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: 1/17/17

FEED: My Sunday was incredible — I attended the National Poets Against Trump protest and the National Writers Resist protest here in Austin, and wished with all my heart I could’ve been at the ones in New York City. The writers’ protest there was held on the steps of the New York Public Library, and how I would’ve loved to be there.

At the NYPL

I also attended a training session for nonviolent protest, organized by the women organizing the Austin Women’s March (they’re expecting more than 22,000 people!), so all that comes together to lead me to share this powerful poem.

A Woman Speaks (Audre Lorde)

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
mourning.

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.

From The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.

That feeds me, sisters, it does.

This is amazing, amazing Joe Brundidge.

SEED: Even though mine is such a heavily literary life, I’m not hooked into the quite large literary community here in Austin, though I want to be — especially after attending the writers protest and seeing a good portion of it. I sat there at BookPeople thinking These are my people. All of them, these are MY people. I thought it at the poets protest too; we who need words, who value words, who understand the power of words to fight, and who turn to them in times of trouble. He was at the poets protest too, but I must have been distracted because I didn’t really GET Joe until he spoke at the writers protest. He read two pieces, the first of which I remembered from the poets protest a few hours earlier. But then he read the second one, and he is such an amazing speaker it just felt like he suddenly started talking to us, and with urgency. It was about the critical importance of doing your work, of not waiting, and of how important it is, and he spoke right to the things you say that stop yourself, and he was right there ready to step into the muck and lift you out, rinse it off of you because he needs you, he needs your voice. I just sat there crying and feeling LOVED, and held. When he finished speaking, the next speaker was Sarah Bird — actually the person I was most eager to hear — but I couldn’t pay attention because I was afraid Joe would leave, so I just kept my eye on him.

As soon as Sarah quit speaking, while the next speaker was being introduced I jumped up (I was on the front row) and dashed over to Joe, who didn’t know me from Adam. I asked, “Can I hug you?” And with his giant smile, this tremendous bear of a man reached out his arms and hugged me so tight, so solid and still, and for so long. I moved slightly, to end the hug, just because I didn’t want him to feel stuck, and he didn’t let go. So I just relaxed, and I’ll bet we hugged for two solid minutes, maybe three. I thanked him and told him how much I needed to hear what he said, and my eyes filled with tears. Then I got shy and embarrassed and ducked back to my seat, but for the rest of the night I was held by him, and his words, and I felt better than I have in a very long time.

Joe is a host on Writing on the Air (here are his interviews), and he’s the director of the Austin International Poetry Festival. Here’s Joe in action, at Austin’s wonderful, wonderful independent book store Malvern Books, host of the poets protest and so many other wonderful events. He’s not as intense and passionate in this video as he was at the protest, but you get a feel for who he is.

That’s one thing I love about life. You can just be sitting there, expecting so little, and encounter someone who blows you over, envelopes you with love and acceptance and wonder, and you come away healed. I love that.

READ: I will just share some good thoughts and reading if you’re in the same general mindset I’m in this week, as we prepare for ….. ugh. Well, you know. Think about, remember, do these things:

  • “My existence requires no one’s permission.” (Joe Brundidge, beautiful Joe)
  • Someone at the poets protest said, “Aesthetically and philosophically, any poetry is against Trump.” No Republican president has ever had a poet at inauguration. Shocked? Nah.
  • “Don’t just sit there simulating a free person.” ~Austin poet Greg Liotta
  • When he takes the oath of office on Friday, January 19, you take the oath too. Take the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution (against him and his swamp monsters).
    https://www.wall-of-us.org/taketheoath/
  • Here’s a list of 27 books every woman should read if they’re going to the women’s march or NOT. I’ve only read five, how can that be…..gotta get busy.
  • A pivot: Harvard’s photography courses are online, and free. If you complete all the modules, you get a certificate. The software they use is old (~2009, I think), but the basics of photography haven’t changed.

three things: 1/16/17

FEED: When I went to the Quiet Morning event at MoMA last week, I stood in front of this painting with an overflowing heart:

Henri Matisse
Dance (I)
Paris, Boulevard des Invalides, early 1909

For a few years in the 1990s, I felt like this painting kept me going, kept me able to imagine that life could be worth living, that life might again have happiness and joy, that one day I might actually want to dance. They were hard years, uprooting years, dream-wrenching years, and I had a print of this painting on my bedroom wall so I could see it when I felt the most despair. Looking at it today, I remember my shattered heart and how that felt, and I remember the agony I felt in the times I felt this painting made a promise that couldn’t be delivered in my life — and then the fragile times I thought perhaps it could, after all. And now, the simple happiness I can feel in the wake of those years, to have survived them and to have danced. Whether you need hope, or know joy, this painting is a gift.

Here’s the gallery note for this painting: “In March 1909, Matisse received a commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin for two large decorative panels, Dance and Music (now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This painting was made quickly as a compositional study for Dance, which was intended to hang on the landing of a staircase, approached from the lower right. This may be why the lower figure leans into the painting, increasing the sense of movement, and why the figure at left is so large, slowing it. Drawing visible beneath the paint shows that Matisse started with two smaller figures where the large figure is now.”

SEED: I want to talk about little-b bravery because I have been thinking about courage/bravery my whole life. (And in fact, one of the characters tattooed on my back is ‘courage,’ and I wrote a memoir chapter about it, which required me to think very carefully about the idea, the experience.) And then, whaddya know, Emily McDowell went and created a whole line of pins for people who exhibit bravery in their daily lives. I have bought four of them, one for me, one for my daughter, and two for women friends, because I agree with her: so many of us do brave things that will never receive the kind of attention that big noisy brave acts receive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave acts. And that’s why I want to set “little-b bravery” as my focus here. The big-b Bravery is inspirational, aspirational, admirational, worthy of the kind of honor it receives — like John Lewis and his life-long fight for the civil rights and honor and dignity of black people in this country. It was a Brave act, walking over the Selma Bridge and in fact he was beaten and kicked quite terribly by Alabama State Troopers, who fractured his skull. He thought he was going to die, and he just kept going. There is no doubt that was a Brave act, and it’s also true that he continues to do Brave and brave acts every day, in his quiet, dogged persistence. I’ll probably never do anything in my life that approaches his degree of courage.

But I am brave. I have been brave in my life, and in fact most days it takes courage to keep going. My friend Nancy told me that the focus of my memoirs must be “what it is to live with it,” because I survived all the nightmares of my childhood, and in a way that was the easier part. (In a way.) Then, it was so often literally a matter of life and death, and that has a way of focusing things. But living with it all, living with the fallout, living with the consequences, living with the loneliness of it, the despair of it, well, that takes a lot of courage, and there are absolutely days that I don’t have enough courage. I do not keep a gun in my house for all the reasons, but the most pointed one is that I am afraid I will use it on myself. On Christmas Day, I was so overcome that if I’d had a gun, I would’ve walked into my back yard, sat on the rocks and just pulled the trigger. One minute, start to finish. My courage was too low that day, the despair too great. I’m so glad I didn’t have a gun.

But more days than anyone can imagine, I lie in bed when I first wake up and summon courage. I summon the courage to get up anyway. To live my life that day anyway. To find some kind of happiness, some bit of joy anyway. To be willing to be open to joy even though there are ways that continues to be hard. I do it — I seek happiness, I allow happiness, I welcome joy, but it’s a brave choice, most days. This isn’t even about depression, which I know too well; it’s about what it is to live with it. To have survived. To be the survivor.

And so the pin I bought myself says “I saved my own life.” That’s brave, and I might even argue that it’s Brave. (Probably not.) One of these days, when I have earned it, I’ll buy myself the one that says “Found My Voice.” My daughter survived unimaginable grief, and that’s brave. It’s so much easier to give up the game, fold up the cloth, disappear from life in all the ways we can do that — drinking too much, abandoning ourselves to whatever is our drug of choice (carbs, for me), withdrawing from the world, dissolving into hate and anger, abandoning people, as my son has done with his family who desperately love and miss him. So much easier. It’s brave to risk, to risk again, to risk loss, to risk hurt. To risk involvement. To risk connection. If that has never required bravery on your part, then you have had a lucky life, and I don’t begrudge it! You have your own ways of being brave, because I believe we all do — and so does Emily McDowell, as she acknowledges the dozens and dozens of ways we show up to life. The ways we show up anyway. The things we had to fight for and maybe still have to fight for every day. The things we survived. The things we live with, and live anyway. Like me, you are brave in your own ways, I’d bet my bottom dollar.

READ: I like to read about the process of writing, and in case you are a writer, you might like these links:

In a pretty low place right now. Pretty low.

I just like to share!

Through the terrible stress of this everlasting nightmare of our presidential election, I have relied on a number of ways of coping — some have been good, and some have NOT been so good. And I’ve been inconsistent in using the good ones, perhaps because the benefit isn’t immediate and my stress is begging for immediate relief (even though they help me more, and without causing trouble). Yoga, walking, cooking beautiful and healthy food, meditation, those have flickered in and out of use.

My less-good ways of coping have filled me with junk. Other stresses. And even though I know this, going in — as I eat another donut, or another BLOCK O’ CHEESE — I often feel completely unable to stop myself. In New York especially, since Marc keeps a fridge just about as opposite mine as possible, and since he makes things for me like gravlax, my stress eating is less good for me than when I’m in Austin. After I inhale a pound of cheese, let’s say, I feel very crappy (to say the least, and I’m trying to say the least, here).

Another way I’ve been dealing with this stress has been a constant consuming of social media. I am on Facebook non-stop, and while I am reading and responding to posts that present the same political position I share, and that help me feel less alone, it also keeps me stirred up. But it’s become a compulsion, an impossible-to-resist response to stress.

It’s also true that when I’m here in Austin, I sit alone in my house day in and day out. I will have a little social activity here or there, but I sit in silence all day and night, and without anyone else to interact with at all. And I like that! It’s not that I don’t like that. I really do, especially in the days after I’ve been in New York and feel overwhelmed by people and noise and non-stop interruptions. The silence and solitude are wonderful! AND again and again I’ll think about something, or read something, or see something, and turn to share it with…… ah, no one. There’s no one here. No one to say, “Hey, listen to this!” to. And so that’s another reason I hop onto Facebook. Wow, look at this. Hey, you won’t believe this! Ah, read this beautiful thing. Look. Listen. Read. Wow.

I’ve missed my blog. My absence from it has been due to a lot of reasons; I’m doing other writing, long-form writing, and trying to spend my time in that manuscript, and otherwise I’ve been kind of blanked-out with stress and fear. It occurred to me that I could help myself with two of these things in one fell swoop: Instead of machine gunning Facebook, I can collect the things I want to share with someone and put them in a post here. That will have the benefit of making them easier for me to find again, too. Aside from political stuff (which I will not share here because I just really need to avoid it all completely for my own sanity), the stuff I share will fall into the ordinary categories of things I share on Facebook: book recommendations, interesting articles, poetry, images, family stuff.

And so, here goes:

  • Do you know Hélène Cixous? I hadn’t heard of her until I read a quote about her by Lidia Yuknavitch, so I looked her up and now I must MUST read her. This quote seems especially relevant in the United States as we are teetering on the brink of living under a Christian Taliban: “But I am just a woman who thinks her duty is not to forget. And this duty, which I believe I must fulfill, is: “as a woman” living now I must repeat again and again “I am a woman,” because we exist in an epoch still so ancient and ignorant and slow that there is still always the danger of gynocide.” ― Hélène Cixous, The Book of Promethea
lidia
read Lidia.
  • The quote from Lidia Yuknavitch that sent me to Hélène Cixous was from The Chronology of Water, which I highly recommend: “With Hélène Cixous you must close your eyes and open your mouth. Wider. So open your throat opens. Your esophagus. Your lungs. Wider. So open your spine unclatters. Your hips swim loose. Your womb worlds itself. Wider. Open the well of your sex. Now speak your body from your other mouth. Yell corporeal prayer. This is writing.” WOW.
  • Have you ever read May Sarton? I’ve always wanted to and somehow never have, yet, but yesterday Sherlock sent Peggy and me this BrainPickings post about May Sarton and the use of anger in creativity. That’s a thing you hear, right? “Turn your anger towards your work.” Transform that energy into creation. I need to carefully read that piece and think about it, because I hope it has something for me. I am swamped by the experience of anger, overwhelmed by it, and often paralyzed by it. So when I feel it, I become scared that I’ll explode, that I’ll express it awfully, and often I do, and it’s just tough, and especially tough for women. I once asked members of my book club to write about a time they were angry (we were tentatively trying these writing sessions), and one member became absolutely enraged at my suggestion, saying she doesn’t get angry because it’s not useful. The time didn’t seem right to point out just how angry she was. 🙂 But I am in desperate need of learning how to manage anger! It’s my oldest lesson I have yet to learn, so I’m hoping the BrainPickings post and then reading some Sarton will help. Any words you might have on either Sarton or anger will be appreciated.
  • The idea of living in Australia or New Zealand has become kind of irresistible; a thread developed on a Facebook post by a friend who originally shared this video:

[embedplusvideo height=”450″ width=”640″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/2f42PPI” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/9v97xH6Bof0?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=9v97xH6Bof0&width=640&height=450&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=0&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep7574″ /]

[First…I mean, RIGHT????] One friend responded to the video by asking me what it’s like to live here right now, and in the ensuing conversation, I got invitations to move to all the major cities of Australia, with explanations of their great aspects, and a bunch of bids for life in NZ, which is not just gorgeous but is also lacking in snakes. 🙂 They were just so adorable, every last one, and every time I woke up during the night, mid-Trump-panic, reading that thread made me grin so hard.

  • Today’s poem: Carpe Diem, by Jim Harrison:

Night and day
seize the day, also the night —
a handful of water to grasp.
The moon shines off the mountain
snow where grizzlies look for a place
for the winter’s sleep and birth.
I just ate the year’s last tomato
in the year’s fatal whirl.
This is mid-October, apple time.
I picked them for years.
One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
It was the birth of love that year.
Sometimes we live without noticing it.
Overtrying makes it harder.
I fell down through the tree grabbing
branches to slow the fall, got the afternoon off.
We drove her aqua Ford convertible into the country
with a sack of red apples. It was a perfect
day with her sun-brown legs and we threw ourselves
into the future together seizing the day.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking
out the windows at birds, making dinner,
a life to live day after day, a life of
dogs and children and the far wide country
out by rivers, rumpled by mountains.
So far the days keep coming.
Seize the day gently as if you loved her.

Happy Saturday, y’all! It’s going to be a great one for me — birthday lunch with a friend, and the lit crawl tonight with poetry group friends. Also: It’s my BIRTHDAY EVE YO! xoxoxoxo

TODAY"S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. :)
TODAY”S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. 🙂

TRUTH

“Leslie Marmon Silko whispers the story is long. No, longer. Longer than that even. Longer than anything. With Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath drink at the bar. Laugh the dark laughter in the dark light. Sing a dark drunken song of men. Make a slurry toast. Rock back and forth, and drink the dark, and bask in the wallow of women knowing what women know. Just for a night. When you need to feel the ground of your life and the heart of the world, there will be a bonfire at the edge of a canyon under a night sky where Joy Harjo will sing your bonesong. Go ahead—with Anne Carson—rebuild the wreckage of a life a word at a time, ignoring grammar and the forms that keep culture humming. Make word war and have it out and settle it, scattering old meanings like hacked to pieces paper doll confetti. The lines that are left … they are awake and growling. With Virginia Woolf there will perhaps be a long walk in a garden or along a shore, perhaps a walk that will last all day. She will put her arm in yours and gaze out. At your backs will be history. In front of you, just the ordinary day, which is of course your entire life. Like language. The small backs of words. Stretching out horizonless. I am in a midnight blue room. A writing room. With a blood red desk. A room with rituals and sanctuaries. I made it for myself. It took me years. I reach down below my desk and pull up a bottle of scotch. Balvenie. 30 year. I pour myself an amber shot. I drink. Warm lips, throat. I close my eyes. I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way. I am not alone. Whatever else there was or is, writing is with me.” —Lidia Yuknavitch

words

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.

4. Pay Attention to the World

coverThis is topic #4 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honest relationships, #2 was about experiencing what is actually happening, #3 was about being patient and loving the questions, and this one is about paying attention to the world, taking a close read of Susan Sontag’s lecture titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” which was collected in an anthology called At the Same TimeIf you want to read the chapter, I found it online, so click here for the pdf.

Of course if anyone is going to advise you to pay attention to the world and carry any authority on the topic, it would be Susan Sontag. Whether you agreed with everything she said or not, few would argue that she brought her quite fierce intelligence to the world and changed the way so many people thought about the topics she discussed. Camp. Photography. Illness. She shaped so much of the discourse about those subjects.

So, to begin, here is the relevant excerpt from the Brain Pickings post:


Reflecting on a question she is frequently asked — to distill her essential advice on writing — Sontag offers:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

But these tenets of storytelling, Sontag argues, aren’t just writerly virtues — they are a framework for human virtues:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.


These ideas are offered to writers, but importantly they are extended outward to everyone — a framework for human virtues. The chapter presents a speech Sontag gave in one of her last public appearances, a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004. Gordimer, whose work dealt with moral and racial issues, especially apartheid, said:

Bannings and banishments are terrible known hazards a writer must face, and many have faced, if the writer belongs where freedom of expression, among other freedoms, is withheld, but sometimes creativity is frozen rather than destroyed. A Thomas Mann survives exile to write a Dr Faustus; a Pasternak smuggles Dr Zhivago out of a ten-year silence; a Solzhenitsyn emerges with his terrible world intact in the map of The Gulag Archipelago

The greater context, then, of Sontag’s comments exists squarely in the concerns of writers and alongside Gordimer’s — but her thoughts do have relevance for those of us whose days and quotidian concerns are smaller than Presenting the Political Reality of X. When I first saw the ‘resolution’ “pay attention to the world” I thought the point was to be aware of people and worlds beyond our own. But that’s the easy bit, whether and how well we do that. The harder part, and the element that I’d like to adopt as one of the ‘resolutions’ from this project, involves Sontag’s comments about deciding what the story IS. This is important.

You do this in your own life, and so do I. I take an extremely complicated and complex world and say “this is what happened.” Or “this is the part that matters.” Or “you/I are this.” Or “you/I did that.” We make those pronouncements with such great ease we don’t even think about what we’ve done — or rather, I do that. I don’t know about you. I’m a pronouncement-maker. A decider. A summarizer. This is. That was. You are. We are. They aren’t. I am. I’ve actually thought and written about this a lot, with a variety of shadings, but I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about the moral implications of the pronouncements. She’s right. As soon as we isolate a story, it collects weight as a thing. As a true thing, or at least as a mostly true thing. I wrote this at the end of 2012, and I think it’s relevant here:

So basically, the deal is this: the landscape in front of you, and all around you, is full of more stories and information than you can absorb. Hell, we humans can’t even see beyond the light spectrum we have identified. Our rods and cones do a fantastic job, but they only pick up a little bit of the available information. And then when you add all the human bits, the motivations (what is, and what we think is, and what the other people think is), the drives and longings and urges and agendas, well: infinitely complex. And it’s all right there, happening. We want to make sense of it, so we rely on our feeble little minds, and our pet little stories,* and we say “this is what IS.” But the truth is that there are so very many ways we could see and say what IS, versions that completely contradict the story we choose to tell, versions that go with ours but obliquely, and versions that are kind of similar. And then there’s chunking — where we decide to start the story. I start the story where Person X wronged me, so my behavior is merely a response to that. But of course Person X starts the same story at the point where I wronged him or her. Same set of events, wildly different story (cf  Israel and Palestine).

Cambodia: 1175 column inches. Timor: 70 column inches. Oh? You don't know about what we did in East Timor? THERE YOU GO.
Cambodia: 1175 NYT column inches.
Timor: 70 NYT column inches.
Oh? You don’t know about what we did in East Timor? THERE YOU GO.

The media has a moral obligation to take this much more seriously — it looks like they are reporting on what’s happening, but of course they’re telling us what to pay attention to. By making a huge thing out of a topic they’re telling us it’s a Big Deal (and so….the Kardashians?), but more disturbing, by not paying attention to a topic they remove it from our understanding of the world, unless we are diligent about digging for ourselves. We have to know about the existence of something to learn that we need to go investigate it, so their power is potent. Noam Chomsky’s famous example of the NYTimes coverage of the Khmer Rouge vs their coverage of the US-funded and supported atrocities in East Timor — both horrors happening at the same time — makes this point exactly.

Even for “regular” people, I don’t think Sontag would be satisfied with a passive endorsement of her position — well, just remember this — but instead I think she would deem it to be an active moral stance. Be vigilant! Pay attention to the world and embrace your moral responsibility by thinking carefully about how you identify the story being played out! That makes me a little bit tired, and a little bit grateful that I don’t hold a position on any global stage — or even national, or even state-wide, or even county-wide, or even city-wide, or even neighborhood — but I think there is something I can take away for myself:

Don’t be lazy. Don’t mindlessly accept the world as it is storied for me, and when I tell a story of any kind, never forget what a big thing I am doing. I am being a Creator, speaking a whole world into being and endowing it with truth and reality.

In this project, I’m also interested in thinking about how the various ‘resolutions’ go together, if only because 16 is a lot to hang onto. I can actually see a melding of this with the first three, can you? Be honest about yourself and what’s happening, and don’t rush to an answer. The story you will tell can be world-changing or defining. So far, all four of these topics dwell in the importance of complexity — acknowledging it, experiencing it, being patient with it, resisting a quick and simple version, and incorporating the complexity in the telling.

So to date, my understanding of the four ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about is:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships.
  2. Experience what is actually happening.
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions.
  4. The stories you choose to tell have great moral weight.

I’m very interested in your thoughts on these topics, if you have any to share. Maybe you see the topic very differently — or you entered it at a different place, or left it somewhere else. My own biases direct me in a predetermined way, but I very much want to think about these things so I’d love to hear your thoughts if you wish to share.

And now I’m off to topic #5, “make room for fruitful monotony,” which will take me to Bertrand Russell’s chapter called “Boredom and Excitement” in The Conquest of HappinessI doubt I’ll be too bored. I’m wondering if this topic will sit easily with the first four, or if it’ll veer off into its own topic.

p.s. If you’re interested, here’s a talk Sontag gave at the 92nd St Y:

so open

Am I an open book? Not really....
Am I an open book? Not really….

This is something I hear so often, and it always surprises me: “You are so open!” And then, “How do you do it,” or “I can’t do that,” or “I admire that.” I suppose the people who don’t admire it — and they surely exist — just don’t say that to me, or I’m not the kind of person they like or feel comfortable with, so they don’t choose me as a friend. It isn’t that I don’t know what they’re talking about, but I don’t ever quite get why it reads as being especially open. That, I don’t really understand.

Obviously, I select what I reveal! Just like you, I have so many different parts of me, and thoughts, and experiences, and wonderings that remain private for all possible reasons. There are things I’ll never go anywhere near talking about with strangers, some that I’ll never talk about with friends, some with family, and some with my husband. I have those rings of privacy just like everyone else. So the things I talk about are things that don’t feel like I’m taking a risk to reveal or discuss or think about publicly.

Maybe people say this because I talk openly about mental health stuff, like my periodic bouts of terrible depression and occasionally even worse depression, how I experience anxiety, how I struggle to deal with those things. I do know that our culture, despite seeming to be open to those concerns, isn’t really. There are circumstances in which it’s in your worst interest to reveal these things, like work, or places you hold responsibility for something. I know I’ve said this before, but when I was a graduate student in psychology and struggling with an eventually suicidal level of depression, I was cautioned by a faculty member not to reveal my depression to anyone. In psychology. We say we’re open to that, we exhort people to speak about it, but it’s still not OK in a very real way. But again, it doesn’t feel like a risk I’m taking to talk about it, so it doesn’t feel like I’m being particularly open.

Maybe people say this because I’ll talk about struggles I have, or all those (great many) moments where life takes a nosedive, like it does for everyone. I know that I am especially invested in not working to present a glossy image, but only because I don’t want to be trapped by that. Well, also because I do care a lot about being authentic, and I work at that. (Doesn’t that sound weird, to “work at” being authentic? Shouldn’t that be the easiest thing? But boy, it really isn’t.)

And in fact, the last point circles back to the beginning. One thing I hate about social presentation is that invites comparisons to self, and usually it’s a downward comparison. “Her life is so together, even her cloth napkins are always ironed.” [no they aren’t.] “She’s got everything, she’s always going to such exotic places.” [no, that’s not all she does, there are lonely and terrible and scary and desperate times and a lot she doesn’t have.] “Her kids are never a screaming bloody mess like mine.” [yes they are, I guarantee, and if they’re not, they’re on the road to becoming serial killers. 😉 ] My life contains everything, good and bad, joyous and tragic, exciting and boring, hopeful and devastating, and all points in between. Just. Like. Yours.

So if you ever think I’m an open book and you think that in a why am I not like that framework, please don’t. Just like you, I’m open about what I feel comfortable being open about. Our categories might differ, but I’m exactly like you. I pick and choose and hold a universe of stuff close to my chest and reveal it to some and hide it from others, just like you do. There are some things I’d like to be more open about but it’s still too difficult or scary, and some I know I will just never talk about. But if the things I’m open about mean something to you, then I am so very glad. My biggest aim in writing this blog is for people to feel less alone. Reading others does that for me, and it’s my favorite thing.

xoxoxox

that friend

Of the myriad ways I’m the luckiest person in the world, one is that my friends believe in me. They (you) encourage me. I had one who didn’t, who preferred and delighted in my troubles and failures, and she’s not my friend any more. (Was she ever? If you have one like that, let her go. Just do it. Life is too short and difficult already.)

My darling Dixie
My darling Dixie

I could name each one of you and say the specific ways I feel your belief in me, list examples of things you’ve said — either in person, or in emails, or in instant messages that come out of the blue and for no apparent reason. This would be a l-o-n-g post if I did that, and I have an idea perking in the back of my mind to acknowledge your importance to me, but it has to wait until after the holidays. Perhaps the most extreme of you is my darling Dixie, who just believes in me 1000%, thinks I hung the moon and whatever I do is nearly perfect (sometimes perfect), and I swear that if I killed someone and were caught standing over them with the bloody knife in my hand, Dixie would defend me and stay by my side to the end. So she is in her own category in the whole world, because this is how she is with everyone she loves — and she means it, very individually.

writingSo many of you have quietly and insistently encouraged my writing, and I love you for it. It’s funny; my friends are encouraging and supportive and my kids have never ever been that way with me — so I appreciate you even more! You are my team. You’ve stuck with me on the ups and downs: I’m writing! I’m giving up! No, instead I’m going to do this kind of writing! Maybe not. Maybe so. I am! I can’t. Who would care. I have one thing most writers don’t have: an understanding of the realities of the publishing world. Not having that would be helpful! My clients all finish their books in the belief that their books are going to be bestsellers. Surely that helps them keep going and get it done. My friend Traci knows very well the realities of the publishing world and writes one beautiful book after another, which she publishes through her own press and practically works a second full-time job promoting her books. (And her husband’s work. And she has a school-age daughter. And she writes book after book. She is clearly in her own category.)

But I have this one friend, Nancy, who is in a different category in terms of encouragement. I don’t have any idea, maybe this is what it’s like if you have a mother who thinks you are OK, and who encourages you and believes in you with great vigor. Nancy is my friend, not a mother figure, but there’s something about the way she believes in me and encourages me that makes me think about what it would be like to have had that from the start. Just as Dixie replaced the cruel voice in my head (my mother’s) with hers (you are so darling, you precious thing), I think Nancy has replaced the mean discouragement in my heart (my mother’s) with hers (you don’t have time for that, you need to be writing. Are you writing? I believe that it’s very possible that your writing will be of significant value. I just had an idea, have you ever read your work before an audience?). She’ll just write me out of the blue and in her direct, Kansas way say these things to me — apropos of nothing, which tells me she had been thinking about it herself. When we have our regular coffee breaks, she’s likely to bring it up. My book club friends made me a VERY special gift as I was coming out of my suicidal place, a jar filled with notes from each of them telling me what I add to their lives, how they see me, etc. Nancy’s contribution was a nametag, the kind you get at a conference, and it had my name and WRITER. See what I mean? It’s insistent and said as if it were simply the truth.

So this post is much less about writing and encouragement, and much more about what it is to receive that, on whatever topic or maybe no topic at all, maybe just about who you are. I know this is a theme of mine, but it’s because I mean it, and know it so solidly: If you live long enough, everything is possible. The thing you simply could not understand (how to spend time alone, how not to care what others think of you) becomes simple and true in your heart, and in fact an important thing! The struggle you’ve found impossible to overcome, like getting rid of the cruel voice in your head, dissolves and disappears. The fear you always had goes away. The bad thing you clutched to your heart, your ‘grim belief’ as my friend Marg calls it, falls away. It’s so good that life is long, if you’re lucky and open to it.

It would be such a different world if everyone had one person who believed in them like this. If you have a friend you believe in in some regard, express it a little more often. Encourage her in the various ways you can think of. You have NO idea how transformative it might be. And if you change one person, you might change the world.

Thank you for the ways you encourage me and support me in all the ways you do. I’m keenly aware of each instance, each moment, each effort, and it all keeps me going. I hope with all my heart that if we know each other, I do some of that for you. xo

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.

notebooks

Today’s word for the August Break project is notebook, and all I can think of is moleskine, of which I have dozens. Here’s one little stack of them in one spot on one shelf:

notebook1

Not all are moleskines, obviously, but most of them are. Few are completely filled, and most have such a random mish-mash of notes I have no idea what’s what. Here are — I swear, not changing, adding to, or removing anything — the notes on one randomly selected page of the top notebook:

  • see p.3 of last presentation, NEJM –> ΨWIKI
  • Wiki like NYT — RSS is whole, by subdisc., A–>B–>C
  • Joan: We want to be the Library of Alexandria.
  • NEJM & JAMA on iTunes free weekly podcast, Ψ too!
  • “I just want to go home and watch Battlestar Galactica but I’ve got to go out and pick up guys!”
  • *ask Mallory*
  • 2.5c milk, 1.5c sugar, butter, eggs, yeast, 6c flour, pecans, oranges (3)
  • DOTTIE TALKS TOO MUCH
  • There’s the pleasure of the book and then there’s INFORMATION ACCESS

WHAT??  What was I supposed to ask Mallory? No indication! Who was Dottie, I don’t even remember ever knowing someone named Dottie. I think that Battlestar Galactica quote was something I overheard a girl say on the train from NYC to DC. Each notebook has lots of pages full of things like that.

And then, of course, there are pages and pages of dreams I recorded. Pages and pages of heart-pouring-out that are actually quite wrenching to read. Pages of awkward sketches of something I wanted to remember (pre-iPhone days). Long passages of material I wanted to remember, like poems or pieces from a novel. And some notes I want to burn because I have absolutely no idea what they’re about, but they sound incriminating, like this:

shock the rat –> it can chew wood, attack another rat, no ulcer. If warning, no ulcer. No warning of coming or ending, Ulcer. No outlet, ulcer.

Since I’m a psychologist, I imagine that must be a summary of a research finding on stress and controllability, but it has zero context in my notebook, and the pages before and after it are crazy random.

That one with the large label “AUGUST 2008” is so painful it’s hard to read it. It contains detailed notes I took when Marc was in the hospital for 8 days after emergency surgery, recording everything the nurses and doctors said, every reading and measurement, every time I requested something — time and exact request, etc. And then on September 30, 2008, just a month later, I have extremely detailed notes of my own time in the hospital, when I checked myself in because I was desperate to die. Detailed notes, in a tiny, cramped hand. Notes on my experiences, notes about the other patients, notes about the things they said to me, detailed notes. Notes taken from things I read — quotes from Faulkner, like this: “Ideas and facts have very little connection with truth.” One note that says, “Frida is fully mad. Escaped once running down the hall with shining eyes full of light. Constantly guarding, constantly hollers.” I can’t adequately describe how it feels to read those notes.

Who knows what else is buried in just that one stack of notebooks? I certainly don’t, and maybe I don’t want to look. Or maybe I do, as a writer looking for material. I don’t know. The funny thing is that in all my moves, of all the stuff I’ve abandoned, sold, given away, tossed, for some reason I have kept and moved (and moved and moved and moved) these little books. What is this impulse to write notes in notebooks — beyond the pleasure of the moleskine itself, of course, which is pretty great. Now I also have a notepad app on my phone that is filled with dozens of notes, each one filled with random collections of brief notes that make zero sense.

In my purse, I carry a large moleskine in a beautiful leather cover and a silver pen from Tiffany given to me by one of my authors with my name engraved on it. I write in it the same way — long bursts of prose, snippets of notes about things I’ve seen, reminders. It’s an awfully fancy notebook for such ordinary contents.

Now, though, my favorite notebook of all is a moleskine Marnie sent me to draw in.

notebook2

THAT notebook just makes me happy. It’s the messiest of all my notebooks, and I aim to make it even messier. Maybe my life is going in the same progression as the arts, which move from extreme order (think Bach) onward to chaos. Formal realism in painting, to abstraction. I like becoming more chaotic, more abstract, though I still have a LONG LONG way to go. But that’s OK. I plan to live long enough to fill dozens and dozens more notebooks.

the deal about essays

personalTurns out I have essentially been writing essays for years. There are formal essays, and then another style called personal or informal, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. In his introduction to this anthology, Phillip Lopate writes:

“Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If ‘we must remove the mask,’ it is only to substitute another mask. The hope is that in the end, when an essayist’s lifework has been accumulated, all these personae will add up to a genuine unmasking.”

The personal essayist interrogates herself, and develops her own unique voice. She may explore the littleness of life, and she may take on issues that loom large, but always she investigates them through her own lens. The big quote, above, led me to write in the margin: I have written blog posts on this exact topic!

Of course an essay is more complete, and expanded, and frequently wanders and rambles (so he says). My challenge, then, is to take what I’ve been doing and blow it up, spread it out. My task is to become comfortable with the precise way my mind works because that’s the voice of the essayist. And when I think about essays I love, it is always about the way his or her mind works, the places it twists, the turns it takes that I wouldn’t have thought to take, the reflections on itself, the phrasing. It may even be less about the specific content than it is about those twists and reflections.

David Sedaris writes essays, and he certainly has a unique mind and voice — and that’s why you read him! He reveals, he’s personal, but you don’t read to learn personal details about him, they’re not quite incidental but they’re not the point. They are material for his mind and voice to explore. Anne Lamott is an essayist. There are Charles D’Ambrosio, of course, Oliver Sacks, and Leslie Jamison, whose essay collection, The Empathy Exams, was a best-seller in April of last year; the writers on The Rumpus are essayists; and columns in newspapers, like the “Modern Love” column in the NYTimes, essays, all.

So I am practicing expanding, and I’m working with figuring out how to get my own mind on paper (the censor is loud). Yesterday I spent three hours at a coffee shop, just writing my own stuff. It was such a pleasure, the most fun writing I’ve ever done. I finished a very rough draft, esssentially just getting some of the bones down. My next draft will need me to dig deeper and be more there as the writer, instead of being there as the subject. That’s the necessary distance of the personal essayist.

I may need to do three or four drafts of my first essay, but when I’m satisfied enough with it, I’ll post it here. It just occurs to me that this feels exactly like the post I wrote about loving yoga all along but never doing it because I ‘should’ be doing other kinds of exercise. I’ve been writing like this for more than ten years, maybe fifteen. But I’ve pushed myself to do other forms — not because anyone said I ‘should’ but because I dismissed this form and thought all the value was in the longer form of a novel. Of course I adore novels and memoirs, but I also adore essays. It’s funny how you can know something all along and it still takes you a long time to know it.

It’s a spectacularly gorgeous day here today, full-on sun and 70 degrees. If it’s not like this where you are, I’ll enjoy this for you. xx

topic #1

I have settled on a topic for the first essay I’ll write, and I’m doing some reading in preparation for it (and I’d like your help). I’m fascinated by the experience of seeing things that aren’t there, a perfectly ordinary thing that happens to everyone even if it’s just a small moment of thinking you saw the cat, or something. It’s a much broader topic than just visual hallucinations, of course; you can hear things that aren’t there, you can smell things that aren’t there, your skin can feel things for no visible reason. I wonder if you can suddenly taste something in a hallucination way? For my first essay, I will focus only on seeing things.

If the topic is interesting to you too, you might read Oliver Sacks’s HallucinationsIt’s a little dicey for me, reading it, because he’s a great writer and says many of the things I’d planned to say. The book is organized around the neurological reasons people see things that aren’t there:

TOC
TOC

Gosh he’s such a good writer. I may have to put his book aside and just do some reading in primary sources in order not to be so intimidated that I don’t even start. Mine will be a personal essay.

But as I’m putting together my ideas about it, I’d really love to hear any experiences you may have had with seeing things that weren’t ‘really’ there, whether it was ordinary or extraordinary. If you’re too shy or it’s too private to leave in a public comment here, you can email me (click this link) within the next week, and let me know if you would be OK with me including it in my essay — and the degree of privacy you’d like about it. I probably would not be including your name, but you may want a specific detail changed, for instance. I did a quick scan through Sacks’s book and didn’t find anything like my own experiences, so that made me feel a little better.

Right now I’m not imposing a word count or a deadline, but I will do that to be sure I get something written. Truly, I would love to hear any experiences you may have had yourself, or that someone very close to you had.

direction

I’ve been so quiet on this blog for such a long time — since late June, really. I’ve felt like I don’t have anything to say that I haven’t already said a dozen times. I’ve become tired of talking about my Big Stories and don’t need to talk about them, except as a bit of parsley on the plate . . . but only if a plate needs that. The themes I circle through again and again — the importance of complexity and the role of the word and in being truthful, the process and shape of change, gratitude for the very small things — I have nothing new to say about them, except to say them again with daily minor differences.

But I need to write regularly. I need to do that. I write to make sense of things, to find their form and structure, to figure out what I think and sometimes what I feel. And there are big questions that seem to be my big questions to think about through life:

  • Complexity, the way truth can’t really be nailed down, and the impossibility of categories to capture anything real or recognizable. I’ve found my kindred spirit in Charles D’Ambrosio, and am avidly reading his essays in Loitering: New and Collected Essays.
  • The selves/passions/mysteries that we contain without knowing it. And we may never know they exist.
  • The way a moment can explode and careen and take on its own life and you have no idea how it happened or how to stop it, and then everything is different.
  • What is it exactly about a suicide in the immediate family that has the kind of impact it has? What is that? I cannot figure it out.

I’m studying how to write personal essays, reading craft books (like To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction) and collections of essays, studying the form and thinking about topics. The thing I love about the personal essay — and my favorites always include the writer in some way — is that they go far beyond diary writing, bloggy entries, out into something larger, even as they anchor themselves in some way to the writer.

Writing fiction has always been utterly mysterious to me; for all these years, my imagined form was the memoir, where the plot and characters were already provided. When I found myself weary of my own story, the memoir project felt like something I just had no interest in. And yet there are things of it that interest me, stories of it that can be expanded out into greater depth. A very dear friend told me yesterday that she thinks I am unafraid of telling the truth, and she’s right — I just need to find my way to the deeper truth of things rather than the “then this happened oh yes it did” truth of them.

I’m not yet sure what this means for my blog. I’m sure I’ll still use it as a diary kind of thing, to share things like books and movies and food, to share happy and hard experiences. How (or if) I will use this space as I start trying to learn how to write long essays, I’m not yet sure.

me and Kleenex and hot tea, in the wee hours of 3am
me and Kleenex and hot tea, in the wee black and white hours of 3am

The holidays seem strange to me, just as I expected they would. Being in steamy hot SEAsia until December 7, and then getting a bad cold when I got home, makes it hard to connect to Christmas trees and presents and O Holy Night. I’m having a Christmas party at my house next Tuesday, maybe 20 people, so (a) my cold needs to get itself over and done with asap, and (b) I hope that gets me quickly into the spirit of things.

Today is Friday? Is that right? I don’t mind the disorientation when I come home from a trip, but having that with a cold is really not fun at all. But it is a particular kind of head that is conducive to quiet thinking and writing by hand, and I seem to get somewhere different when I do that than when I bang around on my keyboard. My goal is to get well, enjoy the holidays, love my people, celebrate, and think closely about what I want to make happen next year. This year has been so incredible, I’ll be starting 2015 in a way I could never have dreamed, at the beginning of 2014. I want to not just hope good things happen, but instead I want to plan for them and do them. I hope that’s not the NyQuil talking. 😉

nourishment

I do not have a green thumb. I over-water, under-water, forget. But even with my black thumb, even I wouldn’t pour Coke on my plant on watering days and expect it to grow. Even I wouldn’t place chips and a Snickers bar on the soil and think I’d fed it. That’s nutty.

But of course I do that metaphorical thing to myself, in so many ways. I am now good about nourishing my body (all the fruits and veg!), but don’t think regularly about the other things that go into me. Marnie and I had hours of conversation a couple of evenings ago and we talked about self-care and doing our work. And of course I’ve been thinking hard the past few days about living my life on purpose, instead of flitting through it. I’ve been trying to uni-task (mono-task?) and just do the thing I’m doing. It’s GREAT. I couldn’t have done this during my busy years with young kids and teenagers and going to college and graduate school, obviously. Multitasking was our family M.O. back then. But that was then, and this is now, and I have the luxury of focus.

Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you'll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled "The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson"
Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you’ll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson”

And so yesterday I turned off the music, sat in the chair in my bedroom — a place I don’t usually sit — with Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Marnie read a passage to me that left us both in deepest-heart tears, the heavy ones, the ones that come from seeing yourself in a work of art, of having yourself given back to you in a way that makes you feel like you’ve come home, finally. (Here is the NYTimes review of the book.) The people who have mentioned it to me, always with urgency, are the kind of people who think about big things. I sat with the book (the actual book, not a Kindle book) and my moleskine and my favorite pen and read. I read slowly, savored, stopped to reflect. I made notes, wrote out passages that meant something to me, wrote tiny annotations of thought. I read that book, and don’t want to stop until I finish, but I also don’t want to just frantically consume it — and I have other things to do. I read 50 glorious pages.

Reading such amazing writing made me think about nourishing myself and my own writing. I am not Anne Carson, cannot write like her because I am not her and don’t have her voice, but I want to do in my own way the kind of thing she has done. I want to find the way my book needs to be written, and I need to push and break and find a new way. And to do that I will need nourishment, I will need to read exceptional writing. I’ll want to spend my time feeding myself the kinds of things that fill that well. Besides reading Carson, tonight or tomorrow night I’m going to watch Ida, a beautiful complex movie. As David Denby said in his review of it in The New Yorker, the movie “again and again asks the question, What do you do with the past once you’ve re-discovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.” Those are questions that interest me, they’re questions that are relevant to me, and here Pawel Pawlikowski has been thinking hard about them too and produced a beautiful and thoughtful piece of work. More on the movie later.

Of course I’ll need to laugh and break into crazy dancing when Donna Summer comes on my playlist. And when I’m dancing, I’ll need to just be dancing. I’ll need to see my beloved people and be with them. But I can’t go where I want to go if I feed myself chips and Coke and a Snickers bar—Facebook feeds and news I don’t give a crap about and blank TV-watching. What words, ideas, thoughts do I want to fill my head with, especially as I grapple with my own writing? Not those, they’re not going to get me where I’m headed. Figuring things out, yo.

coffee spoons

When I was a young mother, staying at home with babies, one day I felt a kind of despair that my life was spent doing an endless series of tasks that were quickly undone. Making beds, washing dishes and doing laundry, cleaning bathrooms, wiping bottoms, shopping for food, mopping floors, mowing the yard, taking out the trash. Things done only to be quickly undone. Was this to be my life? And then one sunny morning while I was making a bed I realized that in fact those tasks were just the details of a bigger thing: I was making a home for myself and people I love. I was creating a time and space. Everything shifted, though of course sometimes I still despaired at the dishes or bathrooms.

brokenAnd so here I am all these years later thinking about the rest of my life, the years ahead. Going to the writers’ conference — even just the one day I attended — has made me feel like giving up on writing a book. It’s the impossibility of it, and that’s something I already knew. I see some of my clients (the ones who are such gorgeous writers, as “good” as any best-selling writer you’d ever love) struggle, getting nowhere with agents and editors at publishing houses, self-publishing and having to fight a hard fight every single day to get anywhere, and I just think oh for fuck’s sake. Hitting the jackpot and selling your manuscript for a big advance is still a roll of the dice. A woman I met at the conference had this happen to her, and just as the book was ready to launch, the publishing house was bought by another publisher (happens all the time) and everyone on her team was laid off. So her book was the bastard at the family reunion, and it disappeared into oblivion. When the book didn’t sell many copies — because how could it — she was seen as a writer whose books don’t sell. And she is a gorgeous writer, someone whose books I would pre-order every time.

The narcissist who led my workshop had every possible advantage. Educational advantages, sure, and family/wealth advantages sure, but it was the publishing advantages that left all of us kind of numb. Her mother is one of the biggest agents in NYC; she apparently discovered Didion, among a list of others that would make your jaw drop. So her mother sold the book for her after a big battle, and even with that built-in advantage the book nearly failed again and again. A woman in my workshop asked, with a bit of a shaky voice, “And if even you, with every possible advantage, had that kind of trouble, what hope do any of us have?”

Indeed.

And so here I am. What do I do with the rest of my life? There are so many things I love doing and they all make me happy. Spending time with my family, making things, playing my instruments, writing (for myself and smaller pieces to try to publish), cooking and baking, spending time with friends, reading. There are so many things I want to focus on a little more pointedly, like yoga and meditation. There are so many things I want to learn. Mandarin, for instance. Bagpipes. To return to the beginning of this post, when I think about simply BEING, simply living my daily life and doing all these things, I can feel that feeling of despair, like I’m measuring out my life with coffee spoons. Will that be what’s left of my life? Just piddling with this and that? What is the bigger frame for these things?

well.......if it's your thing it is!  it just happens to be mine.
well…….if it’s your thing it is! it just happens to be mine.

Right now, in this moment, I live a literary life. I make my living by reading. My monthly poetry group meets in my house, and my monthly book club is a tremendous highlight. I’m organizing a small writing group. Must I write and try to publish my book to have mattered in this world? No, and obviously. How about a bit of that: must I write my book? Would it still mean something if I finish it and do nothing with it, if I just write it for myself and whoever wants to read it?

And so here I am again, thinking about meaning, and the next part of my life. There are three Joseph Campbell quotes I’ve always loved:

  • “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” (The Power of Myth)
  • “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”
  • “Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.” (Creative Mythology)

I believe that being here right now is it, being present in the moment, savoring that. I believe that the meaning of life is to live it, and for me that means creating things and being with people I love. For me that means seeing as much of the world as I possibly can. Helping my children the rest of my life, being a good part of their lives. I believe that my life is a burst of light, flaring up into existence and then fading in the memories of people who loved me. I do believe these things, even as I also feel a bit of despair. What is the bigger project I am engaged in now? I know a bunch of you who read this blog are grappling with this too, and if you’ve figured out an answer, or a bit of one, or even what the question is, I would love to hear any of it.

[if you’re now in the mood for Prufrock, here is the poem. always so good…]

it was horrible.

Well that was the worst. And how terribly sad, given how much I was looking forward to attending the Yale Writers’ Conference, as you know. It is a long conference, two sessions, and the second session (the one I attended) primarily comprises a daily 3-hour workshop, an individual conference with your workshop leader, and social time with others in the workshop.

Except my workshop leader was horrible. Truly. She was so bad I am not attending the rest of the conference. She was surely the most narcissistic person I’ve ever encountered; I came to think of the session as The P Show (when I really think it, I use her name). I just can’t convey how disappointed I am, though those of you who have been part of this with me surely do understand.

Today I am hanging out in CT at Peggy and Sherlock’s lovely home, having a day to myself in the peace of their beautiful house. I’ll walk into town and have breakfast. I’ll spend the day reading and writing, I’ll have dinner with Sherlock, and then Saturday I’ll drive back to New York and just be done with it. If we hang out in person anytime soon, you’ll have to put with me going a bit on and on like this: Jesus! God, I can’t believe it.  It was horrible. Jesus.

My chapter didn’t get workshopped yet, so it’s not about anything to do with my own work. It’s not that I got critical feedback I couldn’t handle — though I did get some very lovely and helpful feedback from two women who were as aghast as me. We went out for drinks after the session ended last night and spent a good long time saying different versions of Jesus! Can you believe it? That was horrible. Jesus.

Awful. I cannot wait to get home to Austin.

finally me

obviously not me, but oh how many times have I stood in front of such a poster...
obviously not me, but oh how many times have I stood in front of such a poster…

Ever since I started graduate school, I have attended conferences. In grad school, it was about presenting your work and making connections. Being seen. Becoming known, becoming familiar to faculty who might one day collaborate on research, faculty who might be on search committees for junior faculty. I always felt like a faker, plus I’m a shy kid. So I’d dutifully stand by my poster, avoid eye contact with people who might drift by looking for their friends, press copies of my results into obliging hands. It was a kind of show I was putting on, playing the part of scholar. Had I more courage, more insight, I would not have been doing social psychology. But there I was, me and my discriminant function analyses (or whatever), line graphs and < .05s.

I could stand here in my sleep -- and I kind of did, many times.
I could stand here in my sleep — and I kind of did, many times.

And then I was in publishing, attending social psychology conferences. My tribe(ish)! My people. But this time I knew everyone, and because I worked for a very prestigious academic press, people wanted to know me. I courted and wooed, and scholars courted and wooed me. Conferences were exhausting — especially for a shy kid like me. The first breakfast meeting at 6am, usually, a second breakfast meeting at 7am, then coffee meetings every half hour until lunch, then two or three lunch meetings back to back followed by coffee meetings every half hour until ~4:30ish, then drinks meetings every half hour until the first dinner meeting, then a dessert meeting, then a drinks meeting or two, and then usually a party. Then off to bed to begin again the next morning at 6am. Exhausting. It was about me, but it wasn’t at all about me. It was about signing books, getting other people to write books for me, talking about books, books they would write, books I was trying to win against other publishers, books books books. That they would write. I was the acquiring editor, the midwife, for the glory of the publisher. I had my signing goals, my first year sales goals, and it was stressful, even though it was at least with my people, my social psychologists. But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t about me. It was just my job, my income, my livelihood.

That crazy-eyed giddy insane look in the eyes of a bookish person. You know the one.
That crazy-eyed giddy insane look in the eyes of a bookish person. You know the one.**

And now here I am at Yale, at the writers’ workshop. Here I sit with other people who are desperate to tell their stories, whatever they are. Science fiction, non-fiction, humor, mixed genre, memoir. I am in the memoir/family writing group — and I’ve read the 4,000-word pieces submitted by all 12 people in my group. The writing ability varies, of course, but the stories are amazing. Wrenching in various ways, because easy happy lives/years don’t make for compelling books. I spent hours reading everyone’s pieces without knowing them, and then last night I sat across the table at dinner from three members of my workshop. And I knew that this beautifully charming, socially skilled woman had been dropped off at an orphanage because her father couldn’t deal, after her mother died. And I knew that the lively woman sitting across from me, who talked about Canadian politics, had tried to rescue her children when her Jordanian husband kidnapped them and took them to a tiny village in Jordan. The woman sitting next to me, talking about her 14-year-old daughter and the faculty meetings she attended? She grew up watching her desperately depressed city-loving mother grapple with being stranded in a forest when her husband, the writer’s father, took a job as a forest ranger. And I knew this about them, just as they knew about the pain and struggle in the chapter I’d submitted. There we sat, introverts doing our best to be social and lively, and we knew these things about each other and shared the various struggles of doing that kind of writing. The need to do that kind of writing. The need to transform our lives into art, even as we have no idea how to do that. Even as we have various levels of ability to do that . . . but the same level of need.

It was profoundly moving, sitting and talking with people engaged in the same kind of work. We are all writers, and here we are presenting our selves publicly as such, many of us for the first time. I didn’t grow up scribbling stories, I never wrote, never fancied myself a writer. I was a reader, and that was the world. So unlike all the other conferences I attended, where I hid behind a role — graduate student hoping to become a professor, acquiring editor hoping to score the next big book — here I am just myself. Lori, the writer of that chapter. The writer of a book.

**Before we met our groups for dinner, Peggy and I dropped by the Beinecke Library on the Yale campus, home of an extraordinary collection of rare books. I snapped that picture in front of the central core of rare books, and the glee on my face is a shadow of what I really felt. One of the largest buildings in the world devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, the Beinecke library has room in the central tower for 180,000 volumes and in the underground book stacks for over 600,000 volumes; it now contains about 500,000 volumes and several million manuscripts. It was amazing to be there, and especially to be there with my very dear sister Peggy. I wouldn’t have done this without her, no way no how, and so I will forever owe her a debt of gratitude for this experience. And life is so so long. Here I am, 55.5 years old, attending a selective workshop for writers at Yale University. Me. And I belong here, that’s the dizzying thing.

the day before

Thanks heavens for everything. That could be the sole content of my daily gratitude email response. Thank heavens for everything. Today what I mean by that, in addition to everything is:

  • Thank heavens for Sherlock, who saw a mention of the Yale Writers’ Conference and told Peggy about it.
  • Thank heavens Peggy suggested that we both apply.
  • Thank heavens for my plan, formulated at the beginning of this year, to take myself seriously as a writer.
  • Thank heavens for friends—including Katie, Traci, Peggy, Dee, Nancy, Bob—who read the options I was considering submitting as my application and gave me not only their best opinions, but also their deeply heartfelt encouragement and beautiful kind words that I pull out and polish again and again when I get scared.
  • Thank heavens for Nancy, who was working outside when I came home having just learned of my acceptance. I pulled sideways into the driveway and jumped out (thank heavens I put the car in gear!) and ran straight to her. Her sharing that moment with me is something I will remember all my days. And then Bob joined us, and something about the way he was totally unsurprised makes me laugh out loud.
  • Thank heavens for my loved ones who share my happiness and tell me again and again of their happiness for me.
  • Thank heavens for Peggy and Sherlock for their geez-its-obvious assumption that of course I would stay with them during the conference.
  • Thank heavens Peggy and I were both accepted, although we’d have been so happy for each other in any other circumstance (and consoled each other if we weren’t accepted).
  • Thank heavens Peggy attended the first session already so she knows what to expect, how it goes, and is helping me get over my nerves through her unusual overuse of exclamation points and all-cap words in her wonderful emails sent during the first session.

yaleschedAnd so today I head up their way. Session II starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday, and I imagine I will not have much time or spare mental/emotional energy to post here, although you never know! I might just post something full of WORDS and lots of exclamation points!!!!

Thank you for the way you have encouraged me too, in all the ways you do. Your off-line emails to me in response to posts, your out-of-the-blue “hey, I was just thinking of you” notes, your constant encouragement simply by reading this blog, not to mention your comments. Thank you, thank heavens for you.

If you sense the air quivering, if you feel the universe doing its thing, if something suddenly seems all vibratey and frizzy, that’s just me.  xo

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

more on writing and therapy

I actually had glasses exactly like these! Wore them all the time, loved them. Wish I could have another pair.....
I actually had glasses exactly like these! Wore them all the time, loved them. Wish I could have another pair…..

Yesterday a good friend mentioned a technique she’d heard about involving rewriting your personal history with rose-colored glasses. As I went to reply to her Facebook comment, my mind started whizzing so many thoughts about it I became paralyzed and unable to leave a simple response. When she mentioned it, I realized I’d heard of it before, but my efforts to Google it didn’t pull up anything useful. I think it might be at least similar to the idea of writing a new ending — or maybe just exploring your history and reframing it. Instead of “I have suffered with depression for 10 years,” maybe “I have learned how to live with depression.”

If I assume the goal is to feel better right now, there might be two routes:

1) to reframe what happened in the past
2) to imagine a more positive present or future

Through my life, I’ve grappled with the first option. All along, even in the immediate aftermath, I wondered how different I might feel if I were able to tell a different story about what happened to me when I was growing up. I believed it would make me feel very different than I felt, and I desperately wanted to tell a different story. After years and years of work, I was finally able to see the other possible story I had to tell, which is one of brilliant survival, perseverance, creativity, wow look at that, what a great story. But in the midst of those years and years of work, I couldn’t even see other stories, even as I wanted to and even as I tried so hard I nearly blew out my mind and heart. And I wrote and wrote and wrote about it, too.

One problem, and I definitely know this from my graduate research, is that the more I wrote and talked about it the more concrete and solidified the story became, until I could essentially disconnect and think about anything else while the story came out of my mouth or fingers. I could make a mental grocery list while my mouth told the story; it became rote and fixed. And of course the fixedness of it kept me from getting somewhere else with it. We know that the more we tell our story differently (and our research focused on pronouns, emotion words, and the small words, articles, a an the) from one time to the next, the better our outcomes. And of course the degree and extent of trauma have to be considered in the mix too; if the worst thing that happened to you was the untimely death of your dog, your work will be qualitatively different than if you were held hostage and raped for years and were constantly afraid you would be killed, like those girls in Ohio held hostage by Ariel Castro. It just will be.

I do suspect that writing — with some help and guidance — might help you find a different story inside the one you tell. I don’t know that for sure, because we never tested it (at least when I was still in graduate school and involved in that research). Perhaps there’s something about a person who does that automatically that helps them get somewhere faster, and ‘forcing’ someone to do that, who wouldn’t otherwise do it, is a failed enterprise. It’s an interesting question.

The other possibility for writing a new ending is the one that confuses me, although perhaps it confuses me because I see all the brilliance in my life. Maybe it would be different if I tried to write a new ending during one of the periods I was in the dark hole, grappling with the monsters. Although at those times, I couldn’t even see if there was any light above the hole, much less imagine a different ending. Since it’s all a continuous stream, today is my ending, and tomorrow will be my ending too, and the next day. Each of the days I’ve lived since I left my original family has been the new ending, and even the terrible ones were connected seamlessly in time to earlier periods which had been better.

I think of the psychological concept of chunking, which refers to how we understand when something begins and when it ends in order to determine causality. People chunk things to their own benefit, quite often; if I am having a fight with someone I am likely to feel like I was just there minding my own business and the person antagonized me or picked the fight, or something. And so I start it right there, BANG. He started it. That’s where the chunk begins, that’s how I explain what happened after that. But he might have been responding to something I did a bit earlier, so he starts the chunk right there with what I’d done. Countries in conflict do that too — look at Israel and Palestine, such different stories about the start of the trouble, about the instances of ongoing retaliation. When you’re trying to write a new ending, it’s a question of where you draw the line at the other end, because the beginning of the chunk might be clear — it was the way you were wronged. But how do you know where to draw the end? Every day is the ending.

And that relates to my sense of the mystery of my own life, and perhaps you feel the same way. When I think of the various ways I have imagined my life going over all these years, I don’t think any of them came to fruition, whether they were ‘good’ things or ‘bad.’ And when I look at how my life has actually gone, absolutely none of it was how I thought my life would go. Even when I started college, and graduate school, I started believing wholeheartedly that I would not get the chance to finish them, that my life would get hit by some kind of big bomb and I would have to quit. Yesterday I was talking to a very dear friend about where we find ourselves right now, and that we never thought we’d be here. She never thought she’d be living where she is, doing the things she is doing (though I for one am so grateful she lives where she does!!). I never dreamed I’d live in Austin again. I never dreamed I’d work for myself. I never dreamed I’d get paid to read. I never dreamed I’d go to the kind of conference I’m going to this summer. I never ever dreamed I would love living alone the way I do. I never dreamed I’d travel the world the way I do. (I also never dreamed the bad thing that is happening in the background. UGH.) Never dreamed or imagined one little bit of it.

Maybe I am just so passively oriented toward my life and others are more ambitious, more decisive and goal-directed. I’ve kind of followed my life where it led because I didn’t have a sense of agency. But still, I find myself constantly surprised by how my life is turning out. This is not at all an ending I’d have written with my rose-colored glasses, nor are any of the other versions of my happy ending. And yet they are my happy endings.

Perhaps the answer to writing a new and happy ending is not to be too specific. Not “I will get paid to read” but instead “I will be free of the guilt/shame/sorrow.” Maybe simply “I will find a way to be happy with myself/my life.” I just don’t know, I’m missing something. I hope to get to talk to my friend about it since she knows more than I do.

And this is why I couldn’t write a quick response to her Facebook comment. 🙂 It’s a busy Friday for me, breakfast with a friend and lunch with a friend and then a haircut. Spring is making its way here in fits and starts, and I hope today is a start for us all! xo

writing therapy

Hmmm. I’ve got this idea percolating, though I have no idea what to do with it, exactly. The idea was born yesterday, during my bi-monthly writing session with my friend Marian. We meet on Skype every other Wednesday and catch up with each other, then one of us reads something we’ve written, and one of us brings writing prompts. We both try to collect lots of prompts on little slips of paper, so when we pull one out for our session we haven’t already planned what to write. It’s best if it’s impromptu, writing-in-the-moment out of our deep immediacy. We write — to two or three different prompts — and then we alternate reading our responses out loud. Until yesterday, the prompts we both brought were single words.

If you like to write (or maybe just read books about writing) you probably know Natalie Goldberg, author of (among others) Writing Down the Bones. Along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by BirdWriting Down the Bones is one of the most popular writing books. I read it years and years ago and dip into it on occasion. I heard about another book of Goldberg’s focused on memoir, and since I am writing a memoir I thought I’d look into it. It’s called Old Friend From Far Away and it’s much like Bones — some general writing philosophy stuff and a lot of prompts. The prompts are designed to help with memoir, and as I was reading it occurred to me that they would be good to try with Marian. So I collected several and yesterday we had time to write two of them.

When we were doing the reading-aloud bit, we commented on each other’s writing of course, because that’s the broad reason we do it, but the content was personal and so we also talked about that. As always, Marian’s pieces were gorgeous, the work of a poet, with phrases that literally made me gasp as I listened. After we talked about the writing, I asked her a question about the content and as we explored that question and what came of it, all kinds of connections were made, an insight or two revealed. And that led to my idea.

First, I know and believe that writing is therapeutic. My research in graduate school used writing as a way to respond to trauma, and my advisor published a book on the subject. My idea is different from his, which is that writing about a trauma can help you get past it. Instead, my idea is that doing some impromptu personal writing, followed by someone asking questions about it, might be therapeutic and lead people to insight. It wouldn’t be about having the person write separately before coming to the ‘session’ — no sending the topic, having them do planned and careful writing, and then talking about it together. In my own experience, when I do free-flowing non-stopping writing on the spot, things come up that I didn’t plan. For instance, one topic we wrote about yesterday was to ‘write a picture of an elementary school teacher.’ I wrote about Mrs. Worley, my third grade teacher, and as my pen was just moving without stopping a whole memory came out that I had completely forgotten. But also, writing like that allows the censor to shut up because you have to keep the pen going, just write write write. If I’d been given the topic and had all the time I wanted to write a personal essay, I’d probably have written about my second grade teacher Carol Barbaria, who had a pet raccoon. That’s a story I know and have told before, and it has no emotional content to speak of, other than my 7-year-old wonder at seeing a raccoon in the classroom. But the impromptu unplanned writing about Mrs. Worley retrieved a memory of a time an adult told me I had been treated badly, and treated me with such respect and stood up for me. Made classmates apologize and take responsibility for what they’d done to me. And how astonishing that is to me now, in all the ways — that I’d forgotten it, that it happened to me, that there was a time an adult did that for me even though all my focused memories are of the times the adults in my family completely failed to do that. What a gift!

writingSo what if a ‘therapy’ session involved arriving together and being given a prompt that calls for personal memories/reflection, and you write for 10 minutes without stopping, then read it aloud and then you are asked questions. Why did you feel that way in that moment, what does that mean to you now? I think it’s a pretty cool idea! Writing therapy is certainly not new, but all the ways of implementing it are quite different from this idea. I am not a clinical psychologist, but I do know a lot about the Pennebaker paradigm, since he was my advisor. I’m going to think about this some more and then play with the idea of adding another shingle to my income stream. I think this could be meaningful work for me, and meaningful for people who do it with me.

Lots of people who read my blog are writers, though not all do personal writing. Almost everyone who reads my blog is an avid reader. Lots of people keep journals of one form or another (and my blog is a kind of journal, since I try to write every day and I write about and explore personal topics). I’m curious about whether you do personal writing for therapeutic reasons (even therapeutic-lite). If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it!

Otherwise, happy Thursday, everyone, another week is winding down and we’re another day closer to spring, which is surely going to arrive and stay put one of these days. xo

green

Man, I hope I’m not a 90-year-old woman someday still talking about how terrible my stupid mother was, but she gave me so much material to work with. 🙂 She always said, “every man wants me and every woman is jealous of me.” (Yes, and she meant the everys, narcissist that she is.) It set me up to hate and resist the idea that others are jealous, and to feel very uncomfortable with even the thought that someone else was jealous of me.

And I felt so low about myself until I hit my 50s I saw no reason anyone could possibly be jealous of me, anyway. I actually kind of liked that, because it kept away any uncomfortable thought that someone might be jealous of me, and that would then make me be like her.

Many of my friends are writers, and my ex-friend once told me that when she started having some success as a writer, many of her own writer friends became so jealous that their relationships with her ended. Because she was an extremely difficult person (see: ex-friend, with irony: our friendship ended because of her extraordinary and awful jealousy), I didn’t know for sure how to understand it—maybe they just found an easy way out of their own difficult relationships with her. But I had also heard of this kind of thing, writers seething with jealousy of other writers’ success. One aspect is the worth issue: other, “much crappier” writers hitting the jackpot and making lots of money for dreck while the truly beautiful writer languishes in being broke and unpublished. And I get that, especially when I read The Glass Castle once. What crap, and published by a good publisher and read by everyone, it seems, with astonishment. Which astonished me.

jealousBut again, with my writing, small and mostly invisible as it is, I have no worries about anyone being jealous of me in this department. I am very lucky to be surrounded by friends (writers and otherwise) who are nothing but encouraging, and who glory in my small successes; who send me notes telling me I should submit a piece here to this contest or that; who call me and say, “We should both apply to this thing, you are so good.” And perhaps it’s unusual, but when we both applied, we said — and meant — that if we didn’t get in but the other did, we would be truly thrilled for each other. I meant it, she meant it, end of story. One of my incredible clients, whose books are among the very best commercial fiction I’ve ever read, wrote me this morning saying, “Make me jealous!” I read it as encouragement and belief in me, not a comment on his jealousy, because I know him very well.

And yet. When I was talking with one writer friend of mine, I experienced a distancing, a pulling-back, an apparent unwillingness to do much more than b.a.r.e.l.y acknowledge this recent amazing thing that happened to me followed quickly by a subject change. Her reaction was surprising, unexpected, unsettling. It clearly felt like something about her (which of course it is), and because I know her, I know that she does otherwise wish me only good things — all good things — but this one pinched her a little bit.  It made me sad, and left me hoping that she can find her way and our friendship won’t be hurt. I don’t think I can help her with it, and that’s sad for me.

I think we all win when something beautiful is published, or made available for lots of people to see, to read, to enjoy. If ever it is mine, well that’s pretty cool and I will be celebrating. When it’s the work of anyone I know personally, I will feel giddy (I believe) and see it as proof that my own work might someday get the same response.  And how can I feel anything but happiness for my friend, when I know what it takes to create something out of nothing, to find time to give to it, to give up the other things, to battle doubt and fear and do it anyway.

(It isn’t that I don’t feel jealousy — I do. I am jealous of people with more than enough money, with easy money to spare. Yep, that one gets me, and makes me understand the feeling of jealousy. It’s just that I don’t happen to feel jealousy over this thing, even as I can imagine it.)

Thursday already, my week in NYC is winding down so fast. It’s bitter cold here, snow filling the air yesterday in an icy whirl, the view out my window looking like an etching on steel. THIS I won’t be sorry to leave, not one little bit. My people, yes oh yes, but otherwise I’ll scoot my boots back to Texas on Monday with a balmy smile. 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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we are

this is me right now (and usually), thinking 'bout stuff
this is me right now (and usually), thinking ’bout stuff

We are who we are — I’ve been thinking about that so much lately, and writing about it here, reflected through a passage from The Goldfinch, reflected through thinking about my kids, and filtered through my own sense of who I am. Even though I can’t seem to stop thinking this kind of thing (and doing it), I think it’s hilarious the way we resist ourselves. The way so much energy goes into that.

Caveat #1: Not everyone does this, or at least to the same degree.  Caveat #2: pushing against who we “are” is how we grow!

On the “About the Queen” tab above, I came up with 25 ways to finish the sentence “I am….”.  (It was hard to come up with 25. I had to stretch, and some are in there multiple times with slightly different emphases.) Yeah, I guess that’s who I am. And throughout my life, I’ve wished to be NOT that. Over the years I’ve wished:

  • kitchengardento be someone who gardens and loves it. Turns out, I love the idea of being a gardener. I get all dreamy-eyed imagining a kitchen garden in my back yard, beautiful soil, great vegetables coming up, me out there tending to it. Yeah. Dreamy-eyed. But I don’t like dirt under my fingernails, I don’t like dealing with bugs, I don’t like having to go out when it’s icky weather, I don’t like being hot and sticky, I don’t like dealing with the aftermath. When I finally realized that I loved the idea of being a gardener, I felt such enormous relief. Whew. I don’t have to keep trying.
  • to be an engineer or financial analyst-type person. I wish I were that person because I could have a job with only a bachelor’s degree, and I could easily get a job and make money. For this one, I don’t even like the idea of it. But I’ve wished I were that person, especially as I slogged through all the years of graduate school toward the PhD, especially as I witnessed people get jobs immediately after getting their bachelor’s and making more money on Day 1 than I will ever make.
  • to be a “running into the holy rage that calls my name” person. I wish I spent my life here and there, in Vietnam for a year, in Laos for a year, on Bali for a year, in Paris for a year [somehow], on any island or by any river for a year, in Scotland for a year, in Cusco for a year, on Sri Lanka for a year, wandering and drifting and living and making my way as it came, owning nothing but my laptop and a few pieces of clothing (and a toothbrush). Writing as I went. That’s how I would run into the holy rage. That’s the holy rage that calls my name. So it’s not a self-destructive one, but it’s not at all a possible one, because I want to be available to my children. I want that.

This isn’t an issue of interests, or hobbies. It’s a deep issue of temperament, of person. Soul, maybe, if that’s how you think about it. Who I am, and who I have always been, is a bookish girl, which goes way beyond a hobby of reading books. I’ve always known this, it’s not like this was ever mysterious to me, but I resisted it because it was belittled and shamed when I was a kid. But also, it’s “impractical,” right? Get your head out of the books, join the ‘real world,’ who gets paid to read! (Turns out, me.) I read a book a dozen years ago, Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, and that phrase took up residence in my heart. Yeah, that’s what I want. I want a literary life. Whatever See meant by it, I know what it means to me. I want to write. I want the bulk of my circle of people to be passionate readers. I want to talk about books. I want to write books, essays, stories, everything. I want to experience the world as a writer, listening and watching, absorbing and transforming. I want regular social encounters that are literary in some way — like, oh, I don’t know, a poetry group that meets in my house. A very good book club. People with whom the conversation is often, “What are you reading?” I want to know writers, to talk about writing with people who write. I want a circle of friends and acquaintances who are also trying to live this kind of life, so we help each other, encourage each other, read each other’s stuff when asked, give feedback when asked, others I can trust to read mine without the fear that they’re going to go silent as a response. I want to scour the trades for competitions, contests, submission opportunities, residencies, fellowships, scholarships, conferences, sabbaticals. I would like to make money from it, and my wildest most insane dream is that one day I’ll make enough money from writing.

I am simply not an engineer or financial analyst, couldn’t even dress up like one for Halloween. It’s very deeply not who I am. It’s not present in the way I think, the things I notice, the issues that excite me, the way I process information. Fortunately (I think), I’m liberal arts all the way, although our culture doesn’t really do jazz hands for that crowd. I have a wandering woman’s heart, but I do get to travel so I let that count, and then come home to my children, who make my life worth something.  Fear keeps us from simply and totally being who we are — for me, the who-I-am fear has to do with money, and nothing more. If I weren’t afraid about having enough money to get through the month, much less across the rest of my life, it wouldn’t have taken me all these decades to get here.

I am who I have always been. My children are too — and Oliver will be, too. I can’t wait to stare into his face and know that I’m about to love another person the rest of my life, and I’ll get to watch him show us who he is. I will know that however much he shifts and twitches over his growing up, I’ll know him from the start so I’ll see the constancy of him.

I wonder if you feel this way, if you feel like the deepest essence of who you are has always been who you were, all along the way. If you turned away from it for any reason and tried to be someone else. A gardener, maybe. 🙂

Thursday, another week winds down and February is almost halfway done. I hope it’s a good one where you are, and I hope you are comfortable in your own skin.

the sadness of insecurity

doubtIn late 1993, when I decided to go to college, I was living in Huntsville, Alabama. I had three very young kids and so my option was the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In my situation, there was no chance of applying to a variety of schools and then picking which one I wanted, if more than one accepted me. UAH is a small campus, though quite good for engineers and space-related programs, since Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal are there.  Of course I was not interested in those programs — my plan was psychology, and that department (while fine!) was certainly not one of the top programs in the country, let’s say. Not that I knew how to think about any of that, not that I knew how to find out anything at all about schools.

I was absolutely terrified. I was so sure they wouldn’t accept me. I was so sure they would receive my application and the people in the office would laugh laugh laugh. I believed that literally. I believed they would stop working, pass it around, and laugh so hard. I graduated from high school in 1977, and my high school was destroyed by a tornado a couple of years after that so I felt overwhelmed by getting my high school transcript — anyway, they weren’t going to accept me so all that work would be for nothing. I had a friend pushing me hard, encouraging me, asking me every day about what I’d done, did I reach anyone at my old high school, etc., and without him I know I wouldn’t have persisted (then, at least). And the SAT….had I taken it? I didn’t remember, didn’t know anything, didn’t know, and anyway they were going to laugh at me and say no.

Well, I think it’s the case that at UAH, if you can pay the tuition you can come on in. 🙂 When I got my acceptance letter I was in shock and utter disbelief. Me? They accepted me? I’ll never forget how long it took me to understand what I was reading, it just didn’t fit with my expectation at all. And the sad bit is this: While raising my three kids and working, I finished college in 4 years (transferring to U of Arkansas at Fayetteville halfway through), I graduated with a 4.0 GPA and honors beyond summa, I was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (rare to be given to a graduating senior), and I was accepted by all the graduate programs I applied to. Yeah, I was really a big risk for UAH.

My encouraging friend knew that, but I didn’t. I truly didn’t. Maybe my friends didn’t know why I was so afraid. I look at it now and if I step outside of myself I shake my head… really,Queen? I wish I’d learned a lesson then, that the only way to ensure something won’t happen is not to try — I wish I’d learned that. I did learn that lesson later in my life, thankfully, so I have at least two instances in my life of getting something I wanted because I went ahead and tried anyway.

And so I did it again. Last night I submitted a writing sample and my application for a prestigious summer writing program in New England, I am too superstitious to be more specific than that. They accept so few people that I believe the odds are against me so this time, my belief I won’t get in is a numbers game instead of a disbelief in my ability. I think what I submitted is good. And submitting it felt really good, a big loud HELL YES to myself. The announcements will be made late March, when I will be distracted and tired and busy with my new grandbaby Oliver, and I will be honest here about the outcome. Because the ‘yes’ will be a joyous piece of cake (except for the tuition), but the ‘no’ will need some thought and processing and I tend to do that here.

It is true, I’m finding, that having taken this chance on myself anyway makes that terrible voice I wrote about yesterday sound a little more pipsqueakish. It does. And putting Dixie’s voice in my head as a countervoice has probably done the trick. I wish I’d thought of that a long time ago.

shut the hell up

“Who do you think you are!”

“Why do you think anyone would be interested in anything you have to say?”

“You’re full of shit.”

“You’re nothing but a liar, and if you tell, no one will ever believe you.”

“You’re nothing.”

“You’re nothing.”

“You’re nothing.”

“What makes you think anyone’s interested in what you have to say?”

this woman is NOT my  mother but looks like her to a frightening degree. her voice is the one in my mind.
this woman is NOT my mother but looks like her to a frightening degree. her voice is the one in my mind.

Welcome to my mind. Not all of my mind, of course, but the part that tries to shut me the hell up. The part that sneers at me, that exists solely to knock me down a notch or hundred.

This voice drips with contempt. It assures me that it has known me since before I was born, and no one knows me as well. No one knows who I am but that voice, no one knows the corners of me the way that voice knows me. And who do I think I am. Just who do I think I am.

This voice is screaming at me because I’ve decided to go ahead and try something, I’m going to do something with my own writing — or try to, anyway. I keep putting my hands over my ears and going into my bathroom to look in the mirror. I put my hands on the sink and lean towards the mirror and say, “You are too a writer.” I say that over and over, even though I do not believe in the Power of Affirmations. But this is not an affirmational effort, this is an effort to shut that voice up, to claim that I know more than she does.

Please, this post is not about whether I can write or not. I’m not wanting you to leave comments about my writing, whatever you think about it. This post is about cruelty and harshness and the way our inner voices can have so much power.  It’s quite terrible, how truthful they sound — because for many of us, I suspect, these terrible inner voices are the sounds and words of parents, whether they were meaning to be dismissive or not, whether they were simply not paying attention or trying to destroy, as in my experience.

But of course I haven’t heard her voice in real life since 1987 . . . on purpose. So at this point I am responsible for that voice, for maintaining it in any way, for giving it any weight or credit. I know it’s not as simple as just brushing my hands off and walking away, it’s not as easy as thinking, eh, shut the hell up. One way to talk back to it is to go ahead and prove it wrong. Just go ahead anyway. Oh yeah? Who do I think I am? I think I am a writer — good or less-good, strong or weak, but I am a writer. I am, actually. A writer is someone who writes, and I must write every day. Why do I think anyone would be interested in anything I have to say? Well, let me just see! Will people be interested? I think enough will, I think some people would like it, and that’s enough. One needn’t be the Best-Selling-Author-Of-All-Time to have something to say, to have people interested in it.

One of the many risks in going ahead and trying something is that I will fail, and that mocking voice will then sneer, “See! You are nothing.”  I’m preparing myself to fail and I have a lot of ways to think about it. Everyone fails when they first try something new, I have to have permission to do that or I will be too clenched and frightened — and that may guarantee failure. Failure is giving up.

I’m not a unique snowflake; lots, maybe most people have critical inner voices. If you don’t, I am so very happy for you, from the bottom of my heart. If you battle a critical inner voice—whether you’ve learned how to get around it or whether it’s an ongoing struggle—I’m very curious about your approach(es).  My dear friend Marian has written about it, and has developed a successful program to help people with this struggle. If you have found something that works, and if you are willing to leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.

My not saying more about what I’m trying is not about caving to that harpie voice, it’s much more ordinary than that. It’s just about superstition. It it happens, you’ll be among the first I tell. 🙂

I hope it’s a good week for us all, with some blue skies in the mix, some laughter and happiness, and all kinds of things to be grateful for. xox

the exciting thing

writingThe only reason I have disengaged from Facebook, my major time-suck indulgence, is because I want to write a book. I want to write a book. I’ve always wanted to write a book, it’s not just something I’ve said. I deeply deeply want to write a book. I think about it all the time; lately I’ve been noticing the amount of mental energy I spend on this topic. Every sentence I read — and I read a lot of sentences — makes me think one of two things: 1) oh….I could never have thought of that, the idea, the sentence, the word, the image, I’m just not a writer, or 2) good grief, even I could do better than that! So why don’t I!

Since I support myself, I need to work as many hours as I have work. Until recently, I’ve had more than enough work, always stretched out several weeks ahead, but always with the threat of it drying up. I make just more than enough money if I have full-time work; not enough to sock much away in savings, but enough to pay all my bills and have some for spending. Just more than enough. So I read others’ writing all day, and often evenings and weekends. At night, and in the middle of the night, I read for pleasure. It’s been hard to find time to give myself to do my own writing, hence the Facebook abandonment. (But oh how I miss you all!) I think one reason I’ve been so blue — depressed, even — has to do with this dream. I’ve found some time to give myself, and I haven’t written. It has felt like “put up or shut up” time and I haven’t put up.  I have shut up.

For years and years I’ve been writing a memoir, and there’s a place I am so seriously stuck I can’t get through it. So I went around, did an end run, and started writing on the other side of the stuck place. But the book is heavy, hard, and sad. It is my white whale, and I’ve felt unable to do anything but that book. My one-note song. Whenever I’d try to write something else, it just turned into one of my stories and I’d be back to memoir. My deepest quiet question is whether I really am a writer, or if I just want to tell my story and that’s all it is. I want to be a writer, far beyond telling my own story, I want that desperately. I thought if I could get that thing written and out of me, then I would be liberated to tell other stories, then I would be unclogged in some way.

Marnie talks about “brain crack” which, as I understand it, are the things you do around the creative project that let you feel like you’re working on it, but you’re really not. Oh let me clean my desk and organize my brushes and paints, and then I’ll get to work. Oh let me make notes for my story and then kind of block out plots and research similar stories to be sure I’m original, and I ought to look at a Google map so I know what that corner looks like, and then I’ll get to work. Instead, you just need to paint. Instead, just start writing. I indulge in a lot of brain crack.

But in the middle of the night, I got an idea for a book that is so thrilling, so possible for me, and it’s squarely in my wheelhouse, in all the ways. The center of it came to me, and I can see exactly how to proceed. By that I mean I see the roads very clearly, I know exactly where to go, but I don’t know exactly how it’ll look on the roads. I don’t know exactly who I’ll encounter on the roads, where I’ll stop along the way. Those things I’ll find out when I get on the road. I know where the road is going, and I know where it will need to end — at least clearly enough to get started. I cannot WAIT to get started. My fingers are itching, I have mental notes running as if from a ticker tape machine.

And this excitement, this creative urge, has pushed my depression out the door. It helps that my dear friend’s health worry doesn’t seem to be the bad thing we all dreaded (that helps a lot). It helps that my loved ones have loved ones of their own right there in their homes, to also watch over them. It helps that my terror over not having work has found its level and isn’t strangling me the way it was. It helps that I have sweet friends who poke me, who tell me to look out the window, who whisk me away to a river, who tell me their door is always open to me. It helps that my daughter Katie is in a position of her own to reach out for me in the most loving way you could ever imagine — it helps that she did that, and it helps that her own life, while still filled with worries, isn’t so overly filled with worries that she doesn’t have much to spare. NO, she has generosity to spare because her life is not being bombarded, and that helps me.

And it helps that I’m about to write a book. I really am, finally.

p.s. I’m off to a river! Karyn, my beautiful friend, and her sweet husband Mike are whooshing me away to join them for the weekend at their home in the hill country. We will kayak and hike and bicycle, we will make and eat good food, we will watch the river run and the stars wheel through the sky, and we will talk. A lot. Lucky me! (see yesterday’s post)

here's Willie
here’s Willie

p.s.s. I dreamed that Willie Geist, one of the affable hosts of the Today Show, and his wife Nancy Snyderman, serious and deeply-dimpled physician reporter for the Today Show and NBC News, had asked me to join them. The dream opened in a hotel room, two queen beds, and I suddenly didn’t remember why they wanted me to join them. He was running for office, was I the driver? The speechwriter? The copyeditor for his speeches? We all got in bed, Nancy (in her severe blue pajamas) in bed with me, lying on her back with her hands clasped on her chest, Willie in the other bed. It was quiet, then Nancy started chatting non-stop even though Willie needed his sleep. She got up to go to the bathroom and the next thing I knew someone was in bed with me! Willie, must be, who else? He snuggled up next to me, curled against my back, didn’t do anything else but I was freaking OUT, man. I stood up and waited for Nancy to come back, and suddenly a passel of kids was also in the room. From the adjoining room, I hadn’t noticed. Their kids. Maybe 5, maybe more, of all ages from about 4 to young adult. Was I there as a babysitter?

The kids were all fabulously tattooed. Their skin was paper white, and the full-color tattoos were gorgeous on them. They all had the same enormous design on their backs, and the designs on their arms and legs were of the same kind of design, but each kid had unique tats on their arms and legs. One of the boys zeroed in on me and basically attached himself to me. Sometimes I thought he was about 8, but other times I’d noticed that he had hairy legs and chest, and must’ve been in his early 20s. I realized he was the one who had gotten in bed with me.

here's Nancy.
here’s Nancy.

Willie and Nancy left because Willie had to give his speech.

The boy who was attached to me ran to the window because he saw small animals outside, and I looked and it was fantastic — so many small animals, some ordinary like squirrels, some I’d never seen in the world before, though they looked possible. He and I went outside and we were in some other place, then, after going through the door.

And . . . scene. Really weird, right? One thing: I need to quit watching so much NBC. 🙂

the one-note samba

beltIn the dark of an early summer morning, I walk my neighborhood. Two miles, 45 minutes. There are so few streetlights, I see brilliant starlight overhead, Orion’s Belt, a piece of the moon spilling light on the black street between the trees, making the shadows even darker. Rounding the corner, I see three deer, alert but unmoving, standing in the yard of a mid-century modern home. Although it’s 6am, surely late enough for people to be awake and getting ready for work, the houses I pass are uniformly dark.

The houses are beautiful and stylish, built in the 1960s. The yards are neat and trimmed, landscaped for Texas drought. The trees are established and large, live oaks mostly, with their twisted shapes. In the dark they look like women dancing with outreaching arms. Most of the homes are beautifully cared-for, but there is an occasional house that’s neglected, the yard a mess, a sagging porch.

nightAnd yet as I walk through the neighborhood, just slightly afraid in the deep dark, all the homes look ominous to me. What happens inside those rooms? When that front door is closed, is there a frightened child upstairs? Are the lights kept off, even when it gets dark?

I am the inverse observer. Most people assume that families are happy in those beautiful houses and are inevitably shocked to learn otherwise. They see the trim landscaping, the perfectly ordinary scenes visible through the open-curtained windows; they wave at their neighbor, make small talk at the mailboxes; they register the years passing with the changing decorations of autumn, Christmas, Fourth of July. Just like us, they probably think.

Me, I assume the opposite, and am inevitably shocked to learn otherwise. My mind’s ear hears the pleading, the shouting, the noise in the silence. My spirit feels the fear crouched in the upstairs bedroom, waiting. I flinch as I walk past, waiting with her for the punch to land, for the kick to connect. As it happens, I lived in another house on my street 36 years ago. Just down the block. I knew it when I rented my current place, wondered at the mystery of how things work out. It’s one of those broken-down houses in the otherwise beautiful neighborhood. It was a neat and trim-looking house when I lived there, and no one would ever have suspected the kinds of things that happened behind the doors. I wonder now if it wears that shape because of what happened inside. 

I have one story to tell. No matter where it begins, I always end it there, in that house and in all the ones that came before. “I will find a random photo and use it as a prompt to find my way into a different story,” I decide with firm optimism. But the picture that pulls me in is a little girl with filthy fingernails and terror in her wide open eyes. That is a story I can tell. Those are nuances I can draw on for color in a scene, the smells and sensations are at my fingertips, in my body for reference. I open a large book of landscape photographs, planning to use one as a setting, but once people enter my scene there is fear in the wide-open vastness, a need for a hiding place and none to be found.

There are so many other stories I can tell with genuine knowledge and experience, stories of happy families, stories of triumph, stories of courage, stories of deep joy found in ordinary moments, but they are not the ones that come to me when I write. My writing friend suggests that this story needs to be told, and then I will be able to tell others. I really hope so.