underwater

Such a fraught word, ‘underwater,’ especially at this moment in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, and Hurricane Irma headed for Florida and the southeast coast, and Jorge up on deck after that, and the 1,200 people killed in floods in South Asia, and the 100,000 displaced in Nigerian floods. (Though ‘underwater’ probably sounds pretty great to people in the western US watching their worlds burn up in flame, as they choke on the thick smoke that turns day to night. What a world.)

And when we’re ‘underwater’ we’re in trouble, usually with financial burdens that feel insurmountable. Underwater is rarely a good place to be, or at least in the way the word is used outside of swimming. I’ve been trying to find a way to describe the way my failing memory feels, and that’s what finally hit me. I feel like I’m underwater.

This image is associated with Lidia Yuknavitch’s wrenching memoir The Chronology of Water, and it came from the promotional materials for the book. (SO, JUST TO BE CLEAR, that’s not me. Obviously!)

(Oh, and did you know that photographs of women underwater are called Ophelia shots? Kind of disturbing, as is the fact that there is a GENRE of photographs of women underwater.) There are millions of pictures to choose from, but this one captured my feeling — the way her hair drifts around her head, disconnected and amorphous and shifting and losing form. My thoughts feel like that. It isn’t a feeling of drowning, of desperation, or even anxiety, in a strange way. It’s just a feeling of being untethered. Of watching this, of seeing it all kind of float around me but I can’t do anything about it. I feel it like I’m floating, a kind of silent, weightless peering around me. What was I going to do? What was I going to do? What was I going to do? Do you know what I was going to do, did I tell you? Was I going somewhere? Oh, I wanted to say something. Do you have any idea what I was talking about? Where was I going? What was I just thinking about?

And the fluency issue I mentioned a couple of posts ago — mid-sentence, several times a sentence, the word has floated away. I watch myself and see my vaguer eyes hoping the word appears, rather than my keen eyes searching for it. My pauses are more blank spaces than intermittent moments to locate just the right word.

Luckily it’s never a “where am I” or “who are you” issue, or any of the more dementia-like problems. It’s just more like my thought processing is happening in a completely opened-to-the-air space and it just drifts out and floats there somewhere, but I don’t know where or how to get it back to me.

I don’t know what day of the week it is (only a slight deepening of my norm, which is in large part, I suspect, due to the formlessness and lack of scheduling to my days, since I don’t work in an office and I don’t see anyone on a regularly scheduled basis and the days are all mostly the same — so my fear is that I’ll be in an accident and the EMT will ask me what day it is and I wouldn’t know that on my best day! Not a sign of trauma, dude!). I generally know what month it is, at least by the middle of the month. I can read and sustain a deeply complex narrative, and I can write and sustain a through line without any trouble. I just can’t connect thought with its consequence — if the thought is, “Go get cheese,” the second I stand up I don’t know what I was going to do. If the thought is, when Marc finishes talking I’m going to tell him about X, in the next second I don’t remember what X I had been thinking about. I can still find metaphors very easily, and see deep structures and connections.

And it’s not tip-of-the-tongue, it’s not that, it’s more this floating around me and away from me sensation. Truly it isn’t a bad feeling, except in specific, like if I really do want cheese and I’ve now stood up 7 times and then forgotten, and my standing-up muscles are getting aggravated at me. Come ON! Get it together! Or else quit standing up. Sheesh.

For some reason I am not flailing against it and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I feel instead like an observer, as if I’m watching and thinking, huh, that’s very interesting. Water, yes, that’s what this is like. I wonder if I were flailing more, fighting more, if I’d keep my thoughts more readily? I’m evaluating a manuscript on resilience, and one chapter is about cognitive process (and a section of that touches on aging) so it discusses the literature on mental exercise as a way to forestall decline. If I felt more flailing about this, more panic, maybe I’d jump on those exercises. Maybe I should do that anyway. But I’d rather knit and make beautiful food. Read and write. Take walks along my creeks. Take photographs of the world. Interact with my daughters throughout the day about their lives raising little ones, enjoying that regular touch and awareness of the fine details of that stage of life. Getting to be their mother they can share this with, which is really the longest-term dream I’ve ever had.

I was telling Marc over the weekend that I’m not rushing around anymore, as I used to do. Partly it’s that my life doesn’t work that way — what would I rush around to do?! And partly it’s just that I give fewer shits than I used to. Eh, whatever. Eh, it’ll get done, and if it doesn’t get done eh, so what. Tomorrow. Eh. Whatev. Think I’ll make some tea. And sit. And read. And write. So that slowdown feels of a piece with this cognitive thing, at least in terms of my response to it. Eh. Whatever. Maybe I’ll end up remembering that I wanted a piece of cheese, maybe I won’t. If I don’t remember what I was going to say to you, so what.

In some way this is the zen ideal: I am just in the moment, and it’s a loose and watery moment, a kind of vague-eyed moment, nothing sharp and fast about it, and here I am. Thoughts connect us to the next moment, and that connection is floating and sometimes floating away, so I’m left quietly in this moment.

As much as anything, I’m writing this as a way to fully articulate this experience — for myself, and as a record. Who knows how it might change, where it might be going, what this moment might’ve meant, but I’m changing. My precious, brilliant, speedy, blue-lit mind is going at 33rpm. It’s OK. Just kind of floatey. I don’t feel despair or even sadness; instead, I feel an awareness of myself changing, and I’m watching with curiosity and trying to accept with open hands.

I’ve mentioned my Australian friend Fiona Dobrijevich before, a beautiful artist, photographer, and daily swimmer (and photographer). Her Instagram feed is a daily wonder, and sometimes I open her to a new tab so I can just pop back throughout the day to gaze at an image she shared. She has a viewbook online — look at everything, but especially look through the Body of Water collection. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling this kind of watery change to my sense of self, but it knocks me out. Here’s an image she shared a couple of days ago, and I gazed at it for hours, all together. It feels so psychologically and personally familiar.

Anything I might say after that photograph could only be irrelevant or redundant. And so ciao. xoxoxo

the origin story of the Pillbug Queen

If you haven’t read Roger Ebert’s beautiful memoir, Life Itself, I recommend it with a full heart. I read it April, 2013, and there is one quote I keep coming back to over and over again:

I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me. I have many places where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath, in 1962 or 1983, or many other times. Sometimes Chaz comes along on my rituals, but just as often I go alone. Sometimes Chaz will say she’s going shopping, or visiting a friend, or just staying in the room and reading in bed. “Why don’t you go and touch your bases?” she’ll ask me. I know she sympathizes. These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life.

I sympathize, too. I have the same need for that compulsive ritual — to touch the old places, to pause, to return and witness, and remember. As I’m getting ready to leave Austin I wanted to see the house I lived in back in early elementary school, when I first found myself as the benevolent queen of the pillbugs.

Just on the other side of the highway from where I live now, across the railroad tracks that give the highway its name — Mopac, for the Missouri Pacific — is a little house, number 3304, on a little street, Whiteway.

When I lived in this house in 1964, when I was 5, the front door was turquoise/aqua and we had a carport instead of an enclosed garage. The subdivision was brand new, then, so there weren’t big trees, although we had a lovely weeping willow in the back yard.

That window to the left of the front door is over the kitchen sink, and the window on the right side was my bedroom. My parents’ bedroom was at the back, with a sliding glass door into the back yard; I remember birds used to fly into the glass door and die. I remember watching my mother watch The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and scream and pull on her face. I remember watching her dance around that house, doing the watusi and the twist and watching herself in every reflective surface, even the tiny chrome strip above the oven. I remember feeling bored of the house, bored by being 5 and 6 and 7. I remember reading until my eyes hurt, under the covers of my bed after dark. I remember how long the summer days were.

If you turn right out of our driveway, the railroad tracks are just three houses away, and across the street. We heard the trains every night, as I hear them here, where I live — same trains, same lonesome sound, and now when I hear them I remember Big Daddy, who came with my grandmother to Austin a couple of times when we lived on Whiteway. They would leave Graham very early, make the 5-hour drive, Big Daddy would walk to the railroad tracks and watch for trains, then he’d go back to the house for a cup of coffee and he and my grandmother would drive back to Graham. Of course I would walk with him, holding his hand and hoping it would be a very long time until a train would come.

And that train track….my little brother Sam was almost feral, completely ignored by our parents and acidly unwanted by our mother. The slogan for 7-UP back then was “Wet and Wild” and they called Sam 7-UP for that reason. One day, around lunch, we got a phone call that some people several streets away, down the railroad track, had found Sam wandering along the tracks in his soggy diaper, dragging a giant purple Kotex box he was filling with bugs. Mother was enraged and sent me to get him. I remember that walk home; Sam was too little to be scared of Mother yet, but I sure was.

Whiteway Drive; our house was at the very end of the street, on the right.

But of course there weren’t all those trees, back then, and so there wasn’t any shade to scurry toward on the hot afternoons walking home from school. I remember that Marika, the crazy Greek woman and her unhappy husband lived over there, on the left; and Keith lived on the right — he kicked off the lawn mowing Saturday mornings, because after he started his, all the fathers emerged from their houses to mow their own yards too in a kind of synchronized dance; and the family two doors up from us who had an akita dog with the palest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and they freaked me out; and Grace and Lyndon Jacquet who lived across the street, and Grace died of uterine or cervical cancer (or maybe ovarian, they didn’t talk about those things back then) because she didn’t like to go to the doctor, ever. And my grandfather killed himself while we lived in that house, my father’s father, and I remember neighbors gathering on our back patio, must have been after the funeral, talking to my father who looked devastated and my mother was laughing at him. I overheard them talking and they changed the subject when I got close. Kids hear and understand. And remember.

Every afternoon, walking very slowly home from school because I didn’t want to get to my scary house, I would keep my eyes peeled on the scorching, melty hot asphalt of the street, looking for pillbugs. The story is on the About page, and if you’ve been around the blog for long you’ve probably heard it. I looked so intently for pillbugs and I rescued them and put them in the slightly cooler grass. It could be hard to collect them because they’d roll up into tight little balls, and I’d have to try to pinch them up from the hot street, but I was saving them for sure death, I thought. I am not sure exactly when it happened, I know I was in kindergarten but I don’t remember the moment, but I do remember imagining that I heard them talking to each other, knowing that I was coming, saying, “Here she comes, our benevolent queen!” In my imagination they had tiny little high squeaky voices. Pitch your voice very high and put a lot of excitement in it…..pillbug voice. It’s funny that I knew the word benevolent when I was five, and I’m glad I saw myself that way. I think I so desperately wanted to be saved, so I saved something weaker than myself. I imagined the street must bounce, to them, as giant me approached. I imagined how my giant hand must look as it approached them. I thought about walking down the old street today, for old time’s sake, but the trees make it too different and I am too different. I’m not scared to go home anymore.

And as I drove through the neighborhood to find my old elementary school and passed through the streets, everyone came back—Cynthia Fox, who lived on Stardust; Katie Davis, who lived on Silverleaf and who was murdered her first year of college; a pair of twins who lived on Skylark. Various boys whose names I no longer remember, but I do remember falling into step in our small groups as we all walked to school.

When I attended Lucy B Read, it was a regular neighborhood elementary school. They’ve since turned it into a “resource center,” not sure what that means exactly, but I can still see the school I went to.

That metal roof over the top wasn’t there, but the classrooms are the same otherwise. That room (#3) was my third grade classroom, my teacher Mrs. Worley, and I will always remember her. The picnic tables weren’t there back then either. I’m not sure why they erected that structure over top of the school, except maybe to shade the sidewalk. Perhaps the classrooms aren’t air conditioned (I know they weren’t back then) and so the super structure helps keep the classrooms a little cooler in the summer heat.

Hello, classroom, it’s still me. I’m still that girl in so many ways. I still love pillbugs, and trilobytes. I remember every single map I colored in that room, especially India and Japan. I remember learning about weather systems and learning how to write in cursive. I remember making shoebox dioramas, and a construction paper Iroquois longhouse. I remember leaving the class every day for special time with the principal, reading whatever I wanted to him — I especially remember reading a book about salamanders. They didn’t have gifted programs back then but they had to do something with me, so that’s what they came up with. I remember coming back to that classroom with a mouth full of braces, and the kids laughing at me. I remember running out this very door, crying, and Mrs. Worley coming after me. She knelt by me and put her arms around me, comforting me, and then she walked me back into the class and told everyone to apologize to me. I remember that so clearly. I remember being SO PROUD when my very young mother came to pick me up; she was one of the youngest mothers, only 24 when I was 6, and she was so stylish: hot pants, fishnet hose and boots, miniskirts, big giant 1960s hair and that great make-up. She was vicious and cruel, but she was stylish and beautiful and put on such a great show for other people. I remember casually asking other kids how old their mothers were, and then bragging about how young mine was. I’m not sure why that felt like such a big thing, except as I write I imagine it must be that it was a big thing TO HER, a thing she talked and bragged about all the time, and so I thought it was that, too.

That school was erected in 1962, when I was four, and I started kindergarten in 1963 so my memory of it as being shiny and new must be right. And it was so stylish then, the newest style of architecture.

“These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life,” Ebert said, and my own visits are that for me. I make so much of my small touchstones, and they are so very alive for me. Other people don’t do that, I’ve noticed — it’s too ordinary or uneventful or something. Or maybe they just don’t need to remark on it. I’m not sure why it is all so remarkable for me, except it’s that measuring of my life, marking my passage on the wheel. I’ve moved so many times and had so many different lives, but in finding these old places and touching them, I find my continuity. Ah, I’ve been here before, I’m here now, I may be here again. If I go with Marc to Highland Park, Illinois, he doesn’t feel a need to go see, or to show me, where he went to elementary school. Why would he, he wonders. (Though I would love to see.) This is MY MAP of the world. This is the life I’ve had, these are the years I’ve spent, this is what they represent (thank you Annie Lennox), and I’m grateful for every blessed moment of this entire life, even the frightening ones, the hard ones, the scorched ones, the bleak ones, the transformational ones. All of them.

xo

my own pink cardigan

My mother was the black hole of maternal care. We kids made our own dinner (“fix-your-own,” which meant cereal every single night…which, to be honest, we didn’t mind); we made our own school lunches even when we were too little to do that, using whatever we could find (bits of old food wrapped in aluminum foil and gathered in an empty plastic bread bag); and we were on our own if we were sick (and woe be on to us if we were sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, because we’d better be really sick or we had just wasted her time and money and there would be a price to pay).

One of my painful childhood memories happened when I was in second grade, at lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my miserable little lunch, and an outcast already because I had the wrong kind of lunch, when I noticed a girl from my class sitting at a nearby table. Her lunch, as always, was in the proper brown bag, and her sandwich was wrapped in plastic, not foil. She had an apple and a cookie — all A+ according to the code of normal. But that day she also had a thermos filled with hot soup, and she was wearing a new pink cardigan.

I turned to my friend, the other outcast, and said, “Hey, Pamela, why does Jennifer have that thermos today?”

“She’s been sick,” scabby Pamela said, “so her mom made her some soup and got her a new sweater.”

I was instantly sick with envy. What makes her so special, I thought with such bitterness it hurt me. What makes HER so special. I just wanted to die, I really did, and even writing this post has filled my eyes with tears.

It was really all wrapped up in that pink cardigan. It felt to me like the loudest emblem of love and care — a new, soft bit of pinkness wrapped around the girl, keeping her warm and loved, reminding her of her mother’s care. And who had hot soup?! No one. No one but Jennifer, that day, food to help her feel better and get well. The cardigan made me imagine that while Jennifer was sick at home, her mother had tucked a blanket around her, stroked her head, fed her.

I used to recall this memory once in a while and the envy still felt present, but mercifully the bitterness faded a long time ago. This morning I recalled it again, unbidden, when I realized that I had metaphorically wrapped my own pink cardigan around myself. That same tender care, that same love, that same desire to comfort and tend, I figured it out. I’ve got this covered.

one mystery solved!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Daddy

I have not had a chance to walk much since I got home, for a variety of reasons, so last night I grabbed my chance. It wasn’t as hot as it has been — a cool 88 degrees at 7pm — and I got a crazy wild hair to walk to the grocery store 1.5 miles away. Big deal, a 3-mile round trip, that’s nothing, but the main street I’d walk on is a giant hill . . . down down down down, then up up up up (the equivalent of 4 floors, apparently!). Even when I drive it, I have to really push the gas to get up the hill. Nancy bought “cotton candy grapes” and I thought I’d walk over there and get some, and maybe eat them on the walk home.

But I got there and remembered that there’s a snow cone stand in the parking lot (“shaved ice” they call it, but it’s a snow cone. Come on.). I stopped and stood there, under a tree, and closed my eyes. It was so easy to feel the warm evening air on my skin and remember standing under a cottonwood tree in the back yard of 201 Colorado Ave. in Graham, Texas, Big Daddy’s house when I was a little girl. After supper on those soft summer evenings he’d sit in the back yard and I’d run around in circles, “Big Daddy, Big Daddy, watch me! Watch me, Big Daddy!”

this is what they look like
this is what they look like

He’d glance at me once in a while, grunt, spit his chewing tobacco, and get back to watching his ugly little dog Tammy get attacked by scissor tailed flycatchers. He’d laugh so hard when they’d dive bomb her and nip at her back. I was always so jealous of Tammy, who also got to ride in the front seat of the Green Lizard, Big Daddy’s car, when we’d go to town.

But Big Daddy made sure I got a little treat every single day. We didn’t have an ice cream truck that came through the neighborhoods; we had the snow cone man. I don’t remember now what song that little truck played, but I do remember that I could hear it when it was several streets away. I could hear the tiniest little sound of it, and I’d jump off the couch and run to the short bookcase in the corner. Big Daddy kept a big glass jar on top of that bookcase filled with dimes. Lots and lots of shiny little dimes, just for my snow cones. I’d have to stand on my tiptoes to reach up high enough to get my hand down inside the jar. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to get two snow cones at a time, it was just so dazzling that I could get one every single day. Red, always red. Cherry. Never blue (which was coconut, I think, which was just bizarre), and definitely never orange or green. Yuck. I was tempted by a rainbow snow cone, but I always asked for cherry. So I’d pluck a dime out of the jar and run out the front door, down the little steps of the porch, and down the sidewalk to the front curb. I never waited long enough to find shoes, so I’d dance around on the sidewalk to keep my feet from burning while I waited.

Thanks to Google Maps, this is Big Daddys house. It was yellow when I was a girl, and at the curb, on either side of the sidewalk, were tall juniper bushes which were usually filled with bagworms, so creepy. That house was a glorious mansion to me.
Thanks to Google Maps, this is Big Daddy’s house. It was yellow when I was a girl, and at the curb, on either side of the mailbox, were tall juniper bushes which were usually filled with bagworms, so creepy. That house was a glorious mansion to me.

snowconeWhen I opened my eyes in the grocery store parking lot, I was smiling and my heart felt so so young. I remembered how it felt to be the apple of someone’s eye. So I walked over to the snow cone stand and ordered myself a cherry snow cone. The ones I got as a kid came in a white paper cone, and this was served in a styrofoam cup — not as good. The sticky, sugary juice didn’t run down my hands, I didn’t have to hold it away from me and lean over to eat it to keep it from dripping out the bottom onto my clothes. But mainly it wasn’t as good because I didn’t buy it with one of Big Daddy’s shiny dimes.

I didn’t walk straight home, partly because I was still eating my snow cone, and partly because 3 miles wasn’t a long enough walk. And it was such a nice evening, too. So I crossed the busy street back to my neighborhood, and resumed my ordinary walk. And I realized something so strange and funny. Generally speaking, I walk in a giant loop through my neighborhood. I take some mitochondrial back-and-forths inside the loop, but generally speaking it’s a loop.

walk

I used to walk in a counter-clockwise circuit, and it never occurred to me to do it any other way. I didn’t really like walking, it wasn’t fun, it was something I did for my health. I listened to podcasts while I was doing it, but it was a chore. And then a couple of weeks ago I decided to turn left out of my driveway instead of right, to go clockwise in other words, and WOW! Everything about it changed. I love walking, every day I love walking, and I think about it during the day. I will sacrifice other things, if I’m short on time, to take that walk. That clockwise walk. I walk the same route every day, more or less, and you’d think it’s incredibly boring to do that, but I love it every day. On the days I can’t walk, I feel like I missed something wonderful.

Clockwise felt so right. Counterclockwise felt wrong in every way. Isn’t that bizarre?

Life is so, so, so funny. So funny. Endlessly funny. When I was walking and realized this, I had to stop and sit on the curb and laugh. My tongue was red from the snow cone. I’m however old I am — 56? 57? How old am I now? Do I turn 57 this year? I can’t keep that straight — anyway, I’m that old and I had a bright red tongue and I was sick to my stomach from eating that snow cone and I knew better but I did it anyway and it’s summer and Big Daddy has been dead for 44 years and I still think about him all the time, and people who know me often mention him to me (and Mister Rogers, my real father), and the world turns counter-clockwise as viewed from the North Pole and walking that way feels so wrong it makes me uncomfortable.

Theres my Big Daddy at a picnic in Firemans Park, in Graham, the year before he died.
There’s my Big Daddy at a picnic in Fireman’s Park, in Graham, the year before he died.

a little wave

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

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

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

What’re you thinking about?

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

Well that’s a different idea than usual!

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

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

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

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”604″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1Lm8klN” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/e0iXfnyAZhs?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=e0iXfnyAZhs&width=604&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=0&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep8593″ /]

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

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

xo

Cracked Open II, or: Ghosts

uchiLast night I met a bunch of beautiful women, some of my dear friends, for what turned out to be a raucous dinner, sushi and sake and wine. There is a very well-known but pretty expensive sushi restaurant here, beyond the bounds of my budget for sure, but they offer a happy hour. All kinds of sushi half-price, sake and wine half-price, etc. On the way there, battling the atrocity that is Austin traffic, I was listening to music and thinking about whatever the song made me think of. So many of the songs come with bodily states, where I feel in the cells of my muscles the way I felt at the time. The first song cracked me open and then there I was, crying all the way down the highway.

American Pie, memories of dancing like lunatics with my kids in the living room of our home in Huntsville, Alabama – the twist, the monkey, the swim, the pony, dances we could all manage. Such a sweet, sweet memory, nearly unbearable. I can see their sweaty little faces, I can hear us laughing, see us falling down on the floor. It was even fun at the time, it’s not just something precious in retrospect, but in retrospect it’s everything there is.

And then I remember living with them, the feeling of being with young kids. Carving a pencil eraser into a little foot shape and dipping it in powder with a bit of sparkle, then stamping the wood floors outside Marnie’s bedroom, and up to her bed, for the magic of the Tooth Fairy. A few more stamps on the window sill, a little tooth pillow with money tucked under her pillow. The extraordinary privilege of getting to make a child’s life magic, for just a little while. Walking the kids to the bus stop in Virginia, watching the girls get on the bus and then pushing the stroller with Will back home.

Goodnight, The Beatles — oh, spasm of love that song produced in my heart, remembering the years when they were very young and I’d spend so long tucking each child in bed. I’d bring my guitar with me and after we talked about the day, I’d play and sing Goodnight softly, and each one would drift off to sleep. Katie was the oldest so she was always last because she could stay up later. She always tried so hard to stay awake but even she eventually drifted off. I remember kissing their little foreheads, breathing them into me.

The Look of Love, Dusty Springfield — the new dress I wore on the first day of second grade, that song playing throughout the house that morning. Making my lunch and putting a little box of gingersnaps in the sack. Excited and scared to meet my new teacher. Seven years old, I remember how it felt to be that little girl. I remember it so well, my little hopes and dreams.

ghostsAnd then I drive through the big intersection where my dad shoved me out of the truck and turned around to run over me. And I pass the street where we lived when he put a loaded pistol to my head and cocked it, and I remember. Ghosts. Then I drive past a place that has changed, it’s not what it was but I still see it there, I still see the ghost of that apartment building where I lived with him for a scary month. No one else can see that building there, but it’s there for me. I pass another street, the one with the sad little apartment my dad lived in right after he and my mother divorced. That apartment building is gone too, but I still see it there. Ghosts. I don’t really go to the part of town where the sushi restaurant is because I have so very much history all around it, but it wasn’t at all painful. It was all just a bunch of ghosts.

I was crying the whole way, crying through the music, crying seeing all the ghosts, but crying because I am so incredibly grateful for every tiny little bit of my life, every bit of it. The good the bad the boring the scared the lost the hopeless the hopeful the brilliant the dark. It’s all so precious, even though I have regrets about this and that, about not being able to be a lighthearted mother. I was trying so hard. It’s all been so precious, every single bit of it. The ghosts are precious too because I survived and this place has so many layers that only I am aware of. When my life ends I will be so grateful for it all. It has been so magnificent.

* * *

On the way home I was sitting in traffic and saw a concrete pillar with a really beautiful image someone painted on it. Then I looked at the words around the image and they said “Fair sailing, tall boy.” In another spot it said, “Don’t drink and drive, you might kill somebody’s kid.” In another spot was a span of years I quickly calculated: 18 years. Tall boy was 18 years old, and someone who loved him terribly had the grace and incredible strength to wish their tall boy fair sailing. I almost couldn’t bear it. I almost can’t bear it even typing these words.

* * *

We all age differently; I have what I call my “Concentration Theory” of aging, which is that we simply become a concentrated version of ourselves as we age.  Cranky people become intensely more cranky. Gentle people become gentler. Sensitive people become more sensitive. I think about Maurice Sendak’s last interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air. Here are the extraordinary last five minutes of that talk:

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”604″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1l9IBzI” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/TH2OaaktJrw?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=TH2OaaktJrw&width=604&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep2953″ /]
 

And here are some of the best snippets:

  • “Somehow I’m finding out as I’m aging – I am in love with the world.”
  • “I don’t know if I will do another book or not. It doesn’t matter. I am a happy old man.
  • “I have nothing but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop loving them. They leave me and I love them more.”
  • “There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”
  • “It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music. You know, I don’t think I’m rationalizing. I really don’t. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it.”
  • “I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

And I say the very same things. I have nothing but praise for my life. There are so many beautiful things in the world. It is a blessing to get old. Life your life, live your life, live your life.