That Was Then, This Is Now

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Then

            Five different assignments cling to my waking thoughts, and before I finish them five more will grab their heels and demand that I complete them. The clock reads 5:00 a.m., and I stumble toward the ink-dark kitchen, tugging the banker’s lamp’s dangling chain on the way. The splash of light it gives I can handle, but more would slam my eyes shut again.

            I pour water into the crimson kettle on the stove and turn the gas knob. I dump coffee beans into the grinder and turn it on, cringing as the rhythm screams through the house. The book I am making for my art class whines from its place on the kitchen table. Now, now, now! You must complete me now! I ignore it and stare at nothing as I wait for the kettle to wail.

            When it does, I forget the next step. I take the lid off and start to plunge my hand into the boiling water, but I stop before my fingers burn. I shake my head and replace the lid, pour the water into the French press, stir it, and wait. Stupid girl, I think.

            But it’s early. Before me lies an hour of writing, an hour of exercise, an hour of homework, and then three hours of work, an hour of lunch, five hours of class. And after that, more homework: reading books I wouldn’t chose to read outside of school, writing research papers on subjects I struggle to care about, making those awful art books that do not forgive the sins of escaped glue and uneven cuts.

            Kashi Simply Maize cereal becomes my easy dinnertime friend. I eat it every night. My husband eats frozen dinners when he gets home, or a dollar burrito from Del Taco.

            This will end soon. I will graduate in a few weeks and be done and happy.

            But though I do not know it, I am happy with this busyness.

            I am always doing.

            I am never without tasks.

After

            We have graduated, and now we begin the stagnant state of waiting to find out where we go to school in the fall. Louis leaves for his first full day of work as the head teaching assistant for La Sierra University’s biology labs. He won’t return until late night, because in addition to running labs he teaches one himself: gross anatomy. And that one ends at ten. I sit at the kitchen table, which is devoid now of splayed artwork and loose homework papers. I am a housewife, with no homework to rattle my bones and no presentations to prepare for or papers to write.

            I planned the menu and went grocery shopping and cleaned and did laundry yesterday. I hum as I gaze out the silent windows, and then sit down with a book. I read for a while, think about writing but don’t, and then stand. I walk through the living room, through the bedroom, toward the only bathroom, turning sideways as I pass the bed. Someday Louis and I will live in a house that does not force us to turn sideways like that.

            Slow hours later, I realize I have nothing worthwhile to do. I have no children to care for, not even my German Shepherd, Bella, who can’t live in this cottage because there is no yard. I cannot write, for reasons I wish I knew. Panic claws its way up my throat and the cottage walls step toward me. I look at them in disbelief. This, this absence of busy, was supposed to bring me joy.

 

Now

            I rise at six, make my coffee in the kitchen’s fragile, brilliant morning light. My basil plant reaches toward the sun and has sprouted new leaves, which makes me feel better about the African violets, which perch next to the window with the basil but are wilted. Steam curls from my favorite burgundy Longaberger mug, which my mother gave me on my eleventh birthday. I think it will last forever. I pluck my Bible and journal from my desk and sit in my recliner, read and think and write and sip for an hour.

            And then my pace changes completely. I don exercise garb and embarrass myself in front of the TV as I try to nail a T-25 workout. After this I step outdoors and watch as the grass in the dooryard shivers in the gentle wind. I run two miles and return to the cottage, whose color is a meeting of salmon and taupe and age.

            I shower, I eat, I read. I go to class, because I could not stay completely away from school and am sitting in on my favorite professor’s class sessions on young adult literature this quarter. I return home, eat the no-bake chocolate oatmeal peanut butter cookies I made yesterday, and then check the calendar on the refrigerator to see what I get to cook for a late dinner.

            At 6:30 p.m. the sun crawls behind the distant hill, and I take a beach towel outside and lie on the emerald grass. I read, but I also watch. I watch the stray cat hunt for ground squirrels and insects in the tangle of blades. I watch the birds roost on electricity poles, wonder where they’ve come from and where they’re going. I watch the leaves on the trees shudder in the whipping wind, and that same wind moves through me and leaves joy to sit with me on the beach towel.

            But most of all I watch the remnants of the sun as they un-burn the sky, slowly, until I am left in violet twilight.

 

           

 

 

 

 

Songs and Stories and Scary Futures

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When I sat down to write the first chapter of “And the Blackbirds Mock,” the entire story had already come together on a thirty page outline (though, of course, I discovered new and different things about the story and characters as I wrote chapters and deviated a few times from the outline). Sometimes I like to write with music in the background to get me in the story’s mood, and sometimes I need absolute silence.

That morning, I craved music. There was something meaningful in what I was about to do, I thought, and I wanted a fitting song to which to listen as I penned the story’s first words. I combed my iTunes music library for an appropriate song, and an album of Celtic hymns snagged my hungry gaze. I had not listened to most of the songs in the album, and I don’t even know when I acquired it, but one song in it had always taken a churn to my emotions and knocked them around (in a good way). The song, “Morning Has Broken,” had no words on the Celtic album, but I considered that, as it was a hymn, it likely had words. 

I did a Google search on the song and found not only the lyrics but a moving ‘music video’ of Cat Stevens (that WAS his name–he changed it to something else now), whom I’d never heard of, singing the hymn. Stevens did not write the song, but he made it popular. Here are the lyrics:

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

These lyrics carried me to the manuscript’s first sentences and broke the barrier between the story in my mind and its physical existence on paper as I listened to the song over and over (I can do that without getting sick of songs—it drives my family members nuts). Finally it became part of the delicious absorption that I love most about writing, the state of mind where nothing exists but the story and the characters and I am wholly where they are and not at all tired, stressed, and dreading a frightfully busy day. I am somewhere else. 

But I still used the song in the story. I felt that Okalee, one of the crucial characters, would adore a song about spring, and first mornings, and blackbirds speaking. And so in the first chapter, Polly (Okalee’s older sister) smiles and tries not to grimace at Okalee’s off-tune rendition of “Morning Has Broken” as they prepare for River Day. I’ll let you find out what River Day is if I ever get this manuscript published. 😉 

For my next project, which is still just a shimmery, nascent idea in my head, the song that plunges me into the story’s feeling is Nickel Creek’s “Elsie” (not an original song of theirs) from the band’s new album, A Dotted Line. I really shouldn’t start talking about Nickel Creek, because they are my favorite band and I have the delightful opportunity of seeing them in concert in May, and I could write about how wonderful their songs are forever…they’re considered a bluegrass band, but not pure bluegrass, and I’ve loved them since I was eleven.

Though “Elsie” really clicks with the new story idea, I can’t start writing the story yet because right now I am waiting on a few life-changing decisions to be made, both by me and by those whose minds I can’t control. Life is pretending it’s calm and sweet. I do, after all, get to spend all of my time reading and cooking right now (just look at the picture at the top of the post…lie on the towel and read every evening these days). But when I think of June, which is when Louis and I must leave our cottage and find somewhere else to live, I start to fight panic. I do not like not knowing what is going to happen to my family of two in the increasingly near future, and it makes me feel frozen and unable to create new stories. But that’s another day’s post. For now, I just let the idea cook as I read book after book after book.

 

Laura

I might write a post later about books I’ve either finished recently or am reading, and here they are if you want to try them for yourself:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult (finished)

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (finished)

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (currently reading)

Rekindled by Tamera Alexander (currently reading)

Come Read My High School Journals!

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Me, Gina, and Lora in Peru, 2008.

 

Unedited excerpts from my diaries and journals, 2007-2009…

8-13-07 (14 years old)

“Wow! I just read my little (tiny, really) blue diary from summer of ’05. I was the dweebiest little thing! I wrote words like ‘wonderful’ ‘beautiful’ ‘pleasant’ and ‘lovely’! In almost every sentence. I think I was trying to be like the people who lived a long time ago who wrote diaries.”

November 22–Thanksgiving Day (Livingstone, Guatemala, 15 years old)

“I wish I was home for Thanksgiving! Today all the families back home will be having Thanksgiving Dinner and we’ll be eating bland hotel food. We better do SOMETHING special! Yesterday we went to some Ancient Mayan Ruins called Tikal. It was pretty cool to see the old temples and monuments—and we saw a bunch of monkeys up in the trees!”

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At Tikal, the day before the above journal excerpt.

12-25-08 Christmas Day (16 years old)

“I got little Bella for Christmas! I am so excited I love her! I put the collar on her it is so tiny and cute! It’s green :). Mommy said as soon as I prove myself to take good care of her, she will hand the ownership papers over to me :). She is my dog! Her full name is ‘Isabella Marley Akiva’ but on her tag it’s gonna be just Bella, or Bella Marley. I’m soo happy :).”

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Bella and me, Christmastime 2008.

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Learning to be a good ‘mommy’ to Bella…and practicing the selfie art, which I have mostly given up these days. 😉

6-24-09 (16 years old)

“Camping with Louis was SO MUCH FUN! We had a really nice camp spot, and 2 dirt bikes and our mountainbikes and our tents and cooking things…and Bella…it was a nice camp setup. We rode dirt bikes all 3 days, and it was awesome. Every time I got up a tough, steep, rocky part of the trail, my Louie was waiting at the top…today dad came up and we all rode for 5 hours. It was so fun :).”

Bella, me, and Louis on that very camping trip.

Bella, me, and Louis on that very camping trip.

9-26-09–Talent Show (at Mt. Ellis Academy) (16 years old, my senior year of high school)

Whew! I’m so glad the talent show is over. It was fun, playing Come Home for Sarah to sing to :). Sarah won 2nd with ‘Amazing Grace’ a cappella :). I had such a nice day, a nice long nap, a nice apple pie and ice tea with my dad, a nice long video chat with Louis!”

(The video of me playing Come Home on the piano while Sarah sang, at that very talent show.)

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What is the point of all these excerpts? Well, first of all, I was writing in my current journal this morning (I did not provide any words from it because it’s still too recent 😉 ) and thinking about writing a new blog post about journaling when I decided to extract my dusty high school journals out from under my bed. As I started reading the first one, which I decorated with a narcissistic selfie before selfie was even a word, I realized that in many ways, I haven’t changed much since 2007.Image

In the long introduction to this journal, I write that “My name, my full name, is ‘Laura Elisa Strawn Ojeda.’ I’ll be taking out both Strawn and Ojeda when I get married.” Yep, I did that, though I do love both names and they will always a part of me. I wrote that “I also have a sister, Sarah Katrina Strawn Ojeda. She is 13. She is a very nice little sister, but we are as different as day and night.” Still true, but in a good way. My favorite things to do were to “Ride dirt bikes, and snowmobile, sleep, exercise, play volleyball, basketball, and do gymnastics, be with my friends, watch movies, being crazy, hyper, and fun, being outdoors, acting (which is what I want to do when I grow up), read, write, be in my room alone, talk to friends on MSN Messenger, basically, I love to enjoy life, live it to the fullest, and be crazy!!!”

I die of laughter when I read those lines. I no longer care to become a famous actress. MSN Messenger is obsolete. Being ‘hyper and crazy’ is not high on my to-do list. I don’t do sports anymore but still enjoy random moments of volleyball, basketball, and especially gymnastics. My favorite book list remains the same, but with additions: at the top is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, and that set of nine books will never lose its place. And Louis and I want to buy dirt bikes again when we have enough money, so I will return to that hobby someday. If we ever live somewhere snowy, I would love to have snowmobiles, as well.

In many ways, however, I am drastically different. I did not share these lines with you, but I was a teenager, thus I felt things deeply, invested most of my time in my social life, and harbored animosity toward my dear parents (more in the first journal than the second). Regardless of all the embarrassing things I wrote in these old journals, I love that I have them. I didn’t realize how many details my memory forgot until I re-read my journals, for I recorded the mundane, the extraordinary, the sad, the happy, the infuriating, and the bittersweet.

I bought this journal, probably my fourth in my life, right before I got married, and I vowed to write in it every day.Image

 

Did I do that? No…school chomped my free time like a desperate creature with nothing to eat but my hours and minutes. But I did write all about my wedding day, and I wrote on the window seat of the Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria, Canada, every morning of my honeymoon, and I covered big events and moments of my life this past year. Now I have time enough to include the mundane, and someday I will thank myself for that. Everything I write is fodder for future fiction stories and nonfiction essays, but the best thing about having journals to return to is that reading them is like popping into the past and talking with an old friend—but that friend is simply a younger, stupider, funnier, and sometimes wiser me.

 

Laura

P.S. Do YOU keep a journal, or did you ever keep one in the past? Do you enjoy re-reading them? Have you used things you wrote about your life in your school essays or in fiction stories? I would love to hear your experience with journaling!

The Green Place

I found this video as I was looking through my iPhoto library for inspiration on something to write, and when I watched it, I realized that I don’t need to write much for you to take something away from the three minutes of greenery: I talk, the entire time, about the place where I’m sitting throughout the video. It’s a plank in a tree in my old front yard in Montana that my dad built for my sister and me when I was eleven—so ten years ago—and in the video I talk about why it’s so special. What I say is now funny, sweet, and sad to me all at once.

There was once a zip-line that ran from the plank to the now-fallen playhouse in the distance, which is why I talk about broken arms. I took the (very rough) footage to remind myself of Montana—it was the last time I was there. Almost two years have passed since then, and I’ve forgotten how GREEN Montana gets in June!

I have always loved to sit and read by a creek or a river or in my plank in the tree, because I deeply enjoy being able to look up, allow the stunning and peaceful surroundings to soak my senses, and plunge back into what I’m reading. As I say in the video, I did this a lot there on the plank. Enjoy this little piece of my childhood, this place that inspired me so, and think about your own treasured places: what area gave, or gives, you the most inspiration to both read and write? I would love to hear your stories!

 

Laura

 

Thoughts on Steinbeck’s East of Eden

ImageI wrote a bold and uninformed research paper after I read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for a class earlier this school year in which I argued that Steinbeck did his best ever work in Row. I had never read another Steinbeck book. My professor said that if I could support that thesis, that was fine, but he thought Steinbeck had written better works…like East of Eden (and, some of you are likely thinking, The Grapes of Wrath). And so I purchased East of Eden and sat down to read it in mid-March.

I did not know what to expect from this 600-page book, and that was a good thing. I had no negative or, aside from some vague recommendations like my professor’s, positive expectations for the story. The book’s first sentence is, “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” That’s not exactly gripping, but what follows is, and I can’t explain why. There is something in the opening words, the descriptions of the valley, that took my hand and led me to the doorstep of a long, engaging, and utterly human narrative.

Without ruining the story for anyone, I will say that even in the first 100 pages I met a character I wish I could sit and share a meal with and speak to for hours, a character whose pain I wish I could eliminate, a character on whom I wish all kinds of pain and yet don’t because I can understand some of the reasons for his pain, and more, and as the pages gave way to more characters and more hurts and joys and triumphs and cruelties, I realized that I could not imagine this novel ever ending. Maybe that’s why it took Steinbeck 602 pages to write it. I did not want it to end, but I also thought it should because it is a book and books end. I just could not imagine it ending.

But it did, and I cried. I never felt close to crying throughout the entire book because I was too close to the characters to be able to separate myself from them and see their pain—I was there with them. That’s what it felt like. But in the last page the journey I had traveled with Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask and Aron and Cal and Abra and Lee cloaked itself around my shoulders and pressed its bittersweet weight into my mind, and emotion and awe clogged my throat and squeezed through my eyes. Thankfully, no one was around. 

I hope this isn’t too vague a blog post, but I don’t want to give spoilers to those who might read East of Eden. I will say this: I highly recommend the book. You will, as one of my friends said, meet one of literature’s worst villains, maybe even two. You will question how much of them you can find within yourself. But the biggest gift Steinbeck gives us in East of Eden is a sprawling, intricate picture of who these people are and what people and events and landscapes formed them, because he begins at their beginning and walks with you as far as a book can go without getting ridiculously lengthy. This book gave me a profound understanding of the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and therefore perhaps of myself.

And on a lighter note, who would have thought to describe frying eggs this way? “He broke the eggs in the hot grease and they jumped and fluttered their edges to brown lace and made clucking sounds.” If you ask me, that’s exactly what it’s like to fry eggs. 

I’ve ordered a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, a beautiful hardbound 75th anniversary edition copy, and when it gets here I’ll read that, too, so that people don’t look at me in shock when I say I’ve read Eden but not Grapes. And because I really like John Steinbeck.

 

Laura