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: 1/11/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REALISM (Beth Bachmann)

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

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

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

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

I could use your thoughts, please

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

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

Thanks, y’all.

Helen

cotardIn November 2008 I put myself in the hospital in New York, Weill Cornell/ Payne Whitney, because I was very, very sick. It went beyond wanting to die — I quite literally thought I was already dead. It’s a kind of psychosis that can accompany severe clinical depression, and though it’s not at all common, it’s known. It’s called the Cotard Delusion, and one day I’ll write about it. I’ve had it twice in my life.

But while I was in the hospital, I wrote a LOT. A lot. Luckily I dumped it all in a private blog and I just came across it. This story is chilling, as you’ll see at the end.

* * *

My first morning at breakfast, a very tall blind woman was escorted into the dining room for breakfast. Her blue eyes were strange: one was milky, and the other had a very sharp circle cut out of the blue iris, just outside the pupil. She didn’t wear dark glasses. She had a very strong accent, which I initially thought was German, a very deep and rich voice, and she was beautiful. Her messy hair was piled up on the back of her head into what must have been a twist of some kind, several days before. It was gray, but with reddish-colored ends, so she used to color it. Her skin was translucent, and her features were fine and beautiful. Her lips were full. Though she had a stick, as she called it, she didn’t use it as blind people do, tapping in front of themselves left and right. She just held it upright like a scepter, and held the arm of anyone who escorted her.

She sat at the breakfast table and announced, “Derek. I vant vaffles. And hot cho-co-lat.” None of the staff responded, though it seemed they were preparing her food. Of course she was blind and couldn’t see that, so a minute later she’d repeat, “Derek. Can I please have some vaffles and hot cho-co-lat.” No response, request repeated a minute later, exactly the same. Finally the staff became irritated with her and snapped at her – “Helen, you have to wait and be patient.”

So she’d pick up her vaffle with her fingers and eat it, no butter or syrup: a bite of vaffle then a drink of her hot chocolate. A bite of waffle, a drink of hot chocolate. When she finished, staff would escort her back to her room and she wouldn’t be seen until the next meal. Lunch was always baked eggplant. Dinner was always baked eggplant. And breakfast was always vaffles and hot cho-co-lat. It wasn’t that they only served those things to her – it’s that those were the foods she always asked for. Demanded. The rest of us had to eat whatever was being served, but Helen ate only these things. If she was not eating, she was left in her room.

One evening she appeared in the doorway of her room and said, “Would someone help me make a call?” None of the patients moved, and few people even looked up. The staff didn’t respond in any way at all. So finally, I stood up and went to her, offering to help. We walked over to the phone, I dialed the number and waited while she completed her call, then escorted her back to her room.

I don’t remember how it began, but it became our evening habit that I would walk her around the unit until she tired. She asked my name, and though I said Lori she called me Lora. With her accent, the r sounded like a d. She would come to her door and bellow, “Lora! Lora!” The unit was very small, so our walk was just a square – a short hallway, a small sitting area in the back, overlooking the East River and the FDR, then back up the opposite short hallway, and then across the front sitting area. While we walked, we talked. The insane girl would race past us, up and down with manic speed, and as we rounded the corner the tiny, fat Jewish man who had a 24-hour guard would blow his shofar.

I learned that Helen was from Russia, and she believed that was why the staff hated her. I asked her where in Russia and she snapped at me, she didn’t want to talk about that because she’s an American. I apologized, and said that I’m from Texas, and then she started talking about her childhood in Russia. Her mother was an actress in Russia, I remember that. She was curious about me, and asked me why I was there, which led to long conversations. She scolded me for wanting to be dead. She asked me how I came to NY. She never smiled, but she was very friendly and warm. She said she was there because she’d just become blind, a year before, due to cataracts and glaucoma and something else, and all surgical options were exhausted. She said she was stagnant, warehoused. I couldn’t disagree with her, which broke my heart.

The last couple of nights she opened up more to me, and wanted to lie on the couch in the back sitting area with her head in my lap. She didn’t want me to stroke her head – she said it made her feel like a pet. But she seemed to want to be touched, and to have real contact. So I sat at the end of the couch and allowed her to put her head in my lap, and I lay my hand on her shoulder. The last night, she lay on her side with her head in my lap, curled up in a loose ball, and she pulled my hand into her chest and held it there the whole time.

She asked me what I look like, so I tried to describe myself. Then I also told her the story of my tattoos, and this absolutely gorgeous smile spread across her face. She said, “Lora, you are so silly. This is a silly thing you have done, vy did you do this silly thing.” She teased me, and it was wonderful, a light and touching moment.

She said the staff was going to transfer her to the state hospital and she said, with her deep-voiced Russian drama, “Lora, I vill perish. Lora, I vill perish.” I looked into her eyes and had no response. What could I say?

blindFinally I asked her the obvious question: “Helen, why are you here, on the psych ward, instead of in a hospital for blind people where you could learn how to navigate the world?” She said it was her punishment, because when she lived in France she made her living telling fortunes and reading cards. She was very religious, and believed that this part of her life was as it should be, given by God, as punishment. Then she said, almost in passing, “They said I poured bleach into my eyes, can you imagine such a thing?”

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.

I am not my story

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

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

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

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

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

memoir blah blah blah

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

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

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

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

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

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

writing dissociation

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

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

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

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

head

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

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

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

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

cursive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

palmer method

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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.

Friday AGAIN

I know everyone loves a Friday — weekend, yay! — but they come whizzing by so fast and there are only 52 in a year, and then WHEE! It’s already a different month, a different season, the next year. I’m telling you, time is scary fast. My time in NYC is winding down, and I head home very early Monday. It was a blur, as the weeks generally are these days.

There are 31 tabs open in my browser right now. Thirty-one. That’s insane. My computer is so slow and don’t even ask me to open task manager and see how many instances of Chrome are filling up that little screen. It kind of freaks me out. How can my computer do anything, with all its resources going to maintaining Chrome and all my tabs. Jesus. So here, in case any are of interest to you and (hahahaha!) so that I’ll come back and find themhahahahahah oh that is so funny, here are the tabs I haven’t been able to close all week:

Have you written a manuscript but can’t really afford a professional edit? This page gives you 10 ways to fake a professional edit. Good advice all around.

Two from the LA Review of Books (consistently outstanding writing there, I highly recommend the site. Friend them on facebook for easy access):  Here’s an interview with the author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, a book I want to read. The book is kind of a political thriller and about a father-daughter relationship. Sounds good to me. And here’s an interview with Michelle Orange, who is described as the love child David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion would’ve had.

Here are two from The Millions — if you love books and don’t follow The Millions, why?? Here is a list of the Booker Prize shortlist, with links and excerpts! Wonderful! And here’s a bit about Pynchon’s new novel, which I will soon be reading. (And here’s a review from NPR books of Pynchon’s novel.)

Are you thinking about self-publishing? Here are 10 counter-intuitive tips for self-publishers, and here’s an article on self- vs traditional publishing.

From The New York Times, a review of Edwidge Danticat’s new book titled Claire of the Sea LightI keep hearing about this one and it sounds amazing. Also, a truly gorgeous essay by Pico Iyer on the value of suffering. It’s a beautiful piece, very thoughtful — no surprise. And finally, a piece in the NYTimes Magazine about Justin Timberlake, because COME ON. Justin Timberlake.

From The New Yorker, I love this piece because it’s about neuroskeptics. Seriously, just because you can show me an image where the brain flashes blue when presented with something DOES NOT MEAN YOU HAVE FOUND THE SOMETHING CENTER. I hate that reductionistic crap. And here’s an article about Claire Danes, who is frankly kind of amazing in Homeland. I think that most episodes. The piece asks where her volcanic performances come from and I want to know, too.  In this era of reading “books” on our phones (which I do at night), this piece asks what it means to own a book. It’s an interesting question….

And then from all around the web:

OK, so that’s that. All my tabs are closed, my browser is clean. I’m ready for the weekend — how about you? I hope to see Nick Flynn on Sunday, in Brooklyn (André Aciman, Edwidge Danticat, Thomas Drake, Nick Flynn, Rachel Kushner, Leonard Lopate, Francine Prose, Jeremiy Scahill:  Recent leaks have revealed the breathtaking reach of the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs. Should writers and readers be concerned? A fast-paced mosaic of readings by leading PEN members, an NSA whistleblower, and others to provoke reflection on the dangers surveillance poses to the freedom to think and create, and to celebrate the role writers have played in defying those dangers.) But we’ll see. Sunday is a long ways away. Happy Friday, y’all. Hope it’s a good one.

meet me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

good thing of the day: life

Friday collection of goodies

So this morning I’m off to get my hair cut, and then I have back-to-back calls for work. It’s a busy day, and I have a very busy weekend ahead. I’ve once again collected a whole bunch of open tabs that I can’t seem to close — “I’ll read them later,” but later hasn’t come, so I’ll stash them here and maybe you’ll like one or two, too!

Twilight

All day he works at his cousin’s mill,

so when he gets home at night, he always sits at this one window,

sees one time of day, twilight.

There should be more time like this, to sit and dream.

It’s as his cousin says:

Living— living takes you away from sitting.

In the window, not the world but a squared-off landscape

representing the world. The seasons change,

each visible only a few hours a day.

Green things followed by golden things followed by whiteness—

abstractions from which come intense pleasures,

like the figs on the table.

At dusk, the sun goes down in a haze of red fire between two poplars.

It goes down late in summer—sometimes it’s hard to stay awake.

Then everything falls away.

The world for a little longer

is something to see, then only something to hear,

crickets, cicadas.

Or to smell sometimes, aroma of lemon trees, of orange trees.

Then sleep takes this away also.

But it’s easy to give things up like this, experimentally,

for a matter of hours.

I open my fingers—

I let everything go.

Visual world, language,

rustling of leaves in the night,

smell of high grass, of woodsmoke.

I let it go, then I light the candle.

~ from Louise Glück A Village Life (Ferrar, Straus and  Giroux, 2009)

  • And finally, here is an absolutely lovely video of a beautiful, beautiful song, Mad World:

Happy Friday, everyone! I have such a busy weekend of things to do, fun things, a bit of work, a lovely lovely weekend. I hope it’s the same for you!

good thing of the day: It’s raining! And the promise of a new start that a hair cut brings, small but (potentially, anyway) uplifting. 

at the YWCA

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

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

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

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