Writing Down the Moon: Journal Prompts for the (August) Corn Moon

fullcornmoon

About the Corn Moon

New Moon: Aug 2
First Quarter: Aug 10
Full Moon: Aug 18
Third Quarter: Aug 25
Dark Moon: Aug 31

Sun Sign: Leo

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I’ve heard it said that those born under the sun sign Leo are Drama Kings/Queens, but having a Leo child has taught me that it’s not so much about drama as it is about ENTHUSIASM; enthusiasm paired with extreme sociability. Leo energy is strong and vital, it’s full of optimism and excitement, and the desire to reach out and share this wonderful life-force with others.

This is the kind of high-energy you can expect from the August Corn Moon. Don’t fight it, take advantage of it. Take advantage of the momentum of the moon to get started on that project you’ve been thinking about. Invite some friends over for a get-together, say yes to the social invitations you receive this month. You may be yearning to make connections… Go out and do it! Just be careful not to exhaust yourself.

During this moon cycle the energy of the earth is that of fullness and completion. The grain crops are mature and almost ready for harvest. In agrarian cultures this is the beginning of the harvest season. It is a time of gratitude and reward for the hard labor put in during the spring and early summer.

This is a good time to: Be social, make contracts, interact with others in any setting, trust your wisdom and make decisions with confidence.

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My Literary ABCdery


16th Century Illuminated Alphabet

A is for Austen, Jane Austen.
B is for Book Clubs. Really good book clubs, with challenging books, insightful discussion, passionate readers… and wine, of course. (I’m looking at you, Rediscovering the Classicsmembers!)
C is for Canon. The literary Canon may be controversial, it may be weighted toward white European men, and it may sometimes be hopelessly stuck in the mud; but oh! It’s filled with so much beauty, history and emotion! It simply can’t be ignored, and at the very least it’s a great place to start your journey.
D is for Dark chocolate, an end-of-the-day reading necessity.
E is for T.S. Eliot, whose “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has been the first and last word on poetry for me since I originally came across it at the age of fifteen.
            “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,     
             And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
             And in short, I was afraid.” (It still gives me chills.)
F is for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Is it predictable and cliché to think The Great Gatsby one of the most moving and finest bits of writing of the modern era? Call me predictable and cliché then.

G is for all the great Gastronomic fiction out there. Some of the books that never fail to give me food cravings are: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which always makes me want a hearty cioppino or fish stew; Pride and Prejudice, which gives me a hankering for cold ham, roast chicken and a glass of sherry; and Julia Child, of course, who makes me crave anything French, creamy and fattening.
H is for Heinlein, and his absolutely wonderful Stranger in a Strange Land, which served the multiple purposes of fostering in me a love for Science Fiction as well as an early appreciation of Philosophy and Theology.
I is for Iago, the very best literary villain ever. Othello may not be my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays (King Lear holds that honor) but Iago is the creepiest, smoothest, most ruthless, most insidious bad-guy you’ll ever find. Move over Machiavelli, Iago reigns supreme.
J is for Jeeves, that quintessential gentleman’s gentleman. Resourceful, proper, patient, and with a wit as smooth as a dry white wine; without having read any of these stories by P.G. Wodehouse your literary funny-bone simply can’t yet be fully developed.
K is for Kartography, my favorite contemporary novel. A simple story of two economic classes, two generations, and two people who are meant to be together. And the added bonus: Kamila Shamsie’s prose is like poetry.
L is for the Library, that modern temple of the muses, quiet refuge, safe haven, place of inspiration, provider of opportunity, great intellectual equalizer. I spent the greater part of my elementary and adolescent years worshipping in my local library and will happily wish the same for my own children.
M is for McSweeney’s, the fine literary journal and website, which I (sadly) didn’t discover until May of 2010, Volume 28. I will be searching for volumes 1-27 until I have the entire collection. Yes, I am that obsessive. What I wouldn’t give for just one afternoon with the group of brilliant people who produce it!
N is for Narnia, the one imaginary construct that could still seriously tempt me to give up family, friends, and life as I know it, without even a backward glance.
O is for Orpheus, the original singer of songs, weaver of words, and maker of storytelling magic. Anyone with the power to raise the dead with his words is a worthy literary hero.
P is for Purses large enough to carry books with you wherever you go. (Hermione Granger’s charmedhandbag in the 7th Harry Potter book would be my personal preference.)
Q is for Quiet, uninterrupted time to lose yourself in a good book. If you find yourself lounging in the strong branches of a tree, or curled up in a secret closet reading nook when this happens, then all the better.
R is for Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate from 2008-2010. Her deceptively short and simple verses are like “one imperial thunderbolt that scalps your naked soul.” (I guess she reminds me a little bit of Emily Dickinson, too.)
S is for Shelf Space. Unlimited please.
T is for the Tragic Hero: Hamlet, Jay Gatsby, Boromir, Anakin Skywalker… what girl doesn’t swoon over these passionate figures, doomed by the very qualities that make them so compelling in the first place…
U is for Used Bookstores. There is no greater joy for a reader than that of coming across a literary treasure in a used bookstore, cast off by some simple and unappreciative owner.
V is for Verisimilitude. Let’s face it, every good story needs it, and too many stories these days lack it. (And not to point fingers, but I’m thinking specifically about all the rehashed action movies I’ve been seeing released these past few years. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Hollywood! Okay, I guess I am pointing fingers.)
W is for the Window Seat I’ve always dreamed of having in my library.
X is for Anaïs Nin. Oh so good, and very X-rated, my friends.
Y is for the Ya-Yas. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhoodwas a lifesaver when my kids were babies and I felt trapped in the dark burqa of motherhood.  The wild and boozy women of Rebecca Wells’ book kept me sane (and kept me from feeling like a terrible mother) during the Dairy Queen and diaper pail years.
And finally…

Z is for Zombies. I used to think it was Vampires or Werewolves who were the rock-stars of the monster world, but the past 10 years have shown me that Zombies are the true celebrities. And let’s face it, any monster that can convince thousands of otherwise uninterested parties to read Jane Austen deserves a little recognition.

The Little Acorn Girl

Once upon a time there was a girl who collected acorns and left them in a basket on the porch. 
The birds came to eat the acorns while the girl sat and watched. Soon she found she could understand the birds’ whistles and songs; and so she watched and listened until the birds came to love her and visited for herself, and not just the acorns. Eventually the birds loved her so much that they each gave her a feather from their own wings until she had enough for wings of her own. 
Then, the little acorn girl put on the wings, spread her arms, and flew.

Words: A Love Story

Most readers and writers are, in the deepest parts of our souls, word lovers. We love how the right word can express with absolute perfection an elusive emotion; we love how certain words roll around in our mouths and drip from our lips; we love seeing sound and meaning put together to create a kind of linguistic music–whether in the form of poetry or prose or (for those who are particularly savvy) in everyday conversation. There are many things I love in my life, but I would have to say that words are my first love.

I was reminded of this love just recently by my eleven year old daughter, who in the middle of a conversation about a deep sea documentary we had just watched, suddenly pulled out a notebook and started writing.

“What are you doing?” I asked

“I’m adding ‘phosphorescence’ to my list of favorite words.” She replied.

I don’t know why I was initially surprised to find that my book-loving daughter has a book filled with words she has come across and loved; after all, don’t all we readers and writers have a similar list of our own most-loved words somewhere? We may not keep it written down in a book like my daughter does, but we all have it, that list, somewhere in our minds. Even if we aren’t aware of it ourselves, I’m willing to bet that our friends and family are aware of it. They know which words are on our list of favorites because those are the words we use as often as we can in conversation. These are the words we say slowly, so we can savor them. These are the words that make us pause when we come across them in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. These are the words that give us a little thrill deep down in our soul.

Some people like long and complicated words, some like the razor-sharp short words, some are partial to the way certain sounds mingle and caress each other, and some like a word simply for its meaning. As for me, my list is a mixture of all of these. Here are a few of my favorites:

Palimpsest (for what it means and the way it sounds)
Dissonance (it gives me a frisson just to say it!)
Cacophony (again, it makes such a joyful noise)
Woo (who can say this word without giggling and loving it?)
Tipsy (never drunk, only tipsy)
Thistle and Epistle (there’s something about that /stle/ sound that I just love)

I don’t want to bore my readers with too many, but oh it makes me happy just to see those words on a page!

As much as I love words in and of themselves, I love even more when I come across an author who can do with words what a conductor can do with an orchestra. The first authors who come to mind are, perhaps logically, the poets. Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet who has always seemed to me to play with words, as if he is reveling in them like a delighted child. Who can read “The Windhover” without wanting to say some of those lines aloud:

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,        
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion        
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

I can’t help but fall in love with the lines “my heart in hiding/ Stirred for a bird,” or “ah my dear,/ Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.”

Two other authors who are not poets, but who may as well be they make my heart sing so with their prose, are Vladimir Nabokov and Kamila Shamsie. Nabokov plays with language the way Hopkins does, and has what may be the best first lines of a novel ever in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta; the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

As for Shamsie, her prose seems less like children playing and more like scented jasmine growing rampant out of fertile soil–tendrils curling ever so slowly around one-another, pale pink buds against a jungle of dark green, until white flowers burst open by the thousands, star-like. I’m not sure I can choose just one short example to give, as the joy of her prose comes not from one sentence here or there, but from her prosaic beauty sustained throughout the entirety of the book. Perhaps I can give a small glimpse, however, with this sample from my favorite of her novels, Kartography:

   “‘You know, if I wasn’t me, you wouldn’t be you.’
   “Odd. No matter where I begin, that line finds its way into my narrative so very early on, and forces linearity to give way to a ramble of hindsight. This is the worst of our ways of remembering–this tendency to prod the crust of anecdote in the hope of releasing a gush of piping-hot symbolism.”

Shamsie’s prose is luxury and subtlety existing in wedded bliss. Her craft is so well done it’s almost too easy to miss, until you emerge from her story feeling hypnotized, rested, and satisfied.

Oh yes, I have been in love with words for as long as I can remember–since I first read (or had read to me) the first pages of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline; “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines/ Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…” From this auspicious beginning things have only gotten better. Through ecstasy and agony, work and play, friends and lovers, marriage and children; words have been the longest and strongest love affair of my life. Whether I’m searching for a way to anger or inspire, captivate or comfort, words have never let me down. This is my ode–my valentine–to them.

Rewriting Homer’s Iliad

For the past few years I’ve been having a wonderful time teaching drama at my kids’ elementary school. I am a big fan of exposing them to the best playwright out there, the Bard himself, so each year they’ve performed one or two Shakespeare plays, which I have abridged and edited to make them more kid-friendly. The kids have performed beautifully each year–and they love the stories the plays tell. This year they are studying ancient civilizations, and so it seemed appropriate to diverge from Shakespeare to do a little Greek Theater. I’ve been having such a blast re-writing The Iliad for the upper elementary class that I just had to share a little bit of it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Homer’s The Iliad (abridged for 9-12 year olds)

Scene 1

Chorus: Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, the murderous and doomed warrior who cost the Greeks countless deaths and losses. Begin our story not with the abduction of fair Helen from Menelaus, but in the middle of the war, with the clash of brilliant Achilles and strong Agamemnon, the leader of Greeks and men.
(The Greek army is lounging onstage.)
Achilles: We’ve been waiting in this cursed field for days, Patroklus, killed not in battle and with honor, but by the bright god Apollo’s arrows of sickness and death. Our campaign is lost, we should sail home if we can and escape this deathly plague.


Patroklus: Haven’t you heard, cousin Achilles? Agamemnon’s slave girl Chryseis is the daughter of a priest of Apollo. The bright god of the sun will not relent until she is returned to her father, but Agamemnon refuses.
Achilles: Agamemnon, why do you wait? Do you care about your warriors or only your prizes? Return this girl to her father so we may end this waiting and get back where we belong—onto the battlefield with the Trojans!
(The warriors cheer)
Agamemnon: Stop! I will not give up my prize! The girl is mine. Why should I alone have to give up my treasure? It would be a disgrace! What about you, brave Achilles? I will return my prize if you will you give me the treasures you have won in exchange.
Achilles: You greedy, grasping dog! You would take back the rewards you have already given out? You are shameless!
Agamemnon: Look who is selfish and greedy now! Look men, Achilles would keep his slave girl rather than protect his fellow warriors, follow his king, and fight the Trojans.
Achilles: (drawing his sword) You coward!
(Agamemnon draws his sword to fight, but Athena enters, freezing everyone where they stand. She touches Achilles and he unfreezes to talk to her.)
Athena: No Achilles, do not fight Agamemnon now. Hera, queen of the gods sent me to stop your fury. She loves you and Agamemnon both. Hold back your sword and someday we promise glittering gifts will be yours.
Achilles: I must obey the goddess, although my heart breaks with fury. (Athena leaves, the rest unfreeze.) Agamemnon, king who devours his own people, you are no king of mine. The Trojans have done nothing to me. You may take my treasures, but hear me now: I will fight for you no longer, you dog. Someday you will beg for brave Achilles in your army!
(Agamemnon gloats and all exit except Achilles.)
Achilles: (Crying with rage) Thetis! Mother goddess! I know my life is destined to be short, but am I to be without honor as well!
(Thetis enters)
 
Thetis: My child, I saw it all from my seat on Mt. Olympus, what can I do?
Achilles: Mother, you alone of all the immortals have a claim on Zeus, the lord of the storm clouds, go to him now and ask him to avenge my disgrace. Ask him to help the Trojans defeat that pig Agamemnon.
Thetis: O my son, my sorrow, you who are doomed to a short life, and now filled with heartbreak too. I will go now to Zeus who loves the lightning and persuade him. But you, you stay here with your ships, away from the fighting where it is safe.
(They embrace and both exit)
Scene 2

(Zeus is onstage. Thetis enters)
Thetis: Zeus, great father Zeus! If ever I served you well in the past, please honor my son Achilles now. Agamemnon, the lord of men, has disgraced him. But you, you can exalt him, great Olympian, your urgings rule the world! Come, grant the Trojans victory after victory, until the Greek armies pay my son back, giving him the honor he deserves!
Zeus: O Thetis, this is disaster! You will drive me to war with my wife Hera, who loves the Greeks. She harries me perpetually with her shrill abuse. I cannot do as you ask.
Thetis: You know, Zeus, that I alone came to your aid when the Titans tried to chain you down. No other Olympian would risk the wrath of Cronus. But I came, I risked my immortal life to help you escape. Please, greatest and most honored of the gods, help me now.
Zeus: Very well. I will bring it all to pass as you have asked. I will help the Trojans defeat the Greeks. I say it and it shall be done! . . . But away with you now, or Hera might catch us here.
(Thetis exits. Hera enters.)
Hera: So, my treacherous husband, with which of the gods or goddesses were you hatching plans this time? You always settle things your own way when my back is turned, and never choose to share your plans with me. Oh no!
Zeus: Maddening wife, you and your eternal suspicions. I can never escape you. I will share my plans with you when I am ready. Just stay out of the fighting between the Greeks and the Trojans. Now do as I say and leave me alone!
(Zeus exits)
Hera: Very well, I will leave you alone. But I am a goddess, and I will not follow anyone’s orders. I shall help my favorites as I please.
(She exits)
(End of Scene 2)

The Sliding Mind (and a bit about what’s in the mail…)

The Sliding Mind

Van Gogh’s “Woman Sitting on a Basket with Head in Hands”

Last week was a very frustrating and frightening week for me because I temporarily lost the ability to write. Any writer will know that writing is not only something we do to pay the bills or entertain our friends, it’s what we do to stay sane–or happy, or fulfilled, or whatever label we want to give it. So most of us write every day… But last week I couldn’t write.

That looks so innocuous sitting there at the end of a paragraph. That last sentence should actually be accompanied by foreboding music: “Last week I couldn’t write.” Dun dun dun!

It wasn’t writer’s block (as far as I know). I didn’t feel like I was banging up against a brick wall. Rather, last week, every time I tried to sit down at my computer to write for business, or with my yellow notepad and pencil to write for pleasure, my mind simply veered off ever so slightly to the side. Trying to write was very much like trying to catch a fish from a river with oily bare hands. I would sit down with a focus in mind and that focus would slip and slide just out of reach while I tried (with more and more fear and desperation) to catch it and make it stick. By the end of the week my mental health was shot. I was hovering somewhere between depression and insanity, trying mightily to look to the outside world like everything was normal.

Obviously (and thankfully) the curse eventually broke, because I’m writing this right now.  But I wish I knew what caused this “Sliding Mind” phenomenon so I could do everything in my power to ensure it never happens again. Is it a result of Google “chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” as Nicholas Carr writes in his article in The Atlantic? Do I need to give up the internet? Is it some kind of late-onset ADD? Should I be exploring my options with medication? Or is it simply that even my writing mind needs a vacation once in a while?

I have to say that the whole experience had the feel of a virus–a flu of the mind, so to speak. I feel as if I’m still in the early stages of recovery; like my mind is somewhat weak and wobbly, nourishing itself on crackers and soup, and slow to get back into the old routine. Right now I’m just relieved to be writing again, but somewhere in the back of my mind is the fear that maybe this could happen again someday… and then what would I do?

In The Mail…

On a lighter note, this last week wasn’t all fear and trembling, there were a couple delightful surprises as well. This past week I received two packages of books in the mail. I love getting books in the mail. Love!… But I’ve been told it’s unreasonable to expect family and friends to send me books on a weekly basis, so I’ve had to find other ways to keep the books delivered to my door.

The first package, which arrived on Monday, was my regular Powell’s “Indiespensable” subscription delivery, and it contained an autographed copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book The Marriage Plot, as well as a copy of the Penguin Classics Edition of George Eliot’s Silas Marner.  It was somewhat of a surprise to receive the classic novel in the box, because the Indiespensable companion books are usually something new or not-yet-released which will benefit from some unofficial pre-release chatter. (The last box included an uncorrected proof of The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits, due for release March 2012, as a companion to Erin Morgenstern’s amazing The Night Circus.) But George Eliot is one of my enduring favorites, and after reading about why Marner was included in the box I’m more excited than ever to read both books: “Our inclusion of Silas Marner was greatly inspired by Eugenides’ protagonist Madeleine. Madeleine is many things. But at heart she’s a student of literature; the ‘marriage plot’ of the title refers to her work on the role of marriage in 19th-century novels, and she has a special fondness for those of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James.” This Madeleine sounds like a character to whom I can relate!

The second package arrived later in the week, and contained my LibraryThing Early Reviewers advance copy of The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman. I have a fondness for books about books, and have at least one full shelf devoted to academic criticism, so I’m looking forward to reading this one, described as “an irreverent guide to the classics,” and “a side-splitting tour that makes it a blast to read the western literary canon.” I’ve never read any of Newman’s previous books, so I don’t have any solid ideas of what she’s like as an author, but the back of the book claims that Newman is “on a mission to restore the West’s great works to their rightful place (they were intended to be entertaining!)” This is a mission I support wholeheartedly, and already I’m inclined to read Survival Kit with a favorable eye.

W.W.T.D.? (What Would Tolkien Do?)

A good book will draw you in and hold your attention regardless of your knowledge (or lack thereof) of the political history surrounding the story. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is a good example of this. Very few people love Middle-Earth enough to get through the textbook-like Silmarillion, and yet The Lord of the Rings is an almost universally appealing saga. This is because at its core The Lord of the Rings is about the characters—about Frodo and Sam and Strider—and their adventures right now, not about the dates and history that brought them to the Prancing Pony on that dark and stormy night. Sure all of those facts and figures have a bearing on our heroes, but it’s enough for Tolkien to allude to that history. What we as readers are really interested in is the thoughts and actions of our heroes in the here and now.

The same is true for just about any good adventure tale or romantic ballad out there. If the tale is told well enough, we can trust that the narrator is giving us the history we need to appreciate the story.

However . . .

As anyone who has read The Silmarillion will tell you, appreciation and immersion are two very different things, and Tolkien knew it. That’s why he wrote an entire history textbook for his fantasy world. Your enjoyment and experience of the story is expanded and enriched if you take the time to learn the history of your characters and their culture, to really immerse yourself in their world and understand it as they understand it; as the author understands it.

I am currently re-reading one of my favorite contemporary books, Kartography, for the third time. The author, Kamila Shamsie, grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, in the 1970s and 1980s, and this is where and when her story is set. The first time I read the book I was so blown away by the beautiful language and compelling story that it barely registered when I came upon reference to Pakistani history that I didn’t understand. All I wanted to do was devour the story in the book, and Ms. Shamsie gave me all the information I needed to fall in love with Kartography without knowing the history of Pakistan.

The second time I read the book, I couldn’t let myself off so easily. I was curious about the war the characters kept referring to, and why there was tension between the Punjabi and Bengali characters. I picked up on some new subtleties, and was not so quick to skim over the unfamiliar references. I looked up the words I didn’t know, such as muhajir (immigrant) and Ami (Mother). But still I must admit that I didn’t probe too deeply into the history of the story or the region.

This time, however, in my third reading of this excellent novel, I can’t seem to get enough of the history of these characters that I have come to know as well as I know my own children. My atlas is permanently open on my living room floor as I look up cities and roads that figure in the story. I have Wikipedia’s explanation of the Bangladesh Liberation War bookmarked in my internet browser, as well as the history of the British colonization of India. And I must admit, I now appreciate the book on a whole new level. My understanding of the main characters has much more depth, and even peripheral characters have taken on an importance I would never have seen in my first or second readings. My historical research increases not only my appreciation of the book itself, but also my appreciation of the author’s storytelling abilities. As much as I loved the book before, I understood only a fraction of the thought and subtlety that must have gone into the creation of Kartography.
If you’ve made it this far down in your reading of this blog post, I thank you. I won’t keep you much longer. What I’m trying to say with this lengthy diatribe is that the great books—the ones we love, that get a hold of our hearts and won’t let go—deserve to be read more than once; sometimes three or four times. Not only that, but they deserve a closer look. Do a little research into the setting, the time period. Find out as much as you can about the author, and the circumstances under which she was writing her novel. All of these things will enrich your reading experience ten-fold. It will bring you a greater understanding of literature, of writing, of human nature—and even of yourself.