of homeless kids and the work of Covenant House.  I found my long underwear and will buy some hand warmers to prepare. It's just one night for me but there are teenagers who face these conditions often and need shelter. Please check out my fund-raising site for more info.

A final word from Inge:

There is no law of progress. Our future is in our own hands, to make or to mar.  It will be an uphill fight to the end, and would we have it otherwise?

We would not!

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Ha!

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Ha!

There is nothing so annoying as to have two people talking when you're busy interrupting. 
-Mark Twain

Ha!

I was thinking about people that are annoying when that quote caught my eye. 

People that are the most irritating can often have the biggest blind spots in recognizing their own bad behavior. And, on the other side of the coin, the receiver of the bad behavior can be just as imperceptive, aggravation getting in the way of understanding where the individual is coming from.

Vincent van Gogh was really annoying. 

It's made me suspect that I would've been one of the people that avoided him. 

And it's made me all the more curious about the people that stuck by him for so long, especially after his death. What motivated the main character of my book, Johanna van Gogh, to believe in Vincent?

To explore her motivation, this week I read through a slim book, Vincent van Gogh and Paris, written by curator Nienke Bakker and published by the Van Gogh Museum. It describes the two years Vincent lived with his brother Theo (1886 to 1888) in Paris, which overlapped when Johanna would have met Vincent. She would have witnessed the incredibly close relationship the two brothers had. Vincent was four years older than Theo, but Theo financially and emotionally supported his older brother. 

Here are a few things Johanna would have learned about Vincent: 

He hadn't been able to hold down a job.
He'd moved back home with his parents. 
He got a girl pregnant.
At 27 he decided to become a painter.
He asked his brother if he could move in with him in Paris. Theo agreed but requested Vincent wait so he could get a bigger place -- Vincent came immediately anyway.  
He was antisocial.
He wore old workman jackets spattered with paint. 
He could be embarrassing in public. 
He would go on and on about his own ideas and big dreams; yet, had only sold one painting (to another painter).

What would you think if you heard that description?

And how did others see Vincent? 

  • Bombastic. (From friend and fellow painter, Emile Bernard): "[Vincent was] Red-haired (goatee beard, ragged mustache, cap of close-cropped hair), with a piercing gaze and an incisive mouth...his gestures lively, his gait jerky, that was Van Gogh with, always, his pipe, a canvas...Vehement in his discourse, given to interminable explanations and a great developer of ideas...and dreams, ah! what dreams! Huge exhibitions, philanthropic phalansteries (gatherings) of artists, the foundation of [artist] colonies in the south."
  • Ignored. (From model Suzanne Valadron): "I remember Van Gogh coming to our weekly gatherings at [Toulouse] Lautrec's. He arrived carrying a heavy canvas under his arm, put it down in the corner but well in the light, and waited for us to pay some attention to it. No one took notice. He sat across from it, surveying the glances, seldom joining in the conversation. Then, tired, he would leave, carrying back his latest work. But the next week he would come back, commencing and recommencing with the same strategem."
  • Oblivious. (From fellow painter Paul Signac): "We painted on the riverbanks; we lunched at an open-air roadhouse, and we returned by foot to Paris...Van Gogh, dressed in a blue jacket of a zinc worker, had small dots of colour painted on his sleeves. Sticking quite close to me, he shouted and gesticulated, brandishing his large, freshly painted size 30 canvas  [2.5' x 3'] in such a way that he polychromed (spattered multiple colors of paint) himself and the passersby."

What a character! Yet, somehow beyond these external eccentricities Theo recognized something in Vincent's talent. Somehow, Johanna did too. 

For almost a hundred years, museum officials and gallery owners have spoken fearfully of the "Van Gogh syndrome." The Van Gogh syndrome is the worry that in our own lifetime, possibly right here in our midst, there is a major, visionary artist at work, whom we totally fail to recognize. 

In the brief span of five years, from 1885 - 1890, Vincent's work would evolve into such an explosion of creativity that eventually he would secure a place among the greatest artists of our time. In order for that to come about, Vincent's work had to become recognized.

Getting Vincent recognition became Johanna's life mission. She saw beyond Vincent's personality. How and why she did this intrigues me. Pursuing this question fits the reason I'm writing this book for in everything I do I believe in pushing against the edges of limitation. In everything I do I believe in finding connection.   

How I'm Writing the Book
Writing Craft: This week I continued work on my book's outline, breaking it down into two parts: 1) external scenes and then 2) the point of the scene. In other words, a scene is not just action but needs to include what's going on in my protagonist Johanna's heart - is she angry, fearful, motivated? I learned in last week's Blueprint Sprint class that it's the internal motivation behind action that makes for a compelling story. This outline is very difficult to write. (I'm writing and revising with a goal of a 3-page outline and I've only finished one page.)

Writing Community: I found another writer group! The St. Louis Publishers Association is made up of more than publishers but writers, graphic designers, etc. Within their ranks I found a small publisher that will do small print runs of just 25 - perfect for advance copies and to give as Christmas gifts! The group meets monthly so I'll be checking out a meeting in December. 

Research: In addition to reading the book mentioned earlier, I saw the movie "Loving Vincent." There's a little buzz around it because it's the world's first fully painted feature film. The entire film is rendered by hand with oil paints. The plot is centered around an investigation of Vincent's suicide and so the film is both sad and beautiful. 

Let me come back to Mark Twain to finish this post. I described Vincent as bombastic, ignored and oblivious -- maybe the only similarity Twain would have with Van Gogh is being bombastic for Twain was most definitely NOT ignored or oblivious.  He was a keen observer with a sharp wit:

To succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.

Ha!

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Choices

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Choices

It's not our abilities that show what we truly are. It's our choices.
-Albus Dumbledore
Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

This weekend I made a choice. 

Before I tell you what it was - first off, I need to acknowledge that there are a lot of things that are hard when it comes to starting over, but I think the pressure can feel especially heavy if you are pursuing a passion. 

A passion claims your heart, not just your brain. A passion carries vulnerability. 

Whenever I'm with a group of writers, I feel like, no matter what kind of composed face I try to put on, I'll be found out. I will ask the dumb, obvious question that will reveal what a newbie, hot mess I am as a writer. They will be polite, supportive even, but no doubt are thinking, "Really? How did she get in?"

So, I had a little trepidation joining up with a group of writers this weekend. 

Together, we were participating in a writing workshop called, "Blueprint Sprint." Designed for writers interested in doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which you write a (messy) novel during November), the course followed a blueprint of exercises and instruction that gave me an intense dive into my book's characters, plot and more. The class was taught be Jennie Nash; I've been reading her weekly blog on writing and editing for a few years.

Connected via video our group of 12 writers came from across the country (including my friend Deborah!). In between the writing sprints, we checked in regularly over the weekend to hear feedback on our work while also learning from each others' questions and struggles. Started Friday at mid-day, it ended at midnight on Sunday: a 60-hour sprint (though I did sleep plus take a break Saturday night and watched the sweet and funny movie "The Big Sick" on TV. Juan had driven to KC to visit Cristina and Jay since I would be huddled over my desktop.) 

I wrote an outline of my book's critical scenes and how each would need to involve a decision that would move the action forward. I tried hard to think deeply about what was in my character's heart in each scene -- what was she doing, thinking, feeling?

I wrote three versions each of the first and last scenes of the book. Yes, six scenes. Then I picked the best ones and revised them again. 

I learned that I must know more about everything in order to write with authority -- so I've got more research to do.  I got a taste for how the process is iterative -- I did my best to prepare, but sometimes the scene or the characters developed minds of their own and a new action showed up without forethought. 

It was exhausting.

I have a lot of work to do. 

It was really fun.

Lately, as more people are realizing that I'm retiring at the end of the year, I've been having more conversations about it. As a result, I'm learning that to a lot of people "writing a book" sounds like a fake answer. I see their eyes glaze over slightly...Isn't everyone writing a book? Doesn't everyone have a book idea they'll write someday?

It sounds like a fall-back answer. Writing doesn't feel like a real thing. 

This brings me to the choice I alluded to at the beginning of this blog. Professor Dumbledore said, "It's not our abilities that show us what we truly are, it's our choices." Who better than a fictional character to give me advice on writing fiction? I may not be sure about my writing ability, but I am sure about my choice. 

To be a writer. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Writing Craft: I am not participating in NaNoWriMo; however, I can use the systems and processes I learned this weekend to keep going on my own. This week I'm developing a writing schedule to map out a short-term plan between now and the holidays to keep up the momentum.

Books I’m Reading:  Still really at the beginning of reading The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. 

For my final quote, Albus Dumbledore is so wise that he said something that describes the heroine of my book, Johanna: 

It's a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantel because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. 

What will you choose this week?

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