Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pens, Trains, and Residencies

A few years ago, I entered a contest for a $10,000 prize at ING. The competition's mission was to honor (and help fund) the saving goals of ten ING customers.

And, oh, I had a plan. A semester in Europe spent scooting from point A (London) to points B through Z (where in Europe did I NOT go?) while alternating between looking out the window, doing my homework, and writing and writing and writing in a journal had ignited a passion for writing while traveling. Specifically writing while the clickety clacka clickety clack went on beneath me. Oh, heaven. 

But rail travel in the US is expensive.

F'expensive, some might even say. 

Every time I have to go to New York, I go to the Amtrak website, look at the three figure round trip cost, battle with how much I want to buy it, and then end up buying a ticket on one of those torturous megaboltChinatown buses. I've taken the odd rail trip. The photo above is on the commuter rail from Boston to Fitchburg and back on my birthday a few years back.(Why, yes, I DID choose to spend my birthday afternoon all alone on a dingy commuter rail so I could write. Writers are odd ducks, ain't they?) And I've taken the line between Boston and Maine to go meet a friend specifically so that I could have a round trip of writing bookending the outing,. But anytime I look into doing the same now, I look at the price of a roundtrip between Boston and NYC and almost always talk myself out of it by arguing--very reasonably--that I can work in a library for free. Which is most certainly true. I can. But there's no clickety clacka clickety clack in a library. 

So I saw the ING contest as an opportunity.

I'd always dreamed of a cross-country train trip in a sleeper car, and here was my chance to start saving for one. Wouldn't this be the best possible reward for finishing my book? What could be better than doing the final copyedit of my book while the world literally rolls by my window? OK, wait. Not literally rolling by because technically I'm the one doing the rolling, but you can see why writing on a train feels so magical. I"m imagining people and worlds acting out dramas in my head while the world seems to roll past my window. Writing on a train is like the world bending to the imaginative power of the writer. And in a world where the writer's ability to explore truth imaginatively is less revered than the scientist's ability to imagine new technology or the stockbroker's ability to imagine new ways to boost wealth, that kind of acceptance is close enough to magic for me. 

So I tinted my existing train photo orange (a  requirement was a photo that featured orange) and entered ING's contest gleefully: Here's my entry essay with the boring financial savings information redacted: 

"In 2004, I left my journalism career to pursue a master’s in creative writing. After graduation I started writing a novel, but two years later I’d only written a hundred pages. Clearly, I needed some serious motivation.
I’d already fallen in love with the power automated transfers have to turn saving intentions into reality. Could ING help me finish my novel?
I opened a writing savings account...(boring savings information cut from this paragraph). But it’s not just having to write to “earn” the money I’ve already paid myself that makes my ING writing account such a powerful motivational tool. When my draft is done, the money in the account will fund my dream reward: I’m taking my train-lovin’ self on a luxury, cross-country Amtrak trip. As the wheels chug-chug-chug their hypnotic rhythm, I’ll reread my draft, plan for the revision, and take breaks to watch all the mountains, deserts, and bright city lights we’re speeding right past.
And with the money leftover after the cross-country adventure, I’ll fund a writing class here, a conference there. With ING’s help, I’ll not only bolster my discipline but finally have a reliable budget for writing expenses." 

Needless to say, I wasn't one of the ten people funded by the contest. And really, I shouldn't have been. The essay's not great and my dream didn't capture the imagination of the every man in the same way that some of the mother's dreams for their kids did. And that's fair. But the idea of a cross country train ride certainly captured my imagination. Years later when I found out that there was an Amtrak credit card that paid in points toward Amtrak tickets, I couldn't sock away points fast enough! At some point when I'm old and gray I'll likely have enough points to book a round-trip sleeper car across the country, and I'll keep using that card until I do just that.

But you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that Amtrak is in the process of making such rolling writing residencies an actual bonafide capital-T Thing. Though thrilled doesn't exactly cover my reaction. Every vital organ in my torso came to a screeching halt...but in a good way. Put another way: If I were a puppy, I'd have piddled the floor in my excitement.

The Amtrak writing residency program is too new for such things as applications to be submitted or breathless phone calls for more information to be made. A writer (did I mention I was a writer?) might even call the program inchoate, embryonic, incipient, nascent, or, as a British friend of mine might say, it's "early days yet."

But it's not too early to dream, is it? This piddling puppy thinks not. Now if you'll excuse me I've got a carpet to clean.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What The Doctor Taught Me About Life and Death

What The Doctor Taught Me About Life and Death
By Catherine Elcik

The first Doctor Who episode I watched on purpose was Matt Smith's first full episode as the Doctor.

Oh, the channel flipper I was as a kid would often scream past that weird British show with an English man in an extraordinarily long scarf, but I never could figure out what was going on—Tom Baker always seemed to be disappearing when I flipped past. With a little orientation to The Doctor, I would have been hooked—as a kid I watched the Twilight Zone, Quantum Leap, and episodes of Friday the 13th like they were the second-coming of Shakespeare—but I believe the stories we need to hear find us at the moment we most need to hear them.

And I needed to hear the Doctor’s story in the fall of 2011.

During that fall, my mother-in-law, Fran, was in the grip of a lung cancer that would toy with her cruelly until the end of January. In response, my husband, Mike, and I had stopped having anything like fun. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d laughed.

So imagine my surprise when I came home from work one night to Mike’s insistence that I watch the opening to Matt Smith’s Dr. Who.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to catch up anyone who doesn’t know the world of Who: The Doctor is the alias of a human-like alien of the Time Lord race, the sole remaining survivor of a planet called Gallifrey. The Time Lords don’t die, they regenerate, and they have the ability to visit (almost) any place in space or time through the use of a spaceship called the TARDIS, an acronym that stands for Time And Relative Dimension in Space. From the outside, the Doctor’s TARDIS looks like a blue police box (think British-y), but on the inside, the space is massive—we’re told of a library and a pool we never get to see. “It’s bigger on the inside,” every new companion would quip upon seeing the TARDIS for the first time. Which was all well and good, but the key was this little blue box could whisk the Doctor and his companion (almost) anywhere in space and time (almost) instantly.

In Matt Smith's first episode, the Doctor doesn’t go very far. He crash lands in the tiny village of Leadworth, waking a young girl named Amy Pond who he enlists to help him figure out what his favorite food is—he doesn’t know because he’s just regenerated and he’s not all the sure of who he is anymore (is it any wonder that I was confused as a kid). The Doctor demands she cook him one food after another, spitting each one out in increasingly fraught physical comedy. It’s a hilarious set piece that ends with the Doctor happily dipping fish sticks into custard—his new favorite. He vanishes in his blue box to come back minutes later for him to find that the girl is a woman and she’s angry with him for leaving her for twelve years. To make it up to her, he whisks her away and hijinks ensue.


I don’t remember the details of the episode’s plot. What I remember is that Mike and I laughed.  We cared about the characters. It was the perfect respite for the sad turn life around us had taken. We had found a little something to help us through. The next day was Sunday—a long work day for me. But I came home ready to watch the next episode and found that my husband had binge watched the next three.

“But I thought we were going to watch this together?” I said, more hurt than I had a right to be, really. But we had laughed together. It was lightness in a period of dark, and if I was to share the dark, it was only fair that I share the light, too. Not that I could put any of that into words in that moment. I had spend the day looking forward to the next episode, and he’d watched that one and two more. He offered to let me catch up alone, and I found myself near tears. That wasn’t the way this was supposed to go.

But Mike had a compromise.

He’d keep flying through the Matt Smith episodes (and then the Christopher Eccleston episodes after that) while he and I watched the David Tennant episodes together. Never mind how fitting I would later learn it was for Mike to watch Dr. Who in nothing resembling chronological order.

As Dr. Who, David Tenant had a frantically kinetic energy that was at times sweet and cruel. He had wild hair. He wore glasses. He wore Chucks. He made me laugh and cry, sometimes in the same episode. And while I’ll never know what my reaction to David Tennant’s Doctor might have been if I had watched it when life was on more of an even keel, I know that Tennant’s Doctor’s heartfelt and enthusiastic antics were a lifeline during a time when the lifeline’s seemed few and far between.

Every time we visited my mother-in-law, she’d wasted away a little bit more.

Always a thin woman, her limbs started to look like they belonged to an albino frog, and her eyes—always beautiful—seemed to grow impossibly large as all the fat melted from her face. Looking into those big eyes staring out of her slight frame, I caught myself thinking she was bigger on the inside, and my breath caught.

On the show, “it’s bigger on the inside” was a running gag, a throw-away line, but it’s true of people, too, isn’t it? The shallow people we can’t understand are bigger hearted on the inside, the shy unreachable people have oceans of depth we can’t see in their downcast eyes, and my mother-in-law whose body was getting smaller by the minute was so, so much bigger on the inside. Her big blue eyes reminded me of that.

Though the ambient temperature in Berlin, NH in the winter is generally in the single digits before windchill, I’d bundle up my trusty greyhound and zip myself into a giant down-filled blue coat and walk up the side of a hill to the high point where I could look out on the mountains around me, as if that blue coat was a personal TARDIS spinning me out of my present and away to a world of beauty for just a little while. The episodes themselves became a kind of TARDIS, too—every time we cued up the next episode, Tennant put his blue box around the pain and fear Mike and I were navigating and whisked us away for the hour it took to tell us the next chapter in his story. Sometimes he made me laugh; other times he made me cry, but the best episodes taught me to look at the dark and sad world I was navigating in a new way.  

Here’s what the doctor taught me:

1) Be thrilled.
The Doctor is over 900 years old. In his long life, his planet has been destroyed, he is the last of his species, and he’s said goodbye to so many of the humans whose lifespans are downright ephemeral compared to his. And yet despite all the losses The Doctor has known, he’s still thrilled to make new friends, to share the wonders of the universe, to be completely thrilled about how fantastic it would be if he ever met a man names Alonzo so that he could get the opportunity to say Allons-y Alonzo.

What I learned was this—there is no pain so great that it can or should completely wipe out the thrills of this world, and that even when Fran was nearing the end, she still got playful enough to tease her favorite home health aide and tell her she was going to lock the door so she couldn’t go, her eyes full of twinkle and mischief as she said it. And for my part, that it was OK to take some time out in the morning to climb that hill after a fresh snowfall and be in awe of the way the sunlight danced on the icicles that the bare tree limbs had become. That it was OK to feel a thrill of pleasant anticipation when we got home from a weekend at Fran’s and breath out a relieved sigh of allons-y as we tuned into whatever antics the Doctor got into on this next episode.

2) Take time for the little joys.
In the middle of an episode in which The Doctor must save the world from a space ship with a nuclear bomb on board that will denote if it crashes into the earth, he discovers that the captain of the ship—his only help in his bid to save the earth—is named Alonzo, and his eyes light up with something akin to devilish ecstasy.

Never mind that the fate of the world quite literally rests in how well Alonzo and the Doctor are able to work together as the time between safety and assured Armageddon ticks away—the Doctor’s been waiting for this moment.

As they take control of the cockpit and prepare to save the world, the Doctor’s face lights up with boyish glee as he finally has his moment to shout, Allons-Y Alonzo! Then he does his stressful-save-the-world thing, but only after experiencing that moment of joy. 

A Belle Brigade album cranked on the car stereo as I went on a grocery run in the middle of a visit? Singing WhereNot to Look for Freedom and Belt of Orion at the top of my lungs? Yes, please!

The Doctor taught me to take time for the little joys. Or maybe he just reminded me, but in the moment it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? 

3. Assume you will come up with the answers you need
Half the time you know the Doctor has shit under control, but the other half of the time, when people ask him about his plan he admits that he has none but he’s sure he’ll think of something.

He always thinks of something.

Early on in Fran’s illness I wasted too much time and energy worrying about what we would do when we reached any number of scary crossroads with Fran’s end of life care. And when the problems did arise, they were never the ones I’d assumed they would be, and we found an answer as a family. Episode after episode, the Doctor’s ideas come to him just in time, and ours did, too.

4. Love what’s amazing in your enemies.
An episode of Dr. Who often involves a monster-of-the-week in the form of an alien species on the attack. The threat is imminent—the doctor and his companion are usually quite literally running for their lives—but when the doctor comes face to face with the menace he will often take the time to inspect it, marvel at the intricacy of the alien design beneath the immediate horror, and shake his head in wonder, saying, "ah, you’re beauuuutiful.”

Cancer may seem like a terrifically unrepentant monster while it’s ravaging someone you love, but there is a beauty in its design. I’m not taking about cancer’s biological resilience and tenacity—those are unrepentant evils—but terminal cancer gives the gift of time to its victims and their loved ones. Cancer may have turned Fran into an ever-diminishing box of the woman that she once was, but we had warning that she was leaving us, and we had visits where talks went deep and we looked each other in the eye and said all the things we would never have said if death had come for in the form of a heart attack or a car accident. I’m not saying that the suffering she went through was justified—cancer is my enemy for a reason—but what I’m saying is that the Doctor taught me to love what’s amazing in my enemies, and I grateful for the gift of time Fran’s cancer gave to her and her son and me.

Tomorrow is the global simulcast of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special episode, “The Day of the Doctor,” and I’m looking forward to seeing the big splash of the story with all the other Whovians in the world have been promised for what feels like months now.

But I’m also watching because David Tennant will be part of the show.

David Tennant will forever be my Doctor, and I watched him die at the end of his run and felt a great hole had been torn through my middle. Yes, I know he didn't actually die. That he just regenerated into Matt Smith. But while many of those episodes were good—great, even—they weren’t the same.

The 50th anniversary episode will be  pic for all the good global reasons—what other television show has lasted this long?—but it’s also epic for me because the doctor who was deadmy Doctorwas dead and he’s returning.

So I’ll be watching rapt, not just because I’ve fallen in love with Dr. Who as a franchise, but because I wish the idea that the dead can come back—even for just one episode—was true.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sweat Scholarships Ripe for the Picking

Since I crossed the finish line of the first annual Run for Grub about two months ago:
  • my running regimen has been downgraded from militant to pleasant,
  • I've reminded myself that music is more than just a collection of beats driving my feet, and
  • that toenail I was so worried about losing? Totally lost.
What HASN'T been lost is the four Grub Street scholarships I ran this race to fund in the first place (make some noise for the generosity of all our sponsors, please!)

If you're looking to join a family of writers in Boston.

If the writing project nearest and dearest to you could use a gentle kick in the pants.

If your writerly spirit is willing but your bank account is weak, the Run for Grub Scholarship may be for you:

WHAT: Run for Grub is a set of four scholarships covering the cost of a 10- or 6-week Grub Street workshop of your choice.

You must either be taking your first multi-week workshop at Grub Street OR taking your first multi-week workshop in a genre that is new to you (i.e. you are a fiction writer taking screenwriting for the first time, or a poet taking a memoir class, etc).

Send a one-page, single-spaced letter in 12-point font. The letter should detail how you'd benefit from taking a Grub Street class and include your bio and your familiarity with writing workshops (at Grub or other schools).

Applications must be received by October 15th, 2010 at 5pm EST.

A letter, people! Just a letter! You could have this whole application wrapped up faster than it takes to fill out one of those silly Facebook questionnaires. And really. If I can run 26.2 miles, you can certainly write one stinking page.

We'll even let you keep all your toenails.

For complete scholarship information, visit the Run for Grub Scholarships page on the Grub Street Web site.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Hollywood Ending

The race kicked off at 7:07 p.m. and endedfor me, anywaywith choking sobs eight laps and almost six hours later. I want to tell you the story, I do. But at a party once, Michelle Seaton, a wise Grub Street instructor, told me that the biggest mistake essayists can make is trying to write about seismic life events while they're still feeling aftershocks. That's sound advice, but as a blogger, I don't really have the luxury of time to process the event,and yet I've put off writing about the big race this entire, sore-muscled day. Because besides the blisters, the aching legs, and the surreal realization that when I stepped over the finish line very early this morning I transformed from marathon trainee to marathon finisher, I'm not sure what else to tell you, exactly. Not sure what to share. And then when I feel like I've gotten anywhere close to the heart of what it is I do want to say, I'm not sure anyone would believe me.

Should I tell you about the hell of lap one, when I found myself in a crush of runners pushing me faster than I'd practiced? About the stitch that came on like a vice at mile two? About reminding myself this was my race, my pace, and falling into my rhythmmine before the lap was through?

Should I tell you about the swarms of microscopic harpies that dive bombed medive-bombed all the runners, really—during lap two and filled me with dread about a nuisance I could have avoided if I'd thought to included some Deep Woods Off in my bag of marathon tricks?

Should I mention how the text messages wishing me well started at the start of lap three with a chuckle-inducing reference to The Karate Kid? Should I mention the car of people who screamed my name at the very start of the race? The army of people who were there to cheer me on at every lap? The way my husband called me champ and handed me water bottles, tops pre-loosened? The way my heart swelled at the sight of signs with my name on them, my dog's name on them, Grub's name on them? The way the roar of support as I finished the first half of the race gave me such a boost that the first lap of the second half of my race was the absolute easiest of them all?

Do I mention how downing about 24 ounces of water per lap forced a port-o-potty break after lap 5 even though I knew full well that stopping would make it much harder to get going again? Do I tell you how uncomfortable it was trying to run after pulling sweaty, wet spandex up into a position that just didn't match the grooves the spandex had made through the first five laps of the race? How the only other time I stopped during the race was the 30 seconds I took to frantically try and right said sweaty, wet spandex?

Should I tell you about how the fastest runners didn't give me a second thought, but the medium-speed runners who passed me looked back and yelled: Good job or Just a little more or Looking strong? Do I tell you about making friends with David, a runner in the ultra marathon category, who was in a run-walk pattern that meant we kept passing and being passed by each other? Do I tell you how I lost David after the start of lap 5? That I can't decide if it was his knee brace or my pee break that broke our little 13.1-mile dance?

Do I mention the torture of muscles aching at lap 6 and the hum of pain in my feet and knees that settled in halfway through lap 7? The way I took a breath and forced my thoughts to stay the hell in my head just my head, dammitliterally convincing myself that my legs, though down there, didn't need my attention right now and the only body part I cared about just then were the parts from the neck up? Do I try and explain that turning myself into bobble-head me worked beautifully when I don't really understand the first thing about how I made 90 percent of me disappear? Do I explain how bauble- head-me kept my head on the things I wanted to think abouthow far I've come in a yearwhile the text messages pouring in made sure I was buoyed by the bigger picture: this run was a fundraiser for Grub Street.

Do I tell you about how I realized that some people were lapping me, others I was lapping, and still others—long lost David among themkept passing me and letting me pass them? Should I mention how this reminded me that this race was like writing a novel that way: it doesn't matter how many people get to the finish line before or after you, your pace is your pace is your pace?

Do I tell you about the way I entered the last lap with a certainty that no matter what my knee was doing down there, I was going to finish this thing? Do I tell you how weepy I got about everyone who supported me out there? The way I realized that for all the joking I've done about how running a marathon is easier than writing a book because there are clear schedules for marathon training, that I realized that I've gone and come to the end of the Run for Grub road with a revamped outline of the second half of my revision that looks a hell of a lot like a training scheduledo this, then this, then this.

Do I tell you about the personal journey of that last lap? The way my mind cast back to one year ago when I was forty pounds heavier and barely able to run three miles? Do I tell you how I choked up at mile 25 because holy mother of sweat monkeys, I was two-thirds of the way through the last lap and really, actually, for reals, yo, about to finish my first marathon?

Do I tell you about the way I totally lost it and burst into tears on coming to the marker that told me I had finished 26 miles? The one that meant I had a measly .22 miles to go? One last corner to round? Do I mention the way the runners around me slowed and turned to make sure that sobbing-puddle-'o'-Cathy wasn't in dire distress, the way I waved them on by telling them I was almost done, the way they let me be, the way I pulled it together and ran that last little spit of road for everything running had won for me this yearmy health, my renewed confidence in my book, my commitment to Grub Street?

I could tell you all those things, but as Michelle would warn, it will come out sounding pretty much exactly like the first draft of a diary entry that this little rant has turned out to be. But for a blog entry made just about 24 hours after finishing my first marathon, that's OK with me. I should hope that's OK with you.

What I think I'll leave you with is the perfect Hollywood ending every fiction workshop I've had at Grub Street would encourage me to avoid. But in this case, this story is mine. And I think I've more than earned the right to share my Hollywood ending.

You know.

The one where I cross the finish line and see my husband walking toward me, arms stretched out. The one where I fall into his hug and really cryfor everything I've mentioned above and the swarm of emotions that are still too raw for me to translate with a keyboardwhile he asks me again and again to talk to him, let him know that the tears are about joy and not pain. The one where for several seconds, all I can do is nod and cry in the cool, cool night.

On July 30, Catherine Elcik ran her first marathon to raise money for a scholarship fund for Grub Street, Inc, an independent writing center in Boston, MA. Donations can still be made at

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day Of...

I've been wonderfully swamped with well-wishers today--flowers and phone calls and texts, oh my!--so the lollygagging I'd planned to do over the day-of-the-marathon entry didn't really happen. But I'm feeling strong and spooked and excited in about equal measure, which means feeling great has the majority and I'm all about majority rules. In the last forty-five minutes left before I leave for the race, I need to double check that I've packed everything (no barefoot running for me, thanks), down enough water to make the pH in my stomach hospitable for most freshwater fish, and watch the finale of The Karate Kid one more time.

Yeah, I know a karate tournament and a marathon aren't exactly kissing cousins, but the way I figure it, the metaphor holds up on three counts:
  1. if the little demon in my head so much as hisses the words tired or quit or sore, I'll sweep his devilish little leg;
  2. the crane kick's all the metaphor I need for digging deep and pushing through when (if!) I feel beat; and
  3. I'm hoping Mr. Miyagi's voice will make an appearance in my brain somewhere around lap 7:
Miyagi have hope for you!
And with that, I'm off to go take my mark...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rocky Balboa's Got Nuthin' on Ralph

Everything I read about what I'm supposed to be doing in this last week of training says I should be taking it easy by watching uplifting movies like Rocky and Chariots of Fire and Prefontaine. Which would be well and good except that I heard Steve Prefontaine died in a taken-too-soon car crash. And even though his death was completely unrelated to running, dead marathoners are not really the vibe I'm looking for two days before my race.

The vibe I do want? A little more magical realistic. A little more breathlessly rooting that the fantastically ridiculous longshot will pull through. A little more outting me as the complete sap I am when it comes to competition movies (this dates back to the time in my latchkey phase when my sister and I wore out the videotape we'd used to steal The Karate Kid from Cinemax).

So when I read that Saint Ralph was about a fifties-era freshman who fixates on the idea that winning the Boston Marathon was just the miracle he needed to rouse his mother from her coma, I was all over that shit.

You remember that stereotype of the frat boy who gets drunk at a party, starts hanging off his friends, and screams "I love you, man?" Yeah. So that was totally me from the moment the gun goes off at the marathon and Ralph gets busy run, run, running. Because the thing was, you see, that the people at home were listening on their transistor radios.

I mean, like, all of them.

And yes, I know that no sports movie is complete without the required quick cuts to all the motley fans listening in cars, in classrooms, and in any weird place the director decides will fly, really. But in this particular movie, those supporters were Grub Street.

Grub Street's been called a lot of things by all the people who have done Q&As and essays for the Grub Tales section of this blog, but so far no one's mentioned how the community at Grub buoys its writers with all the energy of a fan-support montage in a competition movie. The only difference is that where love for Ralph was total Hollywood fabrication, Grub love is real.

The amount of well-wishing I've received this week has been totally humbling. And I'm downright gobsmacked at the number of people who are planning to show up in Wakefield on Friday night to support me. Though given my weepy reaction to Saint Ralph, I need to renew my warning about the likelihood of tears: I may well turn into a blubbering shell of myself after crossing the finish line.

You know.

Assuming I've got any water left in me at all after sweating for five to six hours.

Catherine Elcik is running her first marathon to raise money for a scholarship fund for Grub Street, Inc, an independent writing center in Boston, MA.