35 – Is Marrying Absurd?

An unpublished essay.

Photo: CW

The night before our wedding my fiance and I sat bed with glasses of wine and I read aloud Joan Didion’s essay ‘Marrying Absurd’. I am always rapt by her diamond-cutter prose. Chris was not. He stared at me in the silence after the final sentences, wide eyes asking: What are you trying to say?

“Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, ‘as I hoped and dreamed it would be.'”

His wide, wary eyes signaled perfect comprehension. He knew I was using Didion to ask the question I couldn’t. Are we doing the right thing?

On our first date we went to a Mexican restaurant with orange walls, purple tables, and a crowd of drunk Santas in running shoes. We both ordered vegan mole, looked at each other and said, “You too?” Two margaritas on the rocks, salt for me. My body was strange. No crackle-and-static of attraction but expansive euphoria, as if every electron in my blood had leapt an orbital, opening me from the inside out. I’d never seen such eyes: a coruscating handful of sapphire chips.

I lived in Spain at the time; he lived in Memphis. For the next few months we found ways to meet in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Rome. We hoarded time together, constructed intimacy from daubs of conversation and torrents of text. At the end of the year, inevitable as a rock rolling down a cliff, I moved to Memphis. One night we sat in bed, where we conduct most of our powwows. He was adding me to his car insurance. When it came to the Relationship blank he looked up: “Fiancee?”

Sure, I said, why not.

A couple of weeks later, for my birthday, we rented a cabin in Arkansas. It was too cold to sit on the porch swing and watch the stars blaze so we sat on padded vinyl dining room chairs to eat rice and beans washed down with red wine.

“Are we really going to get married?” I asked.

“Do you want to?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Why marry? We don’t want children and I won’t take his name. Our bank accounts and tax returns will stay separate. We don’t believe in God, monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage.

Yet by our second date I wanted to marry him. Not just be with him. Not just be his girlfriend/partner/significant other. I wanted to be his wife, with all the weight that word carries; wanted him to be my husband. Not because those words are a talisman against conflict or even heartbreak – everyone knows they aren’t – but because marriage (however devalued, degraded, or deflated) is our culture’s apotheosis of commitment. Like the Supreme Court, it is fluid and fallible, but still the last word.

Wanting to be married, though, and marrying are as different as climbing the ladder to the high dive and jumping off.

Photo: CW

Chris and I were in down town Las Vegas just after Christmas. We drove past wedding chapels that caught Didion’s gimlet eye fifty years ago, parked in a cavernous underground lot, surfaced at Best Buy and wove through steel drummers, midget Elvis impersonators, and bikini-clad girls dancing away the cold on Fremont East. “We could get married in Vegas,” we teased, testing each other. Instead, we found a Mexican bar and drank jalapeno margaritas. Not wanting to marry in Vegas had something to do with the vision of Joan dancing in my head. But she wasn’t writing about Las Vegas eo ipso. It was journalistic shorthand for dangerous impulsiveness, failure of decorum, fractured social mores.

Didion’s specific grievance with Las Vegas was that its wedding chapels were “merchandising ‘niceness,’ the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it… how to do it ‘right’.” Inverted commas notwithstanding, she suggests that parents, at least some parents, know how to do it right.

Believing that must help. Children of happy homes can borrow courage. Skin puckering in the chill, toes hooked on the beef-tongue surface of the diving board, they can at least look down on faces that made the leap and emerged smiling.

Those of us with no family account of goodness or goodwill stand alone. Poised on the proverbial edge, we can only count the mistakes, comic and awful. My mother hooked up with my (still married) father while pregnant with another man’s child. Chris’s mom married and divorced three times, one on either side of his dad. In fact, his parents’ marriage was annulled by Papal pronouncement which makes Chris, technically, a bastard. The second time around, his dad went for a straightforward decree from the State of Arkansas. My dad’s second divorce was in Alaska; the first who knows where.

Then there’s our previous marriages. Mine ended with a gentle parting from a friend who happened to be my husband. His came with the sting of surprise: an email with legal papers and a note to say his stuff was in storage.

Nine divorces altogether. Worn notes of anger, betrayal, and disappointment bundled and stashed like junk bonds. We’d be fools to not wonder if we’re being foolish.

And.

Every card Didion played as a damning signifier of what it meant “to be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada” in 1967 – well – Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee will see and raise in 2017. Like Vegas, Memphis “demands no premarital blood test nor waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license.” Unless the celebrant is 17 or under, in which case Shelby County imposes a three day wait. In other regards this Delta city is as careless in love as any neon-spangled desert oasis.

Photo: CW

Want to cut down on the ten minutes it takes to apply in person? Fill in the online form then collect the license at the county clerk’s office.

Previous marriage, or a few? No problem. Choose a number between one and thirty-one on the drop-down menu. It will ask for the date of your divorce(s) but don’t worry if you don’t remember. Neither clerk nor judge will request any proof of dissolution.

Once you receive a license you have 30 days to marry.

Chris and I took forty-eight hours.

“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas… are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”

We married at 12:30 on Thursday the 9th in Room 226 of Shelby County Courthouse. Before us went a group that fit Didion’s description of “actual wedding parties… The bride in a veil and white satin pumps.” What would she make of my well-worn silk dress, fishnet stockings and vintage heels? Chris’s charcoal Merino sweater and Doc Martin Chelsea boots?

The judge twinkled and swished in his black satin robe. Potted plants with thick stems and dark, glossy leaves lined the window, tinting the bright, thin February light semitropical green. Beyond, a wind-scrubbed blue sky. I held Chris’s hand, bracing myself for a spasm of doubt that never came. My spine stretched like a tether drawn tight between my buoyant heart and the anchor of his touch. Tears softened the blaze of his cobalt eyes.

My name echoed like foreignly in my ear as I repeated the vows, but my tongue didn’t fumble.

“Will you love, honor and cherish… till death do you part?”

“I will.”

Walking to the car I found a way to hold my handbag so the wind didn’t froth my skirt. There were still forty-five minutes on the meter. “We should do something,” my husband said. So we went to our favorite taco spot for Prosecco and black-eyed pea hummus with corn chips.

‘Marrying Absurd’ appears in Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its eponymous centerpiece opens with this report: “The center was not holding…. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together.”

Photo: CW

Chris was born in Arkadelphia and lived in Salt Lake City as a baby. He was raised in Little Rock, branched out to Baltimore, bought and sold houses in Moline, Charlotte and Memphis, all while travelling 200-plus days a year. I lived at dozens of addresses in four countries by the time I was thirty. We live out of suitcases and send mail “care/of”. Movement is a choice, a manifestation of our mistrust in the games that are supposed to hold society together. Marriage is not, appearances notwithstanding, a contradictory choice. We’ve studied and sifted the claims of religion, society, and status quo. We spent long, separate years learning who we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do. So we can take from ritual as much as has meaning to us, and leave the rest without regret.

Marrying is absurd. So are all acts of courage. For those of us whose accumulated experience of marriage veers from farce to disaster, to marry is to stake a claim to our own lives. Marriage is precious to us because we know how easy it is to fail, to fall apart. For us, to marry is a refusal to be defined by the past. It is a pledge to believe the best of one another. To say we’ll try again, no matter. To love again, love better.

34 – Cat Fishing

Sometimes I write poetry about my cat.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Loop the string through the

rungs of the chair back so

its

frayed end

dangles, inviting.

Twitch the line to

shimmy-shimmy-shake in

her peripheral vision.

Watch the slant green eyes

slide over her prey, the

diminutive inky paws unfurl

ivory knives.

Strike!

33 – Married Folk Blues

This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.

Photo by Hannah Dean on Unsplash

Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.

Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.

He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.

Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.

Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.

Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.

“Please, Shooter, come on. Please.”

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31 – Fake Writing Gurus

This originally appeared on Medium. It’s a subject close to my heart.

There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.

Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.

Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.

These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —

1. Do non-writers read their books?

This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.

When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.

2. Do they tell you how much they earn?

The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.

Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.

3. Do they promise you a secret formula?

Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.

This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.

If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.

4. Do they try to up-sell you?

A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.

The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!

The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.

5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?

Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.

Never mind that writer’s median income has dropped by 42 percent since 2009, according to the New York Times, and that royalties and advances are down by 30 percent in that period. Or that more than 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S. since 2004. Or that magazines like GlamourRedbook, Cooking Light and ComputerWorld ceased print publication in 2018.

Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.

Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.

The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.

Where to find the real thing

Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.

Sites like Funds for Writers and Freedom with Writing are a great way to learn about contests, publishers and grants.If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.


My favorite books on writing include:

  • Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
  • Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
  • Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
  • On Writing Well — William Zinsser
  • Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin

For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.

Seek the positive

Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.

A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.

“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”

28 – The Stowaway’s Secret

In 2009 I took a shot at writing a children’s mystery of the sort I grew up on (Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, etc). Revisiting it, I was as much in thrall to J.D. Salinger as to Carolyn Keene. It remains unfinished but I’m open to offers 😉

Intro

Benjamin Riddle-Smith wasn’t happy. His summer had started badly, and right now it was sunk deep in the doldrums. I feel like this stupid yacht, he thought, staring across the deck from his lounge chair, stuck here boiling under the sun and never getting anywhere. Benjamin’s face folded down into a deep frown as he remembered the events of the final few days of school, which had cost him his freedom this summer.

Despite their looming eleven-plus exams he and his best friend Tod had been having a jolly time. They were both sport mad, and spent every spare moment climbing, swimming, and playing rugby or tennis. That wasn’t a problem until their housemaster decided on long, boring mandatory study sessions in preparation for their eleven-pluses.

Tod and Benjamin had never seen eye to eye with the headmaster on the subject of studying versus sport, so they shouldn’t have really been surprised when he took a dim view of them sneaking out to play games during library hour. The more Mr. Hawkins watched them, the harder they tried to get around his rules, until one night they executed a daring free climb right up the stone and ivy façade of Ashford House.

Worst of all, they made it cleanly to the second floor, and were only feet from the safety of their shared room when their prank was discovered. They were at the room next door, to be precise, and Thomas Smyth’s shriek of surprise as they tumbled through his open window had woken most of the corridor. Mr. Hawkins would have dearly loved to see the two mischief makers gone for good. But luckily Benjamin’s father Alfred Riddle was an extremely wealthy and persuasive man, and Tod’s nearest relative was his elderly uncle – a close friend of the queen’s.

There had been a lot of fuss about it, but in the end the real punishment didn’t come from grumpy Mr. Hawkins but from Benjamin’s parents who agreed that instead of spending the summer with his mother in Switzerland he would spend it with his father on his yacht, the Icarus. It was a huge, triple deck floating palace, packed with gadgets, and Benjamin enjoyed spending the occasional weekend there. But eight hot weeks? No thanks! Ben loved climbing more than anything. Now, after months of waiting for summer in the Swiss Alps, where he could climb every single day, he couldn’t believe he was stuck baking slowly on deck.

He stood up and shuffled over to the edge of the pool. The water was perfectly still. Peeling off his tee shirt he dove into the pool and started swimming lengths. It wasn’t as much fun as climbing, but he’d been swimming since before he could walk and he liked the steady rhythm of his arms and legs. Plus, his little sister Jasmin couldn’t keep up with him, so the swimming pool was about the only place he could get a minute’s peace.

Chapter One

It never lasted long though. No sooner had Ben gotten back to his cabin, changed, and settled down to tackle the next level of Prince Of Persia than she came running. “Benjamin! Bennnn-ja-miiiin!” Her high-pitched voice carried through the corridors and portholes till it bored right through the door. Benjamin was squinting in concentration, but his thumb slipped and his lifeline fell into the red. With a grunt of irritation he put down his PSP. There wouldn’t have a moment’s peace until he answered Jasmin’s piercing call.

“What?!” he shouted, pulling open his cabin door with a bang, “I’m down here. What is it?” A minute later his seven-year-old sister came flying down the passageway, bare feet slapping like wet towels against the polished surface.

“Daddy says you’re to come up to the third deck, aft, as soon as possible. She-hike Sullyman is visiting and Daddy wants you to come greet him.”

Benjamin let out a very deep sigh. Along with Jasmin he spent his summer holidays with his father. Being called to meet and greet an assortment of politicians, business moguls, and celebrities was inevitable. Since Father had bought Icarus there had been a lot more visitors like Sheik Suliman.

“Honestly,” he said, thinking out loud. “You’d think the Sheik would have seen enough yachts – what with having three of his own – that he wouldn’t need to come and snoop around ours.”

“Come on Benj,” Jasmin whined. “Daddy told me to tell you to hurry up!”

“Ok, ok,” he replied, “just a second.” He saved his game, switched off the PSP, then locked the door and pocketed the key before following the slap-slap-slap of his sister’s footsteps.

22 – Glasgow Stories

These are unpublished, linked flash-fiction pieces. Contain strong language.

Photo: Cila Warncke

The Teacher

The aristocratic houses along Park Circus, above Kelvingrove Park, look like mausoleums and for much of the year must be as cold. A triumph of wealth over pragmatism, they boast lofty ceilings and vast windowpanes unsuited to the bitter climate. They hold themselves frigidly above the street, conscious of their status as monuments to consumption. The builders intended them for men rich enough to afford endless fuel. Now they rise in listed splendour, proud architectural affronts to democracy. I imagine the inhabitants prize their expensive discomfort.

My students are unmoved by the honour of being chosen for special study sessions. The group changes every other week, but they all look alike. The boys are thin, their truculent adolescent faces sharp and pale as wedges of cheese. They wear Nike or Adidas tracksuits and hoodies, or jeans belted below the hips. Despite their collective swagger the boys are careful to not infringe on the scented feminine clusters that form around forbidden iPhones. The girls are coy, aware their power lies in commanding attention. They flutter, fiddling with necklaces and earrings, or combing strands of hair with bright acrylic nails.

None of them take an interest in my lessons. They are obedient and indifferent. I am a novelty, like the star-nosed mole I point out on a trip to the zoo. “Do you like living in Glasgow?” One asks. Another: “Do you have a girlfriend?” These questions are automatic. The products of a lifetime habit of using interrogation to distract authority figures. I tell them I am interested in post-industrial cities, wondering if anyone will ask me what I mean. No one does.

“Did any of your family members work in the shipyards?” I ask once.

A girl looks at me pityingly: “It’s lunchtime, you know.”

They regard the future with suspicion. Like misers, they are averse to even modest speculation. “What do you want to be?” I ask. “If you could visit any country, where would you go?” The girls’ eyes flicker like snake tongues. The boys nudge each other. At first I thought this was a silent protest against my accent, age, and shirt-collar. But my self-consciousness exceeds their curiosity. Glasgow is the universe; I’m a transient alien.

Photo: Cila Warncke

The Friend

I walk from town early, as the shopkeepers and street-sweepers perform their daily rituals of addition and subtraction on Woodlands Road. Passing taxis throw sheets of water across the pavement. The shop windows contain rickety furniture; mediocre paintings; comic books; or sour-smelling vegetables. A mattress slumps against a parking meter, the legs of a decapitated office chair poke the air next to it.

Alma works in a coffee shop with frosted-glass tables and bookshelves lining the walls. The first time I went in she overheated my cappuccino and, smiling, urged me to try an almond croissant. There was something in that smile I couldn’t place, a kind of play-acting. Calum was her lifeboat. Her eyes held premonition of the end but she hung on, even as the waves ran high towards the rocks. Mornings, he would dash into the shop on his way to work. Jeans sagging with the weight of keys, wrenches, pliers and a spare sprocket; Adidas baseball cap rearing back from his forehead. After he left Alma would stand by the espresso machine, arms crossed, eyes distant. Glasgow’s West End pulsates freely with details of private lives. She made only perfunctory efforts to mask her unease. I would see them walking, her hair brushing his shoulder as she tried to match his stride. Many cappuccinos later, after we become friends, she volunteered information. Her smile hid a terrible need to be heard.

One Friday I asked her what she was doing that night. “I have a spare ticket to a show, would you like to come?”

She said, lightly as she could: “Sure, what time?”

I asked her out most Fridays after that. She was always non-committal. If Calum was there when I passed the café I would go to the cinema. Otherwise, I would go home and shower. By the time I was dressed there would be a message: “Want to get a drink later?”

You walk down half a dozen steps to enter the Drake. On the left a gas-fire, straight ahead amber whisky bottles twinkle in a setting of highly polished cherry. She drank Glenfiddich 15, neat. “It’s Calum’s favourite.” She tried to not mention him but always slipped. Calum. She would mould the word carefully with her lips then glance away, or push the whisky glass back and forth between her middle fingers.

Photo: Cila Warncke

The Lodger

Rupert Street runs perpendicular between Great Western and Woodlands Road. A square tower of yellowish brick rises above the rust-coloured tenements at the junction with Woodlands Road. At the corner is a pub, the pavement marked by coronas of vomit. In weeks of walking this street I can count on my hand the number of times I have passed another human. But detritus hints at life behind the blank windows. Someone has placed a half-drunk bottle of Irn Bru inside a horizontal refrigerator. A bike with one wheel is chained to a lamppost. Cigarette butts cluster on the pavement in front of some doors, tiny piles of dog shit near others. Perhaps the inhabitants are elderly, or just lazy.

I arrived here after my city centre flatmate came home drunk one night and urinated on the television. Calum and I met by chance. If I had thought he would offer me a room I might not have mentioned my housing difficulties, but he did and it seemed foolish to refuse. There are other coffee shops.

Calum and his father Alan live at number 10. Moving in, I slipped on a worn concrete stair and twisted my knee. “Sorry,” Calum said, pushing his hat back. “There’s no point fixing it till the workmen finish. They’ll just fuck it up again.” It was originally a three bedroom flat. His father divided the master bedroom: half for each daughter. This arrangement no longer serves a purpose but Calum and his dad occupy the flat as if the women were still there. The builders have knocked through the wall but Alan is in no rush to reclaim the master bedroom. He urged me to make myself at home and wrestled in a mossy log of a sofa. The springs gouge my back.

I don’t know what Alan does for a living. Sometimes I walk to the kitchen in my shorts, thinking I’m alone, and he’s slumped on the sofa, watching chat shows on mute. He sits up, tugs at the frayed sleeves of his cardigan and smiles nervously, revealing absent teeth. Calum is missing the same premolar, as if they were removed in some atavistic ritual. Their voices are indistinguishable on the phone. Most nights they eat pasta and garlic bread, or chicken and chips from Styrofoam boxes. Since Calum’s mother died they have built a cocoon of habit.

I am a permanent house-guest. To be a lodger you need to be ignored and slight quirks in their domestic rituals betray an awareness of my presence. Alan runs the tap when he uses the toilet. If Calum is home when I return from work he loiters while I heat up soup and butter bread, bragging about cars he’s fixed and girls he’s groped. I know his anecdotes are fiction but something in is eyes make me ashamed of my scepticism.

Photo: Cila Warncke

21 – Free Thinking in Myanmar

This article about my trip to the 2012 Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar was written for the Free Word Centre. Recent events there show that freedom is as tenuous as it is precious.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Free Thinking from the Irrawaddy Literature Festival

At the beginning of February 2013, the Irrawaddy Literature Festival drew readers and writers from around the world to the city of Yangon in Myanmar. In a country which has lived under the rule of a repressive military junta for more than half a century, it was a cultural and political landmark that allowed writers to gather, speak and exchange ideas freely for the first time in recent history. Cila Warnke visited the festival to see how a country crippled by censorship is starting to find its voice.

It was, in many respects, a literary festival like any other. There were book signings and a photo exhibition. Puppets for the children and grown-ups drinking lager on the verandah. Book stalls bursting with everything from Beatrix Potter to physics texts. On a sweep of grass between the Inya Lake and the hotel were tents where you could buy journals and newspapers, join charitable organisations or get a bite to eat. There were little differences, though. Buddhist monks in brick-red robes chatted as they sifted through volumes. The food stands offered rice noodle salad sprinkled with pungent dried shrimps. Women and men alike drifted through the heat in the traditional longyi – an ankle-length wrap skirt knotted at the waist.

In the cool interior of the Cold War-era hotel (a gift to the government of Myanmar from Nikita Kruschev) other, subtler, differences became apparent. Prior to the event, co-organiser Giles Fitzherbert voiced his hope that the festival would “open a window that has been half-shut for so long… [and] help turn Burma from an inward looking country into an outward looking country.” This sense of purpose was the thread that linked panel discussions about library usage, memoirs, debates about literary developments, and conversations about how a nation successfully transitions from censorship and repression to freedom of thought.

Democratic political reform has given Myanmar new hope after nearly fifty years under an ugly-minded military junta, but achieving openness is a complex, multi-faceted task . At the Irrawaddy Literary Festival four things emerged as preconditions to lasting change: political freedom, education, economics and international cooperation.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Political Freedom

One of the liveliest speakers at the festival was Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, which tells of life during China’s Cultural Revolution. Though many of her anecdotes were hilarious (she told of accosting sailors in bars to practice her English – “You can imagine what they were thinking!”) but the bones of her tale are tragic. She was exiled at age 16; her father was forced to burn his beloved library; she was denied education. In the darkest days of Mao’s war on intellectuals there was no reason to hope. It was only when the violence eased and Mao reopened the universities that she was able to study, winning a scholarship to study in Britain.

As Chang’s story vividly illustrates, without political freedom there can be no intellectual or literary liberty. Jean Seaton, director of The Orwell Prize, spoke of being “blessed to live in peace and freedom” – a sentiment shared by the event’s other Western attendees. For those of us accustomed to freedom of expression, censorship is unimaginable. But for many of the authors at the festival it is the only reality they know. The Myanmar government lifted censorship in 2012, meaning that for the first time in 50 years writers and journalists did not have to submit their work for approval prior to publication. In January 2013 the censorship board was disbanded.

That the government could, with the stroke of a pen, abolish this long-standing apparatus of oppression is both heartening and cautionary. What can be done can be undone, and Myanmar writers acknowledged that a true end to censorship lies in the future. “We used to say, ‘the censor has moved into our head with his chair and desk, and lives there,’” said Pe Myint, author of more than 40 books. Silencing their internal censors is a struggle that every writer will face in the coming years. Myint also raised the prospect of tacit or post-publication censorship, even if the letter of the law remains on the side of press freedom.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Education

The late dictator Ne Win banned the teaching of English in the 1960s. He eventually rescinded his ban but not before a generation or two grew up without learning a word. This makes it almost impossible to communicate with ordinary Myanmar.

On the first day of the festival we set off for Inya Lake, armed with a map clearly marked with our destination. Our taxi driver didn’t speak or understand English, but he examined it, nodded and we set off through the sticky morning smog. After twenty minutes, he pulled up in front of a hotel and gestured hopefully. It wasn’t Inya Lake. Another consultation with the map and off we went again. After some quality time in one of Yangon’s ubiquitous traffic jams we arrived at another hotel. Also not Inya Lake. I was fizzing with frustration at this point. Finally, after another turn around the centre of town and several stops for directions wefinally reached our destination. Only later did it occur to me that the English place names on our map were probably as incomprehensible to our driver as Myanmar script is to me.

This was just the first of dozens of encounters, inciting varying levels of frustration, that hammered home the importance of a lingua franca. The woeful state of English language skills is the most obvious manifestation of Myanmar’s overall educational deficit. One of the military junta’s favourite repression tactics was closing the universities. Students were sent to rural areas, or assigned home studies, to supress political action. Writing in The Irrawaddy, Denis D. Gray notes that “Burma is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment.” Another journalist I met remarked there are probably no more than five psychologists in the whole country.

There was much discussion at the literary festival about how to overcome these barriers. Local libraries, such as those attached to the United Nations and the American Centre, are working hard with limited resources. They offer books, journals and space where people can come and use computers. Perhaps more importantly, they give training in how to use libraries and computers. Thant Thaw Kaung, who helps create village libraries, noted that, as in the West, TV, mobile phones and the internet compete for people’s time and attention. In his words, “we have to support the reading habit.”

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival. Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Economics

Dr. Thant Myant-U, author of the superb Myanmar history The River of Lost Footsteps, spoke at the festival in his capacity as founder and director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which aims to preserve the city’s unique Colonial architecture, as well as promote much-needed improvements to planning and infrastructure. Yangon’s crumbling buildings and surreal pavements testify to decades when the military rulers exploited the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and poured up to a quarter of the national budget into arms.

Neglecting the basic needs of their cities and citizens had a predicitable impact on education and welfare, too. Alex Mackenzie, of the British Council, said that poorer children often leave education after primary school to work, a fact attested to by the city’s hordes of awfully young waiters, shop assistants and street vendors. Human infrastructure, even more than the buildings, is crying out for proper investment and planning. Clearly there will not be any improvement in education until the economic barriers are removed, which means legislating school attendance and funding child welfare. Broad, systemtic changes have to come from the goverment but private initiative has a role to play as well. Aung San Suu Kyi and the British Ambassador, Andrew Heyn, announced two scholarships and presented prizes to the winners of an essay contest.

Photo: Cila Warncke

International Exchange

It is easy to look at a patchily-developed country with a rocky history and conclude it needs the wealth and wisdom of the West. After a fortnight in Myanmar, I’m not convinced that they need us more than we need them. Yes, foreign investment is good for the economy, and will hopefully aid development and raise living standards, but it would be arrogant to think of ourselves as benfactors. As Alex Mackenzie put it: “Myanmar doesn’t need things, it needs the exchange of ideas.”

Myanmar is tough and self-sufficient. Many of its citizens have endured suffering we can only imagine. They are under no illusions about who they are or their place in the world, and they are not looking for charity. The literary festival was more than half funded by local businesses, and organisers Jane Heyn and Giles Fitzherbert, as well as patron Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed the hope that future festivals will be run entirely by local organisations.

This is a modest ambition. Despite its political, educational and economic challenges, Myanmar has an air of resiliance. The mere fact that just two years into its transition to democracy it is almost impossible to imagine the previous repression shows a laudable refusal to wallow. The literary festival is a product of this new freedom. It is also testament to hope for the future. According to Daw Suu Kyi, “literature is not just for fun, or to pass the time. It is a learning process.”

If there is a lesson to draw from the Irrawaddy Literary Festival it is that this process takes place in surprising ways, under even the toughest of circumstances, and as long as it does there is always hope for the future.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Sleep hygiene for superheroes

Superheroes are vigilant and alert, always ready to leap into action. If, like me, you are blessed with the gift of hypervigilance – but not the cape and outside-in underwear habit – you probably struggle to sleep. Most nights, maybe every night, your mind will churn with plans, tasks, appointments, retreads of your day, ambitions, regrets. As the world lies quiet around you the pressure builds: to be better, do more, to make tomorrow a better day.

Needless to say, this anxiety fouls the spark-plugs of your brain. In the morning, it sputters and farts, never quite catching even as your pulse races in high gear.

Those of us who are, to quote Didion’s immaculate phrase: “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” often fight a losing battle to get the rest we need to stay sane and keep our feet on the ever-precarious ground.

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Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Sleep hygiene, defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness”, is as essential to us as tight-fitting spandex and avoiding Kryptonite.

The following seven strategies are essential to my sleep hygiene; your precise recipe may vary. What matters is that you identify things that help you rest at night, and ruthlessly protect the sanctity of sleep. Trust me, it makes saving the world the next day much easier.

Exercise in the morning

Studies show that exercise improves sleep. However, I know from personal experience it can also throw a spanner in the (clock) works. Running is one of my favorite activities: it clears my head, tones my body, and tunes my emotions. But the last time I ran in the evening, I tossed and turned for hours. The endorphin kick that lifts my spirits in the morning totally sabotaged my sleep. Lesson: beware of when and how you exercise.

Eat more carbs

A survey of scientific literature on the relationship between diet and sleep quality found that lower carbohydrate consumption negatively effected sleep, as did higher fat intake. The same study found that kiwi fruit, cherries, fatty fish and milk all had sleep-enhancing effects. Personally, I find that an evening meal of rice, beans, vegetables and greens is satisfying and sets me up for a good night’s rest.

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Don’t watch things in bed

There are some people who can unwind by watching TV or films in bed. I am not one of them. The speed of moving images, plus drama or pathos, plus my overactive imagination, means that if I watch something in bed it replays in my head long after the lights are out. Moving viewing to the living room creates a clearer divide between alertness and rest.

Read poetry

You know what does help me unwind? Poetry. My dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson once advised me to keep a book on the nightstand and read a poem or two every night. The density of language, the clarity of the images, the imagination and empathy imbued in each line, promote tranquility – an almost meditative state. If you’re not sure where to start, try Jack Gilbert or Mary Oliver.

Yoga nidra or meditation

Sometimes, the chatter in my head simply won’t let up. In these instances, replacing my own mental monologue with someone else’s words can be hugely helpful. Yoga teacher Paul Dobson recommends yoga nidra, a specific meditative practice designed to foster restful sleep.

I also love Positive Magazine Guided Meditations – the presenter has the loveliest, most soothing voice imaginable and the 10-15 minute guided meditations are the perfect length for dropping off to sleep.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cotton bedding

What you sleep on matters. After living in Spain, where polyester is considered a legitimate fabric for bedding, I refuse to purchase anything other than 100% cotton – the finer the weave the better. Nice linen can be ridiculously expensive, which is its own sort of worry-making, so I gravitate towards shops like TK Maxx, Ross or Nordstrom Rack. At a push, Target does decent all-cotton sheets and covers. If there is absolutely nothing else available, Amazon Basics are an option.

Lavender essential oil

Essential oils are touted as the cure for everything from unhappiness to indigestion. In the case of lavender and insomnia, though, there is actually evidence it works. A study reported on in the American Journal of Critical Care found inhaling pure lavender essential oil decreased blood pressure and improved sleep quality in hospital patients. It noted: “Sleep deprivation in hospitalized patients is common and can have serious detrimental effects on recovery from illness. Lavender aromatherapy has improved sleep in a variety of clinical settings.”

In a randomized control trial of healthy subjects, including lavender essential oil as part of a sleep hygiene routine got better results than the sleep hygiene practices alone, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Dabbing lavender essential oil on my wrists just before I switch out the light is a welcome signal that it is time to relax.

Orgasms

Getting off is an almost guaranteed way to drift off. Remember, our bodies need sex like they need food and sleep. Neglecting our sexual self is easy when we are worried or stressed (not to mention that anxiety is a stone mood killer) so then, more than ever, is the time to love yourself.

Sex is wonderful, but it it isn’t always available. Or it can come with expectations, hang-ups and emotional entanglement (happily married or not). Masturbation gives you total control which is, in itself, relaxing and empowering. I keep a bottle of lube in the nightstand by the lavender oil and a folder of photos on my phone for inspiration.

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Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash

Superheroes need shut-eye. Though it may be fashionable to brag about how little sleep you get, stinting on rest is a shortcut to long-term physical and mental fatigue – and worse.

Prioritizing routines and habits that promote sleep increases our personal well-being, and gives us the mental, physical and emotional energy to be better friends, lovers, creators, citizens and human beings

Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

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Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

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Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

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Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year? 

Elements: Attention

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 15: Attention

Great stories come from creators who are passionately attentive to everything.

Case study: Jack Gilbert jack-gilbert

What it is:

Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.

After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.

from ‘What I’ve Got’

Why it matters:

Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.

That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.

If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.

In his own words:

“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.

The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more

Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

Remember: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White