Why Are Writers Like Mushrooms?

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IN SEARCH OF A POT OF LEFTOVER BOSTON MARATHON CHILI TODAY, (which I thought would make a fine lunch and I was right), I found a large bluish-lilac mushroom zipped up in a gallon-size plastic bag in the refrigerator and remembered my quest to learn its identity.

Today is a typical Gulf coast Florida so-called winter afternoon: 77°F, cloud bursts alternating with streaky sunshine leading inexorably to a front that will drop temps into the 50’s overnight, with another murky day to follow, and then Thursday, yes! Bright sunshine, with a high of 58°F and low of 40°F. This is why, even in the dead of winter, when nighttime below-freezing temps can line themselves up one against the other like frozen peas, we never pack up the shorts and t-shirts.

Perfect weather for hanging out in my study tracking down fungi identities and pondering why it is that writers are like mushrooms.

A lovely Lepista Nuda (Blewit) nestled in the clutter of the forest floor between house and gate — found January 13, 2013, Longleaf Preserve, near Pensacola, Florida.

Our friend, Elaine Spencer, and I, were making several laps to the gate last Saturday following a late breakfast with Buck and Elaine’s husband, Neal, of Mary B’s Thin Biscuits, Greek Fage Yogurt and a mélange of fresh fruit, including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, blood and navel oranges, and sliced bananas. We were fully caffeinated and ready for a nice stretch of the leg. I spotted the unusual looking mushroom on the way back from our second lap.

We got back to the house and Elaine headed up stairs to shower and dress for a lunch outing at The Grand Marlin on Pensacola Beach. I decided to go back and take a picture of that lavender ‘shroom, harvest it and bring it back to the house so I could look at it in a good light.

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I put it on a glass coffee table out in a room we call “the snow porch.” Snow never falls outside those windows, but it reminds us of a similar room we had in the mountains of Western North Carolina near Asheville, North Carolina from 1997-2004. I’ll never forget being there one Christmas Eve and watching a rose-breasted grosbeak commandeer a feeder box full of seed on the deck as large flakes of falling snow wrapped us in the white silence of angel’s hair, a serendipitous gift.

Clitocybe nuda (blewit)In truth, writers are more like members of the kingdom of fungi, working cryptically in la noche oscura del alma. Like fungi, we only become noticeable when fruiting, our mushrooming pages the visible evidence of our efforts.

“Turkey Tail” (trametes versicolor polypore) seen January 13, 2013 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola.

Sometimes the fruit of our labors is showy, but tasteless, hard.

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Sometimes, no matter how intense our effort, the result is dry and dull. Like mushrooms, writers, too, may dwell solitary or in colonies. There is a nearly infinite number of unique forms within the fungi kingdom.

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When the words pour elegantly like delicate, warm madeleines, they dazzle. When they spread thickly like whole-wheat gingerbread made in madeleine molds, they are fragrant and succulent; they nurture. These spore-bearing fruits look like gingerbread butter cakes to me.

Amanita muscaria, seen December, 2012 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida.

A writer’s words can emerge, as mushrooms do, from many environments: from the rotting wood of life, hard bark, packed sand, the air, leaf clutter, even excrement. Words have power. Like the Amanita muscaria, they can send dreams and visions, enlightenment or the illusion of it, as well as deadly poison. Consider these words from Roger Phillips, founder of a wonderful site, Roger’s Mushrooms:

This is one of the easiest species to recognize and describe, and consequently its properties have been well documented for centuries. The common name Fly Agaric comes from the practice of breaking the cap into platefuls of milk, used since medieval times to stupefy flies. It is a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant and was used as such by the Lapps. In such cases the cap is dried and swallowed without chewing. The symptoms begin twenty minutes to two hours after ingestion. The central nervous system is affected and the muscles of the intoxicated person start to pull and twitch convulsively, followed by dizzines and a death-like sleep. During this stage the mushrooms are often vomited but nevertheless the drunkenness and stupor continue. While in this state of stupor, the person experiences vivid visions and on waking is usually filled with elation and is physically very active. This is due to the nerves being highly stimulated, the slightest effort of will producing exaggerated physical effects, e.g. the intoxicated person will make a gigantic leap to clear the smallest obstacle. The Lapps may have picked up the habit of eating the Fly Agaric through observing the effects of the fungus on reindeer, which are similarly affected. Indeed, they like it so much that all one has to do to round up a wandering herd is to scatter pieces of Fly Agaric on the ground. Another observation the Lapps made from the reindeer was that the intoxicating compounds in the fungus can be recycled by consuming the urine of an intoxicated person. The effects of consuming this species are exceedingly unpredictable; some people remain unaffected while others have similar, or different, symptoms to those above, and at least one death is attributed to A. muscaria. This unpredictability is due to the fungus containing different amounts of the toxins ibotenic acid and muscimol according to season, method of cooking and ingestion, as well as the subject’s state of mind. Ibotenic acid is mostly concentrated in the coloured skin of the cap. This very unstable compound rapidly degrades on drying to form muscimol which is five to ten times more potent. Traditionally, where A. muscaria is used as an inebriant, it is the dried cap which is taken.

1-IMG_7363And in that rare moment when elusive perfection brings life to the page, our words can curl happily up at the edges like some old, light-filled scroll, worthy of binding into a book that others will keep on their shelves, riffle the pages, sleep with and dream the created worlds.

Nature and Novel-Writing

I LEARNED SOMETHING FUNDAMENTAL about perspective more than twenty years ago when my late mother-in-law was in the hospital with a series of complex medical issues. When the surgeon arrived in her room, it was with a swagger quite astonishing for such a chubby, short man. After briefly examining her swollen belly and theatrically flipping through her chart, he announced his decision to schedule surgery immediately.  Buck moved so quickly into the doctor’s space that the little man swayed backward. Buck spoke two words, crisply enunciated: “No knives.”  The surgeon blinked, put down the chart, and vanished.

Each of the medical specialists who were called in on the case had an internal bias about the solution when they came in the door. To the surgeon, the solution was a knife. The nephrologist insisted that Buck and I immediately tour the Dialysis Center to help prepare Lois for his recommendation. The cardiologist wanted to do exploratory angioplasty. The infectious disease specialist warned us that he was concerned she might have bacterial meningitis and urged us to race to her home and scrub it and ourselves down with anti-bacterial agents. He wanted to quarantine her room until lab test results were obtained.

In one of our absences from her room, a visiting Baptist had his own solution to her condition. He was so determined to save her 81-year-old Presbyterian soul that poor Lois roused herself from near coma to call for a nurse and have the presumptuous piss-ant ousted.

Well. That was a long time ago. Lois survived those encounters and went on to have a few sunny days before we lost her on June 15, 1995. My memory of her this morning is as sharp as that bright green leaf in the photograph. It stands out from the black and white background one expects from old snapshots.

Writing a novel is teaching me about perspective, too. When one gets involved in a project like this, almost everything appears to have extraordinary meaning that connects back into the writing.  Everyday events turn into metaphorical rune castings and tarot readings, heavy with symbolism, treasures I spirit away to my desk for further revelations.

Two days ago, I opened the sliding glass door from our bedroom onto a patio overlooking the pool. I stood motionless as soon as I saw a young hen turkey inside the fence alone. She appeared to be distressed, and was running up and down the fence line. I saw the rest of the flock of roughly twenty birds outside the fence, feeding and moving slowly on toward the woods west of the clearing around the house. It was then I heard two completely different calls: one from a turkey — possibly more than one — outside the fence; the other from the young hen who apparently thought she was trapped.

In her state of extreme anxiety, the hen paid no attention to me. A volley of calls to assemble with the flock and her repeated distress calls continued. She finally ran up the incline from the fence to the edge of the concrete around the pool, then back down again. Then she ran up the incline again, turned around, took a few running steps, then lifted off, easily cleared the fence and rejoined her clan. Moved by this display, I slipped back inside to stalk around the house and ponder.

I BEGAN TO THINK OF MY CHARACTER, GRACE, her mother, Claire, and the man Grace falls in love with, Jess. Grace never had a flock, Claire made a life-changing poor decision and left hers when she was still a teenager, and Jess belongs to a multi-generational flock that he fears is being displaced and he can’t do anything about it.  I realized with a pop of surprise, that I am writing about myself at different stages. Why should that be a stunner? And yet, it is.

Flying Women, A Dragon, and a Bunch of Antsy Characters

Tuesday morning. I should have gotten up at 2:30, when it was clear the itch in my brain had escaped and was running down my legs and out into my arms so that it was impossible to keep still in bed. I twitched and sighed all night.

I got this idea that I needed a Dragon. Doesn’t every woman? My inner voice harps, “Be your own dragon.” Well, yes, sure, but this dragon is different. It’s a Nuance Naturally Speaking Bluetooth Dragon. I am not ready to create voice-to-type blog posts or novel chapters yet, but have sent out several Dragon-assisted emails that passed muster (not perfect, but close).  I’m thinking ahead for the future, which in my experience arrives a lot quicker than you planned. Now that I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up, I plan to become adept at voice-to-type before the osteoarthritis that has already made writing by hand uncomfortable stakes a claim on elbows and shoulders. Right now, writing to a keyboard is a joy, but when I’m cranking out stories at 95, maybe not so much. Of course, by then, the technological miracle of voice-to type will probably be like a Stone Age tool. Who knows? Maybe I’ll speak to a holographic image — let’s make him a hunky stud muffin while we’re theorizing — who will sit adoringly at my wrinkled knee and listen with perfect recall, processing words into strung pearls while we sip morning-glory tea or some other honeyed delight.  Ah, the future. I want high-tech and high touch.

This morning, though, there’s a bunch of frustrated characters laid out on the dining room table, flat as flitters on their index cards, waiting to jump up into their dimensional selves if only I would quit screwing around: Bree, Jess, Rory, Bo, P.J., Lilla, Ellie, Grace, Mary Alice, Troy, Ryan, and especially Evangeline are ready to boogie.

But they’re just going to have to wait a bit while I explore the sublime, which I found this morning. A new, much anticipated, book arrived at the post office yesterday, and I opened it for the first time while brushing my teeth early this morning.  I discovered this new gem by Terry Tempest Williams from writer/editor Lanie Tankard’s guest review on writer/teacher Richard Gilbert’s wonderful blog, Narrative.

It is the province of mothers to preserve the myth that we are unburdened with our own problems. Placed in a circle of immunity, we carry only the crises of those we love. We mask our needs as the needs of others. If ever there was a story without a shadow, it would be this: that we as women exist in direct sunlight only.

When women were birds, we knew otherwise. We knew our greatest freedom was in taking flight at night, when we could steal the heavenly darkness for ourselves, navigating through the intelligence of stars and the constellations of our own making in the delight and terror of our uncertainty.

What my mother wanted to do and what she was able to do remains her secret.

from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

Of course, I have dropped everything else to read. Wouldn’t you?

My Mother’s Daughter

I am not by nature a liar; or maybe I am, and it is only the years of loving Buck and wanting to be worthy of his love that have curbed my natural tendency to self-protect, lie, color and shade to add a pretty, if thin, patina.

“Daddy’s little girl.” That was me. I don’t even remember much about my mother except for early vignettes and later psychosis. The early stuff was a real mixed bag.

She couldn’t stand a messy refrigerator.  I remember watching her meticulously remove the cap from a bottle of ketchup stored in the refrigerator door, wipe accumulated dried bits from the mouth, dry the bottle, and replace it on the refrigerator door shelf.

She was thrifty, but had an earnest desire to climb the middle-class ladder.  Like so many women of her era, Heloise’s Hints were required reading. I’m pretty sure that’s where she learned to take the last bits of bar soap, melt them together, and roll them into balls. Somehow she managed to melt the blue Zest separately and then combine it with the white soap so that each ball came out marbled with blue and white. These hand-crafted soap balls turned into decoration for the bathroom.

Before I was born, she took my half-sisters, both pale as night-blooming Cereus, one with white-blond hair, the other with finest red, and transported them far from the Mississippi farmlands, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they had known into the exotic heat of Miami, Florida with her new husband, a man with black hair, high cheekbones, sun-darkened deep olive skin, flashing eyes and teeth: my father.

Three babies came, and the older girls had to take care of my brothers and me; their mother’s “new” family. The sisters were given to understand that mother had traded up, and this new family would get it right. Their job was to change our diapers, bathe us, play with us, read to us, and generally shut up and fade into the wallpaper like good half-sisters. When my dad died at age 51, he had become a successful home builder, sweet as sugar and gentle as a lamb. But at the time those young girls were first required to call him “Daddy,” he was still a primitive with potential, and rough as a cob.

No wonder my oldest sister left to go to nursing school as soon as she could and then married when I was six. The other girl had to drop out of college after a terrible horse-riding accident and come back home. That must have been awful for her. I loved having her back. She was the spark of life that made my day. She was naughty and a rebel and an in-your-face rule breaker. And she stood up for us kids.

Mother had a strange way of punishing us. If my brothers and I got into some kind of tussle, everybody got punished. We had to go cut our own switch from one of her strong, springy shrubs. After the punishment, when we were still mad and upset, we had to hug each other. “Now hug your brother. You know you love him, don’t you?” That technique insured that we could never, ever hug each other comfortably, even as adults.

Poison pills and individual exploding devices were placed into the mix when we were children by this mother who loved us all the best she could, but who had a growing network of spider webs in her brain caused by mental illness created by organic disease, combined with her own childhood which spawned shame chiseled like stone tablets on her heart. She had no choice but to pass them on to her children, a heavy legacy.

Buck is the casting mold for a straight arrow. My bent shaft flies nearly true after 30 years of living intimately with and learning from this exceptional man.

And yet, when we planned an on-again, off-again, ultimately on-again road trip to the far West’s Grand Canyon country and the parks of Utah, one that would take us within several hundred miles of where my sister lives, I edited the possibility of a meet-up with her and her husband out of our plans, and my arrow rippled, went tilt, and ricocheted back to me.

The last time we saw each other in person seemed to go fairly well, but there were negative repercussions in the weeks that followed that took us years to repair. Those poison pills and IEDs I mentioned earlier. Gradually, we’ve built a relationship based on mutual respect and genuine love. E-mails with occasional phone calls have proved to be the best way for our fine analytical brains to keep Mother out of the room when we communicate.

My sister is an artist. She creates beauty from brokenness. She is at a time of life when extra drama from any quarter is debilitating and can shatter her ability to focus on the person she loves most in the world, her husband of the past half-century, and her work, including her art and her garden, which is a creative extension and further expression of her art.

And so, if you read this, dear sister, I don’t think you will be surprised to hear me acknowledge that I am deeply flawed in the ability to love department, with one exception, and you know how fundamentally Buck has had the key to unlock the massive armored door to my heart.

He would tell anyone that I am the lovingest woman in the whole wide world. And as to him, that’s not an unreasonable declaration, even for a man with stars in his eyes after all these years. But except for him, I am selfish with my time and the attention toward others I love is doled out in teaspoons.

It has been painful for me to look in the mirror these past weeks, see flashes of another woman there, and realize that I am, after all, at least as much my mother’s daughter as my daddy’s girl, hoarding love into my own little pile as though it were nuggets from a personal mining claim.

I had decided not to tell the story of our incredible trip out West; to hoard it, too, out of shame for not making the extra effort to see my sister.

But then, I read Richard Gilbert’s interview with author Alethea Black, and remembered a story of hers I read several years ago called The Only Way Out Is Through, originally published in Narrative Magazine.  Alethea had very kindly written to me back in 2009 after my story, Tenderness, appeared in Brevity. We talked about how interesting it was that both of our stories involved a deer being hit by a vehicle.

I downloaded Alethea’s collection of fine stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and immediately re-read The Only Way Out Is Through.  It was even better than I remembered, maybe because I read it sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a remote lodge in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah.

While I mulled over what to do with the huge package of experiences from our trip, Alethea’s title kept playing over and over in my mind, a rhythmic back beat, like the sound of a train running over tracks late in the night on a high prairie next to a wind farm: the only way out is through, the only way out is through, the only way out is through.

Thank you, Alethea. Your words and stories, (so often described as “unflinching,” because they are), helped me turn the magnifying glass inward, remove the arrow, bleed awhile, and go on.

The silver lining of this cloud of unresolved childhood issues is this: apparently I have finally become incapable of dissimulation for my own convenience without suffering swift, self-administered retribution.

I’ve been hiding amongst the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, playing peekaboo in the Queens Garden, rim walking in the Grand Canyon, slipping on slick rocks overhanging gorgeous grottoes at Zion, and listening to stunning, other-worldly music performed in Salt Lake City. This trip became a true spiritual odyssey, a journey to me that began with a denial, and then continued with a panoply of emotions that will be carving and shaping me for years like wind, like water freezing and thawing and freezing again: exhilaration, shame, joy, fear of physical challenges and personal inadequacy, passion, perseverance, discovery, triumph, wonder, and self-awareness.

It will take some time to show, to tell.

Denny Coates Publishes “Conversations” Series

Congratulations to longtime blogger friend Denny Coates. He has published two books I am looking forward to reading: the first, co-written with his wife, Kathleen Scott, also a blogger friend and travel writer (currently working on a mystery novel),  is Conversations with the Wise Aunt, and the second is Conversations with the Wise Uncle. Subhead for both books is “the secret to being a strong teenager and preparing for success as an adult.” Wish I had been exposed to such resources when I was a teen!

About Dr. Coates: (quoted from the “About” section of his website, How to Raise a Teenager)

Dr. Dennis Coates has been CEO of Performance Support Systems, Inc., since 1987. In 1988 he developed MindFrames, a personality assessment based on cognitive neuroscience. In 1994 he created 20/20 Insight, an online multi-source behavior feedback system, used by millions of people worldwide. He is also the creator of ProStar Coach, an online virtual coaching service for developing personal strengths and people skills. Over the years, his programs have helped millions of people worldwide grow stronger for the challenges of work and life. These days he spends most of his time writing about personal development, communication skills, personal strength and parenting teens.

ProStar Coach was originally created for success-oriented adults and people in the workplace who want to give themselves an edge to achieve their goals. Because of its rich content in the area of personal strengths and people skills, along with its emphasis on engaging critical thinking in learning exercises and changing behavior patterns, it’s an outstanding personal development tool for teens and parents of teens.

Denny blogs at Building Personal Strength; Kathleen at Hill Country Mysteries.

Focus

I guess if someone pressed me to give them my “word” for 2011, it would be the word “focus.”

Of all the fabulous books in the world, it’s silly to obsess over the ones I’ll never read. Same goes for writing. Most books, stories and essays are in the category of “I can’t write those.” But, my God, there are so many genres and niches where a person who writes, submits and just keeps on keeping on can find a satisfying branch and perch for awhile, and then maybe fly a little higher on to the next branch.

Time is the friend and time is the enemy. “Distraction removal” has an unpleasant ring to it; sounds like a service that should be performed in the middle of a foggy night by a team of anonymous, gray-faced men wearing thin Latex gloves. But, alas, it’s a necessary job we each must do for ourselves.

I’ve been tearing out stories from The New Yorker for a year or two and struggling to keep up with reading them. For a while, I kept a steno pad nearby and wrote comments about each story. As a certain Southern gentleman I know might say to me, “That’s something that takes up a lot of time and don’t make no money.” It was kind of cool and interesting in an esoteric way, but one night last week, after reading yet another grim story full of anhedonia. I finally had enough. I dropped it on the bed, swore a mild oath, swung my legs over the side, and tramped barefoot into my study, where I collected several large piles of New Yorkers, either intact or just the ripped out stories, and lugged them all to the recycle container.

And all the books about writing that I’ve begun and failed to finish, they look very nice now decorating a shelf.

What am I doing with all the time I found, now that I’m not reading about writing anymore?  Flapping my wings, baby, flapping my wings.