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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

Month

December 2016

An American Tourist in Ireland (2)

On Sunday, my second day in Ireland, my tour group left Dublin shortly after breakfast. We then traveled to Co. Kilkenny see the lost town of Jerpoint Park and the church of St. Nicholas.

Artist rendition of the the village; lower right hand corner shows infrared outline of the original village.
Artist rendition of the village; the lower right hand corner shows the outline of the original village.

This was a fun and unique experience, as a family owns not just the sheep farm and house (originally to be servants quarters), but the lost village itself is located on the property. The family live in what is called Belmore House, a stately home that was originally designed to be the servants’ quarters, according to our guide. But the gentleman building the house ran out of money, so the house remains as it is.

The old road that led us Belmore House actually ran through the original village of Newtown Jerpoint, population 250. There a number of pubs in this village, more than one would think could be sustained by a such a small population.

Church of St. Nicolas. In the background, to the right, is Jerpoint Abbey.

How many pubs were there in this village? Fourteen. That’s right, folks, there were fourteen pubs to satisfy the thirst of 250 villagers.

Well, actually, not just the villagers – it was designed for the many tourists that came through to visit the Church of St. Nicholas and Jerpoint Abbey. You know, people like me, who like to lollygag and take pictures and write blog posts about their experiences. Although, I am not sure there were such things as travel guides back in the day, when St. Nicholas was re-interred in the churchyard he currently resides in.

Tomb of St. Nicolas.

And who is this St. Nicholas chap, anyway? And why was this an important stop, you ask? Well, St. Nicholas is St. Nicholas of Myra and he was buried in that churchyard over 800 years ago. Allegedly brought back to Ireland by two crusaders, he has remained in the churchyard ever since. If you look carefully at the grave slab, you can see their faces inscribed on either side of St. Nicholas in the photo to the left.

It wasn’t unusual for the crusaders to bring back the remains of an alleged saint – the Normans were keen collectors of religious artifacts and brought what they found back home. Whether the items in question should have been moved in the first place is up for debate. (1)

This is St. Nicholas.

As with many other historical figures, we are lucky to have physical descriptions of them recorded in written form. Even luckier are when there are sketches or paintings made, generally from life. Most often, however, we are left with an artist’s rendition of what the written word describes.

And to the right is a very stylized rendition of what St. Nicholas may have looked like, back when he was hale and hearty, very much alive and practicing his faith among his flock and blessing those around him.

 

But thanks to the myriad paths of myth and fantasy, we have come to know him as this fellow in the photo on the left.:

So, in essence, I know where Santa Claus is buried.

 

 

 

 

(1) Given that many museums are now finding themselves in an awkward position of being in possession of artifacts that technically should not have been given to them and are making efforts to either return or make reparations, I wonder if the caretakers of St. Nicholas’ church have ever had that question put to them. I regret not asking.

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So, when I was seven years old…….

……….my dad took me and my brother to see a movie. This was not an unusual thing – he would take us to see a lot of movies as we grew up (most notably, JAWS 2 when I was 8 and my brother was 5).

This movie was different. I remember asking my dad, “Why is it called Star Wars?”

He replied, “Because it’s about a war in the stars.”

I didn’t understand that (I was 7), but I loved that movie with all my little girl heart. I loved it so much, I wanted to be in it.

So I made up stories to amuse myself. And I added myself into those adventures of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Leia Organa. I was Leia’s best friend and Han’s little sister (whether by blood or in spirit, I don’t remember).

I got two of every Leia action figure available at the time, so that my character could be on the same worlds as the others. I wrote myself into the movies and had side adventures where they joined me and my Wookie co-pilot.

Star Wars is why I started writing. Leia Organa is the template of all my female leads and the friendships they form.

Sherlock Holmes may be my first love, but Carrie Fisher was my first hero, with intelligence, wit, humor, kindness and no fucks to give.

Recommended:
Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Credit: Pacify Mind
Photo Credit: Pacify Mind

So, 2016 has been a fairly tumultuous year…..

…….and on that note, I’m going to focus on what it meant for me. There are far more articulate voices discussing the global implications of this last year, so I’ll leave it for them. I haven’t even come close to thinking about the loss of so many talented artists that I grew up listening to and how they inspired and influenced me. Reading the outpouring of love has been inspiring in and of itself. Listening to their music or reading their work or watching their performances has been a reminder that Prince and David Bowie and many others will continue to influence long after we’ve gone and turned to dust.

This post isn’t about that.

2016, for  me, was a little weird in some respects and very exciting in others. The weird aspect (and this is in a very good way) was that it resembled 1984. Not the Orwellian novel, but the year I turned 14. Return of the Jedi had come out the year before and Ghostbusters was on the horizon. I discovered another science fiction film series, seeing Star Trek III The Search for Spock seven of nine (1) showings in my local theater. I was thrilled when I discovered the TV series and the spin-offs that followed.

Following that trend, 2016 offered up a Star Trek film, a Ghostbusters film and a Star Wars film, the latter following on the heels of Episode VII. Was I a happy camper? Suffice to say, my inner 14 year old geek (nerd?) was delighted beyond words.

What was exciting about 2016?

I did a lot of traveling. I traveled to areas only a couple of hours from where I live by car, to both visit friends and to recharge. I traveled to another state to help my brother move (I came back by train, which is always a plus – trains are a great way to travel).

I fulfilled a life-long dream and traveled to Ireland, one of the many countries that my ancestors emigrated from in the nineteenth. It was a tour, starting and ending in Dublin, and I loved every minute of it. I drank more tea in a day than I’ve drunk in a month and I felt more awake and alert than I ever did with coffee. Shocking, I know, but there it is. I met some amazing people, both on the tour and among the Irish. Not surprisingly, I was asked many times if I had family in Ireland – I think I do, but I’m not sure who they are. This is a mystery I fully intend to solve over the course of the next year.

I’m feeling more secure in what I want for myself and a better vision of what I want my future to look like. I’m taking steps to follow my passion, make a plan and find a way. That’s what I know I can do, right this minute, for both the practical and the fanciful.

In a tumultuous year, making a plan and visualizing your ideal future can be the anchor you need to finally breathe.

 

(1) Star Trek Voyager reference, completely unintentional.

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So, one of the most unsettling writers of the 20th Century…..

……would have celebrated her centennial birthday last week, on December 14, had she not passed away in 1965. Cited as an important influence by Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and many others, Shirley Jackson wrote story upon story that left her readers unsettled and haunted with the ambiguity within her words.

I’ve been reading her work from an early age, most notably The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which ranks as my personal favorite of her fiction, topping We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), The Lottery (1948), and Hangsaman (1951). Her non-fiction, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages recounts life at home, her children and the various ‘adventures’ they encounter. Her deliciously dark wit and humor are in full display in those tomes, and I highly recommend reading them.

Reading her fiction is a fascinating experience – for me, I start to notice a physiological reaction to her prose. In reading Hangsaman, I felt a low level anxiety in following Natalie’s thoughts and interactions as she left home for college. There was also that sense of foreboding, the shadow of unknown dynamics at play, and feeling suffocated by Natalie’s fellow students. There is the sense that she is at the bottom of the totem pole in the social hierarchy.

Every time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I root for Eleanor to overcome her insecurities, to let go of her guilt and to embrace her newfound freedom, both from her family and from Hill House itself. I feel her anxieties and hurts and indignations as if they were my own. But the story never changes, no matter how many times I read it and wish otherwise – Eleanor’s fate is already written and acted out, before one even picks up the book.

Shirley Jackson knew how to invite one in to her stories, knew exactly how to hook and keep you in it until the last word. She allowed the story to envelope you, insinuate itself into your imagination, haunting you long after you had shut the book and put it down. Her prose is quiet and engaging, simple, yet complex.

She is, for me, one of the writers I wish most to emulate, using my own voice and skills to strike that same haunting and sparse tone.

On the year of her one hundredth birthday, I join the ranks of writers who find inspiration in her work. I continually marvel at her ability to bring the darkness of every day life into the light and the suffocating spiral of ambiguity and uncertainty infused in her characters.

 

Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Recommended:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

So, I have a deep passion for language……

……and as a writer, it would be seriously detrimental to my craft to not only not love language, but to not have a deep and abiding passion for it as well. In fact, I have such a passion for words and language, that I actually have a dictionary collection (my favorite is The International Dictionary of Theatre Language).

But I also love foreign languages and have numerous foreign language dictionaries. I am in the (very) slow process of learning French. To help with comprehension, I also have a couple of novels in French, titles that I’ve read in their original English. This way, I’m familiar with the plot and, instead of struggling to learn both the story and the language, I can focus simply on the language itself, searching for words I recognize to establish context.

To hear the language in spoken form, I have a couple of films in which French is the primary language. If possible, find books in the language you hope to learn in audio format – the more you listen, the more you can pick up how words sound and pronunciation. This is helpful, but not absolute – like English, there regional dialects and colloquialisms to take in to account, and some words may have a different meaning.

I did something similar while taking a Spanish class i college many years ago. I found poetry by Pablo Neruda that had his work in Spanish on one page and the English translation on the next page. By reading the Spanish translations out-loud to my tutor, my pronunciation and comprehension of the Spanish language grew.

Of course, I’m a little rusty, but the thing about learning something, even a little bit, is that you don’t really forget it. With practice, you can awaken that muscle and get it back in shape in no time. The thought that kept me going in learning a foreign language by reading a novel I already knew was this – if reading can help us with comprehension and pronunciation in our native language, then surely it can apply to learning a foreign one.

 

A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.
A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.

Recommended:
The Essential Neruda by Pablo Neruda
Le Crime de L’Orient Express (Murder on the Orient Express – French translation) by Agatha Christie
Ca (IT) (French translation audio) by Stephen King

So, I began writing at a very young age……

……..a practice that I’m continuing to do even now, many years later. In a previous blog, I mentioned that, upon seeing Star Wars: A New Hope at age 7, I had become so enamored of that universe that I wanted to become a part of it. So I wrote myself into it.

This is commonly known as ‘fan-fiction’, a term I didn’t learn until many years later, but even then, I didn’t equate my scribbles with what others were doing. The stories I wrote myself into were for my eyes only, ranging from favorite books to TV shows as well as movies. It was how I learned to develop characters and plot and world building.

Upon discovering creative writing classes, I enrolled as fast as I could, wanting to better my voice and skills. Sometimes, these classes provided exactly what I sought; sometimes, they didn’t. It’s also how I feel about writing groups – the few that I’d attended seemed to provide a great deal of support for many of the people I met there, but I often felt dissatisfied and not given a safe platform to discuss my work.

This is not to say that classes and groups aren’t beneficial – they are, you just have to keep searching until you find one that not only suits your writing needs, but offers a supportive and secure environment. And you may even come to the conclusion that writing groups are not for you, which is fine, especially if writing is for your eyes only. If you want to take your writing a step further and need objective criticism and feedback, a group of fellow writers is a good place to start, thus the importance of finding the right group.

While I’m blessed to live in a highly creative community, the writing groups I’ve attended did not suit my needs. I found myself wanting to be at home and writing rather than participate in any of the exercises provided (1). My creative impulse demanded my attention, pushing me to dive back into my story and immerse myself in its world and characters.

I’m feeling that itch now, as I write this post, to pick up my pen and follow the tale as it winds itself towards its conclusion. To disappear completely within that world, like I did when I was young and exploring the galaxy aboard the Enterprise or learning the ways of the Force with Yoda and Ben Kenobi.

For me, writing is a bit like deep sea diving and archaeology mixed together. Just as you would submerge yourself into the water, I do the same by submerging myself into the psyche of various characters and their world. As one would unearth clues to an ancient civilization’s past as an archaeologist, so do I when finding more details and questions as I write.

As a kid, upon wanting to be a part of the Star Wars universe, I spent hours writing in a white heat. As an adult, it is my job and responsibility to tap into that white heat and bring that focus back to my writing. Each project is like learning how to write all over again, because each one has its own challenges and demands.

More and more, I’m remembering that young me, the one who was so enchanted with the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia Organa. That energy and passion is what I need to bring to every story I sit down to write.

That itch to write is reminding me to do that every day.

*****

(1) This is my experience with groups and is not going to be reflective of yours.

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So, I’ve been pondering the word ‘can’t’……

…….and it is the most limiting thing to say, either to yourself or to someone else. ‘Can’t’ implies that you are not capable – of changing a tire, of getting a degree, of looking at situations in a different light. ‘Can’t’ implies that you are stuck forever in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. ‘Can’t’ implies that you are victim not of your own making and absolves you of the responsibility for changing it.

One can certainly say, “I can’t practice medicine because I don’t have the required education or degrees” or “I can’t inspect buildings to make sure they’re built to code because I’m not licensed to do so”. Fair enough. Those are legitimate ‘can’ts’ and can apply to areas that require one to be licensed or have a degree in order to find work in those fields.

So then the phrase becomes “I want to….” not, “I can’t do….”.

Let’s take masonry inspector, for example. I actually studied this for awhile and still have the books. I wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a masonry inspector, but it sounded like something I could do and since I didn’t have any real drive to pursue anything else, I chose to explore this as a possible career choice.

I didn’t fare so well – the architectural plan reading wasn’t easy and that’s an important part of being an inspector. You need to be able to decipher the lines on those plans – where the pipes are, what type of re-bar goes where, etc., otherwise, you end up with a building that’s not only lopsided, but unsafe and frankly, I want every building or structure that people live or work in to be safe.

It was a good lesson to learn, taking that class and paying for the books. Yes, it cost me the tuition fees and the books, but I feel that the investment was worth it, regardless of the outcome. Sometimes, that’s how it works – you invest some time and effort to see if it’s what you want for yourself. That’s always the best reason to do anything – exploring possible paths to better yourself, your circumstances, your life, your mind.

However, the only way to take that first step of exploration – of any positive change – is to say to yourself “I can do that.” Curiosity, desire, that insatiable want to see beyond the curve in the path, is what keeps you pushing forward.

“I can’t…..” locks you into a treadmill of fear and insecurity.

“I can…..” opens you up to every possibility.

As Henry Ford (1863-1937) once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

Wouldn’t you rather be right knowing you can?

 

Recommended*:
My Life and Work by Henry Ford
How to Stop Worrying & Start Living by Dale Carnegie
Around the World in 72 Days & Other Writings by Nellie Bly

*to be updated with related material.

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