Life as I know it: November 10, 2018

Life as I know it is this: My mother has a terminal blood cancer diagnosis (MDS). I am an artist with a professional career in IT. I am dog person living alone with two cats. And I burn with deep pain and passions that frequently erupt into the quiet practice of writing.

What is the function of my blog in my life? I consider the direction it has taken. I have many poems, hundreds probably, and have posted them here. I could keep up with that work, but I feel the call to something different.

My friend Todd blogged his personal journey through blood cancer- from his leukemia diagnosis to untimely death. It is a body of work I believe has helped others on that same journey (Popcorn from the Void). In the coming months, I intend to write about my own journey through grief alongside my creative writing.

Grief is my constant companion. It is the direct result of loving and having loved deeply and lost. I don’t write about my broken heart very much, but it plagues me with rage and sorrow. My deep fibers. They take my breath away.

I am standing on the tracks and there is a light coming toward me, a freight train that I cannot escape. I have read that all other death is merely practice for the death of your mother. Having lost my beloved father at age 12, it is difficult for me to imagine anything more painful than that (other than child death).

My mother is fine right now. She has treatments of chemo to deal with the cancer and anti-biotics to deal with the infections that low white blood cell counts allow to grow. She is active and living her life as normally as possible. She is not close to death yet.

But I am experiencing pre-grief. It is the sort of thing that comes at you sideways. It is feeling anxious without being able to do anything about it. It’s waking up, walking out, letting go. The ground beneath me is shifting- by my choice. I shaved my head. I broke my celibacy. I accepted a promotion.

In the midst of crisis, I am calm. This is typical for people who grew up like I did. I can be calm because I delay. I hold my shit together in order to get through it, to calmer waters. And when I get there, I let it wash over me. I experience the grief, the pain, the anger, the loss. But I have had a lot of crisis these past five years. I have both outgoing and oncoming grief now.

So, what is the solution?

I am in the in-between hours. It is the time for collecting good memories, to fill my cup, to feel free and alive, and take stock. I am visiting with friends, seeing live music, cuddling my cats, reading books- simply being without driving myself to some more constructive end. When the difficulties arrive, I will be able to look back on this time of my life and rejoice. There is happiness within me and within those I love.

It is precious to me, a reminder that life is not all darkness even when it is the darkest.

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Months in review: Jul-Oct 2018

It’s November and this post was intended to be a quarterly Jul-Sep check-in but then life happened… I’ve had celebrations, out of town visitors, and/or business travel every weekend for the past five weeks. Since I mostly write and blog on the weekends you can understand my absence this past month. But really, who’s keeping track?

I submitted a piece for publication. It’s been over a decade since I last tried. Back then, I was writing children’s stories. If you know me, this fact may come as a bit of a shock- but it’s true. In the early days when I was first breaking out and sharing my work, they were simple, funny stories and did not disturb the deep fibers of my soul. Fast forward to today and you can read the lyrics that erupt when I strum those fibers.

I submitted the story after a friend and someone I consider a writing mentor urged me to do so. It feels like the natural next step to my writing career, such as it is. I have been asked by others why I am not published. And the answer is easy: because I don’t try. But the natural progression of questioning leads to why I don’t try, which I don’t have a good answer for.

You can chalk it up to laziness or perfectionism, but the truth is that it’s just the constraints of a professional working life. Consider our 168 hours every week, minus 56 of sleep (if we are lucky), minus the 60 hours dedicated to weekday work prep, commute, meals, and work day. That leaves 52 hours to rest, clean, shop, exercise, socialize, read, write, etc. Now add in the random universal chaos generator and there you have it. It’s not an excuse, just reality.

There is writing and then there is writing business. Searching for appropriate markets takes time and effort I am not willing to dedicate to my poetry and short fiction. So, I blog it here dear reader. I did manage to post ten times in the last four months, as well as attend open mics around town. This blog is my own magazine, entirely constructed of my work, for free and for my true fans.

But… what are my writing goals? What is it that I want to have accomplished by the end of my days? It’s not fame and fortune. We all know that is the same dream as winning the lottery. Still you can’t win if you don’t have a ticket, right? But I really don’t want that anyway. My dream is more about making a living outside the cube farm from the fruits of my creative writing. Maybe it’s my retirement dream, I don’t know.

My mission in writing is to make my readers feel the way I feel. I want others to know that they are not alone in this world. That the feelings and longings that they are ashamed of are a natural part of this human experience. I find life to be incredibly isolating- some of that by choice and some by circumstance. The difficulty of finding kindred spirits is universal. There are so many paths through life and different kinds of people navigating them. We often face the same trials with different responses and perspectives. I can learn from your experience and maybe you can learn from mine.

But those deep fibers have not rung out yet and finding markets for such stories will require fortitude, energy, and faith that I can and will find my place. That last one… that one fails me too often. Who exactly wants to read about all this crap rattling around in my head and heart? I have no great ego around my writing that makes me think the world needs to hear me, yet I am angered by the suggestion that I am not trying hard enough. I have fantastically wild dreams about my ideal writing life even while I still punch the time card…

The question I ask myself is why publish? Why not remain safe, pouring my guts out in anonymity? Why not leave all the notebooks behind and shock whoever is tasked with putting my final affairs in order? When I was first published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought back in 2002, a publication of the now defunct Neighborhood Writing Alliance in Chicago, I simply could not believe it. Yes, this was the parent organization of my writing group and yes, we were all guaranteed publication (unpaid) once per year, but there was still nothing else like seeing my writing in print. Some unknown someone was going to read it and react to it for good or bad. And in 2003, when I finished the first draft of my first novel, it felt as great as my college graduation. I felt like I could fly to the moon and back again.

Maybe that ride is reason enough for me.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Popcorn from the Void: one-year anniversary

July 10, 2018 was the one-year anniversary of the publication of Popcorn from the Void– my friend Todd Park’s memoir that I edited from his blog. The proceeds from the sale of this book go to support various cancer charities. It’s been doing well for a self-published book about such a serious topic: the arduous journey of a bone marrow transplant and the untimely death of its author.

I am proud that it is still selling copies. Self-published books in general don’t do very well without the assistance that a publishing house provides. Publishers will help with editing, polishing, cover art, marketing, and placement. It is in their financial interest to help their authors sell books. If you self-publish, you have to do it all or pay someone to help you.

Self-published books have a bad reputation that is unfortunately too often earned. There are too many early drafts offered up in the market that still need a ton of work. It’s work that people are not willing to commit time to. There is a lot of excitement around completing a first draft of a book, so I get why people are impatient to share it with the world. But it is still just an early draft and it’s not ready…

Writing, editing, and publication are lengthy and difficult phases of book creation (it can take years) but once they are complete, the really hard part begins: marketing. How do you get noticed in a flooded marketplace with dwindling readership? The vast indifference is deafening.

A self-published author needs to not only be good at writing but also good at the business of writing. Todd was such a good writer that generating a book worthy of publication was possible, though not easy. Then, came the challenge of how to market a book about such a heavy topic. For my part, I ran several marketing campaigns- emailing interested parties; releasing copies for circulation in free libraries across the mid-west; sending a mailer to cancer support groups; conducting a Twitter campaign; and attending a book fair.

It has mostly been a positive experience for me, with the exception of trying to market to the general public at the book fair. The book fair itself was great, but I made a lot of people uncomfortable. I would give my 60-second pitch and watch the look of horror gradually wash over people’s faces. They would take my candy and quickly leave my table. A fellow vendor felt the need to tell me that a memoir about a man’s journey though Leukemia treatment and dying was “a terrible story”. I know that’s about her, not the book.

What can I say? The truth is rarely popular. It’s a niche’ market. It’s a book intended to help friends, family, and patients understand what leukemia treatment is really like. And it continues to sell. And it has helped people. It has even helped my mother. She was diagnosed with MDS (Myelodysplastic Syndromes), a blood cancer sometimes referred to as ‘pre-leukemia’, in May 2018. The serendipity of life is strange at times…

I have learned so much that is invaluable from the entire process- from the actual production of the book, to the effectiveness of various marketing avenues, to interacting with people around the topic. It was my apprenticeship, the gateway to producing my own books.

As a philanthropist, I am proud that the work I have done will continue to produce money that will be donated to help people like Todd, people like my mom, to have access to better treatments and prognosis and quality of life. That alone has made this journey so worthwhile.

Happy anniversary, Popcorn.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2018

Mid-year review: Jan-Jun 2018

It’s July. About this time six months ago, I was scanning the sooty remains of one of the drafts of one of my novels through optical character recognition (OCR) software and importing it into Scrivener. If you write long works of fiction but have not heard of Scrivener before, check it out!

I spent 1.5 months (Jan-Feb) organizing that mess into chapters and scenes; character, scene, and conflict sketches; vague ideas and lists of topics to research- all to find the holes. And Lordy, there were canyons. So, I spent the next 1.5 months (Feb-Apr) ‘shoveling gravel’ into the gaps, to the order of about 25,000 words of new content. It is a pittance to all you NANOWRIMO’s out there but it is realistic progress for a full-time working schlub like me. I can’t apply the brakes on life and focus solely on my book in the way that the November National Novel Writing Month requires to reach that 50K goal.

Then came silence. No progress on the book. Apr-Jun were all about the ‘Spring Thaw’ of my social life. I took a cooking class that ate up my hours with kitchen adventure. I took a couple trips, one for business and one for pleasure, plus had out of town guests. But mostly, writing became about poetry, poetry events, poetry classes, and connecting with a wider writing community which has been wonderful and revitalizing.

But books don’t write themselves…

Time and energy are limited resources and unfortunately, my mother is in cancer treatment now. I have to get real about my stress levels and where to focus myself. Someone wise once said, “I can’t control the wind. I can only adjust my sails.” So, as I reef the mainsail, I pull back on the social side of writing, miss opportunities to read, and classes of interest. It’s just where I am at today.

Still, over the last 6 months, I produced 27 blog posts: 15 poems, 7 essays, 2 travel logs, and 3 posts about the poetry readings I had in the spring. Poetry writing will continue because I can’t help it. And my blog remains my weekly ritual as this is the only place I talk about my ‘writing career’, such as it is.

But I have already recommitted to the 5am wake up for the 5:30 writing hour before work, dedicated to my novel. I am typing up my hand-written notes and charging once again into the breech. Book writing is not glamorous. It is a long, arduous, mostly thankless journey through a writer’s personal hell.

I have books to read and write, my friends… Happy summer!

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2018

Month in review: May 2018

May 2018 was a tough month for my writing. I question the logic of this ‘month in review’. Months fly by quickly enough during normal times. When the stress from work projects and family issues increase, life happens, and life gets in the way. A quarterly review might make more sense, though a monthly tally forces me to reflect on my commitment to this passion of mine. Am I taking my writing seriously?

I took it seriously enough to apply for a writer’s residency back in March for the upcoming fall. It was a long shot and I was denied. *SIGH* I produced three blog posts but not much else: ‘Soaked in Crimson‘ (poem), ‘I See You‘ (essay), ‘Usual Early Morning Stuff‘ (essay). Finding a balance has always been difficult and my writing is slotted into my ‘free time’- 5:30am before work, on my lunch hour, late in the evening, or waiting in line on whoever or whatever is next. I am journaling a lot.

I have not read my poetry publicly in a month. I have discovered that attending poetry readings in the evening is a bad idea. I sometimes cannot fall asleep for hours. Poetry writing in the morning is also a bad idea. I walk into the office a bit crazed and distracted. I want to be somewhere else writing. But there is no money to be made writing poetry.

I hesitate to call myself a poet though I have been told that if the shoe fits… It is out of respect for those I consider to be ‘real’ poets. I haven’t studied it, dedicated the time to it that others have, and it sort of has this high falutin legacy that my earthy self could never live up to. I write journals, essays, stories, and long fiction. Poetry peels off of me like the bark of the birch trees and just about as rough. It is the stuff of longing, of paper dreams not yet forgotten.

I cannot read poetry before bed anymore. It keeps me awake. It keeps tears running down my face. It keeps my heart broken in the ache of my dulled daily living, in my wish for love to return to my life.

These poems are written by people in love, people who somehow learned to make it last, to let it go, to forgive, to return again and again and again. I so envy them. I so appreciate their ability to transfer that intense desire and joy to me, years later, thousands of miles away, with my second pillow cold and the breath of my animals the only other living sound in my apartment.

But it will strum the deep fibers. It will allow me no rest.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, May 2018

Usual Early Morning Stuff

It is 5am. I fight with the alarm. I fight with the cat. It is hard to leave the bed soft, fresh sheet, downy blanket hugging me back to slumber. He won’t let me sleep in and the 10-minute snooze won’t either. My choice. I set the alarm. I keep feeding him.

I sit up. I strap on the robe and sandals. I set about the usual early morning stuff. The cats weave around my legs as I pee. There are two cats, but she is much quieter, so I don’t complain about her in the morning. The gurgling coffee pot calls to me from the kitchen. I set about feeding us.

Shredded fish and gravy for them, OJ and coffee and ink for me. He eats, and naps curled in the chair next to me. She disappears again. The coffee has been poured into a weekday cup of average size. I put on a blanket against the chill from the degrading kitchen windows.

I begin to empty my mind of anger or poems or scene sketches for a novel I am months from completing. It is slow at first, unsure of my characters. What if I make bad choices for them? These are someone else’s kids in my care- no? They’re mine? Even worse. The white space fills with black ink, mostly legible, with circular patterns of character self-discovery and bad descriptions.

The paper and ink raw messy dirty dish reality of my kitchen conjures the best times of my life- food and wine and people I love. The space I write and create, the space of warm ovens and cold drinks, of turning spice into curry and flour into bread. It is fertile ground. It soothes my aching soul when the pen digs too deep into the flesh of all that is hidden.

Later the computer will sterilize this but not too much. Only enough to make it appear I am not completely uneducated though my reading list is long and impossible. Writing my flesh then clothing it in gauze. My living room editor life of electronic square blinking screen, cold and efficient, symbol of productivity and work.

The alarm on the stove beeps. The pen and paper are closed. Night clothes come off, day clothes come on, different. Hair different, hot and pasted into place. Breakfast, commuter bag, lunch bag, journal, calendar, coat, hat, boots, mittens… power off, locks on, out into the ally to the street to the bus to the bumper car traffic to the place I spend most of my days, not writing, in a cube farm.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, February 2018

I See You

I’m on my lunch hour. The sun peaks between the holes in the clouds. A small rain shower, enough to cool and clean the air. Enough to make a little muddy patch of dirt beneath my feet, where I sit on this cement bench beneath the caterpillar tree. Not mud really- wet earth. Roots of the tree are visible in places, some as thick as the smaller limbs overhead. Trees grow roots wide, not deep. Some grow in groves, so they do not fall over in high winds.

***

I arrive in the ICU after work. She is awake. It’s hard to watch her silently scream with the respirator tube in her mouth. Her lungs are not in good shape. She will go under the knife again, get a tracheotomy to attach the respirator to her neck. Increase her comfort levels. She is not out of the woods yet. Her abdomen is split open for access and won’t be sewn shut for months.

She almost died. I can’t talk about it. I always push this stuff off until a later time when I have the space and distance to deal with my grief. For now, someone needs to be present and hold their shit together. There are too many factors pulling me in multiple directions. Time is precious. Writing is painful. It stirs up every sort of horror that my eyes have seen, and my heart has registered, but my face left blank. I have friends and cats and bars. It will have to be enough.

***

It’s evening downtown on a Thursday. The youth are loud, full of anger and angst. School is out for summer and maybe forever for some of them. It is July in the 60’s and there is mist hanging over the fractured energy. The volume makes me tense. An old man says to me as I pass, “Smile, it’s not that bad.” I am transparent, my stress clearly on my face. I look at him kindly and say, “So says you.” I stand in the bus shelter to escape the cold. A teenage girl weeps on the bench and explains to the boy that has come to fetch her, “I’m OK; I was thinking about grandma.”

I wait for the #4 bus. In front of me is a five-story mural of Bob Dylan: three faces, three ages, staring off in kaleidoscope color. I try to find the associations in the schema but I can’t tease it out. The details of his wild curling hair, the wrinkle folded flesh, the wide red stripe splitting his guitar in half- where does the inspiration come from? I am lulled into meditation by the sound of a jazz saxophone street musician. His timbre is calm, and the kids grow quieter and move on.

When the bus stops, I line up but think better of it. Two dollars pulled from my wallet and placed inside his case. I do not look at him. I am worried about the bus and run to board it. As we pull away, I watch him: black man, bright sax, waning sunlight, mirrored glasses, reflected blue light. He looks like jazz- cool, peaceful, vibrating. I smile as we pass him. He plays on. I wonder if his eyes are closed.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2016