Archive for October, 2010

Life and Limbs

October 27, 2010

I found the first one in the gutter. I was walking to school, this must have been when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and I watching my feet, probably in hopes of finding spare change. It was lying near the curb, pink and plump and plastic, with delectable little indentions for knuckles: a disembodied doll arm. Irresistible.

After I put it in my pocket I put my hand in, too. I wanted to feel my prize as I walked. It felt nice, like holding hands. Sort of.

Not long afterwards, I found a leg. Not in the same place, but also in the street. Strange. Was doll-dismemberment a new trend or had de-contextualized sections of fake babies always been lying around in the streets, and I was only now noticing? Either way, the doll parts seemed to be making themselves specifically available to me. Which was nice.

Once word of my doll-part affinity got around, other people started bringing them to me. “I found this in the parking lot at the A & P,” a friend would say, and hand the miniature body part over as if it were my due. As more and more pieces entered my life, my focus expanded from strictly limbs to include heads without bodies and bodies without heads, as well.

My mother-in-law discovered a tiny head while digging in her garden. It was deliciously squashed, the eyes side by side. Cubist.

At the beach I found a broken Barbie the color of cocoa. Not a head in sight. Perfect.

Just last year, as we were driving through Providence’s industrial port. my husband shouted, “Doll’s head!” I pulled over immediately and David braved two lanes of merciless Rhode Island traffic to retrieve the treasure. Heroic.

Doll parts are also available for purchase in craft stores, it turns out. From time to time someone has given me a bag of arms or a single leg. I’m grateful for these gifts, but they feel a little bit like cheating.

I received what remains the centerpiece of my collection on my eighteenth birthday from my best friend. The Woolworth’s on Bloomfield Avenue was closing, and among the spoiled merchandise and discarded display racks behind the store Roma came across a child-sized mannequin. Dismantled. The arm she retrieved for me is the insipid pink of a “flesh” Crayolla from the days before the company discovered people of color. The elbow is pleasantly bent. The fingers are parted in the special V of a Kohane’s benediction and the corresponding Spockean gesture. “Live Long and Prosper.”

I took the mannequin arm to college and propped it in the window of my dorm room. I have propped it in the front window of every place I’ve lived in the thirty years since. A wad of Silly Putty keeps it steady. Friends visiting my new home for the first time see the arm and know they’ve come to the right place.

“We miss your disembodied doll parts in these parts!” my friend Sharon from our old neighborhood in Burlington recently wrote on my Facebook wall. But not everyone shares, or even understands, my affinity for doll parts.

When my high school boyfriend visited me in college and we got into a fight, he pointed to the limbs on my window sill (and the butterfly wings and broken seashells suspended from my ceiling) and told me I was sick. That’s when I knew it was over.

A carpenter working on our house here in Providence took a second-take as he rounded the stairs.

“You have a leg hanging by your window,” he informed me.

I smiled. “You don’t?”

When dinner guests ask me to explain, I tell the story about finding the first arm and the Woolworth’s mannequin and so on. They almost always nod, and usually seem satisfied. But sometimes I can see they’re still troubled.

Then I could explain the doll parts’ archetypal resonance. A doll arm represents All Arms, just as in the primers that taught me to read, Dick represented All Brothers and Puff represented All Cats. I could note the artistry of an individual piece – the delicacy of molded toe nails or the molded dimpling of an elbow. I could evoke the poignancy of a damaged and abandoned toy, or speculate about how a specific specimen might have sustained its particular damage.

I could keep going like that for some time, and still draw the same blank stare. And then I could point to my listener’s troubled expression and say, “That’s the appeal.”

The Rite Stuff

October 25, 2010

This summer I’m going to be the mother of the bride. And of the groom. Both my kids are following their mother’s example — being Jews marrying non-Jews.

When David and I got married, my mother was fairly insistent that we have a Jewish wedding. She found a local rabbi who specialized in intermarriages to officiate. After he’d recited the Seven Blessings and collected his check and gone home, David’s mother and his aunt marked our foreheads with vermillion and recited a Zoroastrian blessing.

David and I didn’t put too much thought into the whole thing. Neither one of us was particularly interested in rites or religion. Basically, we wanted make our mothers happy.

Since then, I’ve gotten much more involved in Judaism and knowledgeable about what goes into a Jewish wedding. I’ve even officiated at a few, using the authority vested in me by my online ordination as a minister in the Universal Life Church to perform Jewish weddings for intermarrying and other couples who can’t find a willing rabbi. I take this job very seriously, explaining the meanings and origins of the various elements that comprise the Jewish rite, and helping the couple craft a service that follows the tradition and works for their situation.

Given this background, you would think that when my kids asked me to suggest Jewish elements they might include in their weddings, I would have my answer ready. I didn’t. It took me a little while, and a conversation with my rabbi, to understand why.

My own wedding and those I’ve helped orchestrate begin with the Jewish rite and tweak it to suit a marriage that’s not strictly kosher. My kids and their significant others are starting more or less from scratch, drawing on Judaism and other sources to create a rite that’s appropriate and meaningful for them.

 

Marriage is a cultural construct and the wedding ceremony – whether it’s signing a paper in City Hall, reciting original poetry on a mountaintop or following a 1000-year-old script in front of 500 close friends – is a ritual. That is, a human invention in which objects and actions are invested with metaphorical meaning.

These meanings are fluid. Even in weddings that are strictly “by the book,” elements are usually interpreted in lots of different ways by the different people in attendance, or even by the same people. And happily so. When the groom breaks the glass at the end of the traditional Jewish wedding, he is simultaneously recalling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, reminding the participants that the “broken” world still needs fixing, enacting the breaking of the hymen, warding off the Evil Eye, and signalling the end of the formal wedding ceremony. He’s also honoring Jewish tradition.

The breaking of the glass is probably the best known and most unique element in the Jewish wedding. But others lend themselves better to universal meanings.

The ketubah / wedding contract: Marriage is a contract. The ketubah was originally a contract in which the groom and the father of the bride agreed to the terms under which the woman’s financial support was being transferred from one man to another, including what would happen in the case of divorce. Today the contract is between the people getting married, and spells out their intentions, hopes and promises.

The hupah/ wedding canopy: Marriage officially establishes a home, and the canopy under which the couple stands during the ceremony represents this.

Wine: A wedding is a celebration. In pretty much all Jewish celebrations, from the birth of a child to a holiday to the beginning of the Sabbath, wine denotes joy, bounty and sensual delight. Saying a blessing over the wine before drinking it expresses gratitude for these things, and separates the occasion from just another drinking party. You don’t have to be Jewish, or even believe in God, to recognize the specialness of the occasion and be grateful for it. At Jewish weddings the couple drinks from a single cup, symbolizing their shared lot from the wedding day forward.

 

 

Marked Up

October 11, 2010

Miss me?

Since the summer I’ve only posted here sporadically. Most of my writing energy has gone to revising my novel.

When my agent returned my marked-up manuscript in July, he wasn’t just fixing grammar or flagging inconsistencies. Mark questioned my characters’ underlying motivations and asked me to do the same. He called me on passages I’d jotted down as place holders and then forgotten to return to (how could he tell?). He suggested I reconsider my ending, which has an unconventional format that made it hard to follow. And he pointed out the biggest problem with my parallel-plots structure: the parallels needed to be clearer.

It was all a bit overwhelming. (And by a bit, I mean a lot.) There were days when I was sure I couldn’t do it. But after three months, I think maybe I have. Here’s how.

Once I’d finished freaking out, I took Mark’s suggestion to spend a week jotting down notes. I reverted to the comforting, old-school technology I used forty years ago, when I started writing: a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook.

One week and dozens of scribbled pages later, I opened the electronic version of my manuscript. My first task was to go through the mark-ups one by one, addressing as many as I could on the spot. I clarified ambiguous passages, inserted notes about character issues, cut over-writing, made specialized vocabulary more accessible, and rewrote the last chapter, keeping my non-conventional format, but making it easier to follow.

To keep track of what I was doing, when I opened the manuscript each morning I saved a new version with that day’s date in the title. The result: 57 versions of the complete, marked-up manuscript, and no doubt whatsoever about which is most current. Plus, none of my changes are irreversible — I can always refer to an earlier version.

To keep moving forward, when a problem seemed particularly perplexing, I flagged the issue and worked on something else. There was always something else to work on, and when I returned to the difficult passages, they usually turned out to be not nearly as insurmountable as they’d seemed the first (or second or third) time through.

After I’d addressed Mark’s comments, I started going through the book character by character, reading only those scenes that included that person, and reading as if the character in question was the center of my story. Because each character is the center of his or her own story. I traced narrative arcs, tweaked pacing and fixed inconsistencies and logistical mistakes. Since six characters needed fixing, I went through the book this way six times.

Along the way, I tightened my writing, cutting the fat. I found a lot of fat. I needed to add some new scenes, and had worried this would make the book too long. By the time I’d finished deleting an adverb here, a sentence there, the final word count is slightly shorter than when I started.

More to the point, thanks to Mark’s honest, keen-eyed observations and the hard work they inspired, the book is better. The writing is clearer, the scenes more focused, the action better paced, the various interwoven plots that comprise my ambitious structure work together more smoothly, and the characters are better realized.

I am absolutely certain of this. At least, pretty certain. Hopeful, anyway. I’ll have a better idea when I actually read the thing with a fresh perspective. Did I say fresh? That won’t be easy, since I’ve been immersed in this project for 10-plus years. But I’m doing what I can by taking a week off.

I’ve already filled the week with more plans than I can possibly accomplish: Get my hair cut. Get the car serviced. Get a flu shot. Get back into my garden. Get to some of the books I’ve been putting off reading (first up: The White Tiger). Get back into my blog.

When I get back to my manuscript, I’ll find out what more I need to do before I send it to my agent. Then he’ll let me know what else he thinks it needs. And when he and I are finally ready to submit it to publishers, if everything works out as we hope it will, a whole new round of revisions will begin.

I’ll keep you posted.