Saturday, January 11, 2014

Changing the Endings

At lunch recently a co-worker shared that growing up, her father owned a funeral home in a small Tennessee town; she and her siblings were all part of the business. They had a dark comedic side that they brought to the work, like getting a chuckle when their favorite flower arrangement arrived complete with a phone and the caption “Jesus called and so and so answered.”

My own father died a few years ago and one of the greatest griefs came in the form of an empty parking lot. The funeral home hired parking lot attendants to squeeze in all the cars as if we were showing up at a mega-church with a parking lot ministry on a Sunday morning. But at my father’s funeral, there were no more than a half dozen cars outside the funeral home. He had alienated everyone in his life, including his family.
When I look at my writing, I realize I’m a bit obsessed with funerals. They seem to appear regularly in my work. In my novel Try Again Farm, the main characters have an odd and darkly humorous hobby: they enjoy boosting the funeral attendance at the funerals of all the lonelies out there. “And there are more than you realize,” says Mabel in the story. They look up obituaries in the newspaper and recall those people who had little to no one in their life and they attend that person’s funeral. I wonder where that idea came from?
Over Christmas we went to see the movie Saving Mr. Banks, the story of Disney trying to adapt Mary Poppins to the screen, all to the dismay of PL Travers, the author of the book. Spoiler alert here:  Mrs. Travers (a pseudonym) recreated the character of Mr. Banks to represent her drunk father, but the screenplay adapters were struggling to see her vision for the story and for this important character. Ultimately, Mrs. Travers admits to wanting to redeem her father, the man she knew to be so much more than just the compilation of all his failures. I know how Mrs. Travers felt. Unconsciously, I see myself doing the same thing in my writing.
Such is the beauty of writing. Like in Saving Mr. Banks, writers can adjust reality to erase and revise what is ugly and painful. We can make the dad help fix the kite as in the movie, or we can send kind old ladies to boost the crowd in the funeral home, to honor people who often lived without honor in their lives. Such power to change the outcome of painful stories of reality and ease the world’s pain with imagination and words.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Comfort Food

 I read the blogs of friends who are in the midst of raising families and one friend who blogs (beautifully and deliciously!) about food. I recall my domestic days that seem in the distant past, those moments of making a family feel safe and loved. But now my sons have sprung, flown the coop, left the nest, hit the road, moved out on their own, and I’m left behind in the empty place.

At this vantage point, I’m asking myself the meaning of those comforting times we indulged in that were only a flash in time.  Did I help my four sons by making them feel so safe if they’re just going to move out into a world that’s unsafe? Does that make our home life seem like a mirage? What did our comfort give them? Obviously I think we gave them lots more than just comfort and food. We gave them a springboard to jump into life and the tools to do so, but what did the comfort provide? Was it too much? Did it make them soft? Did it cushion or prepare them for the blows of the world?
We’re in the midst of record cold here in the Chicago area. Hard to contemplate an area as frigid cold as Chicago having record cold, but here we are. My husband and I are stuck in the house today (not a bad thing) and I’m being domestic for once. Me who loves to cook and provide warmth and comfort to others but rarely has a chance to do so these days with work and school. But last night I put on some music and started pulling out pans. We smashed some chicken fillets until they were thin and sautéed them with mushrooms and a marsala wine sauce to be served over linguine with steamed cauliflower. We decided to forego eating off our laps in front of the news and instead I set the table and lit candles. We listened to music and discussed lyrics while eating our delicious dinner with a glass of nice red wine. How comforting.
But what is the long term value? I sound like someone who feels guilty having down time and maybe I am, but what point does comfort serve in our lives? I’m reading The Book Thief and watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time this weekend, thinking of the horrors and sacrifice of war, of other mothers' sons being sacrificed to war. In one particular scene, a wounded dying soldier calls for his mother and his last thoughts turn toward home. In a world that breeds mindsets that destroy and hate, my comfort seems besides the point.
In Eric Metaxas' wonderful biography on pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was arrested and eventually executed for an attempted plot on the life of Adolf Hitler, Metaxas tells how Bonhoeffer's comfortable upbringing often returned to him as a solace during his imprisonment. Bonhoeffer grew up in the midst of a warm, loving, musical and educated family and those moments fashioned him into a man with great strength, courage and morality. In one letter home to his parents Bonhoeffer wrote: "Spring is really coming now. You will have plenty to do in the garden. I hope that Renate's wedding preparations are going well. Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain." His mind turned to beauty and thankfulness despite his surroundings. Probably his comfortable upbringings served as a resting point in his life. And is it bad to have a resting place, a stopping point, on a road to making the world more comforting for others? I can accept that idea of comfort.
We gave our sons a long resting place to grow and acclimate slowly to the climate of this world. They learned the hard lessons through school bullying, cliques, accidents, and sport defeats. But we spared them lots of messes at home. All we have to do is look around at those kids who have grown up without comfort and know that comfortable moments count for much.  And hopefully our sons learned to offer comfort to others in a broken down world.
For now, with below zero temps outside, once again I have the urge to cook – maybe some quiche, maybe some cookies. We’ll pull in, make ourselves warm with homemade ingredients fresh from the oven and the let the warmth prepare and gird us before we step outside once again to return to it all.