The day before Thanksgiving, I was walking through Trader Joe's, my coat over my arm, when I heard something clatter on the floor.
"I think it went under there." The woman behind me pointed to the tall nearby shelves.
"Maybe it was a button?" I asked, looking at my coat.
While I was looking, the woman, who was probably older than me, bent down and reached under the shelf. "Got it!" she said, getting up. And she held out a black rock to me.
"My rock!" It didn't look like much, so I explained.
Years ago, wearing my green winter coat, I went to the beach in Mendocino with my husband. As we walked, I spotted this black rock. It's not perfect, but to me it looked like a heart. I put it in my pocket. I have carried it in the pocket of my winter coat ever since. I can reach down anytime, feel the smooth rock in my hand, and be reminded of our love. Sometimes I remember to take the rock out before traveling so I don't lose it in an airplane overhead bin, but sometimes I forget. It's a miracle I've managed to keep it so long.
I would have hated to lose it in the Trader Joe's canned goods aisle.
"Thank you so much for finding it!" I told the woman, after explaining the rock to her. She could tell how happy and grateful I was.
"Happy Thanksgiving!" she answered, obviously pleased.
I was reminded again of how important kindness is. She was probably trying to finish up her Thanksgiving shopping. The store was buzzing, carts four deep at every register, large empty shelf spaces where packages of dinner rolls used to be. Yet she had taken to the time to stop and help me.
And I was also reminded of how important gratitude is. I was so sincerely grateful for her help that I could tell it made her feel good to have stepped in. Honestly, I wanted to hug her.
In writing, I try to practice both kindness and gratitude towards my characters. Kindness, by trying to understand the battles they are fighting. Some of my craziest characters are my favorites, because I know what is making them crazy. Considering their lives, narrators of "Just in Case" and "Dear Squirrel" are doing the best they can. And gratitude that the characters have come to me in fiction. I'm grateful for whatever inspiration sent them my way.
So today on Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for kindness, and gratitude, and that I can still reach into my coat pocket and touch love.
Many of my friends love Halloween more than any other holiday. What's not to like? Lots of candy, scary (or not-so-scary) movies, and costumes. Who doesn't like costumes, the chance to be a different person, or maybe not a person at all. How about a gorilla? A slice of pizza? A BART train? Yes, to all of it.
Yet this idea that you can only wear a costume on Halloween ignores the fact that we all put on a costume every day: our clothes. Sometimes it's a formal uniform, like the company polo I wore when I worked at a pizza restaurant, or the nostalgic outfit I wore when I worked at the amusement park. Sometimes it's an informal uniform. I spent my early 20s, when I was the youngest person in my department, dressing in tailored jackets and skirts. I decided I would feel less inexperienced if I looked like a professional woman.
Every day, we choose a version of ourselves to present to the world, even if the image we want to project is "someone who doesn't care about clothes." I usually don't want to project that image, but if you could see me as I write this, in a mauve t-shirt, red hooded sweatshirt, jeans, teal slippers, and stained ballcap, I would seem like that person. I would also seem color blind.
When I go shopping, I turn away from both sober navy dresses and neon orange shirts, because they're "not me." But of course, I'm still me, whatever I wear. By "not me," I mean those outfits don't project my image of myself, or of the self I want to show the world.
I started my hat blog because I had so many hats I never wore--I worried they would project an eccentric image. Yet I had bought them thinking they expressed a fantasy version of myself, one that lived the glamorous life seen in mid-century movies, or a modern me that was more confident and stylish. The first hat I ever bought was for a Halloween costume, but most of them I got because I liked to imagine myself wearing them, whether I actually wore them or not.
In the end, our Halloween costumes are an expression of our image of ourselves, just as our regular clothes are. In the picture above, part of me wanted to BE Carmen Miranda, wear an outrageous hat and gobs of jewelry. When I wore this costume to a party, someone asked me where I had gotten the "perfect" dress. I had to confess I'd gotten it from my closet--I'd worn it to a company party a few months earlier.
You'd think, as a writer, I could inhabit any character I want to, and in a way, that's true. I've written stories in the points of view of women and girls, boys and men. Also a parrot and a hive of bees. But all these characters are from my imagination, from me. Like my Halloween costumes, and my hats, they contain some essential part of me, no matter how far from my daily reality they are. Writing fiction, I get to wear a costume every day, pretend I'm someone I'm not. But somewhere deep inside each character, some tiny part of me is hiding behind the mask.
I'm very pleased to have my story "Two Sticks" published in Ellipsis Zine.
One day when I was at water aerobics, an older woman told me that her husband had been very involved in the Boy Scouts his whole life. She mentioned that when they had parties, he'd demonstrate how to start a fire without matches. I thought that was a great scene for a story, and went home to work on one, keeping the idea of a man starting a fire as a party trick, but making up everything else about the couple.
Of course, in order to write the story, I had to find out how exactly one starts a fire without matches. Fortunately for writers, this kind of research is made much easier by google and YouTube. As I got into the details of fire starting, I learned that the two sticks method, which I'd assumed was the only method, was in fact only one of many ways to start a fire. Looking up the others, I was instantly intrigued by the fire plow. I started watching videos, and after the first couple of minutes of the following video, writing about the fire plow became irresistible.
The fire plow is still two sticks, just two very special sticks of disparate sizes, so I felt justified in keeping the title I'd originally written.
By the way, "Two Sticks" wasn't the first story inspired by water aerobics conversations; an different exchange with a different woman in a different class led to the genesis and title of "The Moon in Daytime."
The year my father died, all I wrote was three essays about his death. And then they sat--I couldn't bear to revise any of them for a long time.
Finally, after years passed, I took out two of them and worked on them. The third I still can't face.
The Dirty Spoon, a radio show about food, has published one of those essays, "Tracking Every Spoonful," and aired it on their August 2 broadcast. They've also posted the audio of the professional reader in their Episode 13 podcast (my essay starts just before the 47-minute mark). The essay describes the time near my father's death when we were trying to get him to eat.
As it happened, the day it was first broadcast, I was on the road to Southern California. We stopped for sandwiches in the high desert. While waiting, I checked my email, which contained a message about the essay going live. I clicked the link to the essay text. As soon as I saw the illustration, I started to cry, right there in the Subway.
We got to my in-law's house about the time the broadcast started. I sat on the bed, listening it stream on my computer. My essay was last. This time, I was prepared for the tears. The reader read my words beautifully.
When we visit my husband's parents, we always bring food so that they don't have to cook for us. That morning, I'd woken up early to make a nectarine crisp from nectarines off our tree. I also brought some homemade black bean soup from our freezer So for dinner that night, I made a salad and heated up the soup while my husband warmed some jalapeno cheese bread.
At dinner, I watched my husband, mother-in-law, and father-in-law enjoy the food I'd made. I reheated the crisp; the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg filled the kitchen. As we ate it, a feeling of great contentment came over me. It was a blessing, on a day when I relived the struggle to feed my father, for me to feed my family.
My family missed watching the moon landing.
On that July day in 1969, we weren’t home, in front of our television set. Instead, my father had borrowed a cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains from a friend and packed the family off for the weekend. We’d loaded up our board games and Tonka trucks and Herb Albert records, including the album with his big hit “This Guy’s in Love with You,” which one brother jokingly sang as “The sky’s in love with you.” We thought we had everything we needed.
We didn’t discover until we arrived that the cabin had no television set.
Missing the moon landing shocks me especially because my father worked on the space program. The company he worked at contracted with NASA to build communications equipment. During my childhood, Dad’s lab built antennas that sent pictures from space of weather and planets, even the surface of Mars. My family always told me the Hillesland name was on the moon. I only found out later that, instead of the commemorative plaque I envisioned, my father and uncle, along with the rest of the team, had graffitied their names on a piece of equipment destined for the lunar surface. Growing up, stories about and images of space surrounded me.
But we missed those first moon landing pictures.
Mind you, my recollections might not be the most reliable, because I was four in 1969. I might be conflating visits to the cabin, or imagining details. But here’s what I remember: we sat in the cabin’s living room, listening to a static-filled radio broadcast and trying to imagine what was happening. We concentrated so hard, as if we could will the pictures from the sound. But we couldn’t.
Some writers' experiences give them great stories to tell. Authors might witness pivotal moments in history, or perform amazing feats, or endure great hardships. Those lives might not be comfortable to live, but they can make for great writing.
Those of us who have not have those kinds of lives, though, if we write nonfiction, end up telling an alternative version, where we miss the biggest bit of televised history in the 20th century. We have to work with what we’re given. Without the big moments, we have to find the charm, humor, and meaning in what we're given instead. Fortunately, many other readers live without those big moments and can relate to the more ordinary stories.
Here’s my story of the moon landing: In my memory, moving tree shadows pattern the cabin floor. I’m fascinated with the wood paneled walls—possibly the first I've seen. The cabin feels much closer to nature, much more of the earth than our house with its mown lawn and waxed linoleum floor. I can feel the weight of our listening to the broadcast, like a thick blanket thrown over the room. I don’t really understand what’s going on. In later years, I’ll watch other space missions, liftoffs moonwalks and splashdowns, but now I only know something important is happening, something I can't picture, because I've never seen it before. No one has.
On the radio, Neil Armstrong is taking one giant step for mankind. But I’m distracted. I’m watching the shadows on the floor, while inside my head I’m singing “the sky’s in love with you.” I'm with the wood paneling and trees and blue sky, down on earth while big, unseen events are happening out beyond my understanding.
A year or so ago, browsing in an antique store in the town my in-laws live in, I came across a decorative mirror. It was wildly embellished. Over-the-top, some would consider. But I liked it—it was unusual and beautiful. However, it was a bit pricey. And, perhaps not to everyone’s taste. To be honest, seeing it in the shop, I wasn’t sure it was even to my taste.
The next time I came to town, I looked for the mirror where it had been hanging on a back wall. Perhaps, seeing it again, I would decide if I wanted it.
It wasn’t there. Someone bought it, I thought. I imagined the purchaser—a man with an apartment full of beaux arts and art deco furniture. At night he’d make cocktails in a silver shaker. When he had a party, he’d play jazz standards on a baby grand piano.
However, since I visit that town several times a year, I kept an eye out for the mirror. The stock in antique stores does get moved around. Over repeated trips I’ve bought many things at this antique store: jewelry, an embellished coat, an old typewriter. I like dropping in when I visit. On my latest trip, I spent a happy hour trying on vintage hats and examining rhinestone broaches. And then, tucked in a back corner, partially hidden by an armoire, I saw it: the embellished mirror.
At least I thought it was the same one: it had the etched daisies and raised flower details I remembered. And what were the chances that there were two similar mirrors in the same antique shop?
I said goodbye to my mental picture of the natty man in the golden-brown cardigan and his silver cocktail shaker.
Looking at the mirror again, I decided I liked it for sure. More than that, I knew I wanted it because it had lived on in my mind for so long.
Some objects remain in our thoughts, even when we don’t see them. The harvest gold round pitcher my mom used to have. My grandmother’s low rocking chair with its flattened green pillow in the seat. The metal bird masks displayed in a Venetian shop window.
Details live on in our thoughts too: the half-full pool at my apartment complex after a major earthquake sloshed water out, the sludgy brown of a glacier-fed stream, the heat wafting up from the pavement in front of the old Frye’s grocery store on a summer’s day. And incidents too: slipping and falling in my first pair of high heels in front of a boy I had a crush on, catching a lift back to my hotel in the back of a Bahamian road-worker’s van, watching my grandmother grabbing blueberries with her arthritic hands.
All of these objects, details, incidents that linger—they are the secret engine that drives fiction. My stories are stuffed with the details that live on, the incidents I can’t shake. Sometimes I massage them beyond recognition, sometimes they’re nearly verbatim, sometimes they're merely the set decoration for an unrelated story. When I wrote a story that featured some old jewelry, my brother said he recognized some of the jewelry I wrote about, even though the elderly grandmother in the story resembled neither of our grandmothers.
Whatever we write becomes a mirror reflecting the things that live on in us.
And for the actual mirror? I bought it. The story I told about the jazz-playing, art deco loving man was just fiction. I may yet write it—or some other story featuring an elaborate mirror, reflecting my life.
When I took an oil painting class, the instructor said that beginners painting self-portraits concentrate so hard that they end up looking angry in the finished pictures. (As you can see from my self-portrait from that class, I decided it was better to look bored. Also, I managed to make my hand freakishly large.)
It’s unnerving to study your own face so closely—you can see every blemish. Did your nose always have that bump on it? And how long has it been since you plucked your eyebrows? It’s hard to see your flaws and still smile.
I’ve been thinking about self-portraits recently because I started a blog about hats that necessitates posting a lot of pictures of myself on the web and social media. I keep studying the wrinkles between my eyebrows and the pouches under my eyes and mumbling that I wish I’d done the blog when I was younger and cuter.
I never thought I was very pretty. In high school I had acne, didn’t wear trendy clothes, and didn’t want to be fussing with makeup all the time. I felt better about my appearance in my 20s, but partly because I worked hard to not look like myself. I permed my fine, flat hair. I wore my contact lenses instead of glasses. I shrunk myself to a size four.
Eventually, I made my peace with how I looked. My hair was straight, my eyes were bad. I could lose a few pounds. So what?
But I find it harder to say “so what” when I keep looking through pictures, deciding which one to post. In the close up of a hat, I notice the gray hair creeping in. In another photo I study the lines bracketing my mouth.
People Instagramming their hat pictures often have faces brushed clean of defects—unnaturally so. At first I wondered why--they aren't fooling anyone. Now I'm starting to see the temptation.
But the same way I didn’t want to fuss with my makeup in high school, I now don’t want to spend my time wiping away all my wrinkles in Photoshop.
One of the lessons I’ve told my nonfiction writing students is that no one wants to see the ideal you. Perfect people are boring. In my own nonfiction, I’ve tried to be honest, even when it means owning up to being a pretentious idiot at 20 or loving Lawrence Welk.
My interest in clothes and hats has never been about making myself look attractive: it’s about enjoying wearing fun stuff. So I’ll try to resist the temptation to wipe the evidence of my age from my photos. After all, one of the pleasures of getting older is caring a LOT less about what others think of you. And no one is interested in perfection anyway.
I'm very pleased to have my story "Angry Money" published in Dime Show Review. The journal also published my story "Two Turtledoves" a couple of years ago, and I was very happy to work with them again.
This story is another, like "After Waking," that I started, abandoned, and then finished later. I wrote an opening about a couple in a bar stealing a jacket, then I stopped. After a year or two, I found the opening and went back to the story, figuring out why they had no brakes on this particular evening.
With my writing, I'm a pack rat, keeping the bits of stories and sometimes fashioning them into completed works years later. I don't know if other writers work this way, but I suspect they do. Henry James said "A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost." That's a high bar to set for observing the world. I fail often. And yet, by never throwing anything away, I superstitiously think I'll lose fewer of the observations I've made. And occasionally, I get a completed story out of it.
It started with a bird purse. While shopping in Macy's I saw a cute purse on the clearance table that had a pattern of birds on branches. I loved it, and even though I usually had solid black purses, I bought it.
I got tons of compliments on it and always enjoyed carrying it, so when it wore out, I had a great idea: I'd buy another just like it.
Unfortunately, I discovered that the maker, Fossil, had not only discontinued the purse, it had stopped making the whole line of coated canvas handbags.
So I headed to eBay. No bird purse! But when I searched, I found a great assortment of purses, many "new with tags," that were made by the same company in a variety of patterns. So I bought a sixties mod-looking bag with white flowers and pink dots on a black background. This bag was a bit roomier than the last one, so I liked the size even better.
Flash forward to when that bag wore out: I scouted eBay for another. I bought a pink one with a pattern like fireworks, and then, because I was about to take a trip and wanted one that would go better with the clothes I was packing, passed it over for a black purse with a design that reminded me of a Spirograph.
Now that purse is wearing out, and I've bought another style, in navy with dots--which means I have two new purses to choose from.
I might say I'm saving time--I've found a purse I like, and I don't have to deal with going from store to store, trying to find a new purse that suits me. I just look on EBay and order one. But am I getting in a rut?
I wrote before about my little whiteboard of story ideas--a place where I jot down story kernels for future use. The thing is, they are just kernels. For example, I have an item called "Zombie Monarchs" which refers to an article I read about how some of the monarch butterflies in the local butterfly refuge had had their bodies partially eaten by a predator, but were still flying around. One day I decided to start a story inspired by the zombie monarchs. My first thought was that I would write about a couple whose relationship was in trouble.
But then I thought: don't I always write that story? Am I getting in a rut? At that time, I had recently published a few stories that had troubled relationships at their hearts: "It'll Do Motel," "I Used To," and "Lifeboat Drill."
In my writing, I didn't want to be metaphorically buying the same purse over and over in a different pattern. I tried other scenarios, but nothing clicked. So zombie monarchs remains on my whiteboard, for now.
Except for the story from the point of view of bees, my next published stories were all about parent/child relationships of widely differing sorts (including the hypothetical). I'm not worried about a rut right now. But I don't want to let down my guard. Repeating in fashion can be coolly "retro" but in writing repeating is just boring.
As I wrote in my previous post, I've been down about my writing, so I dreaded writing this annual "year in review" posting. What accomplishments did I have to talk about? It had been a terrible year.
When I started gathering information, I checked my number of submissions for the year. Hardly any, I thought. But, to my surprise, I had logged over a hundred submissions. Huh! Not a record by any means, but still a good number. What about short fiction publications? Maybe one or two? Nope, I had five. Again, not a record, but better than I remembered. And how had I forgotten that prize I won?
Discouragement not only saps us of strength, it robs us of perspective. I didn't accomplish finding an agent for my novel this year. But here's what I did accomplish:
Finishing the novel was huge for me. How had I forgotten? I think I'll have to revise the opening, but that doesn't change the fact that I finished and started sending it out. And in addition to the accomplishments above, I wrote a few stories that have yet to be published.
In my disappointment over not immediately landing an agent, I'd minimized or forgotten my other accomplishments. And who knows what 2019 will bring? Maybe my new year's resolution should be to try to keep things in perspective.
I hope all of you have a great 2019!
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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