bouncing kisses

Somehow I’ve set my phone to back up every picture I take to my laptop. I only realized this when my hard drive was so full the computer quit working, and I started poking around to solve the mystery. And there they were, thousands of pictures and videos, saved to a folder buried in the file structure. In addition to all the images, I found a somewhat random collection of other files — pdfs and text files and Word documents, all saved and long forgotten. Most of the file names were descriptive enough, but one was just titled “ms.doc” so I opened it, thinking it was a client’s project I’d accidentally saved in the wrong place. And what I read felt as detached from me as if I hadn’t ever seen it before, but the stories were clearly mine. I have no recollection of writing them, page after page after page, but they are definitely mine. Weird. Maybe that’s the hazard of being a compulsive writer-of-stories, and a person who is now very good at forgetting things.

Anyway, this one was written in a way that brought me right back to that experience, to those lonely and exhausted years, those summer nights, those sorrowful feelings, so I thought I’d give it some air and let it breathe a little. Here you go, a story from the very early 1990s:

“Let’s go bounce our kisses off the moon.” This is what I told them every night, after their baths, that long summer in Virginia. The nights were so hot and steamy my glasses fogged up when we stepped out the front door, and my shirt clung to my skin within seconds. They were little, then, and always clean-scrubbed and shiny in their fresh pajamas and nightgowns. There was something fantastical to them about going outside in their nightclothes; they always looked at each other with sneaky little grins, as if they were getting away with something. It had been his idea, before he left, this whole bouncing kisses off the moon thing, as if they could throw theirs and he’d catch them, in the other hemisphere.

“Mommy, does Daddy feel our kisses the way you do? How does he get them?” they’d ask, in a hundred different ways. Katie was the oldest and knew this was just a game, but she went along for the sake of her little sister and brother, the same way she gave me a sideways smile when they’d talk about how clever the Easter bunny was to think of hiding their baskets underneath their beds – the last place they’d have looked. She knew what we were up to with this story, but the way she threw her kisses, the way she looked so hard at the moon as they flew away, I knew she was hoping that somehow they’d get there, somehow he’d feel her yearning for him and know that this one, this special kiss, was just hers, for him. Marnie and Will always gave a little jump when they kissed their hands and threw their kisses into the air. Marnie was just the right age, really, believing in the magic. She’d turn to me with light all over her face, letting the kiss go on its way as she gave one to me, too. Will was usually unsatisfied with just one toss and jump, so he’d push the kiss on its way with both hands a few times, each push getting its own jump. “Daddy is gone,” he’d say, and then he would run into the house, upstairs to his bedroom to play. “Yes, Daddy is gone,” I’d say softly to myself. “Daddy is gone.”

Saturday mornings the kids gathered downstairs, watching cartoons before breakfast. At the top of the stairs, I’d ask, “What shall it be this Saturday morning,” doing my best imitation of the silly-pompous way he used to ask that question, “waffles, or pannnnncaaaakes,” dragging out the last word as he did. “Pancakes! Pancakes!” they’d say, jumping up from the floor. The girls jumped once and ran to me, but Will just kept jumping around in circles, singing, “pannnnncakes, pannnnnnncakes, pannnnncakes!” and waving his hands like little wings. Of course pancakes didn’t mean pancakes, it meant their dad’s pancakes, shaped like Mickey Mouse, or like a silly unicorn, or sprinkled with candy if we had it, or cupcake decorations. Nothing as boring as a plain round pancake with butter and syrup, there’s nothing fun about that, Daddy always said.

“Daddy makes better pancakes than you do,” Will said again this Saturday. “Yours are too round and the legs are too short.” Katie glanced at my face and scooted her chair a little closer to mine, and asked if she could have another pancake, please. “I wonder what Daddy’s doing this morning,” Marnie said. “I wonder if he got our kisses last night? I want to draw monsters with him, I want him to come home now.” Her eyebrows pulled together and a little pout started forming around her mouth. Touching my hand, Katie turned to Marnie and said, “It’s OK, Marn, I can draw with you this morning!” I looked away, out the glass door into our large backyard, littered with leaves and fallen branches from the recent storm. I sat still, unable to move my gaze, as the girls ran upstairs to get the jar of markers and the big blank book Marnie and her dad filled with funny monsters, and palm trees, and dogs that waved their paws. I heard them turning the pages, turning clumps of pages, trying to find an empty space that hadn’t already been filled on Saturday mornings, before he left.

“Mommy? Are you crying, mommy?” Will asked. I coughed a little into my fist and turned my shining eyes to him. “It’s OK, Daddy will come back!” he said. Will put his arms up, the signal he wanted to be lifted out of his booster seat, so I got up and lifted him out of the chair and watched him run upstairs, to draw with his big sisters.

Daddy said he would come back. He said.

* * *

In the funny way the world works, sometimes, this story continued to echo into the world. Marnie incorporated some of it into a personal experience she had, and put it in a truly beautiful book she wrote and illustrated called Particle/Wavewhich you can buy for only $8.

It reminds me of the way our experiences have such long echoes and ripples, how a moment can transform and connect past and future. And it makes me cry.

three things: 1/15/17

FEED: Here’s a glorious poem that you have to see on the page.

TIME AND MATERIALS

1
To make layers,
As if they were a steadiness of days:

It snowed; I did errands at a desk;
A white flurry out the window thickening; my tongue
Tasted of the glue on envelopes.

On this day sunlight on red brick, bare trees,
Nothing stirring in the icy air.

On this day a blur of color moving at the gym
Where the heat from bodies
Meets the watery, cold surface of the glass.

Made love, made curry, talked on the phone
To friends, the one whose brother died
Was crying and thinking alternately,
Like someone falling down and getting up
And running and falling and getting up.

2
The object of this poem is not to annihila

To not annih

The object of this poem is to report a theft,
In progress, of everything
That is not these words
And their disposition on the page.

The object o f this poem is to report a theft,
In progre ss of everything that exists
That is not th ese words
And their d isposition on the page.

The object of his poe is t repor a theft
In rogres f ever hing at xists
Th is no ese w rds
And their disp sit on o the pag

3
To score, to scar, to smear, to streak,
To smudge, to blur, to gouge, to scrape.

“Action painting,” i.e.,
The painter gets to behave like time.

4
The typo would be “paining.”

(To abrade.)

5
Or to render time and stand outside
The horizontal rush of it, for a moment
To have the sensation of standing outside
The greenish rush of it.

6
Some vertical gesture then, the way that anger
Or desire can rip a life apart,

Some wound of color.

© 2007, Robert Hass
From: Time and Materials. Poems 1997-2005
Publisher: Ecco (HarperCollins Publishers), New York, 2007

SEED:  OOF, you know how you can just be doing something random, like looking through a box for the pretty cards you stored away, and then you happen across something you had completely forgotten about, and that punches you right in the heart? That happened to me. In a box in my storage room, I saw a plastic sleeve with old IDs and credit cards, no idea how long ago I tucked it away in that box — must’ve been when I moved in, November 2012. I went through them and came across this tiny snippet of now-brown newsprint:

It’s blurry because it is blurry, the print is fading. “Lori G,” I had that last name so long ago, and this small personal ad was in the newspaper for me in ~1990. Almost 30 years ago. I didn’t remember that I had it, and I didn’t even remember it had happened until I saw it.

When she was a tiny little girl, my sister hated milk. Hated it. She only wanted water (“that’s the Stone in her” everyone said). But she couldn’t say milk, she’d just say, “No muck Big Daddy, no muck.” So he called her Muck. I was Pete, she was Muck, we were a nicknaming family. (Big Daddy especially.) My sister and I cannot have a relationship longer than a week, and it pops up once every 8-10 years, and I don’t blame her or myself. When you come out of the family we did, well, there is too much I understand about that. I don’t blame her or my brother for our inability to know each other, but the deep truth is that I dearly loved her when we were little, and it’s so easy for me to touch that feeling I cry.

She knew that I had this silly little habit of reading the personal column in the weekend newspaper just in case there was an ad for me. (My dad did the same thing, and I didn’t know that until I met him again right before his death. So did his sister, didn’t know that, either.) I don’t know if my sister and I were having a relationship at the time she posted the ad,  I can’t remember too clearly. I suspect this was placed around the time of my first major clinical depression, the one that culminated in a terrifying suicide attempt, because around that time she wrote me a letter saying, “We keep going because we never know when we’re going to round a corner and there is someone holding a bouquet of flowers just for us.” So it makes sense that she would’ve done this, too, a very personal and specific reaching-out to me, her big sister, a bouquet of flowers just for me.

So much in that tiny square of delicate old newsprint. Twenty-five words.

READ: A Texas writer named Sarah Bird was supposed to receive an award from the Texas State Legislature, which delighted her — until she learned that she was not going to be allowed to speak. This led her to decline the award because she didn’t want it to appear that she supported them without question. So instead, she published the speech she would’ve given (here’s the article about it in the Texas Tribune):

Whenever I meet a woman of my age, old enough to remember those glorious carefree days back when America was great and we were pooping our panties as we trembled in fear of nuclear annihilation beneath our desks; or skipping merrily behind the truck spraying clouds of utterly safe DDT; or staring at the photo of a black girl nearly our own age who required the National Guard and more guts than you can hang on a fence to go to school; or, living in terror of becoming one of the thousands of women who died of an unsafe, illegal abortion, we shake our heads and wonder, “How the hell did we get back here?”

The short answer to how is “states’ rights.” Yes, that nightrider who’s kept the Civil War raging for more than 150 years is the very creature enabling all the OB/GYNs in the Legislature to get all up in our lady business via the gnat swarm of bullshit laws they keep trying to inflict upon us. What? No, OB/GYNs in the Lege? But they authored a booklet, “A Woman’s Right to Know,” that doctors are forced to give patients seeking an abortion that warns those women they will suffer a higher incidence of breast cancer — a fact unknown to countless medical groups, including the National Cancer Institute, which has debunked this claim. State Reps. Donna Howard, D-Austin, Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and Mary González, D-Clint, introduced legislation to fix the inaccuracies, but it didn’t pass.

The hypocrisy is wearying. And it would be laughable if the bodies of Texas women were not at stake.

So, that’s the “how,” what about the “why?” Because it gets votes and the dipshits get to accomplish that which their entire being is centered around: Keeping their jobs. And why is using the bodies of Texas women as a sort of tenure track to job security such a sure-fire vote-getting strategy?

Let us turn to the individual selected by the antiquated, dangerously unrepresentative Electoral College to be our next president for that answer. No more perfect articulation as to why our representatives are so relentlessly eager to shove their transvaginal ultrasound wands into the bodies of as many Texas women as their bullshit laws allow can be found than that offered in this individual’s colloquy with Billy Bush, blessedly, blessedly, preserved for the ages on videotape. There, in the NBC Studios parking lot, he identified the ultimate prize that awaited the man who achieved his level of celebrity: the power to grab women by their genitalia.

Here in a nutshell is the cornerstone of every fundamentalist perversion of religion from the Taliban to the Yearning for Zion FLDS compound: Control the P____. Our next president can say it, but I won’t. This atavistic impulse is at the heart of every transparently cynical political ploy from the state’s egregious fetal remains burial proposal to mandatory parental consent for minors to defunding Planned Parenthood to the rules that forced most clinics in the Rio Grande Valley to shut down.

Her speech is remarkable, and I wish she had been able to deliver it to the people who deserve to hear it (but who would’ve slammed her mercilessly and tried to shut her down). Instead, she will join all of us marching on January 21st. I’ll be wearing my pussy hat. Every single time the shout is “MY BODY MY RIGHTS / HER BODY HER RIGHTS”I cry and the rage that fills me turns my shout hard and louder and filled with the fury of a human being who does not understand how we can still be fighting this fight.

two things: 1/12/17

1) The Wake Up Project is an Australian-centered mission to promote kindness and mindfulness. Five years ago I followed them but somehow I lost track — maybe in one of my occasional email subscription purges, which I regret. Click the link above for more information; I’ve signed up again. One of my dear, dear friends shared the most recent email from the founder, and I thought it was so great I wanted to share it here, and say why/more . . . but first, the email:

With all that’s happening in the world, I see 2017 as a profound call to personal leadership. More accurately, I’d call it an invitation to spiritual warriorship – to train and nourish our heart’s tremendous potential for kindness towards ourselves, each other and the earth.

To me, this means stepping up and honouring the ordinary magic of our daily lives. Learning how to protect our minds, listening for guidance and living from our hearts.

May I offer three areas to focus on this year:

Feed Your Mind Beautiful Things: Never has this been so important. Feed it truth. Feed it inspiration. AKA uplifting literature, wisdom, poetry, comedy, music, podcasts and good journalism. Surround yourself with people who nourish your mind and open you to new possibilities.

Adopt a Practice of Intentional Stillness: Set aside 5-15 minutes a day to relax and rest in the unchangeable part of you. The method doesn’t matter – sit, journal, pray, swim, stretch. It’s all about calming your mind, befriending yourself and listening to what life wants from you.

Once a Week, Pause and Ask Yourself “Who Can I Be Kind To Right Now?”: Really listen. It could be a friend, lover, family member, stranger – or it could be the same person each time. It doesn’t need to be big – e.g. send a text, make a phone call, leave a note. Or it could be big and risky. Step by step, kindness becomes your #1 spiritual practice. Set a weekly alert in your calendar to keep this practice alive.

Always remember….

“There is a LIGHT in this world. A healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, and too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.” ~ Sir David Attenborough

So there it is. This is your year to Wake Up the best in you. To befriend yourself through unapologetic gentleness. To discover a profound rest in your human imperfections. To awaken the revolutionary (and essential) qualities of kindness, courage and creativity. This is spiritual warriorship.

OK! The reason this struck me the way it did is that like most of us, I’ve been just so scared of the incoming government, and a big part of that fear is that we’d all just get worn down and quit fighting. That the media will cave (as they have already done to a large extent), that the fighters will be loud at first but gradually they’ll (we’ll) subside because of exhaustion or because they’re systematically shut down, and that those of us with truly little power will find our powerlessness too hard to accept so we’ll start saying things like, “well, I’m just going to be kind/ paint/ write/ knit” and without diminishing those things AT ALL, they are too easily, I fear, a transition to acceptance of the situation. I’ve been scared of that, and I’ll just claim it for myself: I’ve been scared that will do that.

Te-Ata, Chickasaw

But this letter orients that effort in such a powerful way: spiritual WARRIORSHIP. My mother is descended from a Chickasaw woman named Ela-Teecha, so I am going to imagine myself a spiritual Chickasaw warrior. I found this beautiful photo of a Chickasaw woman named Te-Ata (Bearer of the Morning) and since I don’t have a photo of Ela-Teecha, I will instead hold her in my mind as my spiritual warrior image. (Wasn’t she so beautiful?) The Chickasaw belong to the Five Civilized Tribes, and were relocated, along with the Cherokee, on the Trail of Tears.

And so I will follow the guidance of the Wake Up Project and do the things I’d planned to do, but as spiritual warriorship. Somehow that feels different to me — and I will march and protest and write emails and make calls, too. And that is enough for one powerless person.

2) Speaking of Ela-Teecha, here’s what I know about her:

A friend did a quick exploration for me through Ancestry.com and uncovered so much information — often thrilling, sometimes painful (slave owners in Georgia) — and in the documents, she found this. I read it again and again, and adore “married into the great Choctaw family of Leflores.” The description of Ela-Teecha sounds exactly like my mother, exactly: straight black hair, very high cheek bones, and small black eyes … — medium size and slender build. That description can of course look a lot of different ways, and she undoubtedly looked nothing like my mother, but my mother fit the description too and that’s a bit eerie.

Ela-Teecha, my ancestorOH!! I found her! After she married Smith Paul she went by the Anglicized name Ellen. She lived from 1797 to 1871, and if I joined Ancestry, I could also see her grave, and probably find out exactly where she is buried. Wow. For a rootless person like me, that feels utterly amazing. I was able to snag her tree without joining:

I love that one of her sons was named Tecumseh, and another Mississippi. I’m unsure which of her children led to me, but I think that must be knowable. My father’s paternal line is a series of abrupt, violent stops, but that’s not my whole story. I know my father’s mother descended from a line of Alabama Coushatta, so on both sides I am descended from native people and their toughness and resilience live through me.

This is not really of interest to anyone but me, but I’m glad to stash this here for later finding.

Find your own model, if that will help, or maybe you don’t need one, maybe you are ready and able to fight your own way, just out of your own core. #resistance

three things: 1/11/17

1)  I think a lot about the truthiness of things, and of course I have my historical, personal reasons for it. I read this passage in Fall on Your Knees, a powerful book by Anne-Marie MacDonald, and it has stayed with me:

“It’s a sin for Lily to let Mercedes think it was Daddy who beat up Frances. But he has done it in the past. Surely truth can be borrowed across time without perishing. Shelf life, so to speak.”

“Surely truth can be borrowed across time….” That. And the shelf life of truth, that too. Freud talked about ‘screen memories,’ one that may in itself be false but that masks a deeper, true memory of great emotional significance. And in Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch said,

“The more a person recalls a memory, the more they change it. Each time they put it into language, it shifts. The more you describe a memory, the more likely it is that you are making a story that fits your life, resolves the past, creates a fiction you can live with. It’s what writers do. Once you open your mouth, you are moving away from the truth of things. According to neuroscience, the safest memories are locked in the brains of people who can’t remember. Their memories remain the closest replica of actual events. Underwater. Forever.”

And so, as I continue this extremely difficult process of writing my two memoirs, and as I myself am not always absolutely certain about the truth of my memories in certain aspects, the truth of my own experiences even when my body knows the fact of them, the question of the unreliable narrator haunts me. I’m unreliable in so very many ways — including the mere fact of having told my stories a number of times — and yet I insist on the deep truth of all my memories, of all my experiences. Did this experience happen like this in the moment I am writing about, in this specific scene? Can I borrow truth across time without losing its truth? I insist that I can. Owning, telling, remembering, writing the truth of your life is not the same as being on a witness stand accusing another person of a specific crime, for which they can be judged and punished.

Right? I think so. (And if you are strong, read Chronology of Waterhere’s my GoodReads review, it was such a powerful story. The link also includes the material I highlighted, passages I loved for one reason or another.)

And in a funny twist, this quote was in my quote widget (in the right sidebar) when I was writing:

“A common feature of many theories of trauma is the idea that the causative—the wounding—event is not remembered but relived, as it is in the flashbacks of combat veterans, experienced anew with a visceral immediacy that affords no critical distance. To remember something, you have to consign it to the past—put it behind you—but trauma remains in the present; it fills that present entirely. You are inside it. Your mouth is always filled with the taste of blood. The killers are always crashing through the brush behind you. Some researchers believe that trauma bypasses the normal mechanisms of memory and engraves itself directly on some portion of the brain, like a brand. Cattle are branded to signify that they are someone’s property, and so, too, were slaves. The brand of trauma signifies that henceforth you yourself are property, the property of that which has injured you. The psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi believed that trauma is characterized by the victim’s helpless identification with the perpetrator, and elsewhere in the literature one often comes across the word “possession.” The moment of trauma marks an event horizon after which memory ceases. Or else memory breaks down, so that the victim can reconstruct the event but not the feeling that accompanied it, or alternatively only the feeling.” —Peter Trachtenberg

2)  Here’s a poem I really love, and hope you like it, too:

REALISM (Beth Bachmann)

God said, your name is mud
and the thing about mud is you
got to throw it down
repeatedly
to remove the air
and sometimes cut it
and rejoin it with another part.
If stars are made of dust,
it’s not the same stuff,
God said;
you can’t make a hut out of it,
only heaven,
and when I said dust to dust,
that’s not what I meant.

3) I read a collection of short stories by a new (to me!) writer named Carl MacDougall — Someone Always Robs the Poor. He’s a very well-established Scottish writer, and the stories are set almost entirely in Scotland and most are about alcohol in some way, and frequently violence.

The stories often left me stunned, like the powerful story “Korsakoff’s Psychosis” that took me right into the experience of a late-stage alcoholic, with all the horrors of that life. It was hard to read that story, and hard to look away even though I wanted to, because the prose slipped me right into the terrible, tragic remnants of mind. The story “William John MacDonald” broke the narrative form to tell a terrible sad story (one of many stories related to drunk men) of a young man’s tragic encounter with violence and drinking. On occasion I had to read a page a few times — in part because of cultural references that weren’t familiar to me, and in part because of the style of storytelling. I was always glad to read and re-read.

On the whole, the stories were sad and tragic, although they were never told with melodrama. Instead, they were quiet and deeply emotional, and I sometimes paused when one ended, and held it for a long while before I slipped into the next. What a powerful collection of stories that will haunt me. I read and ARC, and the book won’t be published until February 23, but I heartily recommend it. It’s a quick read; I read the bulk of it on the flight from New York to Austin, about 3.5 hours.

I could use your thoughts, please

lidiaSo I was listening to this beautiful short series of free writing lectures by Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the gutting memoir Chronology of WaterHer writing is not like anyone else’s. I hadn’t read any of her books, only short stories here and there, but I had Chronology of Water on my Kindle and after seeing these lecture clips, I decided to read it finally.

W.O.W. I can only read the book in snips and sips, it’s pretty raw and powerful, and quite hard. She does a thing I’d give anything to do, in my own voice. I recommend the book, or anything else she has written.

In one of the lectures she talks about the central importance of our metaphors, and in finding the story underneath the story, and the one underneath that. She said that if you just tell the story you’ve always told, it will be dead, and she provided a really great exercise that I’m dying to try. But in her conversation about metaphor, she said she’d shared an early draft of Chronology of Water with a trusted reader and she asked for deep feedback. Among the feedback, the reader mentioned that Lidia’s central metaphor was water, which she simply had not realized . . . even though a huge part of the story is her early life as an athlete, a competitive swimmer, and her return to swimming, and her feelings of drowning, and on and on and on. Realizing her central metaphor was a crystallizing and powerful thing, not just for her book but for her understanding of herself, and her life.

She said everyone operates with a few metaphors, and she named a couple of others that echo through her stories and her life. I thought it was fascinating that she couldn’t see her own most central metaphor, but at the same time I totally get it. Fish don’t see the water!

I do have a sense of one big metaphor in my life (by which I mean a metaphor that I see in my recurring experiences — it’s my storytelling, not something that exists in a reified way in my life), but I wondered about others. And since sometimes other people can see you more clearly than you see yourself, I thought I’d ask. If you’ve been around the palace for a while, what would you say are my metaphors? I’ll welcome any thoughts you may have.

And if you’re interested in Lidia (an interest that will be so rewarding, you’ll see), here’s her TED talk about being a misfit:

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

To those who feel like they don't belong: there is beauty in being a misfit. Author Lidia Yuknavitch shares her own wayward journey in an intimate recollection of patchwork stories about loss, shame and the slow process of self-acceptance. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she says.

Thanks, y’all.

a post, in two parts

PART I

The tide has turned. The worm has turned. It’s a beautiful morning. The world has turned. Morning has broken. And many other sayings like that.

Light is coming back. Light and air are coming back to me. Yesterday I actually laughed spontaneously, and I haven’t had “those” thoughts for three straight days, now. If bad language offends you, turn away (but then you probably aren’t one who reads my damn blog 🙂 ) — I think it’s fucking ending. Halle-fuckin-lujah. And thus ends the F word, in this post, anyway.

For you professional depression-havers out there, you know how it sidles up alongside you, a dark day turns into a week but you know, people have down weeks. A week slips into two, then three, and then you’re in it and don’t even remember that it ever was anything but this. I wish it announced itself in some way, that would make it all so much easier.

I told people slowly, very slowly, too slowly. One here, another there. This one. A hint of it to that one so as not to freak out that person. A secret group, and then another secret group, and then the last one, and then that last blog post and a public-ish post on open Facebook. Damn depression, the way it makes you unable to think and see! There was pretty much a linear correlation (thus ends the statistical stuff) between help I got and people I told. And a big duh right there. If I weren’t depressed I’d have caught it on the second person. So the next time this comes around, as I sadly imagine it will even as I hope it doesn’t, I hope I can remember this, and simply tell all my support people, my friends, those who love me, those I love, and accept the help they so generously give. Just do that. Tell, and as soon as you can. And as many people who love you as you can. You’ll know the ones who’ll get cold, or freak out, so don’t tell them but tell all the others, the ones who will rush toward you in even the slightest of ways.

This morning I was telling a group of friends about what this giant all-out launching of love has done for me, and a sweet little bit of writing slipped out of my fingertips so I’ll plagiarize myself: “this kind of love bombing I’ve been receiving ever since I went ‘public’ with it has been like a booster rocket, sending me above the ocean’s surface where I can take deep gulps of good air. And even if I go down again, I don’t go nearly as far.”  [pretty good imagery if I do say so myself. thank you, subconscious.]

Of course every time is different, and it’s different for every person (different each person x different each time = I can’t do the math but that’s a lot of instances), but I learned something this time that I want to try for others, and I hope to ask for, for myself. When you are way down in the hole, people who love you remind you how much they love you, and of course they do, and you know it even if you can’t feel it while you’re down there. But the nasty little sentences I was resisting were these: No one would miss you. It wouldn’t matter if you just died.

People not only showed up, they gently took me out for a drink, for dinner, they held my hand and looked into my eyes and told me what I meant to them, they told me they understood because they suffer depression, they sent me little notes, or they bought me music, or they wrote me letters, or they sent me gifts. They listened to me with great heart and compassion, and I could see it in their glowing eyes. They pinged me every single morning asking how I was, darling, and sometimes again at night. If I said it was really really bad, I got good practical advice — go outside and take a very fast walk, go do it now. And text me when you’re back.

And sometimes they wrote out what it would mean to them if I weren’t here. And there it was, the very real argument against those miserable thoughts. Liar! She would be devastated, and in these particular ways! Liar! Her world would change in these particular ways! Liar! Liar! Liar! Not only were those like silver bullets against the thoughts, they were also overwhelmingly wonderful to read — not that people would suffer, but that my presence in their life means all those things.

And so I will carry this with me out of the darkness, and not just wait until someone is depressed to tell them what they mean in my life, how important they are in the very fiber of my life, but tell them all. (I mean, not all the time, for heaven’s sake. 🙂 )  You might file this away for the next time someone you love is severely depressed. It may or may not help them, but there is no way it can hurt. And maybe it will just make them feel too guilty to leave. Whatever works, man. Whatever works.

Part II

Just the right person came into my life at just the right time. I didn’t recognize it at the beginning, because I was too far gone in grief and loss, and she went out of the country for six months. I kind of feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for her, but don’t tell her that, she’ll get embarrassed.

I’ll only be able to explain her importance when I write the dedication and acknowledgements for my memoir, but thanks to her, it’s an entirely different book now, and it’s amazing and flowing. Yesterday I wrote for five hours straight, non-stop, two chapters, 7326 words. I could have written chapter 3 and chapter 4, probably, if I didn’t have to stop and clean the kitchen and brush my teeth and go to bed. (And take my mighty-strong extra antidepressant, which is also part of the equation in addition to all that love bombing.)

And so my silence here is probably going to be prolonged, but for a very different reason. I actually have two books to finish, one the publisher is waiting for, and I’m ~75% through, and the one I’m writing now, like a river flowing out of me, and I want to spend all my non-working time on these two writing projects. My friend turned the dial so it’s oriented at a different angle, said a magic sentence, and flipped the switch. How can I ever thank her enough.

So many people have helped me, I’d need an index-length acknowledgement to include them all, and I hope you know who you are if you read this. For everyone who said a little something, sent a little smile, told me to write, gave me your attention, your love, allowed me to give those to you, I am forever in your debt.

citrus

Today’s word prompt is ‘citrus’ and although it seems like an obvious word — especially for summer — it stumped me. I don’t drink orange juice, I slice lemons for water, and keep limes around to squeeze on as many things as possible. But meh, how ordinary. I finally got an idea for a photo I’ll instagram in a while, but in thinking about it I realized I do in fact have a story about citrus.

bag o' oranges
bag o’ oranges

When I was a teenager and had no home, for a short period I had a job at a factory — Wichita Clutch — and so I had a bit of money. For a couple of weeks I got a room at the YWCA, so nice to have a bed and a shower. I quickly couldn’t spend my money that way, but while I still had a little money I tried my best to take care of myself and buy food that would help keep me alive. In Wichita Falls, in the far north plains of Texas, winters are harsh, brutal, frozen. Back then (this would’ve been 1975-1976) we didn’t have any produce you wanted at any time of the year. So the grocery store did have oranges, but they were not very good. I could buy a small bag of oranges, and they were mostly very small and green. I remember eating those very bad oranges, bitter, and hating them so much but I had to eat them, I’d spent my precious little amount of money on them. (Why I thought oranges were the most important thing to eat, I have no idea. Maybe I remembered reading about sailors getting scurvy, or something.)

One freezing night when I was huddled in a tight little ball behind a dumpster, eating my sad, hard oranges, I summoned Scarlet O’Hara and all but shook my tiny fist at the sky and said aloud, “I will never eat oranges again.” (I didn’t say “As God is my witness,” but it was definitely in the spirit of my comments.)

And so I haven’t. It’s a promise I have kept to myself for FORTY YEARS. If you look at my history of diets abandoned, works abandoned, etc., you see I haven’t traditionally been good at keeping promises made to myself, but for some reason this one I have kept. When I’m offered an orange, I always say, “No thanks, I don’t eat oranges” and leave it at that. On occasion I’ll drink a small glass of orange juice — it isn’t that I don’t like orange! — but for some reason it feels deeply important to honor that little girl’s promise. I imagine I will keep that promise until the day I die.

Here’s my Instagram photo for the August Break 2015 project, #augustbreak2015:

I love this vintage juice carafe. I had one just like it on my table 40 years ago, and I think my grandmother had one too. It always makes me think of summer, whatever is in it.
I love this vintage juice carafe. I had one just like it on my table 40 years ago, and I think my grandmother had one too. It always makes me think of summer, whatever is in it.

I am not my story

A recent spate of publicity about Robert Downey, Jr. has him saying, “I am not my story.” I think this is a common idea — and specific sentence — in the recovery movement. It’s a very interesting idea, as you poke at it. It’s partly saying that the past does not determine who you are. And it’s partly saying that even the story that you or I tell, that’s not who we are. Since I think it’s most often used in the context of addiction, it speaks quite pointedly to thinking about who you were, what you have done, but it’s true every minute for every single person, addiction or not. I could tell you one story of who I am. Or I could tell you another story of who I am. Or another. Some of the stories would contradict — in this one I am brave and true, and in a differently organized version I am weak and inconsistent. And perhaps I could try to tell a greatly complex story that brings in those stories and weaves them together…..but it still wouldn’t be who I am.

I have a decades-long connection to the idea of self as story. “Self is story,” I have long said. I have my version I tell strangers, the version I tell in polite company, the version I tell people I trust, the version I tell myself, and the version I don’t even like to tell myself. Without story, there isn’t really a self. That’s the tragedy of profound amnesia, of late-stage Alzheimer’s, right? And of course it’s stupid to throw the baby out with the bathwater as I drift away from my old story about story. It’s just that I increasingly understand the pretty severe limitation of words and narrative as a way of capturing self. You. Me. Us. Who am I, who are you? Can you possibly tell a story that conveys who you are? Even if you had all the time — even if you could tell a story that lasts exactly as long as your actual life — you couldn’t capture who you are. Think about it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about “my story,” the story I am finally so sick and tired of telling. The story that has been exhausted by me, that feels increasingly irrelevant, that doesn’t have the power in my imagination and gut that it always did. The stories I no longer want to tell. As I first started thinking about this, I thought I didn’t want to write the memoir I’ve been working at for so many years, because I’m just so tired of those stories. I have nothing new to say about them, they are what they are but more importantly I am who I am right now. And right now my “past” includes stories of that last trip I took, to Greece. Stories of Oliver’s accomplishments, my daughters’ lives, the mysterious and sudden dropping of the lawsuit (still I say what? What was that, then?). Stories of dinners with friends, laughing with my neighbor. Stories of heart-to-heart hours of conversation about our lives. Stories about everyday aggravations or pleasures. Stories about ‘wow did you see that gigantic moon last night?’ And stories of what’s to come — my upcoming trip back to SE Asia, breakfast with my women on Saturday, book club next week. Chicago in November.

One thought I had is that perhaps being released from the power of all that will finally give me the distance and objectivity I need to write what I want to write — which was never as much about “this terrible thing happened and here are the details, and then this terrible thing happened” as much as it was a story about what’s possible, about human resilience, and triumph. Maybe being released from an intense need to get the “accurate” story told is freedom. A videotape of my life, from birth to now, would not — could not — tell you who I am.

I find this enormously liberating, rather than feeling it as a sense of loss. I guess I have a new story about story. Which is just another story. 🙂

memoir blah blah blah

memoirIt is the age of memoir and has been for quite a while. Some people are contemptuous of memoir (that always shocks me), even calling it an “absurdly bloated genre.” To blindly dismiss an entire genre is idiotic, as if they are all one thing. As an editor, I read a lot of memoirs and like any other genre, there is tremendous variability. I have a few favorite memoirs, many written by poets (Nick Flynn of course, and the one I am currently editing which I pray gets published). My other favorite memoir is a genre-buster — The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston. That book provided a metaphor for my life that I hadn’t had before, and helped me see myself in such a different way. As you know if you’ve been around these parts for long, it is the most important and transformative book in my life.

The best memoirs go beyond the specific details of the writer’s life to illuminate what it means to be a human being, living a life. (In my opinion.) When I read my favorite memoirs, I somehow understand my own life differently, or better, as in the case of Nick Flynn’s books. Or maybe I look at myself quite differently, understand the circumstances of my life in a new way. And to varying degrees, memoir can serve as a self-help book of the broadest kind: ah, this person went through by doing y, so maybe I can get through it too. They can inspire.

It’s the age of dramatic troubles memoirs too. Memoirs used to chronicle lives of adventure and privilege, and some still do . . . but these days it seems that so many memoirs focus on horrible childhoods, dire circumstances, horrific tragedy. Those can be self-indulgent but the best of them show readers the power and possibility of resilience, of transformation, of persistence. Stories of resilience can inspire readers to be stronger, braver in the face of their own troubles. I know that’s how those kinds of stories affect me. And of course those stories are not limited to the genre of memoir; excellent journalism and other kinds of non-fiction can do the same thing, as this piece in The Atlantic about the resilience of people and the society in Rwanda, 20 years after the horrific slaughter that lasted for 100 days and left 1 million dead. To read anything that shows the brilliance and courage and strength of real people can only be inspirational, in the best way. Not in a “do these 10 things and you will be happy” way, but in a deeply moving way. My god, human beings can be so courageous and creative.

My friend and former dissertation advisor Jamie recently told me that I am the poster child for resilience, and on this one I agree with him. I am resilient. If and when I complete my memoir, my goal is for it to be one of these tales of resilience, of survival, and of a variety of kinds of triumph anyway. Despite. But I need these booster shots of stories of others’ resilience. Every time I read a very good memoir that is a tale of resilience, I learn new ways of being strong in the face of life, I get a reminder of the strength of people, I find awe and respect in the everyday humanity of people. Sometimes I think, well, what else is there to do but survive and persist? and yet I know that not everyone does. I know that some people destroy themselves and/or others, some people are too damaged to recover, some people do not have the inner resources they need to keep going in a whole way. Would reading stories of resilience help these people? Some, maybe, and maybe those people are the ones with stores of resilience they’re just unaware of. I don’t know. It’s certainly not a cure-all, of course.

I am not so naive that I think just the right memoir could help everyone get through;  as I’ve said a number of times since I’ve been thinking about this, temperament just is and while you can push it around and affect the edges, you are who you are. Like the current conception of the influence of DNA, it sets the boundary conditions, and environment can move it around within those boundaries. But probably not outside them. If you are a person who sees primarily the dark, the trouble, you probably can’t transform yourself into a lighthearted optimist (and you probably don’t want to!). You can learn skills and ways of thinking and you can probably shift things around the easier topics, but we are who we are. I believe that. And I believe that we are who we are, right from the beginning. I look at little Oliver and wonder who he is in there. What his temperament is, because it’s already there. He seems to be laidback and chill, but he’s 2.5 weeks old so we haven’t truly seen him yet.

So when my memoir is completed, and assuming it is the kind of memoir I hope it will be instead of a self-indulgent “feel sorry for me” kind of piece, will the art and transformation of experience help someone, anyone? God I hope so. I hope it helps someone feel less alone, I hope it helps readers keep going through their own circumstances because they know others did, I hope it helps people understand themselves and their lives in some way. You hear people say this kind of thing, but when I think about it I get so choked up: Truly, if reading my memoir helped ONE PERSON in any way, I would feel like all the events of my life had a new kind of meaning. And even writing that sentence, I can’t see through the tears in my eyes.  xo

writing dissociation

Dissociation gets an often misunderstood bad rap. YOU dissociate, we all do! I like to imagine the word elongated, as dis-associated. When you are tired or overwhelmed or distracted you might ‘zone out’. That is dissociation! Maybe you arrive home in your car and don’t exactly remember the drive. (I always hate that one.) I’ve seen very little kids dissociate; you can spot that wide-eyed, stare-y, not-quite-here look a mile away. It often happens right after a nap.

dissociationOf course dissociation is also a psychological phenomenon that helps a person ‘escape’ from an unbearable experience and just leave the body behind. Crime victims, soldiers, witnesses to trauma, these people can experience dissociation during (and in the aftermath too) of the terror. It can become so deeply enmeshed in one’s experience that entire segments of a life, various aspects of one’s self, personality, various states, get compartmentalized and tucked outside of everyday awareness. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and I think it’s one of the gifts of our mind, that we can whisk ourselves away from something too terrible to process. It will still need to be processed, but that can happen later, with help, in a safe place. It may take a LOT of help, but it can certainly be done.

I have a PhD (with a post-doc) in dissociation. So much experience with it, so much work on it, so much struggle to understand it. I remember the first time I was aware of the process, though it wasn’t the first time it happened; something was going on that was truly horrible and I was crying, and the person doing it said, “I don’t know why you are crying, I am not doing anything to you.” I remember feeling like my mind was about to break from the impossibility of the experience PLUS the conflict between what I believed to be happening and what he was saying. I remember feeling like my mind was bulging out of the gaps in my brain, like the pressure was building up inside my skull and then I don’t remember anything else for quite a long time. Just before I “left” I remember thinking that both could not be true and so I would believe him instead of myself. Really awful in every way, complicated, confusing. I think I saved myself from going insane right then.

Because I was so good at it, and it was my primary coping mechanism during my childhood, my mind kind of got a deep groove there until it happened with even smaller troubles. *Blink!* gone. As you can imagine, that is not so great! And how frustrating to deal with me! It had become a kind of emotional/psychological habit, and as I was finishing up the work to deal with everything I wanted to be able to recognize when it was beginning, so I could remind myself of when I am, where I actually am, and what I know in order to catch myself. The problem is that it happens so quickly and absolutely. I wanted to figure out the little tells, the earliest vibrations. With a lot of attention and effort I figured out two very useful signs: I started counting everything (floor tiles, ice cubes, leaves or flowers, my shallow breaths if there was nothing else to count), and/or I started moving my head — very small movements, nearly imperceptible — in this shape:

head

Identifying those two things really helped me a lot and I am able to stop myself from dissociating (on the very rare time it happens anymore) about 90% of the time. Success. (But I am SO curious about that shape. Kind of weird, right?)

Think about this: There is a real challenge in writing a memoir or story in which the main character dissociates — especially when the dissociation happens frequently. First, the story really has to be told in first person, otherwise the person is just kind of there and the reader doesn’t know what’s happening. If you take an omniscient perspective you can still present some of what happens, but it’s such an enormous psychological experience, before, during, and after, that the first person perspective provides the best view. But what is the experience? There is no experience, that is the entire point of dissociation! And yet there very much is the experience, because it can often be recalled in terrible detail, and sometimes there is the experience of the dissociation itself. Mine is always an entirely white space, no corners anywhere, with buzzing in my ‘ears.’ The terrible thing was also experienced, it’s just that the experience is blocked from view, in a way. Frequent dissociaters talk about “losing time,” because that’s how it feels. Here you are sitting on the 1 train, planning to get off at Penn Station, and the very next thing you know you are standing somewhere in the East Village, how did that happen? Whoa, where am I, how did I get here?

I’m trying various ways of writing a scene in which the main character dissociates and nothing really works yet. I haven’t figured out how to show that without explaining to readers, while still not leaving them too confused. It’ll definitely be something that the readers will have to piece together from clues, and that’s a challenge to do well. If you remember reading a book that features a dissociating character, please let me know!

Friday Friday, gotta get down on Friday, everybody’s looking forward to the weekend, weekend … (hope I didn’t get that song stuck in your head, sorry!). But I do hope you have a good weekend ahead of you! xo

cursive

Every other Wednesday morning my friend Marian, who lives in NJ, meets me on Skype for a writing session. I’ve mentioned this before — one of us brings writing prompts and the other brings a piece of writing to read. The writing prompts are usually single words (Marian has brought such words as sageperformanceblessing) and we do free-writing. Usually we do three words and then read our little pieces to each other.

I have a hard time coming up with good prompts, but I started reading Natalie Goldberg’s book titled Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and she includes a whole bunch of prompts designed specifically for people interested in writing memoir. They’re designed to pull up stories and memories, and they’re so pointed that they’re great to work with. I’ve been bringing them when it’s my turn to provide prompts. They’re quite different from the single-word prompts, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. (And I recommend the book too!)

Yesterday we met and it was my turn to provide prompts, and when I was reading one of my pieces to Marian it occurred to me that they would make potentially good blog posts! I have a “memoir” category, so I’ll put them there. Since many of you are very roughly my age, perhaps some of my memories will overlap with yours and bring them back to your minds too. With pleasure, I hope…..  so here is one of the pieces I wrote yesterday. The prompt was learning to write cursive:

We had learned how to print in our Big Chief tablets too. Did you have these?
We had learned how to print in our Big Chief tablets too. Did you have these?

Third grade at Lucy B. Read Elementary School, Mrs. Worley, Big Chief tablets with grainy paper and faint blue and red lines for guides. The paper is so thin it doesn’t stand up to erasing, so our mistakes are visible to everyone. It is so porous it wicks ink, so we are required to stick with our No. 2 yellow pencils. If the pencils are too sharp, the point can tear the paper so we blunt them before the writing lessons. The paper is so dry it leaves my hands feeling like they’d been dusted with powder, the only part of the daily cursive lesson I do not like.

The third grade teachers use the Palmer Method. I love learning to write in cursive, the rules and exact guide lines offering a chance for order. My loops touch but never go over the lines, ever. She says to place two fingers on the paper after a period so we know where to begin the next sentence. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. I want to write more interesting sentences.

“When holding your pencil, hold your hand so a small orange could roll inside it. Your pencil should be pointing over your shoulder.” My hand cramps when I try to write with the pencil that way, so I secretly relax, taking the correct position only when Mrs. Worley walks past my desk. One day Mrs. Worley brings a tangerine to class and tries to roll it under some kids’ hands, but our hands are too small even for the littlest tangerine to fit. I imagine how I will expand my hand as much as possible if she comes to my desk, so the fruit will roll under my palm and please my teacher. I sit up straighter during the imagining, thrilled by the possibility of her praise.

palmer drillsAn obedient girl, I dutifully perform the drill exercises, using my whole arm to draw giant loops, like a tightly compressed Slinky. Then the continuous curve up to a point and back down to a loop, up to a point, down to a loop. I want to get to the exciting part, learning how to form those beautiful letters, but I fill page after page with the drill exercises so I will be able to write even more beautifully.

“To properly write the capital I and J, you must begin just below the bottom line before swooping up, or it won’t work.” Even today I begin the capital I and J lower than the imaginary line. Mrs. Worley has a fancy chalk holder that holds three pieces of chalk at once, spaced evenly. She drags it across the board so she has the same kind of guidelines we have, and then she illustrates the starting point by writing several Is and then several Js. I grip my pencil tightly and try to imitate her letters.

palmer method

I want the capital A and B to be more beautiful. Why is the capital Q a 2? Why are there two ways to write a lower case and a lower case t? Making the capital X requires care — writing the right-hand side makes me nervous because sometimes I don’t exactly connect the two halves. My friend Toby Hines teaches me a trick: write the part with the loops on both ends and then just write the slash. Uncomfortable with cheating, I stick with the way we are taught to make the capital X and still do it that way today, though it still makes me a little anxious. And today I have an attorney whose last name begins with an X, many opportunities to finally make the middles touch.

My favorite letter is the capital L, not because it is the first letter of my name but because it is swoopy and free-feeling. Loop, slide, loop curl. I fill whole pages with capital Ls, sometimes allowing them to go beyond the lines, to be bigger than the constraints, more beautiful and curving. I am secretly happy that such a beautiful letter begins my name, and feel bad for my friends Alice and Barbara, whose names start with such boring letters. I try to imagine a way to make the A and B more loopy and beautiful but I cannot think of anything.

The kids who write with their left hand get a special lesson and have to slant the pad of paper the opposite way on their desks. After the lesson, the sides of their palms are black and shiny from being dragged across their writing, and their letters are smudgier. I am secretly happy to be right-handed. I smile as I look at the day’s exercises, proud of the precision and perfection of my letters, clean and crisp and looking just like Mrs. Worley’s. I am a perfect mimic, and feel exceptional because of it.

* * * * *

It’s funny how much I remembered when I started writing — and I remembered a lot more, which I’ll keep writing for myself. Third grade came back to me in full, the sounds and smells, the feeling in my bones, the pride at being good at something at a time when I needed that so desperately. If it had occurred to me to try to remember learning to write in cursive (which it wouldn’t have), I probably would’ve said, “Yeah, I remember that.” But free-writing — just hearing the prompt and beginning to write, and then writing without stopping — allows the memory to unfold, like one of those pop-up cards.

I’ll bet you remember learning how to write in cursive. Maybe you learned with great excitement because it was “grown-up” writing, no more little kid printing. Maybe you learned a different method. Maybe you were dyslexic and the process was so painful. Maybe no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t write like the teacher, so you decided it was stupid to write like that. Maybe like me, you lived in complete chaos, and the precision of touching those lines in just the right way gave you a bit of refuge in order. I’d love to hear about your memories too.

Thursday, the week is flying by! I hope it’s a good one and spring is really and finally landing, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, after our unusually bitter winter. xo

a piece of writing I like

And guess what, it’s mine. This is a piece I wrote last August, which is the last time I saw my son. It was such an amazing experience, sensory-rich and almost film-like at the end, so when I got home I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget it. If you are my personal Facebook friend from back then you may have seen it, but it’s been polished. AND I switched the POV thanks to a suggestion from Traci, and I like it more this way. This is the piece I submitted to Yale (for the writer’s conference) and I guess they liked it too. With no further ado:

“I’m having dinner with Will,” she told the maître-d at the entrance to the restaurant after he found her name on the reservation list. He nodded, a professional smile on his face, and the host escorted her to the smallest table in the back corner, almost too tiny for one person to eat comfortably, but it sat two for dinner. The restaurant was special in that New York City Meatpacking District way, where the food is good but the scene is the thing. Where you don’t look too closely at the edges of the floor, in the corners, where the very old tiles butt up against the crumbling walls; you don’t crane your neck and look up at the old, ratty, discolored ceiling; you wedge a sugar packet underneath one leg of your wobbly uncomfortable chair, and under the table too. It was 7pm on a Thursday night so the restaurant was crowded and noisy, but it hadn’t yet reached its place-to-be-seen stride for the evening. That was still hours away.

She was early, eager to see her prodigal son. For ten months he had not spoken to anyone in the family, avoiding their calls, ignoring emails and texts. A year earlier, her small family had gathered in Texas for her granddaughter’s funeral. They’d clung to each other, fought with each other, squabbling over nothing, tense words delivered just to relieve the awful stress and pressure of their despair. Their habits and history held him in place alongside his sisters in the old familiar constellation. They passed those terrible hours and days with games of gin rummy, favorite childhood foods, and old movies: the routines from their lives together. Then, too soon, they all scattered and returned to their bruised lives in Austin, Chicago, New York, and slowly the weeks dragged past with no communication from him, until the weight of his silent months became too heavy for him to lift. She was nervous.

And then there he was, her beautiful curly-haired son, tall and thin and elegant in his black suit and white shirt. She spotted him in silhouette, in the far corner of the restaurant, and leaned forward to see him sooner, twisting the strap of her purse in her lap. Everything about him was as familiar as her own skin—the curve of his back into the slump of his shoulders, the way he moved his hands when he spoke to people he passed, the tilt of his head. As he came closer she saw that his suit was cheap and saggy, the shoulders broken, his shirt stained and not crisp, his eyes old. His jaw sagged more than it should on a 26-year-old boy. He’d been promoted to manager, he told her as she smiled at him, and this was his new uniform. The move from waiter to manager showed up in a substantial reduction in his income and the addition of a black jacket. She dropped her purse and stood up and they clutched each other, her embrace more frantic than his. She closed her eyes and breathed in the still-familiar smell of him, and then they sat. She had no sense of herself or of anyone else in the restaurant, only an awareness of his face and hands, which looked so much like her own.

“The maître-d thinks you’re sweet, Ma,” he told her, his arms crossed. “And pretty, too.”

“Will, honey, it’s so good to see you. You look tired, are you OK?” She leaned over the table toward him and wanted to touch his arm.

“I’m fine Ma. Don’t worry about me.” Shielded, protected, closed. Abrupt.

The host came to the table and was startled to see Will sitting there. “Ah, Will, she told me she was ‘meeting Will,’” air quotes, “and I thought ‘well good for you, I’m meeting Robert later.’” They all laughed, a little crack in the tension. “I didn’t know she meant you.” He leaned down near Will’s ear, and Will turned his head away from her to speak in a low private voice, ordering wine for their table. Such grown-up behavior, the man in charge of things.

Will turned his body slightly away because he couldn’t cross his long legs underneath the low table. Perhaps their laughter softened him, perhaps he’d seen her face fall when he answered with such a brusque note. He reached out and put his hand on hers, his long fingers draping over her wrist. “So how’re things, Ma? You’re rocking the Amelie look, I love your hair. And really,” his voice softened more, “you don’t have to worry about me. I’m sorry, Ma.” It always made her smile when he called her Ma, an old joke between them. Ma meant love in a different way than Mom, and they both knew it.

They ordered food, nibbled the bread, drank glasses of Sancerre, shared salmon and then a strawberry shortcake, and talked. Formal at first, care with sentences and impersonal topics, until finally the rime melted away from him and he relaxed. They talked about his hard life, they talked about hers. She told him how much she missed him, and their eyes filled with tears they blinked away. Although he said no one would need their table, tiny as it was, they decided to walk, neither ready to head back uptown to their disappointing and stressful lives. “Let’s hit the High Line, yeah?” he said. “I’ve got a song I want you to hear.”

They left the restaurant and wandered in the soft night to the stairs that led up to the elevated park. The late summer humidity turned the night El Greco velvet, dark and thick, distorting the lights in the windows overlooking the park. The air was heavy but the breeze off the Hudson River was cool, and they turned right to walk uptown along the planked sidewalk. They passed people sitting on benches surrounded by billowy grasses, in pairs with their arms around each other, in small laughing groups, an occasional solitary person watching people pass by. Will pulled out his phone and a pair of cheap headphones – “Here, put this in your left ear,” he said as he put the other bud in his right ear, “while I get the song on YouTube.”

She linked her left arm through his right elbow and let the rest lose its edge, become fuzzy and indistinct. Just for the moment, no worrying about her daughter’s pain and struggles, her son-in-law’s frustrated job search, her own bulging problems. Just for now, she walked with generic background worries humming a low rumble. Later.

“There it is,” he said, “I found it. Hang on Ma, here it comes. It’s Aruarian Dance.” He touched the play button and slid the phone into his pocket, and their feet found the rhythm of the song, a swanky kind of sound, jazz house music, no words, and she knew they were both feeling the same thing. They moved in sync, their steps echoing each other in the dark, their eyes straight ahead but not seeing the old buildings, the lights, the ancient signs still visible in fading paint on old brick. She barely noticed small clusters of people sitting at tables, eating ice cream, as they wound their way among them. She scarcely saw the cabs crawling up 10th Avenue, to their right. Instead, she felt the heavy air pressing softly on her face, her hair moving slightly in the breeze and giving her a shiver as it graced her neck, and her son’s presence gathering her attention in soft focus. The music pulsed in their ears and wrapped them up like cotton candy, and they floated through the night together.

* * * * *

That's Will.
That’s Will.

It’s not much, 1373 words, but I do feel like it captures something real. And that’s why I like it. Something has happened to me. It’s strange and I like it. Last week I was driving to book club — an hour and a half, took me 15 minutes to get home thank you ridiculous Austin rush hour traffic — and from nowhere a short story idea appeared in my head. The whole shape of it, the points along the way, BAM. So I picked up my phone and illegally tapped on an app while I was driving and dictated the bulk of the story points. Because even though I was “sure” I’d remember, I have enough experience with myself to know better.

So yesterday I spent the whole day cutting a client’s 45-page short story in half, very hard! You could pull a number of different stories out, when you’re cutting half away and it’s well-written, with depth and layers. I was focused and thinking hard about his story and how to pull out the best bits, but in the very back of my mind I was tapping my foot, dying to write my own.  I am dying to write my own. Needing to write seems to have kicked my sadness out the door. I hope you liked my little story, I’m very happy to share it with you. xo p.s. Here’s the song Will and I listened to. I do love it:

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swanky

My parents built a home in Westlake Hills back in 1969 and it was gorgeous, until they destroyed it. My dad designed it and my mother decorated it. Split-level, girls’ bedrooms and bathrooms downstairs with our own living room; a sewing room and a laundry room. Upstairs, sunken living room, dining room, kitchen with fire engine red appliances and a deck hanging over the wild canyon, my brother’s bedroom, my mother’s giant bathroom with black vinyl wallpaper with huge white polka dots, my parents’ bedroom, and my dad’s tiny little bathroom. It was truly beautiful for the first month or so.

In every room there was an intercom, and the base unit was upstairs. My dad played music through the house; if you didn’t like the music, you could just turn off your own speaker in your bedroom. But I always liked the music he played — Dusty Springfield, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. My mother much preferred the Beatles and the Stones and Elvis, so when she took over the music I usually turned off my speaker. When he tucked me in at night, I’d whisper to my dad, “Please play the pretty music,” and he’d smile at me and go tuck in my sister. The next thing I knew, Dusty Springfield would be singing softly in my bedroom.

caftan
caftans, like this — snug around the ribs and flowy everywhere else.

I remember SO clearly my daydreamed imaginary adult life. I would be swanky. I would waft through my house wearing caftans. (Very specific, my imagining. Caftans were really the essence of my imagined adult life.) I would live in a mostly glass house, like Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut, which I’d never heard of or seen at that time. Music would always be in the air, I would entertain gracefully, floating from person to person and laughing with ease and beauty.

Outside, the pool — elegant and understated, but turquoise and inviting. Inside, spare, clean. Unbroken walls, furniture unsmashed. Light fixtures whole, not shattered. A quiet home with newspapers and books and green plants, lovely quiet breakfasts in the sun.

And always while wearing a caftan. Maybe it’s time to get one. Happy Tuesday, y’all. It’s my birthday eve. xo

wisdom

beautiful woman wisdom
beautiful woman
wisdom

Last Friday I wrote about the top tattoo on my spine, the characters for beautiful woman. You can read it here.

The second tattoo on my spine represents the concept wisdom, which is one of those words whose meaning you just know . . . until you try to explain it, define it. In a self-referential way, it’s also a word that has changed its meaning for me over time, as I have gained more wisdom.

For now I’m not going to offer my definition of wisdom, because I don’t really have one. It’s a deep knowing. There. It’s a deep knowing of something fundamental, and it’s a deep knowing you have learned through experience. I don’t think you can read your way to wisdom.

When I chose this tattoo, I had one very precious, hard-won bit of wisdom that meant more to me through my difficult life than I may be able to say. It’s a piece of wisdom that has stood me in good stead over my 54 years of life. I don’t need to tell specific stories to explain this one, it arises from them all. I do not remember a time when my childhood was normal or typical — the troubles started so early that I have no memories before them. And the troubles were so terrible, so relentless, and while some were given only to me, my sister and brother suffered terribly too. It could be arbitrary, the trouble; perhaps I just happened to be standing in that one spot, if I’d been standing elsewhere I wouldn’t have gotten it. No matter how hard I tried (and I tried very very hard) the trouble was unpredictable. There were some very small cues I picked up — a shift in his forehead, a narrowing of her eyes — but even those were reliable at times and unreliable at others.

By the time I was in elementary school, I’d gained my wisdom, and it is this: the question ‘why me?’ makes no sense. Why me, why not me, why you, why not you, why him, why not him, why her, why not her. I don’t think I’ve ever said “Why me?” once in my entire life, in response to something terrible that happened to me. I might wail and wonder why something happened, but never why it happened to me. I might wonder why bad things come in chains, like my life for much of 2012, but I never wonder why that happens to me. When I hear someone say “Why me, why did this happen to me?” my inner snark asks what makes you so special that bad things shouldn’t happen to you, but luckily I never let that snark out. But it is puzzling to me that people ask why them — why not them? It’s a great piece of wisdom because it means the universe is not out to get you. It really isn’t, even when it feels like it is. God is not out to get you. Karma is not out to get you. Whatever system you believe in, it’s not out to get you.

I didn’t understand this all at once; I came to it by wondering what I’d done to deserve what was happening to me, and having some kind of sense way down deep, so deep it took me a very long time, decades, to find it again, that I’d done nothing to deserve it. That the troubles came from them and were about them, and I just happened to be in the way, I just happened to be innocent, I just happened to look like him, I just happened to be fat, I just happened to leave a quarter in my carpet. I just happened to be. It took me a lot of years — almost 40 of them — to get the fullness of this wisdom. I had the kernel of it as a little kid, but I’d fleshed it out by the time I was selecting my tattoos.

Were I to be choosing tattoos again, I’d still choose wisdom, but it would be a different story, a different kind of wisdom, a kind that looks outward instead of inward. The wisdom I’ve gained in the years since I got the tattoo is the very real value of life, of being alive, of appreciating being alive, of understanding that life is right here in this moment — NOW — that’s it. And that’s it. And there it is. Of course I lose sight of it at times, but it’s wisdom I have, it belongs to me. I nearly lost my life so many times — several times at their hands and a couple at my own — and I both shudder at the thought and cry with gratitude that I am still here. It’s precious. Today is more precious than you can imagine in your wildest dreams. I hope to have a tomorrow, more precious than I can imagine. The sunrise is precious. Little birds are unbearably precious. Having enough food to eat is wonderful. Having even one person who cares that you are alive is enough.

Earlier this week, a woman I admire deeply (Megan, here’s her blog) posted two Frankl quotes from Man’s Search for Meaning that resonated with me and belong here:

  • Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

  • So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!

Next Friday I’ll write about courage, another one of those words you think you know until you try to explain it. Happy Friday, y’all.

good thing of the daythe day! today — today is the good thing.

reading out loud

Yesterday I watched the incredible documentary about Ai Wei-Wei called Never Sorry (streaming on Netflix here, stop reading and go watch it). One of his many inflammatory projects involved listing the names of all 5000+children who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, because the government remained silent about it, or denied it. On the one-year anniversary, he initiated an Internet project for people to read and record one name, and people responded. I was thinking about the different kind of power it would have to hear those names being read aloud instead of seeing the hundreds of pages on a wall listing them, and it reminded me of a story from my life. (But before I shift to such a less-important topic, I encourage you once more to watch the movie.)

When I chose the Chinese characters for my tattoos, I did my very best to be sure the characters represented the concepts I wanted. My big fear was that they (or even one) might say something very different and of course I’d never know. I didn’t know anyone who spoke or could read the language, so I just went on faith that I’d researched it enough. Once in a while, someone standing behind me at the grocery store would read the top one or two aloud and we’d talk, so I knew those were accurate. Of course I wasn’t about to lift my shirt and ask them to read all of them.

In 2005, a friend and I were having lunch in a little sushi joint in Mahwah, New Jersey. I wore a scoop-backed shirt, and my hair was short, but I didn’t think anything about it. Suddenly one of the waitresses came to me and asked if the characters went all the way down my back and I said yes. Then she looked around the restaurant and summoned all the waitstaff, I gather, because they converged on me. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to be startled or afraid. They were pulling my shirt down lower, moving my bra strap, lifting my shirt from the bottom, chattering to each other the whole time, all of them touching me, touching the characters. I had no idea what they were saying, but they seemed to be happy and I felt safe, so I let them do it.

Then, all at once, one of the women started reading them aloud. I’d never heard them pronounced before. Everything else disappeared from my attention and I just sat, listening to her. She didn’t say individual words, she said the meaning of the characters, like, “this one means you keep going even when you can’t.” So I sat there listening to my story being read to me, and I was crying. When she finished reading them, she rearranged my shirt and sat next to me. I told her I’d never heard them read aloud. I think of that experience quite often; it’s definitely in the set of most-moving-things-in-my-life.

She told me that the very first story Chinese children learn is about the man who had his story written on his back, the first tattoo. I guess Maxine Hong Kingston was tapping into her cultural heritage to give that experience to Fa Mu Lan in Woman Warrior, but I didn’t know that. It isn’t that I feel a deep connection to China, or to Chinese history, but I do obviously feel a deep connection to this idea of one’s story on one’s back.

And all the characters said what I intended them to say.

good thing of the day:  people who are brave in the face of possible death, like Ai Wei-Wei.

meet me

If you were a follower of my other blog, you read the story of my spine full of tattoos. Briefly, when I was 36, a freshman in college, I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s beautiful memoir, Woman Warrior and I was so inspired by the story of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior, whose parents carved their family’s story on her back. It was a story to inspire vengeance, a story of loss and terrible, terrible things. I didn’t want to do that, because I already felt like I carried all those stories on my back. So I thought about it for 4 years and decided to instead carve the things I got from my difficult childhood, or, at least, the things I’ve had to think hard about. To maintain my connection to the woman warrior, I chose the concepts and found the Chinese characters for them.

I had an idea once to use the long string of tattoos as an organizing principle for my memoir, allowing each chapter to focus on one of the tattoos, telling the stories that led me to choose it, and what I’ve come to think after so many years of living through the consequences. One problem was that so many stories from my past would fit multiple tattoos; does homelessness fit endurance or courage? It fits both, of course. I bailed on that idea for my memoir and took a different approach.

But I still want to tell those stories. And I want them to link to my tattoos, which mean everything to me. Somehow I feel them there, and I mean that literally. I feel them there, on my spine, holding me up. There are 12 of them; the top 5 are composed of two characters and the rest are single characters. I got them all at once, when I was in graduate school, except for the bottom one. That’s a story of its own, getting the tattoos; perhaps I’ll tell it when I finish this series. I got the bottom one in New York, after I met my husband. To me, it’s a quite powerful story and I look forward to telling it.

So today I’m going to start telling the stories. As I said, it’ll be kind of arbitrary, which stories I link to which tattoos, but that’s OK. Instead of showing the whole length, which is kind of provocative even though it’s just a spine, I’m going to snip out the individual tattoos.

beautiful womanI start at the top today, with a pair of characters that mean ‘beautiful woman.’ Actually, it’s something more like beautiful human, but since it’s in the context of me, it’s beautiful woman. When I got the tattoos, my hair was extremely short, so unless I wore a tall collar these two tattoos always showed — and I put them visibly at the top on purpose, as a kind of dare.

My mother used to be quite beautiful, with long, coal black hair, light blue eyes, high cheekbones. Her birth mother was full Comanche, and my mother had something of that look — mainly showing up in the color of her skin, kind of ruddy, and the shape of her nose. But she was striking, and when I was very little I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was 18 when she had me, so I used to ask other kids in first grade, “how old is your mother” so I could reveal that mine was just 24. That would’ve been 1964, and remember how great the styles were then? And my mother wore them all. Hot pants and boots. Mini-skirts. Long straight hair. I was so proud of my beautiful, beautiful mother. I wanted nothing more than to be just like her.

Mine was one of those families where the kids belonged to different parents. I belonged to my dad—I was “just like him”—and my little sister was our mother’s. No one claimed my poor little brother except me. I was not in the close circle of mother and my sister, and I remember aching, wanting to be with them. Mother always said that every man wanted her, and every woman was jealous of her. But worse, Mother always said my sister was so pretty, and she called me fat cow. The whole family got in on that; I remember a little essay my baby brother wrote in first grade that said, “my big sister is very fat but we love her anyway.” And I came to see myself that way. Of course. In fact, it wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that I thought, “hey, wait a minute. I have a couple of pictures. I wasn’t fat.” But that still didn’t make sense.

So I’ve had to think very hard about what it means to be beautiful. I never wanted my picture taken, ever. Once I lost 50 pounds after having a baby and shot a little video to send a friend, and my narration was, “Well, I’m skinny but I’m still so ugly.” Until recently I couldn’t really see myself when I looked in the mirror, as strange as that sounds. I kind of went blank or something. I went through a period of defiance, saying stuff like, “oh yeah? well, beauty comes from the inside and that’s all that matters.” At the time I chose my tattoos, I was in that phase, but I believed I was quite ugly. Putting it right at the top, where it was always visible and often prompted people to ask me what it meant was also an act of defiance, like “I AM TOO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN.” There was a lot of fuck you in it, but with a quavery, heartbroken voice.

It took me an extraordinarily long time to grow into myself, to even know my own skin, and I’m only just learning how to be comfortable in it. And I do still believe, with all my heart, that beauty is an inside job, like happiness. Beauty shines out of eyes, and that comes from an open heart. Beauty is in a happy smile, and that comes from joy and openness. Beauty is in an open face, born of a willingness to participate in the world, and with others. By those measures, I finally think I am a beautiful woman. Since I’ve moved to Austin, you may have noticed (especially if you’re my facebook friend) that I’ve taken a lot of pictures of myself. And one of them I saved with the filename “beautiful me.jpg.”

meAnd kind of secretly, I also finally think I’m physically beautiful. I think I look better now than I ever did, and my sense is that it comes from everything inside me, plus my open smile, my lovely hair, and those cheekbones. Beauty isn’t just about thighs (thank god) or any one little body part.

My daughter Marnie helped me with this, so much, a couple of years ago. I’ve never been able to belittle my appearance since then.

So that’s the story behind my top tattoo. Once, in Chinatown in New York, an old Chinese man passed me and turned and said, “beautiful woman.” I smiled and said, “Thank you!” and then realized he was reading my tattoo. 🙂

good thing of the day: life

Blondie

​Oilmen are a peculiar lot. In Graham, plenty of hardworking men worked in the oilfields; my grandfather was a roughneck, and I wish I could ask him about it now, what his job was, what he thought about it all. Like so many others, Big Daddy had very little education (3rd grade, I think) and went to the oilfields out of necessity. Most were like Big Daddy, quiet men of few words with big hard hands.

But​ some of the oilfield men were characters. Mostly this took the form of drunks who haunted the domino halls and were rowdy on Saturday nights, but there was this one guy named Charles Hipp who was something else, entirely. That’s his lion in the back of his car, with his grandkids. 

Charlie and his lion were the cover story in a 1955 issue of Life Magazine:  “Living Room Lion – Blondie, A Docile 200-Pound Texan, Becomes A Member of the Family” (check out this page, and at the bottom there’s a link to even more photographs from Life).  That lion went everywhere with them in their station wagon, even boating with them on Possum Kingdom Lake and sharing their bathtub. He’d bought Blondie from the zoo in Dallas back in 1953, when she was just 12 weeks old. None of us thought anything about seeing the lion around town. “Oh, there’s Blondie.”

Unfortunately, Charlie had a jaguar too, and one day it mauled his grandson pretty badly so Charlie got rid of all his animals except for Blondie. When I knew his grandson, the terrible scars on his disfigured face were frightening, and Bubba was always kind of odd after that, living with those scars.​ One school year he had a little crush on me and was chasing me so I ran into the girls’ bathroom. He followed me and was so carried away with adrenalin, I guess, that he pushed me hard and I went through the window. For decades I had a little nub of glass under the skin by the knuckle on my left middle finger, but I just checked and it’s finally gone. Poor little Bubba.

at the YWCA

I lie on the small hard bed, wearing my thin coat over my blue jeans and gauzy top. My feet are so cold; winter in Wichita Falls is bitter black and icy and I don’t have proper clothing. The thin chenille bedspread isn’t thick enough to cushion the rustle of the plastic covering over the mattress, but I’ve gotten so used to it, I hardly notice it any more. The thick smell of PineSol in the tiled hallway coats the roof of my mouth – even after all this time, I’m still not used to it or the headache it always gives me. In the corner of my small room, my other school outfit is draped over a wooden drying rack. Each of the rooms has one of these racks; mine is wobbly but it works. i hope that shirt is dry by tomorrow morning, otherwise I’ll have to wear this top for the third day in a row. I’ve got to find another pair of shoes.

It’s only 7:30, but it’s curfew time so I’m in for the night. My homework is finished, and I don’t have any food or company. I’m not tired enough for sleep, so I turn on my record player – Elton John, the Blue Moves album, the soundtrack to my life right now. My theme song, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word. My chest constricts and my stomach hurts, every time I listen to it. What’ve I got to do to make you love me, what’ve I got to do to make you care. Sorry seems to be the hardest word. I don’t know how to keep breathing, I don’t want to keep breathing. I close my eyes and once again will my heart to stop. I’ve been trying that little trick for more than 10 years, but it never works, I don’t know why I keep trying. Habit, maybe. It’s so melodramatic, that song, and so is my feeling. I know it, I know it’s just me being ridiculous, stupid, making a big deal like I always do. What’ve I got to do to make you love me, I’m sad so sad, I’m sorry, so sorry. Sorry is such an easy word, he got that wrong. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please.

The other women who live on my floor are much older than me – mostly in their 30s I think, but a couple are in their 50s. But I don’t know for sure, we don’t really talk to each other. I don’t even know anyone’s name. They all look cold and tired. We pass each other going in and out of the bathroom and we all look like we’ve been crying. I don’t even wonder about them very much, except to wonder when that one will finish in the bathroom so I can have it. The YWCA isn’t luxurious, but it’s institutionally clean and that counts for something.

​Bedtime comes and I sleep, in short moments — too short to dream, too short to relax, too short to make the night pass quickly. Finally, finally, it is time to get up. My other shirt is dry, so I dress and make my bed, military corners for the inspection, and straighten my room. I’ll be at school when my room is inspected, so I can’t take a chance and be careless: either my room is clean and proper, and I can stay, or it is not, and I am back on the street. I probably have enough money to stay here for a month if I am careful, so I gather my books, check my room once more, and head to school. I am a sophomore in high school.