It was the summer of two-thousand-and-god-knows-when

I named my flute Lucius. I had my reasons, none of them having to do with Harry Potter. But, like that kid in the habanero pepper video, I immediately regretted my situation.

It was the summer of two-housand-and-god-knows-when, my first season of band camp. I was one of a few new recruits, all of whom I hated in a political quietness and none of whom liked me very much though their personalities kept them from saying anything outright.  The age gap between us newbies and our mentors was broad. Very broad. So very broad that the next year we would be the eldest members of the flute section and would be left all alone to look into the shining faces of newbies who were only a year younger than ourselves. For the moment, however, we had our senior mentors.

Our mentors taught us everything. They taught us which songs to memorize and keep memorized, which places around the school were the best to practice when we broke up into sections (and to get there quickly before the saxophones did), how best to navigate the closed school to get to the lunchroom…Everything. All of those important, secret things you’re supposed to pass on to newbies. And there were a few things they passed on that weren’t so general, weren’t so impersonal. When our group time was nearly up and we had practiced all we could, that was when we got to hear anecdotes about the band leader or long-graduated flute players. One day, we got to learn our mentors’ flutes’ names.

“Mine is Olivia,” said the girl with the short hair. She had a name I never could remember and sat there smiling, holding up her flute like a football trophy.

“And mine is Claire,” said the girl I’ll  call “S“.

I smiled at the names, neither of which I really liked. Olivia sounded like a woodwind to me, but an honest to goodness, round-sounding woodwind like a clarinet. Olivia…it wasn’t a name for a flute. And S‘s Claire…it made sense for S to name hers Claire. Claire was a light name, a sweet name, an airy name. It was the type of name a girl would choose to name her doll. The type of name you never actually heard attached to real person. Whoever a Claire was, she breezed in and out unaffectedly and smiled all the time.

Then I looked down at my flute and rubbed an oily patch where my thumb had rested for too long. My flute was besmirched and smeared with fingerprints and sunblock. It was dented from where I had dropped it down the school stairs two years ago. It was missing its silver in patches from where it had been used years before I owned it and the poor thing probably could have done with fresh key pads.

All the oil and grime I had lent my imperfect flute was helping the flute to tell me something. But I wouldn’t understand it until I made the mistake of naming it.

For a few moments I felt around in my brain for something I liked. I had never considered naming it, but if I was going to, I needed something I felt fit my flute.

“Mine is Lucius,” I said, throwing out the name of a hero from a movie I had recently watched.

Lucius. It was good, it was dignified. But then…Lucius. The name echoed through my head and I suddenly felt abandoned.

Both the girls looked at me with a sort of blank surprise and confusion after I made my announcement. It was the look a mother gives her paint-covered child just before she says “Well, good for you, honey. You’re painting is beautiful. Hey, why don’t we go clean you up?” Then they smiled, said ok, and we started packing our things to leave our practice spot.

Oh, how terrible I felt. How strangely, mysteriously terrible I felt. Their approval would have been welcome at that moment. In fact, I almost needed it like a hug. Something odd had happened the moment I dared to name my flute and I felt adrift.

Studpid thing,” I thought. “You named your flute after a boy. Is it a boy flute? They’re both playing girl instruments, but you’re playing a boy flute. How sick.”

But that wasn’t it. That wasn’t all of it, anyway.  Now I looked at the grease on my flute and had to call it Lucius. I was touching Lucius. When it sat by itself in the case looking at me dubiously and with contempt, it was because I had named it Lucius.  Until that very moment, my flute had been an extension of ME. It had been MINE. It was a greasy, grimy mess like I was, like my skin was. It was my arm, my torso, my heart. But not anymore. Now it was Lucius.

I immediately tried to take it back. I tried to wipe off the name like I wiped off my fingerprints, but it didn’t work. I had stained it. To this day, when I think of my flute, I have to respect the ghost that drifts through my head whose name is Lucius. I have to listen to the mistake I made that also calls itself Lucius. And I have to close my eyes and cry a little for the little machine I had a chance at knowing better, but like Catherine did to Heathcliff, I put a wedge between us when no one else could. And now I can only intrude on the thing I want desperately to call  “flute” but will always have to be called Lucius.

 

Which Would You Like to Read: A Sneak Preview

Dear Readers,

I am asking for your input. Below are excerpts from three of my stories. I want to know, based on these excerpts, which of these stories you would prefer to read first.

Please comment by saying A, B, or C or the first, the second the third or 1, 2, 3 or whatever would indicate clearly to me a specific passage.

This is Story A (or 1, or the first)

Story 1

Alright, let that soak in. Take a drink of water, cleanse your palate…

 

This is Story B (or 2, or the second)

Story 2

Take a deep breath. Clear your mind. Think about misty mountains, puppies, cold winter wind…

 

This is Story C (or 3, or the third)

Story 3

Now, take it all in and choose.

 

I look forward your responses 😉

Yours Truly,

Severine

Of Unbirthdays and Purpose in Wonderland

“There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents, and only one for birthday presents, you know.”
-Lewis Carroll

“There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why.”
-William Barclay

I dedicate this post to the only Alice I’ve ever known
To the Wonderland she has shown me and teaches me to navigate
To a woman who, on arriving here
Realized she’s down the rabbit hole
And to finding purpose in a world where people contradict you, have temper tantrums and randomly turn into pigs.

Happy Birthday, Mum! May you have a delightful conversation with the Cheshire Cat (especially one voiced by Stephen Fry).

It Takes One to Know One

I have discussed the ways I’ve met inspiration before. How I’ve seen it tipping its hat to me in a back alley, or had it wait patiently outside my door while I pile books and boxes and sticks and cats up to keep it out, or smiling at me while it kept one finger on my writing hand. But I’ve never discussed what it feels like to run headlong into someone else’s moment of inspiration.

Anyone who has written fiction themselves can  probably can recognize the moment where inspiration steps in and asks them to write something outrageous. It’s those instances where inspiration tells a writer to make their staid and reserved lead character break out into song in the middle of a boardroom meeting or to spontaneously begin speaking French without prior reference to them being bilingual. And while I have had those moments myself, it is interesting to get a taste of another writer’s strange moment.

The best example I have of peaking in on someone else’s inspiration detour comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The moment comes  at the end of the confrontation at the hotel and contains a subtle sort of disturbance in the flow of the story-one I could neither say was wrong or right, but had to pay attention to.

“After a moment Tom got up and began wrapping the unopened bottle of whiskey in the towel.

‘Want any of this stuff? Jordan?…Nick?’

I didn’t answer.

‘Nick?’ He asked again.

‘What?’

‘Want any?’

‘No…I just remembered that today’s my birthday.’”

When I read this for first time, I remember literally dropping the book, folding my arms and waiting for the text to explain to me why we had taken this turn.  And I may be wrong, but I believe this is a moment the author was not expecting.

I believe this is a situation where the character, Nick Carraway, had something to say that even his creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald, hadn’t been aware of. It is a sense of honest revelation to both the characters and the writer that makes it the perfect candidate for a creation of inspiration.

Now, that does not mean that my opinion is at all truth. I have never done any research into the matter and am not sure if Fitzgerald would have admitted it if he had been surprised by his own writing. But I do know that sometimes one recognizes “the glance of a curious sort of  bird” because they themselves have been that bird. And it’s in those incredible moments that a writer can find solace in the midst of the eternal struggle between what wants to be said versus what needs saying.

 

The Smallest Part of the Word

endymion

Etymology.

I found the word in a dictionary when I was young and fell in love.
Etymology: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. What could be more interesting in the world of words than tracing back their family tree? If words were people who had taken one of those tests to determine genetic origin, some of these words would be very, very surprised at who their grandparents were.

For example: Auburn.

The color auburn is to hair what the color hazel is to eyes: nobody has a hard, fast definition for it. Auburn is indescribable except that it has something to do with red, while hazel could be everything from a funny green, to a funny brown, to a funny grey (shorthand for “we don’t know what to call it” apparently). But the origins of the word auburn?

“Middle English auborne blond, from Middle French, from Medieval Latin alburnus whitish, from Latin alburnum sapwood. First Known Use: 15th century” – Merriam-Webster

Wrap your head around that.

One of my greatest writing weaknesses is the unwillingness to let a character go unnamed while I am writing her/him. It is difficult because I believe they should have a name they deserve-a name that is perfect right down to its etymological roots. It is the tangled family tree of word attributes, origins and connotations that makes me research names for hours and hours….and hours.

But, there eventually comes a point where I give up. I throw a name at my character  like an old coat and tell them to wear it until I can find them a new one. And it is at this very moment that my beloved etymology dictionary becomes a punch line waiting to happen. It may be weeks or months before I open my dictionary again, possibly out of boredom or perhaps in one more futile attempt to find the right name. But when I do, and I always will, I will look up the rented name I have saddled my character with and my jaw will drop to my knees.

For example: Cynthia

This really is a name I’m using in one of my stories and it really was a last resort. The name clanked around in my head demanding to be used even though I didn’t approve of it. It was so insistent, that I wrote it down to give myself some peace. The important part here is not only the name, but the story it’s being used in. My story deals with themes of beauty, art, and mortality and makes reference to the legend of Endymion (if any of you have already figured out where the connection is, please sit quiet and don’t spoil it for the rest of the class-or pass notes, that’s fine). I had been using this name for months before I went searching through the etymology dictionary again. This is what I found out:

“Cynthia- Latinized form of Greek Κυνθια (Kynthia) which means “woman from Kynthos”. This was an epithet of the Greek moon goddess Artemis”

O-O…..

To clarify the connection between the character name and my story, I will provide a brief summation of one version of the tale of Endymion: Selene (Artemis, Cynthia) the moon goddess fell in love with the shepherd Endymion and had his father, Zeus, place him in a state of eternal sleep so that he would always remain beautiful, ageless and deathless, and always within her sight in the cave where he slept.

Yep. Turns out my character got the name she deserved and I didn’t even know it. But Inspiration did.

The lesson here is the lesson I keep learning over and over: Inspiration is a funny thing and she has her own ideas. Listen to her.

Sugar-Free Holmes

I went to the bookstore last Sunday to stare at books that I wish I had the means to purchase, drink hot things, and daydream. And while I couldn’t buy even a quarter of what I wanted to, I did walk out with a gift: A conversation I overheard between two women in line to get their drinks at the bookstore café. It took a little while for my brain to recognize the fact that they were talking about Sherlock Holmes, but when it did I couldn’t help but listen in. If they every read this (which is unlikely) I apologize for being nosey.

Woman#1 “’Cunning fiend.’”

Woman#2 “What?”

Woman#1 “‘Cunning fiend’; that’s all he could say.”

Woman#2 “That’s all who could say?”

(Both order hot chocolates before continuing the conversation)

Woman#1 “The villain. Colonel…colonel something. Moran.”

Woman#2 “And why was he saying this?”

Woman#1 “Because Holmes had tackled him after he had shot a dummy.”

Woman#2 (confused) “Shot a dummy…Why would he shoot-oh, wait, is Moran the air gun guy?”

Woman#1 “Yep.”

Woman#2 “Oh, yah, I remember…(noise of liquid being sipped through cup) ‘Cunning fiend,’ huh?”

Woman#1 “Yep.”

Woman#2 “Not much of an insult, is it?”

Woman#1 (Laughing) “No. No, but he couldn’t possibly insult Sherlock, Moran is too much in awe of him to insult him…and stuff.”

Woman#2 “Oh, so the problem is the awe factor? It trumps absolutely everything, even the fear of going to jail?”

Woman#1 “Yep. Villains can’t even insult Sherlock because he is too amazing. It’s those fabulous qualities of being cunning. And clever. And…(struggles for words)

Woman#2 Sugar-free?

(moment of silence)

Woman#1 Oh my god (LAUGHS)  yes! Yes, that’s the reason. Holmes…(unable to talk through laughing) is sugar-free! After everything, that’s what really does it to them.

Woman#2 (Dramatic tone) “’You cunning, sugar-free beast!’”

Woman#1 (Still laughing)

Woman#2 (Dramatic tone continuing) “’Ruining all my plans at the last moment with your incredible physical prowess and absurdly clever ways. Damn your magnificent, sugarless brain!’”

Woman#1 (Unintelligible speech and laughter)

At this point, I was giggling and I hid it by pretending to eat my sugar cookie. I wrote it down as best I could and wish I had been recording it.

I believe in Sugar-Free Holmes.

A Case of Envy

I stood in a great big white room surrounded by art and poetry and instead of admiring the work, I  shook with a terrible case of envy.

I was twelve, I think, and was here with my family in a gallery with glass walls that looked out onto the big glass and graphite grey city to celebrate my brother’s success. He had placed in a state-wide competition for writing. There was a ceremony, there was a certificate, there was money, and I was proud.

Until I was angry.

Only a year ago I had been invited to enter this same competition, to send my work off to the great Readers of Things and have them judge my fifth grade poetic work about how America is one big quilt of cultures. And I still remember looking into my teacher’s face and shaking my head, “No.” And she asked if I was sure, that it was a good poem, that I should try it and again I said “No.”

But lo and behold, here I stood more than a year later at a ceremony for the same competition with the same subject matter limited to the same grade level, READING MY OWN WORK.

Of course it wasn’t really my work. It written by some other girl, someone a year younger than me from some other school in a different part of the state-but we had done the same thing. It was nearly the same poem, word for word, with quilts and beauty and America and yay…It was the title that had caught my eye in the first place. But the difference between ME and HER, and it’s a very, very important one, was that she had entered the competition and then she had won. I had done neither.

I was…I don’t know what I was really…I was 1) Oddly comforted that her work wasn’t unique, then 2) Interested to know how many times these people had received the same poem and bestowed a prize on its writer 3) Bemused as to why they bothered with the competition if they received the same damn work year after year 5) In a sort of existential limbo where I wondered about the nature of originality and 6) I was mad/envious. This was my poem, this was my place, this was my glory she was basking in, whoever she was (I’m not even sure she was there for the ceremony). This was supposed to be mine.

But it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, it would not be, I could not claim any prize or conciliatory prize, I had no ground here.

I burdened my mother with my mood. She empathized with me and apologized, and finally asked me why I hadn’t entered when I had the chance.

“Because I thought it was stupid,” I said bordering on tears.

“Well,” she said. “You can’t do anything about that now, honey, that’s how you felt about it. None of us could have told you otherwise. We couldn’t have told you ‘you should do this because you’ll be angry if you don’t’.” She looked down into my face and smiled that “my child is hurting, but learning something as well and it’s sad” type smile. “We didn’t know and you didn’t know, right?” She shook the hand I had put in hers as both reassurance and reinforcement.

I sulkily said “right” and frowned for the rest of the afternoon with this weighing on my mind. That was my place, I could have been here, had a prize, a certificate, a check. It could have been me. It should have been me.

When my brother received his prize, I did my best to smile and clap through this feeling of sadness, failure, frustration and indignation. My brother had done beautifully, he had earned a prize he deserved, he had claimed a place in the world of writing, a world most people didn’t acknowledge he had talent for, and he had gotten time in the spotlight. But I had not.

To this day, the memory makes my face set in some ugly expression, like remembering the taste of rotted food that I ate voluntarily. Because of it, I have entered competitions in hopes of proving my worthiness. I have developed a chip on my shoulder for others who succeed.  And I dream of the day I when I will succeed where I didn’t years and years and years ago.

And even as I write all these ugly sentiments down, I try to discover the moral of the story. I try to figure out where Mother Goose would shake her head and say I went wrong. I think it’s all summed up thusly:

“…you can’t practice witchcraft while you look down your nose at it.”
– Aunt Jet, Practical Magic 1998