Fling!

Have you ever experienced this quote?

We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken. 
-Fyodor Dostoevsky

Have you ever met anyone like that? A stranger in which you have a sudden connection?

So often the perfect person, the exact connection you need, unfathomably and with pinpointed timing, shows up just when you need them. 

Perhaps a person you love?

Dostoevsky’s quote caught my attention just as I was finishing the novel, Mikhail and Margarita, by Julie Lekstrom Himes. The love story begins in the spring of 1936 in Russia. Based on the Russian literary legend Mikhail Bulgakov (who wrote the satirical novel, The Master and Margarita, critical of Stalin’s regime) the author brings to life the elegant, outspoken Margarita. We get to know her against the backdrop of the rapid, savage expansion of Stalin’s police state. As I read, the country’s rich legacy of literature and free thought begins to cower and falter as writers are arrested and tortured, and a systemic campaign to wipe out dissent spreads the reach of Stalin’s totalitarian regime.

It is a shivery threat. Against this backdrop Himes creates a tense three-pronged love story of Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov and a third dangerous, fixtionalized connection — an official from Stalin’s domestic security force, Ilya Ivanovitch, who falls for Margarita. Within this historical fiction cowardice, betrayal, loyalty and passion jostle against each other. 

And love at first sight. 

Love that’s urgent; love that impels crazy action.

It’s one thing to read fiction; it’s another to know of a true impetuous love story. Let me tell you this brief story about a Russian woman I knew named Marina. You’ll see why I remembered it.

When I knew Marina (“Mrs. Bliss”) she was a lovely Russian and French college professor, an acquaintance of my parents and regular attendee at our church. But her story begins as a teenager. 

Marina is Russian but she was born and raised in Harbin, Manchuria. In 1931, while in her teenage years, the Japanese invaded Manchuria. In just a matter of days, the Kwantung Army swept into Manchuria and captured every city along the 730-mile length of the South Manchurian Railway. Located in the far northeast corner of Manchuria, Harbin bore the brunt of the Japanese’s initial attack, one of the first cities captured in the campaign. It became a major operations base for Japanese troops invading China and is infamous for its horrors of human medical experimentation and development of biological and chemical warfare, 

Amidst this chaos Marina’s family fled.

For the next several years, shuttled from one home to another in Russia, Marina feels homeless and cut off from the only place she’d known as home. She is young, longing to move forward with her life but her family is constantly uprooted. Russia is increasingly unsafe. Tension is building in the country as Stalin and Leningrad loyalists clash and the Communist party begins to hold “trials” against its opponents. “Home” is insecure and frightening.

Then Marina gets a break: She receives an invitation to travel to the United States. Her older sister, who had married an American, is sadly a new widow and writes asking for Marina’s companionship.  So, it’s in the late 1930’s that Marina travels to Janesville, Wisconsin.

What a contrast Janesville must have seemed to Marina. A thriving city in the 1930s with a General Motors plant and headquarters for the Parker Pen Company, a leading manufacturer of luxury pens. Marina quickly settles in with her sister and finds a secure job as a secretary at Parker Pen. She begins to trust that life can be lived in safety. Gradually her life settles and lulls into predictable and happy routine.

Suddenly, her peace is interrupted. A slip-up in paperwork brings her illegal status to the attention of immigrant authorities. Abruptly, she is arrested and deported to Canada. But now she is not the same cowed Marina who first arrived in the States. Undeterred she waits a few months and then slips back over the border to rejoin her sister just in time for the holidays.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1940. That evening Marina’s sister is visited by her late husband’s brother, John, who brings along a friend, Donald Bliss. Marina and Donald instantly feel a connection. Seven days later, on New Year’s Eve, Donald proposes to Marina. On January 11 they are married. 

It took two weeks’ time. Two weeks for them to make a commitment that proved to last for decades, until “death do us part.” Even as her former homes in Manchuria and Russia were being closed off, a way was opening up for Marina to find a new home and life with a perfect stranger. 

As a young girl, I always loved this story of overnight love. As a writer, it’s stories like these that I believe historical fiction can bring to life. This is the genre of a book I’d like to write someday. 

Update to steps on exploring writing a book
Writing 30 minutes/day: Today is Day 85! Closing in on 100 days in a row. The 30-minute routine is beginning to establish a habit of writing and I’m grateful.

Starting connections into the St. Louis writing community:  One of my goals is to begin to network with other professional writers. To begin, this week I’m reaching out to Angela Mitchell, Director of the St Louis Writers Workshop. I attended a creative writing workshop she conducted a year ago. My second contact is Denise Pattiz Bogard, who wrote The Middle Step, a story about St. Louis’ turbulent north side, and also has lots of resources for writers on her website. 

Let me end with another Dostoevsky quote:
 

Don’t be overwise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid - the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.

Time to fling!

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Rescue

I love this: 

She rescued me. I'd be playing a steak house right now if it wasn't for her. I wouldn't even be playing in a steak house. I'd be cooking in a steak house.
-Tom Waits, on his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan

It's a terrific statement about the people that come into our lives at uncanny intersections at just the right time.

People who rescue us.

His quote connects to a story I wanted to share in today's blog: A little-known rescue between two friends in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1800's.

The first friend is a name you know, Abraham Lincoln. But the second friend is not a household name.

I read about Abraham Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed from a book about secret sidekicks in history. It was in April 1837 that Joshua met Abraham when he came into Speed's country store looking for bedroom items - a bed, mattress, sheet and pillow. Speed described 28-year-old Lincoln as "ungainly...a little stooped in the shoulders. His eyes were gray. His face and forehead were wrinkled...Generally, he was a very sad man."

Speed learned why Lincoln was depressed. Lincoln admitted that he was just starting out as a lawyer and had no confidence that he'd be successful. The $17 bill for the bedroom items could be too much. "If I fail in this," Lincoln said, "I do not know if I can ever repay you." "You seem to be so much pained at contracting so small a debt," said Speed, and offered Lincoln another idea: Instead, become his roommate, a common practice for men at that time. Lincoln accepted.

And so began nearly three decades of friendship. That first winter together Lincoln hosted groups of 8-10 people to Speed's house every night for long conversations on a variety of topics. Later, Speed would recall that Lincoln would have conversations with anyone "without distinction of party," inviting debate and discussion from several viewpoints. A few years later, it was Speed that stood by Lincoln's side when he fell into a deep depression upon ending his engagement with Mary Todd. Speed removed razors and knives from Lincoln's room. He told his friend to pull himself together or he would die. Lincoln replied, he wouldn't mind dying if he had done anything that he would be remembered for. 

Speed remained an advisor and friend to Lincoln through the run-up to the Civil War and during it. Although he turned down various Cabinet positions, Speed visited the Lincoln often. In fact, on one visit he attended a meeting Lincoln had with two mothers from Pennsylvania, petitioning for the release of their sons, who were in prison for avoiding the draft. According to Speed the women were unkind to Lincoln, but at the end of the meeting Lincoln announced he would pardon all 27 draft dodgers even though the decision was against the counsel of his Secretary of War.  The women left, jubilant, and Lincoln confided to Speed that he believed one of the women was a fraud and actually the wife of one of the prisoners. Nevertheless, "Those poor fellows suffered enough, " Lincoln said. 

It was the last time Speed saw Lincoln for two weeks later he was assassinated.

Without Speed, would Lincoln have been able to become one of our greatest US Presidents? Would Lincoln have overcome his insecurity as a lawyer? Been able to hold late-night meetings to understand the people he would later represent? Would Lincoln have died heartbroken over his broken engagement? Without his friend Speed -- with him in so many hours of need -- would Lincoln have been in place to lead us out of the Civil War?

This connection between the two friends does not seem accidental. 

This story caught my imagination because it aligns with my mission statement: In everything I do I believe in pushing against limitations. In everything I do I believe in finding connection.

We have a connection and I'm grateful for it!

Update to steps on exploring writing a book
Writing 30 minutes/day: Today is Day 78! Last week I failed miserably in my idea to write in the mornings but still got the sessions in, mostly at night.

Read similar authors:  Still reading Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes. I'm midway through a gripping plot that's moving into a dangerous love triangle. 

Reading a not-similar author: Every now and then I pick up a slim volume, Essays After Eighty, by poet and prose writer Donald Hall. Hall's work has nothing to do with my quest to write a book and today he gave me my excuse. This morning I read this, "...before Yeats went to sleep every night he read an American Western. When Eliot was done with peotry and editing, he read a mystery book. Everyone who concentrates all day, in the evening needs to let the half-wit out for a walk. Sometimes it is Zane Grey, sometimes Agatha Christie, sometimes [watching] the Red Sox." Ha!

Let me close with this lyric about rescuing others from one of Tom Waits' songs: 

Oh, you got to hold on, hold on
You gotta hold on
Take my hand, I'm standing right here, you gotta hold on

Chorus from "Hold On"

I'm standing right here too...have a wonderful week!

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Revolution

Tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women. Tenderness is not weakness, it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humanity.
-Pope Francis

I like this quote because of how Pope Francis equates tenderness with fortitude. He has been sharing a message about the “revolution of tenderness” for a few years now, especially toward refugees but also toward all people encountering hardship, and in response to the vitriol of current political word wars. 

“Tenderness" gives me a nice segue to Mother’s Day. Our two gorgeous kids (and their delightful, significant partners) took us out of our routine over the past two weekends with in-person visits. We went to Flagstaff to see Eric and Angie last week; Cristina and Jay made the 4-hour drive from Kansas City for Mother’s Day. Juan made us a quiche and jalapeño-bacon brunch, which enticed my Mom to come over too. 

You can see why my cup runneth over. (And why this blog is much shorter this week!)

Update to steps on exploring writing a book
Writing 30 minutes/day: Today is Day 71. It’s a good stretch but I am finding that writing at night yields little worth saving. This next week I’m making a concerted effort to write in the morning to see if there’s a difference,

Finding comps: One of the assignments of the mastermind creative class I’m taking is to identify recently published authors who may be similar to the book I’d like to write. The comparative writers I’ve chosen so far: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, The Woman on the Orient Express by Lindsay Jayne Ashford, The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff, The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, and America’s First Daughterby Stephanie Dray. It’s like following a bunny trail to try to do this research on Amazon where I look up reviews of “recommended books." In general, this list is all historical fiction with female protagonists. 

Read similar authors:  I’m also reading books that I think could be similar to the genre I’m interested in. This week it’s a fascinating novel about Russian writers during Stalin’s regime, Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes. The context for its betrayal, censorship and love is new to me and takes place during the oppressive systemic intensity and pressure the artistic community lived under at that time. 

This leads me to a final idea from a character that at first appeared intense and scary, but later proved otherwise:

The bravest are the most tender; the loving are the daring.

Bayard Taylor, author of Beauty and the Beast

May you be beastly this week!

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