Where’s My Ezra Pound?

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound

It’s hard to believe that your art is important when you’re hungry. There’s something to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If the very basics aren’t being met, you tend to forget that your story arch is lacking. This is a dilemma that is well known to artists around the world, American ones are especially attune to it, because our economy moves, almost exclusively, according to how much the middle class spends at Target or goes to the movies. And when you’re too artistically poor to go to the movies or buy new clothes, you start to worry that you’re part of the problem; that your art is part of the problem, because it’s pretentious and time-wasting.

This is a lie, however, and should be ignored at all costs. Poets save the world from itself and musicians provide sanity during the insanity of wartime, so don’t give up, Dear Artist, even as I complain in this post.

Recently, I’ve been waking well before the pink light of dawn to lay in the darkness and worry about whether my husband’s company will let him go, because the new CEO doesn’t have need for his position, even though our family’s need for said position is quite basic. While, I believe he will weather the changes just fine, and he’ll be employed there many more years (mind you, this is just a hunch and a dash of hopeful prayer, but I cling to it), I still worry. And my writing takes a toll when I have to push aside those stomach-gnawing realities that remind me of my true artistic value, or lack thereof:

You don’t make any money until you receive royalties, and you haven’t made any royalties yet.

You should be writing for clients. Marketing pays more.

You should be only buying rice and beans. Cream and sugar for coffee is wasteful.

You should be buying one Christmas present a week for the kids, because Christmas will come, and you will have nothing for them.

You should be teaching. Get a real job even if it’s just for Christmas…

Crap like that. It seeps into my unconscious and tells me that paying the mortgage is far more important that telling anyone what surviving the Fall of Berlin, 1945, was like for the many women and children who were forced to endure it. My unconscious tells me that revealing the plight of the distant Christian Syrian community through the virtually unknown huge presence of my own local Syrian community is unimportant when I have bills to pay – late bills.

But I know that while this is all true, it is also untrue, and that I must keep writing and that sooner, than later, my royalties will buy the rice and beans and will pay that overdue PayPal Credit bill.

I just to have try and keep myself from giving away all my precious family time to worry and part-time, low-paying jobs that will sap me of the energy I need for creating. It’s true – I still ask God out loud, “Where’s my Ezra Pound?” And He knows exactly what I’m talking about.

I have a Gertrude Stein (thank you, Lenya Papciakova), but I don’t have a rich old man who believes fully in my work and says, “Quit that bank teller position! The world needs Tiffani Burnett-Velez!” Because the world probably doesn’t really need me. There are others far more talented than I, so why do I deserve Ezra?

There’s something I’m trying to do with my work, and I didn’t even realize it until I listened to this brilliant NPR story about John Cage. I saw in his words about the artistic endeavor, my own efforts – this idea of simply “writing it down” and letting the reader/listener find the natural rise and fall of drama within your words. I figured it out. I know what my writing is doing. It’s not part of my nerdy make-up to simply write a good story. I have to write with a purpose in mind, so that keeps me from jumping off bridges (and by bridges and jumping, I mean getting a job on top of my jobs) and telling my editor that I forgot how to spell.

Keeping my head above the stench of bills defies the laws of physics, but I suppose that if I wanted to live outside the circus of the writing life I could have studied accounting.

“A slave is someone who waits for someone to come and free him.” Ezra Pound

A Berlin Story Available on November 28, 2014 !!!

a berlin story final cover

All This Time isn’t all that is coming out in the near future, My Dear Readers. A Berlin Story is the first novella in the Embers of War series to be released by Kindle on November 28, 2014 (Black Friday, American pals;) I’ve been working on this story since 2008, after I woke up in a cold sweat from a dream about a young woman who was the lone survivor of her family during the Fall of Berlin, 1945.I wrote down the details of the dream, which were just bone sketches of a city on the final edge of the most brutal war in human history.

Being of about 1/4 Jewish descent (with family members who had died in the Holocaust), I had never thought about the German end of the war, about those good Germans who had not participated in the greater evil of Nazi Germany. This dream reminded me that there were German innocents in Germany as well, and from this dream and that knowledge, came 19 year old Annalise Bergen and 24 year old Lt. Dmitry Stolypin, Rebecca Holstein who’s returning from an unnamed death camp, and a young American GI, Aaron Gifford, of the 101st Airborne (who was inspired by the experiences of my great uncle).

I extensively interviewed children of survivors and read eyewitness accounts of what it was like seeing Americans for the first time and enduring the Soviets. From those accounts, I was quickly reminded, also, that there were many Soviet heroes, that without the Red Army, much of the world would be speaking German today.

There was a time when I thought this book might never make it to press, so difficult was the subject matter. Several presses requested full manuscript reads, and all of them responded positively, but in the end, I went with Kindle, and I am thrilled to be working with them.

So, here she is, Annalise, and her fellow characters. Once you meet her, you’ll love her.  Make room on your Black Friday calendar for this beautiful Kindle and print release.

What I Actually Said to My Teenage Son and His Friends

“I can’t hang out with you, because my mother says you’re immoral.”

This is what my 18 year old son told a couple of his high school acquaintances the other night when they all wanted to practice their upcoming gig together at one of their homes. In the past, I would have said that was fine. I would have even done the driving, but this time, I had my reservations and the reservations did not begin with me.

Hours before my son texted the above words (or some very similar ones) to his friends, the next door neighbor (one of my closest friends and the mother of one of the four friends hoping to practice at the above-mentioned house) yelled over her backyard fence to me,

“Are you okay with X and Y practicing unsupervised at B’s house?”

I told her that, of course, I wasn’t. She knew that.

“That’s what I thought. Just making sure we are on the same page here.”

End of discussion, but not really. There is never really an end to a discussion, even after a person dies and stops talking.

So, that night, my son (we’ll call him “X”) said, “B and C want me to go to B’s house tomorrow and practice, because we have a gig coming up.” My son, and 99.9% of his friends, attend an excellent and thriving local performing arts school. I said,

“Absolutely you can practice, but Neighbor suggested already that all of you should practice together in her living room. Since B and C openly discuss their drug use, and you’ve had your own partying issues in the past and there aren’t going to be any parents there, I’m not going to let you practice at B’s house, at least, not while he’s still openly bragging on social media that he enjoys drugs and often.”

X was angry. How could I tell him, a legal adult for nearly one month now, that he was not allowed to go wherever he wanted?

“Oh, you can go,” I said. “I can’t stop you from that if you get a ride, but because I believe B and C are insanely talented (most especially C), and because they are both married to their bongs, I feel that I’d be condoning this open drug use if I said, ‘Sure go ahead and hang out with them while their parents aren’t around. They’ll probably, but not definitely,  use  (since they talk about using nearly every day and I’ve seen their multiple and frequent social media posts about it) and I think I’d be stupid to participate in organizing this activity. Because I do believe they’re good kids and they’re super talented, and I really especially like C, I think it would be IMMORAL for ME to turn a blind eye to an unsupervised hang out with them. I want them to do well in life. I want you to do well in life. I want Y to do well in life. I know my footprint in this world, especially in your freinds’ world, is pretty minuscule, if not completely absent and ineffective, but I think driving you and Y over there to hang out alone with them is a bad idea. They’re worth more, you and Y are worth more.”

X was even more angry, and I lost it (the yelling, screaming kind of lost it) when X suggested that I finagle one of my other child’s doctor’s appointments around to pick up all 4 said kids and drive them to and from Neighbor’s house, because no one else could do it. X said B and C’s parents could do absolutely none of the driving. None. This gig had to be at B’s house, or not at all.

I have a neuromuscular disease that worsens as the day grows. By nighttime, I sometimes can’t even see to drive, so I don’t. I reminded him of that and asked, again, why none of their parents could do any of the driving, but he insisted that they couldn’t and that I was being difficult and ridiculous, etc…Finally, however, X said, “I get what you’re saying. No problem. I’ll work something else out.”

He relayed the message that, perhaps, everyone should meet after school. I even texted Y and his mother, Neighbor, and suggested this. All agreed. But then X tells me…

“Yeah, I told B and C that you said that our family has better morals than theirs, and that you care about them, but they’re basically losers, so you don’t want me to hang out with them.”

I just stared at him. What? Where did you get that from what I said? Now, whenever I go to one of his brilliant concerts, I have to deal with the stare down from B and C and their parents, because X told the group, “My mom says our family has more morals than yours.”

Awesome.

And on Twitter, X apologized to B and C that his mom was being “insane ‘ as f*ck’ tonight,” because you know… a mom who  thinks smoking dope is bad for you is super insane.

Here’s what I’d really like my son and his friends to know – that they’re important, that their art and their talent matters, and if I can help to support any one of those things in a positive way, I’m going to. But it’s moments like these when I really wonder if what I have to say is of any consequence. When these things happen, I want to get in my car and drive to a backwoods Tennessee cabin and live alone for several weeks until the world pretty much forgets me. I’m an introvert who hated high school. I wasn’t a dork. I had plenty of friends. I didn’t get into trouble, but I knew that high school was a tiny turd in the toilet bowel of life. It flushes away after a very short time and never matters again. 

Unless…

during that time, you screw things up by taking drugs and awakening those parts of you that are highly addictive.

Unless…

you sleep around and contract an incurable disease that could effect who you love and whether or not you have children when you finally realize how fleeting adolescence really is.

Unless…

the adults who know and love you don’t offer you any boundaries and you do stupid, dangerous stuff unsupervised.

Maybe all they would have done is practice, but who’s going to assure me, the insane as f*ck mother, of this?

High school is fleeting even when it’s perfectly awesome. It doesn’t last. It’s pretend. 

So, what did I really say to my son and his friends? That they should not dip into serious, life-altering actions if they can help it during high school. Life will have its great difficulties and its many joys, but almost none of them happen – for real – during high school.

But what do I know? I’m insane as f*ck.

Sundays with George

Civil War Field Hospital  Tennessee (Tennessee Historical Commission)

Civil War Field Hospital
Tennessee
(Tennessee Historical Commission)

On Sundays, I like to spend time with my dead grandfather. He died in 1930 and was born in 1843. He survived the Civil War and the very beginnings of the Dust Bowl in Texas. He served in the American Civil War,for the Confederacy, like all my great great great grandfathers (except for the Orthodox Jewish one who lived in Poland or Ukraine, whatever border covered his shtetl at the time).

George is special to me, because his story is a rich one and an unbelievably miraculous one. I spend my weekdays working on the rewrites of my upcoming novel, All This Time, and it is stretching and challenging me as a writer in very exciting ways, but I spend each Sunday studying the life and times of George Washington Gifford Lock. One day, George’s story will be The Great American Novel. It will be the one that people tell me “changed them,” and not because I am great, but because George was.

I can’t tell you now why George was great, because then you wouldn’t read the book, but his life was one huge beautiful contradiction. He was continuously forced to stand before the things he hated and told to engage in what he considered morally reprehensible – like war and slavery. But what is so fascinating to me about George, is that he always prayed his way out. His convictions were such that he would take a bullet to the head before firing upon a Yankee (though they were charging straight for him), and he would tirelessly work his own field without indentured servants or slaves even when he had lost the use of his right side and really could have used the help. No one would have condemned him for such an action, but he had convictions and he did not cross them for any man or any threat.

Though I am not insane and I don’t talk to the dead (except the Saints, so maybe I am a touch weird), I believe George speaks. I picture him as kind of hovering in the sky looking down at me and saying, “Do it. Write it. It’s important what you mean to say about that awful war, about what good can come of evil.”

And so on Sundays, I follow George through the Library of Congress files I have on him, the copies of old tintype photos, the stack of musty books I have on the War Between the States. And I interview modern day veterans, like my two fathers and my father-in-law, carefully approaching the subject of Post-Traumatic-Stress and how a good man integrates himself back into society after he has been forced to kill men face-to-face. I don’t, yet, know for sure that George never killed, but his service records kind of indicate that he did not, that he was shot well before he could even pull the trigger on his musket. Interesting, because he was one of the “Wild Boys of Tennessee,” but he was also a closet Quaker and ran away to a Mississippi riverboat in order to avoid service through warfare even though conscription caught up with him in the end.

I know why George’s story sticks to me, presses against my heart like heavy midnight dream, but I also know that I don’t know his whole story and that there is more there to be discovered and told. I know I talk about him a lot, dear reader, but trust me, you’ll love him as I do one day. Not everyone who goes to war is a hero, but George was, because he hated warring, and that’s something that needs to be repeated.

So, next Sunday, I am going to investigate the social temperature of Jackson County Alabama/Franklin County, Tennessee, where the borders of my family’s land (now partially Cumberland Mountain State Park) crossed and twisted through the mountainous landscape. I know he played in caves with the brother who would eventually murder their parents, and he fell in love with his sweetheart at the little country school he attended a few years until his father needed his help on the farm. I know he voted and that he sometimes helped out at the post office. I don’t know why though. And I know that there were slave riots (completely conjured up by the hill billy locals, so they could shoot people on long hot boring summer nights), and I know that at the end of the war, people starved to death and ran from their burning homes to the nearby caves in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

That’s why I spend time with George. He led the interesting life my novel brain can only dream of unfolding.

The Things They Still Carry

My Stepfather( front center, with camera in hand) in Vietnam.

My Stepfather( front center, with camera in hand) in Vietnam.

Originally posted on my Facebook page, 7/13/14 -

I spent the afternoon talking to my stepdad about Vietnam. He talked about fear and dying and watching men die and how his father’s generation taught him that he was never allowed to show the dark emotion that he felt. He talked about hating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when it was first erected, “because it made no sense,” until he said he realized that it made perfect sense, “because Vietnam made no sense”. And I tried to simply listen and let him speak until the words caught in his throat and he just looked up at the sky and said, “Well, sh*t” and wiped quickly at his eyes with the back of his hand. After that, we talked about my mother’s father and how he was a “rounder” and then, I came home and I was assigned this story about Vietnam for my fiction class and it was called The Things They Carried, and this passage struck me deeply and made me think of my stepdad.

“…they carried it all on their backs and their shoulders – and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (O’Brien).

And this made me think that we Americans demand that our soldiers, our young men and women, carry a lot and forever in the name of freedom or politics or whatever is most convincing at election time. This is not right, and it makes me angry for my fathers, that they have had so much to carry from the moment they stepped into adulthood, and they carry it still and it gets heavier, not lighter, the older they grow.

Works Cited:

Williford, Lex, Michael Martone, and Tim O’Brien. “”The Things They Carried”.” <i>The Scribner anthology of contemporary short fiction: fifty North American stories since 1970</i>. 2nd Edition ed. New York: Scibner, 2007. Print

Desert Fathers

St. Macarius the Great

St. Macarius the Great

Posted from my Facebook page on July 18, 2014 -

Growing up Roman Catholic, I always wondered about the usefulness of being a Desert Father, a hermit tucked far into the dry caves of Syria or northern Africa, living on bugs and sparse water-storing plants or drying animal carcasses, or whatever was available. I always imagined them praying and rocking grumpily in their tattered sackcloth rags and weather-beaten sandals occasionally dispensing wisdom from a revelation or a starvation induced holy vision. And it always shocks me how much their words are like a fresh spring, a burst of cooling air even to this day, no matter how many times I read them.

But still, what if they had ministered at a parish, instead of focusing solely on years of silent, solitary prayer under the stars?Might they have served a greater purpose casting out demons, absolving sins daily, blessing marriages, baptizing babies, feeding the poor with their own busy hands? Couldn’t they have reached more people, gotten more done with actual movement? But then, I turned on the news this morning and heard about Gaza and Syria, Egypt and Israel, and about innocents and terrorists dying in the same horrible manner as though no one there is important and no one is a singular soul; every child is just a blur with only a country’s name and not their own. They are Israeli Soldier, Teenager from Gaza, and Syrian Toddler Found in the Rubble. And I thought this is why there were Desert Fathers all those centuries ago, and thank God prayers are eternal and far reaching. That combustible patch of earth and sand needs more steadily praying hermits and less politicians, especially now, and maybe these old men from a thousand years ago really saw the future.

When I was a child, every night before bed, my mother would come into my room with holy water and a blessing and say, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, because if you pray for her, you pray for everyone, and if there is peace in Jerusalem there is peace in the whole world.”

My ethnically Jewish father, of course, echoed these intentions as well. I think, however, that the rise and fall of bad news from that region makes people forget the collective power of such prayers.