three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

three things: 12-17-16

1)  I had the strangest experience last night — maybe it was the Indian food I had for dinner with my friend Lynn and her boyfriend David. I had a very unsettling dream that took place in LA, and while I remember it clearly, I cannot tell what it was about. I can’t narrate it, but in my memory I know everything that happened. I know what the setting looked like, I know what the rooms were like, I know what the view was like. I’m a little less clear about exactly what was happening, though I know what the feelings were, and I know the various people (strangers to me) who were there. But I can’t tell the dream, at all. I can’t even tell anything about it, like “we were at a party” (it wasn’t that….). And throughout the dream, I’d come up to slight consciousness and find myself in odd places in the bed. Once I was sideways at the very bottom of the bed. Once I was curled up in the top left corner. Once I was spreadeagled on a diagonal. And throughout all that, the odd, unsettling dream kept unfurling. That I cannot narrate today. Have you ever had this experience?

2)  Last night I was driving in heavy traffic, listening to Dwight Yoakum on Fresh Air. I used to really enjoy his music, back in the 1990s, so it was a lovely distraction. At one point in the interview he talked about growing up in the Church of Christ — as did I — and he talked about the music, which was always sung without instruments. Old country hymns, mountain hymns, he said, coming from Scot and Welsh miners. Terry Gross asked if he’d sing his favorite hymn, and I sat forward a little, because I always love those old hymns. I imagined he would sing one I didn’t know, but in fact he sang one of my favorites. And as he sang, I just cried and cried and cried. Here it is, he sang it at Buck Owens’ funeral:

When I was a little girl, we went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. (Hard to process, given the things that were happening to us in our home.) But oh how I loved that music, the very specific harmonies, the melodies, the aching, longing words. All the way to my friend’s house last night I sang that song and cried, and wondered why. I’m not religious. I don’t feel like God walks with me and talks with me. I don’t feel like I am his own. But I do connect to that deep, aching longing for such a thing. I do. And I’m sure it’s wrapped up in my child’s longing for a father who didn’t hurt me, too, and a little girl’s desperate wish to be loved. But oh, that music. The interview is quite wonderful; he’s a very thoughtful person, and I enjoyed it so much. Here, if you want to take a listen:

When we were little girls, my sister and I played two games: secretary, and church. She always got to be the secretary and I always had to be the boss (and “got to” and “had to” are important there — the secretary was the desired job). But the way we played church makes me laugh, now. We would sit facing each other on hard metal chairs, and we’d have a saltine and a tiny glass of grape juice. One of us would pinch a small corner off the saltine, place it in our mouth while looking as miserable as possible, and then pass it to the other. If we didn’t look as miserable as we possibly could, we weren’t playing church, we were just eating a cracker. That pretty much sums up my experience of the Church of Christ. The sermons were about how worthless we were, and how there was no redemption for us, and the songs were dirge-like (but with beautiful harmonies). There were no cushions on the wooden pews, no stained glass, no decorations, because those were not in the Bible and “thou shalt not add to nor take away from the Word of the Lord.” (But we did have air conditioning, which I’m pretty sure was not in the Word of the Lord.) Just as Yoakum said, those years spent in the Church of Christ had an indelible effect on who I am, though I don’t go to church, as he doesn’t.

3)  What’s the best book you read this year? I read so many good ones, and found two new writers I adore (Vivian Gornick and Lidia Yuknavitch, and I note with interest that now I’m reading primarily women writers, which wasn’t true a few years ago, when I realized I never read women writers and asked for recommendations). But if I were forced for some reason to pick only one favorite, I would pick The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. Here is my Goodreads review, and here are a couple of lines I loved from the book, to give you a feeling for the prose:

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

“Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, In-hye could see that the role that she had adopted back then of the hard-working, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice. It had been a survival tactic.”

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”

The first time I read it, when I finished reading I just turned back to the beginning and read it again, start to finish. About a week later I read it again, and then I read it again a few weeks later, with two friends. It won the Booker Prize, and it’s on the NYTimes’ Notable Books of 2016 list. I’m re-reading Loitering right now and finishing the collection of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories, but when I finish one of those I just might have to read The Vegetarian again. Did you read a book you loved this much in 2016?

one mystery solved!

It’s not often you get to solve a decades-long mystery if your name isn’t Nancy Drew and there’s not an Old Clock or a Hidden Staircase nearby. The mystery related to music from my teenage years — The Eagles, Elton John, Linda Rondstadt, Chicago, various disco songs, Loggins & Messina, John Denver. When I hear any of that music my heart soars and I feel SO happy. So, big deal? Big news from the Department of DUH.

But the mystery is that my teenage years were pure hell. I didn’t have a home. Terrible things were happening to me. Truly terrible. So why would the music that is cellularly associated with that period make me feel happy? Weird, right? It’s not like the music was playing while my chums and I rode in her convertible to the Friday night football game to meet Ned and the boys. Not like that at all. This has puzzled me for decades, it really has.

There’s a good-sized box of old albums of mine, including one album I saved up to buy when I was 10. It was a collection of classical music, and it was advertised on television. So I saved and saved and saved and saved and got my dad to buy it for me. Mother ridiculed and belittled me for it and accused me of just wanting to be different, but I really did love the music. I still have that album. It’s 47 years old. When I was in high school, I remember storing the records in my locker during the school year, and in the summer I’d hide them wherever I worked, since I didn’t have a place to live. For a short period I had a car to live in, so I kept them in the floorboard, alongside a chess set my dad bought me in Mexico when I was little. Those were my worldly belongings, along with some clothes. Somewhere along the way I lost the chess set. I didn’t get to listen to my records through my teenage years, no stereo, but of course the songs were playing everywhere so I heard them.

not this bad, but not a whole lot better
not this bad, but not a whole lot better

I haven’t had a turntable in . . . no idea. No idea how long it’s been. My daughter Katie is our family’s repository of all things family, and she’s been storing the box for me for longer than I can imagine. She asked if I wanted my records, now that I have space of my own, and I said yes, and spent a lot of time looking through them, remembering. And then I bought a really cheap stereo with a turntable. Really, it’s just a step up from a Fisher Price record player. It has a built-in CASSETTE PLAYER and an AM radio. It seemed to come from somewhere in China. I don’t care; for me, it wasn’t about having a high-class listening experience — after all, the records are ancient and have been through a lot. For me it was just about listening to my records a couple more times.

just a few -- I have a LOT of Eagles
just a few — I have a LOT of Eagles

So I pulled out Hotel California, one of my very favorite old albums. We used to listen to music so differently, remember? We’d start at the beginning and listen to a whole side, and then the other. Songs in order, and in whole. We used to read the liner notes. So I set up my little stereo on a low table in my yoga room and spread out some albums all around me, and placed the needle at the beginning of Side A. Scratch scratch MUSIC! And then it hit me.

Even in those hard years, I was me. There was me in there, and somehow, I have no idea how, I felt joy. I felt my joy, the way I do. I was the person who gets really excited about things, notices things, feels happiness with small things. There was me in there, dreaming of someday. Dreaming of having a place to live, dreaming of finishing high school and making my way to Austin where I would finally begin life and get away from my family completely. I was in there, living in my head, dancing inside. The things were happening to me, and around me, and too much of my time was spent trying to get through to the next day, but *I* was not that. I was still 14, 15, 16, 17, loving those songs just like everyone else, even though my life wasn’t like everyone else’s. I’ve always been here as me.

this exactly -- except the paint on mine was faded and not shiny, and the car was in bad shape. this one is kept up.
this exactly — except the paint on mine was faded and not shiny, and the car was in bad shape. this one is kept up.

In October 1976, I’d made my escape plan (I had an old car at the time, a ’62 Nash Rambler, dusty pale green). Don’t laugh — I was going to drive from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, find a convent and bang on the door and ask them for sanctuary. That was really my plan. I didn’t have plans beyond that, and I had no idea where a convent might be, but San Antonio is full of Catholics so I figured I’d find one. For some unknown-to-me-now reason I decided to tell the guidance counselor at school that I was moving the next day and I told her what my stepfather did to me as an explanation for my move. Guidance counselors weren’t trained very well back then, so she called my mother. Later that day Mother had me picked up and placed in a mental hospital and then no one could ever believe me again. “You know, Lori is crazy, you can’t believe a word she says,” eye roll.

Back then the stay was 3 months, which I didn’t mind, frankly. A warm bed, a hot shower, three meals, pretty good. I have a lot of stories from that time. I spent my 17th birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s there. She took me out for a day on Thanksgiving and took me to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — you can’t make this shit up! If I read that in a client’s novel I’d cross it out and say “COME ON.” But I remember what I wore, how it felt to be there. ANYWAY. So while I was in there, my stepfather took my car and sold it. On the day I was released, I remember this so so well, I walked out the front door of the hospital to nothing. I had nowhere to go. No car. Nobody. The clothes on my back, and a few in a paper sack, but no coat. (Luckily, my records were still in my locker, and thank heavens for that.) There was snow on the ground, as there is in far north Texas in January, on the plains. I was standing there trying to figure out what to do, and then a car drove past with the radio playing so loud I could hear the song: New Kid in Town. The Eagles. And I smiled. I smiled because I loved the song, I loved the Eagles, and I kind of felt like a new kid in town after three months of a bed and regular meals. I walked down the steps, down the walkway to the street, and turned right. I don’t remember where I went or where I found to sleep that night, but I remember that moment, and that song, and I remember smiling — me, it was about me, not my circumstance.

This is such an extraordinary bit of understanding for me, because it’s about so much more than the music. It’s about getting whacked in the head with the realization that I WAS THERE ALL ALONG, even then. It was always me inside, I was not my circumstance. Lori Dawn was in there, singing and dancing and dreaming. I never realized that until now, as strange as that sounds.

I always did want to be Nancy Drew, and I was always so jealous of the way mysteries always seemed to happen around her, and never around me. But I guess this one did. To me this isn’t a sad post, a sad story at all! This is a joyous one, a gift to myself. A 57 years old gift of light.

Lester Tricky

When I was a little girl, I had a younger cousin who liked to stick bobby pins in the electrical outlets, and when sparks came out she’d laugh in absolute delight and say, “Lester Tricky! Lester Tricky!” Some adult would come running and tell her that electricity was dangerous and she shouldn’t do that, but you could see in her eyes that she would never listen.

I’ll come back to Lester Tricky in a minute, but first some context. My life is extraordinary right now. Just utterly extraordinary. Yesterday was Katie’s birthday and I got to spend some hours with them, and some time all alone with little Oliver, who isn’t feeling very well right now. Molars, I think. When I went home afterwards, I made a yummy dinner, and then feeling too extraordinary to sit still, I went to a pie shop with my new book of poetry and relished that warm chocolate salted caramel slice. I came home, still feeling too extraordinary (but also too full of pie), so I laced on my sneakers and headed out for a steamy walk — the only kind you can take in Texas this time of year.

Marnie had introduced me to a wonderful podcast called Song Exploder (I strongly recommend it to you!); song writers focus on one of their compositions and talk about the creation of it in fascinating detail. I selected a band I’d never heard of (Sylvan Esso) talking about their song “Coffee.” (Here’s a link to the specific episode, recommended!) The episode grabbed me from the beginning, and so I was hooked and lost in the conversation.

one of Austin's nicknames is City of the Violet Crown
one of Austin’s nicknames is City of the Violet Crown

It was that violet kind of twilight, and the cicadas were buzzing in the air non-stop. I walked past one family of deer, and then another, and then two little fawns that seemed to be on their own. The twilight deepened a little more, and the cicadas grew louder. As the conversation drew to a close on the podcast, the episode ended with the entire song played. And as I listened, I felt the top of my scalp, like electricity was dancing in my hair. It moved down my cheeks, down my neck — still alive in my hair — and down my arms. I saw goose bumps come up on my arms, and it kept moving down my body, down my legs — goose bumps there too — and into my feet. I looked up and there was a brilliant half moon right overhead. I looked to my left and there was a large male deer standing there looking at me.

ElectricityIt was extraordinary. It felt like everything else around me was on pause, there was no traffic on the busy street nearby, the cicadas seemed to stop, the breeze went on pause. I blinked slowly, swallowed, looked up at the moon, down at my arms, and closed my eyes. I just stood there in that moment, lit up with electricity. I remembered Lisa, and Lester Tricky. I felt the whole of my life, everything behind me and everything stretching out in front of me, my family continuing on into the future, me as an ancestor of all these people who streamed into the world through me. I don’t know how long I stood there on the sidewalk with my eyes closed. I think when the song ended, the spell was broken. I opened my eyes, the breeze seemed to pick up again. I heard the traffic nearby. I took a deep breath and looked up at the moon in the darkening sky.

I can’t guarantee that the song will have the same effect on you (but I do recommend that you start by listening to the podcast about it, linked above; it’s only 13 minutes long). Just in case, here is the official video of it. I love the female singer’s voice, and the eerie moodiness of the song, and now forever it’s stained purple for me.

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I love being me. I don’t think I’d be anyone else for any amount of money.

a little wave

Hi there, everyone! Remember me? I’ve been away — on vacation in Norway of course, but also just away from regular writing. I thought I’d pop in today with some small bits to share.

  • It’s been more than a year, now, since I began the anti-flailing project and no one is more surprised than I am by its success. And I think people who know me are surprised, because it circles around issues I have launched myself at so many times over the years, each effort lasting through an initial burst of working, and then fizzling and leaving me only slightly ahead of where I had been when I started. More than a year later I am still doing one thing at a time. Still eating well (except for when I’m in NYC, where I just do the best I can). Still doing yoga every single day, and meditating at the end of the day. Still doing much more walking than ever before. Still feeling still and quiet inside. Still living so much more in the present (thanks greatly to my bubble insight), even though I think that has contributed to the great decline in my writing here. All these shifts have also led to their self-perpetuation in an interesting way, because when for any reason I skip some of them — like doing yoga when I was in Norway, or like eating a bag of peanut M&Ms with Marc while watching the midnight sun — it’s not even an effort to return to myself anymore. It was, at first; at first I would have to summon myself, think about just starting again, but now I just start again. That’s all amazing to me. And even more amazing, all the weight I lost (35 pounds, unbelievably) have stayed off. I go up and down by a couple of pounds, but wow.
  • Surprising to me, I am getting better at drawing! What I mean by that is that it’s more a pleasure in the doing of it now, because I am getting closer to being able to approximate what I see. I’m less mortified by what I draw, and more often kind of happy with it. Getting better means I’m looser and starting to play more, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do it.  I never thought I would get to any of these places with drawing. So in the process, I have also learned a little more persistence about starting new things. You can never get better if you don’t practice, and no one starts off as an expert.
  • Living with the estrangement of my son is like living with a raging infection that is agonizing but not fatal. Sometimes it’s worse than others, sometimes it’s just there in the background of everything, and right now it’s kind of raging. It tenderizes me, makes me even more easily and readily touched by the world. Two nights ago I was scrolling through our old text messages to each other and came across this exchange from very early in 2013. It shows his hilarious sense of humor:

I’m sitting in a cafe trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life.

What’re you thinking about?

Aquaponics. Feed fish, fish waste feeds plants, farm caviar and harvest plants.

Well that’s a different idea than usual!

They’re farming sturgeon in Spain, I’m sure it could be done here. Anywho, pipe dream for now. Anytime I think of something to do, the process of me getting myself there looks like this:  1) Collect underpants. 2) ??? 3) Profit!

He always cracked me up, and I miss him so much it ebbs and then swells into unbearable. So I’m in that right now and having to keep drinking water all day to stay hydrated from all the crying. It’s tough.

  • I’ve been reading a lot, as always — Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh;  Knausgaard’s fourth memoir in the series; On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks;  and A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout. (Links all go to my GoodReads review of each title.) It was amazing finishing the fourth Knausgaard in northern Norway, since it was set in that almost-exact location, and I finished it with regret that book 5 is not yet translated, and book 6 will be translated and available a year after book 5. I have a greater appreciation of the vast project of his books, and my awe has settled into place. The brain surgery book was fascinating, both in terms of the brain stuff and in terms of getting into the arrogant head of a brain surgeon. I see that all four of the books are memoir, which I hadn’t actually noticed until now. I recommend Oliver Sacks’s book, and the last one by Amanda Lindhout is really only for the stouthearted, as it goes into pretty horrifying detail about her captivity in Somalia and the things that were done to her. But it also presents one of the most accurate and vivid descriptions of dissociation I’ve ever read.
  • On Facebook I just posted this great old Lyle Lovett song, This Old Porch, because my son once told me that every time he hears it he thinks of me. He’s not on Facebook but I had a silly superstitious thought that somehow it might wiggle at him a little.

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But one line in the lyric brought forth such a detailed memory and it has stayed with me. The line is about an old theater on main street, and suddenly I remembered being a young girl, maybe 10 years old, going to the movies in tiny little Graham, Texas. There was one theater in town, on the square, and it smelled old and musty. I don’t remember what movie we saw; each movie played for a month, so once you saw it you just had to wait another month for the next movie, or see the same one again. I remember sitting in the cool, dark theater with my sister and brother after my mother dropped us off, and there were just a few other kids in the theater. It was a very hot summer day, and we had Charms lollipops, those thick chunks of lurid-colored sugar that turned our tongues matching colors. Someone in the theater threw his lollipop at the screen and we were all scandalized by that vandalism, happening right before  our eyes. It was stuck to the screen throughout the movie. But I remember how my skin felt, how raw I felt, how pressed-on by the world, how unformed it was to be me. Big Daddy had just died and my one little place in the world was gone, and I felt like a speck of dust in a raging, scary universe. I remember how my muscles felt, how my stomach felt, how my mouth tasted. That was more years ago than my father lived, isn’t that amazing? Memory is the most incredible thing, whatever the memories are. How lucky a thing to have them.

Book club tonight, and a friend’s wedding on Saturday. Summer in Texas is here, 100 degrees coming this weekend. A teenager’s death by snake in the news. My daughter Katie’s birthday is coming up, an age that surprises us both — how can that be? And Oliver is walking. Life is, as always, all kinds of things at once. I kind of love that.

xo

oh death and grief and sorrow and murder

We seem insane to the rest of the world. We are.

Although I’m not nearly as good at it as I have wanted to be, I have tried to accept that people feel completely differently about some things that are very important to me, and to just let them be. Our differences are so great, they are not going to convince me and I am not going to convince them. There are many topics I could say this about, but today I’m talking about my country’s insanity around guns. I’ve just let it be, and have forced myself not to think about it when I talk to people I know who hold drastically different views than mine. But it’s beginning to feel essentially like I’m saying the same kind of thing as, “I know you feel differently about slavery than I do, so I’ll just respect that we feel differently.” It’s NOT OK. I detest your position. It’s not OK. We have yet another slaughterhouse in this country, at a church in Charleston this time. I had to withdraw from the media entirely because I could not tolerate hearing one more person say that it’s not about guns. OR say that the answer is more guns.

It is about guns. It is almost entirely about guns. Some people want to make each murderer an exception — well, he is mentally ill. He is just evil. He is mentally ill (we say this one a lot). So apparently our country has a huge proportion of mentally ill and evil people, compared to other civilized countries! That seems like reason enough, all on its own, to change our policy about guns.

A white boy walks into an elementary school and slaughters little kids and teachers. Hmm, the solution is that teachers all need guns. A white boy walks into a church and slaughters good people, trying to be good people, studying their Bibles and praying. Hmmm, the problem is that there needed to be more people with guns so someone could’ve shot him. A white boy walks into a crowded, dark movie theater and slaughters people out for a fun evening. Where was that good man with a gun when we needed him? (And this isn’t even beginning to consider the issue of race….another extraordinary shame in our country and the impetus for the most recent slaughter.)

I cannot take it any more. It’s about guns. It is about guns. People in our country have become so rigidly paranoid and once you’re paranoid, the world gets constructed to support that paranoia. When I hear someone say, “You’ll have to pry my gun out of my cold, dead hands,” I don’t know how he or she turned into that. I can’t keep my mouth shut and just understand that “we feel differently” any more. You are at war with the world I want to live in. Your support for our gun policies is directly responsible for the situation we are in. You’re just one person? Yes, you and all the others. You are directly responsible for this slaughter-friendly world.

What kind of world do we want to live in? A kind where teachers at elementary schools are armed to protect the tiny children, I guess. A kind where people walk around with guns, people have stashes of guns on their property (frequently the same people who have BUNKERS), a kind where people have such a different vision of the world and our country than I do. I want to live in a world where I don’t have to be terrified that Oliver will be slaughtered at the library, or at school when he goes. I wish I could afford to just move my entirely family to a safe country.

We are so numb to it. Oh, here’s another one, another slaughter. We know what to expect, who’ll say what, we know how this goes because we’ve done it so many times. For some reason yesterday the cumulative weight of all this slaughter just broke me down and I couldn’t stop crying. When the response to peaceful people being SLAUGHTERED IN COLD BLOOD is to coldly say we need more guns, or that this has nothing to do with guns, we have lost our humanity.

But I have no idea what to do. If you defend guns to me, I will be getting up immediately and walking away from you, for I find your stance reprehensible. I have no interest in hearing what you have to say, because our basic values are entirely different. That accomplishes nothing in the world, not one thing, but at least I won’t sit there acting as if we just see things differently and you have your way. Your way supports slaughter and I can’t just sit there any more. It’s meaningless, but it protects me. It’s meaningless, I know that, and in fact it’s taking an ostrich stance, just removing myself from the conversation, but I don’t know what else to do. The governor of Texas just signed an open carry bill into law, so guns and holsters for everyone! (The good news there is that at least the guns will be visible, so I can get up and leave any establishment immediately. Though of course that doesn’t protect me from who knows how many sit there with guns hidden away.)

Yesterday I got to go to story hour at the library with Katie and Oliver, and then we went to lunch. My heart was heavy, my chest kind of ached, but there was his smiling little face. I was grateful for it, for him and his mom and dad, for my little family who is currently safe. It lifted my heart a bit, but I still felt heavy. On my way home, a fast-driving version of Earl Scruggs playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown came on my playlist and my spirits lifted, and before it was over I was smiling and feeling better still. Nothing is different, but that music gave me some respite and a booster shot of joy.

I love the banjo. Way back in the first season of SNL, Steve Martin was host and he had this marvelous banjo bit. The video only has audio, but listen to it and you’ll hear the title of this post:

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“Isn’t that happy? You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo. You can’t go, “Oh, death and grief and sorrow and murder.””

Just to extend that happiness a little longer, here are Steve Martin, Earl Scruggs, and a few other banjo players slamming down some Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I think I’ll go grab my banjo and do some picking to help me forget all the death and grief and sorrow and murder.

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the word is just too BLAND

“Happy.” It’s like “nice.” Both are valued things, of course, but meh. What bland, too-simple words. It’s just a word, happy, so maybe the problem is really how we’ve come to think about it. Smiley faces, a particular feeling of some degree of joy or contentment or pleasure, be happy, if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof because I’m happy. Happy. I’m happy, are you happy? The happiness industry, do these seven things to be happy, here are the daily habits of happy people. Gratitude makes you happy. Happy.

Yesterday I was scanning my playlists, looking for one to listen to while I cleaned my house. There’s a lot of overlap of music on some of the lists, but the one I most reliably listen to for background music is one titled “happy.” I clicked it and scanned the list deciding whether to choose shuffle or the order they’re in, and busted out laughing at the songs on the list. There are some that most people would consider happy songs, but about one-third of the list includes songs that no one would consider happy songs. And in fact they’re songs that fill my heart with melancholy, or pull up a very sad memory, and some are even associated with such a painful memory I have to sit down. That’s my happy playlist, and it reliably makes me happy, the whole thing.

weavingBecause happiness isn’t simply a shallow thing on the surface. Happiness can be complex, happiness contains some sadness, some memories of loss, some melancholy, and the ability to hold those things as part of the complex experience of a lived life. That sad song that makes me have to sit down? It really kind of breaks my heart, and I can only listen to it once or I have to get in bed and cry. But as part of the tapestry of my playlist, it’s that dark shot of weft that deepens everything. The memory of love lost, or happiness experienced with a thrill and then squandered or shifted, those were happy too, I was happy then too, and so my heart aches from the loss but I also hold the greater memories of the happiness, the joy. I’ll bet you’ve had the experience of hearing a song connected to a loss and filling up with tears, but also feeling something good, some connection, some remembrance, a mixed feeling of happy/sad. Maybe even laughing and crying at the same time. (That’s so me.)

I do have blissed-out moments, and quite often, where I experience awe and have no words, or when the moment is just so present and I am aware of my life in a particular way, or when Oliver smiles at me, or when I’m with my beloved children and we’re happy together. Or when I’m making beautiful food, or my writing is going well, or I’m dancing and laughing in the park. I have those moments that are kind of purely “happy.” But most often, my experience of happiness holds the complications of the various kinds and experiences of happiness; they feel less fleeting, and with an amalgam of contentment, pleasure, something, with the more complex experience of happiness. For as much as life really only happens in the moment, and as much as I strive to be present in it, the truth is also that I have lived a long life, filled with a staggering number of (and kinds of) experiences, and they are in me, body and soul. Some make me happy because I survived . . . but that happiness is real, even if it came out of darkness. So I sit in this present moment and feel my life resonating through me, in this present day. (Plus, as my daughter Marnie said about me in a Facebook birthday post, I do love to feel all the feelings. That makes me happy, being able to feel them all.)

I thought it was so loving and true in places that I saved it. :)
I thought it was so loving and true in places that I saved it. 🙂

Maybe this is just me. I never have a clue if my experience is weird and deeply idiosyncratic, or if you feel something of it too. If you don’t, then here’s an explanation of one way happiness can be deeply felt. And if you do, you aren’t the only one!

Happy Sunday. I hope the sun shines on your face today. xo

tenderness

heartYesterday afternoon I drifted into one of my favorite emotional places. I think it’s been building for a while, and then my miserable experience with the writers’ conference walked me the rest of the way there. I feel tender toward the world, cracked open, wistful. (Wistful is my favorite feeling, wrote about it here.) Yesterday was actually less about wistful and more about tender, but those live in the same neighborhood.

Right now, as I move around the world unencumbered in my own little life, I know a number of people who are dealing with the imminent death of a close loved one, or are dealing with a frightening health crisis of a dear loved one, or are grieving a loss. I gather this will happen with greater frequency, the older I get, as loss happens more regularly. And of course our own hearts, in my family, are still crisscrossed with fresh scars from losing Gracie; the scars are now strong enough to resist tugging, but tugging hurts a lot. For me, big happiness and this kind of tender feeling are wrapped up together so inextricably I’ll always find one when the other is present.

On the first day of the conference, Peggy and I were in the car on the way to New Haven and she asked casually if I liked The Wailing Jennys, because they were on her iPod and we could listen as we drove. I love The Wailing Jennys! The mention of them opened my heart because Dixie introduced them to me by surprise-sending me their “Bright Morning Stars” CD. Beautiful three-part harmonies, gorgeous melodies, wistful songs. One song on that CD in particular carries a huge weight in my heart, the song called Away But Never Gone. I couldn’t remember the name of it, so I told Peggy that I especially loved one song, I’d know it when I heard it.

She started the music and tears filled my eyes — that beautiful music was imprinted with the moment, the happy happy moment of being with Peggy, on our way to the writers’ conference, that moment of such importance to me. All the elements were right there: Peggy, the gorgeous day, being in that moment, everything. I knew that forever more, when I heard anything from that CD I could be swept right back to the moment with Peggy, and Dixie would be there with me too.

Several songs into the playlist, the song I loved came on and I said, “That’s it! That’s the song I love so much.” It’s a very wistful song, as you can imagine from the title (Away But Never Gone, lyrics here). For me, it carries the heaviness of that period when I told Marc we should let each other go, because he was so incredibly lonely. I sent him that song and told him that it’s how I felt, that he would never be gone from my heart. I can’t listen without feeling that moment and thick, fat tears fill my eyes.

But Peggy has her own exquisite moment with the song too, her story not mine to share, but she shared it with me as we drove and the morning sun was like a kaleidoscope through our tears. I’ll remember that shared moment with her always.

One of my friends is nearing the end of a difficult treatment. One of my friends is not doing very well and life is feeling small and limited, and possibly changed in a long-term way. I think about those two people, I close my eyes and see the lives they’ve been living, lives spent with loved ones, lives spent helping others, doing things they love, ordinary lives, really, of the happy variety. Like mine. And I feel so tender toward the whole thing, toward what it is to live a life, to sweep up the happiness into our arms, to have our hands forced open as we lose things, hopes, experiences, plans, people. There is something so poignant to me about being here in a human life. We help each other live, we help each other die. We help each other with tiny loads and big ones. We help each other with joy, because it’s so much better shared, and we help each other with disappointment — also better shared, than managing all alone. My heart is full of fear and loss and anxiety and excitement and the future and the unknown and this beautiful moment.

a buncha recs

consumingOf the many ways you can organize humans, one messy organization is makers vs consumers. It’s messy, imperfect (makers are also consumers), but for the purpose of this post I’m thinking about this distinction. I write here almost every day, but I’d fall pretty squarely on the consumer side of things. I consume poetry (don’t write it), consume novels (don’t write them), consume music (pick around a little for fun but no more), consume movies (don’t make them). And boy do I consume. I throw back books the way an alcoholic throws back a fifth of vodka, but with more discretion. I probably read 3 to 5(+) books a week, on average, between work and pleasure. I probably read 15-30 poems a week. I used to go out to see a movie once a week and I’d like to find a way back to that rhythm. Now that I’m walking every morning I consume a podcast; I’ve missed them since I started working at home. I used to listen to them to and from work in New York, which was a solid 45-minute train ride and a solid 15-minute walk, good for two podcasts a day.

When you’re pretty isolated, as I am, and a ‘mature’ person, it’s hard to find new music. And the old stuff that holds all your memories, well, that’s just such good stuff to listen to, but it can turn you into an old fogey if you’re not careful. Marc was 18 in 1968 and that music is still just about all he likes. He has no interest in finding or learning to like new music. So thank heavens I have kids who tell me about new music! Lately I’ve found some new musicians I really enjoy, and that’s the impetus for this post — I want to share some good stuff I’ve enjoyed lately with you, my friends.

Books

In the last couple of weeks I’ve read some new books and some older ones (and oh how I wish you could read the one I just evaluated for a client, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in so long….). Some I’ve mentioned here or there, but I still recommend them heartily:

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore. Also: Birds of America. She is an amazing storyteller, and just so damn brilliant in her observations. And hilarious. I’ve been re-reading Self-Help in the middle of the night when I’m in the mood for little bites of sly humor and gorgeous writing. Both of these books are older, but just so very very good.

Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry. He wrote City of Bohane, one of my favorite books ever, and you’ll hear him in this brand new collection too. He just has such an ear, and such an eye, and you get to know the experience of being in Ireland. Not like you do in a movie, but like you do from the inside of an Irish man, looking through his Irish eyes, filtering through his Irish mind and ear.  I particularly enjoyed the story called “A Cruelty.” I’ll always read him.

U and I: A True Story, by Nicholson Baker. I wrote about it previously, so here I’ll just refer you to that post and emphasize again how much I love the book. It’s not one to race through, though; I find I read it slowly, savor it, and then set it aside for a bit. It’s really a pleasure, and it’s like being inside Baker’s mind, somehow.

Nick Flynn. O how I love his words, all of them.
Nick Flynn. O how I love his words, all of them.

The Reenactments: A Memoirby Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which (a) is my very favorite memoir, (b) and somehow it’s my memoir, can’t figure that out, and (c) was made into an OK movie. The movie did capture the flavor and color of the book pretty well, I enjoyed it. So The Reenactments is Flynn’s telling of the experience of having the movie made of his earlier book. His mother (played by Julianne Moore in the film) committed suicide, after having read something he wrote in his notebook about her. The day they filmed that scene, people on the set were concerned for him and said he didn’t have to be there for it. He said, “I survived it the first time,” and then he wrote something about their eyes suggesting to him that maybe he really hadn’t. Ugh, so brilliant, and so wonderful on lots of levels simultaneously. Flynn is a poet and in The Reenactments he brings in some famous glasswork plants, research on phantom limb syndrome, and consciousness theory, and intertwines them so beautifully together so they just illuminate everything. Aah. I’ll be reading that again, and soon.

Mary and O’Neil, by Justin Cronin. Such a beautiful story, truly — a novel of stories strung together, and gorgeous characterizations of the people you come to know as well as anyone in your life. I think about O’Neil and keep thinking I see him here and there. I wish I could.

Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, by Rosencrans Baldwin. This is a lightweight little memoir, and if you are a Francophile like me, you’ll eat it like a little confection. The author and his wife lived in Paris for a year or more (gee, can’t remember now), and were crazy about Paris before they arrived. They mostly loved their time, felt baffled by the enormous bureaucracy that accompanied every single thing, and tried to find their way to an easy comfort and feeling of belonging — I don’t think they really did, until it was time to leave. It’s a great little book, worth one reading if you fantasize to any degree about chucking it all and moving to Paris. As I do, regularly.

Divergent, by Veronica Roth. I read this one for my book club, and it was excellent. A page-turner for sure! It’s a dystopian future tale in which the culture is divided into five factions, each one meant to uphold a particular virtue of humanity: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (the intelligent). On a given day each year, all sixteen-year-olds take an aptitude test that will tell them which faction they are best suited for, after which they decide whether to remain with their family or transfer to a new faction. And since this is a human endeavor, of course it doesn’t go well — certainly not ideally. The main character, Beatrice (later known as Tris) leaves her family for another faction. It’s extremely visual, and the first book of a series. I can easily see it being made into a movie. Really enjoyable book in every way, especially if you enjoy dystopian stories.

I’m starting to read Half the Kingdom, by Lore Segal, for book club in November; The Afterlife: A Memoir by Donald Antrim, Bleeding Edge by Pynchon, and Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year Oneby Kevin Jackson. I have extremely high hopes for all of them, but we’ll see! (And let me PLEASE spare you from reading Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Really, just don’t do it. Here’s my Goodreads review.)

Music

Lots of good music lately! (And note: “new” means relatively new.) Instead of filling up the post with YouTube videos, I’ll link the song title to the video so you can click over and listen to the ones you want. But I’ll probably not be able to help myself completely….

nekocaseNeko Case has a new album out titled “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight / The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.” (And lucky me, I will be seeing the taping of her Austin City Limits concert next Tuesday!) The album is truly outstanding, there’s not a bum song in the bunch. I first listened to a particular song and then listened randomly to the album, but it’s one that’s meant to be played in order, I believe. Or rather, there is a brilliance to the ordering and I recommend listening straight through, like we used to when we’d buy a new record. Remember? My favorite song from the album is called “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” This link will take you to the YouTube video of it. But really, every song from the album is amazing.

Laura MvulaLaura Mvula has an album titled “Sing to the Moon.” She’s just a lush and beautiful singer, and I’ve enjoyed almost every single song from that album. The ones I didn’t enjoy, it was a relative thing — I just enjoyed them less than the others. They’re all beautiful. Here’s a link to “She,” which is such a beautiful song and video.

jennysThe Wailin’ Jennys have a new album called “Bright Morning Stars” and the title track is exquisite. Listen here, on YouTube. The harmonies will give you chills, if you are anything at all like me. I’m such a sucker for three-part harmony. If I’m ever in a mood and you want to soften me like gelatin, just put on some three-part harmony, a capella, and I’ll be as pliant as you want me to be. So beautiful (and thank you, Dixie, again).

janelleJanelle Monae has an amazing new album called “The Electric Lady.” DADGUMMIT, she is sizzlingly alive, entirely electric indeed. Here’s the official video for “Dance Apocalyptic,” and if you aren’t dancing in your seat, I’m not sure we’ll be boon companions.

valerieYou’ll need to know Valerie June, if you don’t already. “Pushing Against a Stone” is a fantastic album, and she’s magnetic, hard to fathom in some way I can’t figure out. Here’s a video for “Workin’ Woman Blues.” Just watch and wait and listen. Amazing. (And I want her hair!!)

 

 

And finally, Megan Jean and the KFB do it for me big-time, especially “These Bones.” DAMN. OK, here. I knew I couldn’t resist showing you one. 🙂

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DANG. I want one-a-them washboards and a pair-a-them fancy gloves.

Next time I’ll have to tell you about some new poets to track down, I’ve got some really good ones. And stuff to watch, too. Happy Sunday, my darling ones. xo

gravity

The best thing about going to the movies in Austin is the Alamo Drafthouse. (My New York friends, there’s a Drafthouse in Yonkers, but they’re going to be opening one on the UWS, watch for it!) Basically, it’s a great theater where you can order dinner, snacks, ice cream, beer, wine, all kinds of stuff, at your seat in the theater. The location nearest my house actually has decent food; they make the hamburger buns and pizza dough by hand in the theater. Huge lists of beers (one location has a brewpub on site), nice wine list. It’s an event. They also organize themes, like a whole day marathon of The Lord of the Rings movies with theme meals provided throughout, that go with the movie. They play sing-a-long movies; Marc and Anna and I went to an ABBA sing-a-long a few years ago and the audience was standing up, singing along and dancing. It was really such fun.

Before they show the previews, they show all kinds of old clips that go with the movie. So, for instance, before Gravity they played old clips of space movies, astronaut movies, some super hilarious ones. Then they showed all kinds of little clips of people falling — oh, that crazy gravity! It’s really fun. And my favorite thing is that they are serious about people turning off their phones and not talking. Take my word on that.

GRAVITYLast night I saw Gravity. I was eager to see it — visually it looked amazing, and I loved the music in the trailer because it’s one of my favorite pieces (Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, the link goes to YouTube. If you don’t know Pärt’s music, consider this a beautiful introduction.).

So I was eager. Visually stunning, beautiful music, and the concept. Or rather, the bit of the concept I inferred from the clip — what would it be like to be adrift and alone in space? The absolute aloneness of that, the vastness, and just you? My mind can’t really present me with anything, I go blank and silent. But I love to be put in that story and encounter the possibilities.

I’m no huge fan of Sandra Bullock (a travesty for an Austinite! We talk about going to “Sandra’s restaurant;” she and her sister own a couple of popular places here in town, and she lives here). I’ve never found her to be a subtle actress, she’s fine just not my favorite. And Clooney, I knew he’d be Clooney. And he was, down to every twinkle and rapscallion tale.

Visually it was stunning. The first half hour or so I sat there with tears streaming down my face. That scale, it’s just the most beautiful thing there is. I looked at our beautiful planet and thought about how utterly tiny my little troubles are. I’m somewhere invisibly down there, twisting and turning, flailing and feeling terrified, and it’s nothing. It’s just nothing.  The entire span of my life is just nothing. The world is unbearably beautiful and it goes on and on and it follows its orbit on and on and it’s just a nothing too, in our little galaxy which is a nothing in our universe.  And visually it made me feel just a tiny little whiff of what it would be like to be lost up there. I couldn’t breathe easily, I felt terror and a bit of horror. The first part is a single shot, unbelievable, the cinematography is breathtaking. I can’t say enough about the first part of the movie. It sets up the question.

There was a scene in the movie that made me cry for the story part of it — a scene where Bullock’s character believes she is facing her death and speaks of her fear, knowing that she will die that day. And who will mourn her, and who will pray for her? Will anyone? (That’s not a spoiler, by the way….it’s just a scene along the way.) It was a very honest scene, and it got to the nub of it as I expected from the movie. I cried throughout the scene, not because I wonder if anyone will mourn me, I believe people love me and would mourn me, but because I know someone who is so isolated and this is his agony. He thinks no one will even come to his funeral when he dies. It’s heart wrenching. But also it made me cry because it focused all the preciousness of life on that moment, the fear of facing that last moment and knowing it’s the last moment. Oooooof the air leaves me.

It was an OK movie; the part that set up the question was amazing, but the part that answered the question was not so great, in my opinion. It won’t be a classic like 2001, it will probably do well enough, I won’t want to see it again ever, it was flawed enough to miss the very best mark, but it was OK. It was worth it for the first half hour alone. See it in 3D, and on the biggest screen you can. It’s showing here at an IMAX theater in 3D and I’ll bet that’s pretty cool, but I wanted to go to Alamo.

I’d kind of cooled off about the movie on the way home, and as I sat to write this post. But then Marc called and I was telling him about it and got entirely swept up again by the images and the question, by the power of that opening. It’s amazing. Do see it.

And here, in case you didn’t click that link to Spiegel im Spiegel, I’ll give you the video to make it easy. It’s really a gorgeous piece of music. Happy Saturday, my darling friends. xo

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evidence of hands

You know Jackson Pollock’s work — the modern artist perhaps most likely to inspire people to ask “that’s art?” or to say “crap, I could do that.” I never really understood his work until Marnie once said that it presents evidence of movement. And then I started loving his pieces, then I had a way to look at them, to look deeply, to see him inside them. I just loved that.

remember these envelopes?
remember these envelopes?

All my life I’ve been a maker, and preferred doing things by hand. When I used to go to preschool (at Ma & Pinky’s, a small family-based day care center) I took my tortoiseshell-colored plastic embroidery case and spent play time sitting under a tree embroidering pillow cases. Badly, too tightly, but with pleasure. (And hey, I was 4.) I used Aunt Martha’s iron-on transfers to put the tulips and butterflies on the hems of pillowcases, then used bright embroidery floss to bring the designs to life. I can still see, so clearly, those designs. And I can still remember the other [normal] kids wondering why I did that instead of playing.

When I was a very young newlywed, my husband was a carpenter and I was spinning and weaving, sewing, whatever I could get my hands on. We had fantasies of having every single thing we ever touched or used being handmade. All our furniture, he would make. I wanted my wooden spoons to be handmade, even. I did make all our clothes except for our jeans, and I learned to cook and bake and when my son came along, I had to make everything we ate because he was severely allergic to corn syrup. I learned that it was a very expensive fantasy that everything we touched would be handmade, and we ended up — poor as we were — with plastic things, cheap things, inexpensive substitutes. But I’ve never gotten over my love of things made by hand. The evidence of a human creator moves me deeply.

And I feel that way about music. Handmade music — live music, “real” music, whatever I mean by that — is my favorite. There’s just nothing else like it. I love to see the person making that music, singing, playing those instruments. And when the instruments are humble, for some reason I like that even more. Dixie introduced me to my new favorite band — Megan Jean and the KFB — and I’m so deeply happy I am vibrating. Here, listen and watch their first video:

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Wowie. That woman can SANG, as we’d say in the South. I love her washboard, her foot on the drum, that little bell fixed to the washboard. I love her husband on that banjo. I love the immediacy of their music, the life in it.

Just sharing a bit of pleasure today, and wishing you the pleasure and evidence of hands in your life today. Happy Friday y’all.