They say that truth is stranger than fiction and I am beginning to believe that they are absolutely right. I know one thing, reality and fiction dance with each other in an intricate and often mysterious way, kind of the way Antonie imagined himself dancing with my character Renata in that first tale he wrote, "Renata Dancing."
The way things are going with this book, Sister Mysteries -- the one I am writing right here, on a cluster of interconnected blogs, the one I have promised to finish by the end of the year -- the dance between reality and fiction is turning into a furiously dizzying -- and somewhat frightening -- spin.
The other day, after not seeing her for almost a year, I had lunch with my dear friend Nina, for whom I launched this book Sister Mysteries nearly 16 years ago. She and I have often marveled at the fact that we can go months -- even years -- without seeing each other, and when we reconnect, it's as if we had been chatting and emailing every single day.
The way we met: our daughters, both October babies, and now both 26 years old, attended the same pre-school in Albany, New York. Over the years, Jocelyn and Julia had countless play dates and sleep overs, and they stayed close even as they grew up.
What drew Nina and me into an even tighter bond, however, was Nina's horrible go-round with breast cancer in 1994 (she is great today!)
It was just this time of year -- in the milky yellow light of late November -- when the first inklings of the trauma began.
Nina was at my house with her children (she also has a son named Joe) and while the kids horsed around upstairs, she and I drank tea (or maybe coffee, or maybe even espresso. Like me, Nina is Italian and we both love love strong coffee.)
We were sitting at the kitchen table when she hit me with it: her doctor had found a lump in her breast several months before, but he was keeping "watch" over it, as he was assuming that it was benign.
I blinked. My stomach bounced three or four times to the floor and back, a basketball of fear. I wasn't sure what to say. I didn't want to be a nervous Nellie, but this was my dear friend Nina, Julia and Joe's mom, and so, I said it anyway.
"I don't know Nina," I said, "but if it were me, I think I'd be in a really big hurry to have the lump removed."
"You think so?" she asked. Nina is one of the nicest and gentlest and sweetest people on the face of the earth. If her doctor advised X, she was likely to follow the X instructions. Me? I was working in public health, for a kind of "activist" academic physician, a nationally-recognized researcher studying environmentally-induced cancers. He didn't hesitate to say that PCBs, for example, were highly toxic, dangerous, and probably carcinogenic in humans.
"Yeah, definitely, I'd get him moving on doing something about that," I said. The day proceeded, and when Nina left, she promised she would. Then it was the holidays, and like always, we got very busy. I didn't speak to Nina again.
Until the phone call. On a cold February morning. The phone rang and I picked it up and someone was screeching and crying so hysterically on the other end of the line that I couldn't tell who it was.
But soon I knew: Nina was calling me from a doctor's office, or maybe it was the hospital. A biopsy on her breast had showed that this benign lump was cancerous. Indeed, the cancer was highly aggressive and very dangerous. Her doctor had been a fool to ignore her lump for more than six months. Now she faced...God knew what?
I sank into a chair. I did my best to calm her down. I promised I would do whatever I could to help and support her. I told her I would track down for her the best cancer doctor in the world.
The next weeks were frantic. And I can't remember everything. But I do remember that she ditched the son of a bitch who had been content to let her live with a lump in her breast. And I do remember calling Sloan Kettering, out of the blue, and finding a doctor to see her. I remember taking the train to NYC with her, and us sitting together pouring over mammograms, as if we knew what we were looking at.
Within a month or less, she went through her surgery at Sloan, and I stayed with her throughout. (I ended up getting very very sick with a bout of bronchitis that persisted for months, but that's another story, one related to my own cancer.)
Anyway, at one point I remember so clearly a nurse who was tending to Nina in the recovery room saying to me, "Are you her sister?" (she has no siblings or close family at all) and I clearly remember thinking for a moment, and then saying, "Yes, we are like sisters."
Nina temporarily moved to Manhattan that summer of 1994 -- leaving her family in Albany -- so that she could get chemo at Sloan; it was a viciously difficult regimen, and let's just say, when she emerged months later, she was -- like so many of us who go through chemo -- wasted.
The day she came to my house for dinner in September, I had all I could do not to break down sobbing. She got out of the car, and hobbled toward me, and poor Nina's face was the color of celery, or maybe, pea soup. She was bloated and hairless and walked so so slowly. (But remember, she is fabulous today and looks absolutely gorgeous!)
In those days, I wrote fiction like a demon. I produced a new short story every week. I was working on my first novel at the time, and looking back, and considering the fact that Nina was (and is) so special to me, and that she was the mother of my daughter's best friend, it made sense that somehow Nina and her medical misery would creep into my fiction.
In early 1995, when I first started writing Sister Mysteries -- the story of a nun who in 1883 was falsely accused of killing her cousin -- I was convinced that the book was going to help Nina -- or some "sister" like-character-- recover from cancer. Each chapter -- in which the nun keeps switching like a female Superwoman
into a wildly-erotic flamenco dancer and seduces her crazy cousin Antonie -- was going to distract my dear Nina from her illness.
Stories heal us, and Nina needed healing, and I wrote stories. And so, voila, I would write my friend a long and entertaining healing story.
It didn't quite work out that way. Unlike short stories, over which an author generally keeps tight rein, novels oftentimes love to reach out of the page and strangle their authors. (Not so with my new novel, Seeing Red,
Sister Mysteries, a multi-voiced, multi-layered book -- like so many novels -- became a slippy octopus with arms that grew and grew and grew and slowly began to choke me. I tried valiantly to "finish" the book, working at two different writers' colonies, one in 1996, and the second in 1998. Both, oddly enough, were situated in California in exactly the golden hillside and redwood forest terrain where the 19th century nun had supposedly lived.
I tried so hard to give voice to the characters: there was Heather Ricochet, the rock star turned religious nut, who entranced audiences doing devilish (and some would say disgusting) things on stage with her microphone. There was her sister, Malvina, an overweight buffoon. When several rewrites of that 600-page monster didn't work, I shifted gears and wrote a new version of the book with a new set of characters. There was the religious nut, Lucy, and her rational, academic sister, Christina.
None of it worked. The voices of the "outer" story were clunky and stupid and all wrong. Writer friends kept telling me to "give up the outer story," because it just wasn't working. But stubbornly, I persisted.
I even resisted a direct message from the Universe while traveling to the second writer's colony in 1998. Djerassi is situated on a beautiful ranch in northern California. Enroute to the colony, I stopped off in L.A. briefly to visit my sister Karen, who had just moved to the West Coast with her family. Karen works for the Rand Corporation.
My good friend Louise-Anne (I met her at the public health school where I worked for 13 years) grew up in L.A., and she was there visiting her family. She offered to drive me from my sister's house out to LAX, where I would catch a quick flight up to San Francisco where the colony had arranged to pick me up. Louise-Anne picked me up at my sister's, as planned, and as we headed toward the airport, she asked if I wanted to get a quick bite to eat first.
Sure, I said.
We stopped in Santa Monica and parked in a high-rise lot. We were gone not more than an hour. We came back to the car and went to the airport, and when she opened the trunk to get my luggage, there was absolutely NOTHING there. Somebody had stolen everything that I was bringing to the writer's colony for my month-long stay. Among the many, many possessions I had lost was my laptop computer, with the novel stored inside.
I arrived at Djerassi with a fanny pack and a wallet. I cried for 4 or 5 days.
At the time, it occurred to me that maybe somebody up THERE was trying to tell me to lose the book. Start over. I didn't listen. My husband overnighted the 400-page tome (and dear Louise-Anne shipped me a huge box full of brand new clothes, what a friend!) And I spent the month sweating over the novel that didn't want to be a novel.
Fast forward. Through countless drafts, through more sets of characters; it didn't matter how many times or how many ways I tried it. It just didn't work. Ten thousand pages later -- I cringe thinking about how many trees I killed trying to write that blasted book -- I gave up.
I know I burned several stacks of paper in these rituals I had in the front and back yards, always hoping that somehow the "real" book would rise like a phoenix out of the ashes.
I was so frustrated that a few years back, I set it all in a crate and covered it with a blue shawl and stuck it in the closet next to the vacuum cleaner and dropped a black garbage bag full of rags on top.
But oddly, that didn't stop the book either.
Now, the book has come alive again. It trickled into being on a blog called SWITCH!! a few months back. And now it's grown into four or five interconnected blogs, with Sister Mysteries controlling the show. (You can read Chapter One and catch up! )
The actual nun story, contained within Sister Mysteries, is called Castenata and as far as I can tell, it's a novel. I mean I made it up. There are moments though when I pick up the San Francisco Examiner article about the nun's arrest, otherwise known as the newspaper chapter, and I go, maybe this really did happen? My writer buddy Peg asks me all the time,
"Claud, are you SURE this nun story isn't true?" She points out that it all feels so real, and it never ever changes!
But if you stop to think about it, all stories, no matter how "true" you try to make them, are in the end just words on paper, or on screens. Words by their very nature distort the reality that they aspire to capture, so you could say that everything we write is a fiction, or at least, an artifice. (James Frye, it still would have been nice if you had told us AND Oprah Winfrey exactly which parts of A Million Little Pieces you made up!)
What I am finding so fascinating lately, and so odd, like I said, is the dance between reality, so-called, and fiction. It's all a complete mystery to me.
Especially lately, as in this week.
Back to this past Thursday's lunch with Nina; we splurged on a fancy place in Stuyvesant Plaza, a chic-looking modern place with lots of glass and big plants and marble surfaces.
We sat there talking about life and family, and of course, our respective cancers. We are both, as I have said, feeling fabulous. During the course of the conversation, I said something to her about the medical intuitive reading that I had in 2003 -- an amazing story that I still don't understand.
I told Nina that that reading -- I was in LA visiting my sister when it happened -- had turned my whole world upside down. After that day, I stepped into an alternate universe and I have never emerged from it since.
Nina knew about the reading. "You know," she said, very casually, "my good friend Teresa is working with a psychic."
"Nina, you have a good friend named TERESA?" I asked.
"Yeah, she and I were neighbors when Mauro and I lived on Elm Street. My father owned a brownstone and Teresa and her Husband Brad had just moved in next door. We "connected" immediately."
"Nina," I said, my voice shaking, "how does she spell her name?"
I laughed nervously. "Because my character, you know, Sister Renata, the one that I'm writing about again, her best friend at the convent is a nun named Teresa. When I first started the book, I spelled it THERESA, but then I changed it to TERESA."
"Wow, that really is strange," Nina said, "especially because..." Her eyes opened a little wider. She shook her head.
"Because like I just said, Teresa told me the other day that she had just gotten in contact with a psychic in New Jersey and..."
By this point I had stopped eating. My head was swimming.
"The psychic is a former nun."
I felt my heart thumping. I felt energy sizzle up and down my arms. "You're kidding."
"What does this psychic do for Teresa?" I asked calmly.
"She connects her psychically to people who have died. Teresa in fact just mailed me this book called What the Dead Can Teach Us About Life by James Van Praagh. It's amazing and apparently, this ex-nun in New Jersey is giving Teresa information about loved ones and the information she has given her is very accurate."
I swallowed. The waitress appeared and I could barely speak.
Three days later, I am still puzzled. I am still trying to figure out what to say. I am thinking I should email Teresa, because Nina gave me her email (and the name of the psychic, Janet Nahovac. But honestly, I will admit, I am a little bit reluctant. I just don't know how much I want to dabble in...that sort of thing.
My one experience with a psychic medical intuitive (Karin Novak, who at the time lived in Stowe, Vermont) convinced me that there are people in the world who know things and how they know these things cannot possibly be explained in any logical, rational way.
On August 6, 2003, I experienced what I call a miracle. To this day, my own father refuses to believe it happened to me, but that doesn't matter. Because it did happen. That is the absolute God's honest truth.
The event was so extraordinarily hard for me to process, so scary on some level, so thoroughly destabilizing and mind-boggling that it took me almost five years even to work up the courage to begin to write about it.
But I did write about it, finally, in May of 2008. And just last month, I revised the story and sent it to NPR's Bob Edwards, for possible inclusion in his "This I Believe" program; a few weeks ago, I also sent the story to an amazing internet site called The Moth, which publishes wonderful videos of people performing their stories.
I haven't heard back from either site. Well, so, maybe I just need to do with that story what I am doing with this whole book, writing it right here, and publishing it myself, on the network of blogs, as I go along.
So now, here you go, the true story of my medical intuitive reading.
Sister Mysteries, which started as a novel called SWITCH!!, is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, in which several authors are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries is contained in a series of interconnected blogs, one of which, Castenata, is a story of a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie.