On Rejection

Rejection letter1I am a failure when my goal is to get published. When I revise my goal to gathering as many rejections as I can, I become an overnight success.

I consider revising my goal to obtain not just a form rejection, but a personal rejection. Maybe even one day some advice or an edit, but I’m not quite ready to become a failure again. Just keep the bar low, I tell myself. Seek only rejection. Unqualified rejection.

I’m waiting on a couple of rejection letters, I tell my husband. Where from this time, he asks, and I tell him. Sure enough, they trickle in, sometimes in the mailbox, sometimes via email.

In the mailbox, there’s little question. When you’re staring at an envelope addressed to yourself in your own handwriting, you just kind of know what it is. I open it and pull out the standard rejection: Your piece is not right for our publication.

Bullshit, I think. Or sometimes, you’ll rue the day. But mostly I know my writing just isn’t good enough yet, and that rejection—and the writing itself—is part of the process that will change that. Someday. Someday soon, I hope.

In my email, I’ll see the name of the publication in the “from” column, and the name of my piece in the “subject” column. And there is some question. Because this is not a self-addressed, self-stamped envelope. I get many, many, many, many rejections (that why I’m such a success, remember?) and this one is probably no different, but maybe, just maybe. After all, it’s very late in the process for this publication. And I read somewhere that the later the response, the better the chance that the editors are actually considering your piece.   So there is hope.

So I don’t open it right away. I go about my typical email routine, deleting the obvious marketing ones, reading the anecdotes from my sister, the missives from my boss.

And then I can’t stand it anymore. My finger hovers over the touch pad for a second more, and then I tap it to open the message. And it’s . . .

. . . a knife to the heart.

In the form of a personal rejection of the nicest sort, with a tone of kindness I never dreamed possible in an email. My piece was among those in the final group considered for publication. But.   And they hope to see more of my writing in the future.

I see now that the personal rejection is much more of a bummer than your form rejection. The form rejection is a short harsh buzzer, like in a TV game show when the contestant guesses wrong. BRRNT! Over. Done. On to the next thing.

The personal rejection lets you know that you just… didn’t… quite… get there. Others were just… that… much… better.

Which drives me back to my submission and I go over it again with an even finer toothed comb than before and then torment myself. If I’d switched those two words around. If I hadn’t used quotation marks there. If I’d wanted it more. If I hadn’t slugged that kid in kindergarten. If I were a better person.

 If I were a better writer. The thing is filled with flaws. Tension and emotion, yes. But little flaws too. So while I imagine this editor making a case for my piece, I picture all the other editors around the table fighting for their writers, also. Writers whose essays wouldn’t need quite as much work.

So it’s back to the writing desk. Writing and rewriting. Visioning and re-visioning. Submitting.

I’m waiting on a few new rejections, I tell my husband. Where from, he asks, and I tell him.

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The Last Firing

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It’s only when Kevin muds up the door of the anagama that I get teary-eyed. For all that has passed in front of this stoke hole. For all that we’ve been given. For everything and everyone that has wandered in and out of our lives.

For all the prayers that have been stoked along with the wood. For the hopes, the disappointments, the heartbreaks, the unions, the births, the funerals. The moving-ons, the staying-puts. The hellos and good-byes. The escapes. The rescues. The tears, the hurt, the gratitude, the healing.

All against the soundtrack of birdsong at dawn, music jams at night, raucous bursts of laughter, low hum of conversation. The crackling of the fire, the roar and whisper of the draft.

The first firing of this kiln took place scant hours after planes sent towers crashing to the ground—potters on our first crew had watched a column of smoke rise from the Pentagon. Here in the woods amidst songs of the whippoorwill and the wood thrush, we mourned and healed in turns as we sent smoke of another kind skyward with our prayers.

We emerged from that firing a family where four days earlier we had been only acquaintances. I wanted to hold them here as one by one they headed back into a world that for all we knew might still be under attack. As I think back on all this, Mary Oliver’s words speak to me most clearly:

There is only one question: how to love this world.

Fourteen years later, the make-up of the kiln crew has changed. Some moved, some simply moved on, always new potters ready to step up to the stoke hole and keep the fire burning. I no longer fear what comes next. It’s just so hard to let them go.

Now Kevin seals up this anagama for the last time. By this time next year, a new kiln will take its place. Though smudged with soot and smoke, I can still make out Jane Hirshfield’s words stenciled around the arch:

Everything’s connected. Everything changes. Pay attention.

Old kiln, thank you. New kiln, here we come. Eyes wide open.

NO PIPELINE

NO PIPELINE 1We’ve heard a lot from Dominion about the public benefit and utter necessity of this pipeline here in Nelson County, Virginia. But in fact much of this gas will be exported to foreign countries. Gas that was extracted in this country with a process that causes earthquakes, and puts unknown chemicals in our water.

If men wearing black ski masks, carrying foreign passports were caught doing this, they would be arrested on suspicion of terrorism and tortured until they gave up the names of these chemicals. Work for an American energy corporation, and it’s all perfectly legal.

While the necessity of this project is in question, what the pipeline represents for certain is additional degradation of our water, and the plants and animals and jobs that depend on this water, from here all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

It represents a greater potential for landslides in an area that has seen its share of loss to life and property from cascading rock and mud.

It represents endangerment to our citizens through risk of gas leaks and explosions.

It represents a loss to the many small business owners who invested in the beauty of this county with their livelihoods and their families.

This pipeline is a poster child for a lack of imagination that in my opinion is un-American

Seventy years ago, when this grief-stricken country needed to bring about an end to a painful and costly World War, our government assembled the brightest minds in the world around a single project. Working together over two years, these scientists unleashed the awesome energy of the atom.

It’s high time we assembled the brightest minds around the development of pollution-free renewable energy sources. This is America. Our problems are often hard, but never impossible. And we’re not talking about splitting the atom. We’re talking about building a better battery. So let’s get to it.

FERC representatives – you work for the government. If you want to do something that is truly in the public interest, DO NOT approve this pipeline.

I’ll Remember You

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The seas between us have roared and swelled since auld lang syne.

 With 2015 hours away, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that 1964 was fifty years ago. So much happened that year. Congress passed perhaps the most significant piece of legislation of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But at age six, that was not so much on my mind.

Here are some things that were.

The British Invasion in February. The Beatles appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show, a program my family never missed. It was exciting to have them in America. Like other American girls, I was already a fan. My friend, Barbara Jean Youngblood, had received a Beatles wig—a gift I coveted— for Christmas a little over a month earlier. Santa had brought me a red plastic Beatles guitar, with John, Paul, George and Ringo’s heads pictured on the front. I roamed around the house singing loudly and strumming tunelessly, to the everlasting distraction of my parents.

A Hard Day’s Night, the film, made its American debut. That September, Barbara Jean’s mother took us to see it at the ornate Beacon Theater in downtown Hopewell. Of the movie, mostly what I remember are the Beatles, running madcap from one location to another, their twangy guitar music in the background.

This fall, Kevin and I watched The Beatles Anthology on Netflix. Along with everything else, the documentary covered A Hard Day’s Night, and I found that my recollection was pretty much right on the money. There was a lot of running around haphazardly, making it the perfect movie for a six-year old.

Even more than the movie, I recall Barbara Jean, and how she said with her characteristic bravery, “Let’s sit in the balcony.”

The balcony! I’d always wanted to sit in the balcony, but the ushers had always frowned on it, why, I couldn’t guess, and my parents never really explained. So when Barbara Jean suggested it, I was all in. For reasons not clear to me, the ushers were nowhere in sight and up we went. The view was fabulous, and we could gaze down at all of Hopewell, wave to people we knew. Why had we not been sitting in the front row of the balcony all our lives?

Only later would I understand that it had something to do with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prior to its passage that July, the balconies of the south had been relegated to blacks. Mixing was discouraged. “Colored” entrances, colored water fountains, or “No Coloreds” at all. Now here we sat, two little smock-dressed girls, perfectly at home amid a sea of mostly black faces. Faces who would spend years gaining the same confidence to enter areas now legislatively available to them.

Bigger to me than the Civil Rights Act and even the Beatles, were the Peanuts characters come to life on television for the first time. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Snoopy, Pigpen, and the rest of the Peanuts gang, pitter-pattering from the football field to the Christmas tree lot, Christmas carols rising from mouths pointed toward the heavens. All set to the moody, spare piano of Vince Guaraldi, now gone. How my mother, also gone now, loved it. And how like almost every other American boomer kid, we looked forward to it every year. Some of the commercials are just as vivid. Norelco electric razors (Noelco for the holidays), risqué English Leather aftershave—All my men wear English Leather. Or they wear nothing at all. And of course, the Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhoads commercials, old time Richmond department stores, now history.

So clear is the memory of the Lundquist family— Dad 37, Mom 34, Conway 10, me 6, Will 4 and Laura 1— scattered about on the sofas, rocking chairs, and avocado green wall to wall carpet, in front of our first-ever color TV. Another 5 years would find us in roughly the same places, watching Neil Armstrong take one giant step for mankind.

A half a century. Gone in the blink of an eye. The Lundquist kids are grown, our childhood now fifty years in the past. Mom and Dad are gone. The Fab Four are down to two. Race riots dominated the news this holiday season. Real progress takes its slow time.But the Beacon Theater has been restored, the Peanuts special just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack still makes radio waves this time of year.

1964. I’ll remember you fondly.

We Are Stardust

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You are a child of the universe.  No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.  And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

from “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann

 

Kevin and I bundle up at 9:00 pm and trudge out to the deck that juts into the woods off the back of the pottery studio. With the oaks, hickories and poplar trees now bare of leaves, the winter sky sparkles above us. We locate the constellation Gemini in the eastern sky, then sit back on the bench arm in arm, eyes adjusting to the darkness, and wait for the show.

Shooting stars – pieces of an asteroid, on their way around the sun. They streak above us, seeming to radiate from the Gemini twins. Some we wonder if we’ve seen at all. Others take their time falling through the night sky. It surprises me each time that anything with this much Fourth of July charisma could be so utterly without sound. The silence adds to the magic.

“It’s easy to imagine that we’re on this amazing ride through the universe on Spaceship Earth,” Kevin says. We both sit in wonder, visualizing ourselves here in our place on the planet, hurdling through space, passing through the tail of an asteroid. Which is exactly what’s happening.

Each year, in December, Planet Earth crosses the orbital path of asteroid 3200 Phaethon, a mysterious space rock that dwells in orbit between Mars and Jupiter. As it approaches the sun, bits of this boulder overheat and fragment, then burn up as they cross Earth’s atmosphere. Thus, the magic of the Geminids.

We are stardust. “We were once and we will be again.” That’s what Eugene Worley, retired aerospace engineer, quite literally a rocket scientist—a man who helped put Neil Armstrong on the moon—tells his Alabama Sunday school class.   His certainty in this in no way conflicts with his Christian beliefs.

Everything and every one that has ever been here still dwells here in some form. Every plant, animal, rock, worm, dinosaur, caveman, ancestor. Every passenger pigeon, black rhinoceros, ivory bill woodpecker. Anything or anyone who ever looked up in wonder at a shooting star, from Cro-Magnon to the ancient Greeks to Galileo, from the founding fathers to the native Americans, right down to my husband and me side by side, staring up at the night sky.

We’re all still here. Cycling and recycling on the amazing, mysterious Planet Earth. Right now, it’s Kevin and me—the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Christians and the Muslims, the protesters and the law enforcement officers, the criminals and the victims. The judges and the juries. The whales and the dolphins. The turtles in their cozy burrows, the polar bears in their frozen caves. We are stardust—voyagers together on this crushingly sad, achingly blissful journey through the universe.

A Letter to Centrifuge Man

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Dear Man Who Talks My Nephew Through the Centrifuge Training So That He Can Be a Marine Corps Fighter Pilot:

I can’t see you, but I can hear you as I watch the Facebook video of my nephew sitting in his flight suit, his head against the headrest, joystick in his right hand. Your calm voice soothes me as you coach Evan through the steps of the training.

Evan has explained that the centrifuge consists of a single flight seat enclosed in a round gondola. The gondola is mounted to an arm that rotates at a high rate of speed to produce the effects of acceleration. It is capable of simulating a g-force of up to 15 g’s at an onset rate of 6 g’s per second. While a roller coaster might reach two, maybe three g’s, at some point, Evan will reach a g-force of 7.5.

Whenever you’re ready, you tell him. Stay nice and relaxed. Squeeze your butt.

 Three…two…one…engage.

 The ride begins.

Tighten that butt. Good job!

 The ride ends.

You went to 4.8 g’s. How much of your eyesight did you lose?

You ask this as casually as you might ask Evan much money he lost in the latest March Madness pool. Except we’re talking about eyesight here. He will soon fly a ­­­­thirty million dollar fighter jet, and he’ll lose his eyesight?

By his own estimation, Evan loses about 50%.

Did it come back right away? Did it tunnel in?

 Evan replies that his eyesight grayed out. It came back right away. You ask him these questions with each progression through the g-forces of the exercise.

The goal is to maintain consciousness, Evan explains to me. Astounding, when you stop and think about it. He’ll be piloting a state-of-the-art fighter jet loaded with weapons of mass destruction and he loses his eyesight. He might black out.

But, my nephew assures me, they only reach maximum g-force during certain maneuvers, and only for a short period of time. He’ll develop a tolerance for it, and after all, that’s what the training is for.

You went to 4.8 g’s last time, so let’s go to 5.5 on the next ride, you, with your inspiring voice, tell Evan.

Rapid onset, you say.

Zero to six g’s in one second? Yeah, I think. Sounds like rapid onset to me.

Drop the shoulders, you say. Terminate, terminate, terminate, you tell him when you want him to decelerate, and he releases his grip on the joystick.

 Stay tight on the way down.

 You say this without exclamation points in your voice, with a calm assurance, as though talking a tightrope walker across Niagara Falls. Easy does it. Terminate, terminate, terminate. Come to Daddy.

OK, you say. 6.5. Really concentrate on relaxing.

Just relax. Practice the ab push. We’ll rest up for three, then go for 7.5.

 All butt, all day. Smile. I’m having a GOOD time.

 You’re a good-natured kidder, Centrifuge Man. Evan is about to be spun like a frog in a blender without the blades, yet you have him flashing his thousand-watt smile.

 How about your eyesight? you ask him.

It always grays out, Evan tells you, with equal calm.

How did you get it back?

 I tightened my butt, Evan tells you.

The butt squeeze, you say, as though referring to an old friend. It’s an excellent thing to do.

 You’re so darned companionable. I can picture the whole gang downing a few brewskis after a hard day in the centrifuge. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?

Later my sister and I agree. With your confident voice in our headset, we could land a jumbo jet on the head of a pin in a Category 5 hurricane. Or at least a zippy fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in rough seas. Which is the ultimate goal here, unless I’m missing something.

We could do anything if only we had you to coach us through it.

Have you considered a career as a hostage negotiator? This is just a bump in the road, you tell a gun-toting paranoid maniac. This time, we’re going to turn your life around. Remember to breathe. We’ll start slow and then move up.

Perhaps something at the United Nations?

Or maybe, Centrifuge Man, you were born for greater things. Cut through all that bureaucracy and simulcast your voice direct to the many battlegrounds on our planet:

You may put your weapons down now. Terminate, terminate, terminate. How does this feel? Breathe normally. Relax your upper body.

 You have achieved world peace. Work hard for me. Fifteen more seconds. You’re looking good. Now gimme all you got. Let’s go for longer this time . . .

This is Only a Drill

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I am substitute teaching at an elementary school in Nelson County, where I live. At some point in the day, the lesson plan says, there will be an Intruder Alert Drill. After my homeroom class gathers, I explain to them what will happen, and that it will be only a drill.

A thin boy raises his hand. He has dark circles under his eyes as though this question has been keeping him up at night. “If it’s not just a drill,” he asks, “will we have to jump out the window?”

I turn my eyes from him to the quiet Blue Ridge Mountains beyond our second story classroom. Sure death from bullets, or possible death and broken bones from a leap to the concrete below? Make your choice, little man.

“No,” I say gently. Knife still in my heart, I instruct them to take out their science books and we turn our thoughts to ocean currents, wave action and the effect of jetties on beach erosion.

Later that morning a tone sounds and a woman’s voice comes over the intercom. Calm and friendly, it instructs the students to move to their places, adults to lock the door and turn off the lights.

The children know just what to do. As I turn the knob on the lock and hit the light switch, they cram their twenty bodies into the recessed cubby area, out of sight of the door. They are deathly quiet. I don’t like to think about all the things they are as silent as.

It strikes me, standing there before them, that this drill is little more useful than the “duck and cover” drills of the 1950’s and 60’s. After all, each classroom has a glass door. Someone intent on harming children need only smash the glass with the butt of one of the guns they’re no doubt armed with—the glass is tempered, so it should shatter easily and harmlessly—reach in, and unlock the door simply by turning the knob. All the potential targets are huddled conveniently in one location.

The children and I wait in dimness as we hear someone jiggle the handle of our door. I try not to imagine what this would feel like if it were not just a drill.   If an intruder was trying the handle on the door to this 5th grade classroom. If the glass shattered. It hits me that there are people all over this country—right here in Virginia— who have experienced this.  Many of these people are dead.

What would I do? I look around and the heaviest thing I can see is a microscope. Could I hit an intruder hard enough to stop him? Would I even have the chance? Would I wish I had armed myself?

No. I would wish that the United States Congress had taken action to limit the sale of handguns and assault weapons and ammunition. Wish that our own Senator Mark Warner were in favor of such limitations. I’d wish that the funerals—no, the lives— of our school children from sea to shining sea had more influence over our lawmakers than the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers’ lobbyists.

The drill is over, the soothing voice announces from the intercom. We may return to our seats. This time.