Erin's Everyday Thoughts

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Perfect Thing

Right now, I’m reading The Wonder Spot, the latest novel by Melissa Bank (who also wrote The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing). I’m not even halfway through, but I am thoroughly enjoying the experience thus far. (I use the word “experience” because that’s just what it is. I think a poor to mediocre book is simply a “read”; a good book can be an “experience”; a great book an “illumination”.)

I love when a book can spur my imagination and make me think beyond the boundaries of the story. My current takeaway from this book is the concept of a perfect thing. One of the characters in this book, a young woman named Venice, is described:

“Venice Lambourne was famous the way a beautiful girl can be in a small circle of places and parties, but hardly anyone knew her. 'Knock-out' was the word people used to describe Venice, and 'bombshell' … She was very thin and very tall—-five foot ten in flat shoes. She almost always wore flats, one pair until they wore out, and then she’d get another. She didn’t have many things—-not many clothes or many possessions, either; she believed in owning only perfect things, or, as she said, ‘one perfect thing.’”

As a minimalist ideal, I love this concept. (Minimalism is something I’ve tinkered with since living in Pennsylvania, where I knew a woman who had many things but always talked about having few things: together, she and I devised the “single carload” theory to possessions, that we should only own as much as could fit in one car, although neither of us ever had any less than a U-Haul’s worth of possessions.) If you're striving to own only things that are perfect--the perfect pants, the perfect perfume, the perfect bed sheets--you're bound to have fewer possessions than if you are willing to settle for mediocre.

The roommate with whom I lived for more than two years (she just moved away in August) had a theory close to the "perfect thing". She and I used to do fashion shows for each other. If we were going out, or one of us was planning for an event (wedding, concert, whatever), we'd try on various outfits for each other, share opinions, and make fashion decisions. It was a way of connecting that went beyond fashion, but that is another story. The point of this story is what my roommate said one day when I was trying on dresses, trying to decide what to bring for my "fancy outfit" on vacation--"Does it make you feel pretty, Erin?" she asked. Then she went on to explain that she'd decided some months ago that when she bought new clothes, she would only buy things that made her feel pretty and confident. "What's the point in owning anything else?" she said.

While I understand and can appreciate the ideal of a perfect thing, I think a pursuit for perfection, particularly one that goes beyond clothing and possesions, can be dangerous. In Bank's story, the young woman Venice, presumably caught up in her search for only perfect things, ends up giving up a relationship in her life for a different one that appears to be more perfect, on the surface. In reality, it is far from perfection.

She's described getting ready to go out early on in the book:

"It took her about thirty seconds to get ready. She didn't change her clothes--a robin's-egg-blue boatneck, white capris, and black flats, each a perfect thing--and didn't wear makeup, herself a perfect thing. All she did was wash her face."

When she begins her new relationship, she's described wearing make-up, dressing differently. She has traded her natural "perfection", her own true self, trying to fit into someone else's ideal of perfection. The result is unhappiness--she seems nervous, on edge, and the relationship eventually ends.

I think when it comes to interpersonal relations--friendships, relationships--striving for perfection can be a very dangerous thing. Perhaps a pair of ballet flats can be perfect, but no person can be absolutely perfect. In fact, it is the imperfections that make each person different and interesting. (This goes for real life, and I think for characters in stories, as well. How interesting would a story be in which everyone was perfect?)

I remember one day when I was a child--in elementary school--my family and I were going to have a family picture taken. We were all dressed up, and my mother had done my hair especially for the day. My mom told me how pretty I looked, and I felt sick to the stomach. I went to look in the bathroom mirror, and I was shocked at my own reflection. I started to cry. I didn't recognize the girl who was looking back at me, and I didn't want to know her. I didn't want to be pretty. I didn't want the attention I thought being pretty would bring to me. I didn't want to be any different than I was every other day. I remember a feeling of frustration and anger, although I've never been able to pinpoint exactly what caused it. Maybe it was just me feeling uncomfortable with what felt like a false perfection. Maybe it was me taking a stand for my true self--full of imperfections and a beauty that had nothing to do with how I looked.

I think one of the most interesting things a writer can do with the idea of a perfect thing is try to find and portray that spark of perfection within an imperfect situation or character.

I'll strive to do this in my stories!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Take Time to Smell the Chicken Bones

A month ago, my brother moved into the house that I've lived in for the past two and a half years. Two weeks ago, I acquired another roommate--a dog named Phoebe. My brother (who's always loved dogs, as I do) rescued Phoebe from a local animal shelter and brought her into our home. There have been adjustments on both sides. My brother and I are getting used to earlier mornings, and more walks. Phoebe is getting used to having her "people" (that's us now!) come and go for work, for life.

She doesn't like it when we leave. It makes her nervous, agitated. If just one person is home and that person (god forbid) decides to take a shower, she's beside herself. One rug has paid the price of Phoebe's anxiety over a 20-minute shower. I can only figure that something happened during the first year of her life (she's thought to be about 1 year old) that gave her this anxiety. She must have been left or abandoned, and the fear that she'll be abandoned once more must linger. Or maybe she just doesn't like to be alone.

This weekend, there hasn't been much opportunity for her to be alone. My brother took a weekend trip. so I've been on dog duty. Phoebe and I have spent a lot of time together--eating, sleeping, and especially walking. Each day, we've taken a walk together. Phoebe isn't the best leash walker. Instead of "heeling" and walking "correctly", leaving some slack in the leash, she's usually either racing ahead at the end of the leash, nearly choking herself, or lagging behind smelling something. Sometimes this is trying, especially if I'm in the mood to take a brisk walk, the sort that will get my heart pumping. It occurred to me during our walk today, though, that all of the smelling and stopping and running and lollygagging is Phoebe's way of getting to know the town. We walk up and down the street, and everything is new to her. Everything is interesting. Everything is a discovery. As she pulls around, nose to the ground, it looks like she's searching for something. As soon as she's found something, you know it. She stops dead in her tracks, plants her feet (very effectively, since she has four to plant), and refuses to budge unless dragged. How exciting it must be for her in this new world!

I imagine that all of the things she finds, when put together, represent her new home. It's a home full of grass, concrete, late summer flowers, foreign dog droppings, the occassional candy bar wrapper, and chicken bones. (Yes, chicken bones. It seems my neighborhood is riddled with them, and Phoebe manages to find every single one. She'll grab one and trot along with it in her mouth until I notice what she's holding.)

My walks with Phoebe also help me learn more about my home. Seeing the way that she explores each foot of the journey reminds me of everything I miss when I get so caught up in thinking and planning and analyzing (thinking about where I've been and where I'm heading) that I forget to look from left to right and notice where I am. I don't always see the interesting squirrels, the out-of-place-in-Ohio plants (bananas growing down the street), and of course the proliferation of chicken bones.

My new mantra is: The world is waiting to be known. (Thank you, Theresa!) I say this to remind myself to pay attention, to take the time to notice everything that's going on around me. Phoebe helps me to know my neighborhood a little bit better. Hopefully I help her to know hers a little better, too, by clicking on the leash and going for a walk.

I'll close with the lyrics to a song that I wrote last year. It started as a testament to a life less planned, but now I often sing it to remind me to pay attention to everything going on around me.

I'm Onboard

I don't know where we're heading, but I'm onboard
A speeding train just gliding past that station door
I'm tired from all these years of looking straight down the line
There's so much more to see when looking side to side

It's the journey that I want, not the destination
So much comes from taking time to see what's on your mind
It's the time we take to laugh in every situation
I refuse to waste my time thinking only what's ahead

I think I've spent the better portion of my life
Just wondering what things will be like when I am a wife
Instead of taking time to figure out my soul
I've spent the hours on planning my way through this world

And it's the journey that I want, not the destination
So much comes from taking time to see what's on your mind
It's the time we take to laugh in every situation
I refuse to waste my mind thinking only what's ahead

And there will be a time to think about the future
When I know I want to hold you for all the years to come
But for now I'll be content to make today the focus
Giving all I have to give with no thought of what's to come

I don't know where we're heading but I'm onboard
A speeding train just gliding past that station door
I'm tired from all these years of looking straight down the line
There's so much more to see when looking side to side

And it's the journey that I want, not the destination
So much comes from taking time to see what's on your mind
It's the time we take to laugh in every situation
I refuse to waste my time thinking only what's ahead
Only -- what's ahead?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I'm With the Band

During the past few weeks, I've become reacquainted with two old loves -- the flute and the piano. A group of friends threw an 80s-themed party, and the festivities included live band covers of a handful of 80s songs. Several of these friends are in a local music group (with drums, guitars, vocal, bass); for this performance, they added to their number, bringing on trombones, trumpet, flute. I played the flute in two songs (Sledgehammer and Word Up) and played keyboard in one song (Separate Ways). I also did some back-up vocals. My parts were small, but I had a wonderful time practicing and performing.

It was interesting to see the different ways people create music. The core band approached the songs with a "listen and reproduce" mindset. It was amazing to me that they could just listen to a recording of a song, figure out their part, and recreate nearly perfectly the song--with no sheet music, no discussion of sharps and flats or time signature. I learned music much differently. When I started piano lessons in the second grade, I had two books--one with basic songs to play, one with information on music theory, a "rulebook" (if you will) for understanding the process of making music. When I learned to play the flute, too, everything was based on the staff. Everything was written out, a clear picture of what to play and when to play it. When I began to practice the 80s covers with this band, the difference in our approaches was obvious. What they could listen to and play, I'd have to figure out the notes for. A-E-G, I'd write it out and look at the notes until my fingers learned what they were supposed to do.

I don't think one approach to creating music is necessarily better than the other. At the end of the learning process, you often end up at the same place. But I found that as I continued to learn with the band, I began to adopt their approach in small ways. Instead of thinking entirely in terms of notes, I saw patterns on the keyboard, heard repetitions and rhythms I miss when I'm focused solely on playing the right notes. This reminded me of another music experience from my past--when I played the flute with a church choir in college. There was often no flute music written out, so I'd get to play harmonies or pick accompanying tones from chords--basically playing whatever I wanted to add to the song. It was liberating to feel that freedom, after years of sticking to the notes on the page.

All of this makes me think of writing. There is a manner of writing that is safe. You write the way you're used to writing--using sentence structures that are tried and true, carefully crafting the rising and falling action of your story. You write as you've been taught to write, from grade school on. You work toward the climax, each comma in a line. You stick to safe subjects and cookie cutter plots. But there is also a manner of writing that is different. You try to step away from what you've done before and work in a way that's new to you. You dive in without worrying exactly where you're going. There are no staff or notebook lines--only open white space full of possibility.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


I received a forwarded e-mail from a family member yesterday titled "9/11 Flag Flying". It was one of those mass e-mail messages that come around every so often, urging a national movement. This one was to encourage every household and individual to fly an American flag on the 5th anniversary of 9/11.

I've thought about the 9/11 tragedy often in the past years, and I'll certainly think about and commemorate it in my own way next Monday, the anniversary. But all that I could think when I read this message was--was that really 5 years ago? How could that be? How in the world could 5 years have passed so quickly?

On Sept. 11, 2001, when I heard about what had happened, I was sitting at my desk at the Highlights for Children editorial office in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. We were just a few hours from NYC, and some of the folks I worked with had family members in the city. I remember that one friend in particular was in pieces worrying about her sister, who worked (if I remember correctly) not far from the World Trade Center. (Her sister was just fine.)

At that time, I was in a one-year internship with Highlights and working toward grad school. I wanted to write, perhaps to teach, and I was consumed with the idea of getting into an MFA program and making that dream a reality. I spent evenings and some entire weekends writing. I had only been in Honesdale about 4 months, and I wasn't very concerned with being social or productive in any way except in writing. I saw the year as a pause in life that would give me time to write.

That fall, I applied to 4 graduate programs. By early February, I had received my form rejection letters from each. (In retrospect, applying at schools like Iowa and U of Michigan may have been shooting a bit high, but you know what they say about hindsight.)

And then life began to pick up. Work, boyfriend. That spring, I was offered another year at Highlights, which I accepted. I began to settle into Honesdale, to build a life that was more than temporary. My sanctuary, my "pause", was over. I filled my time with this new life, and I said I would write more later on. I just needed to get over the blow of grad school rejection. I just needed to wait until the big event at work was complete. I just needed to wait until after Christmas. I just needed to wait until ... Soon my time ended at Highlights, and I moved to Philadelphia, then back to Honesdale, then to Cincinnati. Filling and filling my life with a hundred small things, distractions. Filling it, too, with large and important things, but also all of those little unnecessaries.

When I sat behind my desk at Highlights 5 years ago and thought about the future, there's no way that I thought I'd be where I am now. It's so easy to dream big dreams, but there's no way to work toward those goals without the sweat and grind of everyday, without carving into your schedule (with a large butcher knife, if needed) time.

During the past year, I've been edging closer to the creative life I want to lead. (And I thank this blogging community for helping me to stay on track.) I hope I can continue to expand. Five years from now, I don't want to wonder--where in the world did the last 10 years go?