The smell of smoke

This is a sort of exorcising demons post. Feel free to skip it entirely.

 

I remember the smell of smoke the most. Back in those days, everyone smoked cigarettes. I remember you with a cigarette in your hand, all the time. It was like you were an extension of a cigarette, or perhaps the cigarette was an extension of you. I can’t remember, really, I just remember the first pack of cigarettes I bought with my own money were Marlboro. Reds, because real men smoke real cigarettes, you said. I wasn’t a man, of course, but your words meant something, back then.

I remember the lady, grey, her voice raspy with the damage of smoke, nicotine stains on her fingers. I stared at them, not sure if I even want to buy a pack of my own or not. She asked me twice what I wanted. Annoyed. I piped up, “Marlboro. Reds.” She smirked. I wasn’t old enough to buy them, of course, but nobody cared back then. I bought a bottle of the cheapest wine every week to down in the park, kicking the benches, swearing at pigeons. Nobody cared about that either.

I felt proud of myself because this pack was my own. I didn’t bum if off anyone. I didn’t nick it from anyone’s backpack while they were busy groping me. Mine. The first puff felt proprietary. Mine. My smoke. My taste. My cough. My eventual pulmonary disease, twenty years later.

Everybody smoked, back then. The city was ripe with it, I climbed through the early morning fog, half fog, half smoke. I swam in it every Friday night, at the bar. Every Saturday, I pushed up through my dreams to my morning cigarette. I felt close to you then.

You didn’t know I smoked, of course. You’d have beaten the shit out of me. Back then, hitting your children was nothing more but an educational tool.

I hid my cigarettes, slid them under the little old chair in my room. Right under the little cushion with that stain that looked like the Brandenburg Gate.

I remember one day, you ran out and it was Sunday. You were tearing the place apart, looking for a smoke, cursing the gods and devils for closing the stores, for lending our Mam the car, for being stuck here in this forsaken place with nary a store in sight.

I remember blinking once. Twice. ‘I have one.’ The words strained against my throat, I could feel them rushing out and smothering you in a lovely, soft cloud of reassurance. I can make your day better.

I swallowed them, of course. I sneaked into the attic and smoked my last cigarette. I don’t know why I did it.

It tasted like rebellion.

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Denial! More than just a river in Egypt

In a recent blogpost, the very talented A. S. Akkalon explained the regrettable disparity between her perceived day activities and her actual day. I thought it was a neat idea, so I announced my intention to try the same.

7 in the morning (AKA fuck-this-o’clock in the morning)

I think: I get up immediately, refreshed by my 8 hours of sleep. I greet the new day and do my salutation to the sun. My mood is good.

I really: Open my eyes to curse the job that makes me get up at 7. Wonder if I could get away with not eating or dressing or being a functional semi-human being in the morning. Open Pinterest and see what I could make one of these days. This is despite the fact that my phone alarm clearly reads: “Do NOT open Pinterest!”

7.30 in the morning

I think: I eat a healthy and nutritious breakfast while reading the news and having a stimulating conversation with my partner.

I really: Blindly fish in the fridge for whatever we have. I make an effort to eat the veggies, though. My partner grunts in his sleep and turns around. I seethe with resentment for having to get up while he gets to sleep. I make the coffee with more automatic movements than actual thought.

8 am, gods is it really this late already?

I think: I take all my meds and do a simple yet satisfying beauty routine.

I really: Slap on some makeup and hope for the best. Leave the house. Run back to bathroom and take all my meds.

8.30 am, who decided to start the workday this early?

I think: I have a nice walk to work, noticing the singing birds and the crisp morning air.

I really: Have a nice walk to work, noticing the singing birds and crisp morning air. I also notice a drunken man urinating on the city walls and teenagers swapping a bottle of something that probably makes you go blind. Living in the city is great!

9 am, shite…I forgot my pens

I think: I get to work, greet everyone with a smile and grab a delicious apple. I have a wholesome conversation with co-workers about our mutual hobbies and share professional advice. When the bell rings, all of us are in the classrooms and we greet our students with a smile.

I really: I get to work and greet everyone with a smile. One co-worker asks me if I’m ill, another one wonders if aliens kidnapped the real me and replace me with a pre-10 o’clock-smiling monstrosity. I grab another cup of coffee (is this my third or my fourth? I can never tell…). I enter my classroom and smile and greet the students, who echo the sentiments of my co-workers. This reinforces my idea that people don’t want things to be nice, but to be familiar.

Noon Just a little bit more

I think: I have a free period, which means grading. I do this quickly, professionally and with no doubts in my mind. While grading, I think about story ideas and dialogues I need to polish.

I really: Run to the toilet. First break of the day, thanked be the lords of urinary infections and their decision to spare me from my bad decisions regarding my bladder! I down another cup of coffee and read the essays. I read them again. I spend five minutes trying to decipher what Mr Random was trying to tell me about his thoughts on Censorship. I ask three co-workers. We sit together and try to decipher the paragraph. We give up and it is decided that Mr Random needs to see me during my office hours.

4 pm Freedom!

I think: I go home, eat my lunch and do some light cardio. I plan my lessons for the day, then enjoy an intellectually stimulating podcast and meditate for a bit.

I really: Come home, dump all my essays (of course they’re not finished) and wolf down whatever my gracious partner left on the stove. I thank the gods for a living companion that cooks. I read the rest of the essays while nibbling on whatever cookies I managed to scrounge from the deep recesses of the Nibble Pantry. Then I watch Scrubs for the fifteenth time. I glance at my half-finished novel. I shudder and go back to Scrubs.

 

7 pm Writing time

I think: I write two pages effortlessly, my characters do whatever I tell them to and my world-building is elegant and detailed.

I really: Argue with the Main Baddie about their motivation and give up. I write a short story that has nothing to do with my novel. I blink back tears of frustration and decide I will never be an author.

9 pm Free time

I think: I relax, read the literature I need for my work and wait for my partner to arrive home.

I really: Do the planning I ignored right after work because I was too tired. I can’t find the right activities. I curse at the screen, then play on Twitter for a while. I glance at the blog, then close that tab and leave it for a calmer time. I remember with a start that I forgot to do the paperwork. I frantically click between my planning and paperwork.

11 pm Sleepy time!

I think: I greet my partner, who has returned from work. Together we sit down, drink a relaxing mug of herbal tea and talk about our days. After an hour, we prepare for bed. We read for a while, then fall asleep early, to be ready for our next big day.

I really: Shout Howsya! to my partner from behind the laptop. The tea is brewed, but it’s gone cold and manky. The partner shouts back he has still some work to do and if I had a good day. I yell that no and ask about his day. He describes Dante’s seventh circle. He also asks where the wine has gone. I pretend I didn’t hear him, but put wine on the shopping list. We have tea after it’s the approximate temperature of Antarctica and complain about how tea used to be much better in our day. We get ready for bed and catch up on the news on our phones. I play around on the Internet and fall asleep around one-ish.

 

So, here’s my day. I think I’m beginning to understand why my novel is taking so long.

The power of boredom

I think I read a quote once by Casanova how an intelligent man can never be bored as long as he has a supply of paper and writing implements. I like the thought of that and so I bring it out on any even remotely appropriate occasion. Sometimes the only excuse is that my partner has given me three minutes’ silent window.

Or, I could be projecting my own ideas and the quote doesn’t even exist.

Be that as it may, I am seldom really bored. I think the above quote has a LOT to do with it, so I try to carry a notebook with me when I know I’ll be spending copious amount of time doing not a lot at all.

Boredom is, for a writer, an incredible opportunity.

A few weeks ago I had the dubious pleasure of attending a conference, courtesy of my day job. Conference means talks.

Talks mean boredom.

Imagine a soft chair, fuck-this-o’clock in the morning*, a de-coffee’d Anders, and a lecturer who has said the same thing for the third time in a row.

Time to go playing with the fairies! I imagine the lecturer going home to his wife and children and donning a supersuit. He becomes StatisticsMan, his super power to implode a person’s mind with the strength of his annual budget planning alone.

I imagine the lady next to me, the one doing crosswords, is actually an alien in disguise, the crossword her means of communicating with the rest of her hive-spawn. Soon, they will unleash death and destruction upon this lecture hall.

The scrawny man scribbling notes next to me is actually StatisticsMan’s arch-nemesis, ChaosGuy. He’s discovered StatisticsMan’s secret identity, oh no! Who shall save us?

It’s our dashing heroine, CrochetGirl, by day a mild-mannered writer. With her SuperHook she will quickly crochet a treble stitch mesh around ChaosGuy and…

“Ms Woolf?”

Hu?

“Ms Woolf? Everyone’s gone, I have to put away the chairs now.”

Ehehe, right, right. Gone, you say? I’ve been sitting here for how long?

“Fifteen minutes, miss, everyone’s at the bar already.”

 

Okay, so maybe the overactive imagination can be a bit of a bother.

 

*fuck-this-o’clock fluctuates based on amount of sleep squeezed in on the previous night, manner of awakening, presence of muffins for breakfast, presence of breakfast, presence of coffee, phase of the moon, moods of Jupiter, hue of grass and colour of tablecloth. It is usually before 10 in the morning.

The totally no-nonsense foolproof recipe to tackling writer’s block dynamically and for real

So, you’ve got a writer’s block, huh? Sucks to be you, mate. Really.

I imagine you must have scoured through some reputable sites full of sensible advice and are now sifting through the dregs of internet, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading me.

you-must-be-truly-desperate-to-come-to-me-for-help

Again, sucks to be you.

We’ve all been there, no worries, happens to the best of us. It’s not your fault. It’s probably never happened to you before either. I sympathize.

So, without further ado, here are the steps to breaking the block.

Step fun: Accept that you truly and indeed have a writer’s block. Admitting that you have a problem is the first step to solving said problem.

Step two: Stop glaring at your laptop. It’s not its fault. It’s always treated you well and doesn’t deserve it. Close the poor beastie and go outside and get some healthy fresh air. Conductive to creative juices, don’tcher know.

Step three: Preheat the oven to 200ºC

Step four: Eating won’t solve anything. You should read some authors you admire and think of some alternative endings to the story.

Step five: Melt 100g of quality dark chocolate, adding a pinch of salt to it.

Step six: Now, I’m disappointed in you. Put down the chocolate and check out some of the writing prompts freely available on the web.

Step seven: Remove chocolate from heat and add 100g of creamed butter. Stir until completely incorporated.

Step eight: Look. I am trying to help you. When I said recipe, it was a metaphor. Pick a metaphor and write a short story about how this particular metaphor came to be used for the first time.

Step nine: In a separate bowl, beat 2 eggs with 70g of caster sugar, then add to the chocolate mixture.

Step ten: I’ll stop drawing attention to chocolate. Pick a different expression of your creativity and go do that for a while. Painting, drawing, music, dancing and knitting all work well and will set you in creative mood.

Step 11: Sift 50g of plain flour, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 1/2 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder into the chocolate mixture. Mix together using a wooden spoon.

Step 12: Oh for f… Listen, just take your existing piece and write from the point of view of the antagonist, huh? Can you do that? Leave the fondants alone!

Step 13: Grease your muffin pan and pour in the fondant mixture. Chill in the fridge for half an hour before baking for 7-8 minutes. The fondants will be crisp on the outside and soft and melting on the inside.

Step 14: Give up and eat the fondants.

Step 15: Try again tomorrow.

Loss?

The day was cold and dark and dreary, like that Longfellow poem. A crowd turned out, which was nice, objectively speaking, and I imagine you would have liked that. You had many friends, it seems, and your wife seemed genuinely upset at your parting. I followed you from a distance, not sure if I belong, half-sure you never wanted me there anyway.

I wanted to classify my thoughts and what feelings there were, but I have a hard time even finding a word. This can’t be loss, because I didn’t even know you. You left so long ago and made a whole new life, without much space for me or my sisters. Complicated, is how I feel.

I heard the scrape of wood against the dirt when they lowered you into the ground. The tears came, but I didn’t know what exactly to do with them. They seemed to be there without my invitation or desire. I wiped them, angry at myself. I have no claim of you. I have no right to mourn you, together with your family and your wife. Those tears are not right, they are little thieves of some other family’s mourning.

I cried a lot, when you left. I felt alone, I felt not good enough. I felt like you owed me a goodbye, an explanation. You didn’t of course. You did what was best for you and that made me so angry. I felt like you should have spared a thought for me as well. But you never wanted me anyhow. I must have been such a nuisance. You must have been so angry when I announced my unwanted little presence in the womb. Little bastard baby from a woman I’m not sure you ever really loved.

I paced the graveyard and then walked away from the proper mourners. My partner followed in silence, I suspect he was as confused by this all as I felt. I looked back at your family and I thought you must have had a pretty good life. That’s all we can hope for, any of us. A good life.

I remember when I was very, very little, you’d carry me on your shoulders. I didn’t understand why daddy doesn’t stay with us all the time, but it was something normal in my small, tiny world. You stayed more often and then you stayed all the time and we moved and I had a sister. And, long after you left and came back, and left and came back, there was another sister. I often wondered what made you stay with us for so long. Perhaps our parting would have been better, if you had left earlier. Perhaps it would hurt so much less if you hadn’t stayed ‘for the kids’.

The bench was cold and wet and my partner complained he was cold. I didn’t hear him, which was terrible of me. He is ill and should be in bed, not following my flight all over the graveyard. I felt out of place, like a discarded tissue. I sat there and let the curious looks of the few mourners who eventually walked past wash over me. Did any of them know I was your eldest? Remembered me from so long ago, when I was just a small, big-eyed presence hiding behind you?

You left more than once. And then you left forever. Such is life.

I came back when all the mourners were gone. I dropped one of your books of poetry in your grave. Tagore. A fitting companion to your afterlife. I cried a big, shuddering ugly gulp, then forced myself to stop. Even the tears I now shed feel stolen. This sorrow doesn’t belong to me, just like you never did.

I hope your family finds peace.