Artifacts

At sixteen, I took a trip to Mexico.  Like most people, I climbed the towering pyramid of Chichen-Itza, scaling the narrow, slick stone stairs three at a time while my parents crawled their way upwards warily.  Across the dusty, bleak ruins I could see the tourists peppered below, peering into the darkest corridors and snapping pictures of the unusual stones that imposed themselves on the green snaking vegetation that had overrun the place in the time that the Mayans kicked the bucket and Mexico became a more impoverished version of Disney Land for history nerds and partiers alike.

I can’t boast at having any kind of epiphany while I was there.  I was sixteen!  Although I did get my first taste of Cerveza and got screamed at by a guard for sitting on some “off-limits” ruins, I happily absorbed the ruins as a strange and wonderful place.  It was only later that I began to think more about artifacts as defining moments in history.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that if you are always stuck behind the camera, you’ll miss the moment as it happens.  I agree with that to an extent.  (How many pictures can you really have of that weird pantsless man on Waikiki beach, anyway?)  But I’ve also thought about what it would be like for someone to find the artifacts of our culture long after we’re gone.  What would it be like for them?  What will they think of us?

I can remember the summer that we first bought our cottage; it was being lived in by raccoons (that’s another story), the roof was caving in and a tree had fallen into the living room.  While we were gutting it, we found a tin box in the wall filled with old playing cards and small trinkets.  On the old pine table was a yellowed newspaper, folded in half as if the family who had lived there before had simply got up and left never to return.  I spent the summer making up stories about who the people were and why they had left, each artifact an intricate piece of the puzzle.

I never did find out their story and it always kind of bothered me that there were these strange pieces of another life.  I wanted the full story and it felt like because they were gone, these weird old relics would never make sense.

While cleaning the other day, I found an old tape recorder at the bottom of a drawer.  To my surprise, when I pushed the button, my grandmother’s voice crackled, filling the room.  For a few moments, she was telling me ghost stories the way she had that day on the breezy porch with the water lapping softly at the edge of the lawn.  I remembered what she had told me—the thing she had said after I had turned off the tape recorder: “She’s still out there, I think…singing in the trees…”  She was talking about her friend Vera, who had died not too long ago.  It’s funny to think that she wasn’t totally wrong.  All these years later, even though my grandma was gone, her voice and her stories were still here. It was just a small artifact of her life–not the whole story, but it was a moment that I could preserve.

It doesn’t matter what stories the artifacts might tell.  They don’t have to tell the absolute truth, because they are only small moments.  What matters is that they—the stories—lived and you found them.  That’s the power of artifacts and the stories live in the moment that they are found.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I only took one picture of the underwear guy on Waikiki Beach. I wonder what he was doing?

Waikiki Man

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Living the Dream: The Phases of Building IKEA Furniture

Since I’m taking a short break from the writing to help a friend move into his new house, I’ve decided to write something a little different. Here is how I see the process of building IKEA furniture:

Denial:

It begins when you see the furniture set up in the store. “It can’t be THAT hard to put together,” you say to yourself as you sit on the already constructed model in the dream-like show room. “What could possibly go wrong?” Even as you begin to unpack the many pieces and that familiar sense of foreboding bubbles to the surface, you push it back down. The cartoon directions are cute! The furniture has a funny name! It can’t be that bad…

Anger:

It’s been hours. Your living room now looks like a battleground riddled with the corpses of torn cardboard, oddly named screws and some directions that make no sense. A vague feeling of hatred for that little stick dude rises to the surface as you peer bemusedly at the directions one more time.

“Why don’t they make non- Allen key screws?!? What’s up with those directions?”

Welcome to anger-ville, population you.

Bargaining:

“Oh, —–.” and other variations. Insert any and all of your favorite expletives here, because in this phase they are plentiful. Usually occurring after you have built your furniture backwards, lost that all important screws and/or have fully assembled said furniture without a crucial piece, you beg the furniture to “just work dammit!”

Depression:

Dammit, it didn’t work. Maybe you insulted its mama one too many times, because now it looks like something made by Picasso’s brain-damaged brother.
“This is never going to look like furniture,” you moan, sinking to the floor. In the depths of furniture building depression, THE DREAM seems pretty far away.

Acceptance:

Congratulations! At some point, you have to pick yourself up off of the floor and do your best (or worst).

Your furniture may or may not look like what it did in the store, but you can sit on it/store your stuff in it and now it is time to accept the fact that it is what it is. Good job, friend, go and have a beer.

It’s Not the End of the World, You Know

Whenever I am worried about something, my mother says “it’s not like it’s the end of the world, you know.” Throughout the years, there have been many things that have warranted this reaction and today wasn’t really an exception.

Except maybe it was–if you believe in the whole Mayan Apocalypse debacle. But let me explain first. I am terrified of the dentist. As a child, I had a dentist who the kids called “Wild man Bill,” because he looked like a mad scientist and he frequently shrieked at anyone who would listen. The guy was like the boogeyman of dentists.

Since then, I’ve avoided the dentist as much as possible. Until this morning, when I had a jolt of pain in my tooth. To make a long and embarrassingly panic-ridden tale of childish fear short, I went to the dentist.
The dentist turned out to be really great. I joked, she drilled, we had some laughs and more importantly–it wasn’t the end of the world.
It was while sitting in the dentist’s chair that my mother’s words came back to me”…it’s not like it’s the end of the world…”

Here is a thought: even if you are facing something that scares you, it’s probably going to be okay. I think that after a certain point, we just have to accept that even if the world ended, we’d handle it and move on.

The Swamp: Finding the Magic and Crafting the Mystery

My cousin and I sometimes get ourselves into sticky situations.  One Christmas, we were enchanted by the idea of the ice covered swamp—a place which happened to be off-limits.  Walking our small dog down the dark road made the journey even more dazzling; it was the anticipation of what might happen that kept us shivering, whooping, buzzing with excitement.  So when the dog backed out of his collar and took off into the snowy woods we could think of nothing to do but follow him. It was an adventure!

Hearts racing, we pounded through the snowy woods, arms out to fend off rogue branches.  I have always loved the woods in winter: muted and warm from the layers of white.  But on this night, with the stars shrouded behind clouds and the winds howling along with the wolves, it felt like the air was charged with something magical—and perhaps a little dangerous.  At the edge of the woods was the swamp.

Out onto the pristine ice we went, trailing the small mutt as he ducked and weaved through the frozen bulrushes.  The sound of brittle bones creaking underneath as the ice shifted below.  Here’s the problem with swamps in winter: no matter how untouched and innocent they look, there’s always a soft spot. With a crack the ice gave way beneath my boots and I slid down into the chilling, murky water below.

At this point, you might be thinking: Lauren has gone insane.  Swamps and novels are nothing alike.  True.  There are many ways that they are different and only one way that they are similar: when you get stuck, it’s a real mess to claw your way back to your original destination (or point).  At the same time, the act of getting lost in the swamp—or the story—is exhilarating.  Sometimes the thrill of not knowing what will happen next—what new plot twist you will write into the story—makes the process and the product better.  At the same time, writing an outline for your novel is like a safety net.  It serves an important purpose for when you get mired in the bog—or whatever pitfalls you might encounter.

In the end, my cousin lay down on the ice (like we had been taught not that long ago) and managed to pull me out of the frozen muck.  Frozen and exhausted, we lay there, on the banks of the swamp and looked up at the stars.  The dog padded up softly to us and began licking us on our prickling pink cheeks.

Do you write an outline before starting a novel? Is it worth it? What are the best ways to make a novel outline?

The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Road Maps

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I’ll admit it.  I’m one of those people who likes to have a plan for everything.  When I was in high school, I wrote pages of outlines for each and every essay that looked something like the plans to the White House underground facility—only less legible.  University was no different, except for the fact that I could now drink beer while outlining papers (legibility not guaranteed).  Countless organizers over many years of polished, planned, prepared work and goals have taught me that the only way to be successful is to have a plan.  Up until this point in my life, the road had been laid out clearly.  Graduate from each year of school and at the end all would be revealed.  So when I found myself suddenly with no schedule or plan whatsoever I found myself asking this question: what do I do now with my life? It’s a simple enough question, but it inspires a lot more questions than answers.  I’ll try and answer that question for you [the imagined reader] or at least for myself.  But first: a story.

In her lifetime, my grandmother got lost many times.  But this time, in particular, was the worst. She had only just gotten her license—at the young age of 40—and this was to be her first road trip ever.  My mom, thirteen at the time, was sitting in the back seat of the old car, sandwiched in between her two crazy brothers and they were getting tired.  They had been driving along the winding, dusty roads of the countryside for hours.  Nana wasn’t used to driving, so she went slowly, pulling off to let the fast cars pass every once in a while.  When they had been driving for three or four hours and the sun had begun to set, my mother remembers feeling that rising panic as the realization set in that she might have to sleep in the car…with her brothers (ew).  But Nana didn’t stand for that.  She might have been terrible at reading maps (a trait that I inherited too), but she was incredibly resilient.  So instead, she said “Don’t worry, the sunset sets in this direction.  I see it from the kitchen window every night.  We’ll drive that way, because that is the way that home is.”  Sure enough, after another hour and half of driving into the sunset, they were home.

Thinking about this ill-fated car journey made me think: maybe, the magic of the journey lies in the mystery?  So what if my plans have changed?  Road maps aren’t the only way to get to where you need (or want) to go.  Maybe it’s not always a conventional route that we need to take, but either way you’ll get to where you need to be.  Maybe, like E.L. Doctorow says: “It’s like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” So what do I do now?  I write.