Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

Times to Try the Soul

This summer has been a grind. Due to unpleasant family upheaval, I have been looking  more deeply into what I believe, what I’m interested in and how I’m going to make things happen.

One thing I’ve felt a growing interest in is learning how to design knitting patterns. My friend, Ashley, is a fearless designer, creating darling patterns in her pattern book and then whipping them out on the needles. It’s magical watching her do it. It’s a sort of magic I’d like to try my hand at as well. I feel pretty tentative about the whole thing but I must give it a try instead of wishfully thinking I was doing it. What I’d like to start out with is a bad-ass lace shawl pattern. Shawls are my thing. I love to knit them and I love to wear them. I’ve been working on Ysolda Teague’s Orchid Thief for a little while now and it’s a beauty. Something like that would be nice to start with but maybe I should work my way up!

Another goal is to finally finish a story, edit it to where I’m finally satisfied (lower standards if needed. Such a wrestle for this perfectionist) and send the thing out. Send it out before next year. Deep breath. I think I can do this…

One of the things I struggle with is to find the motivation. There’s a deep tired place in me that makes me too exhausted and hence afraid to go forth. It’s like my bones melt and I just want to lie down and close my eyes. Anybody else out there struggle with inward fatigue about sallying forth into the wonderful world of doing? Becoming gluten-free has helped with this feeling a great deal but the inward canker of deep tiredness still lingers. I’d love to hear anyone else’s experience with this. I struggle valiantly on but it would lovely to hear others.

Comments (6):

  1. Pamela

    August 7, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    The key may be the first line of your post – this summer has been a grind.
    Of course I can’t know what you’re going thru, I can only talk about my own experiences. I think it’s almost impossible to find motivation when you’re going thru or have just been thru upheaval and massive life changes. I’ve learned, during similar situations, to listen to my body and to take care of that deep, tired place by giving it the rest it needs when it demands it. By nurturing that need, by seeing it not as a deep canker but as a natural response to what’s happened in my life and an inner re-stitching of the fabric of my being, I find that it mends itself more quickly than if I fight against it or try to tell myself to snap out of it or try to motivate myself out of it and into something for which I’m not ready. I don’t know if this helps at all, Catherine, but it’s what worked for me.. honoring that tiredness, giving myself what I need and when I was ready to move on and do things that energized me again, I found that I didn’t need any outside stimulus..the motivation was there, automatically. Wishing you much support on your journey.

  2. Dan Slanger

    August 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Catherine,

    I think I feel the weight of indolence more than any other vice.

    Maybe pick a person to update everyday with what you did re your needlework—both pin and pen—and what you plan to do the next day. Or you might put the update in a public place like this blog or Facebook. There are websites built on this premise but I’ve never reviewed them closely. I suppose the ideal update buddy would also have a daily met goal they could update you with.

    And just do it. A bit of it. Everyday. Same time.

    Best,

    Dan

  3. Liza

    August 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Cat, I’d really like to be designing more than I have been, too. Of course I’m in the midst of finishing up my thesis so I have to keep most of my focus in that direction. But, I’ve been finding that I’m peevish when not designing or at least creating something with fiber. If you ever need someone to share goals/achievements/hold accountable I’d be happy to set up some sort of system with you. Let me know if you’re interested.

  4. Catherine

    August 7, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Pamela,

    Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful reply. There is much wisdom in what you say. It’s very hard to be patient while going through change that can completely reassess the direction we want to go in life. While it’s scary, it’s revitalizing as well. I have bursts of motivation but the tiredness seethes back in at times. Taking a deep breath and being okay where one currently is…well, it takes grace. Thank you.

  5. Catherine

    August 7, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    Dan,

    Great idea. I have a few friends that I meet up with and discuss yarn and pen with but it’s very loose and on a week or bi-weekly way. Tightening up on that could be an important key. I believe I’ll give it a try. Thanks! I was glad to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well and finding your way.

  6. Catherine

    August 8, 2011 at 12:00 am

    Liza,

    I’d be very much interested! The first key is for me to design something and see if I like doing it. I imagined grand things for a yarn spinning career but realized after taking a great spinning class that while I like spinning, it’s incredibly monotonous and my mind needs variation to stay happy. I’m thinking design would work well in that way. I’d love to chat with you on how you started designing and how you go about it. There’s a book I can pick up on knitting design at the library and I get it about grabbing a book of lace patterns but I’d love to hear how you go about doing it. Thank you much for your interest about creating a buddy system together. It really touched me.

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Tips on Surviving the Never-ending Winter

It’s been a long, hard winter. Now that it’s mid-February, the cold days have started stealing into my bones, urging me to stay in bed and sleep until the warm weather comes. As much as I long to take a three month long nap, there’s stuff to be done and living to do.

I’ve gotten more intentional about warding off the winter blues this year and not let myself, mentally or physically, wander off into a nearby snowbank and fall asleep. I’ve been observing and writing down little notes to myself on what lessens the gloom. These notes have become guideposts of sorts, gently illuminating the path through a difficult winter.

  1. The first guidepost may be the most essential: drinking hot beverages continually and consistently helps to ward off the deep cold. I brew a small pot of my favorite breakfast tea blend in the morning, switch to ginger and lemon herbals mid-day, and then return to caffeinated teas like black or green at night. Other people love coffee and others their tisanes. Find one or many and slurp away happily all day. Hot drinks are so deeply comforting when it’s cold and dark.
  2. I’ve learned to take walks even when the weather is crap. Obviously if everything is sheeted in ice, a walk isn’t going to happen but for the those other days, time willing, I make an effort to head outside. There’s the exercise aspect but more than that, it’s important for my spirit and soul. I walk to de-stress, to come in contact with a bigger world than my own, and to climb out of my circular thinking. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that clears junk out of the mind and soul. Our bodies evolved to walk over this earth and so when we participate in it, the old rhythms occur. Walking is a way to feel freedom. And it’s a way to fight too. I feel incredibly alive upon coming inside after walking through high winds and bad weather.
  3. Reading extensively helps to cast off the smothering feel of an endless winter. Last winter I read Alexander Pushkin and discovered the joy of reading Russian literature during the dead of winter. This month, I read City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, one in a pair of sisters that wrote during the mid-1800’s. City Folk and Country Folk is a delightful satire, ridiculing a variety of “city folk” and everyone else besides. Among the cast of characters is the intellectual Ovcharov, a dead ringer for Austen’s Mr. Collins. The book centers on neighbors visiting each other, eating each other’s food, drinking each other’s tea and generally getting on each other’s nerves until they all decide to stop visiting one another. Needless to say, I adored this plot line.
    And after a three month long wait, I received The Library Book by Susan Orlean from the library with two week checkout period to read it. No way was I going to read part way through, return the book, and then have to go back into that long waiting line. I set up a rough estimate of how many pages I needed to read a day to make the two week goal and then started. To my surprise, I enjoyed having a book reading goal and  diving into Orlean’s generous and easy-flowing prose every evening.
    My last read for this month is Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to read his work. I’m only a few chapters in but his thoughtful and beautiful prose has pulled me in hard into the tragedy of his story and it’s hard to stop reading his eloquent prose.
  4. Spring will come. It feels so far away and even the evergreens and pines are looking haggard but it will come. When the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that it will. I remind myself of this daily.

A Writer and a City, Part 1

There are many things to say about 2018. It was weird and piecemeal and full of ragtag moments like most years are; nothing makes much sense while we’re living it.  But as I’ve spent some time looking back, shining lights begin to emerge. 2018 had its fair share of dark moments but it’s the illuminating ones that shed a soft, pleasant glow and give me some hope for next year. Two stars that stand out boldly in my 2018 are a writer and a place– Eileen Chang and New Orleans. Both were entirely new to me until I read and visited them this year and both gave back to me pieces of myself, pieces that wandered lonely and at odds until I met one in text and the other one in person.

I’ll start with 張愛玲 — Eileen Chang. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang rose to prominence in in China during the 1940’s. She wrote primarily about life in Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in her essays, short stories, novels, and screenplays. She was an extremely popular writer and it’s not hard to see why– her prose carries the reader away. It is beautiful within itself; it creates romance and sensuality and somehow this sharpens the cruelty of her characters.

I began reading her writing this summer, starting with Love in a Fallen City (trans. Karen Kingsbury), a book of her collected short stories. The first story is entitled “Aloeswood Incense” and in it, we meet Ge Weilong, a girl who wishes to stay in Hong Kong and keep up on her studies. Her family is moving to Shanghai and so she appeals to her estranged aunt Madame Liang for help. Liang considers.

One of Madame Liang’s delicate hands held the banana-leaf fan by the stem.  As she twirled it around, thin rays of light shone through the slits in the leaf, spinning across her face.

“Miss,’ she said, ‘it seems you’ve thought of everything except my own position in this matter.  Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. If your father finds out, he’ll say I’ve seduced a girl from a good family and stolen her away.  What am I to your family? A willful degenerate who ruined the family honor—refused the man chosen by my brothers, went to Liang as his concubine instead, lost face for a family that already on the way down. Bah! These declining old families, they’re like out-house bricks, pure petrified stink.  You were born too late—you missed all the fuss, and didn’t get to hear what your father said to me then!’‘

“Father’s got that stuffy old bookish way of thinking, and he won’t change for anyone.  He doesn’t know how to moderate his speech—no wonder Aunt is angry.  But it’s been so many years, and you’re a generous, fair-minded person—would you bear this grudge against the younger generation?”

“Yes, I would! I like to chew on this rotten little memory! I won’t forget what he said to me then!’ She waved the fan, and the yellow rays of sunlight filtered through it onto her face, like tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.

Her fiction is full of rich, revealing dialogue and wonderful touches of details like the above “tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.”  Such writing translates well to screen: she wrote ten scripts and eight were made into movies.

With her splendid, icy prose that cuts like a hot, tempered blade (and since this is a translation, I wonder what reading her in the original Chinese must be like), Chang is an author that I’ve been searching for a very long time. There are times in her writing that her magnificent intelligence vaults above and beyond itself and enters into that other strange, wonderful world that is genius. The excerpt below is from her short story “Jasmine Tea” which centers on a lonely and abused young man, Nie Chuanqing.

He left his hands where they were, pinched by the lid of the trunk.  His head drooped, as if he’d broken his neck.  His gown of lined blue silk had a stiff standing collar, and the strong, hot sun shone down inside it, warming the back of his neck. He had a strange feeling, though, that the sky would soon be dark…that already it was dark.  As he waited all alone by the window, his heart darkened along with the sky.  An unspeakable, dusky anguish… Just as in a dream, that person waiting by the window was at first himself, and then in an instant he could see, very clearly, that it was his mother.  Her long bangs swept down in front of her bowed head, and the pointed lower half of her face was a vague white shadow.  Her eyes and eyebrows, so clouded and dim, were like black shadows in moonlight.  But he knew for a certainty that it was his dead mother, Feng Biluo.

He hadn’t had a mother since he was four years old, but he recognized her from her photograph.  There was only one photo that showed her before her marriage,  and in it she wore an old-style satin jacket embroidered with the faint shapes of tiny bats.  The figure in the window was growing clearer now, and he could see the bats on the autumn-colored silk of her jacket.  She was waiting for someone, waiting for news.  She knew that the news wouldn’t come.  In her heart the sky was slowly darkening—Chuanqing flinched in pain. He couldn’t tell whether it was really his mother, or himself.

But the nameless anguish pressing down on him? He knew now that was love, a hopeless love some twenty years in the past.  A knife will rust after twenty years, but it’s still a knife.  The knife in his mother’s heart now twisted in his.

With an enormous effort, Chuanqing lifted his head.  The entire illusion rapidly melted away.  He had felt, for a moment, like an old-time portrait photographer, his head thrust into a tunnel of black cloth: there in the lens he’d caught a glimpse of his mother.  He pulled his hands out from under the lid of the trunk; pressing them to his lips, he sucked fearfully at the red marks.

Chuanqing knew very little about his mother, but he did know that she had never loved his father. And so his father hated her.  After she had died, he turned his fury against her child; otherwise, even with the stepmother egging him on, Chuanqing’s father wouldn’t have become so vicious towards him.

After finishing Love in a Fallen City, I went to Written on Water, her book of essays. There’s a warmth in her essays, a friendly voice compared to those in her short stories and I was delighted to read her takes on apartment living in the city, her views on fashion, culture, film, and art. She takes essay writing to a new level and I’m still working to understand how she used the essay form to her own ends and gave it such satisfying endings. Below is an excerpt from “Note on Apartment Life.”

I like to listen to city sounds.  People more poetic than I listen from their pillows to the sound of rustling pines or the roar of ocean waves, while I can’t fall asleep until I hear the sound of streetcars.  On the hills in Hong Kong, it was only in the winter when the north wind blew all night long through the evergreens that I was reminded of the charming cadence of a streetcar.  People who have lived their entire lives amid the bustle of the city do not realize what exactly they cannot do without until they have left.  The thoughts of city people unfold across a striped curtain.  The pale white stripes are streetcars in motion, moving neatly in parallel, their streams of sound flowing continuously into subconscious strata.

There is something exceedingly special about Eileen Chang. To read her stories is to be drawn into a special place that is both beautiful, terrifying, and completely intoxicating. I cannot recommend her highly enough.

 

Cover Image: a Polaroid taken of a screenshot with downloaded image of Eileen Chang’s photograph– a sort of copy of a copy that mirrors the reading of a translated work.