Revisiting The Humanity Engine

typewriterThe Humanity Engine was one of my favorite stories to write.  I don’t often reflect on my writing, but sometimes events trigger memories and renewed interest.  The NSA revelations this week led me to return to read that story and others. And now the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has openly accepted responsibility for his actions in this Guardian piece.

Words are important. I imagine we’ll see many references to admission, confession, and coming clean. But this seems to be a story of a man making deliberate choices and accepting responsibility and consequences.  I hope the Guardian story by Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras is an accurate representation of Snowden’s truth.

The Humanity Engine has uncomfortable similarities with this story, including the timeline. I wrote the story four years ago. Snowden started working for the NSA four years ago. In the story, Eris is confronted with the reality that what she’s about to release could potentially cause harm.

But horror led to resolve and conviction. Eris knew she was right, and right was all she had left.

Eris leaves for the island, and Snowden:

views his best hope as the possibility of asylum, with Iceland – with its reputation of a champion of internet freedom – at the top of his list. He knows that may prove a wish unfulfilled.  – Greenwald, MacAskill, Poitras, 2013

I never composed an ending for Eris. Looking back, I never would have had the creativity to imagine a twist anywhere close to what Snowden has done.  It wouldn’t have even made sense in 2009. The world is a different place.  Since I wrote that story, much has been done in an effort to bring more transparency to policy and politics. And much has gotten in the way of our freedoms.

I’m humbled by the actions of Edward Snowden. Who among us would have the audacity to take such a huge risk against such powerful opposition? I can’t imagine how he must feel. I hope he has access to see all our expressions of gratitude. I hope he’s rewarded with evidence of the positive world impact of his actions. More than anything, I hope he has a happy ending.

My Own Meaning – A Writing Workshop Reflection

Serendipity

closed I don’t believe things happen for a reason, or are meant to be.  Things just happen. When I’m open to new experiences, sometimes those things bring delight.  One Sunday afternoon, I brought the children to the library just as they announced closing. We scattered to gather books. With no time to peruse, I selected a few based solely on their covers. When we returned home and I sorted through my finds, I was instantly attracted to the rich textures of Simon Van Booy’s Everything Beautiful Began After.

It’s a gorgeous book, with a sensual finish and irresistible uncut pages. (You must touch it!) The novel is filled with intimate treasures. I was drawn to the simple observations, so like the world I see, yet many find obscure. I searched for the author online and discovered he was hosting a winter writing workshop. I knew nothing of writing workshops, and had no confidence I’d be one of the five selected. I collected my stories, wrote a meandering cover letter and submitted my application.

I was stunned when I received the acceptance message. I’d just presented to the largest audience of my career, followed by a recorded interview, and a first meeting with a cherished friend I’d previously only known online.  I was dining with him at a crowded counter in Pike Place Market, entirely overstimulated from my morning, when the message from Simon arrived.  Even his email correspondence brings quiet contemplation.  I was grateful to view it in the presence of a friend who cares about my happiness and success. I otherwise might not have believed it was real.

I soon contacted my writerly friends to ask about workshops, the author, their experiences and opinions. Some purchased his novel to learn why I was so enchanted.  (I do adore his short story collections more than the novel, if you’re looking for a place to start reading him.) My friends encouraged my participation.  I worried my family would find it frivolous, but my parents were supportive, and my children, especially my daughter, were proud and understood the unique opportunity.

Beginnings

fireplaceWe arrived one-by-one, settled into our rooms at Wellspring House and met downstairs for lunch.  I must have been incredibly nervous, because I remember nothing of that meal. I know it happened. I’ve got a copy of the schedule.  And it’s a shame I can’t recall the food or conversation.  All our meals were prepared by Karen, a beautiful person and amazing chef. I wanted to take her home with me.  We debated which of us lived in the most beautiful place on earth, and I knew there was no use trying to convince her to leave. Our temporary family of five writers ate two meals together each day, a ritual we all appreciated.

Following lunch, we began our first workshop session. We introduced ourselves and our projects.  My fellow participants included three accomplished writers with specific goals and projects.  I listened to their stories of world travel, mutual friendship, and delicious consumption of the arts.  I worried they’d feel insulted by my naïveté, and my incessant questions.

I was reluctant to confess I had no plans, and wasn’t currently working on anything. I admitted I merely wanted to discover if it was even possible for me to commit to a novel-length work.  In my cover letter for the workshop, I’d professed, ‘I’m a writer.’  It’s rare for me to self-identify as a writer. I write for selfish reasons. I write for the thrill of creation and destruction of worlds within my control.  I don’t write out of any strong compulsion or desire. I don’t feel worthy of the label.  I was there to seek my own identity as a writer, and test my writing stamina.

Connections

Within the first hour, I knew I was building knowledge I could personally apply.  We talked about environment and the importance of our surroundings when we write.  I’ve never cultivated a permanent writing place of my own.  My desk is where I pay the bills and shuffle through school paperwork. Before the workshop, it was in a very active location in my home, a frequent resting place for wandering toys. I’ve never made it off-limits to others.

Since I’ve returned, I rearranged my room and moved my desk away from the door, with a view out the window. I moved my dresser into my closet, to create more space in the room, and moved my bookshelf closer to the desk. It made an immediate difference to the ambiance and character of the room.  My bed now faces the window, instead of the bathroom and hallway doors. And this is where I write.

Some personal goals from the first day:

  • Designate my desk as off-limits to everyone. I’d actually like to invest in an antique spinet desk (perhaps this one) I can close.
  • Write at the same time every day, or make a schedule. I could potentially block Saturday mornings. Another writer and I realized we need to make appointments with ourselves to write, and treat those appointments as we do professional meetings.
  • Keep the browser closed while I write. And Twitter. I’ve done quite well at not tweeting as much, but I do still lurk.
  • Eat properly. I usually don’t eat breakfast, but this week started having granola with blueberries and raspberries.

I asked permission to blog about the sessions, and told Simon I, of course, wouldn’t share any of his secrets.  He welcomed it and thanked me for asking, first. He loves to share, and openly credits others for what he’s learned. (I will definitely be writing more of what I learned from him about teaching.) One of the most interesting ideas Simon shared, and I didn’t note his original source, is to print your work each day. This was surprising, as I’ve tried to have a paperless environment at the office for many years.  But the more I heard, the better it sounded.

He explained how disheartening it can be when you write and revise and, at the end of the week, feel you’ve spent hours and gotten nowhere.  He suggested at the end of each day, print what you’ve written, and put a rock on it.  Do the same the next day, and so on.  At the end of the week, your (digital) work may be shorter than when you started, but if you gather all the papers, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, and recognize you’ve done more than it seems.

Confessions

index cardAnother suggestion, which led me to a discovery I found personally meaningful, was to keep at hand a book you don’t understand. He spoke of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura.  He described the way Nabokov wrote on index cards. I spoke up, ‘I could do that!’ Of course I could do that.  It makes complete sense to me.  Much of my difficulty in storytelling is with the attempt to tell a story in a linear format. I usually write stories starting somewhere in the middle. I add sentences above and below and in between. It’s an enticing puzzle to me. I get so much joy simply replacing words and changing meaning, layering more and more, with fewer and fewer words.  I would love to write on note cards and rearrange them over and over. And so I shall!

journalsHe also described a composer (Duparc?) who destroyed most of his compositions. I observed the reactions of my fellow-participants, before offering another confession. I tear out journal pages and throw them away. I’ve done it my entire life. I have journals from my childhood that are empty, with the first dozen pages or so torn out.  I’m not sure why I’ve even kept them.  When I located them for this photo, I wanted to destroy the pages that do remain, to erase the person I was before.  I’ve no desire to leave a legacy. I’m content with my ephemera.

By the end of the first session, I’d also confessed my reclusive nature, and how unusual it is for me to deliberately choose to socialize outside professional engagements.  The workshop was way outside my comfort zone, but such a dramatic transition, I clung to the routines and found comfort in the schedule. The hours on the opposite coast, and unreliable phone service made it difficult to conveniently communicate with my family. I was forced to focus on my immediate surroundings.

We discussed the work process of many writers, composers and artists.  I realized we’re all so very different, and no good will come of me comparing myself to, ‘normal.’  While I may never meet others who act or think the way I do, it’s not wrong, or odd. It’s just me. My way.  My way is not so bad. And now I have additional tools to make it even better.

Tomorrow

leafA single dropped sequin twirled silvery between my parted soles and into the open drain. Memory chased it down the pipes, bubbling awake Charlie in 11B, and spilling beneath the emptiness of the tenth floor. It caught in a spun blonde clog at 9B and fluttered in place, just a wall apart from my abandoned gown.

I had escaped your dreaming vulnerability, a newly cut key imprinting you on my palm. You slept alone again.  An early flight would bring you to a distant home, while I cared after our leavings.  Hot needle spray numbed my skin, the surface of me seeking cleansing warmth.

The faucet turn made sudden quiet. I stepped into a still-damp towel and recalled something that never was. Draping my unwrung curls, I found myself beside the chair where I’d earlier tossed my borrowed coat.  The key lay on the rug, a distorted blur under still life table glass.  I left it all untouched, resolved to drown in downy pillow bliss.

The History of Us – A Writing Workshop Reflection

Wellspring House

I participated in Simon Van Booy’s Winter Writing Workshop at Wellspring House, where I was spoiled for six days in the luxury of a magical home, with excellent company, and the best food I’ve ever been served.  My mind is still spinning with the richness of it all. This is the first in a series of posts about an exceptional experience.  I’ll share about Wellspring House, Simon as a teacher and model learner, learning and living with other writers, defending Emily Dickinson, the workshop process, and how I’m now applying what I’ve learned.

Down a winding wooded road, past scrubbed-white steeples and a covered bridge, I found the sleepy town of Ashfield, Massachusetts.  The Wellspring House drive is lined with spindly trees constricted by vines, bound together in a striking dance of unexpected survival.  Though I came without expectations, I trembled with anticipation.

I was greeted by Simon, ever the generous host, who carried my luggage and gave me a tour and let me choose my room.  I selected Thoreau, a simple space with a single bed and windows from wall to wall.  On the main floor, he introduced me to  Dr. Preston Browning, a retired professor who stokes the embers of inspiration at Wellspring House.

Preston was crafting kindling of newspaper rolls.  He leaned against the wall of stone and graciously paused to entertain my questions.  He shared the story of Ann, his beautiful bride, who discovered the home in conditions beyond repair and had a vision of wonder.  In rotting wood and near collapse, Ann saw a fountain of inspiration for writersTwisted vine and tree trunk.

He trusted her instincts, and they rushed to secure the property, though they learned the haste was unnecessary.  The locals were surprised at their interest in the place.  Ann and Preston hired contractors in the winter, and the team moved rapidly to build and repair and restore the original beauty and charm.  The home is a character, a muse for all who enter.

Wellspring House was originally a carriage house, with a pass-through for horses and carriages, and sleeping space for the drivers. It later became quarters for the staff of the estate on the hill.  At times it has been abandoned, and once was inhabited by a man who kept his cattle in the living room.

Thoreau RoomThe bedrooms are as unique as the authors for whom they are named.  In each room you’ll find a journal lush with wandering thoughts and revelations from visiting writers, a time capsule of those who’ve gone before. There are two shared bathrooms upstairs, but even with five of us in residence (four women!), we never got in each other’s way. The kitchen is available for those who wish to cook, and it’s a quick walk to Elmer’s for coffee and meals. The books you need for your work seem to materialize right when you need them. (And the wi-fi is fast and reliable.)

The shelves in the shared areas of the home are lined with books, and stacks of them adorn every surface.  Between the pages are notes and messages; Ann and Preston’s musings through vast dimensions. Preston humbly credits Ann for all the magic, and tells the tales of her loving efforts to design a space that nurtures the creative soul.  His grief at the recent loss of his beloved is a character itself; a struggling presence of will, with waxing and waning strength.

Wellspring House is a fortification designed to defend against heartache and despair.  Every object in the home is endowed with the spirit of purpose and intent.  Each piece of art, every book, the textures and finishes, the sun-seeking windows, and fire-warmed hearth retains the whispers of all who’ve entered this sanctuary.  A coffee table centered with nine stacks of books is the altar of shared existence.  If you place an item there, you instantly feel relieved of the burden of ownership.  Surrender to the history of us.

I spoke with Dr. Browning on my final afternoon, and expressed my love for his home, and my plans to share it with my educator friends.  He couldn’t contain his excitement at the thought of visiting scholars.  With humility and conviction, he again credited Ann.  He claimed her presence is what makes the place so rare.  I shook my head in protest, and said, ‘No, Preston. It’s not Ann’s presence, it’s the presence of your relationship, and all the relationships here.’ He tilted his head and his eyes shined a curious brightness. I sensed his eagerness to explore a new idea.  He left me with the sweetest kiss, and returned to his rooms to write.

 

Self portrait by the fire

Notes: ‘History of Us,’ is one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs. You can listen at http://youtu.be/h2Xw5DRR2-s

If you’re seeking inspiration, or need to nurture your spirit, there’s no place I’d recommend more highly. Dr. Browning is offering special Winter rates right now, and you can get the information directly from the site.  He is also seeking an assistant in residence, willing to commit to a few years, to help with the business side, assist in technology and web promotion, and greet and welcome the writers in residence, so he can have more time to write. If you’re interested in the assistant opportunity, email jen at jentropy dot com and I’ll send you the description. It might be a few months before he’s ready to put effort into filling the position, but I don’t think an advance email message to him would hurt.

You can learn more about Ann and Preston at http://www.wellspringhouse.net/about

 

Tradition

Nan indulged him, but didn’t tell the others.  When Aidan called, and spoke a rush of mud and seeds, clovers and pots of rainbow of gold, she lied. She told him his Papa was napping after a long day hoeing the garden and pea planting.  In truth, his Papa, Doc, had planted the seeds the month before, his mind a fog of humor for his clever trickery of saints.

Today Nan wheeled Doc to the windows and cranked the panes into his study. His silence meant nothing, she’d discovered the last few weeks.  There were no signs to predict the outcome; no timeline draped in warbled words. Nan’s own lines softened. Her mouth released the sour purse she’d sported through her own years of loss and resentment.  Her brother needed care, and she was once a nurse.

On Valentine’s Day, she brought his crumpled list to the nursery.  Andre rolled his eyes at the scrawl, but loaded her trunk, confident he’d filled Doc’s requests.  She returned and found him bundled in blankets in the frosty study, flinging soil and bulbs from the window boxes.  Doc asked Nan to set up a card table near the windows. She resisted, at first, then spread faded plaid sheets across the floor and piled his supplies around the room.

The planting took three days.  She waited for him to finish it all, before she restored the room to order.  After that, he stopped writing.  Notebooks and journals sprawled over the abandoned desk, and he spent his days in silence near the windows. When he spoke, he’d take her hand and meet her eyes, and she believed everything was as it was before.  His questions were unanswerable, but he relaxed at the sound of her voice.  She would stay with him until he released her hand.

Today the breeze was warm.  Doc held his hands up to the dusty beam of sunlight before him, and reached to pick the first sweet pod.  Nan wondered at his thoughts.  He’d held trembling, aching life in one hand, and death in the other, with strength and compassion beyond her understanding.  His gift had been a life free of resentment and hatred.  She watched his movements, and wished him one more year.

 

Marigold

mine
Why does he call you Marigold?

Peyton paused mid-pour, and her mind spilled polka-dots of black tea splats all over her mother’s best linen.  She shrugged.  To her, Papa’s nickname wasn’t a word, it was a cadence, a song, a rhythm that meant there was peace. Meh-reh-guld, Meh-reh-guld, he called her when the world was right.

Too big for a chair at the tea table, Justin sat criss-cross on the play room floor, digging a knee scab.  He played with Peyton because she was the only girl on the block, and he found her baffling and mysterious. She was also only four years old.  The youngest of five boys, Justin, at eight, thought Payton occupied a dimension of her own.  Sometimes she let him in.

Joshua says that’s where you got your hair. Not the color.  The springy stuff.

Peyton served the tea and Justin pretended to sip ‘daintily,’ as she’d taught him.  She had given him the first cup, the one that usually went to Bear, but he didn’t question her.

My hair is naturally curly.

She wasn’t sure what that meant, but it’s what Mother told her, so it must be true.  She knew her tangly red twists were different, but in a special way.  Papa said she was a gift, and Peyton knew a gift was a present, and presents were always good.

Did he bring cookies this time?

Justin wasn’t technically permitted to eat cookies when he was visiting friends, but he figured the imaginary tea canceled it out.  And Payton’s Papa made butterscotch cookies worth risking a swat from Mom.

Peyton was allowed to have cookies whenever she wanted, so the treat wasn’t as tempting, but she said she’d go check.  She found Papa in her father’s chair reading a novel, with the cover wrapped round the back, so she couldn’t see the picture.  He opened his arms and she hopped into the cuddly cave.

Meh-reh-guld, Meh-reh-guldAre your friends enjoying the tea today?

She nodded and reached up to pat his spongy hair with both hands, seeking her face in his. They shared the same golden brown eyes, but his freckles seemed stretched out across his darker skin. Maybe her little pin-point spots would stretch as she grew, too.

Papa, why do you call me Marigold?

 

Side Part

Leaves He followed her gentle sway to the back of the salon.  As she walked, her fist dug into the curve of her back and he focused his attention there, willing away her pain, wondering if she’d jump at his touch.  Anna had come to him every six weeks for the past four years, but this time she’d rescheduled and he hadn’t seen her since spring.

She flopped into the seat and Myles draped a towel across her shoulders and helped her ease down into the basin.  Her eyes were closed in trust before he’d even warmed the water. His gaze lingered on her face and he felt a rising heat.  She spoke then, a mumbled settling sound, a reaction to his fingers in her hair, and he watched her hips nestle into the cushion.

His fingers moved with the sullen gait of the blues trio fogging the room through overhead speakers.  Myles slipped thumbs down the familiar cove at the base of her skull and grinned at the change in her breathing.  He stayed quiet, knowing she’d open up and talk when she was ready.

On Anna, Myles used a special treatment, a product they didn’t carry in the salon. He wanted a smell just for her, and she never asked what it was. He applied the thick cream and wrapped her hair in a steaming towel while the potion did its magic. Her neck exposed, he examined her skin, seeking shadows of bruises or scars, but there were none this time.  She still wore the ring.

Myles was looking at her hands when Anna opened her eyes.  He recovered, checked the timer, and finished the treatment and rinse.  She extracted herself from the seat without his help and towel-dried her hair on the way to his station.  He wanted to ask why she’d been away so long.  He knew she hadn’t been to someone else. This was the longest he’d ever seen her hair. It suited her, and he told her so, half expecting her to remind him, “Jake likes it shorter.”

Anna rewarded him with a laugh and a shake of curls. “At least get rid of the summer stripe!”  The ends were beginning to dry, evidence of days in the sun. Their eyes met briefly in the mirror and he pushed her head forward to work on the back of her hair. Brutal snips of sunshine fell to the floor, but he still left it longer than Jake preferred, tempting her to protest.

He worked quickly to the front and began to part her hair down the middle.  Anna spoke up, “Part it on the side this time.  You used to say it would look best that way. Let’s try.”

“Okay,” he agreed, “let’s!”  Her smile made him feel like a co-conspirator.  Myles completed the cut and pumped gel into his hands.  He separated the curls and twisted them round his fingers, giving each curl his attention and springing them into place. He didn’t want to imagine an angry Jake.

“Myles, do you have…someone?” The question surprised him.  She had never asked about his personal life.  Usually Anna rambled on about a job that made no sense, or marriage he understood even less.  Sometimes she was silent. One time she cried.  But she’d never asked him about his own life.

“I’m single,” he risked, “why, you trying to hook me up?”  Her look was curious, but she didn’t reply.  Anna switched her attention to the mirror, her new look noticeably different, softer somehow.

“I love it!” No mention of Jake.  Myles unfastened the drape and helped her out of the seat.  He walked her to the front of the salon, his palm spread across the curve of her lower back.  He didn’t remove his hand when she stopped at the reception desk and turned, his hand now on her hip.  She squeezed it and stepped closer for a moment before releasing him with a whispered, “See you in six weeks.”

This post is an exercise for Three Word Wednesday.  The words this week were: Brutal, Sullen, and Trust

Homeless

homelessThere are people who do not belong. Audra trails fingers down the newly painted wall until she reaches the corner and stops. She knows you are watching. She turns into your gaze, lips caught between teeth, eyes wide with hope. Maybe this will be the place.

If home is where the heart is, you know you will need more than a fresh coat of paint to keep her this time. You extend your hand, a surprise concealed in warming flesh. Audra takes it between her own and gifts a kiss on the palest skin of your wrist.

Your fingers part to reveal a palm-smudged crystal teardrop on a satin cord. You tell her how the prism captures rays of light and color, sunset painted walls and skin, new again each day. She dangles it in a beam, dancing rainbows through your hair, her laughter melting corners.

Forward

My last four stories were set on a beach, the same beach, though I’m not sure anyone noticed.  There are links between the four stories and I did try some new styles and elements.  I’m ready to move on.  I am inspired by the beaches of the Pacific Northwest and have included some of my photographs here.  My next series will run more like a chapter book.  I understand series stories aren’t very popular, but I’ve only got 30 subscribers, so I’m less interested in popularity, than with the challenge of trying something new. I think you’ll find the plot engaging, and I hope to start publishing the posts soon.

Baptism

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A chair gouged the stone floor and a man dashed after the fisherman. Someone silenced the music and the barista stood frozen, stirring. A tide of voices floated to the back of the cafe as gossip turned to speculation. The man in dripping waders had gulped a single word and disappeared. Now a woman in running gear rushed after them through the parking lot and down the wooden steps.

The man in the corner glanced up from the notebook in his lap, seeking the source of distraction. He found headphones and drowned cafe chaos in waves of cello and French horn. Meted in three, the piece led him back to the numbers and he scratched paper with precision strokes, ignoring the peripheral human churn. By threes and fives, customers abandoned drinks and schooled outside or to the windows for an elevated view of the spilling drama.

He counted thirteen inside and the crowd outside quickly multiplied. He factored in the shop across the parking lot, with an equally advantageous view. As the number of spectators increased, he knew the victim’s chances of survival statistically decreased. Sirens permeated the shallow membrane and he raised the volume. A three-minute response was average. Assuming the man had obtained the requested rope, the rescue may have begun in time.

He watched as the first emergency vehicle backed into the parking lot at the top of the steps. A wake of hats and umbrellas surged the walls of the two shops, flowing around parked cars. Predictably, phones and cameras emerged. He hummed the waltz. A woman turned from the window and stared at him, as if he were the tragedy. She looked like she might speak. A man pulled her arm and brought his phone to her face. She squinted, trying to make sense of the tiny image, shaking her head in confusion.

He returned to the numbers. There was nothing he could do, anyway. It was too late. He wondered the difference between those who rushed blindly after the fisherman, and those who chose the view. He added a few strokes to the equation, and paused with eyes closed as the music climaxed. They would each take ownership of this, personalize it, hijack it and spread it through friends, family and strangers. By the time the story garnished the local news, hundreds, maybe thousands would call it their own. Behind eyelids, he imagined an ocean of vibrating lips, faces without ears.

He had no compulsion to be counted in this tragedy of infinite proportion. He remained immersed in the music. Occasional glances toward the window revealed an event for which all senses were not required. Spectators turned away as lights flashed again. Perhaps it had been a child. The sea of umbrellas ebbed as the vehicle moved slowly out of the lot. It was over, then. Oblivious now to the thinning school of onlookers, he concentrated on the equation that sustained him. He worked through the late afternoon until the final shift whistle sounded at the mill across the river. His mind surfaced and he rolled out the door and into the waiting van.