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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Evening thoughts (6)

1. I think I need glasses.

2. ^^^ I’m kind of bummed about that, because so far, I’m the only one in the family that hasn’t needed to wear them.

3. ^^^ Seriously, I’ll be the last one in the family to start wearing glasses. I’m the sole holdout

4. So far, reading glasses have helped, especially with working on the computer.

5. ^^^ Although I’m beginning to suspect that using them while writing in longhand is going to be useful, as well.

My reading glasses.
Note the rather large safety pin.
Sigh.

6. If I’m gonna wear glasses, then by golly, I’m gonna embrace the hell out of it.

7. I’ve been wearing the reading glasses that I’d bought when I got cast in The Mousetrap a couple of years ago.

8. It lost a screw the other day, so now it’s being held together by a rather large safety pin.

9. I am resourceful.

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Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (2017)

From Amazon’s book description:

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by political oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

I picked this book up about a week ago, primarily because I’d read Kostova’s The Historian years earlier and fell in love with the world she evoked.  Also, Vlad Tsepes (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and terrifying historical leader) was the driving focus of the story.  Kostova’s voice is rich, intelligent and literary, but she never talks down to her audience.  Rather, she invites us in with simple human concerns that we all share – letters, lost luggage, art. Upon accepting that invitation, we stumble into a world that is both familiar and alien.

The Shadow Land is another such invitation.  Set in Bulgaria, both during the aftermath of World War II and the (recent) present, I wasn’t sure what to expect, beyond the book description.  But I remembered The Historian and how much I loved that book, so I was more than willing to give this one a chance.

I.  Could.  Not.  Put.  It.  Down.

Every chance I could, when I wasn’t at work, or working on my own projects or learning French or being out with my horses or friends, I was curled up with this book.  I tuned out this world that I live in and poured myself into this story.  As a voracious reader with a habit of re-reading favorite titles, this one is definitely in for a re-read.  I’m sure there are details that I missed on the first go round.

That said, I do have a minor quibble – the romance between Alexandra Boyd and a character barely seen, but highly romanticized in daydreams by Alexandra, seems idealized.  It does not feel based on real feelings or real interactions – I actually found her relationship with Bobby, her taxi driver, to be far more interesting and intimate than what actually occurred.

Overall, however, it is a minor quibble, it is my quibble and I intend to push this book on anyone who will listen.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Shadow Land                        by Elizabeth Kostova

So, a year ago on this date, I was in Ireland…..

…….and I have to say, it’s hard to believe it’s been a year.

It feels like it just happened.  It also feels like it happened more than a year ago.

I plan to go back, there’s so much more to see than just taking a tour over the course of a week and cramming so much activity into a day.

Maybe not during high holy days, like Good Friday, but for sure I plan to take longer than eight days and seven nights to enjoy my stay.  I slept better in Ireland than I have at any other time in my life.  I ate breakfast at 7 AM.  I never eat breakfast until about 9 or 10.  Sometimes I just forget about it altogether.  Boy, did I eat while I was over there.  Once back in the states, I was back to my regular schedule.

But I never stopped thinking about Ireland.

I have to go back.  My soul belongs there.  So does my heart.  I have family there – I have no idea who they are and they have no idea of who I am.  But I want to know them.

Plus, you know, Guinness beer tastes better over there.

Irish countryside.

So, I’m re-watching Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)…….

…….starring Diane Lane as writer Frances Mayes. I hadn’t seen it in a long while (like maybe a year? Two years?) and, given the mood I’m in, it seemed like a great idea to pop this in the DVD player. I remember at the time it came out, I’d been invited to go down to Los Angeles to see an original play written and starring some friends of mine. So, I went with a large group in a chartered bus.

Sitting behind me on that bus were two women, significantly older than I, discussing the film and expressing disgust that Frances (Lane) couldn’t be complete until she had a man. I was tempted to turn around in my seat to disagree and explain why. I didn’t, much to my regret, so here I am, writing what would have been my response.

Frances the film character begins the story a happily married woman – or so she believes. As it turns out, she isn’t – her husband leaves her. Her friends, Patti (Sandra Oh) and her partner Grace (Kate Walsh) want to cheer her up by sending her off on a gay tour of Tuscany. They are unable to go due to Patti being pregnant after many attempts.

On this tour, Frances finds a crumbling and charming house that physically resembles her emotional state. It has such a resonating impact on her, that she takes her suitcase and leaves the tour to explore it. The first time she enters the house, she bumps her arm on a water spigot that doesn’t give water when turned on. She will continually ponder that spigot throughout the film, curious about its purpose and also due to the bruise it gave her.

On impulse, Frances buys the house and that simple action changes her life.

Not long after a severe thunder storm, Frances experiences a “What the hell did I just do? What was I thinking?” moment. She confesses to Martini, the Italian real estate agent who sold her the house, that she feels she made a huge error in purchasing the property, that there should be a wedding and a large family in that house, not a single woman running and hiding from her hurt. However, she cannot undo what she had done, so she perseveres and hires a renovation crew, one of whom eventually becomes like a younger brother to her.

As renovations begin and parts of the house is restored, Frances finds herself surrounded by new friends and an almost-family. She prepares huge feasts at a large table where all of them sit, laughing, talking, listening. She has even begun writing again, presumably detailing the events that had occurred. At the end of the renovations, just prior to the workers unveiling a gift to her, Frances discovers that the spigot is dripping. And after Frances meets the real love of her life and just before the film ends, the spigot is gushing water and Frances is standing in the middle of it, laughing.

Why am I focusing on that? Because Frances and the house were connected. Why am I giving you a semi-recap of the film? I wanted to make sure we were all up to speed and on the same page without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Where does my disagreement with the ladies’ disparaging assessment of the film come in?

Right here.

If you are familiar with Carl Jung (and even if you’re not, that’s okay), he expressed the idea that when one dreams of a house, one is dreaming of oneself. His theory about dreams is that everything we dream is an aspect of ourselves. If you dream of a house, each room represents an aspect of your personality, the attic is your higher consciousness and the basement is your subconscious. The condition of the house and the state of the rooms represent your health, either physically or emotionally.

Water is another symbol, of both the subconscious and of life itself. The house is dry, blocked from what is essential in order to survive. Frances herself is also blocked – rather than work on her own book, she reviews and edits the works of other people (1). As she gets to know the house, to make it her own while keeping its charm and character, both begin to come back to life, to feel cared for (2).

When Frances begins writing her own work again, she is freeing herself from her own emotional restraints. In other words, she is coming back to life and the house emphasizes this change in her by releasing water in drips from the old spigot in the wall.

By the end of the film, she and the house are not only home to her best friend Patty (Oh) and her daughter, but are hosts to a wedding. It is at this point that her friend, real estate agent Martini recalls their conversation from earlier in the film

Frances: What are you thinking?
Martini: What do I think?
Frances: Tell me.
Martini: I think you got your wish.
Frances: My wish?
Martini: On that day we looked for the snake, you said there wanted there to be a wedding here. And you said… you wanted there to be a family here.
Frances: You’re right… I got my wish. I got everything I asked for.

She realizes that he is right, that she has everything she wants – her life is full of friends, of love, of finding herself again after a traumatic experience. She lacks for nothing and she has stopped looking for things outside herself because she has found it within – by working on her house, being there for her friends, writing her book, being active in her new community. And here’s another symbol for you to ponder – working on and renovating her ‘new’ old home was a physical manifestation of Frances rebuilding her interior self.

She doesn’t need anyone to complete her because she’s already complete. Whether she understood it or not, Frances Mayes went on a journey to heal herself. By the end of the film, she had arrived back at herself – she became her truest, most authentic self, the same self she was before her hurts, but now older, wiser, stronger. There’s a reason why the true love of her life is given only five minutes of screen time, a handful of lines and is placed at the very end of the film.

His arrival is not important – hers is.

I suppose my disagreement with the two women on the bus boils down to this – their take away from the film was that Frances couldn’t be truly happy unless she had a man. What they didn’t see was that she was already happy, that she had been finding her happiness in herself and her projects and the people around her.

Regardless of the external circumstances, if you have joy in your life, you are complete. The only person who can take that away from you is you.

That is what Frances learned. And that’s why she was full and complete and ready for what life handed her.

tuscany

Recommended:
Under the Tuscan Sun (novel) by Frances Mayes (3)
Under the Tuscan Sun (film)
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

******
(1) That is something I’m familiar with – rather than work on my novel or work on my lines for a play I’m in, I’m writing my blog. It’s still writing and being creative, but…. it’s not the same.

(2) Not to anthropomorphize the house, but if you take care of your home, it takes care of you.

(3) The book came out in 1996 and differs from the 2003 film in many ways, but it is fun read and you will get something out of it.

 

So, this little mystery of mine…..

……seems to have evolved into a quest. Quests mean travel, which requires planning and budgeting. Now that I’m back from Ireland, getting a sense of the country my great-great grandparents had emigrated from, the time has come to map out my next move.

This means, of course, I have to re-think my approach to this wonderfully tangled puzzle.

In other words, what would Sherlock Holmes do?

Very simply, he would take what verified facts he had, categorize the ephemeral ones in order of importance before either eliminating or verifying them, then follow the threads on a chase to see what resulted. Whatever remains, he believed (as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote), no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

The game is afoot!

With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.
With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.

So, it seems I have a mystery on my hands……

……about my great-grandfather, his three (yes, three) different birth years, the lack of a birth certificate from the state he was (allegedly) born in or any record of his parents in the same area. What information I have at hand comes from his diaries (beginning in 1902 and skipping to 1912), a death certificate, family lore and some historical references (my great-grandfather was something of a mover and a shaker in his day). Everything prior to 1900 is obscured in the shadows of time, lack of personal diaries and any connections to his siblings. I don’t even know their descendants or when my great-great-grandparents died or even where they are buried.

The information, as I’ve mentioned in another blog post, is sketchy at best. I have a death certificate for my great-grandfather (to be referred to as E.J. from now on), which has his parents names and general location of where they were born. I have good pieces of information, but I’m unable to fit them together and make a complete picture of the man who was such a strong influence in local events. He died years before I was born, so I have no memory of him, but his diaries make it clear that I would have enjoyed his dry wit.

He left home at a young age and for all intents and purposes, it seems he never looked back. He didn’t forget his past, but he didn’t seem to dwell on it, either. A lesson, I suppose, we should all embrace. But I want to know him, to know his history, his parents, his siblings. I’m very lucky – I know where most branches of my family came from, who they were and where they’ve been.

E.J. is an enigma, a mystery, a man who came out of the mists, almost as if he was born the day he left home and moved west.

I have a mystery on my hands. I have few leads and they only seem to lead to more mysteries. It is time to put on my deerstalker cap and think like the man who literally invented the forensic sciences over a century ago with the creation of the world’s most famous fictional detective.

It’s time to ask myself “What would Sherlock do?” and use his methods of elimination to find my answers.

Because what will be left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

So, when starting a project……

……..it’s usually from point A to point B and all the way down to Z. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, the culmination of the vision that inspired you to do the project in the first place. It can be creative, it can be a meal, it can be a paper for a class – the thing is, there’s a place where you clearly have a start point to jump from. But often, there doesn’t seem to be a clear point of departure, so the only thing to do is to jump right into the middle of things and start swimming in any direction.

This is what I’m doing as I research my great-grandfather’s history and that of his parents, who emigrated from Ireland shortly after the Great Hunger. The logical thing to do would have been to start with his papers, which are currently archived in another state at a historical center (he was something of a local bigwig in his day, serving as a lawyer, a justice and being part of the energy development). The next step after that would have been to then go to the state he had been born in, see the cemetery his parents and siblings had been buried in and look into local records. The third step, after having gained all pertinent material (birth dates, wedding dates, city and/or parish names), would have been a trip to Ireland and tracing the rest of the family from there.

Being that I have a somewhat impatient nature to get things started, I jumped right into the thick of it – I began with Step Three. I talked to a lot of people once I landed in Ireland – my driver, the tour guides – and they were very keen on helping me find the next step. I had a lot of pieces, they assured me, but they didn’t seem to connect together. The thing to do is to start back at the beginning and find those missing pieces, if, indeed, they can be found.

That I even know where to go to start my search is a big plus. I was kind of hoping to avoid going to another state to do this, but in my original plan, I knew that I would eventually have to do so. Still, the rewards will greatly outweigh my reluctance to go and that is the ultimate goal – finding my ancestral family and knowing more about who I am in the process.

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